Modalism, Tritheism, or the Pure Revelation of the Triune God
The purpose of this article is to provide the general Christian public with a clear and simple presentation of three views concerning the Triune God: modalism, tritheism, and the pure revelation of the Triune God according to the Bible. By having a basic understanding of modalism and tritheism and by seeing the pure revelation of the Triune God in the Scriptures, the Lord’s people should be able to discern and avoid the heretical extremes of modalism and tritheism, grasp the whole truth of God’s revelation in the Scriptures, and pursue more readily the experience of the Triune God according to His eternal purpose.
Let us begin with modalism. Because this term is unfamiliar to many Christians, we need to define four words—mode, modal, modalism, and modalist. According to its philosophical meaning, a mode denotes the appearance or form assumed by a thing; it refers to the manifestation, form, or manner of arrangement of some underlying substance. The adjective modal specifies the mode of a thing as distinguished from its substance or essence. Modalism is the theological doctrine that the Father, Son, and Spirit are not three distinct Persons, but rather three modes or forms of activity under which God manifests Himself. A modalist is an adherent of the theological doctrine of modalism.
The Modalistic Concept of the Trinity
According to the modalistic concept of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are not equally and eternally co-existent, but are merely three successive manifestations of God, or three temporary modes of His activity. Modalism, which is actually a form of unitarianism, denies that God in His own inner being is triune. Rather, it claims that the Father, Son, and Spirit are either temporary or successive roles adopted by God in carrying out the divine plan of redemption and that they in no way correspond to anything in the ultimate nature of the Godhead.1 Modalism does not recognize the independent personality of Christ, but regards the incarnation as a mode of the existence or manifestation of the Father.2 For the modalists, the Father, Son, and Spirit only refer to the way in which God reveals Himself, but bear no relation to His inner being.3
A Brief History of Modalism
Let us now briefly consider the history of modalism and the thought of some of its leading exponents. Toward the end of the second century, there emerged a form of teaching called Monarchianism. Modalism, otherwise known as modalistic Monarchianism, is a form of Monarchianism. The word Monarchianism derives from the Greek word monarchia which means the rule of one man. The Monarchians were concerned about the divine unity or “Monarchy.” For them, the dominant principle was that God is one. As an explanation of the threefold revelation of God, Monarchianism was aimed at excluding the idea that Christians worshipped three Gods.4 Along with maintaining this principle, the modalistic Monarchians also wanted to assert the full divinity of Christ. However, as we shall see, the modalists actually sacrificed Christ’s independent personality, merging it into the essence of the Father.5 Modalism was popular among the simple believers, for it seemed to them the best way of protecting their belief in one God against ditheistic or tritheistic (belief in two or three Gods) corruption.6
Two of the earliest representatives of the modalistic school of thought were Praxeas and Noetus, both of whom came from Asia Minor to Rome toward the end of the second century.7 Praxeas taught that the Father and the Son were one identical Person and that the Father Himself became man, hungered, thirsted, suffered, and died in Christ.8 This view is also known as Patripassianism, from the Latin words pater (“father”) and passio (“suffering”), because its practical identification of the Father and the Son lead to the conclusion that the Father suffered on the cross.9 In the words of the church historian, Philip Schaff, Praxeas “conceived the relation of the Father to the Son as like that of the spirit to the flesh. The same object, as spirit, is the Father; as flesh, the Son. He thought the Catholic doctrine tritheistic.”10 The modalism advocated by Praxeas was for a time prevalent and popular at Rome. Early in the third century, Tertullian, to whom we owe the definition of the Godhead as being “one substance in three persons,” wrote against him in a document entitled, Against Praxeas, accusing him of driving out the Holy Spirit and of crucifying the Father.
Noetus published the same views as Praxeas approximately 200 A.D., 11 teaching that “Christ was the Father Himself, and that the Father Himself was born and suffered and died.”12 Noetus taught that in order for Christ to be God, He had to be identical with the Father. Since, for Noetus, there could be no division in the Godhead, if Christ suffered, then the Father suffered also.13 According to Noetus, there was only one God, the Father, who manifested Himself as He pleased. The Son is merely a designation of God when He reveals Himself to the world and to men. The Father is called the Son for a certain time in reference to His experiences on earth. To Noetus, the Son is the Father veiled in flesh.14 Two of Noetus’ disciples, Epigonus and Cleomenes, propagated his doctrine in Rome.15
Callistus, who later became Pope Callixtus I, adopted and advocated the doctrine of Noetus, declaring the Son to be merely the manifestation of the Father in human form. Callistus taught that the Father animated the Son in the same way as the spirit animates the body.16 Considering his opponents to be ditheists (those who believe in two Gods), Callistus taught that God in the flesh is called the Son, while apart from the flesh He is called the Father.17
In the early decades of the third century, Beryllus denied the personal existence of the Son, teaching that He had no individual existence of His own before coming to reside among men. Beryllus also denied the independent divinity of Christ, claiming that He had no divinity of His own but only the divinity of the Father that indwelt Him during His earthly life. In a sense, Beryllus was a stepping stone between the early schools of modalism and Sabellianism.18
Sabellius was, by far, the most original, profound, and ingenious of the modalists.19 His theology was essentially that of Noetus, but, being more carefully worked out, gave a definite place to the Holy Spirit as well as to the Son.20 Sabellius seems to have been even more concerned than his predecessors in preserving the unity of God, and he insisted in the strongest possible way that God is one Person as well as one substance.21 According to Sabellius, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all one and the same, being the three names of the one God who manifests Himself in different ways according to circumstances. As the Father, He is Creator, Governor, and Lawgiver; as the Son, He is incarnate as the Redeemer; and as the Spirit, He is the Inspirer of the Apostles, the Regenerator, and the Sanctifier.22 But, to Sabellius, He is the one and the same God, the one and the same divine Person, who acts in all these ways, appearing in successive and temporary manifestations, just as a human individual may be called by different titles to denote his various roles.23 God does not act as Father, Son, and Spirit at the same time, but successively, turning from one activity to another as the need requires, with the one and the same God appearing now as the Father, now as the Son, and now as the Holy Spirit, but never all at the same time.24
