I’m living in England and the parish priest asks me to take a confirmation class. In the group of eighth graders preparing for confirmation, Jimmy was a not one of the brightest stars. He was a bit like vanilla pudding, sweet but thick. So when it came to discussion of the Holy Trinity I wasn’t too optimistic. So I gave some illustrations about the Holy Trinity–St Patrick’s three leaved clover, water, ice and steam, in music, harmony, melody and rhythm. I then asked the group if they had any ideas.
Jimmy thought for a minute then said, “A cup of tea.”
“A cup of tea?” I asked.
“Yeh. A cup of tea.”
“Can you explain that?”
“Yeh. You take the tea bag and the hot water and the tea goes into the hot water and then you add milk. Three things in one. One in three.” Then he gives me a big grin.
So discussing this with Dr Ballard–who is a much finer theologian than I–he paused for a moment and said, “I’m sorry to inform you father, but both you and Jimmy are heretics. You’re guilty of modalism.”
Modalism is that trinitarian heresy which says that the three persons of the trinity are ‘modes’ of the one God. It’s also called (for those of you who like long words) Patripassianism or Neotianism or Sabellianism. Modalism sees the Trinity as three ‘ways of working’ or ‘three masks’ or ‘three aspects’ of the one God. Such views are heresy because orthodoxy Trinitarian Doctrine teaches that the three persons are distinct persons yet each one holds within himself the fullness of the Godhead, and the fullness of the Godhead is the unity of the three persons. You can read more on Trinitarian theology from Fr Hardon here.
Does it matter? Sure. Truth matters. It matters because modalism is one of the key heresies of the modern liberal Protestants. When I was still an Anglican the politically correct gang were busy modifying the liturgy to communicate a feminist agenda. So wherever they could they removed references to God the Father and God the Son, replacing them with circumlocutions like “Almighty God” or “Creator God” or “God the Redeemer”. Most notorious is the replacement of the sacred formula for the Trinity, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Instead of this ancient and orthodox formula they like to say, “In the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.”
Apart from the fact that ‘sustainer’ is an ugly made up word, this is also a very clear expression of modalism because the persons of the Holy Trinity are defined not by their divine personhood, but by their role, their action, or their function in the world. The other intrinsic problem with ‘Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” is that the three persons are limited by these functions. God the Father is more than a Creator, God the Son is more than the Redeemer, God the Holy Spirit is more than a Sustainer. When the persons are defined as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” however, the fact that they are being defined as persons allows for the depth and breadth and complexity that we would expect in any personality.
There is something even more important in retaining the traditional titles of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” It is the fact that we are persons, and we are called into relationship with persons. “Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer” is on the level of “Policeman, Artist, Teacher.” These titles define roles or functions. They do not define persons. Consequently our relationship with God suffers. When God is “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” we as persons can relate more intimately with the persons of the Holy Trinity.
Which brings me to Father’s Day. In the naming of the Holy Trinity we relate primarily to the Father, and this is the real target for the attack of the radical feminists. They are not so much feminists as mis-angonyists. They hate men, and especially they hate Fathers. I’m the first to admit that there are plenty of lousy fathers around, but hey, guess what, there are also plenty of lousy mothers who damage their kids.
Let’s focus instead on all the wonderful fathers today. All the Dads who are loyal and strong and sporty and creative and funny and smart and holy and self sacrificing and quiet and dignified and dominant and true. Let’s thank them for being images of the Heavenly Father, and let’s praise Father, Son and Holy Spirit..and if we’re not good Fathers let’s try to be, and let us all like prodigal sons return to the Father and cry Holy, Holy, Holy…Lord God Father of Hosts.