In the first centuries of the church, there was much debate about the nature of God: was Jesus fully God, fully man, or some mixture of the two? Does God exist as three co-eternal, co-equal Persons, or is He only one Person who manifests Himself in different modes at different times? What is the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Father? Part of the debate in the second and third centuries involved a teaching known as Dynamic Monarchianism, a false view of Christ’s nature.
Monarchianism taught the indivisible unity of God (the Latin word monarchia meant “single rule”). Of course, belief in one God is foundational to Christianity, but Monarchianism pressed monotheism to the point of denying God’s triune nature. Monarchianism inevitably leads to the false doctrine of Patripassianism, the teaching that God the Father suffered on the cross with (or as) the Son.
Monarchianism took two primary forms, Dynamic (or Adoptionist) Monarchianism and Modalistic Monarchianism. Modalistic Monarchianism is the view that Jesus was God, but only by virtue of the fact that Jesus was one of God’s “manifestations.” According to Modalistic Monarchianism, the biblical terms Father, Son, and Spirit are only different names for the same Person. Dynamic Monarchianism is a little different. Dynamic Monarchianism started with an errant view of the nature of Jesus, specifically, that He was not God at all; rather, at His baptism, Jesus was empowered by God to perform His mighty works.
Dynamic Monarchianism is so called because it has to do with the source of Jesus’ miracles (Greek, dynameis). Jesus of Nazareth was virgin-born, according to the Dynamic Monarchian, but He was a mere man whose piety was rewarded with special attention from God. When Jesus was baptized, God came upon Him and filled Him with such godly wisdom and power that, from then on, Jesus was a miracle-worker. Dynamic Monarchianism is also called Adoptionism because it views Jesus as being “adopted” as God’s Son at the moment of His empowering. Thus, according to Dynamic Monarchianism, Jesus is not God’s “only begotten Son” (John 3:16, NASB); He is simply God’s “adopted.” Some Dynamic Monarchians believed that Jesus never was divine; others believed that Jesus became God after His resurrection.
Dynamic Monarchianism began with the false teaching of a leather-worker named Theodotus, who brought his ideas from Byzantine to Rome around AD 190. Theodotus taught that Jesus did not perform miracles prior to His baptism because God had not yet come upon Him. Jesus was filled with divinity when “the Christ” descended upon Him and gave Him wonder-working power. Fortunately, the church quickly recognized the error of this doctrine, and Theodotus was excommunicated for his views.
About 260, Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch, began teaching Adoptionism. His version of Dynamic Monarchianism included the idea that the Logos or Son of God was only God’s wisdom or reason and was inseparable from God Himself. The Logos came to live in Jesus and inspired Him, but Jesus remained a mere man with His own human personality—thus, there were two Persons living in Jesus’ body, one divine and one human. Instead of teaching that Jesus Christ was God who became man, Paul of Samosata taught that Jesus was a man who became God. After several meetings of church leaders, Paul of Samosata was finally excommunicated, and the Council of Nicea later condemned his teachings as well.
Dynamic Monarchianism mostly died out in the mid-third century, but a form of it still exists today in Unitarianism. According to Unitarianism, Jesus Christ is not divine, and there is no Trinity—God exists as a single Person.
The Bible presents God as one God (Deuteronomy 6:4), but then speaks of three Persons (Matthew 28:19). Fully harmonizing these two truths in our minds is impossible. We have nothing in our world with a corresponding existence, so we don’t even have an adequate illustration of the Trinity for comparison. So we accept Scripture by faith: God exists in three co-eternal, co-equal Persons. The Bible presents Jesus as God in no uncertain terms. At the same time, the Bible distinguishes God the Son from God the Father: Jesus prayed to His Father (Luke 22:42); He was not praying to Himself. Jesus sits on the right hand of the Father in heaven (Hebrews 1:3); He is not sitting at His own right hand.
Dynamic Monarchianism is spiritually dangerous because it attacks the very nature of God, and we must be careful to exercise faith in God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture. At the end of the book of Job, God reproves Eliphaz: “You have not spoken the truth about me” (Job 42:7). Speaking the truth about God is vital, and Dynamic Monarchianism twists that truth.