The Concept of God as Trinity and a Response to Modalism

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Introduction

The doctrine of the trinity is one of the most hard to grasp and explained teaching in Christianity. Many Christians steer away from trying to understand it or flee whenever questions asking about their understanding of it (the trinity) comes about. But when people try to explain it in various descriptions and models, their explanation of the trinity either lead their views to embrace tritheism; the understanding that God is three or modalism; the understanding that God is one but has revealed himself to us in three forms; Father, Son and Holy Spirit at different points of time.

Concerning this Doctrine in Malaysia, most Christians ascribe to it in the form of information. But upon further investigation, the majority explain or understand the trinity taking modalism as their reference point. Being a multiracial country with diverse religions, the turn towards monotheism and in that conjunction, modalism, is a logical jump to take.

This study will be in response to modalism which Christians in Malaysia have in understanding God, where, although ascribing to monotheism, refutes embracing the Christian doctrine of a monotheistic Trinitarian God. This study will consist of the historical development of the doctrine of the trinity particularly tracing the developments of modalism. Next, the biblical perspective is investigated, but responding first to the question of how the early Christians made the radical jump ‘from’ their monotheistic faith to embrace the concept of the trinity. The remainder of the study will look into the implication and importance of this doctrine for the Christian faith.

 

1.      The Development of the Doctrine of Trinity in History

This doctrine (trinity) has seen it being developed over a long period of time in an attempt to respond to a problem that the early believers that time were grappling about where integration of three different beliefs “the heritage of monotheism, the confession of Jesus’ lordship, and the experience of the Holy Spirit,”[1] were to be merged together. In order to give some detailed understanding concerning modalism, it is best to see it in the light of historical development.

In the development of this doctrine based on the considerations above, Grenz observes that there are two phase of the development in history, where, firstly, focus was turned to God’s relationship to Jesus and second, was concerned with the nature of the Holy Spirit.[2]

The early discussion surrounding Trinitarian debate focused on early Christological debates- in the “mid-second century” which focused on the explanation known as the “logos Christology” dealing with passages found in John 1 and also in the creation of the world in Genesis to the implication of this Jesus, who is ascribed as divine, also being fully human. 73 But some were not happy with this explanation labelling the explanation above not monotheism but believing in two gods. Dynamic monarchism, which can be ascribed to Theodotus in Rome at about A. D. 190 and Paul of Samosata[3] is the theory “that the divine power descended upon the man Jesus, so that he was not ontologically God but merely the carrier of the divine power, an inspired man.”[4]

The other known as the “modalistic monarchism” tried to explain that the three forms Father , Son and Spirit are three ways in which God had revealed himself to people[5] and also that they did not stand for exact distinctiveness.[6] Erickson, sees some hope in this doctrine because it seeks to adhere to the concept of the trinity, where all three are divine and one. But as mentioned previously, it is the oneness that is emphasised because they do not see Father, Son and Spirit as distinct persons.[7]

Controversy again arose from a deacon named Arius of Alexandria who wanted to defend the monotheistic understanding of God. For him Jesus was not divine and that he was a created being, this understanding which he derived from understanding the “biblical verb “to beget” means “to make”- the Father made the Son.”[8] Athanasius opposed this view by stating that it will dent the doctrine of salvation. And in Nicea 325 the affirmation of Jesus’ divinity was agreed.[9]

On the Deity of Spirit, basically, followers of Arius were the ones who raised this issue, stating that the Holy Spirit as the other creature created by the Father. This controversy is ascribed to Macedonius who was Bishop of Constantinople.[10] This again was further opposed by Athanasius who noted that the Holy Spirit is placed on equal footing with the Father and the Son in the baptismal formulas, apostolic benedictions, and Trinitarian doxologies found in the New Testament and in the early Christian literature.”[11] 77 But the most important pointer noted by Athanasius pertaining the argument is its connection with soteriology where the Spirit that enters us upon conversion must be the very spirit of God. This question was settled in the “Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 381.”[12]

Taking note of the shifts in Christian history concerning how the doctrine of the Trinity was developed, it does reveal to us that issues concerning the trinity, in the case of modalism, are not new. For this particular study which seeks to trace the development of modalism through history, one sees that earlier proponents especially those who were modalistic monarchism, although trying to keep the concept of trinity failed to see their mistakes in the designation and understanding that they sought to hold concerning the trinity. This view is known popularly now as “Oneness Theology,” where instead of holding on the concept of “One God, three Persons,” because of the difficulty in ascribing to this Trinitarian modal opted for a more monotheistic bent. Therefore, we now move to the bible to help us discern the thought progress concerning a biblical Trinitarian modal that is a move away from modalism.