Sabellius’ fundamental thought is that the unity of God unfolds itself in the course of the world’s development in three forms or periods of revelation, and after the completion of redemption returns again into unity.25 Sabellius taught that the revelation of the Son ends with the ascension and that the revelation of the Spirit goes on in regeneration and sanctification.26 Therefore, the trinity of Sabellius is not a trinity of essence, that is, of the inner being of God, but of revelation. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are simply designations of three different phases under which the one divine essence reveals itself.27 Sabellius differs from orthodox doctrine mainly in making the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit only temporary phenomena which fulfilled their mission and returned into an abstract entity.28 Sabellius denied that the Father, Son, and Spirit eternally co-exist in the inner being of God. Rather, he insisted that the Father, Son, and Spirit are merely temporary and successive manifestations of the one Person of God. In the words of J. F. Bethune-Baker, a renowned scholar in the history of doctrine, for Sabellius, “There is no real incarnation; no personal indissoluble union of the Godhead with the Manhood took place in Christ. God only manifested Himself in Christ and when the part was played and the curtain fell upon that act in the great drama there ceased to be a Christ or a Son of God.”29
As a sharp contrast to modalism, tritheism is the belief in three Gods, especially in the doctrine that the three Persons of the Trinity are three distinct Gods. According to tritheism, the Father, Son, and Spirit are three separate Gods. Even today, some say that the Father is one God, that the Son is one God, and that the Spirit is also one God. This is tritheism. Whenever the distinctions of the Persons of the Godhead are pressed too far, the result will be tritheism. Speaking of the term Person, W. H. Griffith Thomas, one of the founders of Dallas Theological Seminary and a highly respected student of the Bible, said:
Like all human language, it is liable to be accused of inadequacy and even positive error. It certainly must not be pressed too far, or it will lead to Tritheism. While we use the term to denote distinctions in the Godhead, we do not imply distinctions which amount to separateness, but distinctions which are associated with essential mutual co-inherence or inclusiveness.30
A form of tritheism is represented by the doctrine of Arius. In Arius’ formulation, the Father was fully God, the Son had the status of the leading creature, and the Spirit was inferior to the Son. Although for Arius the divine status of the Son and the Spirit was uncertain, his formula must be considered as a type of tritheism.31 The teaching of Arius aroused a great controversy in the early decades of the fourth century. This controversy grew so intense that at the invitation of the Emperor Constantine, the Council of Nicaea convened in 325 A.D. to settle the dispute among the churches of the empire over the doctrine of the Trinity. The main issue was between Arius with his form of tritheism and Athanasius with the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. The Nicene Creed that resulted from this council overthrew the heresy of Arius and tritheism with an anathema at the end of the creed.32 By the time of the Council of Nicaea, both modalism, especially that of Sabellius, and tritheism had been defeated.
However, since the time of Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus (A.D. 320-395), known as the three Cappadocians, there was a tendency toward tritheism. Because of this, more than two hundred years after the Nicene Council, another form of tritheism appeared in the teaching of Johannes Philoponus, who pushed the distinction between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit to an extreme, saying that there were three essences in the one common essence of the Godhead. This was virtually tritheism.33 John of Damascus, the last of the Greek Eastern Fathers, who is especially noted for his stress on the matter of the co-inherence among the Godhead, corrected this tritheism by a renewed emphasis on the divine unity.34 John of Damascus saw the Son as the channel through whom the divine life flows eternally from the Father to the Holy Spirit and through whom also the union of the three hypostases (a technical term referring to the Persons of the Godhead) mediated, but he made no attempt to reconcile the two.35 “Such a transcendent mystery can be apprehended by human thought and expressed by human language only in disjointed fragments of the perfect truth.”36
As the church Fathers discussed the inner nature of the Trinity, they attempted to avoid the extreme of modalism on the one hand and the extreme of tritheism on the other. As they sought to formulate an adequate definition of the Trinity, they themselves were often accused of being either modalists or tritheists, depending upon their emphasis, at any given time, of one aspect of truth at the expense of the other. Their difficulty lay in trying to avoid sounding modalistic while speaking of the fact that we have one unique God, and to avoid sounding tritheistic while speaking of the three Persons and Their economy.37 “Many passages of the Nicene fathers have unquestionably a tritheistic sound, but are neutralized by others which by themselves may bear a Sabellian construction; so that their position must be regarded as midway between these two extremes.”38
At various times, Gregory of Nyssa (A.D. 330-395) was attacked both for being modalistic and also for being tritheistic, depending upon what Scriptures he used in expounding the incomprehensible mystery of the Triune God.39 On the Holy Trinity Gregory of Nyssa says:
They charge us with preaching three Gods …. Then truth fights on our side, for we show both publicly to all men, and privately to those who converse with us, that we anathematize any man who says that there are three Gods, and hold him to be not even a Christian. Then, as soon as they hear this, they find Sabellius a handy weapon against us, and the plague that he spread is the subject of continual attacks upon us.40
Marcellus of Ancyra (A.D. 320-374) is a notable example of one who was misunderstood and misrepresented. As he wrote against Arius and tritheism, he sounded like a modalist and was accused of teaching a refined form of Sabellianism and was, thereby, condemned. But his followers presented a statement of belief which clearly anathematized Sabellius and modalism. “Thus the problem of misunderstanding and even outright misrepresentation had again surrounded the struggle to be able to utter the mystery of the Triune God without being placed in a false position by the opposers.”41
Jonathan Edwards, a highly respected servant of the Lord, was accused of both tritheism and modalism. He wrote a book entitled Observations Concerning the Scripture Economy of the Trinity and Covenant of Redemption, for which he came under attack by one writer who said:
