Friday, April 19, 2013

An Administrative Commission of the Presbytery of Detroit & modalism & universalism

Another title for this posting could be what is modalism? And what is universalism?

The information given to the Session and Congregation [by the pastors of Grosse Point Wood] is often incorrect and inflammatory.  Much of the theology is poor and shows a lack of good teaching in the Church (Note the objection on page 215 [quotes from the session's letter to the congregation] to the Trinitarian God doing the redeeming as if Jesus alone redeems this is the heresy of Modalism).

In the meeting of April 25th 2012, they write:

They exhibit an early church heresy, Modalism- “God creates, Jesus saves, and the Spirit sustains” (three modes) when they say they believe in the Lordship of Christ and we are negating Jesus.

So what was written on page 215, which is a part of the GPW session’s letter to the congregation?*

"Point 4 & 5 [on problems with nFoG] Faith is no longer necessary for salvation.
The new constitution departs from the historic confession Presbyterian faith. nFoG begins by saying: "The good news of the Gospel is that the triune God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - creates redeems, rules and transforms all things and all people." (F-1.01) 

In Scripture and the Confessions, however, we read that while grace and salvation are available through Christ to all, not all are, in fact, redeemed. In our congregation we seek to be transforming lives into Christ. Our witness to this need is diminished if all are saved that there is no need for a life transformed by the sacrifice of Christ and the grace of God."

For the teaching and ruling elders of GPW it was never about the Trinity or who redeemed, but about who was redeemed.

In a large set of minutes that often attack teaching elders Liz Carlson Arakelian and Jim Rizer, such as the suggestion that the teaching elders are evil, the charge of modalism is laughable.[1] The AC also insists that the pastor’s heresies include rejecting universalism—the unbiblical belief that the redemption bought by Jesus on the cross automatically redeems every person. They write:

They also object to the idea that “God redeems .. all people.” This is based on Colossians 1:20 “and through him (Jesus) God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.” (Italics authors)

After quoting Romans 5:18, in bold they write, “We are just trying to show that there has been either very little or biased Biblical work done to justify their position.”


Let’s make this a teaching moment. So first the question should be asked, “What is Modalism?”

In A Handbook of Theological Terms the definition is given:

Modalism is the interpretation of the doctrine of the Trinity in which the persons of the Trinity are viewed as modes of divine action rather than eternal and essential distinctions within the divine nature itself. Such a view first flourished in the 3rd century A.D. as a form of Monarchianism. Its proponents insisted on the complete and undivided sovereignty (nonarchia) of God and thereby rejected any distinctions in the being of God, such as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Sebellius (early 3rd century) appears to have argued that God is one individual being and that the terms Father, Son and Holy Spirit are simply applied to the different forms (modes) of that one being and, therefore do not refer to eternal and intrinsic distinctions within the godhead.[2]

Reading the definition, please note the AC’s objection and definition of modalism has nothing to do with the pastors of GPW desire to maintain the biblical understanding of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The pastors did not deny the distinction of persons within the Trinity. Emphasizing the understanding that Jesus has redeemed his people by his death on the cross does not preclude the actions of the Father and the Holy Spirit, it rather emphasizes, as does the Scripture, the work that Christ has done. Modalism denies the distinctions of the persons in the Trinity. They become actions rather than persons.

In Revelation, chapter five, the elders and the creatures sing a new song to the lamb, “Worthy are you to take the book and to break its seals; for you were slain and purchased for God with your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”
As believers we often fail to understand that within the Godhead there now is the man, Jesus Christ. Now, forever, within the Godhead, humanity is represented in the risen Christ. And if we are redeemed we are in Christ, there present before the Father reconciled by the Holy Spirit. This all has to do with the three persons within the One as well as their actions. 

The author of the book of Revelation, is not reluctant to show that the death of Christ, the blood of Jesus, is the cause of our salvation, and this despite the fact that the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, being of one essence is essentially the maker, creator, designer and activator of our redemption.

The written word of God does not fail to single out Jesus as the One who lived, died and rose again for our salvation. This is not modalism, but rather the truthful proclamation of the good news. Jesus is confessed as Lord because of his actions, but this from eternity:

[Jesus] “Being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also God highly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2: 8-11)”


And on universalism, the AC members failed to do a proper exegete of the texts. They used proof texts, as nFOG does, omitting the verses that encase the one verse. For instance Col. 1:20, God reconciling all things to himself is further explained by these words in the same chapter:

“And although you were formerly aliened and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet he has now reconciled you in the his fleshly body through death, in order to present you before him holy and blameless and beyond reproach—if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation, under heaven …. (Col. 1:21-23b)
Add to this from chapter 3, “For it is because of these things [immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed] that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience …” 

 N.T. Wright speaks to all of this in his Tyndale commentary. Col. 1:18-20 speaks of Christ’s Lordship. As Wright puts it:

 “There is no sphere of existence over which Jesus is not sovereign, in virtue of his role both in creation (1:16-17) and in reconciliation (1:18-20). There can be no dualistic division between some areas which he rules and others which he does not. There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter claimed by Satan.” (79)

Of  3:6 and the “sons of disobedience,” Wright writes:

‘The wrath of God’, it hardly, needs saying, is not a malicious or capricious anger, but the necessary reaction of true holiness, justice and goodness to wickedness, exploitation and evil of every kind. This wrath begins to take effect in the squalid and degrading effects of sin itself (Romans 1:18-32). But that process is not the whole of ‘wrath’: it leads to the final judgment (Romans 1:32; 2:1-16). (135)

In this case the judgment is the final reconciliation. That is, true holiness, justice and good are preserved because those who have rejected the reconciler are judged. That is not easy to say or write, but as Wright further points out, in their rejection the sinner begins to lose their humanity until finally, they in their death, which begins for them before death, lose any trace of the image of God.

