Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Trinitarian Heresy of Monarchianism and Our Recourse against It

Holy Lord, Father Almighty, Everlasting God, Who together with Thine Only-begotten Son, and the Holy Spirit, are one God, one Lord; not in the singleness of one Person, but in the Trinity of One Substance. For what we believe, by Thy revelation, of Thy glory, the same do we believe of Thy Son, the same of the Holy Spirit without difference or distinction. So that, in confessing the true and everlasting Godhead, distinction in persons, unity in essence, and equality in majesty may be adored.
- The Sunday Preface of the Most Holy Trinity for the “Tridentine Mass”

In the Mass, Catholics participate in the Divine Life of the Most Holy Trinity. But it is likely that few of us are aware of this privilege. We say the Our Father and we certainly celebrate the Son in the Eucharist. But where in our popular conception of the Mass is the Holy Spirit? Where are the Three? Where is the One?

The problem of God – referred to as “the One and the Many” – has long been a paradox that has troubled theologians. Some try to delve too deeply into finding its “solution,” to “nailing it to the wall.” They look too hard and prove too much. They explain it away and thereby strip this “mystery of mysteries” of all its majesty. Others simply write it off as one of those ideas about which we are simply not meant to know. Fr. William K. McDonough, a humble priest and profound theologian, concedes that “True, we profess our faith in one God in three Divine Persons. But is there not a sort of silent implication, sometimes even expressed, that this is really something too deep to penetrate; something outside the pale of practical or personal; to be kept at a reverent distance?”[1]

In the infancy of the Church, theologians struggled to make sense of this Mystery and their work and orthodoxy have been priceless in informing our current understanding. And we have even – maybe especially – learned much from their heresies. Some, in their zeal to defend the One, sacrificed the Many and others erred vice versa. But the widespread influence of these heresies on theologians as well as common laymen prompted the heroic and brilliant response of early Church Fathers such as St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen as well as St. Athanasius, the Cappadocian fathers and ultimately the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople. But as important as these responses were to a restoration of orthodoxy, early Trinitarian heresies persist in both modern theology and scholarship and in the common understanding, conscious or not, of the faithful. Here we will limit our scope to a look at one heresy in particular, Monarchianism, how it echoes into our present day, and the recourse Catholics have, aside from the obvious witness and statements of the early Church Fathers and the Magisterium, for an authentic understanding of the Trinity.

First, a brief look at the problem of the One and the Many. The Dutch theologian, Fr. J. P. Arendzen is helpful in guiding us into this Mystery. At the start, there is God who is one in nature, but three in Persons: The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit and these Three are really distinct. They are not merely three “aspects of the Divinity” that actually coincide and only appear to be three. They are likewise not just “modes or attitudes” or “merely names.” No, “They are distinct among themselves by a distinction as deep as their infinite nature… the Three subsist in one, numerically one, divine nature and Godhead, for there is only one God.”[2]

On the contrary, three human persons share the same human nature, but this is “only a sameness of kind, not an identity of number.” Divinity, on the other hand, cannot be numerically multiplied. “There is but one, single, undivided God, and this one infinite Reality, which is essentially alone, self-contained, and has no partner, this God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”[3] Furthermore, Arendzen explains, “the divine nature, although it is one single being, one individual substance and infinite intelligence, utterly complete in itself and unshared, it is yet not a person, for it is identified with three Persons, who are utterly distinct among themselves.”[4]

Finally, Arendzen concludes that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – all Three – “are equal in what they are, that is in their nature, but that does not prove that the Three are identical in who they are.”[5] Here, the problem of the One and the Many seems to be an absurdity only if we approach the two terms “One” and “Many” the same way, as if to say “There are three Gods, yet there is one God.” This would indeed be a contradiction but there is no contradiction in God. Instead we must hold fast to what we have always believed: “The nature is one; the personality is threefold.”[6]

While we are grateful for Arendzen’s helpful explanation, McDonough is clearer in his presentation of the distinction of the three Divine Persons and so it is also helpful to add his contribution here. McDonough describes the problem of the One and the Many as the mystery of “multiplicity in unity.” He explains that “The only distinctions within the Godhead are fatherhood, sonship, spiration… All Three equally possess the inexhaustible wealth of divinity. What one is, the others are; what one has, the others have. Everything (save fatherhood, sonship, spiration) They hold in common.”[7]