The writer is informed on unquestionable authority that there is, or was, in existence a manuscript of Edwards, in which his views appear to have undergone a great change in the direction of Arianism or of Sabellianism….42
It is well to give here other examples of church Fathers who were accused of modalism, tritheism, or both. Tertullian (A.D. 160-220), who was a leader in the fight against modalism and who is regarded as orthodox and fundamental, was accused of Arianism by one who said, “Tertullian, Prior to his falling into the heresy of Montanus, entertained the same opinions as those of Arius, concerning the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”43
Dionysius of Alexandria (A.D. 190-265) is another example of the misunderstanding concerning the discussions of the Triune God. He was strong to oppose Sabellius, but in doing so he appeared to lean to the other extreme and was charged with teaching tritheism. He was accused by some of treason against the faith before the Bishop of Rome and was asked by a synod of bishops to declare his views. In his reply, Dionysius denied that he had separated the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, since each necessarily implied the others.44 His reason for not using the term homoousios (meaning “of one substance”) was that he did not find it in Scripture. He was fully vindicated by his writing, and Athanasius, a defender of the Nicene Creed, informs us that Dionysius held right views concerning the Triune God. However, some who had not read his replies to the Bishop of Rome or Athanasius’ vindications of him still persisted in accusing him of tritheism.45
Augustine (A.D. 354-430), one of the most important writers on the orthodox view of the Trinity, was accused of being a modalist. His emphasis on the oneness of God laid him open to the charge of modalism. In stressing the unity of operation of the Three, Augustine differed considerably from those Fathers who spoke as if each Person had a distinct role in external activities.46 Adolf Harnack, a renowned authority in the history of dogma, said, “We can see that Augustine only gets beyond Modalism by the mere assertion that he does not wish to be a Modalist, and by the aid of ingenious distinctions between different ideas.”47
Athenagoras was a second century philosopher who set out to write against the Christians. However, studying the Scriptures in order to carry on the contest with greater accuracy, he himself was caught by the Spirit. His statements on the Triune God reflect the simplicity of the pure Word. He said:
The one ambition that urges us Christians on is the desire to know the true God and the Word that is from Him — what is the unity of the Son with the Father, what is the fellowship of the Father with the Son, what is the Spirit; what is the unity of these mighty Powers; and the distinction that exists between them, united as they are — the Spirit, the Son, the Father.48
Commenting on what Athenagoras wrote, Bishop Bull indicates that he was charged both with Sabellianism and Arianism:
And hence it is that Petavius [a French Jesuit scholar A.D. 1583-1652] at last charges Athenagoras with Sabellianism, as if he had believed that there is, and ever has been but one Person of the Father and the Son. This, I repeat, Petavius does, the very same one who both in the very passage in which he does it and elsewhere throughout, introduces the same Athenagoras being an Arian; thus fixing on the learned father two heresies which are diametrically opposed to each other.49
The word homoousios that was introduced into the Nicene Creed was misused and abused by some to favor Sabellianism and utilized by others who favored tritheism.50 Commenting on the problem surrounding the use of this word, the church historian Socrates Scholasticus (A.D. 379-445?) said:
…while they [the bishops] occupied themselves in too minute investigation of its import, they roused the strife against each other; it seemed not unlike a contest in the dark; for neither party appeared to understand distinctly the grounds on which they calumniated one another. Those who objected to the word homoousios, conceived that those who approved it favored the opinion of Sabellius and Montanus; they therefore called them blasphemers, as subverting the existence of the Son of God. And again the advocates of this term, charging their opponents with polytheism, inveighed against them as introducers of heathen superstitions…. In consequence of these misunderstandings, each of them wrote as if contending against adversaries: and although it was admitted on both sides that the Son of God has a distinct person and existence, and all acknowledged that there is one God in three Persons, yet from what cause I am unable to divine, they could not agree among themselves, and therefore could in no way endure to be at peace.51
Eventually, the Fathers developed what is known as the doctrine of co-inherence, which means the intercommunion and interpenetration of the Persons of the Godhead. Co-inherence denotes the mutual indwelling of the three Persons whereby one is as invariably in the other two as they are in the one.52 This doctrine is man’s attempt to understand the relationship between the three Persons and to explain how they have one essence. As John of Damascus said in his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith “… the Son is in the Father and the Spirit: and the Spirit in the Father and the Son: and the Father in the Son and the Spirit, but there is no coalescence or co-mingling or confusion.”53 Commenting on this matter, Augustus H. Strong remarks, “The Scripture representations of this intercommunion prevent us from conceiving of the distinctions called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as involving separation between them. This intercommunion also explains the designation of Christ as ‘the Spirit,’ and of the Spirit as ‘the Spirit of Christ.'”54 On the same page, Strong quotes another writer as saying, “The persons of the Holy Trinity are not separable individuals. Each involves the others; the coming of each is the coming of the others. Thus the coming of the Spirit must have involved the coming of the Son.”55
In his classic work, Defense of the Nicene Creed, Bishop Bull says, “The co-inherence [mutual indwelling] of the Divine Persons is indeed a very great mystery, which we ought rather religiously to adore than curiously pry into …. It is a union which far transcends all other unions.”56 The doctrine of co-inherence, therefore, was an explanation of the Persons of the Trinity that guarded the three Persons from dissolving into modalism’s three phases, stages, or aspects of God and also protected the three Persons from ending up as three Gods.57
How is it that modalism and tritheism came into being? The reason is that both modalism and tritheism stressed in an unbalanced way one aspect of the twofold truth of God’s revelation in the Bible. Modalism takes one aspect of the truth – that there is only one unique God – and pushes it to a heretical extreme; tritheism, on the contrary, takes another aspect of the truth of God’s revelation – that He is one-in-three – and pushes it to the opposite heretical extreme. If we see the principle of the twofoldness of divine truth, we can easily avoid these extremes and still maintain a testimony faithful to the whole truth of God’s revelation in the Scriptures.
