Modalism Redux? The Concept of “Personhood” in Classical Trinitarianism

Modalism Redux? The Concept of “Personhood” in Classical Trinitarianism

This series of more academic articles are the fruit of my own study about divine Personhood in the Trinity. Eventually, I will make more popular versions for “normal” people. For those who, after reading this article, are on tenterhooks wondering what my own framework is, see this sermon I preached on Trinity Sunday 2020.

The doctrine of the Trinity tells us there is “One Being, three Persons.” Of course, it’s more complicated than all that, but we’ll leave it there. In this definition, what is a “person?” That’s a hard question. Two main views are common today; the classical model and the social model. The Church has traditionally held to the classical view. However, if you ask the right questions, you’ll likely find most Christians actually believe in the social model.

Why does this matter? Well, because it’s probably the most practical question you can ask about the Trinity! If the Scriptures show us three Persons who relate to one another in the Gospels, it’s important to know what “Person” means. If you hear “Person” and think of an autonomous individual with his own self-consciousness and will, then you don’t believe in the classical view, you’re at odds with all the great creeds of the Church, and you’ve abandoned the Nicene and post-Nicene understanding of God. Depending on who you ask, you may be a heretic.

Are you interested, now? 

Classical view of personhood

The Church has done most of the heavy lifting about divine Personhood in the context of Christology, so we ought to begin there. That first Christmas, the divine Son added a human nature to His divine nature. That’s why we confess that Jesus is one divine Person with two natures.[1]

How does this help us? It helps us by defining the terms “person” and “nature.” The latter is the seat of the will, mind, emotion and self-consciousness. The former is the active subject or owner of a nature. Think of a “person” as the engine that actuates a nature. The nature gives shape and color to a person, who is simply the active subject who animates or gives life to the nature.[2]

This is why, for example, the Church believes Jesus has two wills; because “will” belongs to a nature.[3] Jesus the Person acts in accordance with the will of either nature. Most Christians aren’t used to this kind of metaphysical thinking, but there it is. I won’t explain the long and difficult road the Church traveled to reach these conclusions from Scripture; a good historical theology text can do that for me.[4]

If this definition of “Person” is sound, and we have the host of Christological creeds to assure us that it is, then we know a “Person” is simply the active subject of a nature. But, God is “One Being, three Persons.” So, now we have a metaphysical conundrum. Because they’re “Persons,” are Father, Son and Spirit different active subjects of the same divine nature?

The classical position says they are.

The Church says Father, Son and Spirit share the same substance, nature or being. The Nicaean Creed says Christ is “of one substance [essence] with the Father.”[5] But, here’s the catch; the Church doesn’t understand this to mean that Father, Son and Spirit share the same category of class of “deity.” I’m a human being. You’re a human being. So, we’re each human. We share the attribute of “humanhood.”

That’s not what the Church believes about the Father and the Son.

The Church believes Father and Son are the same Being, and thus have the same essence, energy and concord of mind. They are, quite literally, identical (“I do not say similar, but identical”) and so these three Persons “have one and the same movement.”[6]

This distinction, that Christ was not a similar essence but literally the same essence as the Father, was the flashpoint for decades of bitter theological combat.[7] It’s the basis for every orthodox Church creed of any denominational flavor. We’ve already seen Nicaea. Here are a few more:

  • 1647 Westminster Confession; 2.3: “In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance …”[8]
  • 1561 Belgic Confession; Article 8: “we believe in one only God, who is one single essence, in which are three persons …”[9]
  • 1530 Augsburg Confession, Article 1: “there is one divine essence which is called and is God, eternal, without body, indivisible …”[10]
  • 39 Articles of the Church of England, Article 1: “in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance …”[11]

God is not divisible. God is One. This is why you’ve likely heard your pastor say that each Person is fully God in and of Himself. The Son is not 1/3 God, etc. In a way that’s beyond understanding, each Person is fully God because each Person is the same, identical essence. In the words of these same creeds, God is simple or indivisible.

Long ago, Augustine explained “the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit intimate a divine unity of one and the same substance in an indivisible equality; and therefore that they are not three Gods, but one God.”[12] There has always been one God. And, the Son isn’t a creature. This means, by default, He must be of the same numerical substance with the Father.[13]

Words basically fail us at this point as we seek to express the inexpressible. Augustine famously said that we use these terms because we don’t know what else to say![14] John of Damascus lamented that these things are “dimly understood,” but advised “we cannot do else than express ourselves according to our limited capacity.”[15] R.C. Sproul, commenting on the excerpt from the Westminster Confession we saw above, explained:

The subsistences, or persons, are more than offices, more than modes, more than activities, more than masks, and more than ways of appearing. The church historically has said that we do not understand how God is three in one. But we do understand that He is not three gods, and that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all divine.”[16]

How to tell ‘em apart?

