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Christianity Portal

Monarchianism (also known as monarchism) refers to a heretical body of Christian beliefs that emphasize the indivisibility of God (the Father) at the expense of the other persons of the Trinity. Their name came from their defense of the "Monarchy" (ultimate rulership/unity) of God, which was expounded in a reaction against the Logos theology of Justin Martyr and the apologists, who had spoken of Jesus as a second god. Indeed, some of the earliest Monarchists were called Alogi (a (prefix) + logoi) because they were opposed the seemingly Platonic doctrine of the Logos expounded by the Biblical Gospel of John and later Hellenistic apologists. In a similar manner, many also adopted these teaching in response to the Arian heresy, which they saw as limiting Christ's divinity.[1]

Many theological explanations of the relationship between the Father and the Son were proposed in the second century, but later rejected as heretical by the Church when the doctrine of the Trinity was formally canonized at the First Council of Constantinople, where it was decided that God was one being (homoousious) who consisted of three persons: Heavenly Father, Resurrected Son, and Holy Spirit.[2]

There are two primary understandings of Monarchianism:

  • Adoptionism (or Dynamic Monarchianism) holds that God is one wholly indivisible being, and reconciles the "problem" of the Trinity (or at least the problem of Jesus' humanity) by holding that the Resurrected Son was not co-eternal with the Heavenly Father, and that Jesus Christ was adopted by the Father (that is, granted the status of divinity) in order to allow him to participate in the Divine Plan. Different versions of Adoptionism hold that Jesus was "adopted" either at the time of his baptism or ascension. An early exponent of this belief was Theodotus of Byzantium. This doctrine is a theologically complex form of docetism, a schismatic movement who argued that Jesus was a human who was "possessed" by a spiritual entity.
  • Modalism (or Modalistic Monarchianism) considers God to be a single, undifferentiated Divine Person who interacts with the mortal world via three different "modes:" Heavenly Father, Resurrected Son, and Holy Spirit. The chief proponent of this type of monarchianism was Sabellius, whose influence was so great that it that the doctrine is often also called Sabellianism.


As mentioned above, adoptionism (also known as dynamic monarchianism) refers to the eventually anathematized Christian belief that Jesus was born as a typical human (from an ontological standpoint), and that his divinity was gifted to him by God later in his life. By these accounts, Jesus earned the title Christ through his sinless devotion to the will of God, thereby becoming the perfect sacrifice for the redemption of humanity. As such, adoptionists typically point to one of two key points in Jesus' life as the occasion of his theosis: His baptism or his resurrection. By tying the person of Jesus to an initially human referent, adoptionism denies the "preexistence of Christ" (that is, the belief that he existed since the creation of the universe) and views him as subordinate to the Father, though still acknowledging his divinity.

These beliefs arose among early Christians seeking to reconcile claims of Jesus' divinity with the radical monotheism of Judaism, which led it to become a common theological stance for many of the earliest church fathers and for the majority of the populace. Despite its early prevalence, later theologians concluded that this belief system was incompatible with the developing understanding of the Trinity, which prompted them to declare it a heresy at the end of the second century.[3]

History of adoptionism

In The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Bart D. Ehrman posits the common academic consensus that adoptionism may date back almost to the time of Jesus, arguing that many passages of scripture were purposefully bowdlerized at a later date to deny textual support for this doctrine.[4] Indeed, the second century saw adoptionism as one of two competing Christological doctrines, with the other being the Logos doctrine (preserved in the Gospel of John), which describes Christ as an eternal divinity that existed in a spiritual form prior to his incarnation.[5]

Historically, there were three waves of Adoptionist speculation (if one excludes the hypothetical beliefs of the primitive church that cannot be determined with certainty). The first, which dates from the second century, differs significantly from the subsequent two (dating respectively from the eighth and the twelfth century)—a discrepancy that can be explained by the fact that all later speculations would have been informed by the dogmatic Trinitarian and Christological statements that were ratified at the intervening Ecumenical Councils.

Second and third centuries: Adoptionism in Pre-Nicene christology

The first definitively-known exponent of Adoptionism was Theodotus of Byzantium (active c. the late second century C.E.). He taught that Jesus was a man born of a virgin by the power of the Father, that He lived like other men, though with exemplary personal piety; that at His baptism in the Jordan the Christ came down upon Him in the likeness of a dove, and therefore wonders (dynameis) were not wrought by Him until the Spirit (which Theodotus called "Christ") came down and was manifested in Him. The belief was declared heretical by Pope Victor I (c. 189-201 C.E.).[6]

The second century work, Shepherd of Hermas, also taught that Jesus was a virtuous man filled with the Holy Spirit and adopted as the Son:

The Holy Pre-existent Spirit, which created the whole creation, God made to dwell in flesh that He desired. This flesh, therefore, in which the Holy Spirit dwelt, was subject unto the Spirit, walking honorably in holiness and purity, without in any way defiling the Spirit. When then it had lived honorably in chastity, and had labored with the Spirit, and had cooperated with it in everything, behaving itself boldly and bravely, He chose it as a partner with the Holy Spirit; for the career of this flesh pleased [the Lord], seeing that, as possessing the Holy Spirit, it was not defiled upon the earth. He therefore took the son as adviser and the glorious angels also, that this flesh too, having served the Spirit unblamably, might have some place of sojourn, and might not seem to have lost the reward for its service; for all flesh, which is found undefiled and unspotted, wherein the Holy Spirit dwelt, shall receive a reward.[7]

While Shepherd of Hermas was a popular text that was sometimes bound with the canonical scriptures, it never achieved canonical status, likely due to its perceived adoptionist agenda.

