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Modalism and Church History



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The unity of the Being of God is justly an orthodox belief. However, when it is overstressed or modified for the sake of a radical approach to monotheism, the biblical meaning of the “Trinity” is abandoned and serious errors result. As a result, the third great heresy that crept into the church (after the Judaizer and Gnostic heresy) was Monarchianism (from monarchia, meaning, “single principle”). Both forms, dynamic and modalistic, first emerged around the end of the second century. This was a time when the passion for the “rule of faith” (regula fidei) consumed the early Christian apologists and theologians. For them, all things were to be judged by Scripture, the infallible, sole authority and rule of faith for the church.





 Dynamic Monarchianism


We revealed previously that there were two forms of the Monarchian heresy, both of which were launched around the same time: modalistic and the less popular form, dynamic. Dynamic Monarchianism, also called (more appropriately) Adoptionism, held to the idea that God merely “adopted” Jesus as Son (at His baptism), after which He worked miracles without becoming divine. Some adoptionists, however, did teach that He became deity (in some sense) at His baptism (e.g., Paul of Samosata). Theodotus, the leather merchant from Byzantine, first brought this doctrine to Rome around A.D. 190. Information regarding the particularities of the Monarchian controversy and its theology is derived primarily from the great polemicist, theologian, Roman antipope and martyr, Hippolytus (c. A.D. †235) and early church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (c. A.D. 260-339).

In his most important work, The Refutation of All Heresies, Hippolytus speaks of the beginnings of dynamic Monarchianism and its distinctive theology (VII:23, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 5:114-15):


But there was a certain Theodotus, a native of Byzantium, who introduced a novel heresy ... he alleges that (our Lord) appeared in some such manner as I shall now describe. (According to this, Theodotus maintains) that Jesus was a (mere) man, born of a virgin, according to the counsel of the Father, and that after he had lived promiscuously with all men, and had become pre-eminently religious, he subsequently at his baptism in Jordan received Christ, who came from above and descended (upon him) in the form of a dove. And this was the reason (according to Theodotus) why (miraculous) powers did not operate within him prior to the manifestation in him of that Spirit which descended, (and) which proclaims him to be the Christ. But (among the followers of Theodotus) some are disposed (to think) that never was this man made God, (even) at the descent of the Spirit; whereas others (maintain that he was made God) after the resurrection from the dead.


Accordingly, Victor, the bishop of Rome, excommunicated Theodotus for his teaching. However, the most noted Adoptionist was Paul of Samosata, of whom Eusebius of Caesarea speaks of his excommunication at the Third Council in Antioch in A.D. 268 (Maier, 1999: 274-79; Kelly, 2006: 247). Apparently, dynamic Monarchianism did not flourish, since the popularity of the early church held immovably to the full deity of Jesus Christ. For that reason, it was very difficult to retain followers of dynamic Monarchianism. Regardless of theological variations, both systems, dynamic and modalistic, shared the same core foundation: unitarianism.




 Modalistic Monarchianism


Monotheism was, to be sure, the bedrock of Christianity. The early Christians shuddered at the thought of polytheism (or henotheism), that is, the idea of many true gods. The people of God constantly had to deal with polytheism starting from the days of Eden (cf. Gen. 3:5). The early modalists were equally as valiant to uphold the monotheism of their religion. Nevertheless, their idea of monotheism as one undifferentiated single monad (unipersonal) was a radical and distorted view. Modalism attempted to answer the question of how one could truly hold to monotheism and yet maintain the deity of Jesus Christ. Even though we should applaud the early modalists for their determined stance for the oneness of God in the face of polytheism, they were far too quick to sacrifice the biblical presentation of a multi-personal God for their unbending view of what they thought monotheism was—God as an undifferentiated unipersonal Being.



 Orthodoxy Fights Back


The Apostle Paul instructs Titus to refute those who oppose sound doctrine (Titus 1:9, 13). The Apostle Peter charges the church to be ready always to give a defense (apologia, i.e., biblical refutation) and a reason (logos, i.e., positive affirmation) for the faith (1 Pet. 3:15). Jude says to contend earnestly for the faith (Jude 3). God has clearly instructed His people to affirm and defend the gospel of Jesus Christ. So naturally, sincere devoted Christians in the early church followed this command, even to point of martyrdom. Just as the apostles put up a fight for the faith, affirming and defending the gospel, so did the early church. So when they were faced with Modalism they reacted and treated it as a destructive heresy that attacked the very nature of God.


Against Noetus by Hippolytus (c. A.D. 203)

The first known generator of Modalism was Noetus of Smyrna in around A.D. 190 (Kelly, 1978: 120). Still, there is some evidence of a modalistic idea percolating prior to Noetus. About thirty years before him, Justin Martyr made an interesting statement in his First Apology (63, in Richardson, 1970: 284-85): “For they who affirm that the Son is the Father, are proved neither to have become acquainted with the Father, nor to know that the Father of the universe has a Son; who also, being the first-begotten Word of God, is even God.” Nevertheless, the first person historically identified for introducing Modalism was Noetus. So disturbing was Noetus to the Christian community that Hippolytus devoted an entire work against him entitled, Against the Heresy of One Noetus (in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 5:223-31). From the start, Noetus’s position was clear: “If therefore I acknowledge Christ to be God, He is the Father Himself, if He is indeed God; and Christ suffered, being Himself God; and consequently the Father suffered, for He was the Father Himself” (Against Noetus 1, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 5:223; emphasis added).

Hippolytus also reports that Noetus claimed he was Moses and that Aaron was his brother. In response to the presbyters who criticized him, Noetus asked, “What evil, then, am I doing in glorifying Christ?” (Against Noetus 1, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 5:223). The heresies of both Noetus (Modalism) and Theodotus (Adoptionism) were the product of a misunderstanding of Scripture—namely, assuming God to be unipersonal. Hippolytus went on to say in his refutation:


The Scriptures speak what is right; but Noetus is of a different mind from them ... Theodotus employed when he sought to prove that Christ was a mere man. But neither has the one party nor the other understood the matter rightly, as the Scriptures themselves confute their senselessness, and attest the truth. See, brethren, what a rash and audacious dogma they have introduced, when they say without shame, the Father is Himself Christ, Himself the Son, Himself was born, Himself suffered, Himself raised Himself. But it is not so. The Scriptures speak what is right; but Noetus is of a different mind from them (Against Noetus 3, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 5:224).


Because of his passion for truth, Hippolytus devoted his life to defending the nature of God and His Word. This is clearly marked in all of his works, especially in his later work, Refutation of All Heresies. So clear was his refutation of the Modalism of Noetus, that his writings have long been, along with Tertullian’s, the most referenced literature pertaining to the Christological error of Modalism.


