God—the Father, Son, Spirit God of the Bible—is all about relationships. He always has been and always will be. Yet too many of Christians operate as slightly modified modalists in at least one respect: we treat God as a single and ultimate power source.
Sorry for the jargon! The term modalism comes from early discussions about the Trinity (many centuries ago). It labels a view that the “one” God just uses names such as Father, or Son, or Spirit as it suits him . . . but he is actually a single being who takes on different forms or modes to accomplish different purposes. So he swaps roles as needed.
While this notion seemed like a reasonable way to maintain the language of God as “one” while also calling him “three” it makes hash of the moments when all three—the Father, Son, and Spirit—are all present and active at once: as in the beginning of Christ’s ministry where the Son appears, the Father speaks, and the Spirit descends on the Son. Or when the Son speaks to the Father and the Father responds in John 12.
So early versions of modalism were immediately listed as basic errors to be discarded. Yet we still have a tendency towards a type of modalism if we treat God’s power-in-itself as his ultimate quality.
That is if we view this power-to-rule as a singular quality of divinity that resides in the Father alone and extends outward through the Son or the Spirit at given moments, we treat them as lesser extensions of God who only draw on the Father’s power as emissaries of God’s plan and in the functions of that plan: with Jesus empowered as savior and the Spirit as Christ’s empowering resource. God the Father, then, remains the truly divine One while the Son and Spirit represent or apply God’s divinity as they act out their roles.
This can be found in Christian circles that feature God’s sovereignty in terms of the “unmoved mover” posited by the pagan philosopher Aristotle (c. 330 BC). Aristotle held that God’s being resides in his singular “Act”—as one who is wholly independent of all that exists apart from being its cause. And here we have a problem: God is by this definition non-relational. To have authentic relationship in the Godhead is to have the reciprocity of communion as an eternal reality.
I don’t mean to suggest that the term “sovereignty” is the problem. Orthodox Christians all believe that the Triune God is the maker and sustainer of all that is: he—the Father-Son-and-Spirit God—rules everything. But if we take up the idea of a singular force or will “within” or “behind” the Trinity we start to have problems.
The problem arises if the Son and the Spirit are treated as beings who rely on God’s power in order to achieve a certain function rather than having that power on the basis of the relational wholeness of the Godhead. The display of this problem is found when some read statements of Christ’s reliance on the Father in John’s gospel—as in chapter 5—in the way the Jehovah’s Witnesses do; and not as Jesus would have us understand him in John 14—“I am in the Father and the Father is in me”—verses that give necessary context to what Jesus tells us of his eternal commitment to the Father as the eternal initiator and leader in their relationship. The Spirit, in turn, communicates the mutual love and glory of the Father and the Son.
The slippage into modalism of God as a “sovereign power” becomes evident when its promoters fail to grasp that eternal, delighted communion explains who God is. And God’s power to create and rule flows out of this creative communion and is never a force or quality prior to (and greater than) his communion as Father, Son, and Spirit. The Father always leads and the Son always follows but their communion is the basis for all that God is and does.
So apart from God’s mutual, dynamic relational love there is no “power of God.” His power is the expression of his love: the outflow of his relationality.
Aristotle never had a clue about God’s communion. Nor do those who look to Aristotle’s premise of God as the single “unmoved mover”—as presumed in some Christian circles today, and as a basis for the Islamic version of God.
So God’s eternal love—including his jealous wrath whenever the Father finds us dismissive of his Son or seeking to quench his Spirit—really makes all the difference. And in Psalm 2 we are told that everyone will be judged by how we respond to the Son.
It only makes sense, given who God is.
Thanks for this post, Ron. I think for many of us, we are so accustomed to this way of thinking and talking about God that we don’t even notice when we slip in and out of it, not only in conversation but in our way of relating to God. It is only in God’s revelation of Himself in the Bible that we see the truth: God is Triune, and everything else He is flows from that. Oh, what joy and love for Him that reality brings!