The modalist heresy first turns up in the second century. Far from being
of 'apostolic' origin, Hippolytus could recall the time of its introduction:
"There has appeared one, Noetus by name, and by birth a native of
Smyrna. This person introduced a heresy from
the tenets of Heraclitus." (Hippolytus,
Refutation of All Heresies, Book 9, Chapter 2).
"But in like manner, also, Noetus, being by birth a native
of Smyrna, and a fellow addicted to reckless babbling, as well as crafty withal, introduced
(among us) this heresy which originated from one
Refutation of All Heresies, Book 10, Chapter 23).
Noetus affirmed that Jesus was His own Father and His own
Son: "Now, that Noetus affirms that the Son and Father are the same, no one is ignorant. But
he makes his statement thus: 'When indeed, then, the Father had not been born, He yet was justly
styled Father; and when it pleased Him to undergo generation, having been begotten, He Himself became
His own Son, not another's.'" (Hippolytus,
Refutation of All Heresies, Book 9, Chapter 5).
'Oneness' Popes of Blessed Memory: Zephyrinus
Hippolytus of Rome
Two Bishops of Rome (a.k.a. Popes), Zephyrinus and
Callistus, are reported as modalists by Hippolytus, a well-placed contemporary observer. How
strange that 'Oneness' Pentecostals, so addicted to blistering anti-Catholic rhetoric, should trace
their heritage to two early Popes! These two Popes were reportedly forceful advocates for this
heresy: "The school of these heretics during the succession of such bishops, continued to acquire
strength and augmentation, from the fact that Zephyrinus and Callistus helped them to prevail."
Refutation of All Heresies, Book 9, Chapter 2).
Because Sabellius is the most famed of the modalists,
Christians on first encountering 'Oneness' Pentecostals debate against Sabellian tenets
remembered from theology text-books. The response they hear is invariably a shocked, 'But we
don't believe anything like that!' Indeed, Sabellius' vocabulary, of Father "dilating" into
Son and Holy Spirit, is not commonly heard from the 'Oneness' crowd:
"Sabellius also raves in saying that the Father is Son, and again, the Son
Father, in subsistence One, in name Two; and he raves also in using as an example the grace of the
Spirit. For he says, 'As there are "diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit," so
also the Father is the same, but is dilated into Son and Spirit.'" (Athanasius, Four Discourses
Against the Arians, Discourse 4, 25).
"If then the Monad being dilated became a Triad, and the
Monad was the Father, and the Triad is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, first the Monad being dilated,
underwent an affection and became what it was not; for it was dilated, whereas it had not been dilate.
Next, if the Monad itself was dilated into a Triad, and that, Father and Son and Holy Ghost,
then Father and Son and Spirit prove the same, as Sabellius held, unless the Monad which he speaks of
is something besides the Father, and then he ought not to speak of dilation, since the Monad was to
make Three, so that there was a Monad, and then Father, Son, and Spirit." (Athanasius, Four
Discourses Against the Arians, Discourse 4, 13).
Sabellius would appear to have been wholly innocent of the most objectionable
feature of modern 'Oneness' Pentecostalism, the identification of 'the
Son' as 'the flesh.' Hilary reports that a later modalist, Photinus,
criticized Sabellius for his failure to get with Pope Callistus' program:
"He [Photinus] castigates Sabellius for denying that the Son of God
is Man, and in his turn has to submit to the reproaches of Arian fanatics
for failing to see that this Man is the Son of God." (Hilary of Poitiers,
the Trinity, Book VII, Chapter 7).
In defense of the orthodoxy of the two 'Oneness' Popes
of Blessed Memory, Roman Catholics note that Callistus excommunicated Sabellius. But
Hippolytus says he did so out of fear: "Thus, after the death of Zephyrinus, supposing that he had
obtained (the position) after which he so eagerly pursued, he [Callistus] excommunicated Sabellius,
as not entertaining orthodox opinions. He acted thus from apprehension of me, and imagining
that he could in this manner obliterate the charge against him among the churches, as if he did not
entertain strange opinions." (Hippolytus,
Refutation of All Heresies, Book 9). In the present day, we do not observe fond feeling between heretics
of differing opinions: the Jehovah's Witnesses do not love the 'Oneness'
Pentecostals, who do not love the Mormons. Hippolytus does not ascribe
the same heresy to Sabellius and Callistus, but significantly different ones.
Pope Callistus I
Callistus was the innovator who introduced the definition
that 'the Son' means 'the flesh', i.e., the humanity, of Jesus of Nazareth: "For that which is
seen, which is man, he [Callistus] considers to be the Son; whereas the Spirit, which was contained in
the Son, to be the Father." (Hippolytus,
Refutation of All Heresies, Book 9, Chapter 7). This is the man!