Tertullian Against Praxeas (c. A.D. 213)


The second leading modalist was Praxeas. The identity of Praxeas is difficult to determine. Some have even speculated that Praxeas was really Callistus the Roman bishop (A.D. 217-22) since Hippolytus accused him of helping to promote Modalism. All the same, whoever Praxeas was, he and his Modalism were sternly refuted, primarily by the brilliant Latin church theologian from Carthage, Tertullian (cf. Kelly, 1978: 121-22). We referred above (Chapter 3, 3.3.2) to Against Praxeas and Tertullian’s response to the modalizing of John 10:30. It is worth mentioning here that Tertullian was the first church father in the West to use the word “Trinity” (Lat. trinitas) in reference to the three Persons of the Godhead[1] against the Modalism of Praxeas: “Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit three …” (Against Praxeas 2, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 3:598). Tertullian was a man utterly enthralled with perpetuating and defending the church’s rule of faith against the crass Modalism of Praxeas (Against Praxeas 1, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 3:597):


He [Praxeas] maintains that there is one only Lord, the Almighty Creator of the world, in order that out of this doctrine of the unity he may fabricate a heresy. He says that the Father Himself came down into the Virgin, was Himself born of her, Himself suffered, indeed was Himself Jesus Christ.


It amazes Tertullian that the modalists are so convinced of their misunderstanding that monotheism means unipersonalism. “In the case of this heresy,” Tertullian writes, “which supposes itself to possess the pure truth, in thinking that one cannot believe in One Only God in any other way than by saying that the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are the very selfsame Person” (Against Praxeas 2, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 3:598).

Interestingly, Tertullian experienced the same arguments that Oneness teachers assert today, namely that the Trinity is three separate Gods: “They [modalists] are constantly throwing out against us that we are preachers of two gods and three gods, while they take to themselves pre-eminently the credit of being worshippers of the One God” (Against Praxeas 3, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 3:599). In addition, as we have also noted, early and present-day Oneness teachers misconstrue John 1:1, asserting that the “Word” was a non-entity, future plan, or “reason” of the Father. Tertullian demonstrates the absurdity that follows this thinking:


Is that Word of God, then, a void and empty thing, which is called the Son, who Himself is designated God? “The Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It is written, “You shall not take God’s name in vain.” This for certain is He “who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” In what form of God? Of course he means in some form, not in none. For who will deny that God is a body, although “God is a Spirit?” (Against Praxeas 7, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 3:602).


Tertullian shows that Modalism, when taken to its logical end, is biblically incoherent:


Either, then, the Son suffered, being “forsaken” by the Father, and the Father consequently suffered nothing, inasmuch as He forsook the Son; or else, if it was the Father who suffered, then to what God was it that He addressed His cry? ... The Son, then, both dies and rises again, according to the Scriptures. It is the Son, too, who ascends to the heights of heaven, and also descends to the inner parts of the earth. “He sits at the Father’s right hand”—not the Father at His own (Against Praxeas 30, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 3:626-27).


Throughout his polemic, Tertullian never ceases in underscoring the rule of faith and stressing the inseparability of the Being of God. Through his writings, we can easily see how the modalists did not absorb the fact that the doctrine of the Trinity does not separate nor does it divide the Being of God:


This is the rule of faith, which I profess; by it I testify that the Father and the Son and the Spirit are inseparable from each other, and so will you know in what sense this is said. Now, observe, my assertion is that the Father is one, and the Son one, and the Spirit one, and that They are distinct from Each Other ... God regarded as the Son of God, not as the Father ...” (Against Praxeas 9, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 3:603).


At the conclusion of Tertullian’s polemic, he emphasizes the eternal consequence of embracing a Jesus other than the Jesus revealed in the biblical text as he cites 1 John 5:12: “He that has not the Son, has not life. And that man has not the Son, who believes Him to be any other than the Son” (Against Praxeas 31, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 3:627).



Against Sabellius


A few decades later, a Libyan priest named Sabellius brought new light and popularity to Modalism. The modalistic arguments of Sabellius were by far more refined and sophisticated than that of his predecessors. He came to Rome toward the end of Zephyrinus’s reign (A.D. 198-217). After enjoying the confidence of the Bishop Callistus, he was attacked fiercely by Hippolytus, and eventually excommunicated by Callistus (Kelly, 1978: 121). Rejecting the concept of the ontological Trinity, Sabellius postulated his own version of an “economic Trinity.”

He saw God as one indivisible substance, but with three fundamental activities, or modes, appearing successively as the Father (the creator and lawgiver), as the Son (the redeemer), and as the Holy Spirit (the maker of life and the divine presence within people) (Kelly, 1978: 121-22). Subsequently, the term “Sabellianism” included all sorts of speculative ideas attached to the original ideas of Sabellius and his followers. He traveled to Rome, where he gained many devoted followers on account of his craftiness and cerebral arguments.

It should also be noted here, as pointed out in Chapter 2, that early modalists, particularly Sabellius, taught successive or developmental Modalism, in which the modes are successive, starting with the mode of the Father in creation, then the Son for the task of redemption, and after, the Holy Spirit for regeneration. Patristic authority Philip Schaff explains (Schaff, 2006, vol. 2: 11:262):


Sabellius embraces the Holy Spirit in his speculation, and reaches a trinity, not a simultaneous trinity of essence, however, but only a successive trinity of revelation. The Father reveals himself in the giving of the law or the Old Testament economy (not in the creation also, which in his view precedes the trinitarian revelation); the Son, in the incarnation; the Holy Ghost, in inspiration ... The revelation of the Son ends with the ascension; the revelation of the Spirit goes on in regeneration and sanctification.


This view is somewhat dissimilar to that of modern Oneness theology, which teaches simultaneous or static Modalism, in which God can project all of His so-called manifestations or modes simultaneously. For instance, Oneness teachers use the baptism of Jesus (Matt. 3:13-17) to prove that Jesus’ so-called three modes can simultaneously exist (cf. UPCI, 2008b). Of course, the event of Jesus’ baptism plainly and naturally affirms the Trinity—all three Persons are directly and distinctly involved. What obviously proves simultaneous Modalism false are the numerous passages indicating a personal distinction between the three Persons of the Trinity (e.g., Luke 10:21-22; John 1:1b; 6:37-40; 14:23; 2 Cor. 13:14). Promoting Modalism throughout Rome, Sabellius aggressively opposed the ontological Trinity. As a result, in A.D. 220, Callistus excommunicated him as a heretic. Athanasius traced the doctrine of Sabellius to the Stoic philosophy (Schaff, 2006, vol. 2: 12:582-83). As it had condemned previous heretics, the universal church condemned Sabellius and his ideas.


