What Is the Heresy of Modalism?

Modalism is one of the early church's major heresies, and still prominent today under other names. So, what does modalism claim?

Contributing Writer
Updated Mar 21, 2023
What Is the Heresy of Modalism?

The heresy of modalism has been around since the third century AD. Proposed by bishop Sabellius, this doctrine asserts that God exists as one Person who shifts between three faces: one for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Spirit. Doesn’t sound like a big problem? Actually, modalism presents some big issues.

Let’s take a look at the history of modalism, its problems, its modern followers, and how it compares to other heresies.

What Defines Modalism?

Like Christians, adherents to modalism believe that God is one in essence. However, modalists differ in how they view God’s personality. Christians believe God is three separate, eternal Persons with unique roles. Modalists believe God is one entity who changes modes as He sees fit. Hence, He was God the Father in the Old Testament, shifted into God the Son (Jesus Christ) in the New Testament, and now operates as the Holy Spirit. It logically follows that no divine mode can be eternal or distinct.

Who Originated Modalism?

Modalism originated from Sabellius, a possible Roman presbyter. Modalism stemmed from the heresy known as modalistic monarchianism. Not much is known about Sabellius besides information in rebuttals by his theological rival, Hippolytus. Sabellius viewed God’s complete unity as most important, causing him to exclude the nature of the Trinity (three Persons in one Godhead). As a result, he taught that God was a monad (single unit) instead of a triad (three units). Sabellius was condemned and excommunicated by Pope Calixtus in 220 AD.

The followers of Sabellius began to teach that God operated in different expressions: the Father in creation, the Son in redemption, and the Holy Spirit in sanctification. Because they were concerned for God’s complete unity, the modalists denied God had permanent distinctions or persons. They believed that modalism avoided the heresy of tritheism (a form of polytheism stating a belief in three gods) while remaining true to Scripture. In the third century, Rome was split between the monarchians and the trinitarians.

What Are the Problems with Modalism?

There are several problems with modalism in light of Scripture. First, modalism directly contradicts the Bible in several places. In Genesis 1:1-2, God and the Spirit of God are said to be present in the beginning. They are referred to as two distinct individuals, so how could this passage make sense in a modalistic worldview? In John 1:1-3, the Word was both God and with God at the beginning of creation. The Word is also said to have made all things through His power. If modalism were true, how could God be Himself and the Word of God simultaneously? How could this passage correlate with Genesis 1 apart from a trinitarian worldview?

Second, the concept of God becomes more confusing, not less, within modalism. This view doesn’t explain who God ultimately is. If the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “masks” that God wears, then who is He truly?

Thirdly, God would be a liar if modalism were true. Scripture is clear that God’s nature cannot change form. For example, Hebrews 13:8 says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” In Malachi 3:6, God states, “I the LORD do not change.” James 1:17 says, “the Father of the heavenly lights… does not change like shifting shadows.”

Who Are Some Modern Followers of Modalism?

Although the term modalism has gone out of style, its core teachings have not. For example, the United Pentecostals believe in a modern modalistic view called Oneness. The Pentecostal Oneness (or “Jesus Only”) movement started in the early 1900s when some Assemblies of God members believed that water baptism should only be in the name of Jesus.

David K. Bernard, General Superintendent of United Pentecostal Church International, teaches essentially modalistic doctrines. On page 141 of his book The Oneness of God, he says that the Holy Spirit isn’t distinct from the Father:

“The Holy Spirit is not a distinct person from the Father any more than a man and his spirit are distinct persons. ‘Holy Spirit’ just describes what God is. I John 5:7 says that three bear record in heaven; that is, God has recorded Himself in three modes of activity or has revealed Himself in three ways. He has at least three heavenly roles: Father, Word (not Son), and Holy Ghost. Furthermore, these three roles describe one God: ‘these three are one.’”

On page 318, Bernard asserts that oneness is a synonym for modalism: “Basically, modalism upholds the same essentials as the modern doctrine of Oneness.”

What Are Some Heresies Similar to Modalism?

Modalism isn’t the only heresy to misunderstand the Trinity. Arianism, subordinationism, docetism, and adoptionism are all failed attempts to understand and simplify God’s complex nature.

Arianism, or the belief that Jesus was created by God the Father, was proposed in the 4th century AD by the Alexandrian elder Arius. Traditional arianism affirms that Jesus was created as the first act of creation. As such, arians do not believe that Jesus has the same substance or nature as the Father but is instead a finite, created being. This doctrine contradicts Hebrews 1:3, which states, “the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”

Subordinationism is a heresy that states Christ and the Holy Spirit are subordinate to the Father in both relationship and substance. Although this view upholds the Trinity, it denies equal Godhood for all Persons within the Trinity. During the fourth century AD, theologians such as Origen and Tertullian struggled to reconcile Christ’s human and divine natures. This conflict led to Subordinationism and eventually to arianism and modalism.

However, these heresies should not be confused with the Nicene Creed. This creed is one of early Christianity’s most accepted belief statements and affirms trinitarian doctrine. Traditional Nicene subordination views the Son as subordinate in His function within the Godhead but not subordinate in His divine nature.

Docetism is the heresy that Jesus gave the illusion of a human form but was a fully divine, phantom-like being. Many problems arise with this doctrine. The primary issue is that docetism invalidates Christ’s death and resurrection. Without a physical body, He could not have saved the world from sin and given His amazing grace. As such, this heresy contradicts Scripture. In John 20:27, for instance, Jesus tells Thomas to touch His wounds as proof of His bodily suffering, death, and resurrection.

Adoptionism is the belief that God the Father “adopted” Jesus to be His Son when He saw that the human Jesus led a sinless life. In short, God made Christ a deity. Adoptionism claims that Jesus achieved Godhood after passing the devil’s temptations in the wilderness. As with other heresies, Scripture refutes adoptionism. John 1 clearly states that Jesus is God; Isaiah 40:28 says that God is eternal; and 1 Timothy 2:5 affirms that Christ Jesus, the Godman, is the sole Mediator between God and humanity.

Every heresy falls short in the light of Scripture. Modalism is no different. As believers, we should be comforted knowing God guides us into all truth when we seek Him in His Word. May we continue to grow and develop in our Christian walk, being free from the spirit of error. Amen!

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Charles Johnson is a self-published author and an audiobook narrator for Taylor University's Sacred Roots Project. Two of his devotionals have been featured on Aboite Independent/Great Day Ministry. Charles has answered over 200 questions on Quora. Check out his book Exploring West Chicago on Amazon.

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