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There are a number of denominations that are labeled as being Modalist, such as the United Pentecostals, and others associated with Oneness Pentecostalism whom subscribe to the nontrinitarian theological doctrine of Oneness. However, although some Oneness theologians indicate that the doctrine of Oneness and Modalistic Monarchianism are essentially the same, and that Sabellius–from whom the concept of modalism originates–was basically correct, I've yet to discover any churches that identify themselves as being Modalist by definition.

Are there any churches that identify themselves as being Modalist? Or is it a term used only by Trinitarians to label Oneness denominations as heretical?

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The label modalist has been so strongly stigmatised over the millennia that we shouldn't expect to find anyone who calls themselves one now. Regardless of whether it is in reality a correct or incorrect understand of God, in our language it is basically defined as a heresy. And no one wants to be known as a heretic.

Sometimes people have reclaimed stigmatised labels (such as the LGBT community reclaiming queer), but those who believe in modalism have instead come up with new synonymous terms, one of which is the Oneness of God. A church which proclaimed that they taught modalism would scare away any potential visitors, but a church which proclaims the Oneness of God? That sounds more enticing.

David K. Bernard is the general superintendent of the United Pentecostal Church International. In his book The Oneness of God he plainly and openly teaches modalism, and declares that Oneness is a new synonym for it (emphasis added):

We also explore the relationships and distinctions among the three terms of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Do these terms identify three different persons or personalities in the Godhead? Or do they indicate three different roles, modes, functions, or offices through which the one God operates and reveals Himself? (p125)

In a similar way, the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit is not a separate person from the Father any more than a man and his spirit are separate persons. Holy Spirit just describes what God is. First John 5:7 says that three bear record in heaven; that is, God has recorded Himself in three modes of activity or has revealed Himself in three ways. He has at least three heavenly roles: Father, Word (not Son), and Holy Ghost. Furthermore, these three roles describe one God: “these three are one.” (p141)

The Bible speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as different manifestations, roles, modes, titles, attributes, relationships to man, or functions of the one God, but it does not refer to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as three persons, personalities, wills, minds, or Gods. (p144)

The modalist doctrine is usually explained simply as the belief that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are only manifestations, or modes, of the one God (the monarchia), and not three distinct persons (hypostases). (p248)

Basically, modalism is the same as the modern doctrine of Oneness. (p318)

Thus Oneness is a modern term basically equivalent to modalism or modalistic monarchianism. (p321)

Sabellianism. ... The doctrine is basically equivalent to modern Oneness. (p324)

The UPCI website says that one of their doctrinal distinctives is the Oneness of God. It also has a tract arguing for the doctrine. The words 'modalism' and 'modes' aren't used, but clear synonyms are (emphasis added):

1. Is the word trinity in the Bible? No.

2. Does the Bible say that there are three persons in the Godhead? No.

3. Does the Bible speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? Yes.

4. Do these titles as used in Matthew 28:19 mean that there are three separate and distinct persons in the Godhead? No, they refer to three offices, roles, or relationship to humanity.

13. Who is the Father? The Father is the one God, particularly as revealed in parental relationship to humanity. Deuteronomy 32:6; Malachi 2:10.

14. Where was God the Father while Jesus was on earth? The Father was in Christ. John 14:10; II Corinthians 5:19. He was also in heaven, for God is omnipresent.

46. If God and the Holy Ghost are two separate persons, which was the Father of Christ? Matthew 1:20 says that the Holy Ghost was the Father, while Romans 15:6, II Corinthians 11:31, and Ephesians 1:3 say that God was the Father. There is no contradiction when we realize that God the Father and the Holy Ghost are one and the same Spirit. Matthew 10:20; Ephesians 4:4; I Corinthians 3:16.

56. Can Trinitarians show that three divine persons were present when Jesus was baptized by John? Absolutely not. The one, omnipresent God used three simultaneous manifestations. Only one divine person was present--Jesus Christ the Lord.