Finally, in the early third century, Paul of Samosata, Patriarch of Antioch, promoted adoptionism. Specifically, he argued that Jesus had been a man who kept himself sinless and achieved union with God. Thus, he suggests that Logos (the Word of God) was not "the person of Christ," but instead the "command or ordinance of God that achieves its end in the obedience of Jesus."[8] In this way, his view represents the most conceptually sophisticated (and most nearly orthodox) of the adoptionist viewpoints considered thus far, as he "did call Jesus God, unlike the earlier adoptionists for whom he was a mere man… [However,] by this Paul only meant that through his moral perfection and the miraculous powers granted to him at this baptism, Jesus was able to remain in constant union with God."[9] Given the incompatibility of this position with the soon-to-be-defined Nicene orthodoxy, it is not surprising that Paul was excommunicated in 268 C.E.

Eighth century: Hispanicus error

The second movement of adoptionism, called Hispanicus error, in the late eighth, century maintained by Elipandus, bishop of Toledo, Spain, in the Caliphate of Cordoba and by Felix, bishop of Urgell in the foothills of the Pyrenees. While these movements gained some support among the laity (including members of the Spanish aristocracy), they were repudiated by Charlemagne and Pope Hadrian. Eventually, Alcuin, one of the leading theologians of the day, composed an extensive critique of the movement, which excoriated them as follows: "As the Nestorian impiety divided Christ into two persons because of the two natures, so your unlearned temerity divided Him into two sons, one natural and one adoptive."[10]

Beatus of Liébana, from the Kingdom of Asturias, also fought Adoptionism, which was a cause of controversy between Christians under Muslim rule in the former Visigothic capital of Toledo and the peripheral kingdom. In his screed against Elipandus, he states: "Thus the Word, Jesus Christ, is made one in the flesh, one person, God and man, just as your soul and flesh are one. Thus Christ is born of the virgin, son of God, God and man together, just as it is taught that the soul is born with the body, not because each is in one substance, but because from each one person is made."[11]

As a result of this high profile resurgence, the doctrine was again condemned as heresy by the Council of Frankfurt (794).

Twelfth century and beyond: Neo-adoptionism

A third wave was the revived form ("Neo-Adoptionism") of Abelard in the twelfth century. This development is explored in detail in the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Abelard began to question the truth of such expressions as "Christ is God;" "Christ is man." Back of what might seem a mere logomachy there is really, in Abelard's mind, a fundamental error. He understood the hypostatical union as a fusion of two natures, the divine and the human. And lest that fusion become a confusion, he made the sacred Humanity the external habit and adventitious instrument of the Word only, and thus denied the substantial reality of "The Man Christ"—"Christus ut homo non est aliquid sed dici potest alicuius modi." It is self-evident that in such a theory the Man Christ could not be called the true Son of God. Was He the adoptive Son of God? Personally, Abelard repudiated all kinship with the Adoptionists, just as they deprecated the very idea of their affiliation to the Nestorian heresy. But after Abelard's theory spread beyond France, into Italy, Germany and even the Orient, the disciples were less cautious than the master. Luitolph defended at Rome the following proposition—"Christ, as man, is the natural son of man and the adoptive Son of God;" and Folmar, in Germany, carried this erroneous tenet to its extreme consequences, denying to Christ as man the right to adoration.[12]

Later, various modified and qualified Adoptionist tenets could be found in the writings of some theologians from the fourteenth century. For instance, Duns Scotus (1300) and Durandus of Saint-Pourçain (1320) admit the term Filius adoptivus in a qualified sense. In more recent times, the Jesuit Gabriel Vásquez, and the Lutheran divines Georgius Calixtus and Johann Ernst Immanuel Walch, have defended the Adoptionists as essentially orthodox.