It’s clear the main conceptual problem is how to distinguish the Persons if they are, in fact, the same Being. The Church has done this by highlighting incommunicable, unique characteristics each Person has that the others do not. John of Damascus explains:

For in these hypostatic or personal properties alone do the three holy subsistences differ from each other, being indivisibly divided not by essence but by the distinguishing mark of their proper and peculiar subsistence.[17]

These distinctions are:[18]

  • Paternity. The Father begat the Son.
  • Sonship. The Son is eternally begotten in an incorporeal, non-physical (“begotten, not made”[19]) and timeless manner (“begotten of the Father before all worlds”[20]) in a way we can’t ever understand. But, this does not imply that the Son is somehow not equal to the Father, that there was ever a time He didn’t exist, or that the Son was created.
  • Procession. The Holy Spirit is sent forth from both the Father and the Son.

How can you distinguish the Persons, then? By these unique characteristics. The Son doesn’t beget; the Father does. The Spirit isn’t begotten; the Son is. The Father doesn’t eternally proceed from the Spirit; the reverse is true. This is how the classical position avoids the charge of modalism.[21]

Robert Letham, perhaps the current dean of Reformed scholarship regarding the Trinity, calls the principles of identity of nature + personal distinctions “the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity.”[22] This is why those same creeds each speak of eternal generation and procession. However, theologians have long struggled to explain these doctrines. John of Damascus admitted they are “quite beyond comprehension,” and could not explain the functional difference between the two concepts.[23] Gregory of Nazianzus built a polemical fence more around what the doctrines are not, rather than what they are.[24]

These doctrines have been criticized by numerous 20th century evangelicals,[25] and it’s likely many non-confessional seminary students and graduates don’t understand them and can’t coherently explain them. It’s telling that the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message[26] and the GARBC Articles of Faith[27] do not mention eternal generation and procession at all. It’s as if the doctrines don’t exist.

The fruit of this negligence, in the eyes of the classical advocates, is that many conservative pastors and seminary graduates don’t understand the Trinity at all. They likely don’t appreciate that homoousia (“same substance”) means identity of essence, and that eternal generation and procession are the linchpins holding the doctrine of the Trinity together. They likely assume a modern version of “personhood.”

Lewis S. Chafer epitomizes this tendency. He explains the Persons act as agent and object to one another and “exhibit intelligence, consciousness, and moral agency.”[28] If Christology tells us that self-consciousness and moral agency are attributes of nature (and it does), then Chafer is quite wrong. This is why, in the eyes of some classical trinitarians, many evangelicals are functional tri-theists. Perhaps it’s not a stretch to suggest that, to classical eyes, many ordinary Christians are functional modalists and too many pastors are unwitting tri-theists.

The 20th century has seen an explosion of interest in the doctrine of the Trinity. That’s why it’s no surprise this past century saw some re-considerations of classical trinitarianism. The idea Father, Son and Spirit were merely active subjects or subsistences of the same exact Being seemed abstract and stale; like a flat Diet Coke. Does that sum up the Gospels? Does it sum up Jesus? When we worship Jesus, are we worshipping a “distinct manner of subsisting?”[29] Is that all there is?

When we read the Gospels, there’s a relentless urge to see the Persons as real individuals with their own self-consciousness, will and intelligence. But, remember, this is not what “same substance” means at all! It means an identical sameness of Being. For if you have three independent centers of consciousness and volition with the Godhead, you have tri-theism. Thus, you have heresy.

Donald Bloesch offers perhaps the best analogy for the classical model. “I prefer to speak of one space with three dimensions – height, length and depth.”[30] This is why two evangelical theologians have dismissed the classical model because “it seems to reduce to classical modalism.”[31]

Some theologians, Emil Brunner in particular, believe it’s dangerous to probe into this metaphysical abyss. It’s “a temptation for the intellect,” he warned, “to which we ought not to give way.” For it is impossible, Brunner believed, to understand “three persons” otherwise than in a tri-theistic sense.[32] To him, it’s a fool’s errand.

We may order people to think thus: ‘Thou shalt think these Three Persons as One,’ but it is no use: there still remains an uncertain vacillation between Tritheism and Monotheism. Not only the idea of ‘substance,’ but also this idea of ‘Person,’ was much too wooden to express the mystery of the unity of the Revealer and what was revealed.[33]

Thomas Watson warned that the Trinity is a mystery, “but where reason cannot wade, there faith may swim.”[34] Nonetheless, some Christians are content to continue wading. So, what do social trinitarians have to offer in return? We turn to that in the next article.

