Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Monarchianism and Origen's Early Trinitarian Theology – a dissertation by Stephen Edward Waers (Part 1)

A couple of weeks ago (04-22-21), I received an email that brought to my attention the following scholarly article:

The Christology of Callistus

Shortly after reading Haine’s essay, I discovered the following germane dissertation by Stephen Edward Waers:

Monarchianism and Origen's Early Trinitarianism

This dissertation precipitated a renewed interest and investigation into the cause and rise of the theological movement that Waers has termed “monarchianism”. [Personally, I prefer ‘modalistic monarchianism’; other folk have used ‘patripassianism’, ‘Sabellianism’ and ‘modalism’ when referencing the movement.]

To make sure that his readers fully understand what he believes constitutes one as a monarchian, Waers provides the following working definition:

…the monarchians had two core commitments: (1) God is one alone; (2) Jesus is God. These two core commitments led them to conclude that the Father and the Son are “one and the same” (ἓν καὶ τὸ αὐτὸ). This is the heart of the theological position I am calling monarchianism. (Page 13)

The above definition is given towards the end of the section, “Major Scholarship on Monarchianism” (pages 6-14). Though brief, this section is a solid overview that begins with, Hermann Hagemann’s, Die römische Kirche und ihr Einfluss auf Disciplin und Dogma in den drei ersten Jahrhunderten (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1864), and is immedieately followed by Dr. Adolf Harnack’s substantive contributions. It also includes Heine’s above refenced, “The Christology of Callistus,” Journal of Theological Studies 49 (1998): 56–91, and ends with  Wolfgang A. Bienert, “Sabellius und Sabellianismus als historisches Problem,” in Logos: Festschrift für Luise Abramowski (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1993), 124–39; idem, “Wer war Sabellius?,” Studia patristica 40 (Leuven: Peeters, 2006), 359-65. 

Chapter 1, “Models of the Father/Son Relationship in the Second Century” (pages 26-94), examines a number of texts produced by the Church Fathers of the second century. From the opening of the chapter we read:

Scholars frequently refer to figures from the second century as “modalists” or “monarchians” without first defining what either of those terms means. For example, Campbell Bonner called Melito of Sardis’ theology “naïve modalism.” More recently, Reinhard Hübner has argued that Ignatius of Antioch was a monarchian. As I noted in the introduction and develop in the later chapters on the monarchian controversy, I prefer a restrictive and specific definition of monarchianism. Using my definition, monarchianism is restricted to those who explicitly claim that the Father and the Son are “one and the same” in an effort to maintain that there is only one God. (Page 26)

Though I certainly understand Waers’ motive for “a restrictive and specfic defintion of monarchianism”, I believe that other criteria than an explicit "statement that the Father and Son are ‘one and the same'", can be used to determine if ones theology is monarchian. As such, Reinhard Hübner's claim "that Ignatius of Antioch was a monarchian" needs to be taken seriously. Interestingly enough, John Henry Newman in his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine states that, St. Ignatius may be considered Patripassian” (University of Notre Dame Press, 1989, p. 17). As for Campbell Bonner’s assertion that Meltio of Sardis’ theology was “naïve modalism”, I believe he was accurate. [See my post, James White's (mis)use of Melito of Sardis, for support of this assessment.]

Yet, even with the above observations in mind, Waers survey of the second century writers remains quite valuable. He divides the second century writings he exmamines into three categories. First, the authors that made a ‘soft distinction’ between the Father and the Son—i.e. the distinction made is primarly via the use of names and titles. Second, a “hard distinction”—i.e. those who provide an explicit explanation on how the Father and Son are essentially distinct. And third, those writers whose reflections lie in between the soft and hard distinctions. The following are the authors and writings, that are surveyed and categorized by Waers:

Soft Distinction -

1 Clement (Pages 35, 36)

2 Clement (Pages 36, 37)

Ignatius (Pages 38-41)

Polycarp (Pages 41, 42)

Didache, Epistle of Barnabas, and Shepherd of Hermas (Pages 42-45)

Epistle to Diognetus (Pages 46, 47)

Melito (Pages 48-52)

The Ambiguous Middle -

Theophilus of Antioch (Pages 52-57)

Irenaeus (Pages 58-61)

