If God is one, then do we just see different faces?
Sabellius advocated the oneness of God, in the face of heresies that risked a polytheism of God, Jesus, and Spirit. In his emphasis on the unity of God, he argued that the Son and Spirit were simply faces that one God presented to humans, like rays from the sun. The Father or Creator was one, presenting Godself in creation, then in logos or Christ, then in Spirit.
Modalism, or monarchianism, or terms combining those words, were applied to Sabellianism by others. The risks that opponents saw were that God hung on the cross, not Christ, and that the Spirit had less living freedom. The cost of incarnation and of charism lost fans on two wings – but generally, the position was popular for its simplicity: 1 God presents 3 faces.
Tertullian and Hippolytus opposed Sabellius’ position, suggesting that the majority of people agreed with it, but that it was wrong nevertheless. They argued that the Greek linguistic terms caused all the confusion- though their Latin alternatives just raised new issues.
Sabellius was rejected by councils in the 6th century church. That suggests that that his position and related movement was still viable as a heresy. The appeal is clear enough – this may be operative theology for most United Church folks, of one God choosing how to present a different face in different circumstances.
Roy Lichtenstein’s pop-art image is intended to provoke a kind of abstract reflection in comparison with the orthodox symbols of trinity. If Jesus and the Spirit are not rays from the one sun, are they lesser lights, or reflections, subordinate to the one God, shown by God in turn as we need it?
Socially, in pastoral practice, the symbols of unity and the risks of competing rallying points are operating, not simply abstract theories. Partisans of Spirit, and fans of secret gnosis or logos, or pagan pantheisms, threatened to become competitors rallying around their piece of God – the goal was not to subordinate them, but to include them.
Modalism is a tempting heresy in interfaith dialogue and liberal culture now, taking the easy road of affirming that ‘we all worship the same God, who is presented and perceived in different ways at different times’.
How important is it for us to cling to the incarnation, and to the living Spirit, without subordinating them?