A movement in the trinitarian controversy in the early church that denied the distinction of Persons in the relationship between Father and Son within the Godhead. It became a heresy.
There were two quite separate groups of Monarchians. Modalist Monarchians claimed that God was a single and differentiated being whose monarchy was nothing else than singulare et unicum imperium, “a singular and unique empire,” as Tertullian expressed it about 213 in refuting Praxeas, a modalist teacher in Rome. This meant that the Son and the Holy Spirit had no individual existences but were simply “modes” or aspects of the Father.
The Adoptionist or Dynamic Monarchians stood at the opposite end of the theological spectrum. They claimed, according to their opponent, the Roman presbyter HIPPOLYTUS, in his refutation “that Jesus was a mere man (psilos anthropos), born of a virgin according to the counsel of the Father. After he had lived a life common to all men and had become preeminently religious, he received at his baptism “the Christ” in the form of a dove. This gift enabled him to manifest miraculous powers, which he had not shown before, and after his death he was “adopted” into the Godhead. Jesus was therefore entirely human, though controlled by the Spirit. He was to be revered as the greatest of all the prophets, but whether he was to be worshiped “as God” was questionable.
Though some traces of Modalist Monarchianism may be found in teachers denounced by Justin Martyr, the doctrine first attracted serious notice in Rome about 200 through a school of Christians from western Asia Minor, of whom Noetus, Polemon, and Praxeas were the most prominent. According to Hippolytus, Noetus proclaimed openly that “Christ was the Father himself, and that the Father himself was born, suffered and died.” Another orthodox writer, Epiphanius of Salamis, affirmed about 380 that when challenged, Noetus protested, “What harm am I doing in glorifying Christ?” The objection to these ideas, apart from inherent absurdity, was that they destroyed the concept of the Trinity. As Tertullian summed up in his reply to Praxeas, Praxeas “did two bits of the devil’s business in Rome. He banished the Paraclete and crucified the Father.”
Nevertheless, two early third-century bishops of Rome, Zephyrinus and Calixtus, tended to favor a Modalist Monarchian form of Christology. Modalist monarchianism was refined by Sabellius the Libyan about 220 (see SABELLIANISM), and in this form played its part in the Trinitarian controversies of the third century, as well as in the disputes in the half-century following the First Council of NICAEA (325). It influenced the attitude of the Roman church toward both the Nicene Creed, with its assertion that Christ was “of one substance with the Father,” and the Christological definition of Chalcedon.
As was to be expected, the two Roman bishops strongly opposed the Dynamic Monarchians, who were influential in Rome at about the same time as the Modalists. The Dynamic group were also Greek-speaking Christians, such as Theodotus, a tanner from Byzantium, and Theodotus, a banker. They were criticized as “atheists” by the Roman presbyter Gaius, who pointed out, according to the historian Eusebius, that the language of the evangelists and the worship of the church treated Christ as divine. Despite excommunication, the Dynamic Monarchians held their ground. One of their number, the confessor Natalius, was consecrated bishop and received a stipend of 150 denarii a month, the first firm evidence for a paid clergy. Around 230 a certain Artemon was continuing their tradition in Rome.
In Egypt, ORIGEN denounced both forms of Monarchianism in his development of the doctrine of the Logos, though he reserved his angriest comments for the Adoptionists, for “denying the divinity of Christ” (Dialogue with Heracleides, p. 439). Origen also disputed with Beryllus, bishop of Bostra in the province of Arabia, who, according to Eusebius, was charged with holding Modalist Monarchian views.
Modalism, in the form of Sabellianism, took root in Cyrenaica, North Africa, in the mid-third century, where it was controverted by DIONYSIUS THE GREAT, bishop of Alexandria. He, however, used terminology that suggested that Christ, far from being an aspect of the Godhead, was “creature,” and part of the created order. An appeal by the Cyrenaicans to Rome brought Dionysius bishop of Rome into an indecisive exchange of letters with his fellow bishop in Alexandria about 263, according to J. F. Bethune-Baker.
The bishop of Alexandria demonstrated the strongest opposition of his see to what he interpreted as the “Adoptionist” views of Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch. The tendency of the church in Alexandria, through its acceptance of the Logos-sarx (“Word-flesh”) interpretation of Jesus’ relationship to the Godhead, was toward Modalist Monarchianism. Suspicion of this view underlay the doctrinal objections of the majority of the Eastern bishops to Saint ATHANASIUS, bishop of Alexandria, and to his uncompromising adherence to the Nicene Creed. The Easterners feared that Monarchianism would lead the church back toward Judaism. Saint BASIL THE GREAT of Caesarea wrote about 375 to a group of lay notables in Caesarea (Letter 210. 5): “For it is indispensable to have a clear understanding that, as he who fails to confess the community of essence or substance falls into polytheism, so he who refuses to grant the distinction of the hypostases [“individualities”] is carried off into Judaism.” Only when the Creed of Constantinople (381) chose forms of words that safeguarded the separate individuality of the Persons of the Trinity did the fear of monarchianism as a hidden danger to Christian orthodoxy fade.
- Athanasius. De decretis Niceanis. In PG 25, cols. 415-476. Paris, 1884.
- . Epistula de synodis. In PG 26, cols. 681-794. Paris, 1887. Bardy, G. “Monarchianism.” In Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, Vol. 10, pt. 2, cols. 2193-2209. Paris, 1929.
- Bethune-Baker, J. F. An Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine to the Time of the Council of Chalcedon, 9th ed., chaps. 7, 8. London, 1951.
- Harnack, A. von. History of Dogma, Vol. 3, chap. 1. New York, 1958.
- Kelly, J. N. D. Early Christian Doctrines, 5th ed., chap. 5. London, 1978.
- Kidd, B. J. History of the Church to A.D. 461, Vol. 1, pp. 359-71. Oxford, 1922.
H. C. FREND