As a help to understanding this principle, let us quote several portions from an article entitled, “The Twofoldness of Divine Truth,” written by Robert Govett, a very perceptive and careful student of the Word of God. Govett says:
The twofoldness of truth as offered to our view in Holy Writ is one strong argument of its not being the work of man. It is the glory of man’s intellect to produce oneness. It is to trace different results to one principle, to clear it of ambiguities, to show how, through varied appearances, one law holds. Anything that stands in the way of the completeness of this, he eludes or denies.58
“But,” as Govett continues, “it is not so with God. In nature He is continually acting with two seemingly opposed principles.”59 Therefore, Govett says, “It is not then to be wondered at, if two seemingly opposed principles are found placed side by side in the Scripture. ‘Unity in plurality, plurality in unity’ is the main principle on which both the world and the Scripture are constructed.”60 Regarding the apparently irreconcilable statements in God’s Word, Govett remarks, “It is not necessary to reconcile them before we are bound to receive and act upon the two. It is enough that the Word of God distinctly confirms them both.”61 As Govett says, “The claim on our reception is not that we can unite them, but that God has testified both.”62 Many debates regarding the truth in God’s Word are unnecessary, for, as Govett states, “Opposite views of truth arise from different parts of the subject being viewed at different times.”63 In this article Govett clearly expresses what the attitude of a Christian should be toward the truth of God’s revelation:
Thus does God try His people. Will they trust Him when He affirms that view of truth which runs counter to their temperaments and intellectual bias? or will they trample on one of His sayings in their zeal for the other? The humble, child-like saint will acknowledge and receive both; for his Father, who cannot err, testifies to each alike.64
Govett specifically applies the principle of the twofoldness of divine truth to the nature of God:
The same twofoldness of truth appears in the Scripture statements concerning the nature of God. It affirms His unity …. But the Scripture as plainly affirms the distinction of persons in the Godhead. ‘Unity in plurality and plurality in unity’ is the assertion here. This master truth, which takes its rise in the nature of the Godhead, flows out into all His works.65
Note Govett’s statement that this “master-truth … takes its rise in the nature of the Godhead.” In other words, God’s revelation in the Scriptures, being twofold, is an expression of the very nature of God Himself. The two aspects of God’s being — that He is the Three being one and the One being three — are testified by the twofoldness of the truth of His revelation in the Scriptures.
Before we come to the revelation of the Triune God contained in the Bible, we need to stress a very important point: Our stand with respect to the Triune God is the Holy Scriptures, not according to traditional interpretations, but according to the pure Word of God. Proverbs 30:5a and 6 say, “Every word of God is pure…. Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.”Adding to the Word of God is most serious and is strictly forbidden in Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32; and Revelation 22:18.
Practically, what does it mean to add to the Word of God? The word of the Lord Jesus provides a clear answer. In Matthew 16:6, the Lord told His disciples, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.” Leaven is something added to dough to produce fermentation (cf. Matt. 13:33). When the disciples were unable to understand the Lord’s word, He asked them, “How is it that ye do not understand that I spake it not to you concerning bread, that ye should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees?” (Matt. 16:11). The Lord’s further word must have made them clear, for the next verse reads, “Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.” The Lord Jesus Himself likens the teachings of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the ancient fundamentalists and modernists, to leaven. In Matthew 15:6 the Lord said to the scribes and Pharisees, “Thus have ye made the word of God of none effect by your tradition” (Gk.). Therefore, quoting Isaiah, the Lord could say, “In vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:9). When we put all these verses together, we see that the leaven of the Pharisees is the traditional teachings and the commandments of men. When these are added to the Word of God, or held equal to it, God’s Word is nullified, made of none effect. As those who would obey His word and follow Him, we must be faithful to reject the leaven of human opinion, concept, and tradition, or, at least, to distinguish between it and the pure Word of the Lord.
As we consider the revelation of the Triune God in the Bible, we wish to hold to the pure Word of God and not to any traditional terms or concepts. Although, due to the poverty of our language, we may need to use certain terms, we must be on guard not to equate them with, much less to let them replace, the word of the Bible. Our intention here is not to engage in abstract speculations or interpretations, but simply to say, “Amen,” to whatever God says in His Word regarding the revelation of Himself. It is sufficient simply to point out what God Himself has spoken. Martin Luther said:
Those who neglect the Scriptures and approach such questions [such as the Trinity] with confidence in their own mental power are the teachers of God, not His pupils…. If reason disturbs you here and questions arise like… Are there, then, two gods? answer: There is only one God, and still there is the Father and the Son. How is this possible? Respond with humility: I do not know.66
It is well to also heed the words of the Puritan writer, Hermann Witsius, who said that we should stop at the precise point beyond which divine revelation does not conduct us, 67 and the words of E.W. Bullinger, author of The Companion Bible, who said:
We do not, therefore, now propose to discuss doctrines, or to use any non-scriptural expressions …. These are the things which divide the members of the One Body, instead of uniting them. These introduce the seeds of strife and contention … But, if we confine ourselves to the Word of God, and that alone, both writer and readers may, and will, all learn together what God has revealed concerning Himself. We shall not seek to draw any conclusion, or to discuss or revise any creeds. We shall give only the evidence of Scripture in the words of Scripture; and use only Scriptural terminology…. It is not a question of our understanding what God may mean, but of believing what He has said.68
Let us therefore turn to the pure Word of God and listen to what it says concerning the revelation of the Triune God.
