Historically, the earliest recorded instance of any group holding a "Jesus Only" theology can be found, not in the midst of the generation of believers who lived during the time that the biblical events were unfolding and who were discipled by Christ's Apostles, nor amongst the several generations immediately following them; but rather, in the early third century appearance of a small sect organized in opposition to the orthodox church's position concerning the doctrine of the Trinity.
According to Anthony Beavers, a writer for the University of Evansville, in an article entitled "Monarchianism," this opposition was a reaction to the early church father Justin Martyr's writings on the plurality of God. Monarchianism, taken from the Greek words "mono" + "arche," means "one leader," or "singular head."
Monarchianists hold that the idea of God as a Tri-Unity is false, and that God is really only a numerically singular, divine person, much like Allah, the god of Islam. In essence, Monarchianists tried to eliminate much of the difficulty in understanding the Godhead by eliminating the Biblical idea of a Triune God altogether.
Monarchianists can be divided into two classes: Dynamic Monarchians and Modalistic Monarchians, both of which began in Asia Minor, and came, in succession, to Rome in two completely different forms, which represented significantly different points of view. Because of the sterility by which each of these groups sought to define their strict monotheism in relation to the deity and personage of Jesus Christ, both were soundly rejected by the Christian church of that era.
Dynamic Monarchianism, also known as "Adoptionism," holds the view that "Christ was a mere man, born of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit, on whom the divine dunamis (`power') descended at his baptism." (emphasis and parentheses in the original) In short, this group held the position that God "adopted" the mortal Jesus, bestowing upon him divine power, (the Christ), thus making Him God's Son; "Jesus The Christ." This view denies the deity of Christ completely, and had little impact in the life of the early church .
Philip Schaff explains the basic difference between Dynamic (adoptionist) and Modalistic Monarchianism in History of the Christian Church. Adoptionists, as noted in the previous section, deny the divinity of Christ, but "Modalists," says Schaff, "identify the Son with the Father, and admitted at most only a 'modal' Trinity, that is, a threefold mode of revelation, but not a tri-personality."1
Modalistic Monarchianists believe that the "Father, Son, and the Spirit" are numerically the same, appearing at different times in history" (Beavers). In this view, God has revealed Himself throughout the history of man as 3 different manifestations, or "modes." of revelation. In an article in the Watchman Expositor entitled; Different Views of God, the Watchman Fellowship Inc., writes that Modalists believe that the "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are really different names for the same person." (Watchman Fellowship, Inc.) Primarily three people, Praxeas, Noetus, and Sabellius brought the Modalist view into prominence in the second and third centuries.
Praxeas of Asia Minor came to Rome late in the second century during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Praxeas' Christology was based on three scriptures in the Bible; Isaiah 45:5 ("I am the LORD, and there is none else, there is no God beside me"), John 10:30 ("I and my Father are one"), and John 14:9 ("he that hath seen me hath seen the Father"). He constantly referred to these "as if," according to Schaff, "the whole Bible consisted of these three passages." Praxeas taught that the Father "became man, hungered, thirsted, suffered, and died in Christ."2
An identical view was written by Noetus of Smyrna in 200 AD. He was expelled from the Smyrnan Church for teaching that Christ was actually the Father. Taking an idea from the pantheist Heraclitus, he believed that the Father combined both the divine and the human in Himself.3 Jesus, in his view, was not the second person of a Triune Godhead, but rather a different manifestation of the Father.
Sabellius came to Rome from Libya in the beginning of the third century and developed the most pervasive form of Modalism of that period. Despite the fact that little was remembered about his person or career, his name became synonymous the movement as a whole.
The basic difference between Sabellius and the other Modalists is that the other Modalists taught that the Trinity is really different modes of the Father. That is, they believed that Jesus was really a manifestation of the Father. Sabellius, however, taught that the Trinity should be understood as a progression of revelation over time of the one (single-person) God. Schaff describes the Sabellian position: "The Father reveals Himself in the giving of the law or the Old Testament economy the Son, in the incarnation, the Holy Ghost, in inspiration."4 A Sebellian modalist would say that the One (no trinity, but singular in person) God successively revealed Himself to man throughout time as the Father in Creation; the Son in Redemption; and the Spirit in Sanctification and Regeneration. Because of this focus on God's revelation of himself to man, Modalism is often confused with "Economic Trinitarianism."
Economic Trinitarianism, while emphasizing how God has revealed himself to man, is to be distinguised from Modalism for two reasons:
1. "Essential Trinitarian" thought focuses on what the Eternal God has revealed about himself inter-relationally in the Word of God as it pertains to the persons of the Godhead, with emphasis on the subject/object distinction between these persons. In other words, He is not only a Tri-Unity in his revelation of himself to man, but He has also existed from eternity past as a Tri-Unity unto Himself.
"Economic Trinitarians" are in full agreement with this thought, but are distinguished by their belief that the terms used to describe the roles of the persons of this Tri-Unity are not eternal. They are merely titles that have been successively revealed throughout history in the divine economy. To them, these titles don't refer to what God is in and of Himself; but rather, to the way that he manages his external relations towards mankind.
