The Trinity: Modalism, ESS & Essential Doctrine

Basic Theology, Christian Life & Theology, Podcast Episodes

This episode is an overview of the nature of the Trinity and why God as triune is a fundamental Christian doctrine! We look at the fights within the early church to defend Christ’s deity and the Trinity (including Athanasius’ On the Incarnation) and how these fights were finalized in the Apostles and Nicene creeds. We then look at teachings like modalism, oneness and eternal subordination of the Son (ESS) and why the Trinity is an essential doctrine for Christians.


Following are some resources on what I discuss in this episode. You will find additional links within each post.


  • Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves
  • On the Incarnation by Athanasius (foreword by CS Lewis)

Listen Now!


Well, we are getting close to wrapping up this season on theology. And you guys, I know, we have not even dipped our toes into the full gamut of theological topics. We’ve only done, what, 12 episodes this season, and just skimmed the surface on everything. There is to talk about within the realm of Christian theology, but I just wanted to focus on the top questions, so I could have these as stable resources for you going forward. So, everything in this season is something we can revisit. These will be transcribed on the blog and linked there for those who have questions further on. All of my articles that I use in the research process are at least the top articles, I think, will be the most helpful are linked in these posts.

So, this last full focused episode of this season is on the Trinity, and that’s what we’re talking about today. We’ll have one more episode. That’s a quick Q&A theology episode before we close out the season. Just as an aside, you guys, I wish you could see the sunset from my office window right now. It is so gorgeous, and it’s over the cornfield behind her house with all of the round hay bales. The swallows are out, they’re flying around in the sunset. It is so picturesque. Wish you could be here. Okay, let’s talk about the Trinity. 

This is a topic that is so important for Christians to understand and if you think I’ve never thought about the Trinity, I didn’t think it mattered that much. That’s okay. A lot of Christians tend to think that it’s kind of a given. It’s something that we take for granted, not realizing that it actually is a fundamental doctrine to Christianity. As we’ll see in a moment reading from Michael Reeves book Delighting in the Trinity. It is a fundamental to everything else, the foundation of everything else we believe about Christianity. To be a Christian is to believe in the triune God. And we’re going to look today at some of the fundamentals of God as triune, and then, we’re going to look at a couple errant teachings regarding the Trinity. As usual, this is a high-level overview. I’m going to have articles linked in the show notes for further research and study, but this will be a good jumping off point for you. 

Let’s start with a quote from Michael Reeves just about the Trinity in general, because he uses some Scripture that I would refer to and yet he says it better than I ever could. So, this is what he says on page 37 of Delighting in the Trinity. “John wrote his gospel, and he tells us so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name. John 20:31. But even that most basic call to believe in the Son of God is an invitation to a Trinitarian faith. Jesus is described as the Son of God. God is his father. Then, he is the Christ, the one anointed with the Spirit. When you start with the Jesus of the Bible, it is a triune God that you get. The Trinity then is not the product of abstract speculation. When you proclaim Jesus, the Spirit-anointed Son of the Father, you proclaim the triune God.”

I want to pause there. What’s important to know is that Christianity defended the Trinity more than any other doctrine in the first 300 years of the church. It was the doctrine that was most debated, most attacked by both the Greeks and the Jews. The Greek philosophers had issue with Jesus coming in a physical body, and we’re not going to talk too much about the Arian controversy or Gnosticism today, but we did touch on Gnosticism in the Body and Sex episode of the Women’s Issues series, and we’ve talked about it in a few other episodes. 

Gnosticism says that essentially, soul or spirit good, body bad. The material is insignificant to God, and then we need to just forget the material and embrace the spiritual. But that’s not the Judeo-Christian ethic. The Judeo-Christian ethic is that the body is good and that it is a reflection of what’s going on in the Spirit. The body and soul are united. So, Jesus coming in a physical body was very consistent with the Judaic ethic of the human body, and then it fulfilled that in the Christian ethic. Jesus moved Judaism to its fulfillment is the Christian understanding.

So, Jesus coming in this physical body is very important. As we move into the second half of this Michael Reeves quote, he’s going to mention a guy named Arius who started the Arian controversy in those first 300 years as a church, and it was his controversy, his arguments against the Trinity that resulted ultimately in the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed affirmed a triune God, and it built on the Apostles’ Creed which was established in the first century. All of this to say, in those first centers of the church, the Trinitarian doctrine was very, very important. 

