The doctrinal heresy known as Modalistic Monarchianism (Modalism, Patripassianism, or Sabellianism) is commonly attributed to Sabellius (AD 250). However, its basic elements can be traced back as far as AD 200 to Praxeas of Asia Minor, AD 230 to Noetus of Smyrna, and AD 250 to Beryll of Bostra. Modalism was the first major doctrinal controversy that challenged the Christian understanding of the Triune Godhead; its refutation, therefore, played a key role (along with Arianism) in the church's definition of Trinitarian theology. The teaching is all but extinct in the official teachings of just about every church today1, although practically speaking many lay Christians have unbiblical modalistic tendencies2 in their understandings of the Triune Godhead.
The Teaching Summarized
Modalism is an unbiblical teaching that the Father is the Son is the Holy Spirit (all are one person). It is the product of misapplication of the oneness of God to the Godhead. In an effort to maintain the monarchia (single beginning / source, as in the English word, "monarchy") of God, Christ, the Son, was taught by modalism to be a "sunbeam" of God, like a ray of light is to the sun. According to modalism, God transforms into the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit at various times throughout eternity. These different manifestations (or "modes") of God (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) lose all sense of distinct personality, as they cannot interact with one another (not to mention the fact, that modalism cannot account for the reality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all being simultaneously present at the baptism of Christ). Ultimately modalism leads to a God who is dependent upon His creation to relate and be a personal God. The Triune God of the Bible, however, is fully self-sufficient and relational as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit even loved each other from before all time (see the discussion of God's "aseity" or "love" in Xristian.org's online articles on the character of God).
The Church fully condemned Modalism by the time of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan councils of the early church. Tertullian noted that if God the Father became incarnate as the Son, then the Father also suffered (hence, the alternate term for modalism, "patripassianism," which comes from the Latin roots for "father" and "suffering"). Clearly, such an inevitable conclusion of modalistic teaching is unscriptural. Additionally, the error of turning Christ into some sort of insane manifestation of an incarnate Father praying to Himself is refuted by the scriptures, where Christ's prayers and petitions to His Father are real, rather than suspicious examples voiced into thin air by Jesus. The great theologian Charles Hodge well noted that all (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) say "I" and "Thou" as subject and object to one another. The God of the Bible is a personal God; and, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all co-existent, simultaneously manifested, real Persons of the One Being, God Almighty.
1 The Oneness Pentecostals are an example of rare modern teachers of this heresy, which results in their prescription for baptism in the "Name of Jesus," rather than in the "Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19).
2 An example of a modern modalisitc tendency is manifest in the impersonality that the average Christian attributes to the Holy Spirit by often referring to Him as an "It" instead of "He" or "Him."
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