  • This supports the statements that I made in my question, that modalism and oneness are essentially the same, but the united Pentecostals do not identify as modalists, they identify as Apostolic. I've been in direct constant with the UPCI superintendent for my region. He stated very plainly that they do not subscribe to the teaching of Sabellius. – ShemSeger Sep 21 '14 at 16:42
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    @curiousdannii It appears you have answered Are there any churches that identify themselves as being Modalist? – user13992 Sep 21 '14 at 17:25
  • This book is a good find, but the opening statement to your answer is misleading. The author clearly illustrates in Chapter 10, "Oneness Believers in Church History" that modalists were early believers in the doctrine of Oneness. He does not unashamedly teach modalism, he teaches Oneness. According to the author, Modalism does not extend beyond the Fourth Century. – ShemSeger Sep 21 '14 at 21:46
  • I don't understand why you're being so stubborn. The UPCI identifies as Apostlic, but they also identify as teaching Oneness. The reason why they don't call themselves modalists is because now it has been totally stigmatised. So instead they've come up with a new term for themselves. Maybe they don't publicise it a lot, but the book shows that they consider them to be synonymous. – curiousdannii Sep 22 '14 at 2:24
  • Your regional UPCI is irrelevant for this question (unless you want to edit it to make it more specific to that.) Maybe it's a rebellious branch, or if what the superintendent strictly said was that "we do not subscribe to the teaching of Sabellius" that is because it is far from settled that Sabellius actually believed in Sabellianism. As is often the case, Christian denominations and movements can depart from their founders. – curiousdannii Sep 22 '14 at 2:27
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Modalism: A Trinitarian Designation

There are no churches that identify themselves as Modalists, and arguably there never were. Modalism is a term coined, and used most commonly by trinitarianism to refer to what is known today as the Oneness view, which was branded as a heresy by the catholic church in ancient times.1

Adherants to the Oneness view today identify with Oneness Pentecostalism, Apostolic or Jesus' Name Pentecostalism.2 The most prominent Oneness denomination is the United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI) with an estimated 3 million adherants.3


Modalistic Monarchianism (modalism) is the christological term most often used by church historians to refer to the monotheistic view that believes in one God, that the fulness of the Godhead is manifested in Jesus Christ, and that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are manifestations, modes, offices, or relationships that the one God has displayed to man. Variations of this view were held by such early church leaders as Noetus, Praxeas, and Sabellius who all lived during the second and third centuries.1 The word Manarchiani was coined by an ancient catholic father who lived during the same time period named Tertullian. He used the word as a nickname for what was designated as the Patripassian group, the group that believed God the Father suffered on the cross as taught by Praxeus,4 but aside from Tertullian the term was seldom used by the ancients.5

In the beginning of the twentieth century, Oneness Pentecostalism emerged as a schism of Pentecostalism that rejected the Trinity, and adopted the indivisible oneness of God and the full deity of Jesus Christ based off of an interpretation of the formula of baptism that stated the "name" of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was the single name "Lord Jesus Christ". Those who held to belief in the Trinity condemned the Oneness teaching as heresy,2 relating it to the heresy of modalism as defined in ancient times by Catholic Church. To this day, trinitarianism continues to refer to any denomination that subscribes to the doctrine of Oneness as Modalists.


Sources:

  1. Pentecostal Theology: The Oneness of God
  2. Oneness Pentecostalism
  3. United Pentecostal Church International
  4. Adversus Praxean
  5. Catholic Encyclopedia: Monarchians
  6. Encyclopedia Britannica: Monarchianism
  • I believe this answer does a better job of representing the sources provided in the other answers to this question from a neutral standpoint. I give due credit the other answers for providing quality sources that I used in constructing this answer. I will let the community decide which answer they feel is most acceptable. – ShemSeger Sep 23 '14 at 17:22
  • Reads well and your proposal at the end sounds fair. I will delete my answer. – user13992 Sep 23 '14 at 19:08
  • @Caleb, since we had a public back and forth, I wanted to acknowledge your point on readability and presentation in this question. I see that even though I answered, ShemSeger answer is much neater and reads better. – user13992 Sep 24 '14 at 1:29
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Trying to find a good definition of modalism almost seems to be a moving target. Not unlike a lot of other definitions. The UPCI as a whole does believe that God reveals himself in different manifestations, relationships and/or operations, BUT, not one minister in the UPCI that I know of believes that as God operates in one capacity He necessarily ceases to be something else that He has been. For example, when God was manifest in the flesh, He most certainly did not stop being the Father. God is always and at all times a spirit and does not cease to be that. As a practical illustration, I am a father and just because I talk to my parents as their son does not mean I stop being the father of my son or cease to be a man.