The error of Sabellianism was no small matter to the Christian church. It attacked the very nature of God. Thus, Oneness theology in all forms was universally condemned. In order to achieve a correct understanding of the attitude of the early church one must realize that the massive amounts of information written against the Modalism of Sabellius show beyond doubt that the early Christians did not see Oneness theology as simply a non-essential matter, it was of the utmost importance.



The Passion of Dionysius Bishop of Alexandria


Dionysius “the Great” was bishop of Alexandria from A.D. 248 until his death in A.D. 265. He was a student of Origen and a respected leader of the church as well as an esteemed theologian. He passionately proclaimed and defended the Trinity. Dionysius wrote against many major Christological heresies such as the Adoptionism of Paul of Samosata and Sabellianism. He also commented on many controversies of the day such as re-baptism, Easter, and the authorship of the Apocalypse (i.e., Revelation). His writings were abundant. Athanasius and Eusebius preserved most of his work. At least forty years after Callistus excommunicated Sabellius, Dionysius, in his outrage towards the unipersonal theology of Modalism, also excommunicated Sabellius around A.D. 260. His strong passion for the Trinity incited him to write many polemics against Sabellius.

Both Dionysius of Alexandria and Dionysius the bishop of Rome championed the doctrine of the Trinity. They were not alone in their open and rigid affirmation and defense of the doctrine of the Trinity and their railing refutation against the Modalism of Sabellius. Because of his over-emphasis on the personal distinctions existing between the Persons of the Trinity, Sabellius accused Dionysius of dividing the Father and Son (in essence) and failing to acknowledge that the Jesus was of the “same substance” (homoousios) with the Father (cf. Kelly, 1978: 133-34). Of course, Sabellius interpreted homoousios not only as “same substance,” but also as “same Person.”[2]

They even accused him of stating that the Son was a creature. They also made a formal complaint to the bishop of Rome whose name was also Dionysius (Kelly, 1978: 133-34). Even so, Athanasius in his Defense of Dionysius (9, in Schaff and Wace, 1994: 2nd. ser., vol. 4:179) says that Dionysius rightly “acted as he learned from the Apostles.”

In a response, Dionysius, the bishop of Rome, wrote a short epistle entitled Against the Sabellians (in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 7:365) around A.D. 259, which was not directly addressed to Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria, but was to censure his “language of separation” on account of his fixated desire to refute Sabellius. Dionysius’s epistle also clarified and defined Trinitarian theology. Note some of the highlights of the epistle:


Next, then, I may properly turn to those who divide and cut apart and destroy the Monarchy, the most sacred proclamation of the Church of God, making of it, as it were, three powers, distinct substances, and three godheads ... He, [Sabellius] in his blasphemy, says that the Son is the Father and vice versa ... For it is the doctrine of the presumptuous Marcion, to sever and divide the Divine Monarchy into three origins—a devil's teaching, not that of Christ’s true disciples and lovers of the Saviour’s lessons, For they know well that a Triad is preached by divine Scripture, but that neither Old Testament nor New preaches three Gods.


In the concluding remarks of the epistle, Dionysius stressed his essential key point, which the modalists (and Oneness believers today) clearly misunderstood: the Trinity does not divide God into three parts. God is inseparable and indivisible: “Neither then may we divide into three Godheads ... we must believe in God the Father Almighty, and in Christ Jesus His Son, and in the Holy Ghost, and hold that to the God of the universe the Word is united.” After which, Dionysius of Alexandria responded to the bishop to Rome, toning down his emotional anti-Sabellian fury. Undeniably, Dionysius’s view on the Trinity was solidly orthodox. However, to clarify and confirm to the bishop of Rome that he did not in any way separate or divide the Persons of the Trinity, Dionysius of Alexandria redefined and disambiguated his position in an Epistle to the Bishop of Rome.


Below are some important excerpts from the epistle (in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 6:92-93):


The Son alone, always co-existing with the Father, and filled with Him who is, Himself also is, since He is of the Father … neither the Father, in that He is Father, can be separated from the Son, for that name is the evident ground of coherence and conjunction; nor can the Son be separated from the Father, for this word Father indicates association between them. And there is, moreover, evident a Spirit who can neither be disjoined from Him who sends, nor from Him who brings Him. How, then, should I who use such names think that these are absolutely divided and separated the one from the other? … Thus, indeed, we expand the indivisible Unity into a Trinity; and again we contract the Trinity, which cannot be diminished, into a Unity … For on this account after the Unity there is also the most divine Trinity … And to God the Father, and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.



Additional church fathers against Sabellius


Novatian (c. A.D. 250) in A Treatise of Novatian Concerning the Trinity (12, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 5:622) argues persuasively against the heresy of Sabellius: “The sacrilegious heresy of Sabellius is embodied. Since Christ is believed to be not the Son, but the Father; since by them He is asserted to be in strictness a bare man, in a new manner, by those, again, Christ is proved to be God the Father Almighty (emphasis added). Gregory Thaumaturgus (c. A.D. 262), in A Sectional Confession of Faith (7, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 6:42) speaks against the unipersonal God of Sabellius and defends the Trinity:


But some treat the Holy Trinity in an awful manner, when they confidently assert that there are not three persons, and introduce (the idea of) a person devoid of subsistence. Wherefore we clear ourselves of Sabellius, who says that the Father and the Son are the same [Person] … we believe that three persons, namely, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are declared to possess the one Godhead: for the one divinity showing itself forth according to nature in the Trinity establishes the oneness of the nature (emphasis added).


And of course, Athanasius, the great defender of the doctrine of the Trinity, who championed the homoousion at the Council of Nicea, speaks very assertively against Sabellius in his Discourses Against the Arians (III:23, in Schaff and Wace, 1994: 2nd. ser., vol. 4:395): 


They [the Father and the Son] are one, not as one thing now divided into two, but really constituting only one, nor as one thing twice named, so that the same becomes at one time the Father and at another his own Son. This latter is what Sabellius held, and he was judged a heretic. On the contrary, they are two, because the Father is Father and is not his own Son, and the Son is Son and not his own Father.


In his teaching on the Holy Spirit, Cyril of Jerusalem (c. A.D. 348) in his Catechetical Lectures (XVI:4, in Schaff and Wace, 1994: 2nd. ser., vol. 7:116), after referring to the Trinitarian baptismal formula, explains: “We preach not three Gods; let the Marcionites be silenced; but with the Holy Ghost through One Son, we preach One God ... We neither separate the Holy Trinity, like some; nor do we, as Sabellius, work confusion [into it]” (emphasis added).

