Musings on the Eternal Son

Fred Sanders a Trinitarian professor at Biola University made a statement for the doctrine of the Eternal Son. He stated:
The fundamental problem of all forms of modalism is this: if God, in order to reveal Himself, becomes something other than what He is, then he has not revealed Himself but has revealed something else. In this case, if God emerges from a state of being a non-modal and non-interpersonal being to become a modal, interpersonal being in the story of Jesus, then He has not revealed His true non-modal, non-interpersonal self. He has revealed instead a Father-God who has interpersonal fellowship with Himself in the modal person of the incarnate God, Jesus Christ. But according to Oneness theology, that interpersonal fellowship of Father and Son is precisely the thing He is not. So the unipersonal God attempts to reveal Himself but instead reveals an interpersonal divine being. The early Christians recognized this dilemma and solved it by confessing that if God reveals Himself to us by showing Himself to have a Son, then He must always have had a Son to show us in the fullness of time. Modalists, including Oneness Pentecostals, should face the unpleasant implication that their view makes God reveal Himself as that which He is not. Such a revelation, by its nature, cannot be true.

Fred Sanders


Sanders seems to be interpreting Scripture through the lens of ecclessiology. He is at least influenced by it heavily. God is not eternally "Father" anymore than he is eternally "Son". In the Old Testament His named is revealed to us thousands of times as "YHWH". Here it must be obvious that God has various titles in His relations with His creatures.

God's title as "Father" serves to describe Him in more than one sense of Fatherhood, i.e. Creator. The Old Testament concept of Fatherhood never relates to a Trinity of persons. It relates to His created people, Israel, and is indeed the very one who brought Adam into being at the dawn of Creation.

This assumption leads to a more problematic understanding of the Trinity, at least in the Old Testament texts. For example, if the Son is eternal and was just as coequal and coeternal as the Father, in person, then His absence as such a person in the Old Testament texts is further confounding of the properties of the persons in the Trinity. In the 4th Century the Cappodocian fathers basically rendered the properties of the persons of the Trinity as beyond human reason and incomprehensible.

Fifth, I feel Sanders is making the assumption that modalism is Oneness theology. This might be a misconception and/or a failure to articulate proper theology on someone's part, but Oneness theology is not ancient modalism. It should be known that all of our excerpts or texts that relate to Oneness teachers, notably Sabellius, Noetus, or Praxeas are found in quotations by Trinitarian apologists. It should also be noted, in historical context, that many of these Trinitarian apologists weren't even bishops or held any office. In fact, Tertuallian lets us know that he discounts the "majority" who disagreed with his "trinitas" as simple, yet not unlearned. That was kind, but it was also a concession. It concedes, in some sense that Trinitarian theology is a developmental dogma that was not even widely held, but in fact seen as a violation of true Monotheism early on (See Tertuallian "Against Praxeas:) Trinitarianism has proceeded from ecclesiastical efforts. I would also say that Protestantism has not protested enough.

Much of what we read of such Oneness teachers like Sabellius or Praxeas come from the pen of Trinitarian apologists like Tertullian or Hippolytus, etc. From their accounts these modalists (a word imposed upon them most likely) all believed in one God and one person of God. It is in the discussion of nature or humanity of Christ, in some sense, that it is distinguished from Oneness theology.That is why UPC teachers should and continue to say that our theology is coming from the Scripture texts and not ancient modalism.

For example, Modalism makes Christ to be a shell or some temporal mode, i.e. pure Modalism. Some Oneness Pentecostals do speak of Jesus manifesting in temporal terms such as "skin on" or "robed in flesh" etc. I believe Oneness theology disagrees with them though. An example of Oneness theology would be by the pen of Dr. Daniel Segraves or Dr. David Bernard. Neither of them write in such modalist terms. In fact, they both defy it at times.

Ultimately, it is not easy to say that these early Oneness teachers were totally right but neither can we say that they are totally wrong either. There is common beliefs found with Sabellius and Praxes or Noetus. Due to the fact, however, that their writings are found only in Trinitarian apologetics (Tertullian, Hippolytus, etc) we do not know some very important things:

a. if what we know is not distortion or
b. if we even know everything or the full extent of their writings.

The Restoration of Christianity was translated into English in 2007. Some may know that he wrote a lengthy piece against the Trinity and was burned by fire fueled by green wood and his own books. Servetus suffered a terrible death because He would not recant his beliefs. In 1628 William Harvey would use the writings of Servetus to explain blood flow.

I believe that the Son of God was truly God and man united inseparably. The humanity and deity were united inseparably into one divine person. The Son however was subject and in perfect obedience to the Father. This does not deny His existence as a true human. God existing as man. I do not believe God assumed a human person but rather Jesus is the only expressed image of the Divine Being. The distinction of existence is metaphysical and existential. God is always the eternal God Almighty but He did come into human history. He entered into His creation. God was in Christ (2 Cor. 5:19) bringing us back to proper relationship. Jesus was the Way and the Ultimate Sacrifice. He is the visible imprint of the invisible God's being (See Hebrews 1:3 NRSV).


Jason Dulle said...


I agree with your response to Sander's argument as you stated it, but I'm not sure the argument as you stated it is what Sanders is really arguing. It seems to me that Sanders is not arguing that God cannot be eternally Father unless He has an eternal Son to be an eternal Father to, but rather that God cannot change in the incarnation. If He was not an interpersonal being before the incarnation, He cannot be an interpersonal being after the incarnation. Maybe I'm off base here. Having the full context might help.

But if that is what he is arguing, I think he is off base. All Oneness theology claims is that the unipersonal God took up human existence without leaving behind His divine existence. That one person came to exist in two distinct ways: as God, as man, simultaneously. Even Trinitarians confess this of the second person. The only difference between Oneness and Trinitarian theology in this respect is the person that underwent the incarnation. According to us it was the only person of God there is. According to them it was the 2nd person in a tripersonal being. So any criticism of us equally applies to them.

What he might be pointing out is that for Oneness theology there is no relationship within God prior to the incarnation, but there is after the incarnation (whereas in Trinitarian theology there is an eternal relationship). This isn't really the case though. The relationship is between God's divine and human modes of existence, not between multiple persons. So again, nothing has changed except for the addition of a new mode of existence as man, and that is the same for Trinitarian theology.


James Anderson said...

Jason, thanks for the reply. As always you make some very good points.

Sanders was actually writing against Oneness Pentecostalism in a broader context. I have it in a Word.document but was not responding to it as a whole. I wanted to take particular note to that point though, a musing on the notion of the eternal Son. I think the eternal Son doctrine is contingent heavily upon the concept that the transcendent God is three in being, yet the Father does enjoy some subordination Himself, in their view. It is neatly tucked away as being in His nature, but even there, there is no room in my opinion. God, all by Himself flung the stars into existence. He did not have some trio of persons to counsel with, yet who and what was to become was yet with Him. Even the Lamb slain from the foundation of the earth...ironically in the Trinitarian understanding of logos pros theos (Word with God in "face to face" relationship)..for the Body of Christ.

We are not subordinationists for sure, but neither are we modalists. I think he relies upon the latter notion too much. We are not modalist in the sense of the word it is popularly understood. Which is that God is acting out modes in time, when in reality, as you alluded to, He exists in transcendence and is yet immanent in the world.

Adversus Trinitas

"...unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins." (John 8:24 ESV)