Heresy is the New Orthodoxy III: Modalism à la Mode

A recent twitter exchange with a Young Earth Creationist (YECist) has been the source of inspiration for this series of posts providing me with examples of the resurgence of heretical arguments in an effort to defend YECism and their peculiar though popular way of interpreting the Bible. In the last post (tap here), I addressed the use of arguments akin to those of Bishop Apollinaris of Laodicaea in the fourth century.

A friend of mine posted Part II to a YEC Facebook page and sure enough there was a strong reaction to the idea that during his incarnation Jesus set aside his omniscience. As my friend and I kept pointing out as we “dialogued,” many of the assertions that they made demonstrated my argument. In this post, and following the turn of this same twitter exchange that motivated the first post I review the Christological heresy known as Modalism or Sabellianism.

What is Modalism?

Modalist theories were around prior to the Council of Nicaea and were therefore historically prior to Apollinarianism. Reformed Theologian Louis Berkhof described Modalism in this way, like the Gnostics, 

The Modalist Monarchians also denied the humanity of Christ, partly in the interest of His deity, and partly to preserve the unity of the Divine Being. They saw in Him merely a mode or manifestation of the one God, in whom they recognized no distinction of persons. (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Kindle ed. Loc 6352 $1.99 on Amazon.)

Like Apollinarianism, Modalism is a Christological Heresy and again like Apollinaris its proponents are seeking to defend and uphold the divinity of the Jesus Christ, the Son of God. However, while Modalism is a theory about the person of Christ and his divine nature, its proponents are also very concerned to uphold and defend the Christian commitment to monotheism. For of course, Christians believe in only one God who is the Creator of all things visible and invisible.

Yet, as Apollinaris in his effort to defend and uphold Jesus’s full divinity lost sight of and undermined the equally important doctrine of Christ’s full humanity, so proponents of Modalism in their effort to defend the oneness of God lose sight of and undermine the equally important and indispensable doctrine of the distinction of persons. As the Hymnist wrote and the people sing,

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!

All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea.

Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty,

God in three persons, blessed Trinity.

Or from the Athanasian Creed,

3. And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;

4. Neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance [Essence].

5. For there is one Person of the Father: another of the Son: and another of the Holy Ghost. (Tap for full text at CCEL.)

As with the turn to Apollinarian sounding assertions, when YECists veer into the direction of Modalism it is usually as a defense of Christ’s full divinity. The main point of contention does really seem to be a concern to maintain that Jesus was omniscient during his earthly ministry.

As with their commitment to a version of biblical inerrancy that ignores the historical limits of the human authors, YECists resist any notion that Jesus could have made any factual errors at all in his lifetime and most importantly in his recorded words.

Here, there is a troubling confusion between making an error with respect to a simple fact and lying. So, for instance, if Jesus referred to the Torah as the writings of Moses, then, for the YECist, Jesus could not simply be using the idiom of his day. He must hold the belief that Moses wrote the entirety of the Torah including his own death in Deuteronomy. Any scholarship that suggests that Moses did not write all of the Torah or that suggests a later date for its composition is seen as not only compromising the authority of Scripture but is tantamount to calling Jesus and therefore God a liar.

Given the YECist perspective, if Jesus were asked how many planets orbit our sun, rather than answer five like every other first century Jew, Jesus would either have to dodge the question or he would have to say 8, rather than 9 like I was taught as a child, then would he explain Pluto’s demotion or not. Of course, Jesus is never recorded as answering this type of question but if we take Jesus humanity seriously, then my suspicion is that as a first century Jewish male, he assumed that there were five planets. If he ever talked about the movement of the stars while sleeping under the stars, then he may have made what we would now think of as a factual error. I do not equate this with lying. Yet, this idea is very troubling to YECists and some biblical inerrantists.

@panth_ian @CreationMuseum But they’re both God.

In my recent twitter exchange, whenever I reminded my YECist interlocutor that Jesus is fully human and expressed that this entails having limitations during his incarnation, I was reminded that he was also fully God again and again. As though by arguing for the limitations that being embodied entails, I was denying his divinity.

He responded by insisting that he is also fully God. At times, in such a way, that the distinction of persons was lost. In this case, ignoring the Son’s eternal and willing submission to the Father. As I wrote in the previous post, the Son clearly submits to the Father and receives what he needs from the Father. And again, as I noted in Part II, Jesus acknowledges his own ignorance on at least one point in Matthew 24:36 — only the Father knows the day and the hour.

As I write this out, I can’t help but hear “if you are the Son of God, then why don’t you expound the theory of relativity.” Or “If you are the Son of God, why don’t you explain plate tectonics and tell us about the extinction of dinosaurs.” Perhaps, Jesus might have responded, I do only the work the Father has given for me to do. If Jesus wanted bread in the wilderness, he could have made it but in accord with the Father’s will he chose not to transform a rock into bread. He remained hungry. If Jesus had wanted to know about DNA and partcle physics (questions that would not likely have arisen in the mind of a first century Jew), then likewise he could have “accessed” that knowledge but, again, in willing submission to the Father he remained ignorant of much of what we as 21st century human beings think we know about the cosmos.

Again, let’s be clear, most of the well-know heresies began as attempts to defend or secure some other important doctrine or teaching about God. For instance, Arius of Alexandria saw himself as defending and clarifying the nature of the Creator God and those attributes associated with divinity. Yet, in doing so, he set Jesus Christ, the Son of God on the created side of the Creator/creature divide. Apollinaris in his efforts to argue against Arianism and for the decision of Nicaea sought to emphasize the divinity of Jesus Christ. Yet, his Christological theory which sought to affirm that Jesus was fully God was found to undermine the equally important Nicene affirmation of Christ’s full humanity.
In discussions of Heresy vs. Orthodoxy, it is all to easy to demonize those early Christians who in seeking to articulate complex theological concepts in the name of defending the teaching of the Church became known as heresiarchs. So, with this in mind, I do not intend to demonize YECists. I believe that most YECists (and frankly most Evangelicals) are ignorant of the history and the traditions of the Church. So, it is not surprising to me that in these exchanges we recapitulate the arguments of the early church though admittedly with less erudition, acumen, and rhetorical skill — but no less vitriol.

G.K. Chesterton describes the “ragged equilibrium” of Christian ethics and doctrine, in the following way,

Christianity was like a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which though it sways on its pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years. (GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p91 (find free e-book versions on Amazon).)

Continuing with this idea of Christian doctrine being carefully balanced though an asymmetrical monstrosity, Chesterton captures the excitement and energy that some of us feel when studying and, yes, arguing about points of doctrine.

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic.

The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalist which would have made it too unworldly….

To have fallen into any of those traps of error and exagerration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom — that would have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. (Orthodoxy, 93-94)

YEC’s exaggerated emphasis on the age of the earth and particular way of reading the early chapters of Genesis is precisely one of those obstacles that the Church needs to swerve to avoid. To return to Chesterton’s first image, the weight that YEC has placed on questions related to the early Chapters of Genesis threaten to topple that “ragged and romantic” rock of Christian Orthodoxy, if indeed they have not already ridden it past the point of no return.

IWP — March 3, 2017

Previous Posts in this series: Heresy is the New Orthodoxy Part I, Heresy is the New Orthodoxy Part II: Apollinarianism

Related Posts: Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis

Recommended Reading: The Heresy of Ham by Joel Edmund Anderson

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