The Scriptures unfold two aspects of the revelation of the Triune God – the aspect of the Three being one and the aspect of the One being three. As examples of these two aspects, we may cite John 1:1 and 2 Corinthians 3:17. John 1: 1 says, “The Word was with God,” and it also says, “The Word was God.” According to the statement, “The Word was with God,” the Word and God are two distinct entities. But the declaration, “The Word was God,” clearly indicates that the Word and God are one. Are they two or one? This is a mystery which we cannot clearly explain. Second Corinthians 3:17 says, “The Lord is the Spirit,” and it also speaks of “the Spirit of the Lord.” “The Lord is the Spirit” tells us that the Lord and the Spirit are one, but the title, “the Spirit of the Lord,” indicates that the Lord and the Spirit are two. Are the Lord and the Spirit two or one? We cannot answer adequately or thoroughly.69 However, since these Scriptures testify both aspects of God, we must accept them as such without attempting to reconcile or systematize them. If we refuse to be simple and say, “Amen,” to all that the Scriptures have spoken, but rather try to reconcile apparently conflicting statements, we shall find ourselves in a theological maze.
The Bible clearly and definitely reveals that God is uniquely one. With this there can be no argument, for it is revealed plainly in both the Old and New Testaments. Deuteronomy 6:4 says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord,” and Isaiah 44:6 declares, “Thus saith the Lord the King of Israel… I am the first, and I am the last, and beside me there is no God.” In Isaiah 44:8, the Lord asks a question and then answers it Himself: “Is there a God beside me? yea, there is no God; I know not any.” Coming to the New Testament, we see that 1 Corinthians 8:4 says, “There is none other God but one”; that Romans 3:30 says, “It is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith”; that Galatians 3:20 says, “God is one”; and that 1 Timothy 2:5 says, “There is one God.”Therefore, it is abundantly clear that according to the revelation of the pure Word of God, God is uniquely one. Whatever else we may say about Him must be governed by this fundamental principle.
The Three Persons of the Godhead
To use Govett’s words, while the Bible reveals that there is only one God, “the Scripture as plainly affirms the distinction of persons in the Godhead.”70 In Isaiah 6:8 God says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Here, on the one hand God speaks of Himself as “I,” and on the other hand as “Us.” This proves that “I” is “Us” and that “Us” is “I.” Then, is God singular or plural? This is a mystery. In Genesis 1:26 God also speaks of Himself as “Us.” In His divine words, the one unique God frequently speaks of Himself as “Us.” This must be due to the three Persons of the Godhead – the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.71
Matthew 28:19 says, “Baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Gk.). Here we clearly see the three Persons – the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. However, although the Father, Son, and Spirit are three, the name is one. This name tells us that God is three-in-one. Although God is uniquely one, there is still the matter of the three Persons – the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. To quote Griffith Thomas:
The threefold distinction in God, which is expressed by the word ‘Trinity, ‘ is the attempt of man to conceive and express the meaning of the Infinite God in the terms of Jesus Christ, and we believe that the use of the phrase, ‘The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, ‘ is the very best rendering of the mystery that can be given.72
The Trinity of the Godhead is revealed in the Old Testament. It is even implied in Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” In the Hebrew language, the subject “God” is triple in number, whereas the verb “create” is singular in number. This contains the meaning that God is three-in-one. In Exodus 3:6 the Lord said to Moses, “I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” This passage reveals that the God of the patriarchs is threefold. With the God of Abraham, the emphasis is on the Father; with the God of Isaac, the emphasis is on the Son; and with the God of Jacob, the emphasis is on the Spirit.73 Although God is uniquely one, there is still the matter of threefoldness, for He is the Father, Son, and Spirit. The Trinity of the Godhead is also implied in the threefold blessing in Numbers 6:24-26 and in the threefold praise to God in Isaiah 6:3. Undoubtedly, the reason the seraphim in heaven say, “Holy, holy, holy,” is that the God whom they praise is one-in-three. When Isaiah 6:3 is taken with verse 8 of the same chapter, we see that this God whom the seraphim praise speaks of Himself as “Us,” indicating that, according to the context, He has a threefold Person.74
In addition to Matthew 28:19, numerous passages in the New Testament clearly reveal that God is triune. First Peter 1:2 says, “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.” Here the three divine Persons, the Father, Spirit, and Son, are mentioned together. The same is true of Revelation 1:4-5, where the Apostle John says, “Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne; and from Jesus Christ ….” This passage clearly reveals that God is triune. Therefore, according to the pure word of the Bible, God is uniquely one, and this unique God is triune, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.
All Three Being God and Being Eternal
The modalistic doctrine that the Father, Son, and Spirit do not co-exist equally from eternity to eternity but are merely three temporary manifestations of the one Person of God is easily disproved from the clear statements of the pure Word of God. The Bible reveals that all Three – the Father, Son, and Spirit – are God. That the Father is God is shown by Ephesians 1:17, which speaks of God being the Father of glory. That the Son is God is proved by Hebrews 1:8 where the Son is addressed as God. That the Spirit is God is proved by Acts 5:3-4 which says that Ananias, in lying to the Holy Spirit, actually lied to God. While the modalists claim that the Father, Son, and Spirit are not eternal, the Bible says that They are. Isaiah 9:6 shows that the Father is eternal, Hebrews 1:12 and 7:3 reveal that the Son is eternal, and Hebrews 9:14 proves that the Spirit is eternal. Hence, any claim that the three Persons of the Godhead are not eternal is a denial of the clear revelation of the Bible.
The Simultaneous Existence of the Father, Son, and Spirit
According to modalism, the Father, Son, and Spirit cannot exist simultaneously. But what does the Bible say? In Matthew 3:16-17, when Jesus, the Son, was baptized, the Spirit of God descended upon Him and the Father in heaven declared, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” As this passage indicates, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit exist at the same time. Hence, the modalistic claim that They do not is false. The simultaneous existence of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit is also proved by John 14:16-17, where the Lord says that He, the Son, will pray the Father, who will give us another Comforter, the Spirit of truth. Once again, the Father, Son, and Spirit, all of whom are God and are eternal, exist at the same time. The same is also clearly revealed in Ephesians 3:16-17, where Paul prays that the Father will strengthen us by His Spirit that Christ may make His home in our hearts; in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, which speaks of “the same Spirit,” “the same Lord,” and “the same God”; in 2 Corinthians 13:14, where we read that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit – all Three – are with us at the same time; and in Revelation 1:4-5, where grace and peace come simultaneously from God, the Spirit, and Christ. Therefore, all these Scriptures expose the error of modalism. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all God, are all eternal, and all exist at the same time.
