Mormons as Modalists

Divine Investiture and Modalism

In my last post, I discussed how Divine Investiture is the lynchpin of all Mormon Doctrine of Deity and probably of all Mormon Doctrines period.  Even non-Mormon theology, if it lacks Divine Investiture, is often logically inconsistent.

An interesting fact of Divine Investiture is that it makes Mormons “Modalists,” after a fashion.

Here I pause to the storm of disaffected Mormon and anti-Mormon protest. “No, Mormons aren’t Modalists! They are the opposite of Modalists! They are Freakin’ Tritheists!”

I also pause to let the Believing Mormons protest (assuming they’ve even heard of Modalism before). “No! I am not a Modalist! That’s… a heresy! It’s worse than… than… the Trinity Doctrine!

To explain what I really mean, I must hearken back to a previous unintended discussion that happened during my original post about The Book of Mormon’s Doctrine of Deity.  In the comments that followed, anti-Mormons and Mormons-skeptics alike focused on Mosiah 15:1-4 which they insisted taught something they called “Serial Modalism.” This charge has become common place amongst anti-Mormons and disaffected Mormons and one might say this is now part of their shared theology about Mormons. They insist that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon and originally taught that Jesus’ spirit is the Father and His body is the Son. [1]

Mosiah 15:1-4 can be read in two ways. Those that believe in the LDS Church choose to read it as Divine Investiture. Those that do not believe in the LDS Church choose to read it as the Father being the Spirit that is placed into Jesus’ body.

Now to be sure, other scriptures in the Book of Mormon deny the second possibility (see 2 Nephi 31:11-12, 15) and even Mosiah 15:1-4 seems to choke on the “Serial Modalism” interpretation a bit. [2]

Furthermore, so-called ‘Serial Modalism” is not traditional Modalism at all. Traditional Modalism is that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are a single being/person that takes multiple forms or “modes” (thus the name “Modalism”) and sometimes simultaneously. The Sabellius (i.e. traditional) form of Modalism held that the persons of the Trinity were three modes of action of the one true God. [3]

Instead, “Serial Modalism” seems to be an alternative name for the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg. Interestingly, despite its name, “Serial Modalism” has no modes. Because of this, it does not surprise me at all that Emmanuel Swedenborg denied that his doctrine was a form of Modalism. [4]

But this is a losing cause for me because too many scholars have already stuck Swedenborgianism with the title of “Serial Modalism” and that’s now what it means. I am fond of saying that words only mean what we decide they mean, so I will concede this point. Very well, Swedenborgianism is “Serial Modalism” and vice verse. This is at least consist with the idea that Modalism is “..the name given to an ancient heretical teaching that denies that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct Persons within the one Divine Being or Godhead.” [5]

Divine Investiture is Modalism

But now it’s easy to see why Divine Investiture is actually a form of Modalism, for Divine Investiture insists that each person of the Godhead represents – fully represents – the whole Godhead as well as the Persons in the Godhead. In other words, the Persons of God are effecitvely “modes of God.” In Mormon Doctrine Jesus is a mode of God, just as the Holy Ghost is, and so is the Father. They are all fully and completely God because the word “God,” in that context, is their Divine Nature, their one will, their group identity.

If Swedenborg’s Doctrine of Deity can fit under the huge umbrella known as “Modalism” while having no modes at all, certainly we can admit that Divine Investiture is much more so a form of Modalism because it does have “modes” of “God” and does deny that each Person in the Trinity is always distinct from the others.

Representational Modalism

Let’s make up a name for the Mormon form of Modalism. I’ll dub it “Representational Modalism” because all the Persons (i.e. individuals) that make up God (or the Godhead) fully represent God (or the Godhead) as well as representing the other individuals within that Godhead. Thus “God” can be instantiated into an infinite number of Modes or Persons. As noted in my previous post, this is the very basis for The Trinity to swell to an Infinity without resulting in a contradiction. Representational Modalism (i.e. Divine Investiture) is an indispensable part of the Mormon Doctrine of Deity.

Trinitarian vs. Modalism – Not Mutually Exclusive After All

“Wait! You just contradicted yourself!” I hear protesters shouting. “You already insisted that Mormons were Trinitarians way back at this post! Therefore, you are contradicting yourself because all scholars agree that Modalism and Trinitarianism are mutually exclusive beliefs.”

The problem is that all scholars are wrong on this point.