2.      Trinity: In Biblical Perspective

This particular part of the paper will seek to see how concepts of the trinity were developed among the Early Christians and then tracing this development (albeit assumed) to the Old Testament and it’s clearer picture in the New Testament. The question of the Early Jewish Christian is treated first in the hope that discoveries in this development might assimilate data from the subsequent study concerning the data found in the Old Testament concerning hints towards a plurality in the Godhead. This will thus lead to the investigation in the New Testament which speak more clearly concerning the concept of the trinity.

                                                                                          

a.      The Early Christians: Did the early Jewish Christians disregard their monotheism?

 One of the constant questions that I have whenever thinking about trinity and reading through material that pertains to it is the question regarding, “How did the early Jewish Christians overcome their monotheistic leanings and embrace the addition of Jesus in the equation of their monotheism?”

I think if one wants to overcome barriers pertaining to the study of the doctrine of the trinity might find some hope in seeing how the early Christians overcame their strict monotheism. Because for them, it was a significant jump that they too, knowing so much that monotheism was at the centre of their belief in God.

Thomas H. McCall has probed some interesting insights in the acceptance of the early Christians of somewhat ‘modifying’ their monotheism. His survey of the development is gained from looking through the period of Second Temple Judaism, a period which relate to the understanding of the NT writers.[13] Jews during those periods were strict in their monotheism. The highest form of exclusive monotheism was worship which was central.[14] It is interesting to note in McCall’s survey, he quotes Bauckham as saying

“Jewish monotheism clearly distinguished the one God and all other reality, but the ways in which it distinguished the one God from all else did not prevent the early Christians including Jesus in this unique divine identity. While this is a radically novel development…the character of Jewish monotheism was such that this development did not require repudiation of the ways in which Jewish monotheism understood the uniqueness of God.”[15]

This is to say that, the form of monotheism that was held to was in no aspect distorted by the early Jewish Christian by placing Jesus as worthy of worship.[16] This is important information that we gain concerning what forms what can be termed monotheistic. But it needs further clarification.

In 1 Cor 8:1-6 Jesus is infused in the Shema, which is the foundational framework to the monotheistic ascription to God. Gaining perspective from Bauckham and N.T. Wright, who both explain that this was not a distortion of the Shema’s concept of monotheism, but rather both scholars see that Paul was merely ascribing Jesus to be included to the unique identity of God.[17] This is not a violation of the Shema, explains McCall, but rather the notion of the Shema does not designate the understanding of “numerical tropes of divinity” but on the understanding of absolute devotion to the one God. McCall states that the meaning of “one” (echad) in the Shema where,

“…the word used here is a word that actually allows for interpersonal relationship-it is the very word used of a man and woman becoming “one flesh.” The original Shema is a statement of monotheism, but it is much more concerned with exclusive devotion than with informing us about the acceptable maximum number of divine tropes.”[18]

Thus, taking this view, that the monotheism was not seen in numerical terms that people now understand them, they as McCall recalls in studying Bauckham, was more of fixed to a call for their ultimate devotion.

b.      OT Developments of the God’s plurality

I find it necessary then to probe the investigation of the concept of Trinity looking at it from the lens of the Old Testament. Caution must be taken when trying to build an argument concerning the idea of God’s plurality. We must take note that the full-blown revelation of the trinity is only developed in the New Testament.

In Feinberg’s chapter on the trinity in his book that concentrates on the doctrine of God, he spends some pages noting passages in the OT that show us intimations of the plurality of God. They deal much with the way words are used by the OT writers in particular elohim which is in plural form, linguistics in the OT passages which do not equate in the normal use of how sentences are structured and formed (e.g. Gen 1:26; 20:13; 35:7 2 Sam 7:23), designation of angelic beings being ascribed to as God but in some ways distinct from him, passages in the OT that somewhat address speculation that God has a Son, the divinity of God’s Spirit being at times distinct from God, and lastly some passages where divinity is ascribed to more than one person. Although the evidence is vast and wide, nevertheless, Feinberg does not over impose these passages ascribing to the teaching of the trinity. But this being the case, he does not deny that they somewhat imply some constructive thought in the idea that in the OT there is a slight hint bent towards the implication that there exists a plurality in the monotheism of Israel.[19] Ironically, ascribing to a similar stance is a Jew who is known as Maoz, whom, in Richard Harvey’s book surveying Messianic Jewish theology takes these considerations more seriously.[20]

c.       NT Evidence of Trinitarian Understanding

There can be no doubt (although modalists would disagree with me) that the New Testament is where this revelation of a Trinitarian understanding of God is developed more exhaustively. Matt. 28:19-20 is one of the most common descriptions of the Trinity presented in scripture. It is this very passage that becomes the very words a minister uses when baptizing a new convert. Erickson makes some observation about this rendering in saying that “name” is singular although the three are spoken of and that “there is no suggestion of inferiority or subordination” coming from reading the text. Paul’s passage in 2 Cor.13:14 also indicate the unity and equality of the Trinity.[21]

