Discern the Doctrine of the Trinity

Athanasius, who warred against Arianism and lent his name to the Athanasian Creed.

How well do you know your Christian truth from error?  Are you able to discern when the theological wool is being pulled over your eyes?  In this series of posts, I want to cover some common errors that are easily overlooked.

We’ll start today with the doctrine of the Trinity.  It doesn’t get any more basic than this.  It’s crucially important to follow the biblical teaching regarding God.  Numerous battles have been waged in ages past to get this right.  The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is found in its most precise form in the Athanasian Creed.  There Bible-believing Christians confess that there is one God who eternally exists in three distinct persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  To deny this is to deny the Christian faith and to endanger one’s salvation.  A lot is at stake!

When someone is in error regarding the doctrine of the Trinity, that error is labelled as a heresy.  Heresy is serious, soul-endangering error.  When we think of heresies in this area of theology, usually our thoughts go first to Arianism.  Arianism denies that God is triune.  Instead, Jesus is a creature — an exalted, almost god-like creature, but still a creature.  The Holy Spirit is the impersonal power of God.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses are modern-day Arians.  It’s fair to say that we quickly realize this one as a heresy and dismiss it as unbiblical.

The other common error is not so easily detected.  Consider this quote from a church’s statement of faith:

Our God is One, but manifested in three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, being coequal.

Or this quote from another church’s statement of faith:

We believe in one God revealed as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Does that sound orthodox to you?  To many people it does.  It looks like all the elements are there.  We have one God, three persons.  We have Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It may look orthodox at first glance.  But if you look closer, there’s a hitch.  The hitch is in the words “manifested” and “revealed.”  Those words indicate the presence of heresy.

This is the heresy known as modalism.  Like Arianism, this heresy dates back to the early church.  It’s commonly associated with Sabellius.  Sabellius believed in monotheism (one God), but he also recognized that the Bible spoke of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  How do you reconcile those two truths?  Sabellius taught that God is one, but he manifests or reveals himself at different times in one of three different ways.  Sometimes he manifests himself as Father, sometimes as Son, and sometimes as Holy Spirit.  It’s like God has three different masks he wears.  Sabellianism or modalism was recognized in the early church as unbiblical and heretical.  The Bible speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three distinct persons who are the one true God.

Where do you find modalism today?  Mostly in what are called “Oneness Pentecostal” churches.  The churches quoted from above are Oneness Pentecostal.  One of the largest Oneness Pentecostal churches is the United Pentecostal Church.  They’re found globally, in the US, Canada, Australia, and many other places.  The UPC statement of faith says it plainly:

There is one God, who has revealed Himself as our Father, in His Son Jesus Christ, and as the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is God manifested in flesh. He is both God and man.

Another way of detecting modalism is in the administration of baptism.  Many (but not all) Oneness Pentecostal churches baptize only in the name of Jesus Christ.  They do this because they reckon that baptizing in the name of Jesus Christ is also baptizing in the name of the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Orthodox Christianity considers such baptisms to be invalid.

Modern-day modalism testifies to how ancient Christian creeds (and the biblical truths they contain) have been so often forgotten or forsaken.  Those creeds and their formulations came to us via many hard-fought battles.  The church strove to express biblical truth with careful precision.  Today these creeds give us a ready tool to detect unbiblical teaching when it comes to the basics of who God is.  It’s the height of foolishness to think we can do without them.

1 comment

  1. Sounds like I need to memorize the Athanasian Creed also. The preamble is much stronger than what we usually hear these days:

    “Whoever desires to be saved should above all hold to the catholic faith.

    Anyone who does not keep it whole and unbroken will doubtless perish eternally.”

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