This imaginative definition at the heart of modern-day
'Oneness' Pentecostalism was not part of Noetus' system; Hippolytus gives the credit to Callistus:
"Callistus corroborated the heresy of these Noetians, but we have already carefully explained
the details of his life. And Callistus himself produced likewise a heresy, and derived its
starting-points from these Noetians, -- namely, so far as he acknowledges that there is one Father and
God, viz., the Creator of the universe, and that this (God) is spoken of, and called by the name of
Son...And he is disposed (to maintain), that He who was seen in the flesh and was crucified is Son, but
that the Father it is who dwells in Him. Callistus thus at one time branches off into
the opinion of Noetus, but at another into that of Theodotus, and holds no sure doctrine."
Refutation of All Heresies, Book 10, Chapter 23). So Hippolytus perceives Callistus' heresy, so similar to modern
'Oneness' Pentecostalism, as a blend between true modalism and the 'Unitarian Universalism' of the
day, promoted by Theodotus, who denied the Deity of Jesus Christ.
So we've found our first 'Oneness' believer, the third century Roman Pontiff Callistus! Sadly, there
is no historical evidence that he either spoke in tongues or introduced any innovative baptismal
formula. Thus even this 'Oneness' Pope of Blessed Memory cannot have been 'saved', by
'Oneness' Pentecostal standards. Could anyone, prior to 1913?
Tertullian, like Hippolytus, could recall when the "new-fangled" heresy of
modalism first hit town. He reports that Praxeas, against whom he defended the orthodox doctrine of
the Trinity, was the "first" to import modalism into Rome:
"...as, for instance, Praxeas. For he was the first to import into Rome from Asia this kind of heretical pravity,
a man in other respects of restless disposition, and above all inflated with the pride of confessorship simply and solely because he had
to bear for a short time the annoyance of a prison; on which occasion, even 'if he had given his body to be burned, it would have profiled
him nothing,' not having the love of God, whose very gifts he has resisted and destroyed. " (Tertullian, Against
"That this rule of faith has come down to us from the beginning of the gospel, even before any of the older heretics,
much more before Praxeas, a pretender of yesterday, will be apparent both from the lateness of date which marks all heresies, and also from
the absolutely novel character of our new-fangled Praxeas. In this principle also we must henceforth find a presumption of equal force
against all heresies whatsoever-that whatever is first is true, whereas that is spurious which is later in date." (Tertullian, Against
'Oneness' Pentecostals call Tertullian as hostile witness to testify against his own clear understanding that modalism was
a "new-fangled" heresy with his plaint that most believers of his day could not clearly
and affirmatively explain what it was they did believe, when challenged by heresy:
"The simple, indeed, (I will not call them unwise and unlearned) who
always constitute the majority of believers, are startled at the dispensation
(of the Three in One), on the ground that their very rule of faith withdraws
them from the world's plurality of gods to the one only true God; not understanding
that, although He is the one only God, He must yet be believed in with
His own economy ['oikonomia']. The numerical order and distribution of the Trinity they assume
to be a division of the Unity; whereas the Unity which derives the Trinity
out of its own self is so far from being destroyed, that it is actually
supported by it." (Tertullian, Against
But it takes liberal use of white-out to blot out one of an author's statements
with another. If, as they claim, the author is 'lying' in one of his assertions,
why would he all of a sudden be forced to 'admit the truth' on the very
next page? To see all he says in context, download 'Against
Praxeas' from the Thrice Holy library. Once while a figure-skating competition
was playing on hellivision, the skater gave a little hop. As the commentator
helpfully explained, if you hop, then 'keep on hopping'—the judges might
be persuaded to see a choreographed move instead of a bobble or a misstep.
If Tertullian is purportedly 'lying' in his first statement, then he ought
to keep on 'lying'—not that the saints should lie at all, but who will
believe the initial 'lie' if he then reverses field and 'tells the truth'?
Rather, a more rational way to read the text is, not to negate one of the
author's statements with another, but to try to discern the intent of the
author, who made both statements.
The 'Oneness' Pentecostals assert that the reason the 'simple' were resisting
Tertullian's offer to help them vanquish Praxeas' "new-fangled"
heresy was because the 'simple' already embraced Praxeas' "new-fangled"
heresy, and indeed had always done so. But this interpretation is clearly
impossible,—how could Praxeas' heresy be "new-fangled" if 'the
majority of believers' already embraced it? How could Praxeas be the "first"
to introduce what everyone already believed? Praxeas was encountering sales
resistance among the 'simple' as he peddled his novel wares; but so was
Tertullian, as he offered his remedy for the malady Praxeas had introduced.