John 1:2 says that the Word, Christ, was “in the beginning with God.” From eternity past, the Word was with God. It is not, as supposed by some, that Christ was not with God and was not God from eternity past, and that at a certain time Christ became God and was with God. No, Christ always was God and always was with God. His deity is eternal and absolute.75 This disproves both the teaching of Arius that Christ is less than God and the teaching of Sabellius that Christ is not eternally co-existent with God the Father.
The Three Being One
All fundamental Christians agree that God is uniquely one and that He is eternally the Father, Son, and Spirit. They emphasize the aspect of God’s being one-in-three, but they often neglect the aspect of His being three-in-one. However, this also is clearly revealed in the pure Word of God and must be faithfully believed in and proclaimed. Nevertheless, if we approach the Scriptures in the way of mental analysis, with the motive of finding justification for preconceived concepts, or with the aim of preserving traditional, man-made theological systems, we may ignore the aspect of God’s being the three-in-one. To do this is not only to be unfaithful to the whole scriptural revelation of the Triune God; it is also a frustration to the outworking of God’s economy, which is to dispense Himself into us that He might have the church as His corporate expression on earth today. Therefore, as those who would be faithful to all that the Scriptures have spoken concerning the Triune God, we must clearly show forth those verses in the Word which reveal that God is three-in-one.
We have seen that God is the Father, Son, and Spirit. However, if we emphasize the Three at the expense of the One, we may fall, although perhaps unconsciously and unintentionally, into tritheism. We must affirm both aspects of the Triune God- the aspect of the Three being one and the aspect of the One being three. Only by so doing can we avoid the extremes of modalism and tritheism. It is at the point of testifying these two aspects that we are most acutely aware of the unfathomable mystery of the Triune God. We simply cannot adequately explain this mystery. We can only believe what the Bible says and testify of it without attempting to systematize it. Nowhere does the Bible require that we systematize the Word of God or attempt, through human formulation, to reconcile its statements. We are simply to believe whatever God has spoken.
The Son Being Called the Father
The Bible declares that all Three – the Father, the Son, and the Spirit – are one. According to the pure word of Isaiah 9:6, the Son is the Father. In this verse we see two lines: that the child is called the Mighty God, and that the Son is called the Everlasting Father. If we accept the first line, then we must accept the second. All fundamental Christians accept the first line – that the child is the Mighty God – but due to their traditional terminology and understanding, few accept the second – that the Son is the Everlasting Father. But if we read this verse in simplicity, without bias or preconceived concepts, we must confess that it means what it says — that the Son is the Everlasting Father. However, we should read this verse and testify of its truth without drawing any unwarranted conclusions from it (as does Patripassianism), or without attempting to reconcile it with those portions of the Word which clearly indicate the distinction between the Son and the Father. One aspect of the mystery of the Triune God is that the Father and the Son are one, yet are two. Isaiah 9:6 reveals that They are one, and as those who believe the pure Word of God without adding anything to it or taking anything away from it, we must simply believe that it is so. If we attempt to twist this verse or to interpret it to match a traditional system of thought, we may be exposing ourselves, indicating that we cannot take this verse in childlike simplicity. Isaiah 9:6 clearly says that the Son is called the Everlasting Father. Therefore, as mysterious as it may seem, the Son must be the Father, just as the child is the Mighty God. We must believe what the pure word of the Bible says. However, believing according to this verse that the Son is the Father does not mean that we believe that there is no distinction between them, for we have already cited verses which indicate that such a distinction exists.
The Gospel of John also testifies that the Son and the Father are one. After speaking of the two hands, the hand of the Son and the hand of the Father, the Lord Jesus said plainly, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). In John 14:8-11 we see that the Father is in the Son, that the Son is in the Father, that the Father dwells in the Son, and that he who sees the Son sees the Father. In all these verses the Lord clearly reveals the mystery that He and the Father are one. He is in the Father, and the Father is in Him. When He speaks, it is the Father who works; when men know Him, they know the Father; and when they see Him, they see the Father, for He is the Father. He and the Father are one.76 If we attempt to reconcile these passages from Isaiah and the Gospel of John with those portions of the Word which reveal the distinction between the Father and the Son, we shall find that it is altogether beyond our capacity to do so. We can only believe whatever the Bible says and testify of it.
