How Not to Read the Bible: Modalist Edition

In this edition of “How Not to Read the Bible” (a series in which so far I have only written one article), I look at one of the fundamental interpretative errors that leads to the heresy of modalism, the notion that God is not Triune (three persons in one being) but rather a single divine monad who simply manifests himself in three different ways throughout history as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not unlike an actor who puts on different masks to play different roles in the same play. Another illustration of modalism is the oft-used analogy of water as a single substance that can exist in three different states (solid, liquid, vapor). As with all heresies, modalism stems from certain non-biblical suppositions that distort interpretation when Scripture is read. If we would avoid reading Scripture like a wear-your-modalism1modalist (and it is possible to do so inadvertently even when we don’t think we are!), then we must understand what these suppositions are so that we can be on our guard against them.

To this end, Karl Barth can give us much help. In what follows, it is important to remember that when Barth speaks of the Trinitarian persons as God’s “modes of being”, he is doing so in distinction to the modalist’s way of speaking of God’s modes. What Barth wants to emphasize with this phrase is not that the Father, Son, and Spirit are simply variant ways in which the one (in the sense of monadic) God makes himself known, but rather three modes in which the one God exists in the fullness of his being in each member of the Trinity (as opposed to a more contemporary idea of “person” in which each person in a three-member group represents only one-third of the whole). That is, Barth wants to stress, against the possible misuse of the word “person”, that Father, Son, and Spirit are not parts of God, but each one is God in his absolute totality of being. With that clarification in place, let’s turn to Barth:

The doctrine of the Trinity means on the other side, as the rejection of Modalism, the express declaration that the three moments are not alien to God’s being as God. The position is not that we have to seek the true God beyond these three moments in a higher being in which He is not Father, Son and Spirit. The revelation of God and therefore His being as Father, Son and Spirit is not an economy which is foreign to His essence and which is bounded as it were above and within, so that we have to ask about the hidden Fourth if we are really to ask about God.

On the contrary, when we ask about God, we can only ask about the One who reveals Himself. The One who according to the witness of Scripture is and speaks and acts as Father, Son and Spirit, in self-veiling, self-unveiling and self-imparting, in holiness, mercy and love, this and no other is God. For man community with God means strictly and exclusively communion with the One who reveals Himself and who is subject, and indeed indissolubly subject, in His revelation. The indissolubility of His being as subject is guaranteed by the knowledge of the ultimate reality of the three modes of being in the essence of God above and behind which there is nothing higher. Totally excluded here is all communion that means evading His revelation or transcending the reality in which He shows and gives Himself. God is precisely the One He is in showing and giving Himself. If we hasten past the One who according to the biblical witness addresses us in threefold approach as a Thou we can only rush into the void.

Modalism finally entails a denial of God. Our God and only our God, namely, the God who makes Himself ours in His revelation, is God. The relativising of this God which takes place in the doctrine of a real God beyond the revealed God implies a relativising, i.e., a denying, of the one true God. Here, too, there is no Thou, no Lord. Here, too, man clearly wants to get behind God, namely, behind God as He really shows and gives Himself, and therefore behind what He is, for the two are one and the same. Here, too, we have an objectifying of God. Here, too, the divine subjectivity is sucked up into the human subjectivity which enquires about a God that does not exist. Here too, but this time by way of mysticism, man finally finds himself alone with himself in his own world. This possibility, which in its root and crown is the same as the first, is what the Church wanted to guard against when it rejected Sabellianism and every form of Modalism.[1]

What Barth helps us to glimpse here is the “theo-logic” upon which the modalist position depends. Modalism does not merely consist in affirming something like “God is one divine being who only manifests himself in three different ways, like water does as solid, liquid, and vapor”. Modalism gains a foothold when it is assumed that there is “a real God beyond the revealed God”. In other words, at the heart of modalism lies the belief that above and beyond the one who God reveals himself to be, throughout Scripture and ultimately in Jesus Christ as Father, Son, and Spirit, there exists a different God, a fourth entity, the divine monad whose Triune manifestations are merely masks of his essence. Fundamentally, modalism stems from the notion that, as T.F. Torrance put it, there is a dark, inscrutable, and inaccessible God hidden behind the back of Jesus Christ, some other God than the One whom we see and hear and know in him. But such thinking is sinful rebellion, for it refuses to submit to actual way that God himself has taken in revealing himself to us and instead insists that there must be some other God that we, through our own human capacities, are able to discover. Such is the error of natural theology, and such is the reason why Barth so vehemently opposed it.

Thus, if we would not read the Bible like a modalist, then we must stringently adhere to God’s self-revelation in Christ and through the Spirit. We must not be seduced by false pretensions that, whether through natural theology or human philosophies, we can or must “ascend into heaven ” to find a God above and beyond the One whom Christ himself made known by descending down to us (Rom. 10:6). No, the word that reveals God without distortion or remainder is near us, in our mouths and in our hearts, the word of the gospel that Scripture proclaims, and that word is Christ (Rom. 10:8, 17). To not read Scripture like a modalist is to know that in Christ “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”, and that in him and him alone “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). The God who by the Spirit we see reflected in the face of Jesus Christ is God as he is and always has been eternally in himself. There is no God hidden behind the back of Christ. Therefore, it is only by interpreting Scripture in strict accordance with the way that God’s revelation has taken in the person and work of Jesus Christ that we can avoid reading the Bible like a modalist.

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[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.382.

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