Clement of Alexandria (Pages 61-73)

Athenagoras (Pages 73-78)

Hard Distinction -

Justin Martyr (Pages 79-91)

Given my recent threads on Justin Martyr, I was particularly interested in reading Waers’ analysis of Justin’s theology on the relationship between the Father and Son. The following is from the middle of that section:

Justin unabashedly asserts that there is another God alongside the Creator God whom his dialogue partners acknowledge. Trypho and his coreligionists were pleased that Justin had clearly stated that there was no God above the Creator of all, but they remained unconvinced by Justin’s argument that there was another God alongside the Creator. This exchange between Justin and Trypho signals one of the chief points of disagreement that frequently recurs as the dialogue progresses. Justin again and again claims that the Son is another God alongside the Father. Other second-century authors spoke of Christ as God, but they did not clarify that he was another God. Justin carries on the tradition of maintaining the Son’s divinity, but he couples it with an equally strong affirmation that the Son is a God distinct from, and even different than, the Father. (Pages 85, 86)

Waers reiterates the above in his conclusion of the section; note the following:

Of all of the writings surveyed in this chapter, Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho stands out because of its strong concern to show that the Father and Son are distinct, even different. He argues that the Son is another God and that he is distinct from the Father in number. Justin’s descriptions of the difference between the Father and the Son offer a sharp contrast to the other second-century theologies that did not take care to distinguish them so strongly. Even more, while Justin uses an abundance of scripture from the Old Testament to support his positions, he does not shy away from using Greek philosophical concepts in a way that we do not see in the Apostolic Fathers. (Page 93)

In chapters 2 and 3, Waers provides, “a detailed analysis of the main texts of the period that bear witness to monarchian theology” (p. 96). He correctly points out that, “we do not possess any texts from the monarchians themselves”; as such, “[w]e are thus left with the difficult task of reconstructing monarchian theology using only the fragmentary evidence we can extract from hostile witnesses.” The following is his introduction to the texts he utilizes:

Although it is the latest of the texts I survey, I begin with an overview of passages relevant to monarchianism in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. He has little to say about monarchianism itself, but his work does elucidate the state of the church in Rome at the time when monarchianism made its appearance. Next, I discuss Hippolytus’ Contra Noetum, which I take to be the earliest of the sources attesting to monarchiansim. Then, I examine Tertullian’s Adversus Praxean, which I consider to be dependent on Contra Noetum. These two sources are the earliest attestation to monarchianism, and they show that there was a stable core to monarchian theology. At the same time, there was also variation and development within monarchian theology, early signs of which can be seen in Adversus Praxean. In chapter three, I undertake a similar analysis of the Refutatio omnium haeresium and Novatian’s De Trinitate, which give us later portraits of monarchianism. (Page 96)

I shall end part 1 of my look into Waers dissertation with the following selection:

The most foundational tenet of monarchian theology, and the one that remains stable across all witnesses, is the strong affirmation that there is only one God. At the beginning of the third century, such claims were common. Both the monarchians and their opponents claimed to believe in only one God. The distinctive thing about the monarchian commitment to belief in only one God was that it interpreted the oneness of God in a manner that rejected the position held by their opponents, namely, that Jesus and the father were distinct realities and both God. The monarchians supported their understanding of the oneness of God with references to classic biblical affirmations of monotheism, like Isaiah 44:6.

The second core component of monarchian theology was the unwavering confession that Jesus was divine. The acceptance of the divinity of Jesus demarcated them from the psilanthropists, who also sought to preserve the oneness of God by denying that Jesus was God. Because the monarchians had an interpretation of monotheism that did not allow for two distinct realities to be God, they argued that the Father and Son were one and the same. In their monotheistic reasoning, if the Father was God, and the Son was God, then they were necessarily the same. Any argument affirming that both were distinct and divine was tantamount to ditheism in the eyes of the monarchians. Using this same logic, the monarchians focused on biblical theophanies and argued that one and the same God was both invisible and visible. This approach was a stark rejection of the way someone like Justin interpreted the Old Testament theophanies. (Pages 213, 214)

Should have part 2 up soon. Until then, I hope folk who have taken the time to read part 1 will also read the entire dissertation.

Grace and peace,


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