The Danger of Modalism

In a recent Facebook post, I criticized Steven Furtick for teaching what amounts to modalism. I won’t recount here what modalism is or why I levied that critique against him. You can read that in the post. And be sure to check the comments out because there was a lot of dialogue and clarification that took place there.

Instead, I want to address why modalism is such a dangerous heresy. I frequently made the assertion that modalism is a heresy that, if followed logically, leads to other heresy that assaults and distorts the Gospel. Some made the claim that even if modalism is wrong it doesn’t prevent someone from being saved, therefore it’s not important to call Furtick out on it. A lot of the pushback I got was because people couldn’t see why modalism was that bad. But I want to show how that is not the case.

The Danger of Modalism

Firstly, I should say that modalism, while heretical and wrong, I don’t believe is anathematizing (damning) in and of itself. But it is severe trinitarian error that, when logically applied to other doctrines like the atonement, the humanity and divinity of Jesus, and the indwelling of the Spirit, absolutely obliterates them and makes those doctrines either null and void or forces the person to adopt heretical views of them as well. When that happens, you eventually lose the Gospel. It’s the danger that modalism leads to that is most concerning to me. But, like I’m sure is probably true for many people, we can unknowingly hold conflicting doctrines without realizing it. There are probably modalists that affirm orthodox views of those other doctrines, but that would just make them inconsistent.

The danger of modalism is seen when you try to reconcile the beliefs of modalism with these other crucial doctrines that are essential to the Gospel. For example:

The Atonement

The Bible teaches that it’s Jesus’ death on the cross that paid the penalty for our sins. He did this in our place. This is called the “penal-substitutionary” view of the atonement. “Penal” because Jesus paid the penalty of sin (1 Peter 1:18-19; 1 Peter 2:24), and “substitutionary” because He did so in our place as a substitute (Galatians 3:13; 1 John 2:2; 1 Peter 3:18). He paid the penalty for our sins in our place.

Now the question is: who did He pay that penalty to? Jesus Himself said that He came to give His “life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28), but who did He pay the ransom to? The answer is God. The reason that we needed saved is because our sins separated us from God and put us under His wrath (Romans 1:18; Romans 2:5; John 3:36; Hebrews 10:26-31; Ephesians 5:6). Faith and trust in Jesus’ death on the cross is what enables us to “escape the wrath that is to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10), and instead of being God’s enemies (Romans 5:10), we are now reconciled to Him (2 Corinthians 5:18), we are now His children (Galatians 3:26; Romans 8:14; John 1:12).

When you try and reconcile a modalistic view of the trinity with the clear teaching of the Scripture regarding the atonement, you run into major problems. If on the cross, Jesus was the only “form” or “manifestation” that God was subsisting in at the time, then who’s wrath did He absorb? If God the Father was not in existence at the time, how could He pour out His wrath on Jesus? Additionally, to whom did He give His life as a ransom? If God the Father was not there to receive the ransom, then who did He pay the ransom to? The possible answers to these questions only invite more serious error and force us to either ignore or redefine certain passages of Scripture to fit this model of the trinity.

Another error that modalists fall into in an attempt to reconcile this apparent contradiction is called Patripassianism. The Latin “patri” means “father” and “passion” is the latin for “suffering” (hence The “Passion” of the Christ). This is the idea that God the Father sacrificed Himself on the cross, and not God the Son. Since only one form can exist at a time, then God the Father, who is the “dominant form” of God, is the form that died on the cross. This view explicitly denies the personhood of the Son of God as a member of the trinity. But this idea is flatly contradicted and proven false by 2 Corinthians 5:19, 21 which says that “God [the Father] was reconciling the world to himself in Christ [the Son], not counting peoples sins against them…God [the Father] made him who had no sin [God the Son] to be sin for us, so that in him [the Son] we might become the righteousness of God [the Father].” This interplay between the Son and the Father is impossible within the doctrines of modalism and patripassianism.

Either way you try and slice it, you cannot make modalism make sense with the teaching of Scripture regarding the atonement. Without the sacrifice of the Righteous Son of God to the Holy God the Father, there is no atonement. And with no atonement of sins, there is no hope for us, there is no good news, there is no Gospel.

The Doctrine of Jesus

The fact that Jesus is both fully God and fully man is a doctrine called the “hypostatic union.” Jesus is the God-man who existed with God before the foundation of the world. At the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus, He “took on flesh”, meaning He added to His God-ness a human nature. He lived His life as both fully God and fully man. This doctrine is important for several reasons, but it’s importance to the Gospel is tied to the atonement. Because Jesus was fully God, the divine attributes of eternality and omnipotence allow Him to both absorb the wrath of God for the sins of the whole world and to overcome sin, death, and the grave. Without these attributes, the effectiveness of the atonement is at stake.

Jesus lived His life on earth for 33 years. If you hold to a modalistic view of the trinity, then while Jesus was on earth, there was no God in heaven reigning and ruling over the affairs of the world during this time. To try and reconcile this fact, modalists have adopted doctrines like “kenosis” which is the idea that Jesus divested Himself of divinity and operated in this life as only a man with no divine Godhood about Him. This allows God to remain in heaven while the merely human son completes his work on earth. But as mentioned, without being divine, Jesus could not have paid for the sins of the entire world nor would he have had the power needed to defeat death.

Some other modalists adopt a view called “adoptionism” to try and make sense of this. The claim of adoptionism is that Jesus only became “adopted” as the Son of God at either His baptism by John, His resurrection, or his ascension (there are three different views of adoptionism that favor or lean toward one of these events: baptismal adoptionism, resurrection adoptionism, and ascension adoptionism, respectively). This view denies the eternal pre-existence of Christ, stating that He only came into existence at his birth, and he only adopted certain divine attributes at one of the three previously mentioned events. In this view, Jesus is not equal with God, but subordinate, which is a clear violation of orthodox trinitarianism, and orthodox Christology.

Other Errors

Other serious errors accompany modalism.

  • If God can only exist in one form at a time, then what do we make of the doctrine of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit? If He is within us, then there is no God the Father or God the Son in heaven right now. He’s only here on Earth within us (which Furtick alluded to when he said that after Jesus sent the Spirit, that Jesus “will be in you”).
  • What sense do we make of passages about Christ and the Holy Spirit constantly interceding for us before the Father? Is God jumping around at light speed transforming into each form and playing each part to himself in the mirror?
  • What sense do we make of Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3:16-17 where the Son, the Father, and the Spirit are all three present? Are two of them not God in that moment? If so, which two?
  • What are we to make of Hebrews 13:8 which states that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever?” If Jesus has now become the Holy Spirit, then He is not the same, He has changed. And the author of Hebrews was wrong, Jesus isn’t the same forever.
  • What are we to make of John 17:5 where Jesus prays, “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” Clearly Jesus is affirming His eternal existence alongside the Father.
  • How does Paul’s prayer to the church in Corinth that “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with [them]” make sense if these are all the same person and not distinct?

I could go on and on with the trinitarian texts, but the undeniable testimony of Scripture is that God is a trinity: God exists in three persons, each person is fully God, and there is one God. God is not one essential being who only manifests Himself in three different forms one at a time. Each person of the Godhead is exactly that, a person. And it should be clear that to deny this is to pave the way to serious error that nullifies the atonement, distorts the person of Christ, and casts serious doubt on the testimony of Scripture.

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