The issue which was to dominate theologic controversy during the second, third, and fourth centuries was the issue of the trinity. Early believers wrestled with this. They, like us, wanted to categorize, quantify, and understand a concept which transcends human wisdom. The difficulty which they faced was the reconciliation of two clear Biblical truths: the unity of the Godhead and the full deity of Christ. How could God be one and yet exist as a trinity? How could Christ be a real person and fully God, distinct from the Father, and yet not avoid the problem of a lack of unity within the Godhead?
An attempted answer to the difficulty arose in the second and third centuries and became known as Monarchianism, or the sole government of God. It sought to uphold the primacy of God. But even here, there was a lack of unity in their attempt to explain unity. Two main schools of teaching sprang up in the movement. One school, stressing the unity of God, did so at the expense of the deity of Christ. The other teaching, insisting on the full deity of the Lord Jesus, did so at the expense of the doctrine of the trinity.
Paul of Samosata came from a small village in southern Turkey. He rose through the ecclesiastical ranks, and became the Bishop of Antioch. At the same time as he was elected to this office, he also happened to be the chief financial officer for the queen. He obviously had no problem with the concept of multiple offices in the same person! Along the way he amassed a fortune and earned the title of the luxury-loving bishop. Those who opposed his teaching accused him of a wide variety of excesses. But our concern is with his doctrine.
While others had begun teaching what was called Dynamic Monarchianism, it was Paul of Samosata who was to become its chief advocate and most forceful exponent. His concept of God was a Father within Whom resided Wisdom (Spirit) and the Word (Logos). These were not separate persons but resided within the Father, just as reason and wisdom reside in man. As a result, Christ was special but not divine. The Lord Jesus had been born of the virgin Mary and at sometime in His life, an impersonal power (dynamic) which came from God entered into Him. This power began to change Him. Some known as Adoptionists, taught that God “adopted” Him at His birth and made Him a special son, giving Him an extra measure of divine power. By penetrating the humanity of Christ progressively, it gradually deified Him. The Scriptural basis on which they attempted to build their doctrine was, “Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten Thee” (Heb 1:5), a Scripture which refers to resurrection.
Pauls doctrine preserved the unity of God but reduced Christ to the status of a special man.
The second view within the Monarchianist movement was known as Modalistic Monarchianism. The main goal of this teaching was to preserve the full deity of Christ. This doctrine viewed God as revealing Himself in successive stages, according to need. He was the Father in creation, law-giving, and the Old Testament. He became the Son in incarnation and He became the Holy Spirit in regeneration and sanctification.
Various names were attached to this movement. Sabellius, a little known teacher, came to prominence through the writings of Tertullian which refuted his teaching. Sabellianism is the teaching that The Father was born as Christ and became the Son. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three successive modes of God. All are fully God but they are not co-temperaneous but successive. God existed in three “modes.” Chameleon-like, the mode of God changed to suit a need.
Those who opposed this teaching coined the termed, “Patripassianism” or the “Father suffering.” Since the Son was really the Father, then the Father suffered on the cross. And since the Son was Father, then God died on Calvary. Confusion of the persons leads inevitably to confusion in the doctrines of the Word of God.
Be careful of your analogies when you try to understand the trinity. To express it as the three phase existence of ice, water, and steam, is to fall into the error of the Modalists. Beyond our concepts and analogies, the triune God exists in unity.
The controversy surrounding the teaching of the Monarchianist would prepare the stage for the great Arian controversy which held center stage during the 4th century. Although, as we shall see, this doctrine did not survive for more than a century or so, it is the basis for modern day Unitarianism.