This week we follow up on the issue of the Oneness of God from last week. I received a couple of e-mails that shed more light on the issue. It seems many members of the United Pentecostal Church International and the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World and others view the Oneness of God in a different light than in those expressed last week. So, let's look at the Trinity in light of "Modalism."
The term "Modalism" has its roots in the word mode. In the Trinitarian debate it suggests there is only one God, but that God has been revealed in three different modes, i.e., God as divine parent (Father/Creator), God as Jesus Christ, and God as Holy Spirit. Thus God the "Father" was on earth as the Son, and so on. The early Church considered those who taught and believed Modalism (and Monarchianism, Adoptionist, and Dynamistics -- teachings related to this doctrine) to be heretics.
Modalism, however, has much to recommend it. First, the Old Testament is emphatic that God is one: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord" (Deuteronomy 6.4). Further, we read in Isaiah: "I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other" (Isaiah 42.8a) and "I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god" (Isaiah 44.6b). Thus the Israelites clearly understood that God was a single personage. But earlier in Isaiah, when we read about the Messiah, "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called 'Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace'" (Isaiah 9.6). Those who've visited church during the Christmas season will recognize this passage as one of the key verses to describe the advent of Jesus Christ. Notice the passage says the Messiah is both "Everlasting Father" and "Mighty God." Thus it can be interpreted that Jesus was indeed both Son and "Father" (One God) while upon this earth, and therefore God is and remains One.
As stated earlier, the early church rejected this doctrine for a number of reasons. One reason cited by the early bishops was the inconceivability that God the "Father" could die (on the cross). However, since then both simplistic and complicated arguments against the teaching have been raised.
One of the most simplistic complaints against Modalism is found in Jesus' prayers. The question is raised, if Jesus was God the "Father," who was he praying to? (A good Modalist come-back would be that Jesus was modeling prayer for the masses.) However, there are more substantial arguments than this. In John we read Jesus' own rebuttal to the religious leaders who accused him of blasphemy: "It is written in your law that God said, 'I said, you are gods.' This Scripture called those people gods who received God's message, and Scripture is always true. So why do you say that I speak against God because I said, 'I am God's Son'? I am the one God chose and sent into the world" (John 10.34-36 NCV cf. Exodus 4.16). Jesus ends his rebuke with, "Understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father" (10.38c). Thus Jesus here clearly claims to not be God the "Father," but asserts he and God are both separate and yet one in spirit (purpose).
Finally, in the account of Stephen's martyrdom we read "And he [Stephen] said, 'Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God'" (Acts 7.56). Thus even the apostolic church and the writers of the New Testament seemed to understand that God and Jesus were separate personages.
Once again, the acceptance of the Trinity in whatever form is a matter of faith in the traditions of the church. There is no distinct teaching of it in scripture. There is evidence to support the Trinitarian view, the Oneness view, and the Modalist view -- and there is evidence to refute each of the views. On the other hand, scripture does clearly teach that Jesus was sent by God to teach us how to live and die sacrificially, and that God is more interested in our living out Jesus' teachings than in vain arguments (2 Timothy 2.23; Titus 3.10). Perhaps we should move on.
If the main thing is that "Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God," then let us keep the main thing the main thing.