The Sevenfold god of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ and the Problem of Modalism

The Sevenfold god of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ and the Problem of Modalism

Mark Norman, GWC Faculty, Biblical Studies, Philosophy
Lth (BISA), Bth Hons (UNISA), Cth, (University of Cambridge) Mth (UNISA), Dth (UNISA).

As most of us are aware George Martin’s fantasy story, the ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ saga – originally to comprise a trilogy but now extended to seven books – are all international best sellers with well over 29 million copies sold.

Moreover, as a visual masterpiece, the sensational television series, ‘Game of Thrones’ (now into its seventh season) is one of the greatest hits in HBO history.

Interestingly, although J. R.R. Tolkien wrote what is perhaps the most singular creation myth in modern fiction (‘The Silmarillion’) the focus of the ‘Lord of Rings’ remains largely on the main characters and their own choices rather than actions arising from divine intervention. However, such is not the case with the Westeros of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire,’ where, as with our contemporary world the worship of various deities abounds.

Firstly, amongst others, there are the ‘old gods’ of the north, worshipped by the first men before the Andal invasion. Secondly, we have the ‘drowned god’ of the Iron Islands. Then readers encounter  ‘R’hllor,’ the so-called ‘lord of light’ as worshipped by Mellisandre the Red Priestess and others.

Our specific interest, however, falls on the worship of the ‘Seven.’ Six thousand years before the chronological setting of the events of the books, the race of the Andals invaded, subduing much of the territories of the first men. Moreover, arriving in Westeros, the Andals also brought their religion, i.e., their faith in the Seven. With the seven pointed star as its emblem, this religion is somewhat analogous to medieval Catholicism (apparently George Martin has termed himself a ‘lapsed Catholic’). Originally this religious order was headed up by the High Septon presiding over ‘priests’ (septa or septons). The faith, whose headquarters was originally located at the Great Sept of Baelor in King’s Landing, includes various ceremonies, a sacred text (The Seven Pointed Star) places of worship (Septs), even monastic orders. Moreover, in a bid for absolute power – in season five of the television series – the High Sparrow or the faith’s self appointed leader or ‘pope’ arrives at King’s landing. After raising a fanatical army of converts (the ‘faith militant’) he seeks to exercise influence over the throne through dominating Tommen, the young Lannister king.

Fascinatingly, it would appear that Martin’s sevenfold god, or the ‘one god with seven aspects’ is loosely modelled on the Christian Trinity. This deity is comprised of the ‘Father,’ the ‘Mother,’ the ‘Maiden,’ the ‘Crone,’ the ‘Warrior,’ the ‘Smith,’ and the ‘Stranger.’ It would appear that these distinctive ‘modes’ are intended to represent certain aspects of human life or experience.

Moreover, Biblically sensitive readers might receive the impression that in practical terms, Martin’s sevenfold deity is an example of what Christian theologians term the heresy of modalism. Christian modalism promotes the idea that God’s triunity is not actually part of his very nature. Alternatively, the one God only appears to us in three ‘modes’ of the self-same one person. Thus in the ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ books, it appears that the god of the Seven, although one god, appears nevertheless in seven ‘modes’ or manifestations.

To the modern-day Christian, obscure discussions respecting the Trinity appear irrelevant to contemporary challenges facing our faith. Yet how we view the Trinity is of critical importance in fully grasping the Biblical message of salvation. Realising this, the early church grappled with articulating the Bible’s teaching on the mystery of Trinity in the face of false teachings. It was satisfied the Scriptures taught that God is both one God but also three persons. However, certain questions arose from this conviction, one of which was: ‘What do we mean when we state that God is both a unity and yet three persons at the same time?’

Here, a couple of reflections would be in order:

Firstly we need to acknowledge the mystery at the heart of God’s very nature. Because God’s ways are beyond our own understanding, we are subsequently not free to speculate what or who He is like. In other words God has to tell us who He is and this is precisely why the revelation of the Bible is so important. We need God to reveal himself to us, or chances are we will get Him wrong. This is why the First Commandment forbids us from using our imaginations to arrive at our own conclusions regarding who He is. While it is certainly entertaining, even imaginative for George Martin to boldly propose a sevenfold god for his fantasy world, this is obviously contrary to God’s authentic revelation of himself.

Secondly, after some controversy and much reflection on the Scriptures, the early church came to see that the notion of modalism in the sense of God not really being three persons in and of himself, but only manifesting himself as such, was a false teaching or a ‘heresy.’

But at the end of the day we might again as modern believers ask: What difference does it make? Some might even propose that it does make a certain amount of superficial sense to conclude that the ‘threeness’ of God is only an ‘apparent threeness.’ Surely this would enable us to relate to Him more effectively, even if this superficial triunity is not really who God is in himself, but merely ‘aspects’ of God, i.e., like three facets in a diamond?

Why, contrary to modalism, is it so important to affirm that each person of the Trinity is an individual in Himself? Why is it important to uphold the Scriptural fact that the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Holy Spirit? There are various reasons why this must be so. In this regard, consider the individual roles of each Trinitarian member in securing our salvation. Indeed, we will discover that humanity’s very redemption depends on the three members of the Trinity fulfilling their independent tasks. This is clear in both the Scriptures and in the Nicene Creed.

In the Creed the three independent Trinitarian persons, are portrayed as working in perfect harmony as the One God. For example, of the Son the Creed states: We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate…’ 

Observe that for the Father to send the Son to assume flesh as a man for our salvation, Jesus cannot simply be regarded as one ‘aspect’ of the Father (or the Spirit for that matter)! After all, the Father does not send himself!

Of the Holy Spirit, the Creed states: We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.’ Cleary, as in the case of the Son the Spirit is an independent person, playing his own crucial role in the achievement of our redemption.

Finally, it is also of some interest to note that as with the other gods of Westeros, Martin’s Sevenfold god is a rather cold and austere deity whose interest in the lot of mankind is strictly limited. As such, portraying such a divine being as modal in nature will appear quite adequate in accordance with this restricted role. This god fails to decisively intervene on behalf of sinners for their salvation. He fails to destroy the power of sin in the manner of the Biblical God, through the Father’s sending of the Son to the Cross in the power of the Spirit.