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Our predecessors would have been spared a lot of time, effort, and pain had God given us a glossary of terms when He disclosed Himself to us through the Scriptures. The Bible is not a systematic theology, with all the ponderous questions that we would impose upon it clearly answered in a neat outline form and complete sentences. It is not an easy book to understand in some ways.

There are several reasons for this. First, God is described in the book He gave us as incomprehensible, beyond our finding out. While God has revealed Himself truly to His people, He has willed not to reveal Himself completely. Second, and closely related to the previous idea, while God has graciously condescended to speak to us in linguistic symbols we can understand, finite language is not capable of accurately capturing infinite reality. Third, the minds of the redeemed are blighted by the remnants of sin that cleave to all our faculties and will continue to do so until we receive our new bodies in the final resurrection. Fourth, the Devil and his cohorts war against the truth, taking advantage of every possible instance to pervert our minds, distort our affections, and misdirect our wills.

We accept many things because God has revealed Himself to us by His Spirit, witnessing to the living Word of God, Christ, through the pages of the Bible. While it is hard for the human mind to grasp these things, we affirm that it is irrational to believe otherwise. Among the truths that are difficult for those who have not met the Savior is the triune nature of the Godhead, the Trinity. However, this insight is the foundation upon which Christianity stands. If God is not triune, He is not the Redeemer, since the Bible is clear that one is saved only through the triune work of God (the Father redeeming, the Son purchasing, and the Spirit applying by indwelling; Eph. 1:3–14). The truth that Jesus Christ is God (John 1:1) is integral to the Gospel message.

But how can one with rational consistency believe the truth of Deuteronomy 6:4 (“‘The Lord is one'”) and the truth that God is three (Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14)? How do you express the singularity of God while affirming the plurality of God, His oneness and threeness? Or, to state the issue with which the early church struggled, how can one confess that God is one and yet confess that Jesus Christ is God? It is no easy question. And yet, the early church fathers understood that it was essential that an answer be found. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of John the apostle, referred to Christ by such words as “God incarnate,” “our God,” and “God manifest as man” (Letter to the Ephesians 7:2; 19:3). And Tertullian (c. 160–225) coined the term trinity in speaking of the God-head thusly: “Although I must everywhere hold one only substance in three coherent and inseparable (persons), yet I am bound to acknowledge … that He who issues a command is different from Him who executes it” (Against Praxeas, 12).

It took three centuries of discussion, energized by critics outside the church (who used the apparent conundrum to attack its credibility) and by teachers within (who taught error while proposing to defend the truth) to bring the church to the councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381). In those gatherings, our forefathers resolved the issue by eliminating erroneous ways of stating the relationship between the Father and Son and by stating the truth in a creed.

The emergence of two erroneous attempts at explaining the diversity and unity in the Godhead brought matters to a resolution. One was a teaching called adoptionism, or dynamic monarchianism (the latter term, coined by Tertullian, refers to the singularity of God, that God is one). This view envisioned the solution by subordinating the Son to the Father. Advocates of modalism, such as Paul of Samosota and, later, the Arians, the Soccinians, and figures in the current liberal movement within Christendom, argued that Jesus Christ does not possess absolute equality with the Father. Rather, because of Jesus’ unique abilities, morals, and insights, God chose to honor Him with the title “Son of God” (a non-ontological designation).

The influence of modalism posed an equal or possibly even greater danger to the health of the churches because it was embraced by several bishops of Rome (popes) in the third century. In an attempt to preserve the truth of God’s oneness, several churchmen taught that the names for God express multiple manifestations of God. God is one and reveals Himself not in multiple persons but by metamorphosing Himself into the appearance of one or another, either Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. Tertullian summarized Praxeas’ view, stating, “One cannot believe in One Only God in any other way than by saying that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are the very selfsame Person” (Against Praxeas, 2).

The person whose name became practically identified with modalism was Sabellius of Pentapolis. Gregory of Nazianzus, the fourth-century bishop of Constantinople, railed against Sabellius, saying: “For neither is the Son the Father, for the Father is One, but He is what the Father is; nor is the Spirit Son because He is of God, for the Only-begotten is One, but He is what the Son is. The Three are One Godhead, and the One Three in properties” (Theological Orations, 5.9).

Whereas the adoptionist position, which was condemned at the Synod of Antioch in a.d. 269, seemed to preserve the unity of the Godhead by denigrating the deity of Christ, the modalist view overstated the unity of the Godhead, destroying the distinctiveness of the persons in it.

Roman persecution of Christianity ended early in the fourth century. The defense of Christianity and tranquility in the empire became so important the Emperor Constantine called the first great council in the church’s history to resolve the controversy concerning the relationship between the Father and Son. Of the bishops who gathered at Nicea, near Constantinople, three parties were evident: those who feared adoptionism, those who feared modalism, and a majority that do not appear to have grasped the severity of the issues.

The Nicene Creed of 325 did not end the heated conflict. Athanasius felt that it was a deathblow to any attempt to subordinate the Son to the Father. But others thought that it allowed for the error of modalism. Consequently, the controversy continued in the church for decades, until the Council of Constantinople (a.d. 381). There, with definitions carefully crafted by churchmen, the relationship of the three divine persons was finally elucidated. The Godhead was said to be one in essence, a shared community of characteristics that we call the attributes of God. Furthermore, three distinct persons share in this fund of common attributes, and they are shared equally. Therefore, it is proper to speak of the Godhead as composed of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Still, the modalistic explanation of Jesus Christ did not end with its fourth century rejection by the church. The “Father of Modern Liberalism,” Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), explained the Trinity as a multiple manifestation of God-consciousness; he rejected the notion of distinct persons in the Godhead. Even today, the United Pentecostal Church denies the existence of three persons in the Godhead.

Ultimately, modalistic approaches to the Trinity of God turn the Bible into a shambles. The use of such phases as “Let us” in the Creation narrative indicates plurality of number in the Godhead. Also, at Christ’s baptism, God speaks from heaven saying, “This is My beloved Son.'” He did not say, “I am talking to Myself.” Modalism makes God a raging schizophrenic. However, a careful reading of such passages of the Bible leads us to believe that there are distinct persons in the Godhead. This understanding of Scripture is a precious legacy from our early church fathers.

Vessels of Clay

Out of This World

Keep Reading Counting It All Joy: The Acts of Christ in the Third Century

From the August 2003 Issue
Aug 2003 Issue