Aside from these men of great faith, and many others, the Christian church is greatly indebted to the three Cappadocian Fathers: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Basil’s younger brother, Gregory of Nyssa. They persistently affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity in precise language.

In his letter, To the Notables of Neocaesarea, Basil speaks expressively on the Trinity, sharply countering the Sabellian heresy (CCX:3, in Schaff and Wace, 1994: 2nd. ser., vol. 8:249-251):Sabellianism is Judaism imported into the preaching of the Gospel under the guise of Christianity ... And I hear that even rasher innovations than those of the foolish Sabellius are now ventured on among you ... For of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost there is the same nature and one Godhead” (emphasis added). In the end, Basil sees Sabellianism as denying Jesus Christ:


Now Sabellius ... saying as he did that the same God, being one in matter, was metamorphosed as the need of the moment required, and spoken of now as Father, now as Son, and now as Holy Ghost. The inventors of this unnamed heresy are renewing the old long extinguished error ... denying the name of the Son of God. They must give over uttering iniquity against God, or they will have to wail with them that deny the Christ (emphasis added).


As with all the Christological heresies in the first four centuries, the church did not tolerate blatant denials of Jesus Christ in any form. Even with the sophisticated arguments of Sabellius and the inflated ego of Paul of Samosata, the church universally condemned both dynamic and modalistic Monarchianism. Because of heresies such as Monarchianism, the early church greatly increased its effort to codify the creeds in precise language, to advance the church’s rule of faith, and protect the people of God from the false teachings that were rampant in those first four centuries. The theory of Sabellius broke the way for the Nicene church doctrine, by its full coordination of the three persons. He differed from the orthodox standard mainly in denying the Trinity of essence and the permanence of the Trinity of manifestation; making Father, Son, and Holy Ghost only temporary phenomena, which fulfill their mission and return into the abstract monad (Schaff, 2006: vol. 2: 12:583).




The Doctrine of the Trinity and the Early Church


To maintain the idea that the early church was Oneness is a complicated task for Oneness teachers, for in order to do so, Oneness teachers must revise history. For instance, Bernard (1983: 236-37) claims:


1. As far as we can tell, the early church Christian leaders in the days immediately following the apostolic age were Oneness. It is certain they did not teach the doctrine of the trinity as it later developed and as it exists today. 2. Even after the emergence of the trinitarian doctrine in the latter part of the second century, the doctrine of the trinity did not replace Oneness as the dominant belief until around 300 A.D., and it did not become universally established until late in the fourth century. 3. Even after trinitarianism became dominant, Oneness believers continued to exist throughout church history (emphasis added).


As we will see, Oneness teachers routinely practice this kind of historical revisionism in order to substantiate the notion that the early church taught distinctive Oneness doctrines. Bernard’s assertion that the Trinity “did not replace Oneness as the dominant belief until around 300 A.D.” is the very conclusion he has yet to establish. His assertion prompts two questions. First, if Oneness theology was the rule of faith, the apostolic doctrine, or, as Bernard argues, “the dominant belief until around 300 A.D.,” then why did the early Christians not only abandon the doctrine, but also, as substantiated below, condemn and denounce it as Christological heresy? And, if the second and third century Christians actually held to Oneness doctrine, then why did the early church fathers prior to A.D. 325 make explicit statements that clearly speak, not of a unipersonal God, but rather a tri-personal God?  In dissimilarity to Bernard’s historical delusion, Kelly (1978: 88) makes these observations:


The reader should notice how deeply the conception of a plurality of divine Persons was imprinted in the apostolic tradition and the popular faith. Though as yet uncanonized, the New Testament was already exerting a powerful influence; it is a commonplace that the outlines of a dyadic and a triadic pattern are clearly visible in its pages.


Bernard’s argument that “after trinitarianism became dominant, Oneness believers continued to exist throughout church history” does not prove anything, only that there were some Oneness believers existing after the third century. If one follows Bernard’s logic to its conclusion, then Gnosticism must be true, since Gnostic believers continued to exist throughout church history as well, even to this very day. Bernard’s main assertion (1983: 236) that “The early church Christian leaders in the days immediately following the apostolic age were Oneness” demonstrates his lack of data and/or understanding in the area of church history.


The problem with Bernard’s statements alleging what particular early church fathers said or what they meant to say is that he does not provide the exact addresses of the citations. This is a fundamental requirement in order to authenticate the very claims made. Ascertaining the historical data of the early church is not, by any means, a monumental task. We have masses of extant and very accessible data on the early church fathers, councils, creeds, and virtually every heresy and teaching promulgated in the early church. There is no excuse. Those who write or teach on church history should objectively examine and thus offer an accurate presentation of the historical record in context, providing the specific addresses of all citations submitted.


Before examining the early church regarding their view of the nature of God, one must bear in mind that the specific doctrinal words and phrases such as “co-equal,” “Trinity,” “Godhead,” “incarnation,” etc., which are not “biblical” words, simply define the biblical data. In other words, because of the absence of particular key doctrinal words and phrases prior to Nicea, Oneness teachers and other unitarian groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses (cf. Watchtower, 1989b: 8) allege that the Trinity was not developed until the fourth century. This argument mistakenly assumes that prior to the utilization of doctrinal words and phrases by the early church these doctrines could not have existed.


Here we see a confusion of the biblical data with the biblical doctrine. It does not violate the principal of sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) to use non-biblical words or phrases in defining a biblical doctrine as long as the non-biblical words or phrases accurately describe the biblical revelation. For example, the non-biblical term “incarnation” describes the biblical revelation communicated in John 1:14: “The Word became flesh.” Whereas non-biblical phrases such as “co-equal,” “co-eternal” and “co-existent” suitably describe the biblical revelation set forth in passages such as John 1:1 and 17:5. So the dreaded word “Trinity,” which the unitarians outright despised, rightly describes or defines the biblical revelation of three divine Persons sharing the nature of the one God.


On the same plane, although the pre-Nicene early church fathers lacked the eloquent definitive language to define in exact terms particular biblical doctrines, their statements clearly show contextually that (a) they conceived God as existing as a tri-personal Being and (b) they did not hold to a lone unitarian undifferentiated concept of God as Oneness teachers presuppose. To achieve a coherent and objective understanding of how the early church envisaged God we shall present two branches of evidence that concisely and clearly demonstrate what the early universal church believed and taught: 1) important ecumenical councils and 2) early patristic documents.