Let’s continue with this Reeves quote. “In what Arias demonstrated was the reverse. When you don’t start with Jesus, the Son, you end up with a different God who was not the Father. For the Son is the one way to know God truly, only He reveals the Father. John Calvin once wrote that if we try to think about God without thinking about the Father, Son, and Spirit, then only the bare and empty name of God flits about in our brains to the exclusion of the true God. He was quite right. For there is a vast world of difference between the triune God revealed by Jesus and all other Gods. This God simply will not fit into the mold of any other. For the Trinity is not some inessential add-on to God, some optional software that can be plugged into Him. At bottom, this God is different. For at bottom, He is not creator, ruler, or even God in some abstract sense. He is the Father. Loving and giving life to His Son in fellowship of the Spirit. A God who is in Himself love, who before all things could never be anything but love. Having such a God happily changes everything.”

So, Reeves really sets us up for the magnitude and the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity, the essentialness of this. He also touches on a point about the Trinity that we often forget, that the nature of God as love hinges on the fact that He’s loving. He actually goes into this on page 41, where he talks about how God’s outward nature, His communion with the Son and with the Spirit, yet His oneness in essence proves that He is love. You cannot love if you do not ever know relationship or the only relationship that exists is that to make people serve you as we see in the pattern of the Greek Gods, who were completely dependent upon the worship of their people. They needed the worship of people in order to achieve glory. They were not self-fulfilled or self-content in themselves. So, they really weren’t all powerful Gods because they needed people in order to achieve their ends. So, they’ve created this relationship between Gods and humans in the Greek pantheon, where they were really interdependent, not actually Gods.

This distinction is important, and Reeves gets into it here in page 41. He says, “Everything changes when it comes to the Father, Son, and spirit. Here is a God who is not essentially lonely, but who has been loving for all eternity as the Father has loved the Son and the Spirit. Loving others is not a strange or novel thing for this God at all. It is the root of who He is. Think of God, the Father. He is by His very nature life giving. He is a Father. One has to wonder if a barren God who is not a father is capable of giving life and so birthing a creation. But one can have no such doubts about the Father. For eternity, he has been fruitful, potent, vitalizing. For such a God, and for only such a God, it seems very natural and entirely unsurprising that he should bring about more life and so create.”

He goes on to talk more about the relationship of the Son in the Spirit with the Father, but that this image of Christ is the outgoing movement of love. God is constantly outgoing in His love, and that’s why we can trust everything else about Him. It is the very nature of who He is, and when you strip away the Trinity, which first of all is taught, especially in the New Testament, it’s essential to the New Testament, but throughout the Bible. You strip that away, you really end up with a hollow Christianity. You really don’t have Christianity anymore without the Trinity. It’s an extremely important doctrine. We just tend to ignore it because we feel like it’s so basic, while it’s also so complicated. 

The last quote I want to read from Reeves is about God’s sharing of that love. He says, “The triune God can and does create. Grace then is not merely His kindness to those who have sinned. The very creation is a work of grace flowing from God’s love. Love is not a mere reaction with this God. It’s not a reaction at all. God’s love is creative. Love comes first.” So, God in His creating of humanity, in His creating of this beautiful world, this sunset that I’m looking at right now, this is the outgoing nature of His love. His love came first. It preceded everything we know and see. And without the concept of the Trinity, that outgoing fulfilled nature of love, you can’t have a loving God. You can’t even have Christ. You can’t have the spirit empowering believers to walk with God and have relationship with him. It all falls apart without the doctrine of the Trinity. So, we have to understand this or at least begin the journey of understanding this concept in Scripture and how it was taught, or we’re in danger of undermining our faith.

Let’s look at a couple of the ideas that have arisen about the Trinity over the years, and we’re just going to look at a couple because we don’t have time to get into the super nitty-gritty, but obviously too, we’ve mentioned that deny the Trinity where Gnosticism and Arianism, they’re kind of similar. They’re worth the study, and anytime you read about the early church fathers, you’re going to read about these two heresies, because the early church fathers were mostly dealing with those two heresies, and ultimately, in affirming the Nicene Creed in the 300s, that’s when they kind of settled that issue. The heresies continued to exist, but the church had pretty much settled that we reject these things, they are not true. Jesus was not a created being. He was one with God, He was the Son of God, equal with God of the same essence. 

What’s the first errante teaching. Errante is spelled E-R-R-A-N-T-E comes from the Latin to err or errare, which means to err to go into error, and that’s what we’re looking at, teachings that are in error on the Trinity. The first is Modalism, which can also be called Modalistic Monarchianism. Modalism is a little easier. So, this idea is a heretical view that denies the individual persons of the Trinity. It sees the terms for Father, Son, and Spirit as simply modes of existence or manifestations of one God, according to Steven Nichols.