Christ, the Son, Being the Spirit
According to the clear revelation of the Scriptures, Christ, the Son, is also the Spirit. Consider John 14:16-20. In verse 16 the Lord says, “I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever.” Here the Lord is saying that He will pass through death and resurrection to become another Comforter, the Spirit of reality, who will come to abide with us and dwell in us. In verse 17 the Lord says, “Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.” In this verse the Lord says that the Spirit of truth will abide with us and be in us. Then, in verse 18, He says, “I will not leave you as orphans: I am coming to you” (Gk.). Examine these verses carefully and notice that the “he” of verse 17 is the “I”of verse 18. In effect, the Lord is saying, “When He comes, I come. He is I, and I am He.” Furthermore, in verse 17 the Lord says that the Spirit of truth will be in us, and in verse 20 He says that He, the Son, will be in us. This proves that that Spirit who is in us is the Lord Himself Hence, the Lord is the Spirit. Since there is only one Spirit – the Holy Spirit – this means that the Lord is the Holy Spirit. This is confirmed by Romans 8:9-12 which speaks of “the Spirit of God,” “the Spirit of Christ,” and “Christ.” The Spirit of God is the Spirit of Christ, and the Spirit of Christ is Christ Himself.77
First Corinthians 15:45b says, “The last Adam became a life-giving Spirit” (Gk.).Undoubtedly, the last Adam is Christ, the Son, and certainly the life-giving Spirit is the Holy Spirit. There is only one Spirit who gives life – the Holy Spirit. To say that the life-giving Spirit in 1 Corinthians 15:45 is not the Holy Spirit is to teach that there are two life-giving Spirits. This is heresy! Let us, rather, be simple enough to believe 1 Corinthians 15:45 without trying to explain it away. Commenting on I Corinthians 15:45, one writer says, “Here we see the Spirit and Christ identified in a remarkably intimate way …. From the standpoint of faith the Spirit and the Lord are identical.”78
Furthermore, 2 Corinthians 3:17 says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit.” What could be clearer than this? According to the context of this book, the Lord here is the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Spirit is the very Holy Spirit who gives life (2 Cor. 3:6). In the words of James Denney, an eminent Scottish theologian of the early part of this century:
The Lord, of course, is Christ, and the Spirit is that which Paul has already spoken of in the sixth verse. It is the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life under the new covenant. He who turns to Christ receives the Spirit…. Practically, therefore, the two may be identified…. Here, so far as the practical experience of Christians goes, no distinction is made between the Spirit of Christ and Christ Himself….79
In the Greek, 2 Corinthians 3:18 even contains a compound title – Lord Spirit – showing that the two, the Lord and the Spirit, are one. Again, if we try to reconcile these portions of the Word with those verses which indicate that the Son and the Spirit are distinct, we shall find ourselves unable to do it. We can only believe and testify to what the Bible says. “It is essential to preserve with care both sides of this truth. Christ and the Spirit are different yet the same, the same yet different.”80
Before we conclude, let us make two further observations regarding the practical oneness of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Revelation 5:6 says that the Apostle John saw “a Lamb as it had been slain.” Undoubtedly, this Lamb is Christ. In this same verse John says that the Lamb has “seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.” That these “seven Spirits” are none other than the Holy Spirit is proved by Their being mentioned with God and Christ in Revelation 1:4-5. Thus, the Holy Spirit today is the seven eyes of Christ. We can no more separate the Holy Spirit from Christ than we can separate a person’s eyes from the person himself. Just as we and our eyes are one, so Christ and the Spirit are one.81
In four strikingly similar passages in the Gospels, the Lord Jesus tells His disciples that they shall be persecuted and brought before the civil and religious rulers for His name’s sake (Matt. 10:17-21; Mark 13:9-11; Luke 12:11-12; 21:12-15). In each instance the Lord said something like, “Take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak”(Matt. 10:19). However, in Matthew 10:20 the Lord then says, “For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you”; in Mark 13:11, He says, “It is not ye that speak but the Holy Spirit”; in Luke 12:12, He promises that the Holy Spirit “shall teach you … what ye ought to say”; and in Luke 21:15 He says, “I will give you a mouth.” As we put all these verses together, we see that the Triune God will be speaking through the persecuted disciples of the Lord Jesus. At such times, surely the Lord’s followers do not sense that three distinct Persons are speaking through them. Rather, they experience the Triune God as the three-in-one giving them instant utterance as they testify for the Lord Jesus.
GOD’S INTENTION IN REVEALING HIMSELF AS THE UNIQUE TRIUNE GOD
After this consideration of the pure revelation of the Triune God according to the Bible, it should be evident to any fair-minded reader that the biblical revelation of the Triune God is twofold: He is the Three being one, and He is the One being three. What a marvelous mystery! Both modalism and tritheism have been proved false. Instead of these two heretical alternatives – both of which stress one aspect of the truth in an unbalanced way – we proclaim the twofold aspect of God’s revelation in His Word without any attempt at reconciliation or systematization. When people consider the Triune God objectively, trying to analyze what He is in His inner being, they emphasize the aspect of the one-in-three. But when we experience the indwelling of the Triune God subjectively, we enjoy the aspect of the three-in-one, for the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all in us as one (Eph. 4:6; Col. 1:27; John 14:17). While the objective study of the Triune God has some value and may sometimes be necessary, it certainly is neither the emphasis of the New Testament nor the best way to cooperate with God in His desire to dispense Himself into us for the fulfillment of His eternal purpose.
Once we have established what the pure Word says concerning our wonderful Triune God, we should simply rest upon it. As Henry Barclay Swete has said, “The Spirit alone searches the depths of God, and where the Spirit is silent as to their contents it is hazardous and indeed vain to speculate.”82 Cyril of Jerusalem (A.D. 315-386), who depreciated theological speculation, who focused his attention on experience, and who was reluctant to go beyond the word of the Bible, once remarked:
…but inquire not curiously into His nature or substance: for had it been written we would have spoken of it; what is not written, let us not venture on; it is sufficient for our salvation to know that there is Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit.83
Any attempts to go beyond God’s revelation of Himself in His pure Word will only lead us into the snare of endless analysis, reasoning, and disputation. The result of this path is spiritual death, the consequence of trying to understand God according to the principle of the tree of knowledge. That the “revelation of the Triune God in the Scriptures should be kept as a fact and as a mystery for our experience” is testified to by the Puritan writer Robert Leighton (A.D. 1611-1684):
As to the mystery of the Most-Holy Trinity … I have always thought it was to be received and adored with the most humble faith and reverence, but by no means to be curiously searched into, or perplexed with the presumptuous questions of the school men. We fell by an arrogant ambition of knowledge; by simple faith we rise again and are reinstated. And this mystery indeed, beyond all others, seems to be a tree of knowledge prohibited to us while we sojourn in these mortal bodies.84
This same humble attitude is expressed by Philip Schaff:
The Nicene Fathers did not pretend to have exhausted the mystery of the Trinity, and very well understood that all human knowledge, especially in this deepest, central dogma, proves itself but fragmentary. All speculation on divine things ends in a mystery … before which the thinking mind must bow in humble adoration.”85
As those who receive with simplicity the whole scriptural revelation of the Triune God, let us turn to Him, open to Him, and enjoy Him as our life and our everything. God’s intention in revealing Himself as the unique Triune God – the Father, the Son, and the Spirit – is not that we might formulate doctrines of the Trinity and engage in endless arguments about them. Rather, it is to prepare the way for Him to dispense Himself into us according to His eternal purpose. Therefore, let us turn from the way of mental analysis, which has led either to the heretical extremes of modalism and tritheism or to a rigid and lifeless orthodoxy, and turn to the way of receiving in simple faith the whole revelation of the Triune God in the pure word of the Bible and of appropriating Him in spirit as our life and enjoyment. May the wonderful Triune God, the three-in-one and the one-in-three, be our portion and enjoyment now and forever. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” be with us all. Amen.
by Ron Kangas
a co-worker of Witness Lee November 16, 1976
- Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1968), p. 87.
