When T.D. Jakes was labeled a “modalist” (e.g. C. Michael Patton’s “T.D. Jakes Not Modalist?”) it came to the surprise of some Oneness Pentecostals that their theology proper was equated with that particular ancient heresy. Why? Well, while many Oneness Pentecostals explain their view of God using terminology and word-pictures that are essentially descriptions of modalism most of their theologians have worked hard to avoid such pitfalls. It would be argued that these efforts have been fruitless, but I think it is fair to give their best thinkers the microphone. We Trinitarians do not want people to call Trinitarianism “Tritheism” because some of us using tritheistic language to explain the Trinity. We should give the best formulated, well-articulated thinkers the right to represent their group.

Modalism in general is the idea that Father, Son, and Spirit are three “modes” that the one uni-personal God adopts. Some people explain this as something successive (God was “the Father” to Israel, “the Son” on earth in the incarnation, and “the Spirit” after Pentecost), but this is rare.

Sabellianism is a form of Modalism attributed to the third century theologian Sabellius. He argued that Father, Son, and Spirit are more or less like “masks” worn by the one God in his cosmic drama. Some have argued that this isn’t far from Tertuallian’s use of three persona in one substantia. Others have argued that it is an important difference–as different as seeing the Father, Son, and Spirit as unique though united or merely “roles”.

Modalistic Monarchianism suggest the same thing, but it emphasizes that the one unique “person” of God is the Father who can become the Son/Spirit.

To be fair to critics of Oneness Pentecostalism, all these explanations have been given in the name of their position of the doctrine of God.

Yet Daniel L. Segraves and Jason Dulle have articulated a version of Oneness doctrine that is distinct from what has been offered above. Unlike Modalism the difference between Father and Son is not one of “mode” but transcendency of the incarnation (Father) and the incarnation (S0n).

These are two graphs offered by Jason Dulle in his article “Avoiding the Achilles Heels of Trinitarianism, Modalistic Monarchianism, and Nestorianism: The Acknowledgment and Proper Placement of the Distinction Between Father and Son”:


What makes a difference between classical Trinitarianism and Oneness theology is not simply persons/modes, but how the incarnation defines Father/Son. Trinitarians argue that Jesus was the Logos of God and that the Logos of God was incarnate while Oneness adherents simplify it to say that it was God incarnate. Trinitarians agree since the Logos is God, but uniquely so in relation to the Father and Spirit. Oneness theologians see this distinction as anti-biblical pointing out that we don’t see Father, Son, Spirit until the incarnation.

Whatever one may think of their unique views, whether it is “essentially Trinitarianism separated by semantics” or “essentially modalism separated by semantics”, or something all of it’s own this is how it has been described and I think if Trinitarian and Oneness theologians are going to have a conversation about each other’s views we need to listen to the best articulations.

Thoughts? (Please (!), not proof-texting…I just want to know if you think this is a clear description of the differences.)