Wolves in Shepherd’s Clothing: Modalism

-...inwardly they are ravenous wolves.- (1)

Gentle Reader,

Today we begin to turn our attention to the aberrant teachings of Shepherd’s Chapel.

The early Church spent several centuries hammering out just what one had to believe in order to be a Christian. (Occasionally they hammered each other, often in scathing and bitingly sarcastic writing. These are my people). The basics of initial salvation were (and are) simple enough: Acknowledgement of sin, understanding the inability of self to save self, repentance of sin, confessing Christ as Lord, belief that He died and rose again. From that simplicity, however, arose complexity, often centering around the person of Jesus. How was He to be defined?

Several theories arose:

Docetism: Jesus only had the “appearance” of humanity. He is a purely spiritual being.

Ebionitism: in contrast with the above, Jesus is a purely human figure.

Arianism: in between the two, Jesus is the first and greatest of God’s creatures. He is semi-divine.

Adoptionism: Jesus is purely human but was “adopted” by God in a mysterious, divine way either at His baptism or resurrection. – Trinitarian Heresies

Ignatius, writing 112-114 A.D., stood against all of these ideas in declaring both the fully divinity and the full humanity of Jesus:

…our Physician is the only true God, the unbegotten and unapproachable, the Lord of all, the Father and Begetter of the only-begotten Son. We have also as a Physician the Lord our God, Jesus the Christ, the only-begotten Son and Word, before time began, but who afterwards became also man, of Mary the virgin. For ‘the Word was made flesh.’ – Ignatius to the Ephesians

Irenaeus, writing 175 A.D., expanded the thought:

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father. – Against Heresies; Book 1, Chapter 10

The focus in the second century was largely on reconciling the two natures of Christ as revealed in Scripture. Though the term “hypostatic union” (two full and complete natures, one person) would not be formally coined until the fifth century, it is clear from the New Testament itself and the writings of the early Church that this union, though perhaps not always precisely articulated, was the only way of understanding Christ without sacrificing either His deity or humanity.

Yet this was not an easily settled controversy, nor a “once and forever” settled controversy, for some claiming to the Christians today hold to any of the four views listed above. This is directly related to the understanding and definition of the Trinity, the great discussion of the late third and into the fourth century.

Until the first part of the third century and Origen of Alexandria, there really had not been any significant theological writing on this issue [the Trinity]. Until Origen there was a simple acknowledgment of NT references, mainly John 1:1. …”simple” [meaning] a simple belief of what was written without trying to figure it out and explain it. What takes place, from this point forward, is that church councils and various writers try to define a theological point that almost all adherents admited was a “mystery.” – The Issue of the Trinity

(Note: Origen was a divisive figure in his own day. Highly educated, trained in philosophy, he tried to take all of the Christian and so-called Christian teaching floating around and reconcile it. He tried to arrive at one, final and distinct interpretation of Scripture and the nature of God. His voluminous commentaries on the Bible arose directly out of his disgust for Gnostic heresy. Yet his major work, On First Principles, sent shock waves throughout the Church. I bring this up for two reasons: 1. Not all of Origen’s teaching was accepted as true in his own time and 2. Nevertheless, historians and theologians recognize his writings on the Trinity are very orthodox; he was a major force behind the articulation of the doctrine).

Constantine convened the 325 A.D. Council of Nicea to “bring peace to the Church” and resolve some of these issues. Arius was called on to defined his teaching on the nature of Jesus (“Arianism” above); he was eventually kicked out of the council meeting and condemned. (But this wasn’t necessarily a sign of harmony. The bishops may have been united in their rejection of Arianism, but there is ample evidence to suggest that they disagreed plenty, though their disagreements usually centered on minor matters. They certainly resented the fact that the state now had input in Church matters. Does that sound familiar? I suppose we should take comfort that the family of God has always been a little dysfunctional. It didn’t start with us).

The most important thing to come out of Nicea was, of course, the Creed:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;

By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth];

Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man;

He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven;

From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

And in the Holy Ghost.

[But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.]

At the end of the original creed was added the text above – obviously aimed at Arius. The Nicean Creed

It would take another century and three more councils for a clear demarcation between a Christian view of Christ and a non-Christian view of Christ to be dogmatically adopted. This should not be seen as a changing doctrine of the Church; rather, the Church continued to respond to heresy and to better-articulate what it had believed all along.

Entwined in the debate about the nature of Christ is debate about the nature of the Holy Spirit. (This post is already at 1180 words, so I don’t have time or space to get into the filioque issue, but it is fascinating. Some starter reading here). Essentially everyone agreed that the Spirit is just that, spirit. Whether or not He is a distinct Personage was the problem.

Hence:

Modalism: the three persons of the Trinity are different “modes” or expressions of the Godhead. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not distinct personalities, but different modes of God’s self-revelation. – Trinitarian Heresies

The witness of the early Church about Modalism? A resounding no. (Go here for more information). All the writing, all the discussion, all the councils  affirm the mystery that Scripture teaches: God is Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all God, but the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and so on.

What does Shepherd’s Chapel teach?

Murray and his followers deny the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, that one God exists eternally in three Persons. They instead teach modalism, the concept that the monotheistic God is a single person who acts through three different offices. Murray voices his adherence to this teaching when he says that God “gots (sic) three offices he serves.” He elaborates:

‘You have these yo-yo’s that will say, ‘Well, I want you to think like (sic) of water and ice’ and so on, various gases or so forth, or then they’ll say, ‘I want you to think of a 200 watt bulb, and a 150 watt bulb, and a 50 watt bulb.’ Well, they’re all the same wattage, friend. So why not just simplify it instead of playing stupid games, and understand that there are three offices of the Godhead. Like this little lady said. She said, ‘To my husband I am a wife, to my children I am a mother, that’s my office. To hundreds of third graders I am their teacher and have been down through the years. That’s a different office; none of them the same, but I’m still the same person.’ I like that. It’s simple and to the point.’

Notice the implication of the example quoted by Murray. Just as the ‘little lady’ is one woman who performs different functions in her roles as wife, mother, and teacher, so God is a single person who performs different functions and is perceived in different ways in his roles as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Murray clarifies his conflation of deity when he states, ‘[Christ’s] spirit is holy and he is the Holy Spirit.’ Since Murray does not believe that Jesus Christ is a Person distinct from the other members of the Trinity, he cannot justifiably claim to believe that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God. – Shepherd’s Chapel Profile

Part of me thinks I should end this series right here. Shepherd’s Chapel clearly stands against what orthodox Christianity has understood to be correct since the writing of the New Testament. This group is not part of the Church. The people in this group are massively deceived.

Next week: Serpent Seed. Ugh.

My journey to faith. (15)

For all the posts in the Wolves in Shepherd’s Clothing series, go here.

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