I told you, I was done quoting Reeves, but we’re actually going to look back at another quote where he talks about Modalism. He says, “Throwing the Father, Son, and Spirit into a blender like this is politely called Modalism by theologians. I prefer to call it Moodalism. Moodalists think that God is one person who has three different moods or modes. One popular Moodalist ideas that God used to feel Fatherly in the Old Testament tried adopting a more sunny disposition for 30 some years and has since decided to become more Spiritual. You understand the attraction, of course, it keeps things from becoming too complicated. The trouble is once you puree the persons, it becomes impossible to taste their gospel. If the Son is just a mood God slips in and out of, then for us to be adopted as children in the Son is no great theme. When God moves on to another mood, there will be no Son for us to be in. And even when God is in his Son mood, there will be no Father for us to be children of. If the spirit is just another of his states of mind, I can only wonder what will happen when God feels like moving on. The Moodalist is locked with no assurance in a deeply confused God. Somehow, the son must be his own Father, send Himself, love Himself, pray to Himself, see Himself in His own right hand and so on. It all begins to look, dare I say rather silly.”

Then, he goes on to explain the difference between the Trinity, and the Greek pantheon, and other religions and their views of God. But essentially, he’s pointed out some of the major issues with Modalism, this idea that God is one person with different modes or moods that he shifts between them like a shapeshifter. Now, there were two different ways of seeing Modalism. There’s dynamic, which said that Jesus was not God, but appeared to be and then a Modalistic view, this is dynamic Modalism and then just essentially Modalism. They said that Jesus was God but only as a manifestation of Him. So, in essence saying what Reeves just said. No separate personal existence of his own for Jesus. He was God. Just God manifested in a specific way. Is your mind spinning yet? You’re not alone. So, this idea, this modalistic idea really started with a guy named Noetus at the end of the first century. But it was argued against by the Church Fathers, Tertullian and Origen even before the Nicene Council in the Nicene Creed. 

Where do we see Modalism now? Well, one place that we do see it, unfortunately, is in Oneness Pentecostalism. The Oneness churches generally make no distinction between the persons of the Trinity, and this teaching sprung up pretty early on in Pentecostalism, and one of the sad things about the history of the Pentecostal church is that in one hand, there’s the good that it has done and the growth it has experienced, it has had an enormous boom, it’s as big or bigger than the Catholic church in the entire world. When we talk about Christians globally, the Pentecostal church is one of the largest representations of the body of Christ on the earth. Sadly, the sad part of this is where Oneness Pentecostalism has emerged in the Charismatic church. We have errante teachings on the Trinity. That’s very unfortunate, because this was hammered out in the first 300 years of the church. But because the weakness of the Charismatic church is a lack of theological grounding, a lack of historical understanding, a lot of times they don’t realize that they are in error. 

I grew up in the Charismatic tradition, my grandparents were Assemblies of God and so very open to the charismatic church and love what they are doing in many ways. But my encouragement to believers who are in the Charismatic tradition is to seek out theological grounding, press into the teachings of your church and check them against Scripture. Check them against what the church has historically taught up until the turn of the 20th century, which is when the Pentecostal church began. The Pentecostal church is very young and that doesn’t mean that it’s always wrong, but it does mean that you need to make sure that the teaching you are under aligns with the Orthodox teaching of the Church before it. So, Oneness Pentecostalism strays into Modalism, and does not uphold what Christianity has traditionally taught about the Trinity.

Modalism as the first errante teaching that we wanted to look at. The second one is the Eternal Subordination of the Son or ESS. So, what’s interesting here is that, this is almost on the opposite end of the spectrum. This is another extreme. It creates such a distinct hierarchy in the Trinity that we end up with a Jesus who no longer appears to actually be God. But what’s concerning about ESS is that it really arose as a way to defend gender distinctions in marriage and church. There are some big names that have gone to bat for ESS. This blew up about five or six years ago on a couple of different theological blogs. One of them was Aimee Byrd’s Housewife Theologian blog. She led the charge against ESS pointing out that error and the threat that it posed to the Trinity. I want to read 10 different issues that arose from the concept of eternal subordination of the Son, bBecause if you’re wondering, “Okay, what does this look like? What does it mean, eternal submission or subordination of the Son?”, this will help explain kind of what is at stake with this theological viewpoint, and it will also show you why it resulted in so much chaos, because it touches on so many different aspects of Christian theology. So, these are 10 issues by Andrew Wilson that arise out of the ESS argument. 