Look back at my Mormons as Trinitarians post and read this Mormons as Modalist post a few times. The Mormon Doctrine of Deity is, beyond doubt, both a legitimate form of Trinitarianism and also a legitimate form of Modalism, all without being contradictory. And of course the Mormon Doctrine of Deity is already widely accepted as a form of Tritheism. Therefore, Mormons are living breathing proof all the scholars are wrong based on the positive existence of this Black Swan.

Now to be sure, I am not asserting that the traditional doctrines of Tritheism, Modalism, and Trinitarianism are logically compatible. Mormons are none of these. (It’s not even clear that a traditional doctrine of Trinitarianism exists except as a contradiction.) But if you accept non-traditional forms – specifically social Trinitarianism, Representational Modalism, and one-moral-will-Tritheism – then Mormons do prove all three doctrines are logically compatible. [6] Truly God is the color white, because He is all colors. In other words, all Christian Doctrines of Deity are, in a sense, correct.

Of course it would also be equally acceptable to say Mormons are none of the above because they aren’t traditional forms of any of those Doctrines of Deity. So take your pick on how you wish to say this because both ways are true depending on how you define your terms.

Notes

[1] “They insist that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon and originally taught that Jesus’ spirit is the Father and His body is the Son.” In particular, an Evangelical anti-Mormon named Aaron, pointed me to a paper call Joseph Smith’s Modalism: Sabellian Sequentialism or Swedenborgian Expansionism? by Ron Huggins that made this claim. He even sent me a link to it on the anti-Mormon site “Institute for Religious Research.” (As a matter of principle, I do not link to Anti-Mormon sites.

Mormon-Skeptics Rick Grunder and Joe Geisner also insisted upon this interpretation, though Rick admitted it wasn’t quite that simple.

In addition, the anti-Mormon site “Mormon Wiki,” under the heading of “Modalism,” insists that “Early Mormonism taught a form of modalism, as is evident in Joseph Smith’s retranslation of the Bible (the “JST”) and the 1830 version of the Book of Mormon.” That site (quoting the Huggins article) defines “Modalism” as “…the name given to an ancient heretical teaching that denies that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct Persons within the one Divine Being or Godhead.”

This point of view ignores all counter evidence. As stated in my Book of Mormon Doctrine of Deity post and the following comments the Modalist charge for the Book of Mormon rests upon one passage only: Mosiah 15:1-4. Without this passage the other “modalistic” references in the Book of Mormon are much more vague, particularly if you don’t accept that “Father of Heaven and Earth” is equivalent to “The Father.”

However, there is also a passage in the Book of Mormon that denies the Modalist charge: 2 Nephi 31:11-12, 15.

All three sources mentioned above (Huggin’s paper, Grunder’s Paper, and Mormon Wiki) all fail to mention 2 Nephi 31:11-12, 15 in their analysis at all. When I confronted Grunder over this, he suggested that 2 Nephi 31 was only meant figuratively, a methodology that works against Mosiah 15:1-4 equally well. A figurative 2 Nephi 31 would save his personal position, but doesn’t explain why he left that analysis out of his paper. It is also noteworthy that to support his claim that 2 Nephi 31 is figurative Grunder had to quote a Trinitarian he claimed was being figurative and then claim Modalists would be too. This seemed like a stretch to me. And I don’t actually believe the Trinitarian quote he gave me was intended to be figurative either.

In any case, this footnote review should establish beyond doubt that there are numerous anti-Mormon and Mormon-skeptic sources that insist that the Book of Mormon teaches “Modalism” on the grounds that it teaches that Jesus’ Spirit is the Father and His body the Son in Mosiah 15:1-4. Therefore any doctrine that merges or mingles the distinct Persons within the “one Divine Being or Godhead,” including Divine Investiture, must also be a form of Modalism by their standards.

[2] “…even Mosiah 15:1-4 seems to choke on the ‘Serial Modalism’ interpretation a bit.”  “However, it’s not really Swedenborgian either since v. 2 specifically states that Jesus is God (in v.4) due to subjecting His Flesh to the will of the Father. To the best of my knowledge, Swedenborg had no corollary to this. And this is to say nothing of the rest of the context of the Book of Mormon, which does not allow for Swedenborgian teachings at all.” (As quoted in my Book of Mormon Doctrine of Deity post. This deserves more attention in a future post.)

[3] “The Sabellius (i.e. traditional) form of Modalism held that the persons of the Trinity were three modes of action of the one true God.” In The Physics of Immortality Frank Tipler writes, “Sabellius, probably the most important modalist, held that the three Persons are the three modes of God in the same sense that the Sun is bright, hot, and round.” (p. 313)

I’ve always wondered how traditional Modalists justify their belief in Modalism. A fair question would be “why would God appear in multiple forms/modes under different names?” Apparently to cause as much confusion as possible, as there is no other reason given as to why God takes on these modes. It serves no purposes and adds nothing yet causes profound confusion. Imagine giving yourself a different name for each role you played in your life.