Now keeping Arendzen’s and McDonough’s explanations in mind we can better understand Monarchianism. But, we must also keep in mind the time in which we find it. While the seeds of this heresy can be found in the second and third century it was not until the fourth century that it became fully developed. Abbe Felix Klein, professor at the Catholic Institute of Paris, describes this time as one of intense and violent controversy in which heretics “in one way or another, sacrificed in their notion of God sometimes the unity of His Nature, sometimes the distinction, the equality, even the existence of the Persons.”[8] And the Jesuit Fr. Gerald O’Collins adds: “Where tritheism sacrificed the vital identity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to their multiplicity, the opposite heresy of modalism took monotheism so rigidly that it sacrificed the multiplicity of the divine persons to their unity.”[9] Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, explains that their motivations were pure at first, but as Tertullian exclaims, took a surprising turn:

That debate gave expression as it were to the primordial philosophical concern to trace everything back to a single supreme principle, as in the prophetic message regarding Yahweh as the sole God. The monarchy of God was therefore an essential part of early Christian catechesis. It is all the more surprising, therefore, that the concept of monarchy, originally so basic and venerable, should soon have lost its importance as applied to God. The reason for this development is that at an early date heresies made their appearance which adopted as their slogan: “Monarchiam tenemus (We hold fast to the monarchy).”[10]

Now let us define Monarchianism. William J. Hill describes it as “the strict and somewhat conservative monotheism that held tenaciously to an understanding of God’s utter transcendence as Monarchia.”[11] Klein describes its adherents as those “who admitted only one God, but who saw in the Son only a manifestation of the Father Himself”.[12] O’Collins describes: “Those who stressed the one principle (mone arche) in God, sometimes to the point of denying any personal distinctions within the divinity… they aimed to defend at all costs the unique ‘mon-archy’ of God (the Father).” Finally, William G. Rusch explains:

During the third century a backlash against the Logos [Word] doctrine occurred in the Western church. It was a movement based largely on a fear that the Logos theology endangered the unity of God… this reaction wished to accentuate that God was an absolute monad without distinctions within the unity.[13]

Given these, it may be better to think of Monarchianism as a category of heresies rather than one complete heresy. In that case, the above definitions are helpful in understanding the category as a whole as well its diverse but similar members. Under Monarchianism we find Modalists who were referred to as “Patripassians” in the West and “Sabellians” in the East. O’Collins describes the Patripassians as those who held that “the divine persons were united to the point that all three were incarnated in Christ. This logically meant [for example] that Jesus was praying to himself when he prayed to ‘Abba’ and… that the Father died on the cross [hence their name, ‘the Father sufferers’].”[14] And Hill describes the “a-trinitarianism” of the Sabellians thus: “God remaining One appears to men under different aspects. Father, Son, and Spirit are successive manifestations of God; ultimately the difference is of name only. This is Modalism in its purest form.”[15]

We also find groups referred to as “Dynamists” or “Adoptionists” but perhaps more properly as “Theodotians” after the Byzantine, Theodotus.[16] Even though they are commonly associated with Monarchianism, their error did not concern the unity of God as such; it was essentially Christological. John Chapman, contributing to the Catholic Encyclopedia, explains, concerning Theodotus:

He taught that Jesus was a man born of a virgin according to the counsel of the Father, that He lived like other men, and was most pious; that at His baptism in the Jordan the Christ came down upon Him in the likeness of a dove, and therefore wonders were not wrought in Him until the Spirit (which Theodotus called Christ) came down and was manifested in Him. They did not admit that this made Him God; but some of them said He was God after His resurrection.[17]

Thus they denied the divinity of Christ and the eternity of the Son (or the Logos) altogether or at least conceded them only as if Christ was made God or became God at a certain point. For the most part, Christ was merely a “celestial power” and advocate for men on earth. O’Collins agrees in his description of the so-called “adoptionists,” describing them as those who “excluded Christ’s divinity and held that he was a mere creature adopted by God (at his baptism or resurrection).”[18]