The first issue is, first question you have to ask is, is the eternal submission or subordination of the son taught in Scripture? we know that Jesus submitted to the Father while He was in ministry. But ESS teaches that he has always been in submission to the Father, specifically as a template for male and female roles. Not just in marriage, but the idea that is being taught in ESS is that females inherently are to submit and be in submission to males, because of the example of Jesus eternally being in submission to the Father. So, this is no longer just in context of a Christian marriage. This is in context of the entire world, and that creates some difficulties as you might imagine, and changes a lot, both in the Trinity, and in the family, and in the church. So, is this taught in Scripture is the first question that we have to ask.

The second question is, is ESS a new idea? Was it articulated by the church or is it completely new? Is it a new defense for hypercomplementarianism? And if you don’t know what that is, you can go back and listen to the Marriage and Church episodes. Or, is it something that’s always been here? The third question is, is ESS a heretical concept? Is it a heresy? Is this reinventing God as some people have said, or is it something that can be held as an Orthodox Christian? Fourth, is there a separation of the Divine Will? Is it possible that the will of the Father and the will of the Son are different? Because if they’re different, that’s the only way that submission could then make sense. So, Jesus, in the incarnation for instance, when He’s praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, He says, “Father, take this cup from Me, but not my Will, but Thy be done,” that’s an example of Him submitting to the Father’s Will even while having a human will as the incarnate Son. But was Jesus doing that before His incarnation? That’s the question that has to be asked. Does ESS imply that Christ only had one will? That’s the fifth question. So, does he have one will, does he have two? 

Six, does ESS involve denying the eternal generation of the Son? Now, we’re getting into some complicated stuff. But essentially, what we’re seeing here is that Jesus was eternally generated by God right alongside God. So, He was not a separate creation of God like Arianism taught. Some people say that this should be a part of the question. I don’t think this as much relates to ESS. The seventh question is, if a person denies that Jesus has eternally been generated alongside God, should they resign from their posts of authority? Should they be in pastoral positions? The eighth question is, is the language of eternal subordination helpful or is it problematic?

The ninth question is, should Trinitarian relations be used in the debate of roles of men and women? This question, I want to camp here for a second. If you’ve ever seen the image of the umbrellas as an example of what roles in the family and marriage are supposed to look like, that is essentially what’s being referred to here. So, this picture is this big umbrella, and it’ll say God. And then, under that umbrella, it’ll say husband and father, and then under him, there’s another umbrella and it says wife and mother, and then under her in a little umbrella that says children. With this umbrella system, you’re seeing basically a tier of covering and a tier of authority. This is based off of this ESS idea. This idea that Christ submitted to the Lord and the Holy Spirit basically was dispensed by Christ and therefore, using that analogy for the Trinity, we apply that to the family, and that is exactly how it’s supposed to function with this umbrella hierarchy. The question that’s being asked here is, should the relationship in the Trinity be used in the debate about roles of men and women? In 1 Corinthians 11, there’s some talk about this. Should that be the entire framework through which we view gender?

The tenth question that he asks is, is the analogy between eternal Trinitarian relations and sex roles on helpful to women? Is this helpful to us to use this analogy when it has resulted in such hypercomplementarian stances?

So, those are the questions that he suggested thinking about. By now, your head might be spinning. My point here is not to answer all these questions. But my point is to show you that ESS touches on so many different areas. It touches on salvation theology, it touches on the ontological arguments about God, it touches on gender roles, it touches on the nature of Jesus. It covers so many different things, it touches so many different things, that it really is a far reaching doctrine that in some churches, it’s taught without you ever really even knowing. It can just pass for a common little passing remark in a sermon, but then it translates to what’s being taught about church structure, and marriage structure, and when you’re allowed to report abuse and when you’re allowed to talk about women ministering and things like that. 

Wendy Alsup makes a good comment here. She says, “For some people, the debate of ESS is primarily academic and is best left to those who’ve spent years reading Trinitarian theology. But for others, the debate has very practical implications. Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem in particular have cultivated the doctrine of ESS in direct response to modern evangelical feminism, and use it to bolster their very real-world views on gender, particularly submission of women. This teaching then filters down through books, conferences, and pulpits, and has significant influence on how men and women are taught to relate to each other in their churches, marriages, and society at large. That’s really the crux of where ESS has influenced the world. It became popular as a way to essentially confront secular feminism. In so doing, it went too far, and continues to go too far in some churches today.” So, there are some fantastic articles on Aimee Byrd’s website. I believe I have linked in the show notes on the blog that will give you some resources in the debate that went on over ESS, especially as regards gender roles. 