Ecumenical Councils


Unarguably, the leading reason for ecumenical councils, starting with the first in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1ff.), was heresy. The function of these councils was to confirm, defend and standardize important biblical doctrines. They effectively and clearly affirmed the full deity and humanity of the Son, Jesus Christ, as well as safeguarded the essential distinctions between the Persons in the Godhead. The theological bedrock of these councils and creeds of the Christian church was the doctrine of the Trinity. Thus, the theology contained in these councils and creeds presupposes that God is triune and God the Son became flesh. Since this is the case, it is an extraordinarily difficult task for Oneness teachers to explain why the most important councils and creeds of Christendom for the first several hundred years not only affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity, but also specifically condemned the anti-Trinitarian teachings of Modalism.


At the first ecumenical Council of Nicea they made a very positive affirmation of both the full deity of Jesus Christ (against Arius) and the distinctions existing between the Persons of the Trinity (against Modalism). Aside from Nicea, here below are some excerpts (Schaff and Wace, 1994: 2nd. ser., vol. 14:3-540) from some of the significant ecumenical councils,[3] which affirm the Trinity and militate against the modalistic/unitarian position.



First Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381):


We believe in one God the Father all-powerful, maker of heaven and of earth, and of all things both seen and unseen. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all the ages, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things came to be ... And in the Spirit, the holy, the lordly and life-giving one, proceeding forth from the Father, co-worshipped and co-glorified with the Father and Son (emphasis added).


The Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431).


We confess, then, our Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, perfect God and perfect man, of a rational soul and a body, begotten before all ages from the Father in his godhead, the same in the last days, for us and for our salvation, born of Mary the virgin, according to his humanity, one and the same consubstantial with the Father in godhead and consubstantial with us in humanity, for a union of two natures took place. Therefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord (emphasis added).


The Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451):


This selfsame one [the Son] is perfect both in deity and in humanness; this selfsame one is also actually God and actually man, with a rational soul and a body. He is of the same reality as God as far as his deity is concerned and of the same reality as we ourselves as far as his humanness is concerned; thus like us in all respects, sin only excepted ... this one and only Christ-Son, Lord, only-begotten—in two natures ...The distinctiveness of each nature is not nullified by the union. Instead, the “properties” of each nature are conserved and both natures concur in one “person” and in one reality. They are not divided or cut into two persons, but are together the one and only and only-begotten Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ (emphasis added).


Second Council of Constantinople (A.D. 553):

If anyone shall not confess that the nature or essence of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is one, as also the force and the power; [if anyone does not confess] a consubstantial Trinity, one Godhead to be worshipped in three subsistences or Persons: let him be anathema. For there is but one God even the Father, of whom are all things, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and one Holy Spirit, in whom are all things.


When we scrupulously examine the masses of documentation, we do not find a single council or creed that affirmed Modalism. As we have shown and will continue to show below, the early church universally condemned modalistic/Oneness theology and affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity.



We also find that Modalism was universally condemned at various other church councils:

Taking a strong stance for Trinitarianism, in 1916 at the Assemblies of God General Council held in St. Louis, 156 AG ministers were expelled for holding to Oneness teaching. Whence modern Oneness movements begin. For a detailed account see Andy Harris,  EARLY HISTORY OF THE LOUISIANA DISTRICT COUNCIL OF THE ASSEMBLIES OF GOD.


    Today more that ever, Christian leaders must stand up against heresy. Why keep silent? We should not be afraid of what people think, only about what God thinks. Modalism attacks Jesus Christ. They say they glorify Him but how can they when Modalism teaches that Jesus Christ is NOT eternal, His life started in Bethlehem.

    They say, they glorify Him but so do the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses!  Modalism rips the heart out of Christianity it denies Christ by misrepresenting Him.

    To be sure, Modalism is another Jesus, another Gospel, and another Spirit. There is only one true God. The Apostle John was very concern as to the beliefs and teachings of Jesus Christ; as he gives this warning:.  

Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also (John 2:2)






The Trinity and the Early Church


There is no disputation as to the distinctive Trinitarianism taught and defended in the church after the fourth century. Thus, the references provided below are primarily from the apostolic church fathers, the apologists, and the theologians of the early church prior to the fourth century. The historical evidence indisputably shows that the early church believed in a tri-personal God and not a unitarian/unipersonal deity. In light of this, Oneness writers provide revised and disjointed historical information in order to convince the Oneness people that the early church fathers were modalists. Revising the historical record, William B. Chalfant (1979: 116-18) makes these remarks:


The trinity doctrine exists only on paper … No apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ ever taught such a doctrine … None of the immediate disciples of the apostles (e.g., Clement Ignatius, Hermas, or Polycarp) taught such a doctrine … Who began such a teaching? … Trinities abound in the ancient, false religions.

Here Chalfant assumes the conclusion he is wishing to reach, namely, that the early church fathers were modalists. With no objective historical justification provided, Oneness writers (e.g., Bernard 1991: 24, 264-65) engage frequently in this kind of patent historical revisionism. The foremost and most recognized Christian theologians and church historians[4] strongly oppose the Oneness historical premise that “the early church Christian leaders in the days immediately following the apostolic age were Oneness” (Bernard, 1983: 236). On the contrary, we will show that the evidence consistently verifies that the early church envisaged God as tri-personal. Note that the examples provided below are not an exhaustive list of every citation of every church father attesting to the triune nature of God. However, these examples do provide corroborating evidence that supports the supposition that the early church held to the concept of the Trinity.




Apostolic Fathers


The earliest patristic writings are those that belong to the category of the apostolic fathers (c. A.D. 70-150). As the name indicates, many of these church fathers had personally known the original apostles. Their testimony is of great worth in evaluating the theology of the early church subsequent to the days of the original apostles.


The Epistle of Barnabas (c. A.D. 70)


The document is the work of an anonymous teacher. It is extremely unlikely that it was the biblical character Barnabas (Holmes, 1999: 271). The Epistle of Barnabas was written very early, when perhaps some of the original apostles were still alive (Holmes, 1999: 272). Notice in this citation (5, in Holmes, 1999: 285) the usage of the plural verb “Let Us make" (citing Genesis 1:26) in reference to the pre-incarnate Son: 


And further, my brethren, if the Lord [Jesus] endured to suffer for our soul, he being the Lord of all the world, to whom God said at the foundation of the world, ‘Let us make man after our image, and after our likeness,’ understand how it was that he endured to suffer at the hand of men (emphasis added).


