Home > church history, church life, hymns > Hymns and Poor Theology: Holy God “Became Perfect Man”? (Modalism)

Hymns and Poor Theology: Holy God “Became Perfect Man”? (Modalism)

June 8, 2015

It’s time again for a topic I occasionally write about (see previous posts):  Hymns and wrong/bad theology.

At least some churches now frequently sings a simple, one paragraph song called “The Gospel Song,” with the following lyrics:

Holy God, in love became Perfect Man to bear my blame
On the cross He took my sin. By His Death I live again.

No doubt the people singing it understand the real doctrine of the trinity, and just don’t think about what song lyrics actually say – and might claim I am being too picky. If so, I am in good company, following the example of the late S. Lewis Johnson, who often pointed out the wrong theology in hymns, as for example with one of the phrases in the chorus of “One Day” (“living He loved me, dying He saved me, buried He carried my sins far away, Rising He Justified, Freely forever”):  I don’t sing that, “Rising, He justified,” because it seems to me that what the apostle teaches here is that the resurrection of Christ is the evidence that the justification has been completed.  We’re not justified by the resurrection.  We’re justified by His death.

The simple “gospel song” above has a much more obvious problem, in that by its simple lyric, leaving so much of Christian truth out, it actually teaches modalismHoly God … became Perfect Man(?)

The early church, responding to the many errors and heresies regarding the nature of God and Christ, would have found such a song quite unwelcome. Modalism — one God who becomes different members of the Trinity at different times — appeared by the early 3rd century and was strongly denounced by early leaders including Tertullian. The Church, in its creeds and confessions, carefully worked out its statements about the Triune nature of one God in three persons, and Christ having two natures in one person.

Of course local churches like to introduce new songs, especially ones that have a simple tune and simple words. But why not, instead, provide a song with lyrics of actual confessions or creeds from the historic church, such as the Apostles’ Creed (itself a fairly brief statement, yet far more correct and comprehensive than the above “gospel song”). Indeed, two of my favorite Christian rock groups from years past, Petra and Rich Mullins, have tunes with the lyrics from the Apostles’ Creed, as noted in this interesting article.  The Rich Mullins song stays close to the original wording of the Apostles’ creed; and put to song, this creed is easily learned — and a much better alternative to a four-line “gospel song” which omits too much, to the point that its statement about God denies the Trinity for the teaching of modalism.

Creed, by Rich Mullins

I believe in God the Father, Almighty Maker of Heaven and Maker of Earth,
And in Jesus Christ His only begotten Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, He was crucified and dead and buried.

CHORUS:
And I believe, what I believe is what makes me what I am.
I did not make it, no it is making me.
It is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man

I believe that He who suffered, was crucified, buried, and dead
He descended into hell and on the third day, rose again.
He ascended into Heaven, where He sits at God’s mighty right hand.
I believe that He’s returning to judge the quick and the dead of the sons of men.

CHORUS

I believe in God the Father almighty Maker of Heaven and Maker of Earth
and in Jesus Christ His only begotten Son, Our Lord.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, one Holy Church, the communion of Saints,
The forgiveness of sin, I believe in the resurrection.
I believe in a life that never ends.

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  1. June 8, 2015 at 12:16 pm

    Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.

  2. Neil Schoch
    June 8, 2015 at 4:37 pm

    Hi Lynda,
    I will probably also be accused of nit picking, and not for the first time, but there are doctrinal problems in the song you mentioned.

    I believe in God the Father, Almighty Maker of Heaven and Maker of Earth.

    Whilst true, this would sound to me that God the Father created the universe Himself, instead of the doctrinal truth that the universe was created by all three persons of the Godhead.
    John 1; Hebrews 1, and Colossians 1 categorically state that Jesus Christ is the Creator of the universe.
    Genesis 1:2 and Job 33:4 e.g. state that The Holy Spirit was present and active at the very beginning, and is in fact the Creator, in Job.
    And so we either have three Gods claiming to be the Creator or we have the Triune God who can be described as:- “Within the nature of the one eternal God there are three eternal and coequal Persons, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
    No Hymn writer is ever going to get all that into one line unless they use the word, “Triune God.”

    He descended into hell and on the third day, rose again.

    The Lord Jesus did not spend the three days and nights in “Hell” when His body was in the grave. Where was His Spirit for that time? Many scholars will say Heaven, usually based on the scripture, “touch Me not, I ascend unto the Father.” He did eventually!

    Psalm 16:9-10 says:- “For You will not abandon My soul in Sheol, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.” You can not be abandoned anywhere unless you were there in the first place. Your Holy One can be none other than Jesus Christ. There is no dispute about the latter part but the reality is that Sheol is not Hell. Sheol is temporary – Hell is eternal. The Sheol that Christ went to after His death on the Cross would have been the paradise described as Abraham’s bosom in Luke 16.