As suggested above, modalism (also known as modalistic monarchianism, modal monarchism, or Sabellianism) refers to the non-trinitarian belief that the Heavenly Father, Resurrected Son and Holy Spirit are different modes or aspects of one God (as perceived by humans), rather than three distinct persons (in Himself). Defending their position, modalists note that the only number ascribed to God in the Holy Bible is One and that there is no "Divine three-ness" mentioned explicitly in scripture.[13]

Though he does not appear to have been its first exponent, this movement has generally been attributed to Sabellius, as he remains one of its most popular exponents. His teaching, which can be seen as representative, centers around a single, vital question:

What is it which constitutes what we name ‘person’ in the Godhead? Is it original, substantial, essential to divinity itself? Or does it belong to and arise from the exhibitions and developments which the divine Being has made of himself to his creatures? The former Sabellius denied; the latter he fully admitted.[14]

History of modalism

Hippolytus of Rome knew Sabellius personally and mentioned him in the Philosophumena. He knew Sabellius disliked Trinitarian theology, yet he called Modal Monarchism "the heresy of Noetus" (rather than ascribing it to Sabellius).[15] The chief opponent of this school was Tertullian, who labeled the movement "Patripassianism," from the Latin words pater ("father") and passus ("to suffer"), as he argued that this belief implied that the Father suffered on the Cross. This belittling term was coined by the theologian in his polemical attack on Praxeas (a modalist who was roughly contemporaneous with Sabellius):

By this Praxeas did a twofold service for the devil at Rome: He drove away prophecy, and he brought in heresy; he put to flight the Paraclete, and he crucified the Father.[16]

Despite this, Tertullian seems to suggest that the majority of believers at that time favored a modalistic view of the oneness of God.[17]

Regardless of its intellectual provenance, Sabellianism was embraced by Christians in Cyrenaica, Mesopotamia, and Rome, which prompted Demetrius, Patriarch of Alexandria, to write letters arguing against this belief. Similarly, this prevalence caused Epiphanius to unsubtly complain that "there are many insane people in Mesopotamia and the region of Rome who hold to his doctrine." More than a hundred years after the deaths of the movement's progenitors, the second general council at Constantinople in 533 C.E. still found it germane to overtly anathematize Sabellius. This seems to indicate that Sabellianism was still a perceived threat to Christian peace and solidarity.

Early moderns exponents

Both Michael Servetus and Emanuel Swedenborg have been interpreted as a proponents of Modalism, however, neither describes God as appearing in three modes. Both describe God as the One Divine Person, Jesus Christ, who has a Divine Soul of Love, Divine Mind of Truth, and Divine Body of Activity. Jesus, through a process of uniting his human form to the Divine, became entirely One with His Divine Soul from the Father to the point of having no distinction of personality.[18]

Similarly, Oneness Pentecostalism teaches that the Father (a spirit) is united with Jesus (a man) as the Son of God. This position can be summarized as follows: "God revealed himself as Father in the Old Testament, as the Son in Jesus during Christ’s ministry on earth, and now as the Holy Spirit after Christ’s ascension."[19] While this account has strong similarities with classical Sabellianism, it also has its unique elements, such as a stress on the pre-existence of the Son and a denial of Patripassianism.


  1. Cozens, 28.
  2. Catholic Encyclopedia, First Council of Constantinople. Retrieved May 21, 2008.
  3. Brown, 95-97.
  4. Ehrman, 14, 26, 47-117 (passim).
  5. Adolf von Harnack, History of Dogma. Retrieved May 21, 2008.
  6. Hultgren and Haggmark, 137-141.
  7. Brown, 97.
  8. Hultgren and Haggmark, 136.
  9. Brown, 98.
  10. Alcuin, Contra Felicem (I, P. L. CI, Col. 136), Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved May 21, 2008.
  11. Stanford University, Themes in Medieval Spain—Adoptionism. Retrieved May 21, 2008.
  12. J.F. Sollier, Adoptionism, Catholic Encyclopedia (1907). Retrieved May 21, 2008.
  13. Theodore H. Mann, Translation Problems in the KJV New Testament, Journal of Biblical Studies, 1:1 (January-March 2001).
  14. American Biblical Repository, Views of Sabellius, The Biblical Repository and Classical Review. Retrieved May 21, 2008.
  15. Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved May 21, 2008.
  16. Tertullian, Adversus Praxeas. Retrieved May 21, 2008.
  17. Christian Defense, Tertullian, Against Praxeas, III, c.213.
  18. Andrew M.T. Dibb, Servetus, Swedenborg and the Nature of God (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America Inc, 2005).
  19. Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, What is Oneness? Retrieved May 21, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Brown, Harold O.J. Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998. ISBN 1565633652.
  • Bunsen, C.C. Hippolytus and His Age. Kessinger Publishing, 2007.
  • Chapman, John. "Monarchianism." In the Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. Retrieved May 21, 2008.
  • Cozens, M.L. A Handbook of Heresies. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1959.
  • Ehrman, Bart D. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0195102797.
  • Hultgren, Arland J., and Steven A. Haggmark (eds.). The Earliest Christian Heretics: Readings from their Opponents. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996. ISBN 0800629639.
  • McGrath, Alister E. Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998. ISBN 0631208445.
  • Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Volume 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975. ISBN 0226653714.
  • Von Mosheim, J. L. Historical Commentaries on the State of Christianity During the First Three Hundred and Twenty-Five Years from the Christian Era. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006. ISBN 1597527041.
  • Wace, H. A Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century C.E.—With an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies. Hendrickson Publishers, 1994. ISBN 1565630572.

External links

All links retrieved November 9, 2022.


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