This is the third and final installment of the Christmas series on Christological heresies. I hope you have found these helpful in understanding what not to believe about the incarnation.
The following heresies technically deserve a category of their own. They transcend the more narrow study of Christology, and are more closely related to the Godhead as a whole. However, because Jesus is God, a Member in good standing of the holy Trinity, all Trinitarian heresies are also errors in Christology. You cannot get Jesus right if you don’t get the Trinity right.
The first Trinitarian heresy might possibly be the most prevalent heresy of all today. It is Modalism. Modalism is the belief that God is one being, made up of only one person. Modalism is monotheistic, but is Unitarian in its monotheism. Christians believe in Trinitarian monotheism.
What do Modalists do with the members of Scripture all clearly referred to as God? Modalism propels the idea that the one person of God “manifests” in different ways, primarily, through the Father, Son, and Spirit.
Opponents of Modalism sometimes refer to the false-god of Modalism as “the God of many hats/masks.” In other words, sometimes God puts on his Father mask. Sometimes he puts on his Jesus mask, and sometimes he puts on his Spirit mask. In fact, the reason Trinitarians try so hard to avoid using analogies to explain the Godhead is because they often devolve into analogies promoting Modalism. For example, the Modalist god is like water. Water, H20, has three forms: liquid, solid, and gas. This serves as a great analogy for Modalism, not the Trinity. The problem for Trinitarians is that water has three forms, but water cannot exist in these three forms simultaneously. The water in my glass can be frozen, then it can melt, then it can evaporate, but it can never be all three of those at once.
Therein lies the heart of the heresy in regards to Modalism. The Scriptures clearly teach that the Members of the Trinity co-exist. They do not replace one another. They are not expressions; they are Persons. When Jesus was on earth, the Father was still above Him. When Jesus was on earth, the Spirit was within Him.
Modalism becomes so popular because it is much more simple than the Trinity. It is much easier to wrap our minds around Modalism. This is why so many Christians, seeking to understand God without the aid of qualified teachers the Bible requires, tend to drift into Modalism without even knowing it.
However, do not for one moment think that simplicity is a positive argument for Modalism. Simplicity is not the standard for determining truth. There are many facts of mathematics, astrophysics, and other sciences that are very complex and sophisticated, and we never deny them on those grounds. If we are supposed to be attracted to Modalism on the grounds of it’s simplicity, then why not be consistent and accept the most simple of all gods: Allah? Allah is like the god of Modalism. Muslims and Modalists are both Unitarian monotheists; Allah is one being and one person. However, Allah never manifests as anything. He never took on flesh and became both God and man, he never appears as a Spirit one day and a Son the next. Allah is far more simple, so believe in Allah right?
The ground of religious truth is not simplicity, but authority. The authority of the Scriptures have spoken, and God has revealed Himself as a Trinity.
Perhaps the clearest way of proving this is by turning your Modalistic friends to passages in Scripture that have the three Members of the Godhead interacting with one another. Here are just a few of my favorite examples.
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.”And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
Jesus’ beautiful prayer in the garden prior to His crucifixion was addressed to Who? Was Jesus praying to Himself? Was He praying to no one? Was he zooming up to heaven to become the Father, hoping it got there before the prayer did?
Jesus was praying to His father. Jesus was communicating with His Father. Jesus is not the Father; they co-exist together. This is why Jesus could say something like this,
When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:1-5).
Jesus is clearly speaking to a different Person. Jesus uses “You” and “Me.” Jesus says he shared glory with the Father, not that he used to be the Father. Jesus and the Father are distinct, and they co-exist as distinct Persons. Many other great examples are found throughout the book of John. Jesus says,
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you… These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (14:15-17; 25-26).
But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: (16:5-9).
In all this discourse, Jesus could not be more clear that He, the Father, and the Spirit are distinct, and co-exist together. The Father sends the Spirit in Jesus’ name. Jesus ascends and then sends the Spirit. Jesus goes, not to Himself, but to the Father. They exist together in unity and distinction. One of the most beautiful examples of this Trinitarian relationship is found at Jesus’ baptism.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:13-17).
At Jesus’ baptism all three Members of the Godhead are accounted for, and clearly distinct: Jesus is in the water, the Father speaks from the heavens, and the Spirit descends upon the Son. Either Jesus is a Member of a Holy Trinity, or He is just a really good ventriloquist.
Hone in on the Father’s words– “This” is “my” beloved Son. Jesus is spoken of in the present tense, and as the Father’s Son. They are presently distinct. The Father loves His Son, not Himself. If your Jesus is the Father and the Spirit, he is not the Jesus of the Bible.
There is another heresy out there in wilderness “amen-ing” all of this talk about distinct Persons. That heresy is called Tritheism, and it is most popular today in Mormonism. Mormons are Tritheists.
Mormons heartily affirm the distinctions here, but they take it upon themselves to make the Persons more distinct than they are. They slice the Godhead up into three separate gods. Tritheists believe in three gods (although Mormons believe in a host of other gods too).
The problem for Tritheists is that the Scriptures could not be more clear when it comes to how many gods exist. The Bible is thoroughly monotheistic. There are far too many examples to prove this, so let me keep it to one prophet:
Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and set it before me, since I appointed an ancient people. Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen. Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses? Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any” (Isaiah 44:6-8).
“Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me” (Isaiah 46:8-9).
Let it be made known now the testimony of the Lord. How many gods are there? There is only one. How many are like God? No one is like God. Apart from the Trinity, Isaiah’s words would be a condemnation of Jesus.
The Trinity is in the Bible
The Tritheistic heresy is a great reminder that the Trinity is in the Bible, and the fact that people still exist who think that the absence of the word means an absence of the concept discourages me.
The Bible is clear on three things:
- There is only one God.
- Jesus, the Spirit, and the Father are all God.
- Jesus ,the Spirit, and the Father are simultaneously distinct.
Those three propositions are crystal clear. The Trinity is the only way to bring those three propositions together in cohesion. Apart from Trinitarian theology, the above propositions is a mess of warring truth claims. This is why you cannot believe the Bible to be the Word of God and not be a Trinitarian. The Trinity is the only way the Bible makes sense about God. Any form of tritheism or polytheism cannot make sense of the monotheism present throughout Scripture. And Unitarianism cannot make sense of the distinct divine Persons throughout Scripture.
We either have a Trinity, or we have an errant Bible, those are the only two options. Accept the beautiful doctrine of the Triune God, or throw your Bible in the garbage.