Monday, March 31, 2008

On the difference between trinitarianism and modalism

In response to a question raised in one of the comments, I thought I'd address this in a main blog post.

First trinitarianism did not exist at the time that modalism was popular and condemned - late second and early third centuries. Trinitarianism is a doctrine that was developed by the two Gregories and Basil in the fourth century.

With that in mind, modalism was the belief that the doctrine "God is One" must be preserved at all costs. So the modalists taught that God is one persona and three activities. He is GOD acting out in history as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is no difference in GOD, only that HE has different names or modes. The problem that Tertullian had with their being no individuation of any kind is that this means that the Father suffered and died too. Although this is a heresy today, this is the way that most Christians in the pews still understand the Christian God. There is GOD and he is a Father (with a white beard sitting on a throne in heaven), a Son (Jesus Christ incarnate on earth), and a Spirit (charismatic activity in the church until Jesus comes again).

The Trinity is a doctrine that took on philosophical terms to try to explain the Christian God. It was framed with the concept of the universal and particulars. The idea is that there can be three different or "particular" horses in the stable - Lightening, Blaze, and Bolt. All of them, however, are horses because they share in a universal "horseness". This concept is applied to God where God is the universal and Father and Son and Holy Spirit are the particulars. They taught that there was no difference in the divine nature or ousia, only in the relations of the particulars to each other. It is the development of the idea of Tertullian that God is one substance and three persona. The Cappadocians said that different characteristics of the three (for instance, "unbegotten," "begotten," "proceeding") were not characteristics designating the divine nature, but only of the particular mode of the divine nature. The "sameness" of nature was an equality or likeness of substance, not a unity of substance.

Of course the Trinity borders on polytheism, which the Cappadocians were accused of - in their case creating a doctrine of three, even four gods. This is still the opinion of critics of this doctrine. The Cappadocians responded by affirming that the nature was indivisible and that the category of number cannot really be applied to GOD. Only material beings can be numbered. The biggest problem with the Trinity framed in this way, however, is that the distinctions, the particulars, make no difference at the transcendent level. In the transcendent realm these differences cannot be maintained, but were only put into place to deal with the doctrine of incarnation to explain the difference between Jesus and God, and yet to allow for worship of Jesus as GOD. The Cappadocians knew this and so in the final moment say that the Trinity cannot be grasped by the intellect, but only by means of mystical participation in the liturgy, in the Eucharist on the altar.

5 comments:

J. K. Gayle said...

The Cappadocians knew this and so in the final moment say that the Trinity cannot be grasped by the intellect, but only by means of mystical participation in the liturgy, in the Eucharist on the altar.

Thanks for the distinctions. As you show, there is no final moment, or at least it's always a backwards glance of our construction. That probably frustrates most readers, maybe even you, Dr. DeConick.

For the present (and future), why does the mysterious always have to be mysterious? I'm thinking of God to be sure. But also of conception and childbirth. Of all the stuff under the hood of my car. Of the workings of this computer. Of the ways these little alphabet letters can spark so much in me, while I imagine if I were blind and deaf like Helen Keller I might "know" and "read" in analogous ways. I'm thinking of all the pre-doctrinal questions Job heard God ask--mysteries. So I don't mean to reduce the issues you've raised to epistemologies, but "trinitarianism did not exist" seems as interesting as that. Which begs the question, How else could "trinitarianism" (have) come to exist?

JMS Providence said...

What puzzles me is that in many passages of the Bible, we have indirect references to the feminine nature of God, so how is it that these great theologians back in the day didn't apply it to broadening their understanding of the trinity, especially when a Father and a Son had already been established? Is this how lowly women were considered that to suppose such an ideal, death for supporting some ultimate heresy supporting women would have been the result? And the idea that one dismiss reason for some "mystical participation" in a church service makes it all the more obvious why so many see religion as a path of ignorance.

"Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."

27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them."

paulf said...

It says something amazing about the human species that so many of us can believe something so completely and utterly impossible (and yes, for most of my life I was among them, until I read the history of how the idea was formed) and yet act as if it is the most natural thing in the world.

If someone told a visitor their home that the fuzzy pet purring on the couch was a cat and a dog and a bird all at the same time, we would think that person strange, at the least. But if a person refuses to accept that three gods are actually one god, then there is something wrong with them.

Belief in the Trinity must come with a suspension of logical thought. One is three, different substances are the same thing, one part can die while the whole is intact, a person can exist from eternity but also have a beginning and on and on.

Trinitarianism IS polytheism, but its proponents just refuse to accept the term. One can insist 1+1+1=1, but whether it is accepted or not, in reality the answer is always 3.

Richard Edmondson said...

Wow, these are all fascinating comments. First of all, Dr. DeConick, thank you for answering my question. Whether Lightning, Blaze, and Bolt are three "modes" within one universal essence of "horseness"--or whether they are three separate individuals within the cosmic circumambience of the great Father Horse--always seemed to me comparable to quibbling over the difference between po-ta-to and po-tah-to. It seemed baffling to me that people would waste time arguing over the like. But then I had assumed that the Modalists and Trinitarians had more or less coexisted at the same time (though decidedly at odds with each other), rather than, as you say, the Trinitarians evolving later. Any contradiction one might stumble over can easily be explained away by saying "it can't be grasped by the intellect." And so, as j.k.gayle says, the mysterious remains forever mysterious. It sounds like the Cappadocians were trying to have their cake and eat it too.

jms providence wrote: "Is this how lowly women were considered that to suppose such an ideal, death for supporting some ultimate heresy supporting women would have been the result?"

Apparently the answer is largely yes. Tertullian regarded women as the "devil's gateway" responsible for no less than the crucifixion of Christ. As he put it: "You (womankind) destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your dessert--that is, death--even the son of God had to die." Shockingly Tertullian was able to articulate this view even though women had suffered imprisonment and martyrdom for the faith.

paulf said: "It says something amazing about the human species that so many of us can believe something so completely and utterly impossible"

I agree. About 30 years or so ago I briefly had a job selling advertising for a daily newspaper. One day they called us into a staff meeting and showed us a film. The narrator's voice goes (and I'm paraphrasing here, but this is pretty much the gist of it): "People get up every morning, brush their teeth with a tootpaste that's been advertised; eat for breakfast an advertised brand of cereal; drive to work in an advertised make of automobile; and then turn around and say, 'Oh but advertising doesn't work on me.' As you say: "Belief in the Trinity must come with a suspension of logical thought." But propaganda is so all pervasive and controling it's frightening. And maybe the most frightening aspect of all is most people don't even realize it works on them.

Judy Redman said...

JMS quotes Genesis 1: 26 and 27 in the standard English version which does a disservice to the Hebrew. The word translated "man" here is adam, a being created from adamah, the earth. It's not until Gen 2: 23, in the second account of creation, that the text starts to use the Hebrew words ish (man) and ishshah (woman). The NRSV's "humankind" is much better, although it doesn't keep the image of beings created from the earth that is there in the Hebrew text