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“Progress has not followed a straight ascending line, but a spiral with rhythms of progress and retrogression, of evolution and dissolution,” was an astute observation once made by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). Goethe refutes the idea that the march of time always brings progress and advancement. This applies even to the church. There are times when the church has advanced its understanding of biblical doctrine, and there are other times when its understanding has devolved. We see this throughout history when it comes to the doctrine of God and especially the doctrine of the Trinity.
The early church fought off false teachers and doctrines to obtain a better understanding of what the Bible teaches about who God is and how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to one another in terms of their existence and works. They thought deeply and biblically regarding the Scripture’s affirmation that we worship one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In so doing, the church defended biblical truth against three errors: modalism, Arianism, and semi-Arianism. Yet, these errors did not go away but have periodically reappeared throughout church history.
Modalism1 arose in the late second and early third centuries when theologians promoted the doctrine of monarchianism. Monarchianism (from the Greek mono, “one,” and arch , “ruler”) is the heretical doctrine that teaches that the one God is only one person who manifests Himself in different ways at different times. A third-century theologian by the name of Sabellius (c. AD 215) could not reconcile the idea of one God and the three persons of the Godhead mentioned in the Christ-given baptismal formula: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Instead of believing that there is one God in three persons, he instead maintained that there is one God in three modes. That is, God sequentially reveals Himself as different persons. Imagine an actor donning different masks during a drama to portray different characters. This illustration approximates Sabellius’ view, namely, that God donned the mask of the Father, and then later the Son, and ultimately the Holy Spirit. God operated according to different modes. This view has thus been called modalistic monarchianism. The church father Tertullian (c. AD 155–240) wrote his famous treatise On the Trinity to demonstrate that the Bible teaches that we worship one God in three distinct persons. Other church fathers, such as Athanasius (c. AD 296–373), taught the coeternality and coequality of all three persons of the Godhead.
Another third-century theologian who taught errors about the doctrine of Christ and His relationship to the Godhead was Arius (c. AD 250–336). The heresy associated with Arius is Arianism,2 which is the false idea that Christ is not fully divine but that there was a time when the Son of God (or Logos) did not exist. Arius supported his ideas by appealing to passages of Scripture such as Proverbs 8:22: “The LORD possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old.” Arius believed that the Son of God is not equally God and that He is a creature made by God the Father before the creation of the world. The Son is, of course, the greatest of creatures whom God made. He became divine and participated in both the creation and redemption of humans. Arian theologians appealed to select passages from the Gospels to argue that the Son’s deity is lesser than the Father’s, including John 14:28: “The Father is greater than I.”
A related heresy to Arianism is semi-Arianism. Semi-Arian theologians modified the teaching of Arius, who believed that the Son is a creature and therefore not truly divine. Instead, semi-Arians believed that the Son is of like substance with the Father; that is, He is homoiousios (Greek for “of like substance”). Orthodox theologians instead maintained the biblical teaching that the Father and the Son are coequal in their being and power. Thus, the Son is not merely of like substance (homoiousios) but of the same substance (homoousios).
the nicene formula
While all three of these heresies deal primarily with the person of the Son, they also relate to the doctrine of the Trinity because they touch on the Son’s relationship to the Father. They touch the vital biblical teaching of how one God exists in three distinct persons. These issues were not idle speculations. Rather, they touch on the very core of our Christian beliefs about who Christ is. Do we worship God in the flesh as John teaches us in his gospel (John 1:1–18), He who is coeternal with the Father, or do we worship a mere creature? The church took these aberrant teachings seriously and addressed them with several church councils. The Council of Nicaea (AD 325) rejected modalism when it stated that Jesus, the Son of God, is “Light of Light, true God of true God,” and that He is “begotten, not made.” The Council of Constantinople (AD 381) explicitly anathematized Arianism in its first canon, and the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) affirmed the full divinity of the Son, “truly God and truly man . . . consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead,” which boxed out all forms of Arianism and semi-Arianism. These councils are not peculiar to one segment of the church but are affirmed by orthodox churches everywhere—they are creedal affirmations of the catholic (universal) church. One might therefore think that since these heresies have been buried and were teachings long dead for more than one and a half millennia that the church need not worry about them any longer. But this is far from the truth. To borrow a line from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring: “Always after a defeat and a respite the shadow takes another shape and grows again.” Or, in the words of the Preacher, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). In other words, old heresies never die; they return with new names but spouting the same false teaching.
