In this series we take a look back at some of the most notorious errors and
heresies that have threatened the church over the centuries, as well as the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in which those false teachings continue to haunt 21st century thought and theology.
Whether learning to ride a bicycle or drive a motor vehicle, beginners have to overcome the reflex of over-correction. If the vehicle is veering to the left, a correction too extreme to the right will leave one in the same danger, or even in a worse condition than before the correction.
The same effect can happen doctrinally when one veers off the path of truth. This seems to be particularly the case when it comes to the triune nature of God. If the oneness of God is defended so strongly that it excludes the three persons, that is a false teaching. Over-correct this false teaching and emphasize the three persons while losing the oneness of God, and you are still in false doctrine, but on the other side of the “road.”
Monarchianism (Lutheran Spokesman, June 2021) sought to defend the unity and sole rule of God. One form of Monarchianism effectively negated Jesus’ divinity lest there would be two gods. Another form of Monarchianism is Sabellianism, named after Sabellius, about whom very little is known—and what we do read about him comes only from his adversaries.
Sabellianism teaches that one god reveals himself at different times in different modes. For this reason, Sabellianism is also called “modal Monarchianism.” Sabellians claimed that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit were only different names for the same god—each name representing different forms, much as an actor might wear different masks. At one point the one god appears as “Father,” at another time he would make himself known as “Son,” and at still other times, “Holy Spirit.”
Sabellius was excommunicated as a heretic by Pope Calixtus I in 220 A.D., and Sabellianism has been recognized as heresy throughout the ages. However, it hasn’t been extinguished. At the time of the Reformation, Sabellianism was reformulated by Michael Servetus, a Spanish theologian and physician, who characterized Christ and the Holy Spirit as representative forms of one Godhead, the Father. In the 18th century, a Swedish philosopher and scientist named Emanuel Swedenborg also taught this doctrine.
Today, Sabellianism can still lure the rational mind into its error as one tries to grasp the reality of the Trinity. It is a teaching current among some Pentecostal groups, particularly those which are known as “Oneness” Pentecostals or “Jesus Only” Pentecostals. These groups view that the teaching of the Trinity is a “tradition of men” and not scriptural. In defense of this, they note that the words triune and trinity are nowhere to be found in Scripture.
It is true that these words are not in Scripture, but that does not negate the truth that what these coined words describe is, in fact, in Scripture. ““Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” (Deuteronomy 6:4) Jesus very clearly spoke of three persons when He said, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” (John 14:26) And Jesus also said, “I and My Father are one.” (John 10:30).
These and many more passages reveal that God is both one God, and three persons at the same time. Each person is unique and fully God; and yet, and at the same time, equally unified in one holy almighty God.
Fully comprehensible? No.
But it is still the truth because God declares it. All human analogies and pictures that are intended to help illustrate the Trinity fall short in some way. But that is how it is when a created and sin-flawed creature tries to fully comprehend the greatness of his almighty Creator, the amazing love of a sacrificial Redeemer, and the miraculous ways of the Holy Spirit wielding the power of the Gospel in his heart.
How amazing the true God is! How valuable is the true Word concerning Him! The truth is a narrow road, neither over-correcting one way or the other, and that is the road to life.
Wayne Eichstadt is pastor of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Spokane Valley, Washington.