    Although doctrinal accuracy is very important to me in everything, it would sometimes be very hard to express it properly in the confines of a Hymn or Chorus.

    What I have written is only a “bare bones” account of the subject, so imagine the difficulty of getting it absolutely correct in a short chorus. Needless to say thousands have, praise God.

    If I am not correct please feel free to correct me and I would much rather be saying something positive. However the subject of the post was about error.

    God bless!

    • June 8, 2015 at 6:58 pm

      Thanks, Neil. The lyrics of that song are straight from the “Apostles’ Creed,” an early doctrinal statement, developed by the late 4th century. And as is well-known in study of early church history, the development of systematic theology, the working out of Christian doctrine, took a long time; the early church did not have the same depth of doctrinal thought as the post-Reformation church.

      The 17th century confessional statements, such as the Westminster Confession and the 1689 London Baptist Confession, are indeed much clearer and more specific in doctrinal points — but due to their length, it would be quite impressive if someone could come up with a song lyric that included all or even certain parts of those confessions.

      But given the choices for a song lyric, the Apostles’ Creed comes much closer than the current one-verse “gospel song” — referencing doctrine at least as far as the early church had worked it out. They did not have doctrine down to the specifics that would come over a thousand years later, yet had the general understanding — and in more specifics regarding the Trinity than what passes for general evangelical ideas today (as with the example of the “Gospel Song”).

  3. September 9, 2015 at 5:00 am

    Unless I’ve misunderstood, I believe Neil’s point is that the Apostles’ Creed is no less doctrinally flawed than the song you’ve singled out for criticism here.

    • September 9, 2015 at 6:20 am

      Yes, Neil’s point relates to the actual wording of the Apostles’ Creed. And it is agreed that the early church did not have their doctrine developed as fully as in later years — but the Apostles’ Creed comes closer to the truth than a “gospel song” with wording about how “God became man,” which is plain modalism.
      Also, see this later post in reference to the Apostles’ Creed and one problem with it, the statement about “Christ descended into hell.”

  4. andydoerksen
    September 10, 2015 at 7:42 am

    But Lynda – Scripture teaches that God /did/ “become man” — i.e., when such wording is properly understood in a larger (biblical) context. Note the following biblical phrases, which, if taken out of the Canonical context — could be “faulted” for obscuring or even “contradicting” Trinitarian doctrine, or obscuring or “contradicting” some other doctrine.

    If “the Word became flesh” (Jn. 1:14), does that mean He ceased being Spirit at the same time? If the human Jesus, as the prophesied “son,” is “God with us” (Matt. 1:23), does that mean the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all jointly became incarnate? If Christ “is God over all” (Rom. 9:5), does that mean Christ is Father, Son, /and/ Holy Spirit? If “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 1:19), does that mean, again, that the whole Godhead was incarnated?

    Since “the mystery of godliness” was “manifested in the flesh” (1Tim. 3:16), and since we know it was God the Son who was thus manifested — does that mean the term “godliness” /doesn’t/ apply to the Father and the Holy Spirit? When Jesus told Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9), does that mean Jesus /is/ the Father?

    If “he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source” (Heb. 2:11), does that mean that Jesus isn’t the Creator, but merely a creature? If “it is not angels that [Jesus] helps, but . . . the offspring of Abraham” (Heb. 2:16), does this mean Jesus /doesn’t/ help Gentiles? And in John we read that while “the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (1:17) So does that mean Moses, by contrast, /didn’t/ give us truth?

    My point is that it seems rather silly and unfair to take one phrase out of a poetic context and impugn it for somehow “compromising” the Trinity, when as I’ve just demonstrated, similar phrases in Scripture, divorced from their respective contexts, could on the same grounds be likewise impugned.

    • September 10, 2015 at 8:15 am

      John 1:14 does refer specifically to the second person of the Trinity: “the Word.” Colossians 1:19 is referring to the second person of the Trinity. The statements in the confessions regarding the Trinity detail the unity and distinctions within the Trinity, and this topic is too broad in scope for casual blog comments.

      Suffice it to say that the creeds and confessions of the church are far more careful and exact in their wording regarding the relationships between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – quite opposite of our modern age (with its general lack of familiarity with the statements in the creeds and confessions), such that they would never have stated “God became man.” Lectures series on Early Church History, and lessons going through confessional statements (such as the 1689 LBCF) also make this point about the careful wording of scripture and careful wording of doctrinal ideas; those who refuted modalism in the early centuries, were responding to the error that “God became man.”

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