Evangelical Modalism

If I polled members of most evangelical churches in America today, I’m afraid I would discover that most are basically modalists in their understanding of the Trinity.

Modalism is the heresy that confuses the persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity states that there is one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit—equal in divine essence and power but distinct in person. However, heretics throughout church history have veered off this way into one of two ditches. The first is tri-theism, which separates the three persons and basically confesses three gods, three essences, and three separate persons (and usually one of the gods is greater than the others). The second is modalism, which confuses the three persons and confesses one god and one person with three different names, depending on what role he happens to be filling.

It has become more and more evident to me that evangelicals—while avoiding tri-theism—have inadvertently run headlong into the ditch of modalism. They have done so primarily by three means: modalistic pictures, modalistic prayers, and modalistic praise.

Modalistic Pictures

If you were asked to explain the Trinity to a five-year-old, how would you go about doing it? Most evangelicals would probably resort to some sort of illustration they learned in Sunday school, read in a book, or heard from the pulpit. Two pictures prevail: “The Trinity is like water: solid, liquid, and gas” (that’s modalism). “The Trinity is like a person with different names: I’m a son to my father, a father to my son, and a husband to my wife” (that’s modalism, too). Both of these well-intentioned illustrations communicate a modalistic—not Trinitarian—doctrine of God.

Two facts emerge from two thousand years of attempting to illustrate the Trinity: 1) no picture can adequately illustrate the unillustratable God; and 2) every picture results in communicating a non-Trinitarian heresy. (For a longer discussion about the dangers of illustrating the Trinity, see my essay, “The Unillustratable God.”)

I believe the evangelical knack for illustrating spiritual truths has unwittingly misled many evangelicals into a false understanding of the Trinity. This has to stop, even if it means resorting to bare creedal Trinitarian language to define (not illustrate) the Trinity.

Modalistic Prayers

Besides modalistic pictures, evangelicals spread a confused view of God by means of modalistic prayers.

Some time back I visited a somewhat progressive evangelical church led by a pastor who I know is not a modalist and could probably state the doctrine of the Trinity as clearly and concisely as anyone could hope. However, several times during the Sunday morning service he engaged in what amounted to a modalistic prayer, confusing the Father and Son.

His various prayers went something like this: “Our great heavenly Father, we love you, we praise you, we thank you for dying on the cross for our sins, etc. . . . Lord Jesus, we give you all the glory and honor, Father, etc. . . . In Jesus’s name, Amen.”

Over and over again this pastor kept mixing up the persons of the Trinity, attributing works of the Son to the Father and vice versa. It irritated me so much that I actually felt like walking out. All the while I couldn’t help but wonder how the people in the congregation were understanding the doctrine of God based on those prayers. Contrary to the gist of that pastor’s prayer, the Father did not die on the cross for our sins (an ancient modalistic heresy called “patripassianism,” or “the suffering of the Father”). Jesus is not the Father. Although the Father is God and the Son is God, the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father. Father, Son, and Spirit—though united in deity—are distinct in their persons.

Now, I know all of us slip up once in a while when we pray and end up accidentally mixing up the Father and Son and Spirit. That doesn’t make us modalists. But it does cause us to confuse those who are listening—especially if they already have a shaky understanding of what we mean by “Trinity.” One easy way to solve this problem is to actually follow Christ’s teaching on prayer—direct all prayer to God the Father in Jesus’s name and by the power of the Spirit. Address the Father, thank Him for sending His Son, praise Him for giving you the Spirit. By keeping your prayers addressed to God the Father, not only will you be following the overwhelming majority of biblical examples, but you will also avoid communicating a modalistic misunderstanding of the Trinity to those listening.

I believe the evangelical penchant for spontaneous prayer sometimes leads to a confusion of Father, Son, and Spirit, which in turn communicates a modalistic concept of the Trinity. This has to stop, even if it means writing out and reading our prayers to avoid errors.

Modalistic Praise

Along with modalistic pictures and modalistic prayers, evangelicals unwittingly engage in modalistic praise. This comes in the form of popular worship songs and hymns that convey an inaccurate concept of Father, Son, and Spirit.

One worship song that particularly troubles me is “You Alone.” The problematic chorus states: “You alone are Father / and You alone are good. / You alone are Savior / and You alone are God.” But that’s just not true. A Trinitarian Christian cannot confess that God the Father (the first person of the Trinity) is alone good, Savior, and God. These are appellations that Father, Son, and Spirit share. These lyrics could be fixed in one of two ways: 1) change “Father” to a different word, such as “holy,” which would render the address to the Triune God in unity. Or 2) somehow remove the word “alone,” because this suggests that a single person—the Father—is alone God, and for those who also believe in the deity of Christ, this would suggest that the Son and the Father are the same person with different names.

Postmodern praise songs aren’t the only ones producing modalistic melodies, however. The ancient Irish hymn, “By Thou My Vision”—which is one of my favorites—precariously approaches the borders of modalism. The second verse says, “Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word; / I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord; / Thou my great Father, I Thy true son, / Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.” In the ancient church, the names “Wisdom” and “Word” often referred to the Spirit and the Son, and in any case the “Word” (logos) is a name exclusively used in the Bible to refer to the Son in distinction to the Father (John 1:1–3, 14). Yet in the third line “Wisdom” and “Word” are both called “Father.” Then, in the last line, the normal function of the Holy Spirit—who indwells believers—is assigned to the Father. This is confusing.

I believe the evangelical approach to worship music—which sometimes emphasizes the emotional experience over doctrinal discernment—occasionally leads to a confused and confusing doctrine of God. This has to stop, even if it means changing worship songs and rewriting ancient hymns.

Conclusion

A modalistic concept of God that confuses the Father, Son, and Spirit is far too common among evangelicals today. Through sloppy pictures, prayers, and praise, the misunderstanding continues to be confessed over and over again in churches large and small. Because most believers learn their theology from preaching, prayers, and worship—that is, learning by observing and participating—we must all reevaluate our presentations and conform them to the biblical and orthodox doctrine of God.

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