2. The earliest recorded instance of anyone holding a Modalistic view of God can be found in the classic apologetic work; Against Praxeas. In this work, an Economic Trinitarian, (Tertullian), is refuting the heresy of the first Modalist, (Praxeas). This alone shows that one cannot be confused with the other.
Sabellius and the other modalists deny God as God describes Himself in the Bible: as an eternal, Triune being, with three distinct persons, yet only as one God. To a modalist, the "persons" identified in scripture as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are only temporary phenomena, there is no Trinity in eternity. God, to the modalist, is not a Tri-Unity unto Himself, but only in his revelation to mankind.5
There are only two recorded instances of anyone holding a Sabellian, or neo-Sabellian theology during the early church era:
1. In Libya and the Pentapolis around the middle of the 3rd century where it was promply denounced, in harsh terms, as being herectical by the Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria.6
2. During the mid-fourth century, just prior to the "General Council of the Churches" held in Sardica in 343 A.D. This instance occurred when an individual identified only as "Marcellus of Ancyra" had attempted to use the Nicene Creedof 325 A.D. as a cover by which he could mask his true agenda of denying the distinct personages of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To counter this move, ninety-seven leaders of the Eastern Church issued several supplemental creeds to the Nicene formula that clarified its intent, and that exposed and denounced Modalism as heresy as well.7
Separating the Orthodox from the Unorthodox
Modern-day Modalism began as a result of a schism that arose in the American Pentecostal movement during the early years of the 20th century. According to Gary Magee and Patrick Alexander, in their reference, Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, Pentecostalism began in a Bible school in Topeka, Kansas in 1901 which was conducted by former Methodist pastor Charles Fox Parham.8 Parham taught that "speaking in tongues" was the evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. He also taught that tongues were a supernatural impartation for the purpose of world evangelization.
In 1905, William Joseph Seymour, an African-American pastor, learned about tongues at a Houston, Texas Bible school taught by Parham.9 In April of 1906, Seymour conducted a revival at a former African Methodist Episcopal building on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. As a result of this "Azuza Street Revival," modern-day Pentecostalism received world-wide attention.10 This ARC Perspective takes the position that Trinitarian Pentecostals are a part of orthodox Christianity.11
Garfield Thomas Haywood was one of the earliest of the 20th century modalists. He obtained ministerial credentials from the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (the oldest modalist group) in 1911. He was rebaptized in 1915 using the "Oneness" formula,12 an action that was followed by the rebaptism of the congregation of the church he Pastored at the time. Haywood helped to reorganize the PAW in 1919 and became its general secretary. Haywood became the presiding bishop of the PAW in 1925.13
The oldest modalist group in the 20th century is the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (PAW).14 It was organized in 1907 by J. J. Frazee of Portland, Oregon, who also became its first general secretary from 1912-1916. At first, the PAW was racially integrated. But in 1924, southern white members left the group and split into two other groups, the Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ and the Pentecostal Church, Incorporated. In 1931 the PAW merged with the Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ, creating the Pentecostal Church (or, Assemblies) of Jesus Christ (parentheses added). A.W. Lewis, a white, tried to reconstitute the PAW under the leadership of a black, Samuel Grimes. In 1937 the integration failed, most black members returned to the PAW. Headquartered in Indiana-polis, Indiana, this group, as of 1987, reported a membership of 500,000 in 1400 U.S. and 1400 foreign churches.15
Another modalist group is the United Pentecostal Church, International (UPC). It was created after a split in the Assemblies of God (AG). This occurred when leaders such as Howard Goss, one its main organizers, left the AG in 1917 over disagreement with the AG's Trinitarian teachings and formed the General Assemblies of Apostolic Assemblies (GAAA). In January of 1918 the GAAA merged with the PAW, but this union failed in 1925 over racial tensions between southern whites and northern black ministers. After a series of reorganization maneuvers, two predominately white organizations, the Pentecos-tal Church of Jesus Christ (mentioned earlier) and the Pentecostal Church, International, merged to become the UPC in 1945.16
1. Ante-Nicene Christianity, AD. 100-325: volume 2 p. 572, by Philip Schaff; (c) 1910, Eerdman's Printing Co, Grand Rapids, MI.
2. Ibid, p. 577.
3. Ibid, p. 578.
4. Ibid, pp. 581-2.
5. Ibid, p. 583.
6. A History of the Christian Church: Fourth Edition, p. 86, by Williston Walker; (c) 1918, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, NY.
7. Ibid, p. 138.
8. Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements p. 2, by Burgess, McGee & Alexander, (c) 1988, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI.
9. Ibid, p. 3.
10. Ibid, pp. 31-36.
11. Pentecostal Churches, (Assemblies of God, Church of God in Christ, Church of God, etc), all teach the Biblical doctrines of a Triune God and of Salvation by faith in the blood of Jesus, not by works. Modalists, on the other hand, deny the Trinity and teach Salvation by works (baptism).
12. "In the name of Jesus" is the "oneness formula, Trinitarians use "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
13. Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, p. 350.
14. Some give the credit for "receiving the initial revelation concerning the 'oneness' doctrine" to John Schaepe, who makes the claim at a camp meeting in 1913. The PAW, however, may have been modalistic as far back as 1907.
15. Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, pp. 700-01.