The Ancient Philosophers known as Modalists
Ancient philosophers called Modalists taught that God is a single divine Being Who manifests Himself in different modes or ways. Based on this philosophic concept, whole denominations of Christians firmly believe that God has always been only one divine Being. In Old Testament times He was known as Yahweh or Jehovah, and since the New Testament, they say, He is both the Father and the So - a single Being. Leaders of these denominations claim that this belief is Scriptural:
"What is the essence of the doctrine of God as taught by the Bible--the doctrine we have labeled Oneness: First, there is one indivisible God with no distinction of persons. Second, Jesus Christ is the fullness of the Godhead incarnate. He is God the Father--the Jehovah of the Old Testament--robed in the flesh. All of God is in Jesus Christ, and we find all we need in Him. The only God we will ever see in heaven is Jesus Christ" (Ibid., p. 304).
The God of the Old Testament, according to this definition, was a "one in one" God, and the New Testament God appears to be a "two in one" God. The author of the above definition of oneness readily admits that this doctrine, embraced by tens of millions of fundamental evangelical Christians, has its origin in ancient Modalism. He also shows that this Modalist belief is actually similar to the Trinitarian belief in a "three in one" God. Notice his summary statement in the glossary:
"Modalism. Term used to describe a belief in early church history that Father, Son, and Spirit are not eternal distinctions within God's nature but simply modes (methods or manifestations) of God's activity. In other words, God is one individual being, and various terms used to describe Him (such as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are designations applied to different forms of His action or different relationships He has to man....Also called modalistic monarchianism, Patripassianism [the teaching that the Father suffered on the tree], and Sabellianism [the philosophy of Modalism as taught by the philosopher Sabellius ca. 100 A.D.].
"Basically, modalism is the same as the modern doctrine of Oneness....Modalistic monarchianism held that God is one individual being and that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are terms which apply to different modes of action of the one God. Unlike dynamic monarchianism, modalistic monarchianism identified Jesus Christ as God Himself (the Father) manifested in flesh" (Ibid., pp. 318-319).
Modalism holds that while only one divine Being exists, that single divine Being can manifest Himself in three different modes at once--as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Although Modalism supports a "three in one" God, the author who espouses the Modalist definition of oneness asserts that
"Oneness believers ... reject trinitarianism as a departure from biblical monotheism" (Ibid., p. 319).
The Oneness of the Trinity
The majority of Christians around the world hold the Trinitarian view of God's oneness. In the Western world, most of these Christians follow the form of Trinitarianism that is based on the Athanasian Creed. To these Christians, the term "oneness" means that three distinct deities coexist in a single divine Nature or Substance. These three distinctions are called "Persons," but are not actually persons in the true sense of the word. Here is a statement of the Trinitarian belief:
"There are then (as the statement may run) three Persons (Hypostases) or real distinctions in the unity of the divine Nature or Substance....As a 'person' in Trinitarian usage is more than a mere aspect of being, being a real ground of experience and function, each divine Person, while less than a separate individuality, possesses His own hypostatic character or characteristic property" (W. Fulton, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, "Trinity," pp. 459-460).
The doctrine of Trinitarianism states that there are three distinctions, called "Persons" or "Hypostases," in one divine Substance, but only one distinction or "Person" can be manifested at any given time. This definition of God contradicts that of the Modalist, who claims that the single divine Substance can manifest itself in all three modes (or "Persons") at the same time.
Trinitarianism views God as a sort of hide-and-seek, peek-a-boo God who has neither body nor personality, but who can manifest Himself as Father or Son or Holy Spirit -- only one at a time. Unlike the Trinitarian belief, the God of Modalism can manifest Himself as Father, Son or Holy Spirit all at the same time.
According to the Trinitarian statement of belief, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all divine "Persons," but each is "less than a separate individuality." In other words, these "Persons" are not actually individuals. This statement is confusing and contradictory because it is expressing philosophical concepts that were deliberately intended to be interpreted in different ways. These philosophic constructs have always been ambiguous statements of belief. A word or phrase used in these statements may be given a variety of philosophic definitions. The result is that more than one meaning can be drawn from the same statement.
When we read such statements, we should be aware that the problem in understanding them is not due to our own lack of intellect but to the ambiguous construction of the statements themselves. This type of grammatical structure is known as "amphiboly." Statements which are worded in an amphibolous manner allow room for a variety of interpretations. Amphiboly has long been a favorite tool of philosophers and politicians.