[4] “Interestingly, despite its name, “Serial Modalism” has no modes. Because of this, it does not surprise me at all that Emmanuel Swedenborg denied that his doctrine was a form of Modalism.” Not everyone considers Swedenborgianism to be a form of Modalism. Wikipedia explains: “Both Michael Servetus and Emanuel Swedenborg have been interpreted as being proponents of Modalism, however, neither describes God as appearing in three modes. Both describe God as the One Divine Person, Jesus Christ, who has a Divine Soul of Love, Divine Mind of Truth, and Divine Body of Activity. Jesus, through a process of uniting his human form to the Divine, became entirely One with His Divine Soul from the Father to the point of having no distinction of personality.” This is not classic modalism. In fact, the only thing it has in common with modalism is the lack of three “persons.”

[5] As quoted in Joseph Smith’s Modalism: Sabellian Sequentialism or Swedenborgian Expansionism? by Ron Huggins.

[6] “Now to be sure, I am not asserting that the traditional doctrines of Tritheism, Modalism, and Trinitarianism are logically compatible. Mormons are none of these.” Some might argue that traditional Tritheism is synonymous with the Mormon Doctrine of Deity. But this article just established this as factually false. The existence of Divine Investiture as a doctrine is non-standard for Tritheism. Full Tritheism would never admit to mixing persons like Divine Investiture insists upon. Thus the Mormon Doctrine of Deity is a form of Tritheism, but only a non-standard form of it.

On the other hand, Tritheism is a logical contradiction without Divine Investiture because you can’t have three all-powerful wills, so actually Mormons are the only logical form of Tritheism that can exist, just like they are the only logical form of Trinitarianism that can exist.

So take your pick as these are just words and labels and don’t really fully fit Mormon beliefs but only approximate the underlying ideas.

8 thoughts on “Mormons as Modalists

  1. Pingback: Mormons as Modalists | Junior Ganymede

  2. Bruce, I think it’s a bit dangerous for your average Latter-day Saint to mix the “philosophies of men” with the reality of God because there is so much we don’t understand and are not meant to understand about the nature of God. The philosophies of men were invented after God, and without a full knowledge of the nature of God, so they will always have an incomplete knowledge and way of describing God.

    By your average Latter-day Saint I don’t mean you or even your average reader of this or any other blog. I think this kind of speculation is certainly interesting for many people.

    But God and Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith as separate beings for a purpose. We are supposed to see that they are separate beings with bodies. At the same time, we are supposed to realize that they and the Holy Ghost are unified in purpose. That is probably enough for 99 percent of Latter-day Saints.

  3. I guess it depends on whether or not you find it valuable for that 99 percent of Latter-day Saints to be able to adequately compare our beliefs to these categories we get stuck into by others against our will.

    Personally, I’m in the “we need to be able to communicate with others” camp. If that means we need to know how Modalism compares to Trinity and realize we are simultaneously neither or both, depending on how you define them, then I’m all in favor.

    And personally, I like the idea that all these various concepts of God turned out to be equal approximations of the truth. It means the centuries of inquisition were all for nothing, of course, but it also means God is with all of them to some degree. The real issue wasn’t doctrinal (all were “true” in a sense) the real issues were loving your neighbor.

  4. The problem is that people get really stuck on labels. You have had the experience that most Mormons have had talking to a “mainstream” Christian and trying to explain our concept of the Trinity compared to theirs. I think this post is good in that you show how there are cross-over points of agreement, but I don’t think your average person is capable of explaining that in a way that will make any sense. Just my .02.

  5. I can’t really disagree. I guess I should say that I am not in favor of discussing “modalism” or any other philosophy of God in Church outside of the standard Mormon one. I am really more advocating Mormons (or anyone) making a point of educating themselves better in general.

    Will this convince “orthodox Christians” to give up their nefarious ways and start disagreeing with Mormons over what they actually believe in instead of caricatures? Probably not.

  6. What kind of Gods are you talking about? The God of the BofM that is spirit? The God of the later J Smith, he says is flesh and bones? The God that earned His way to God status by being a mortal man and overcoming such sins as adultery, fornication, lying, beating His wife, viewing pornography etc. The God in the BofM that is eternal and everlasting to everlasting? I’m confused.

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