One of the things that are constantly unmistakable in the New Testament concerning the revelation of God being Triune is passages that describe the Godhead together in completing the task of our salvation and redemption.[22] This is especially indicated in 2 Cor. 1:21-22 where it states that “Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit.” Apart from this Erickson also mentions other verses that fit this understanding which are 2 Thess. 2:13-14; 2 Cor. 13:14 and Ephesians 3:14-19.[23]

One of the more interesting knowledge concerning the development of the Trinity is how this is not only developed based of references from just verses but as Erickson gleans from the study done by Arthur Wainwright is the indication of a Trinitarian framework of Paul’s letters found in Romans and Galatians. Here is one example taken from Romans

“The judgement of God upon all (1:18-3:20)

Justification through faith in Christ (3:21-8:1)

Life in the Spirit (8:2-30)”[24]

The witness of the fourth gospel also gives a compelling case for Trinitarian leanings gleaned from the New Testament which is the “strongest evidence of a coequal Trinity,” according to Erickson.[25]

Thus, the witness of the New Testament is compelling, in that it tells us that God exists in a tri-unity that is expressed in a coequal community which completes the redemptive work of saving us. Judging for a modalist point of view, evidence for ascribing to the concepts that God is one and descriptions like Father, Son and Spirit are not distinctions but rather the ways in which God has revealed himself to us in the course of time, is weak.

d.      Responding to Some passages that might assume modalism in the NT:

Some who ascribe to modalism are keen proponents to passages such as Col 1:15-18 and John 14:10-11.[26] These might be two passages we can focus on. This passage in Col 1:15-18 can be taken in a sense that Jesus, because he is the exact likeness of the invisible God, then the notion of the trinity is somewhat a misconception. It does so elude when the passage is not read with verses 19-20 in mind. Sometimes context and careful reading can eliminate our fleeting sense of thought.  V. 19 does indicate a clear distinction, “For God was pleased to have his fullness dwell in him,” because following the train of thought why would one be please of a response of another if not for the sense that there is a strong sense of plurality here? Clearly then, reading through this, there are clear distinctions intact.

Let us now look at John 14:10-11. Ascribing to the equation of modalism in this passage seems to be hindered by the word “in the Father” or “the Father living in me.” But a simple reading through of the passage also indicate that the rendering which speaks of “in the Father” simply speaks of the Son perfectly representing the Father, for this is the basic understanding that is derived from these verses.

I assume that confusion arise not by people unable to understand what they are reading but is mainly because of the inability to remove the theological lens that one is wearing. Modalists, taking up this view because of the inability to ascribe to the understanding of the oneness of God amidst plurality, become trapped because they are unable to shed their theological lens and see the vast description that leads to the understanding of the trinity.

3.      Implication and Importance of the A Trinitarian Understanding of God  

Once a Trinitarian laden perspective is presented, it needs to have some theological bent towards why this doctrine is important for their life and also what it then means for the Christian church as a whole. There are three points that I would like to develop concerning a Christian Trinitarian understanding.

First, when one takes the Trinity seriously there is a renewed understanding of God’s redemptive work. In a recent study by Frank D. Macchia, he highlights the importance of having the Spirit as the very substance of justification. Taking the Spirit out of the ‘equation’ of redemptive work has sometimes been our fault as Christians. But when we do recognize this Macchia states that “Only by placing the Spirit at the very substance of justification is it possible to arrive at a Trinitarian integration of imputed and imparted righteousness. Justification as a Trinitarian act must be accessed by the Spirit and in relationship with the Son.”[27] Therefore, integrating this into the understanding of God’s complete redemptive work, we see the Trinity at work together in unity to complete the work of redemption in us. Thus, our understanding of the doctrine of soteriology can take a more Trinitarian perspective.

Second, a Trinitarian understanding of God is the basis for modelling Community life. Jesus’ prayer in John 17:22-23, especially when it says “…that they may be one as we are one.” This passage is a clear indication for us to grasp the depths in understanding the deep sense of community and unity that consists in the God head. Their perfect community compels us to model our Christian church in this manner, to which Jesus prayer was and is that we are “brought to complete unity,” in the pattern that is revealed to us in the Triune oneness of God.

