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The Ecole


In general, monarchianism is the belief that the godhead is singular, consisting of one monarchia. It emerged in the second century as an orthodox reaction to the Gnostic belief that in the beginning there was more than one all-powerful being, a good god and an evil counterpart. It may also have emerged in reaction to the supposition of [G] Justin Martyr that the relationship between Father and Son was not like the relationship between the sun and its light, but like the relationship between one torch lit from another. The monarchians disapproved of Gnosticism and Justin's theology because both seemed to suggest divine plurality.

Varieties of Monarchianism

Chiefly, there were two varieties of monarchianism: "modal" monarchianism and "adoptionist" monarchianism. Each tried to explain the relationship between God, the Father, and Jesus, his Son, in different ways. "Adoptionist" monarchianism suggested that Jesus was a human being in every way until he was adopted by the Father to be his Son. Adoptionists often cited Jesus' baptism as the moment at which he was adopted to be the Christ, claiming that the line "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased" (Matt 3:17) was meant to signify precisely this event. Another scriptural passage used to support adoptionist monarchianism was Peter's declaration in Acts 2:32-36: "God raised this man Jesus to life, and of that we are all witnesses. Now raised to the heights by God's right hand, he has received from the Father the Holy Spirit, who was promised, and what you see and hear is the outpouring of that Spirit . . . For this reason the whole House of Israel can be certain that the Lord and Christ whom God has made is this Jesus whom you crucified." The third-century theologian, Paul of Samosata, was a proponent of adoptionist monarchianism.

The more pervasive variety of monarchianism was modalism, the belief that the Father, Son and Spirit are numerically one and the same appearing at different times in history under different forms. Modal monarchianism was also called "Patripassianism," literally meaning, "the father suffers," since, if the Son is numerically one with the Father, then anything that happens to the Son must also happen to the Father. The doctrine is also called Sabellianism, after an obscure theologian, Sabellius, who held to this view.

Reactions to Monarchianism

The orthodox reaction to adoptionism had already been prefigured by Justin Martyr, who had noted that the story of Jesus' nativity and the virgin birth indicate that Jesus is God at least from his birth. In addition, as the Gospel of John became prominent in the second century, it seemed clear that Jesus' divinity was ensured from the start of creation. (See the prologue to this Gospel.)

Reactions against modal monarchianism took a little more theological finesse and were developed primarily by theologians [G] Hippolytus and [G] Tertullian. Hippolytus directed his reaction against modalism to Noetus, a reputed modalist. In his treatise, Against the Heresy of a Certain Noetus, Hippolytus noted that the Son is the Word made manifest to us. Though the Word existed before creation, he did not become Son until the incarnation. This meant that Son and Father could not be identified in the way that the Father and his divine Word could be identified. Since Father and Son were not numerically the same, it became possible for the Son to experience things not experienced by the Father. Hippolytus was careful to avoid ditheism noting explicitly that "I do not mean that there are two Gods. Rather it is as if there were light from light, or water from a fountain, or a ray from the sun" (11). It is worth noting that Hippolytus affirms precisely the same analogy (as will Tertullian) that Justin Martyr denied because it did not do justice to the independence between the Father and the Son.

The more impressive reaction against modalism came from Tertullian and was directed against the modalist, Praxeas. In his treatise, Against Praxeas (c 213 CE), Tertullian noted that the Godhead consisted of three persons united in one substance. Furthermore, the Son, Jesus Christ, was a single person uniting two substances, one human and the other divine. This meant that the Son was distinctly different from the Father. Thus Tertullian wrote, "The property of each substance [in Jesus Christ] is so preserved that the spirit performed its own actions in Him, such as miracles and feats and signs, while the flesh carried on the affections proper to it, such as being hungry when He was tempted by the devil, being thirsty when He was with the Samaritan woman, weeping for Lazarus, being troubled at death, and at last, actually dying" (27, 11). Tertullian's response here is particularly noteworthy since it supplies the theological language that will be used to carve out the orthodox position in the Christological and Trinitarian controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries.

Monarchianism does not end with Tertullian, nor does it end with the controversies just mentioned. Evidence of this comes in the form of a condemnation of Sabellianism at the sixth-century Synod of Braga.


Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church: The Story of Emergent Christianity from the Apostolic Age to the Dividing of the Ways between the Greek East and the Latin West. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.

Jurgens, William A. The Faith of the Early Fathers: A Source-book of Theological and Historical Passages from the Christian Writings of the Pre-Nicene and Nicene Eras. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1970. Vol. 1 of The Faith of the Early Fathers. 3 vols. 1970-1979.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971. Vol. 1 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. 5 vols. 1971-

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