Now, before we wrap up this whole section, though, I do you want to read some of what was being said by Wayne Grudem himself, and by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood that show that we were pulling from this ESS concept in order to support a hypercomplementarian view of women. I say hyper because it’s not your average complementarianism like myself, like most complementarians this is an extreme version of it. This is Grudem’s own words. He says, “In those relationships, Scripture speaks to the father having a unique role of initiating, planning, directing, sending, and commanding. It speaks of the son is having a role of joyfully agreeing with supporting, carrying out, and obeying the Father, and it speaks of the Spirit as acting in joyful obedience to the leadership of both Father and Son.” This is from Wendy. “Now, consider the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and how it applies to women. This is from their summary of the complementarian position. Male and female were created by God as equal in dignity, value, essence, and human nature. But also distinct in role whereby the male was given the responsibility of loving authority over the female, and the female was to offer willing glad hearted and submissive assistance to the man. Genesis 1:26-27 makes clear that male and female are equally created as God’s image, and so are by God’s created designed equally and fully human. But as Genesis 2 bears out, as seen in its own context, and understood by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11, and 1 Timothy 2, their humanity would find expression differently in a relationship of complementarity with the female functioning in a submissive role under the leadership and authority of the male.

The important note here is that it’s saying that the female functions under the leadership and authority of the male, not the wife under the husband. A complementarian, as we talked about in the Marriage and Church episodes, believes that male and female are functionally different. They are not the same. They aren’t interchangeable in every single way. However, they are equal in dignity and in value, which is said here but the difference between your, I would say, biblical complementarian versus a hypercomplementarian is that the hypercomplementarian view takes it further. It takes it beyond Christian marriage, it takes it beyond even the function of the church, where women may minister freely using their gifts as we see in 1 Corinthians where they are speaking, and prophesying, and praying, and teaching, and leading alongside the men, even under the eldership and pastorship of male leaders, where hypercomplementarian goes is that it’s all females submit to all males and that is the entire created order for the world. This is why you’ll see people say that women shouldn’t be in political office or women shouldn’t be in the military. I’m not even talking about combat or frontlines. I’m just talking about working in the military.

There’s a lot of implications to this idea. It’s very complicated. We’re only touching on it a little bit. But the real issue, the real issue here isn’t where you land on a complementarianism or egalitarianism. It’s when you change a doctrine of the Trinity to achieve your desired end in gender roles. What’s crazy is that Grudem and Ware are exegetical teachers. They love the Word of God. We know this. But I think when we see a pressing issue in society, it can make us so concerned that we sometimes will even compromise our very own standards for dividing the Word rightly in order to defend something we love. In this case, they love Christian marriage, but I think that through this concern over secular feminism, there came to be this extreme interpretation of complementarianism that actually did a bunch of gymnastics with the doctrine of the Trinity in order to prove a point. That is what so many godly, sound teachers like Aimee Byrd, like Carl Trueman, like Michael Bird, and Scot McKnight have done is they have shown that this doctrine of ESS causes more problems than it solves.

I’m going to conclude this section with a quote by Carl Trueman where he says, “Because we live at a time when good teaching on the differences between men and women is needed more than any previous moment in history, it is sad that the desire to maintain a biblical view of complementarity has come to be synonymous with advocating, not only a very 1950s American view of masculinity, but now also this submission-driven teaching on the Trinity. In the long run, such a tight pairing of complementarianism with this theology can only do one of two things. It will either turn complementarian evangelicals into Arians or tritheists, or it will cause Orthodox believers to abandon complementarianism. The link is being pushed so firmly that it does not seem to offer any other choice. 

Carl Trueman wrote this, I believe, six years ago, maybe more. I would argue that his words are almost prophetic, because it is what we are seeing. When a doctrine is twisted to advance our ends or when we start to get too concerned about defending Christianity against the attacks of secular culture, and we stop seeing that the Trinity defends itself. That true believers who know and walk with the Lord will seek His face in their marriages and in their churches, and they will seek to be in unity with men and women in their church. When we forget that, we can become so quick to come up with our own solutions that we actually do a disservice to the Word of God. So, we have people today who I think are abandoning doctrines of the church partially because of this errante and false teaching that has permeated the church over the years. 

Wow, did you ever think we would touch on all this with the Trinity? Probably not. But as you can see, the concept and doctrine of the Trinity impacts so many other areas. But ultimately, it focuses on the love of God and His outgoing nature, His communal nature. It focuses on how there is submission in the Trinity. But how there is also complete unity, respect, honor, a model for how men and women in the family and church are to operate looking at that unified loving relationship, not focusing on a hierarchy. So, through the Trinity, we learn what it means to honor God to love each other, and to pour ourselves out into the world just as God poured Himself out for us. 

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