Thirdly, a Trinitarian understanding of God is the basis for building on the understanding of mutual love among believers. In 1 John 4:16b which tells us that “God is love,” it somewhat implies that in an ontological state, before creation God is love. For love to be real it has to have been shown and responded to. But those are human terms of love for it to be a proper analogy concerning God and the Trinity. But however muddied our human description may be, love originated with God in the community of the Godhead, in what we know now as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Their love thus, is an analogy for us to replicate. F. LeRon Shults quotes Moltmann which I find compelling to complete this explanation on love concerning the trinity,

“…the way in which they mutually share power is the model (and the hope) for human social relations. The biblical idea of the “kingdom” or “rule” of God must not be conceptualized as dominion, but as the manifestation as the shared love of the Father and the Son in a through the Spirit.”[28]

 

Conclusion

Modalism is a concept that seeks to ascribe to monotheism and it is a view that Christians in Malaysia mostly ascribe to in trying to articulate the understanding of God as trinity. But what modalism does is actually distorting what scripture has revealed about the trinity. As this essay tries to state, trinity is a biblical idea, although the very word we use to designate God as trinity does not exist. But looking at the scriptures there seems to be an unmistakable witness. And as I have laid out the implication and importance of this doctrine, we can say that trinity is not a foreign concept made up by theologians. It is a concept derived and interpreted from scripture. And thus concluding, modalism, is not what people might perceive it is. Modalism in fact distorts who God is as the Bible reveals to us.

 

Bibliography:

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Ed). (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1998)

Fienberg, John S. No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway. 2001)

Grenz, Stanley. Theology for the Community of God. (Nashville. Broadman &Holman Pub, 1994)

Harvey, Richard. Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology: A Constructive Approach (Colorado Springs, Patenoster. 2009)

Macchia, Frank D. Justified in the Spirit: Creation, Redemption, and the Triune God. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans: 2010)

McCall, Thomas H. Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?: Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphisics of Trinitarian Theology. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.2010)

Shults, F. LeRon. Reforming the Doctrine of God. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005)


[1] Grenz, Stanley. Theology for the Community of God. (Nashville. Broadman &Holman Pub, 1994) p.70

[2] Ibid. p.73

[3] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Ed). (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1998) p. 359

[4] Grenz, Stanley. Theology for the Community of God. p.74

[5] Ibid.

[6] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Ed). p.360

[7] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Ed). p.360

[8] Grenz, Stanley. Theology for the Community of God. p.76

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid. p.77

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] McCall, Thomas H. Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?: Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphisics of Trinitarian Theology. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.2010) p.57

[14] McCall, Thomas H. Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? p.59-60

[15] McCall, Thomas H. Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? p.61

[16] The Philippians passage in 2:5-11 which presents to us the description where Jesus was ascribe as divine, because the passage where it says, “that every knee should bow and every tongue will confess…” is ascribed to YHWH, seen in Isaiah 45:23. But there is also a clear distinction between God the Father and Jesus; Jesus is not infused in the Father, but distinct from the Father. McCall states that “Paul is convinced that Jesus is fully divine, but he understands him to be distinct from the Father even as preincarnate.” see McCall, Thomas H. Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? p.62

[17] Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? p.62-63

[18]Ibid.  p. 64

[19] Fienberg, John S. No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway. 2001) p. 448-456

[20] “The ‘plural’ nature of God is demonstrated from the Hebrew scriptures, following the traditional pattern of Christian apologetics. The plural term for God (Elohim), the occurrence of plural verbs (Gen 1:26, etc), the Angel of the LORD, references to the coming Messianic figure as ‘God,’ and the threefold invocation of the name of God in the Shema (Deut 6:4) all point to God’s ‘plural’ nature, despite the attempts of some to give alternative interpretations. Maoz does not deal with alternative traditions of interpretation, or the hermeneutical and historical-critical issues that arise from such argumentation.” see Harvey, Richard. Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology: A Constructive Approach (Colorado Springs, Patenoster. 2009) p. 68

[21] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Ed). p.355

[22] For a more exhaustive view concerning a recent study that presents the Spirit indwelling us which make the justifying work of Jesus whom God sent framed in Trinitarian understanding is Macchia, Frank D. Justified in the Spirit: Creation, Redemption, and the Triune God. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans: 2010)

[23] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Ed). p.356

[24] Ibid.

[25] See more in, Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Ed). p.357

[26] These are two passages which I assume (judging from recent conversations), most would go through in ascribing their modalist leanings judging from the response that I had concerning the question I posted out on a social site concerning the other people’s view concerning the trinity.

[27] Macchia, Frank D. Justified in the Spirit: Creation, Redemption, and the Triune God. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans: 2010) p. 296

[28] Shults, F. LeRon. Reforming the Doctrine of God. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005) p.149

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