Video: Trinity and Modalism

Today’s question: “I follow what you are saying about the error of saying that there are three ‘centers of consciousness’ in God’s Triune nature, and how that would involve a denial of the unity and simplicity of the Divine Being and ultimately involve tritheism. However, isn’t that different from affirming three subsistent consciousnesses, or three self-conscious Persons within the nature of God? Would not a denial of that involve the opposite error of modalism? I am concerned that in our right concern to flee from tritheism, we are not seeing an implicit embrace of modalism.”

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, The Triune God, Theological, Video. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Video: Trinity and Modalism

  1. Bruce says:

    Thank you Alistair for taking the time to thoughtfully answer my question. I want to give it multiple listens and deep reflection.

    Unless I am misunderstanding you at this point it seems you are acknowledging a proper distinction between speaking of three “centers of conscienceness” in God and three subsistent concisenesses or three self-conscience hypostases or Persons, properly defined, within the unity of the one Being or Essence of God’s Person. You seemed to be at certain points at a loss for words, and I appreciated that. One of the things that concerns me in the recent crucially important focus on the Trinity is what seems to be a loss in confessing this truth as ultimately a high mystery. Sometimes it has come across, at least to me anyway, that have God’s Triune nature all figured out, rather than confessing the ultimate tension for our finite minds in comprehending the Threeness within the Oneness of the Divine Being, without negotiating either reality away somehow. I came across this observation again recently that captures my burden here: “This doctrine of the Trinity is and must for ever be a divine mystery. It is a misconception of the creeds of the church…to think that they were intended to explain this mystery.…The creeds of the church fence this mystery. They do not explain it. The incomprehensibility of God means that the doctrines of the faith will involve holy mysteries which transcend human reason and contradict fleshly wisdom. Such mysteries must be accepted with humility and reverence by an intellect weaned from the arrogant and foolish notion of rationalism that it must or can comprehend the divine Being (Ps. 131).”

    So, I hope I’m getting right what you have taken the time to express, and as I say will give it ongoing thought. Thank you again.

    • ‘Centres of consciousness’ is slippery language, and we need to be careful with our language on this front (which is why I sometimes struggled to find the right words—or, more typically, to avoid the wrong ones).

      The Trinity is a mystery, yes, but it is a mystery that is preserved within clear bounds. Merely vaguely gesturing towards threeness and oneness isn’t enough. There are a great many forms that ‘oneness’ can take and this discussion is about inappropriate ways of speaking about that. Speaking of three self-consciousnesses in the way that many do is a position that is out of the bounds of classical Trinitarianism and at odds with a truly monotheistic stance.

      The relationship of Father to Son is a relation of the one God to himself and, although it is not inappropriate to use ‘self’ language to refer to the Father or Son in particular, the ‘self’ of the Father and the Son is ultimately the same self, relationally differentiated (and even within our own self-relation, mere relational differentiation apart from difference in content allows for a differentiation between our ‘selves’). The language of ‘centres of self-consciousness’ could perhaps be kept orthodox if this point were made clear (suggesting God’s singular self-knowledge as something that is necessarily threefold, God’s knowing himself from three ‘centres’, as it were), but it seldom is. However, the language is used in a way that renders knowledge, will, and the like proper to the Persons rather than the nature, which is a departure from the tradition. The ‘mystery’ of the Trinity is inappropriately appealed to at points like this: something can be beyond our comprehension while still allowing for us to know that various positions are dangerously inaccurate.

      • Bruce says:

        I agree with what you have expressed and your concerns Alistair. That “centers” of conscienceness is problematic I can see. But it does seem that Scripture reveals some kind of I/Thou awareness in the relationship between the Persons of the Trinity, and within the oneness of God’s Being, no?. It seemed to me that while “centers” of consciousness is wrong here, a mysterious subsistent consciousnesses of the Hypostases within the singular consciousness of the one God is appropriate. My thinking is that if something like this cannot be properly said, carefully and accurately defined of course, then how do we escape from affirming God as an undifferentiated monad, falling off the horse into the heresy of a de facto modalism?

        My study of the Trinity in church history thus far (if I have it right) has come across a debate among the orthodox (originally between those in the East vs. those in the West) regarding some who so stress the Persons that others charge them with tending toward tritheism, over against those who so stress the Essence that they are in turn charged with a tendency toward modalism. This is where my thoughts about mystery relate because there is a tension here and a limitation in our ability to fully comprehend the Divine nature. Sometimes in these discussions, and in the recent controversy over the Trinity some speak as if there is no mystery in this area, and discussion goes beyond what the Bible teaches either explicitly or by good and necessary consequence, and moves into speculation. Do you think my concerns have any validity?

        Well, I very much appreciate your interaction and help, and I very much want to think with precision and theological accuracy here, faithful to the Bible and the historic orthodoxy of the church. So, I’m not arguing with you. I’m just trying to think rightly.

  2. Geoff says:

    Thank you for this Alastair. It was the best, easily understood, description of modalism, I’ve come across.
    Having had a read Ware’s book on the Trinity, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit ” when first published in 2005, and as a layman I was unsettled and uncomfortable by what was written it didn’t sit right and your quotation from Ware I find way off beam with a hierarchy to the to and within the Trinity
    This may be over simple, but doesn’t the fullness of the Godhead dwell in Christ and likewise in the Father and Spirit. I think you touched upon perichoresis interpenetration, in reference to the Trinitarian dance. Does perichoresis allow for the fullness of God the Father and God the Spirit dwelling in the fullness of God the Son: The fullness of the Son and Spirit dwelling in the fullness Father : the fullness of the Father and the Son dwelling in the fullness of the Spirit? Or is that pushing it too far? There is a oneness, unity, and simplicity to it that I can understand.

  3. John says:

    Great work on this blog.
    I’ve enjoyed reading around your typological readings of OT/NT and they strike me as just and true.
    I wonder if, on the Trinity, your reading might be supplemented/confronted by the Thomist tradition and its present day revival.
    Might I suggest this:
    https://thomistica.net/news/2012/8/11/trinity-in-aquinas.html

    And more generally – given your interest in Scripture – the always excellent Matthew Levering:
    https://www.amazon.co.uk/Matthew-Levering/e/B001IU0XQM
    I enjoyed his Christ’s Fulfillment of Torah and Temple very much. I think it might resonate with your way of reading and meditating on Sacred Scripture.

    Thanks again for such a thought-provoking and nourishing blog.

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