All of this is to say; teaching elders Liz Carlson Arakelian and Jim Rizer were faithful in their proclamation. Although they and many members of their past church have moved on to a much healthier place than the Presbytery of Detroit or the PC (U.S.A.) there should be an accounting of members of an Administrative Commission who were willing to call people evil, accuse them of heresy and who publically, without proof of their accusations, or proper wrestling with Scripture, published their own misdeeds.  

* The letter written, approved and signed by the Session was not even signed by the teaching elders.

[1]“ Dianne expressed concern about the evil present in the GPW Church and suggested it might be
time to remove the pastor(s) as the center of the dysfunction.”
[2] Van A. Harvey, A Handbook of Theological Terms, reprint, (New York: Touchstone Books, Simon & Schuster 1997).


Whit Brisky said...

Even if the AC had been right in its theology, which it was not, it is amazing to see it quibbling about such technical issues when the PCUSA tolerates a guy like John Shuck who denies virtually all of orthodox Christianity.

And, at least in this post, you did not address the shameful way this congregation was treated by the Presbytery. I simply do not understand why the liberal wing of the PCUSA, like TEC, would prefer empty church buildings to preserving dynamic Christian congregations even if they leave for another denomination.

Viola Larson said...

My instant thought and answer is because they do not love Jesus, in many cases I believe they do not know him. What other reason can there be for not freeing them to proclaim the gospel.

Justin Marple said...


Excellent post...thank you for caring that people understand orthodox theology and heresy!

Viola Larson said...

Thank you Justin, I believe it was Richard Baxter that said, and I am paraphrasing greatly , that the sin of heresy is worse then than other sins in that it keeps people away from the truth of salvation.

Neil D. Cowling, Teaching Elder, Presbytery of Detroit said...

Just having attended a meeting of the Presbytery of Detroit in which the final report of the Administrative Commission for Grosse Pointe Woods Presbyterian Church was received I should like to point out that the minutes that included comments quoted in your piece of April 20 were, by no means, formal minutes. They were rather reports of thoughts and bits of conversation. At no point in the proceedings were charges of heresy, specifically that of Modalism, brought. In addition, while one member of the AC observed that there was "evil" at no point was anyone said to be the evil one. From where I am across the Presbytery I think it can be said that in the whole mess there was evil. The Session and the congregation were by no means united in the express desire to leave the PCUSA. This was indeed a grave miscalculation on the part of the leadership--both pastors and a bare majority of the Session. There is still a hurting but functioning congregation at GPW with an Interim Pastor with lots of work to do.

Viola Larson said...

They were minutes published so that all might read. And that in itself is amazing. They were the minutes of an official commission whose members implied that the pastors were heretics and evil, and this when they did not even know what modalism is nor did they understand that for almost two thousand years the church has rejected universalism. And yet these pastors were condemned for holding onto orthodoxy. You should have stood up for them.

Susan Mattingly said...

Neil, From across the Presbytery it is difficult to know whether there was evil in the process or where the evil may have been. It is difficult to discern the truth of a story when one does not have access to more than one side of a story and often in sincere disagreements people see evil when they believe one opinion in particular is more worthy than another.

I am curious as to why you don't think their minutes are minutes. They are called minutes and they record approving them as minutes from one meeting to the next.

Having been through the process and being an elder who left, I can say no one ever asked us about modalism. From my perspective, if there was genuine concern of heresy it would have been nice for the AC to have followed up. It is a serious charge and we should love one another enough to reach out with support and correction if that is the case.

As a final note, there was no miscalculation. In the face of large number of people expressing a desire to change denominations, there was a sincere attempt on the part of all of session to ascertain the will of the congregation. While we were not unified in opinion on nFOG were were unified in trying to determine the will of the majority of the congregation. Sadly the policy P-10 rendered this impossible as it was impossible to even take a non-binding vote.

Those of us who left believe it was good stewardship to no longer invest time, money and energy arguing. We withdrew without money or possessions to form another church. It is our prayer that both churches can now get on with Kingdom business and reach more people for Christ as two congregations than we did before the split. We continue to pray for GPWPC and the Presbytery of Detroit as we hope you also pray for us.

Interestingly we now have people who did not attend frequently, diving into worship and mission. Similarly GPWPC has people who were not active, now being active. If we consider the fruit of the split, though undoubtedly painful, it is easy to see to see God using it to His good purpose.

Neil D. Cowling said...

Thank you, Susan, for your clarifying comments. I count both Jim and Liz as friends.
Viola, there were comments made at the Presbytery meeting that indeed exonerated both of the pastoral staff of heresy or evil. What you call an implication of both is a misreading of the character of the "minutes" in question and a misreading of the commission itself. The Stated Clerk described them as "process minutes" to me when I raised the question. Since at least one of the persons who "mused" about the question of evil is identified in the minutes and the commission as a whole is identified by name, you could have contacted that person to find out what was meant.

Viola Larson said...

The minutes were published for the public to read. Does everyone need to ask what they mean? The words are fairly clear. I am glad to know that Jim & Liz were exonerated, but the minutes still say what they say. Perhaps an apology should be added to them.