“Modalism” is a term coined by the German historian, Adolf von Harnack, and classifies an overarching approach to defining the Trinity, shared by a group of theologically inadequate schools of thought. The modalist manifesto was developed by Noetus and Praxeas in the late second century, and by Sabellius in the third century. The goal of these
thinkers was not one of ill intent. Each of these writers was concerned with protecting the unity of the Trinity; to ensure that no teaching of Tritheism (more on that later) would exert itself. The attempt to protect the unity of God, led to an explanation regarding the Trinity, which stated that the self-revelation of the one and only God took place in different ways at different times. Therefore the divine nature of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit were simply the results of God assuming different “modes of being” in order to disclose himself to humanity in different ways throughout history. The modalist Trinitarian logic unfolds in the following way:
The one God is revealed in the manner of creator and lawgiver. This aspect if God is referred to as “the Father”.
The same God is then revealed in the manner of savior, in the person of Jesus Christ. This aspect of God is referred to as “the Son”.
The same God is then revealed in the manner of the one who sanctifies and gives eternal life. This aspect of God is referred to as “the Holy Spirit”.
This approach to the Trinity asserts no essential difference between the persons of the Trinity; the only observable difference takes place at different times in different places. It is a function of the historical self-revelation of God across time. There are merely three terms for the same God. In the late fourth century, Epiphanius of Constantia described the main features of this type of modalism:
“A certain Sabellius arose not long ago (in fact, quite recently); it is from him that the Sabellians take their name. His opinions, with a few unimportant exceptions, are the same as those of the Noetians. Most of his followers are to be found in Mesopotamia and the region of Rome. … Their doctrine is that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one and the same being, in the sense that three names are attached to one substance (hypostasis). It is just like the body, soul and spirit in a human being. The body is as it were the Father, the soul the Son; while the Spirit is to the Godhead as his spirit is to a human being. Or it is like the sun, being one substance (hypostasis), but having three manifestations (energia): light, heat, and the orb itself. The heat … is analogous to the Spirit, the light to the Son; while the Father himself is represented by the essence of each substance. The Son was at one time emitted, like a ray of light; he accomplished in the world all that related to the dispensation of the gospel and the salvation of humanity, and was then taken back into heaven, as a ray is emitted by the sun and then withdrawn again into the sun. The Holy Spirit is still being sent forth into the world and into those individuals who are worthy to
This form of modalism can be called chronological modalism; the main idea being that the one God chooses to divide his self-revelation across different persons over different periods of time, whereby he achieves different goals.
This is contrasted with another form of modalism, known as functional modalism. This is the contention that God appears in different manners at any given moment in human history. It is the utilitarian self-revelation of God, wherein he reveals himself as a particular person of the Trinity for the purpose of interacting with history and humankind in specific ways, which adhere to his divine will. Basically, different persons (or so it appears) are designated different aspects of the activity of the one God. A functional modalist approach to the “offices” of God would go as follows:
God the Father is the creator
God the Son is the redeemer
God the Holy Spirit is the sanctifier
In this case the “mode” of being has much more to do with activity or ministry attributed to that particular person. The manifestation of God’s presence is thus defined by the work he is doing in a particular moment.