A special thanks to my friend, Tito Lyro (Pastor, Bible Presbyterian Church, Olympia, WA and President of Western Reformed Seminary, Lakewood, WA) for reviewing this article!

[1] As the Chalcedonian Creed says, “… the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence …” (Philip Schaff, ed. The Creeds of Christendom, 3 vols. [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1890], 2:63).

[2] For a great discussion of these concepts in relation to Christology, see especially Stephen Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 424ff. 

[3] See the decrees from the Third Council of Constantinople (680-681) in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 2 vols., ed. Norman J. Tanner, S.J. (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1990), 1:124-130. 

[4] There are a number from which to choose. See (1) David Beale, Historical Theology In-Depth, 2 vols. (Greenville: BJU Press, 2013), 1:207-333; (2) Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition: 100-600 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1971), 226-277; (3) J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, revised ed. (New York: Harper One, 1978), and (4) Kenneth S. Latourette, A History of Christianity: Volume 1: Beginnings to 1500, revised ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1975).

[5] Schaff, Creeds, 2:59.

[6] John of Damascus, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” 1.8, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. S. D. F. Salmond, in NPNF2, 14 vols. (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1899), vol. 2.9. 

[7] J.N.D. Kelly argues convincingly that Nicea didn’t intend the phrase to mean Father and Son were identical. He believes they meant they shared the same category, like you and I do as human beings (Early Doctrines, 233-237). He argues the homoousia was a later development that was read back in. However, Kelly agrees that orthodoxy requires homoousia because of God’s simplicity.

[8] Schaff, Creeds, 3:607-608

[9] Schaff, Creeds, 3:390.

[10] Schaff, Creeds, 3:7. 

[11] Schaff, Creeds, 3:488.

[12] Augustine, “On the Trinity,” 1.7, in NPNF1, 14 vols. (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1887), vol. 1.3.

[13] Augustine, “Trinity,” 1.9. 

[14] Augustine, “Trinity,” 7.7. 

[15] John of Damascus, “Orthodox Faith,” 1.2.

[16] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Systematic Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, revised ed. (Sanford: Reformation Trust, 2019; Kindle ed.), KL 1262. Emphasis added.

[17] John of Damascus, “Orthodox Faith,” 2.8.  

[18] For the sake of my sanity and yours, I’m using the Western interpretation of the Holy Spirit’s procession and I won’t dare to discuss the filioque controversy. 

[19] See the Nicean-Constantinople Creed of 381 (Schaaf, Creeds, 58). 

[20] Ibid.

[21] Thomas Aquinas observed, “the Father is denominated only from paternity; and the Son only from filiation. Therefore, if no real paternity or filiation existed in God, it would follow that God is not really Father or Son, but only in our manner of understanding; and this is the Sabellian heresy,” (Summa Theologica, Q28, Art. 1, Obj. 4).

[22] Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Crossway: Wheaton, 2019), 120.

[23] John of Damascus, “Orthodox Faith,” 1.8; “… there is a difference between generation and procession, but the nature of that difference we in no wise understand.”

[24] Gregory of Nazianzus, “Orations 29 and 30,” in On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius (Yonkers: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002).

[25] John Feinberg, for example, says, “Despite their firm entrenchment in both Western and Eastern traditions, the doctrines of eternal generation and eternal procession are unclear and are not required by Scripture,” (No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God [Wheaton: Crossway, 2001; Kindle ed.], KL 11901).

For a critical look at the historical development of the doctrine of eternal generation, see Beale, Historical Theology, 2:142-170.

Millard Erickson noted, “It must be acknowledged that for many persons today, the doctrine does not seem to make much sense. Just what does it mean to say that the Father eternally generates the Son, yet that the Son is not therefore inferior to the Father? How can the Father be the basis of the Son’s being but without this constituting some species of creation of the latter by the former? It may well be that the difficulty of making sense of this concept today is because in our time we are working within a different philosophical framework than that which these earlier theologians were utilizing,” (Who’s Tampering with the Trinity?: An Assessment of the Subordination Debate [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009; Kindle ed.], KL 1874-1878).

See also (1) J. Oliver Buswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962), 1:110-112; (2) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), Appendix 6; (3) Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1999), 62, and (4) William L. Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 594.

[26] See

[27] See

[28] Lewis S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, 8 vols. (reprint; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1976), 2:293.

[29] Karl Rahner, The Trinity, trans. Joseph Donceel (New York: Herder & Herder, 1970), 110f. 

[30] Donald Bloesch, God the Almighty (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995), 186. 

[31] Craig and Moreland, Philosophical Foundations, 587. 

[32] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God, trans. Olive Wyon (London: Lutterworth, 1949), 227.

[33] Brunner, Doctrine of God, 239. 

[34] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (reprint; Birmingham: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2016), 78.