Soundings

Dynamic monarchianism

Oct 2013    

One of the most important tenets of the Christian faith (perhaps the most important) is the Trinity. Since its inception, the Church has taught that there is only one God. Like Judaism, Christianity is a monotheistic religion. But Christians have a very unique understanding of the oneness of God.

For although Christians maintain that there is only one God, they also insist that the one God is a communion of three distinct persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Yet, the three persons in the Godhead do not constitute three gods.

The doctrine of the Trinity therefore distinguishes the monotheism of the Christian faith from other religious or philosophical versions. The Church has always maintained that her unique conception of God is derived from God’s own self-disclosure in Scripture and supremely in Jesus Christ, God’s incarnate Son.

Although the concept of the triune God is attested to everywhere in the Church’s Rule of Faith and liturgy, some early Christians have found it disturbing and difficult to accept. These Christians were worried that the doctrine as it was articulated in the Church’s Rule of Faith may compromise the monotheism of the faith, resulting in tri-theism, that is, belief in three gods.

Consequently, a number of early Christian leaders and pastors attempted alternative ways of understanding the Son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit within their monotheistic framework.

One of the earliest attempts to do this is often associated with a certain Byzantine leather merchant known as Theodotus. It is important to note at the outset that Theodotus was broadly orthodox in his theology. He believed that the sovereign God created the heavens and the earth. He believed that God continues to sustain His creation, and that He is mysteriously guiding it to its proper end or telos. He even believed in the virgin birth of Jesus.

But Theodotus was unable to accept the doctrine of the Trinity because he thought that it would compromise the monotheism of the Christian faith. Consequently, he proposed an alternative way of understanding Jesus Christ and the Spirit in relation to God the Father. Scholars have described his approach as “monarchianism” (which literally means “sole sovereignty”) because of its insistence on the unity and indivisibility of God.

Theodotus taught that Jesus of Nazareth was merely a man who at his baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist was endued with the power of God and commissioned to proclaim the message of salvation. Note that for Theodotus, the divine power that descended upon the man Jesus was not God Himself, but an impersonal power that proceeded from God.

This version of “monarchianism” is described as “dynamic” precisely because of the impersonal power or force (the Greek word for power is dunamis) that resided in Jesus, enabling him to heal the sick, raise the dead, and fulfil the mission that was entrusted to him.

In this way, Theodotus could speak of the Father, Son and the Spirit without compromising the non-negotiable belief in the one God. God, the Father, “adopts” the man Jesus as His son by anointing him with His spirit (or power, dunamis) to proclaim the message of the Kingdom.

Although Theodotus was the first to propose this theory, it was Paul of Samosata who expounded it with great eloquence and sophistication. The genius of the monarchians is that they were able to use the “trinitarian language” of orthodox Christianity to articulate their strictly unitarian concept of God.

At its most basic formulation, however, dynamic monarchianism is very similar to Ebionitism. Therefore, it rejects the Church’s doctrine of the Trinity only by first dismissing her Christology, what she believes and professes about the person of Christ. The monarchians could not accept the orthodox doctrine of the incarnation (that the eternal Son of God became a man) simply because of their refusal to allow for a plurality of persons in the Godhead.

Thus, in attempting to preserve an alien monotheism inspired largely by Greek thought, the monarchians have not only discarded the central dogma of the faith; they were also guilty of the worst blasphemy because in rejecting His deity, they refused to worship the eternal Son of God.

… “monarchianism” is described as “dynamic” precisely because of the impersonal power or force (the Greek word for power is dunamis) that resided in Jesus, enabling him to heal the sick, raise the dead, and fulfil the mission that was entrusted to him.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

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