Are You a Practical Modalist?

I’ve been reading Robert Letham’s excellent book The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship. It’s a must for any serious study of Trinitarianism. In many ways Letham represents a mediating position when it comes to the debates regarding subordination in the Trinity. He differs from someone like Wayne Grudem and maintains that talk of subordination and hierarchy in the ontological Trinity is inappropriate—even functional.1 However, he also differs from someone like Kevin Giles (cf. this post) who flattens out all the distinctions among Father, Son, and Spirit. Letham rightly sees τάξις (in the sense of order, not rank) in the Trinity. The various functions and roles of Father, Son, and Spirit are not arbitrary or reversible. The Father’s acting through the Son by the Spirit expresses ontological reality; the economic Trinity reveals the immanent Trinity.

While most of what I have to say about Letham’s book is positive, I have had a few minor issues here and there. For example, Letham maintains that most Western Christians are practical modalists. I’m not strongly opposed to Letham’s assertion, but he does a very poor job of establishing its veracity. Here’s what he says:

Today most Western Christians are practical modalists. The usual way of referring to God is “God” or, particularly at the popular level, “the Lord.” It is worth contrasting this with Gregory Nazianzen, the great Cappadocian of the fourth century, who spoke of “my Trinity,” saying “When I say ‘God,’ I mean Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This practical modalism goes in tandem with a general lack of understanding of the historic doctrine of the Trinity.

I had a hard time following Letham on this one. A few comments:

  1. How does referring to God as God or the Lord constitute practical modalism? I need some dots connected for me on this one.
  2. God and Lord are both biblical terms for God. Using them is clearly not inappropriate or unorthodox, nor does it constitute any kind of practical modalism.
  3. Gregory Nazianzen also used the term God to refer to God. Now, he defined what he meant by it, but does Letham assume to know what “most Western Christians” mean by it without their having had a chance to provide explication? Furthermore, does Scripture itself always—or even usually—mean Trinity when it uses God?

I have no doubt that many tend toward modalism, but with William Hordern2 I’m more inclined—based on my limited exposure to conservative evangelical Christianity—to think that the bigger problem is practical tritheism. We tend to emphasize the threeness of God and the fact that all three persons are God. We even speak in terms that sound tritheistic when we refer to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, rather than “God the Father, Son, and Spirit.”3 The oneness of God is usually thought of in terms of all three persons’ sharing the same nature or set of divine attributes. But that kind of explanation yields something that differs little (if at all) from tritheism.

Avoiding modalism and tritheism is as challenging as steering clear of legalism and antinomianism. Errors in formulating a biblical doctrine of the Trinity stem from the desire to say too much. Perhaps Van Til’s approach is best. He leaves the tension unresolved and maintains the full mystery of the Trinity by arguing that God is both one person and three persons, though in different senses. Van Til is combating the notion that “God” is some kind of attribute that the three persons of the Trinity share in common. Frame’s defense of Van Til on this point is quite insightful.4 Van Til’s formulation helpfully preserves us from the tendency toward either modalism or tritheism. God is one and God is three, but in different senses (and thus not contradictorily). In precisely what ways He is one and three, we cannot and should not say.


  1. In an appendix where he responds to Gilbert Bilezikian’s article “Hermeneutical Bungee-Jumping: Subordination in the Trinity,” JETS 40:1 (March 1997): 57–68, he refers to subordination as “a term [he] never use[s] and steadfastly den[ies].” He continues, “[In my article] I never use subordination or hierarchy or their functional equivalents—indeed, I sedulously avoid them” (480). I’m open, but not yet convinced that he is correct, largely because Scripture speaks of the Son’s eternal ὑποταγή (τότε [καὶ] αὐτὸς ὁ υἱὸς ὑποταγήσεται τῷ ὑποτάξαντι αὐτῷ τὰ πάντα) to the Father at the end of all things (1 Cor 15:28).
  2. Cf. A Layman’s Guide to Protestant Theology.
  3. Cf. Barth, CD, IV/2: 65.
  4. Frame, Cornelius Van Til, 69–70.

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One Response to Are You a Practical Modalist?

  1. Melanie June 28, 2014 at 12:14 pm #

    I have always thought of the differences between Tritheism, Trinitarianism and Modalism as a kind of progression, perhaps existing between Panentheism and Unitarianism.

    In my mind, Tritheism is a polytheist doctrine which asserts that there is a council of Gods, frequently referred to as the Godhead, which is composed of multiple, separate, but equal Gods, each of which rules over a separate domain or sphere of influence which together make up the whole of the universe. It is true that Tritheism closely resembles Trinitarianism in that they each tend to view the Godhead as God and recognize God as being made up of separate entities. However, the latter is clearly monotheistic.

    In Trinitarianism, no single member of the Godhead is recognized to be independently “God” or even “a God” because the council that is “God” cannot exist without ALL of its members. It is only together that the members are regarded as God. So, while the members of the Godhead are recognized to be individuals, they are not regarded independently of each other, but as a singular whole. Also, the members of the Godhead, while typically regarded as equal, are also viewed as existing in a system of subordination, usually to the Father, the President of the council. This is what makes it monotheistic.

    Modalism goes further than this to claim that the singular divine essence of God, which is shared by all of the “members” of the Godhead, is what actually defines the members as “God”. Subsequently, they believe that it is more accurate to view God as existing in multiple modes. Furthermore, the subordination to the Father mode is regarded as evidence that the Father is the natural state of God before he takes on form. A common analogy used to explain this is that of the water cycle. The water alone is God; it can remain in the sea or come down as rain, freeze into solid water or fill a vessel, but the water is the substance that is divine and what subsequently causes the multiple forms or modes to be identifiable as “God”. That which possesses the essence is regarded as divine.

    Just for the sake of inclusiveness, I will mention that Unitarianism can be quickly differentiated from Modalism by its unique claim that the forms/modes are not actually part of God and should therefore not be identified as God. Rather, the singular divine essence alone, the H2O itself, is God, regardless of what form/mode it may take. Unitarians do not deny that God can take on forms or modes, whether physical or spiritual, but their difference rests in that they are very careful to differentiate between such forms/modes and the divine essence which anoints or indwells them, so as not to associate, equate, or otherwise mix (up) what has been created with the Creator.

    These may not be super accurate as a means of differentiating the groups, but in practice, think they work fairly well. Helps at least to shed a little light on who you’re talking to. Keep up the great posts, and thanks!