Monarchianism

The name is applied to a second- and third-century theological movement centered chiefly in Asia Minor and Rome, but also common elsewhere. The term “Monarchians” was coined by Tertullian in the third century. While the word can sustain an orthodox view of the Trinity, it usually described those who opted for a unipersonal rather than trinitarian view of the divine nature in order to preserve the unity of God.

Two forms of the doctrine are discernible. First, Adoptianist or Dynamic Monarchianism, which centers on the problems raised by Christology in early Christian times. In this view Jesus is regarded as a unique man who was divinely energized by the Holy Spirit (usually thought of as occurring at his baptism) and called to be the Son of God. Theodotus of Byzantium expounded such a view at Rome, about a.d. 210. Similar views were held by Paul of Samosata.* Much earlier the Ebionites* and Cerinthus* (a contemporary of the Apostle John at Ephesus) maintained that Jesus was a divinely energized Galilean. 1 John condemns this viewpoint (cf. 5:6).

Second, Modalistic Monarchianism, Patripassianism, or Sabellianism.* The incarnation of God the Father was put forward in an effort to maintain both the divinity of the Son and the unity of God. This view was influential at Rome about a.d. 200 through Noetus,* Praxeas,* and Sabellius. It was vigorously opposed by Tertullian* in North Africa and Hippolytus* at Rome. The Patripassian nickname relates to Tertullian's gibe that by his teaching Praxeas “put the Paraclete to flight and crucified the Father.” The Modalist appellation concerns their representation of God as revealed at one time under the mode of Father, at another under the mode of Son, and at another under the mode of the Holy Spirit. According to Hippolytus, Noetus taught that if Christ is God, he is surely the Father, or else not God; therefore, if Christ suffered, then God suffered.

Dynamic and Modalistic Monarchianism represented erroneous early attempts to assimilate the empirical facts of the Christian faith associated with the person of Jesus Christ and the Pentecostal descent of the Spirit to an unrevised notion of unity. The facts of the biblical revelation demanded recognition to the full personhood of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Only gradually did Christians acquire categories and a language adequate to the new revelation.

See Incarnation; Trinity; Subordinationism.

G. L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics (1940); H. Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church (1946); H.E.W. Turner, The Pattern of Christian Truth (1954); J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (1958); B. Altaner, Patrology (1958).