The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not mere masks God wears but three eternally distinct persons. In this episode, Barry Cooper critiques one common but incorrect explanation of the Trinity.
Today, I’d like to talk about modalism.
When I was twenty, I began writing and performing comedy revue shows with my friends at my university. And when you have dozens of characters in your show, but only three actual people in the cast, the three of you have to find a way of playing all the roles yourself. So you run offstage at the end of one skit, you put on some makeup, a silly voice and a big hat, and hey, presto! You’re a completely different character in the next skit.
It’s you all the time, of course. You can’t try to play two or three different roles simultaneously, not without things descending into complete absurdity. But if you’re quick enough between scenes, you give the fleeting illusion that there are more people involved in your very low-budget production than there actually are.
I mention this autobiographical detail because in trying to explain the triune nature of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—some people use a similar kind of illustration. They say: “There’s only one God, but He can manifest himself in three different ways—as Father, Son, or Spirit. They’re like three different ‘masks’ that God wears at different times and in different places.”
Or they might put it like this. They’ll say: “Just think about water. It can change into three different states, and yet it’s still water. At room temperature, it’s a liquid. Then if you freeze it, it becomes ice. And then if you boil it, it becomes a gas. But it’s always water! And that’s like God, isn’t it? God is like water, because He can exist in three different ‘states,’ but He’s still God, whatever form He takes.”
As pleasingly simple as this sounds as an explanation of the Trinity, there’s a problem, and the problem is that this is a terrible explanation of the Trinity. In fact, this belief about the nature of God is a long-rejected heresy called modalism.
Modalism says that there are no personal distinctions within the Godhead. Instead, God has, as it were, three different “masks” which He puts on, depending on whether He is operating as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit.
Now if that’s true, what are we to make of passages such as Mark chapter 1, verses 10 and 11, where at the same moment God the Son is baptized, He sees the God the Spirit descending on Him like a dove, and hears God the Father’s voice declaring, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
A modalist’s version of Jesus’ baptism would be like a French farce, or—I don’t know—a low-budget student comedy revue where the Son has to change His role extremely quickly from Son to Spirit to Father and back again, all in the very same scene.
Now why is it a serious problem if we start thinking of God in this way?
Because God’s own testimony about Himself tells us that that is not what He is like.
For example, God tells us in His Word that the Father sent the Son to reconcile us to Himself; that the Son showed perfect obedience to the Father, so that we might be credited with that obedience; that the Son died, taking the condemnation we deserve from the Father so that we would never have to experience it; that the Son was then resurrected from death to life by the Father to show that one day, we too would, like the Son, be resurrected by the Father.
All of that good news becomes incoherent if modalism is true.
More than that, if we accept modalism because we believe it somehow makes God’s nature easier to understand, we are swapping out the true God for a false one, and a true gospel for a false one—one which has no power to save us.
So let’s rejoice in the relational reality God has revealed about Himself: that there are within the one Godhead three distinct persons who address one another, interact with one another, and love one another; three persons whose love even now overflows to our eternal benefit, a supreme love into which we ourselves are invited.