Finally, Kasper reduces Monarchianism to just two forms: Modalism which we have already seen and Subordinationism (which is usually covered as a separate and distinct heresy).[19] The “Subordinationist Monarchians” (a simpler form of Theodocianism) “endeavored to preserve the monarchy of God by subordinating the Son and the Spirit to the one God.”[20] Arianism, a later heresy, was essentially Subordinationism taken to its extreme. It “started with a radical separation of God and the world and was therefore compelled to join the two by means of the Logos as an intermediary being.”[21] Eventually, it ended up “in a polytheism in which the one divinity expressed itself in the world in and through all sorts of subordinate divine beings.” O’Collins defines Arianism as “asserting that God’s Son did not always exist and hence was not divine by nature but only the first among creatures.”[22]

Kasper also helps us see how Monarchianism, twisted from its original concern into the two forms above, persists and has an “abiding relevance”:

“these two errors, subordinationist and modalist Monarchianism, are not solely of historical interest but have an abiding relevance. They represent two possible – or impossible – ways of thinking about the relationship between God and the world; they crop up ever anew in theology, and in response to them the Christian understanding of God and the resultant Christian relation between God and the world must likewise be expounded ever anew.[23]

In the efforts of the Church Fathers and the Magisterium to take up this challenge throughout the centuries, the original concern of Monarchianism to protect the unity of God has been anything but discarded. “The doctrine of the three-in-oneness of God… means… not a removal or even a mere querying, but rather the final and decisive confirmation, of the insight that God is One.”[24] Kasper concludes that:

The modern age has to a great extent abandoned this concrete Christian monotheism in favor of the abstract theism of a unipersonal God who stands over against man as the perfect Thou or over man as imperial ruler and judge. In the final analysis this conception is the popular form of a Christianity half under the influence of the Enlightenment, or else the religious remnant of Christianity in a secularized society.[25]

What recourse then do modern Catholics – living in a secularized society still heavily influenced by the so-called “Enlightenment” – have for an authentic understanding of the Trinity? Of course, we have the obvious witness and statements of the early Church Fathers and the Magisterium throughout the centuries but these are beyond the scope we have established. Given that, we must first remember, that in principle, “The church does not hold on to the unity of God despite the doctrine of the Trinity. Rather, in the doctrine of the Trinity it is precisely holding fast to Christian monotheism.”[26] Ultimately “God is love. Love is that which reconciles unity and multiplicity; it is the uniting unity in the threeness.”[27] Keeping this in mind can help us come a long way in avoiding the modern tendency to abandon “this concrete Christian monotheism.”

Second, and above all, we have the Mass in which, as we stated in the beginning, Catholics participate in the divine life of the Most Holy Trinity. Fr. McDonough explains that maybe we are “scarecely conscious of this privilege” because of the very frequency with which we call on the Three Divine Persons together.[28] He then proceeds to walk us through the “Tridentine Mass,” showing the many ways in which we confess and adore the Trinity.[29] Let us do likewise with the Novus Ordo Missae. “Surely such a privileged intimacy should arouse us from the area of the unconscious.”[30]

First we begin the Mass “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Then we sing “Glory to God in the highest… almighty God and Father… Lord Jesus Christ , only Son of the Father… with the Holy Spirit.” At the end of the Opening Prayer to the Father we hear the formula: “Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever.” Then at the end of the Liturgy of the Word we profess our Trinitarian faith in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty… We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father… We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”

In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, in the various Prefaces available, we “set to prayer even more precise theology of the Trinity.”[31] After the Eucharistic Prayer, in a most profound way, the priest elevates our Lord sacramentally present in the consecrated host and proclaims that it is “Through him (the very “him” he holds!), with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever.” In Eucharistic Prayer II, after proclaiming God’s glory in the Sanctus the priest prays “Lord, you are holy indeed, the fountain of all holiness. Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy, so that they may become for us the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” And Eucharistic Prayer III begins: “Father, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise. All life, all holiness comes from you through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, by the working of the Holy Spirit.” Finally, in Eucharistic Prayer IV the priest joyfully recounts how God sent his “only Son” conceived “through the power of the Holy Spirit.” And so “that we might live no longer for ourselves but for him, he sent the Holy Spirit from you, Father, as his first gift to those who believe.”

