Modalism and Arianism distorted the truth of the Trinity. Prior to the council of Nicea in AD 325, the early church had soundly rejected modalism. At Nicea the church bishops were gathering to try to establish what the Bible taught concerning the Trinity and deal with the issue of Arianism. These bishops came to this meeting with various ideas about the nature of God and how it related to the Trinity. After months of arguing and discussion they took a vote and over 300 bishops supported the Trinity (primarily the Deity of Jesus) and only two voted for Arianism (Jesus was a created being). Over the next hundred years or more, controversy continued to plague the church and additional false teachers surfaced. Part of the protection against these heresies was to establish the Trinity as part of the early church creeds. The Nicene Creed, written and signed by the vast majority at the council, was an early example of this. Below is the Nicene Creed in the more updated AD 381 version (based on the original written in AD 325).
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Creeds help establish orthodoxy (right doctrine) and form a hedge of protection around the church. Creeds throughout early church history came into existence due to the false teachers promoting heresies. In some ways false teachings actually forced the church to do a good thing; to establish and document doctrines such as the Trinity. Even though we have a very refined definition of the Trinity, doctrinal errors continue in the church today.
Errors inside Today’s Church
Many inside the church have false concepts about the Trinity. I have corrected individuals who were modalists through my teachings on the Trinity. Another error people make is to attempt to describe the Trinity using everyday examples. People love to do this because they believe it helps them conceptually understand the doctrine and explain it to others.
All physical examples of the Trinity promote a false doctrine. I have an apple book that is supposed to help children understand the Trinity. The teaching goes like this: the apple has a skin, the fruit, and a core and yet is only one apple. This teaches the heresy of tritheism; that God is divided into three separate parts or three gods. Others use water to explain the Trinity. Water as one substance can be liquid, steam, or ice. This example promotes modalism. At different times water can be in liquid mode, ice mode, or steam mode. Three modes at three different times is modalism. Another physical example is to describe me as a husband to my wife, son to my dad, and father to my children. Here I function as one person in 3 modes. Again this promotes the heresy of modalism.
There are many more ways people try to describe the Trinity in physical terms. These examples don’t work and we need to stop using them. Remember the doctrine of the Trinity teaches one God subsists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The three persons are co-equal and co-eternal. All three persons are eternally existent and don’t go in and out of existence as modalism teaches.
The primary problem with these examples is trying to create a physical picture of an immaterial being. John 4:24 (NIV) “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” A spirit being can never be represented by a physical example. Idols can be physical examples of an immaterial being. The 2nd commandment in Exodus speaks out against any form of idol worship. Worshipping a false view of God is equal to worshipping an idol.
My encouragement is to forget all physical examples of the Trinity. We simply cannot picture God, so stop trying. The best we can do is use language to describe the doctrine of the Trinity. This is how God communicated to us through the medium of words found in the Bible. We just need to know that the doctrine of the Trinity is Biblical.
In summary, critics, like Jehovah Witnesses, have accused us of believing an invented doctrine drummed up over hundreds of years by various church councils. We don’t believe in the Trinity because of the work of the various church councils, we believe in the Trinity because it is Biblical. As you will see as I continue this series is confusion reigns in reading the Bible when a person or group rejects the doctrine of the Trinity. Without a clear understanding of the Triune God, a person will find himself or herself worshipping a false god.