Clement bishop of Rome (c. A.D. 96)


Clement of Rome wrote an epistle to the original Corinthian church. He was perhaps the same Clement who was Paul’s close companion mentioned in Philippians 4:3. Schaff (2006: vol. 1: 13:637) says of Clement that he was a “name of great celebrity in antiquity, was a disciple of Paul and Peter, to whom he refers as the chief examples for imitation. He may have been the same person who is mentioned by Paul as one of his faithful fellow-workers in Philippi (Phil. 4:3).” Early Church historian Eusebius (History of the Church III:4, in Maier, 1999: 95) says that “Clement too, who became the third bishop of Rome, was Paul’s co-worker and co-combatant, as the apostle himself testifies.” In Clement’s salutation (To the Corinthians, in Holmes, 1999: 29), he clearly differentiates God the Father from the Lord Jesus Christ:


The Church of God which sojourns in Rome, to the Church of God sojourning at Corinth, to those who are called and sanctified by the will of God, through our Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you, and peace, from almighty God through Jesus Christ, be yours in abundance.  


Ignatius bishop of Antioch (c. A.D. 98-107)


Ignatius was an important apostolic church father. He was a bishop of the original church at Antioch. In his writings, Ignatius constantly refers to Jesus as the “Son of the Father.” In reference to the Son, he frequently declares ho gar theos hēmōn Iēsous ho Christos (“For our God, Jesus the Christ,” or a similar phrase), thus referring to the “Son” as theos (Ephesians 18; Romans 3; and To Polycarp 8).


As we read, in his letter to the original church at Ephesus, he writes (7, in Holmes, 1999: 141): “There is one Physician who is both flesh and spirit; born and unborn [agennētos] God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God” (emphasis added). To recall, the early church used the term agennētos to denote God’s unoriginate eternal existence. Rightfully so, Ignatius applied agennētos to the Son. Clearly, Ignatius does not see the Father and Jesus as the same Person. In the same letter (9, in Holmes, 1999: 143), he differentiates the Father from both the Son and the Holy Spirit: “Stones of a temple, prepared beforehand for the building of God the Father, hoisted up to the heights by the crane of Jesus Christ, which is the cross, using as a rope the Holy Spirit” (emphasis added). Challenging the Oneness view of a non-eternal Son, in his Letter to the Magnesians, Ignatius speaks of “Jesus Christ, who before the ages was with the Father and appeared at the end of time” (6, in Holmes, 1999: 153, 155).


At the beginning of his letter to the church at Rome, Ignatius uses very detailed language to differentiate the Father and Jesus (in Holmes, 1999: 167, 169): “In the majesty of the Father Most High and Jesus Christ, his only Son ... Jesus Christ our God, which also presides in the place of the district of the Romans ... I also greet in the name of Jesus Christ, Son of the Father.” In spite of the Ignatius’s own words (in context), Bernard (1991: 33) actually says of Ignatius: “The writings of Ignatius (c. 110-115) equate Jesus with the One God so strongly that some historians have called his doctrine modalistic ... Assuming Ignatius understood God to be the Father ... he thought of Jesus as God the Father incarnate.” Yet Bernard does not provide a single reference to the “some historians” that have supposedly called Ignatius’s doctrine modalistic. Nor does he provide any examples from the writings of Ignatius that reveal that Ignatius believed that Jesus was the Father. When Ignatius refers to Jesus and the Father in the same passage or same context, the grammatical constructions always denote a distinction of two Persons.[5]   





Hermas (c. A.D. 120)


Hermas was perhaps the same Hermas to whom Paul sends greetings in Romans 16:14, around the year A.D. 57. Eusebius says of Hermas (History of the Church III:3, in Maier, 1999: 94): “But as the same apostle, in the salutations at the end of the Epistle to the Romans, has made mention among others of Hermas, to whom the book called The Shepherd is ascribed.” In his Shepherd, Hermas believes that the “Son of God is older than all his creation, so that he became the Father’s adviser in his creation. Therefore, also he is ancient” (III Sim. IX:12, in Holmes, 1999: 491).


Polycarp bishop of Smyrna (c. A.D. 130-150)


The beloved Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who claimed he had been a Christian for eighty-six years, was also, according to both Irenaeus and Eusebius, a disciple of the Apostle John. In his last prayer just before he was martyred, Polycarp glorifies not a unipersonal God, but rather a tri-personal God (The Martyrdom of Polycarp 14, in Holmes, 1999: 239):


O Lord God Almighty, the Father of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ ... I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, through whom to you with him and the Holy Spirit be glory both now and for the ages to come. Amen.


Mathetes,[6] Letter to Diognetus (c. A.D. 130)


In his letter to Diognetus (11, cited in Holmes, 1999: 551), Mathetes, who claimed himself “having been a disciple of the Apostles,” speaks clearly of the eternality of the Son: “He sent the Word, namely, that he might appear to the world ... This is the Eternal One, who today is accounted as Son” (emphasis added).




The Apologists


The next category of church fathers subsequent to the apostolic fathers is the category of the apologists. These early apologists courageously defended and affirmed biblical truth against the prevalent heresies of the day.


Justin Martyr (c. A.D. 155)


Justin Martyr consistently distinguishes the Persons of the Trinity throughout his writings. As we saw in Chapter 3 (, Justin, in his First Apology (61, Richardson, 1970: 282), naturally quotes the Trinitarian baptismal formula: “For they are then washed in the water in the name of God the Father and Master of all, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit.” In Dialogue with Trypho (62, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 1:228), Justin explains that the usage of the first person plural verb ("Let Us make”) by Moses in Genesis 1:26 signifies God the Father conversing with someone “numerically distinct [arithmō heteron] from Himself”—another Person:


“Let Us make”—I shall quote again the words narrated by Moses himself, from which we can indisputably learn that [God] conversed with someone who was numerically distinct from Himself … [Moses] has declared that [there is a certain] number of persons associated with one another … [The Son] was with the Father before all the creatures, and the Father communed with Him (emphasis added).


Athenagoras (c. A.D. 175)


Athenagoras in A Plea for the Christians (10, in Richardson, 1970: 309) speaks in reference to the Son as “not as having been brought into existence. It astonishes Athenagoras that any man could declare someone as an atheist, if they “speak of God the Father, and of God the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and who declare both their power in union and their distinction in order.”




Theophilus bishop of Antioch (c. A.D. 180)


As noted, Theophilus uses the term “Trinity” (triados) in a letter to his friend Autolycus (To Autolycus II:15, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 2:101) in describing God: “In like manner also the three days which were before the luminaries, are types of the trinity, of God, and His Word, and His wisdom”






The next category of church fathers is the theologians. These men devoted their lives to the extreme study and meticulous examination of Scripture. Their refutations of false teaching were brilliant and their biblical proclamations were powerful and textually substantiated. The theologians, as with their predecessors, defended and affirmed the church’s rule of faith exposing the destructive false teachings of their day.


