In Modalism, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are mere "modes" of how the one God interacts with creation. Like an actor on a stage, God could appear sometimes as the Father, other times as the Son, and other times as the Spirit. For the Modalist, Christ is not only God, he is the Father himself.
The orthodox Trinity doctrine, as taught by the mainstream church, including most Protestant churches, similar to Modalism, regards the Son and the Holy Spirit to be “God” but describes the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as the three distinct Persons. To maintain the one-ness of God, so that the doctrine does not teach tri-theism (three Gods), the Father, Son, and Spirit are said to share one undivided divine essence (also called being or substance).
So, both Modalism and the Trinity doctrine proclaim one God and one substance. But while Modalism describes the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as three modes, the orthodox Trinity doctrine describes them as three Persons. For the orthodox Trinity doctrine to be different from Modalism, personhood must be real.
For three reasons, in my view, personhood in the orthodox teaching is NOT real:
Full Divine Essence
Firstly, the orthodox Trinity doctrine teaches that God does not have parts. Consequently, the three Persons are not three parts of God, but each of them is the full divine essence. In other words, each of the three Persons is God in His entirety.
This principle may be illustrated by the following formula:
God = the Father = the Son = the Holy Spirit.
The Athanasian Creed expresses this principle as follows:
"The Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are NOT THREE GODS; BUT ONE GOD"
Thomas Aquinas, who is “recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as its foremost Western philosopher and theologian” (Britannica) confirmed this:
“It cannot be said that the divine Persons are distinguished from each other in any absolute sense; for it would follow that there would not be one essence of the three persons.”
So, if the three Persons are identical, then they are mere modes of God.
One Mind and Will
Secondly, generally, a person is a self, a thinker, with his own will and mind. But in the orthodox Trinity doctrine the Father, the Son, and the Spirit share one single mind and will. Today, there are many who think of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as each having His own mind, but then you have three Gods (tri-theism).
The fact that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the standard Trinity doctrine, share one single mind and will, strengthens the view that they are mere modes of God.
Relations make no difference.
People are differentiated both by their persons and by their relations:
- Each person is different.
- Persons also differ in their relationships with other people, for example in marriage, family, etc.
In the orthodox Trinity doctrine, as already stated, the three Persons are identical because they share one single divine substance. Consequently, the only difference between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is in their relationships, namely:
- The Father begets the Son and
- The Spirit proceeds from the Son (in Western catholic thinking) or from the Father (in Eastern Orthodox thinking).
The following shows that Aquinas argued that the only difference between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is those relationships:
“So then the only question left is what makes the persons distinct from one another? What makes the distinction real? The answer is that they are distinct only in their relation to one another.” [Summa 1028]
“The divine persons are distinguished from each other only by the relations.” [Summa 1036]
Aquinas’ justification for the view that the Spirit must proceed from the Son illustrates the notion that the only difference between the Father, Son, and Spirit is their relations, for, he says, if the Spirit proceeds from the Father, then the Spirit is the same as the Son because both have a relationship only with the Father. For the Son to be distinguished from the Holy Spirit, there must be a relationship between them as well. [Summa 1036] Quoting Aquinas:
“It must be said that the Holy Ghost is from the Son. For if He were not from Him, He (the Holy Ghost) could in no wise be personally distinguished from Him (the Son).”
However, in the orthodox understanding of the Trinity, the relationships have no practical implication. As Aquinas argued, “in creatures relations are accidental, whereas in God they are the divine essence itself.” Therefore, the “relations in Him are essential, not accidental.” To explain:
- With people, a person becomes a parent when a child is born. That is what Aquinas means by “accidental."
- But in God, these relations are not caused by events. They are “essential,” meaning that these relations do not bring about change.
So, each of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit always was and always will be the entire substance of God. Consequently, always and under all conditions, the Father, Son, and Spirit shared one and the same substance, mind, and will. The relations make no difference.
Some people, in their explanation of the Trinity, emphasize the three-ness of God, often bordering on tri-theism.
In contrast, the Christian mainstream understanding of the Trinity, namely the theory that the three Persons are not three parts of God, but that each of them at all times is the full divine essence, sharing one single mind and will, implies that the difference in relation (their origins) has no practical consequences. The emphasis is fully on the one-ness of God. Consequently, I fail to see the difference between the three Persons and, therefore, the difference between the mainstream Trinity doctrine and Modalism, in spite of the usual disclaimer that the Trinity doctrine is not Modalism.