- J. F. Bethune-Baker, An Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine (London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1929), p. 97.
- Frederick F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame (Grand Rapids: Wm.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1953), p. 256.
- Ibid., p. 255.
- Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1950), vol. 2, p. 576.
- R. S. Franks, The Doctrine of the Trinity (London: Gerald Duckworth and Co., Ltd., 1953), p. 78.
- Bethune-Baker, op. cit., p. 102.
- Schaff, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 577.
- Bruce, op. cit., p. 256.
- Schaff, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 577.
- Ibid., p. 578.
- Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959), p. 69.
- J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), p. 120.
- Bethune-Baker,op. cit., p. 104.
- Schaff, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 578.
- Arthur C. McGiffert, A History of Christian Thought (New York: Charles Scribner’s & Sons, 1931), p. 237.
- Schaff, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 589 and Bethune-Baker, op. cit., p. 110.
- Schaff, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 581.
- Walker, op. cit., p. 69.
- McGiffert, op. cit., p. 238.
- Walker, op. cit., pp. 69-70.
- Ibid. and McGiffert, op. cit., p. 238.
- Walker,.op. cit., Pp. 69-70; McGiffert, op. cit., p. 238; and Bethune-Baker, op. cit., p. 105.
- Schaff, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 582.
- Bethune-Baker, op. cit., p. 105.
- Schaff, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 583.
- Bethune-Baker, op. cit., p. 106.
- William Henry Griffith Thomas, The Principles of Theology (New York: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1930), p. 31.
- H. E. W. Turner, “Tritheism,” in Alan Richardson, editor, A Dictionary of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969), p. 351.
- Bill Freeman, The Testimony Of Church History Regarding the Mystery of the Triune God (Anaheim: The Stream Publishers, 1976), p. 19.
- Franks, op. cit., p. 119.
- Freeman, op. cit., pp. 29-30.
- H. B. Swete, The Holy Spirit in the Ancient Church (Mac Millan, 1912), pp.284-285, in Freeman, p. 30.
- Ibid., p. 13.
- Schaff, op. cit., vol. 3, p. 674.
- Freeman, op. cit., p. 25.
- Ibid., p. 13.
- Ibid., p. 14; see Schaff, op. cit., vol. 3, p. 651.
- Cited in Freeman, op. cit., pp. 14-15.
- George Bull, Defense of the Nicene Creed (Oxford, 1851), vol. I, p. 203.
- _________ The Works of Dionysius. The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Wm.. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1971), vol. VI, pp. 92-94.
- Bull, op. cit., pp. 302-322.
- Edmund J. Fortman, The Triune God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972), pp.140-143.
- Adolf Harnack, History of Dogma (Peter Smith Publishers, 1976), pp. 129-131.
- Swete, op. cit., pp. 42-43.
- Bull, op. cit., vol. 11, p. 438.
- Ibid.,vol. 1, p. 56.
- __________ Socrates’ Church History, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, vol. II, p. 27.
- H. E. W. Turner, “Coinherence,” op. cit., p. 67.
- Cited in Freeman, op. cit., p. 17.
- Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: The Judson Press, 1912), p. 333.
- Bull, op. cit., Book IV, chapter 14, sections 13 and 14, in Freeman, p. 18.
- Freeman, op. cit., p. 18.
- Robert Govett, “The Twofoldness of Divine Truth” (Harrisburg: Christian Publications), p. 3.
- Ibid., p. 4.
- Ibid., p. 6.
- Ibid., p. 5.
- Ibid., p. 11.
- Ibid., p. 12.
- Martin Luther, What Luther Says, An Anthology, vol. III, pp. 1387-1388, in Freeman, op. cit., p. 30.
- Hermann Witsius, The Apostles Creed, vol. I, p. 143, in Freeman, pp. 32-33.
- E. W. Bullinger, Selected Writings, pp. 44-45, in Freeman, pp. 36-37.
- Witness Lee, Concerning the Triune God – the Father, the Son, and the Spirit (Taipei: The Gospel Book Room), p. 4.
- Govett, op. cit., p. 12.
- Lee, op. cit., p. 6.
- William Henry Griffith Thomas, The Holy Spirit of God (Grand Rapids:Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), p. 138.
- Lee, op. cit., p. 11.
- Ibid., p. 12.
- See note on John 1:2 in The Gospel of John, Recovery Version (Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1975), p. 11.
- Lee, op. cit., p. 19.
- Ibid., p. 22.
- Neill Q. Hamilton, The Holy Spirit and Eschatology in Paul (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1957), p. 15.
- James Denney, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 134.
- Thomas, op. cit., p. 144.
- Witness Lee, Life-Study of Revelation, Message Four (Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1976), pp. 41-42.
- H. B. Swete, The Holy Spirit in the New Testament, pp. 301-302, in Freeman, op. cit., p. 35.
- Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, XVI, 4, Post Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, vol. VII, p. 116, in Freeman, pp. 20-21.
- Robert Leighten, Lectures and Addresses, pp. 126-127, in Freeman, p. 6.
- Schaff, op. cit., vol. 3,.p. 671.
© 1976 Living Stream Ministry. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.