the naive modalism exception

Steven Avery

Sharp Redivivus? - A Reexamination of the Granville Sharp Rule (2004)
Daniel Wallace

Calvin Winstanley illustrated from patristic literature instances in which, if Sharp’s rule applied, the personal distinctions within the Trinity would seem to be blurred. For example, Polycarp speaks of “glory to the God and Father and Holy Spirit” (τῷ θεῷ καὶ πατρὶ καὶ ἁγίῳ πνεύματι);208 Clement of Alexandria gives praise “to the only Father and Son” (τῷ μόνῳ πατρὶ καὶ υἱῷ).209


There may be a different way to deal with Winstanley’s coup de grâce. As a preliminary comment to our suggestion, it should be pointed out that (1) all of the texts which belong in this fourth category are found in patristic literature;211 (2) all of the texts that Winstanley produced are, in fact, found in second or early third century patristic literature; (3) all of the texts involve only members of the Trinity; and (4) all of the texts involve at least two terms to describe the first person of the Trinity—e.g., “the only Father,” or “the God and Father,” etc.

It would seem that we are assuming too much about their own christological articulation when we read early church fathers. There are glimpses, here and there, that in their zeal to defend the deity of Christ they proved too much. Ignatius, for example, speaks of “the blood of God” (Eph. 1:1). The appellation “Lord and God” was often used of Christ, as well as “Savior and God,” though hardly ever was the reverse order observed in these early writers. Ignatius drops the conjunction altogether in most of his affirmations. Such language, of course, does seem to be appropriate and in keeping with the spirit of the apostolic age, but at the same time it renders the statements about the deity of Christ, if not more direct, certainly more blunt. Others seemed at times to blur the distinctions between members of the Trinity.212 This is not to say that they were unaware of the distinctions necessarily, but simply that their articulation was not what it would be in 325 or 451. At the same time, in their zeal to defend the faith—and to practice the faith—these fathers did occasionally overstate their case. Bousset argues that

This sort of hymnological community theology, the distinctive mark of which is a reveling in contradiction, finally had to lead to a complete deification, i.e., to the supplanting of God the Father or the denial of any difference between Father and Son. What is stirring here is naïve Modalism which the Logos theologians later met as their most suspicious and intolerant opponent.213

Bousset goes on to give illustrations from the second century writers who claimed that Christ “alone is the God of truth, indeed he himself [is] the Father of truth, Father of the heights, true and only God . . . “; he is even called “Lord merciful Father, redeemer Christ.”214 It is no wonder that Bousset quips, “Naïve Modalism cannot be more strongly expressed, and here it is expressed in the unreflective language of prayer.”215

208Martyrdom of Polycarp, ch. 22.

209Paedagogus 3.12.101.

210Doctrine of the Greek Article, 67-69. Kuehne (“Christ’s Deity [Part IV],” 18-19), and Blum (“Studies in Problem Areas,” 32-34) use similar reasoning.

211This, of course, would not inherently have to be the case.

212Admittedly, the NT in places seems a bit fuzzy about such distinctions (cf. Acts 20:28; 2 Cor 3:17; 1 Thess 3:11, etc.).

213Kyrios Christos, 327.

214Ibid., 328-29.

215Ibid., 329. For other early examples of such confusion, see R. A. Norris, Jr., The Christological Controversy (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980) 4, 5, 7, 11, 13-14, etc.