Irenaeus bishop of Lyons (c. A.D. 180)


A true champion of orthodoxy, Irenaeus provided the Christian church with scholarly polemics against various heresies, particularly in his greatest work, A Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-Called (i.e., Against Heresies, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 1:315-567). “Irenaeus is an enemy,” says Schaff (2006: vol. 2: 13:751), “of all error and schism, and, on the whole, the most orthodox of the ante-Nicene fathers.” From his youth, Irenaeus benefited greatly by having Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of the Apostle John (and perhaps other apostles), as his instructor. An examination of his own doctrinal statement reveals clearly that he held to a Trinitarian concept of God.


As with the Epistle of Barnabas, in Against Heresies (IV:20, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 1:487-88), Irenaeus refers to the first person plural verb ("Let Us make") in Genesis 1:26 to show that God is multi-personal: “For with Him were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, by whom and in whom, freely and spontaneously, He made all things, to whom also He speaks, saying, “Let Us make man after Our image and likeness.” In this same work, notice a mere few of a massive collection of decidedly Trinitarian references made by Irenaeus:


[The church believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God (I:10, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 1:330).


As it has been clearly demonstrated that the Word, who existed in the beginning with God, by whom all things were made ... [it follows] that every objection is set aside of those who say, “If our Lord was born at that time, Christ had therefore no previous existence. For I have shown that the Son of God did not then begin to exist, being with the Father from the beginning; but when He became incarnate, and was made man … (III:18, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 1:446; emphasis added).  


The Son who “was always with the Father; and that Wisdom also, which is the Spirit, was present with Him (IV:20, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 1:488; emphasis added).


Throughout Against Heresies Irenaeus unmistakably differentiates the Person of the Father from the Person of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, thus presenting a tri-personal God.


Hippolytus (c. A.D. 203-228)


Hippolytus was adamant in defending against Christological heresy, especially that of Oneness doctrine in his polemic Against Noetus: “For us, then, it is sufficient simply to know that there was nothing contemporaneous with God. Beside Him there was nothing; but He, while existing alone, yet existed in plurality” (10, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 5:227). In this same work, Hippolytus explains: “For the Father indeed is One, but there are two Persons, because there is also the Son; and then there is the third, the Holy Spirit” (14, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 5:228).

Tertullian (c. A.D. 213)


We have shown above the firm anti-Oneness polemic of Tertullian in Against Praxeas, where he refuted the modalistic interpretation of John 10:30 (cf. Chapter 3, 3.3.2). We also saw how he uses, as do so many church fathers, the Trinitarian baptismal formula in Matthew 28:19 to prove to the modalists that God is not unipersonal: “He commands them to baptize into the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, not into a unipersonal God. And indeed it is not once only, but three times, that we are immersed into the Three Persons, at each several mention of Their names” (Against Praxeas 26, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 3:623).


Novatian the Roman Presbyter (c. A.D. 250)


The Roman Presbyter Novatian wrote expansively on the Trinity. In his Treatise Concerning the Trinity (18, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 5:629), appealing to Genesis 19:24, he argued against Sabellianism, showing that although Jesus was fully God, He was not the Father:


“Then the Lord [Yahweh] rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah fire and brimstone from the Lord [Yahweh] out of heaven.” But although the Father, being invisible, was assuredly not at that time seen, He who was accustomed to be touched and seen was seen and received to hospitality. But this the Son of God ... It was not the Father, then, who was a guest with Abraham, but Christ. Nor was it the Father who was seen then, but the Son; and Christ was seen. Rightly, therefore, Christ is both Lord and God, who was not otherwise seen by Abraham, except that as God the Word He was begotten of God the Father before Abraham himself (emphasis added).


His entire Treatise reveals how strong was his devotion to affirm and defend the Trinity, especially against the Modalism of Sabellius:


Many heretics, as we have said, have so accepted Him as God, as to think that He must be pronounced not the Son, but the Father ... This, however, we do not approve; but we quote it as an argument to prove that Christ is God, to this extent, that some, taking away the manhood, have thought Him God only, and some have thought Him God the Father Himself; when reason and the proportion of the heavenly Scriptures show Christ to be God, but as the Son of God; and the Son of man, having been taken up, moreover by God, that He must be believed to be man also (23, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 5:634; emphasis added).


Gregory Thaumaturgus the Wonder-worker (c. A.D. 262-265)
Gregory Thaumaturgus the Wonder-worker was a student of Origen, as was Dionysius of Alexandria. In his decidedly Trinitarian essay, A Declaration of Faith (in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 6:8), he opposes the Modalism of Sabellius and the Adoptionism of Paul of Samosata:


God the Father, who is above all and in all, and God the Son, who is through all. There is a perfect Trinity, in glory and eternity and sovereignty, neither divided nor estranged. Wherefore there is nothing either created or in servitude in the Trinity; nor anything super induced, as if at some former period it was non-existent, and at some later period it was introduced. And thus, neither was the Son ever wanting to the Father, nor the Spirit to the Son; but without variation and without change, the same Trinity abideth ever (emphasis added).


Methodius of Olympus (c. A.D. 305)


Writing in the very early fourth century, Methodius’s work was widely read and highly valued. Jerome refers to him several times, as does Epiphanius, Gregory of Nyssa, Andrew of Caesarea, Theodoret and Eustathius of Antioch. His Trinitarian view of God was extremely definitive. In Oration on the Psalms (in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 6:396-97), he states: “For the kingdom of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is one, even as their substance is one and their dominion one. Whence also, with one and the same adoration, we worship the one Deity in three Persons (emphasis added).

In Oration concerning Simon and Anna on the Day that they met in the Temple, Methodius declares (in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 6:384)


Glory to be adored by all of that one of the sacred Trinity ... together with the Son, who was made man for our sakes, according to the good pleasure of His will, was also present the Father, who is inseparable from Him as to His divine nature, and also the Spirit, who is of one and the same essence with Him (emphasis added).


Even though the above examples are concise, they do provide an objective and honest sketch of how the early church fathers, some of whom were disciples of the original apostles, conceived God. Contrary to Oneness teachers, as the record indicates, the early church fathers envisaged a triune God. They strongly opposed the modalistic concept of God that denied the unipersonality of Jesus Christ and thus, the deity and pre-existence of the Son.





In view of the colossal amount of historical evidence attesting to the early church’s Trinitarian belief, one wonders how Oneness teachers can honestly affirm the converse. Bernard (1983: 176) admits that the post-Nicene church fathers believed in the Trinity, however, he claims that these early theologians made a great “blunder in their belief of the Trinity. They failed to purge themselves of the pagan ideas of their own past and culture.” Notwithstanding the historical revisionism put forward by Oneness advocates, the records speak for themselves, militating against the Oneness position.


