Trinitarianism, Modalism, and Somewhere In-Between

The answer to the question, “What is the biblical view of the trinity?”, isn’t so easy. Classic trinitarians and modalist heretics each seem to think the matter straightforward.

A. The traditional view of the trinity states that the three members of the Godhead are distinct, eternal, and co-existing. They fall within a chain of command and are not co-equal. The Son is subordinate to the Father (I Corinthians 15:28); Jesus says “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28); etc. The three persons (or entities) are one in substance, but they are not one person or one entity. Thus Jesus cannot be the Father. The Son and the Father “are One” (John 10:30), but the Son is not the Father. In other words, Jesus and the Father and the Spirit are the same God; but they are not the same person or entity.

B. The modalist view denies the trinity, and says there are no distinctions in the Godhead. God is only one person (or entity), and he has three modes (or faces, or masks), which do not exist simultaneously. Therefore these three modes are not eternal and do not co-exist. God changes modes, putting on different hats (the Father, the Son, and the Spirit) as the occasion demands. It is thus perfectly okay to say that Jesus is the Father, because there is only one person (or entity) to begin with.

Modalism can be dismissed rather easily, not least because it opposes the biblical view that God never changes (Malachi 3:6), Jesus never changes (Hebrews 13:8); etc. It also makes for ludicrous readings of biblical narratives which show Jesus praying to the Father, asking on the cross why his father has forsaken him, etc. On the modalist view, this would be a God with a serious split-personality disorder. However, the classic trinitarian view, while far more plausible than the modalist, isn’t unassailable. There are biblical texts which do imply that Jesus is the Father, and for that matter that all three members of the trinity are the same entity.

It’s useless to appeal to logic, though some have tried. Those who say that Jesus is the Father (view B, and view C below) might use the transitive property of equality: if x=y, and y=z, then x=z. So if Jesus is God, and if the Father is God, then Jesus must be the Father. Classical purists (view A) could just as easily retort that if x>y, then x≠y. So if the Father is greater than Jesus (John 14:28), then Jesus cannot possibly be the Father. Stalemate. Logic won’t get us anywhere, because the trinity can’t be understood logically. It can only be defended on the basis of how the biblical texts present it (whether or not one chooses to accept the bible).

I believe it is valid to make an equation between Jesus and the Father — or between any two members of the Godhead — and still be called a trinitarian, based on a comprehensive reading of the bible. This view may carry the most theological tensions, but it’s the one that doesn’t require any hand-waving or ignoring inconvenient passages. It may be described as follows:

C. The modified view of the trinity holds that the three members of the Godhead are still distinct, eternal, co-existing, and that they fall within a chain of command. But they are also co-equal, and these three persons (or three entities) are at the same time one person (or one entity) as a whole. Thus the Godhead can use plural pronouns and singular. “Let us make man in our image… and so God created man in His image” (Genesis 1:26-27). Thus God is three persons but he is also one person. It is thus okay to say that Jesus is the Father — as long as one still holds to the idea that there are three distinct persons in the one person of God. It could perhaps be represented with the diagram of three concentric circles of the same size, distinct but superimposed on each other. (The circle I use on the right has seven of them, but pretend there are only three: red for the Father, yellow for the Son, purple for the Spirit.)

The advantage of this view is that it holds together both of the following:

— 1. One the one hand, the bible makes clear distinctions between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These are the passages favored by classical trinitarians, the proponents of view A. For example, in the account of Jesus’ baptism (Mk 1:9-11/Mt 3:16-17/Lk 3:21-22), Jesus the Son is being baptized; at the same time, the Spirit of God physically comes down on him like a dove; and then the Father’s voice from heaven speaks out and approves him. Obviously the synoptic writers aren’t portraying Jesus as a ventriloquist, throwing his voice upwards as if he and the father are non-distinguishable. Or when Jesus cries out to the Father on the cross, he’s not putting on an act and really just crying out to himself. The Father is actually a person (or entity) in heaven, who looks down and speaks to his Son at his baptism; and who chooses to ignore him at his crucifixion; likewise the Spirit is a clear distinct entity at the Son’s baptism.

— 2. On the other hand, the bible also blurs the lines between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These are the passages favored by modalists, the proponents of view B. For example, in Galatians 1:1, the Father raised Jesus from the dead; in Romans 8:11, the Spirit raised Jesus from the dead; and in John 2:19-21, Jesus raised himself from the dead. So who raised Jesus from the dead? His dad, the spirit, or himself? All are true, which means that Jesus and the Father (and the Spirit) are, in some cases, interchangeable. For another example, in Romans 8:9, the Spirit “dwells in you”; in Romans 8:10, Christ “is in you”; and in Ephesians 4:6, “the Father is in you”. Again, the three members of the Godhead are ultimately the same person or entity. Then there is the famous passage of Isaiah 9:6, sung in hymns and Handel’s Messiah, speaking of Jesus (the son) being the “everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace”. It goes without saying that for purposes of historical criticism, Isaiah’s prophecy about “the son” didn’t originally have Jesus in mind; but from the Christian point of view, it certainly is a prophecy about Jesus, who is nothing less than the “everlasting Father”.

As I see it, the only way to hold together the clear distinctions of (1) and the blurring distinctions of (2) is by view C. This is the view, for example, of Roger Jimenez of Verity Baptist Church. The three distinct persons in the Godhead are also one person. It is valid to say that Jesus is the Father, but not in a modalist sense, as if the person of God becomes either Jesus or the Father, depending on the need or occasion, switching like a chameleon back and forth. According to the biblical texts, Jesus and the Father are very distinct, eternal and co-existing. But at the same time, they are co-equal and ultimately one person. That’s what it means to be “three in one”.

If that’s contradictory theology, so be it. If the in-between view carries too many tensions, then blame the bible. The answer to the question, “What is the biblical view of the trinity?” doesn’t come by what makes the cleanest sense, or the most logical sense (as if there’s anything much logical about the trinity), or by favoring one set of passages over another. The biblical view of the trinity accounts for all the data, as best as it can.

 

Post-script: I am not personally advocating or disparaging any of the three models, only explaining what I think aligns best with the biblical texts.

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