In our own day, modalism and Arianism have reappeared in the teaching of Oneness Pentecostalism and the teaching of Jehovah’s Witnesses, respectively. Modalism finds advocates in Oneness Pentecostals, as is evident from the name of the movement. Oneness Pentecostals believe that there is only one divine person and that the doctrine of the Trinity is unbiblical. They believe that Jesus is the only person in the Godhead. Jesus exists in two modes: as the Father in the heavens and then, subsequently, as Jesus the Son on earth. The Holy Spirit is not a person but only a manifestation of the power of Jesus.
Jehovah’s Witnesses in many respects sound Christian and even profess to worship Jesus. But like the Arians of the early church, they believe Jesus is a mere creature and not equally and eternally God. Jesus is the firstborn over all the creation, but He is not Light of Light and very God of very God—that is, God in the flesh. Jehovah’s Witnesses, therefore, reject the doctrine of the Trinity as well as the full deity of the Son.
In recent years, semi-Arian3 teachings have arguably made a comeback as a number of high-profile evangelical theologians have argued for the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS). Advocates of ESS project the redemptive and voluntary submission of the Son in history back into eternity and argue that the Son eternally submits to the Father and is thus eternally subordinate to Him. Such claims sound eerily similar to semi-Arian claims that the Son is of like substance with the Father but not fully divine or of the exact same substance and thus fully equal with the Father. Unlike historical semi-Arians, modern proponents of ESS affirm that the Son is of the same essence (homoousios) as the Father. However, by positing different levels of authority and submission in the Godhead, they undermine their affirmation. That is because divine authority is a property of the divine essence, which means that different levels of authority ultimately suggest that the Son has a different—and lesser—divine essence than the Father. While not every advocate of ESS necessarily promotes the eternal subordination of the Son in the same way, and though these advocates are not necessarily trying to deny the equality of essence between the Father and the Son, they nevertheless flirt with heresy when they say that the Son is eternally submissive to the Father.
Needless to say, the church must always be vigilant in guarding against heretical teaching. True, many Christians unknowingly advocate doctrinal errors because they misunderstand the Bible. Errors can mark our doctrine, but when God teaches us the truth, we gladly set aside our mistaken beliefs. Heresy, on the other hand, is when a person knowingly rejects a central tenet of the Christian faith, typically indexed by the doctrines enumerated in the Nicene Creed—the doctrine of God, the Trinity, or Christ, for example. Make no mistake: modalism, Arianism, and semi-Arianism are heresies. The church must always be on guard against them and must always be prepared both to teach the truth of Scripture and to reclaim heretical brothers and sisters through church discipline.
- Modalism is a Trinitarian heresy that says God is one in essence and one in person. It states that Father, Son, and Spirit are not three eternally distinct personal relations but three different ways that God reveals Himself. ↩︎
- Arianism is a Trinitarian heresy that says the Son is the first and greatest creation of God the Father and is not Himself the eternal creator God. The Son and the Father are not homoousios (of the same essence), for the Son is ultimately a creature—a highly exalted creature, but a creature nonetheless. ↩︎
- Semi-Arianism is a Trinitarian heresy that affirms that the Son is more than a mere creature but says He is less than God the Father. Instead of being homoousios (of the same essence) with the Father, the Son is homoiousios; (of similar essence) with the Father. Historically, semi-Arians have believed that the Son, while still divine, has a lesser authority, power, wisdom, and so forth than the Father. ↩