The factual evidence demonstrating that the early church taught and believed in the concept of the Trinity principally comes to us in two forms: 1) the documentation of important ecumenical councils and 2) the testimonies of the early church fathers (viz., the apostolic fathers, the apologists, and the theologians). Many of the early church leaders who attested to a triune God were disciples of the original apostles of Christ. Thus, their testimony is valuable in establishing what the early church believed. Although they lacked the articulate language and modern doctrinal words, they clearly envisaged a Trinitarian concept of God.


The doctrine of the Trinity from the fourth century onwards saw considerable development in terms of the words and phrases that adequately defined the biblical revelation of the triune God. The church is ever indebted to men such as Athanasius of Alexandria and three great Cappadocian fathers who contributed so greatly in stating and defending the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. Although the church uncompromisingly held to the biblical teaching of monotheism, they did not view monotheism as unipersonalism. So Hippolytus (Against Noetus 10, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994: vol. 5:227) can affirm in reference to God: Monos ōn polus ēn— “While existing alone, [He] yet existed in plurality.”


We have established that the early Christian church embraced a multi-personal God. The apostolic tradition and the popular faith held to a conception of a plurality of divine Persons (Kelly, 1978: 88). I have shown that, in substantiation of the Trinity, the early church frequently utilized such passages as John 1:1 and the first person plural references in the Old Testament ("Let Us make," "[one] of Us" et al), Gen. 1:26; 3:22; 11:7; Isa. 6:8). Some (e.g., Novatian) appealed to Genesis 19:24 to prove that the Father and Jesus were two distinct Persons both referred to as Yahweh. Historically, it was the Trinitarians and not the Modalists who conducted all of the major ecumenical councils and revivals worldwide. Furthermore, the great biblical scholars, theologians and Greek grammarians past and contemporary have been Trinitarian.


Although there were Modalists throughout the years following the fourth century, they did not represent the Christian church’s rule of faith, for the church roundly condemned Oneness theology on all fronts. Bernard’s statement (1983: 43), “As far as we can tell, the early church Christian leaders in the days immediately following the apostolic age were Oneness,” cannot stand in the face of the evidence. If Oneness unitarianism was the doctrine of the early church, then why did early church fathers (some of who were disciples of the apostles) and ecumenical councils condemn it universally?

The early church branded Oneness theology as heretical since the days of Noetus at the end of the second century. Victor, the bishop of Rome around A.D. 190 excommunicated Theodotus (the first known dynamic monarchianist; Maier, 1999: 201).

Around the same time, Hippolytus and the presbyters condemned Noetus (the first known modalistic monarchianist; Kelly, 1978: 120). Tertullian marked Praxeas as a heretic (Kelly, 1978: 121-22). Paul of Samosata was condemned at the Third Council in Antioch in A.D. 268. Dionysius of Alexandria and Dionysius bishop of Rome along with many important church fathers condemned Sabellius and regarded his teachings as Christological heresy (Kelly, 1978: 133-35; Maier, 1999: 274).

And after Modalism/Oneness theology reemerged in the twentieth century, it was again rejected by the church (cf. Chapter 2, 2.3.1). Advocates of Monarchianism, modalistic and dynamic, held to a misunderstood view of monotheism resulting in a unitarian/unipersonal view of God. Oneness theology was reactionary in that Oneness proponents reacted to the Trinitarianism infused in the apostolic tradition, namely, the church’s rule of faith. They sacrificed the plain biblical teaching of a tri-personal God, at the expense of a heterodox unipersonal concept of God. Appropriately, the early church resisted this view with immense passion and commitment, gallantly contesting it by way of ecumenical councils and detailed theological letters. The early church saw Oneness theology as a radical departure from the biblical teaching regarding the nature of God.

The historical records speak clearly: the early church envisaged a tri-personal God. Hence, they assertively condemned any teaching that controverted or rejected the essential distinctions among the divine Persons of the Trinity. For “the catholic (universal) Faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence”[7] (Schaff, 2006: vol. 3: 9:690-91).



[1] However, Theophilus, in a letter to his friend Autolycus (To Autolycus II:15, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1994, vol. 2:101) was the first church father in the East to use the term “Trinity” (triados) to describe God in AD. 180.

[2] We will see below, in our discussion of the Council of Nicea, that the inclusion of the key term homoousios was the principal reason why some bishops were hesitant in signing the Creed. For nearly a hundred years before Nicea, the church had condemned the term on account of its usage by the modalists and adoptionists, but in a different sense. 

[3] There were seven important ecumenical councils (aside from the Council of Jerusalem around A.D. 50; cf. Acts 5:1ff): I. First Council of Nicea (A.D.. 325); II. First Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381); III. Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431); IV. Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451); V. Second Council of Constantinople (A.D. 553); VI. Third Council of Constantinople (A.D. 680-681); and VII. Second Council of Nicea (A.D. 787). 

[4] Such as Eusebius, Socrates, J. B. Lightfoot, Philip Schaff, J. N. D. Kelly, Francis Beckwith, etc. 

[5] In his letter to the Magnesians (as cited above), for example, Ignatius grammatically differentiates the Father from Jesus. Notice closely how the Greek reads in this portion of the passage: Iēsou Christou, hos pro aiōnōn para patri, literally, “Jesus Christ, who before ages [was] with [the] Father.” In reference to John 17:5, we have shown (Chapter 4, 4.5) that the preposition para when followed by the dative case (as in this verse: para patri, “with the Father”) especially in reference to persons, indicates “near,” “beside,” or “in the presence of” (cf. Wallace, 1996: 378; Bauer, 2000: 757). Thus, Ignatius here indicates that Jesus Christ was “with/in the presence of” (para) the Father—two distinct Persons.

[6] Although the author of the Letter to Diognetus is anonymous, he gives himself the title “Mathetes”—aποstolōn genomenos mathētēs (“having been a disciple of the Apostles”).

[7] The original Latin reads: Fides autem catholica haec est: ut unum Deum in Trinitate, et Trinitatem in unitate veneremur. Neque confundentes personas, neque substantiam seperantes. This statement comes from the beginning portion of the Athanasian Creed (also called, Quicunque vult, “Whosoever will [be saved]). Although not penned by Athanasius himself (it probably originated about the middle of the fifth century, in the school of Augustine [Schaff, 2006: vol. 3: 9:696]), it nevertheless represents his views and the views of the early church (esp. that of Nicea). Hence, it is one of the most defined and utilized creed of early and present-day Christendom. 



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