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    Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview, please take the Site Tour. Thanks for offering an answer here. However, I'm not sure it actually answers the question of whether the UPCI identifies itself as modalist. If you could provide some specific information about that, your answer would be much improved. See: What makes a good supported answer? – Lee Woofenden Jan 14 '17 at 19:18
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Aside from Trinitarians, people who hold other Christological views tend to explain their views rather than just label them with a term, so you won't find a denomination saying on its website "We're Arian" or "We're Modalist" or "We're Samosatosians" or "We're Patrispassians." Its not going to happen, because how do these groups come to these conclusions? From Scripture, not from following any man, so they think of their view as merely being the scriptural view.

Modalism is saying "God is one person; but he's called the Father sometimes, called the Son sometimes, called the Spirit sometimes," and further they will usually also say "God is one person: Jesus Christ." So if anyone says that (i.e. "God is one person: Jesus Christ") then they are a modalist for sure.

But some Oneness may not be modalists, as some of the Sabellians and other monarchians such as Ebionites, Marcellians, and followers of Paul of Samosata, etc. also weren't modalists but rather were patripassians. What they believed was that God is only the Father, the Spirit is a vehicle or energy by which the Father dwells among men, and Jesus is a man in whom God dwelt (from the baptism forward) in all his fulness but as something above and beyond his full manhood (i.e. he didn't replace his soul or intellectual faculty, so that Jesus was not God but just a man with God tagging alone inside him). Because these say Jesus was not God, but only a man with God dwelling in him (but not controlling his body, Jesus' human soul still having full control) and since the spirit is hardly viewed as a person but rather as some sort of apparatus for God's dwelling in Jesus, this is certainly not modalism. Yet it is monarchianism, and I've seen at least one Oneness Pentecostal hold to a view like this. [Some may have also seen God as taking over Jesus' will. There's a bit of a range in belief that's possible with this stuff.]

Of course, all of these were labelled as heretical by the Catholic church...but I don't see why Protestants who do not derive directly from the "magisterial reformation" should even care about that. The magisterial side of the Reformation (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli) continued some Catholic traditions like infant baptism and continued to give the Catholic councils some doctrinal authority. But why should Baptists, Pentecostals, etc. who derive more from the Anabaptist side of the Reformation even pretend to care what any Catholic council had to say on anything? To do so would be pure hypocrisy.

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    This is very interesting, but it doesn't answer the question. – ShemSeger Sep 16 '14 at 4:19
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    This answer provides misleading information. What you describe in the second paragraph (the belief that Jesus is only a human, and not divine in any way) is not Oneness/modalism, it is unitarianism, according to the common usage of the terms. Unitarianism isn't related to this question. I also agree with ShemSeger that, overall, this doesn't actually answer his original question. – Mark Edward Sep 16 '14 at 20:41
  • @Mark Edward, My point is that typically non-Trinitarian views are confused by their Trinitarian opponents. If you read through all the stuff the "church fathers" say about Sabelius, for instance, in some "fathers" they will describe him in what we would call clear Modalist terms, and in others as clearly Socinian terms. In other words, you can only know what a non-Trinitarian believes by asking them, the individual. Even within groups that espouse non-Trinitarian views, some individuals will be Modalist and others Socinian, due to understanding the terms different. – david brainerd Sep 20 '14 at 17:55
  • @ShemSeger, I should have led with the point that non-Trinitarian groups view their christology as merely that of scripture and thus do not use labels while Trinitarians proudly use the label "Trinitarian" because they're Ok with following tradition over scripture in at least some places. – david brainerd Sep 20 '14 at 18:00
  • That does improve your answer. So what then defines a modalist I wonder, if no one adopts the theology of Sabellius? It appears that definitions within the study of Christology are all written by the catholic church. – ShemSeger Sep 21 '14 at 2:10

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