At the beginning of the Communion Rite we pray the Lord’s Prayer, exchange the Sign of Peace, and then altogether plead for mercy before so great a Mystery as the Agnus Dei. Then in the priest’s own private preparation he prays: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, by the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit your death brought life to the world…” In the prayer after communion we again use the same formula mentioned above with the opening prayer. But the last prayer of the Tridentine Mass, the Placeat, also deserves mention here:

May the tribute of my worship be pleasing to Thee, most holy Trinity, and grant that the sacrifice which I, all unworthy, have offered in the presence of Thy Majesty, may be acceptable to Thee, and may, through Thy mercy, obtain forgiveness for me and all for whom I have offered it. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”[32]

Finally the Mass ends as it began: “May almighty God bless you: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

So far, we have looked at the problem of God, of the One and the Many. We have also looked at the early Trinitarian heresy of Monarchianism, its history, its many types and forms, and their persistence into modern times. After that we offered the insistence on Christian monotheism as recourse for modern Catholics to claim an authentic understanding of the Trinity. Finally, we looked at the many occasions of the Mass in which we confess and adore the Trinity in order to arouse our consciousness to its Reality. But we still have yet to answer: How does the Mass also provide recourse for an authentic understanding of the Trinity? The Eucharist is the answer. As we hinted above, through the Mass and the Eucharist, we participate in knowledge and in love in the very Divine Life of the Most Holy Trinity. This is our recourse; it always has been. McDonough beautifully explains:

The Eucharist is the sacrament, par excellence, that keeps alive the extended Incarnation of the Son; His personal Incarnation together with His additional ‘humanities.’ As we thus become more thoroughly Christlike by sacramental union, we become more deeply immersed in the bosom of the Father – with Christ, ‘knowing’ the Father more intimately; with Christ and the Holy Spirit, ‘loving’ the Father more intensely.”[33]

[1] William K. McDonough, The Divine Family: The Trinity and Our Life in God (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005), xiii.
[2] John P. Arendzen, Understanding the Trinity (Manchester: Sophia Institute Press, 2004), 15-16.
[3] Ibid., 16.
[4] Ibid., 18.
[5] Ibid., 23.
[6] Ibid., 24.
[7] McDonough, The Divine Family, 72.
[8] Abbe Felix Klein, The Doctrine of the Trinity (New York: P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1940), 97-98.
[9] Gerald O’Collins, The Tripersonal God: Understanding and Interpreting the Trinity (New York: Paulist Press, 1999), 86.
[10] Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1984), 291-292.
[11] William J. Hill, The Three-Personed God: The Trinity as a Mystery of Salvation (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1982), 34
[12] Klein, The Doctrine of the Trinity, 97.
[13] William G. Rusch, ed., The Trinitarian Controversy, trans. William G. Rusch, Sources of Early Christian Thought, ed. William G. Rusch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 8. Emphasis mine.
[14] O’Collins, The Tripersonal God, 86.
[15] Hill, The Three-Personed God, 34.
[16] John Chapman, “Monarchians,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911 ed. Emphasis mine. Also online at Note this is not from Wikipedia (!) but a bona fide scholarly article in an encyclopedia.
[17] John Chapman, “Monarchians,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia
[18] O’Collins, The Tripersonal God, 109
[19] Hill treats Subordinationism separately from Monarchianism (The Three-Personed God, 37). Kasper himself treats it separately (The God of Jesus Christ, 180, 212, 250ff) but converges this discussion with Monarchianism on 291ff. And O’Collins (Tripersonal God, 85-113) treats it separately as he discusses “The Trinity before Nicaea” by treating St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and Arius one at a time.
[20] Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, 292.
[21] Ibid.
[22] O’Collins, The Tripersonal God, 204.
[23] Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, 292. Kasper notes that this has been shown by J.A. Mohler, F. Schleiermacher, and J. Moltmann. Also, this challenge has been masterfully taken up by Msgr. Robert Sokolowski. Cf. The God of Faith & Reason: Foundations of Christian Theology (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995).
[24] Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, 294.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid., 295.
[27] Ibid., 296.
[28] McDonough, The Divine Family, 184.
[29] Ibid., 184-186.
[30] Ibid., 184.
[31] Ibid., 185.
[32] Ibid., 185-186.
[33] Ibid., 189-190.

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