"Amphibolously worded predictions [and philosophic constructs] have long been exploited by astrologers [ancient Magi/Chaldean philosophers], tea-leaf readers, political columnists, and even ancient oracles [demonically inspired mediums]" (Rescher, Introduction to Logic, p. 75).
To add to the confusion, the names used in philosophical statements are often VACUOUS; i.e., the names as they are used actually designate nothing! Names are properly used to designate a thing or entity or to describe an aspect of a thing or entity--a quality that the entity has or a relationship it bears to something else. Names that DO NOT represent such actual things or entities are vacuous--empty and meaningless. Here is a warning against being misled by such names:
"A name that literally designates nothing [the "One" or the "Hypostases" of philosophy] is called a VACUOUS name. Because of vacuous names, care must be taken when some name is presented to avoid the conclusion that there necessarily exists a thing which answers to this name. A subtle but important line of separation must be drawn between names with fictitious or imaginary designations [such as characters in plays, novels or movies] and vacuous names. This distinction is sometimes obscured by the fact that one and the same name may fall into either category, depending upon how it is understood" (Ibid., p. 23).
The names "One," Hypostases, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, God, Person and Being can be categorized either as authentic names or as vacuous names, depending on how they are used. These terms are vacuous as used in philosophic statements about the Trinity. These names are NOT vacuous when we understand them in the light of God's Word. To define these terms solely in the artificial framework of philosophic constructs and then attempt to superimpose this philosophy upon Scripture makes these names vacuous and meaningless.
Those who profess allegiance to the God of the Bible and then proceed to distort God's Word, elevating the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle above His Word, are not Christian but pagan. The paganism of ancient and modern philosophers is not compatible with the Holy Scriptures. As the pagan philosopher Mortimer J. Adler so forcefully and honestly wrote in How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th-Century Pagan:
"The God that is the object of pagan philosophical thought is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or of Moses, [or] Jesus ..." (p. 28).
Three Gods in One
One school of thought among Trinitarians insists that God's oneness is manifested in three individual Beings, each possessing a separate personality, body and intellect. Modalists and Trinitarians are quick to brand Tritheism as a form of ancient pagan polytheism, the belief in a plurality of gods. Polytheism taught that the gods bore human shapes, animal shapes, or half human/half animal shapes, and human or animal characteristics; i.e., personality, self-awareness, form, intellect, emotions. Other human characteristics attributed to these false gods were procreation, family structure, industry and warfare. The process of attributing human characteristics to deities is called anthropomorphism.
While it is true that many ancient pagan religions were guilty of anthropomorphism, it does not negate the fact that the true God shares many of the same characteristics which He bestowed upon humankind! God Himself declares that He has made us in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). It is utter folly to assert that Christians are anthropomorphizing God by accepting and believing what God reveals about Himself in His Word.
Belief in a personal God Who possesses emotion and intellect, and a spiritual body with eyes and ears, arms and legs and hands and feet, should not be discredited and dismissed under the label of anthropomorphism. The determining factor in evaluating any belief should not be how it is categorized, but whether or not the teaching agrees with the revealed Word of God.
Even pagan philosophers, with all their misguided speculations on the nature of God, admit that the Word of God clearly reveals Him as a fully personal Being. Notice this admission in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
"In the preceding sections [article "God, Concepts of"] it has been assumed that God has personality. The assumption is justified by the fact that... philosophers (in the West, at any rate) have nearly always described His nature to some extent by analogy with the human self....While Aristotle's first mover contemplates Himself, He does not have any knowledge of the world. Therefore, like Spinoza's God, He cannot return the love that He receives....Some thinkers have attempted to mediate between philosophy and religion by suggesting that concrete images of God are inadequate attempts to grasp a reality that is suprapersonal.
"Thus Hegel [the philosophic father of Nazi Germany] held that absolute spirit can be adequately known only by speculative intellect [philosophy]. Consequently, when he speaks of the absolute as God he means by God (as Aristotle meant) self-thinking thought. The personal God or Theism is a prerational [pre-philosophical] and imperfect representation (Vorstellung) of the absolute....
"Christians, however, are obliged by revelation [the Word of God] to identify the absolute with a God who is fully personal, both in Himself and in His dealings with mankind. Such primary images as Father, King, and Friend mediate a knowledge that cannot be surpassed by abstract speculation [philosophy]" (p. 347).