How could this be? It is scarcely an unusual situation. The crime victim
clutching his empty wallet may not be eager to go to the police for assistance,
even though cops fight robbers; many crimes go unreported, not because
victims share their victimizers' values or delight in having been robbed,
but because they fear or dislike the police, or for other reasons. Sick
people do not always rush to the doctor, even though doctors fight disease;
their resistance to swallowing the remedy the doctor prescribed is not
evidence of their fondness for cancer or whatever else ails them. Were
Iraqis disgusted at Saddam's tyranny obliged to embrace American troops
as liberators? Supposing people do not want what is behind Door No. 1;
does this mean they must eagerly embrace what is behind Door No. 2?
The 'simple' believed, as they had been taught, that there is only one
God, that the Father is God, that the Son is God, and that the Holy Spirit
is God. They would have been happy to go on so believing. But the heretics
warned them what they they had been taught was self-contradictory, and
they would have to choose. The Unitarian Universalists and the 'Oneness'
Pentecostals tell the 'simple' today they have to 'fudge' this one of these four
propositions: that 'the Son is God,' explaining that they really ought
to say, 'God was in the Son,' who is the 'flesh'. It wasn't the orthodox
who forced the issue, but the heretics. Tertullian wanted to teach the
'simple' a new vocabulary, which he had learned from Hippolytus, so that
they would not have to sit there tongue-tied when the heretics came by
to argue; but they resisted his gift, because it was new. The language
was new to them, but it wasn't new to God—it was in the book! As Tertullian
showed them, while his vocabulary was unfamiliar, it was nevertheless Biblical, and talking this
way was better than just sitting there making faces at the heretics.
Epiphanius shared Tertullian's anxiety about the "simple": "Then,
when they encounter simple or innocent persons who do not understand the
sacred scriptures clearly, they give them this first scare: 'What are we
to say, gentlemen? Have we one God or three gods?' But when someone who
is devout but does not fully understand the truth hears this, he is disturbed
and assents to their error at once, and comes to deny the existence of
the Son and the Holy Spirit." (The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis,
translated Frank Williams, Books II and III, Section IV, 2,6, Against Sabellians,
62, p. 122.) These authors' concern is not that the "simple"
already believed in one of the many anti-trinity heresies, whether modalism or
Theodotus' explicit denial of the deity of Jesus Christ, else where would
be the need to 'scare' them? Rather their experience was that some of the
"simple" 'assented' all too readily to these novel teachings upon first hearing, and those who did not assent maintained
a sullen silence, unable to defend their faith. The remedy they prescribed
is the same offered here at thriceholy.net, namely scripture.
Beryllus of Bostra
"Beryllus, whom we mentioned recently as bishop of Bostra in Arabia, turned
aside from the ecclesiastical standard and attempted to introduce ideas foreign to the faith.
He dared to assert that our Savior and Lord did not pre-exist in a distinct form of being of
his own before his abode among men, and that he does not possess a divinity of his own, but only
that of the Father dwelling in him. Many bishops carried on investigations and discussions
with him on this matter, and Origen having been invited with the others, went down at first for a
conference with him to ascertain his real opinion. But when he understood his views, and
perceived that they were erroneous, having persuaded him by argument, and convinced him by
demonstration, he brought him back to the true doctrine, and restored him to his former sound
opinion. There are still extant writings of Beryllus and of the synod held on his account,
which contain the questions put to him by Origen, and the discussions which were carried on in his
parish, as well as all the things done at that time." (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book VI, Chapter 33).
It's a toss-up whether to class Beryllus as a precursor to
Unitarian Universalism or to 'Oneness' Pentecostalism; the two come out much the same in
the end. Both assert that there is a mere man called 'the Son' who came into existence in the
days of King Herod, not having existed previously except as a 'plan' in the mind of 'the Father', who
alone is God. Both allow that this mere man was occasionally and voluntarily indwelt by 'the
Father', who alone is God, in similar manner to the prophets of old. Only 'Oneness'
Pentecostalism, though, adds the ghoulish touch of
of the Sonship'; the Unitarians at least allow 'the Son' the eternal destiny common to the rest of mankind.
The great apologist Tertullian belonged to this charismatic splinter group.
While Hippolytus counts some Montanists as followers of Noetus, most were
as orthodox as Tertullian. Some (though not all) of their number
prophesied...unfortunately, not always accurately! "In the wilds of
Phrygia, a Christian, Montanus, with several male helpers and two prophetesses,
began to speak the words of the Holy Spirit....By 177 [A.D.], the Spirit
was very widely known. "Lo!' it said, through Montanus, 'man is like
a lyre, and I strike him like a plectrum. Man is asleep, and I am
awake'...As critics agreed, Montanus' followers were not intellectual heretics.
They parted from fellow Christians only in their acceptance of the Spirit's
new words, and they persisted far into the sixth century, suffering legalized
persecution from their 'brethren.'...In one of the Spirit's 'oracles,'
a Montanist prophetess was said to have seen Christ, dressed as a woman,
and heard that 'here' (or 'thus') the 'new Jerusalem will descend.' She
believed, said the critics, that the reign of the Saints would begin at
Pepuza in Phyria, a site as bizarre as little Abonouteichos before it changed
its name. Unlike the new 'Ionopolis,' it remained Pepuza, a site
so obscure that it has eluded all attempts to find it on the map."
(Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, p. 405).
The failure of the heavenly Jerusalem to descend upon this obscure Asia Minor burg may invite charges of
false prophecy, but Montanism seems basically to have been a Back-to-the Bible reform movement.
Consequently, Tertullian has aptly been called 'the First Protestant.' Though evidently not gifted
himself, he had seen charismatic gifts in operation: "'Among us,' he wrote in Carthage,
'there is a "sister," gifted with revelations. She talks with angels, sometimes even with the
Lord.'...She sees and hears mysteries.'" (Quoted p. 410, op. cit.)
As noted, a subset of Montanists were also Noetians. This group still existed
in Jerome's day:
"In the first place we differ from the Montanists regarding the rule
of faith. We distinguish the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as three
persons, but unite them as one substance. They, on the other hand, following
the doctrine of Sabellius, force the Trinity into the narrow limits of
a single personality." (Jerome, Letter 41.3)
An anonymous Latin treatise, 'Against All Heresies,' gives the name of
one of these people, Aeschines, the leader of this tendency: "But
the particular one they who follow Aeschines have; this, namely, whereby
they add this, that they affirm Christ to be Himself Son and Father."
(Against All Heresies, Chapter 7).
These people were 'two-fers': both charismatic and also modalist. There
is no evidence, however, that they employed any unusual baptismal formula.
Moreover, as Tertullian's testimony shows, it was not the normal expectation
that all members of the sect would be charismatically gifted, only some.
The Donatists were not doctrinal innovators, but moral
rigorists concerned that believers who had abjured their faith under persecution should not be
readmitted to fellowship. "His [Augustine's] extensive polemics against the Donatists were on
the burning issues on which the latter separated from the Catholic Church. These were not what
are usually called doctrinal questions, for on such points as those on which Gnostics, Marcionites,
Arians, and Monophysites differed from the Catholic Church Donatists were in accord with the latter.
The contention, rather, as we have seen, was over the moral character of the priesthood and the
treatment which the Church should accord to those Christians who, having been guilty of serious
lapses, repented." (Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Volume I, p. 175).
Marcellus of Ancyra
Marcellus has been accused of denying the Trinity: "The followers
of Marcellus and Photinus...say that there is God, and the Logos, and the
Spirit. The Son, however, who is a man born of Mary, is a fourth
one, whom the Logos assumed. And they say that the Logos rules as
an administrator in this man, who was prepared as a dwelling for Him. Thus
do they destroy the Trinity. If, however, the Trinity is to remain,
there is one who is man and Logos: which Logos we have already demonstrated
above to be the Son." (Marius Victorinus, Against Arius, 905 [1, 45] c. 355 A.D.)
The traditional Christian understanding treats 'Son' and 'Word' as synonymous:
"On the contrary, Augustine says (De Trin. vi. 2): 'By Word we understand
the Son alone.' I answer that, Word, said of God in its proper sense, is
used personally, and is the proper name of the person of the Son. [...]
Hence Augustine says (De Trin. vii. 2): 'Word and Son express the same.'
For the Son's nativity, which is His personal property, is signified
by different names which are attributed to the Son to express His perfection
in various ways. To show that He is of the same nature as the Father,
He is called the Son; to show that He is co-eternal, He is called the Splendor;
to show that He is altogether like, He is called the Image; to show that
He is begotten immaterially, He is called the Word." (Thomas Aquinas,
Summa Theologica, First Part Q. 34, Art. 2.)
By his own confession, Marcellus shares this traditional understanding:
"Now I, following the sacred scriptures, believe that there is one
God and his only-begotten Son, the Word, who is always with the Father
and has never had a beginning, but is truly of God -- not created, not
made, but forever existent, forever reigning with God and his Father, 'of
whose kingdom,' as the apostle testifies, 'there shall be no end.'"
(The Panarion of Ephiphanius of Salamis, Books II and III, translated by
Frank Williams, Section VI, 72, p. 425, A Copy of a Letter of Marcellus, 2,6.)
Nevertheless, Basil condemns Marcellus as a heretic: "He [Marcellus]
grants indeed that the Only begotten was called 'Word,' on coming forth
at need and in season, but states that He returned again to Him whence
He had come forth, and had no existence before His coming forth, nor hypostasis
after His return. The books in my possession which contain his unrighteous
writings exist as a proof of what I say." (Basil, Letters, 69:2, To
"Sabellius the Libyan and Marcellus the Galatian alone of
all men have dared to teach and write these things which now those who
guide the people among you are trying to publish as their own
discoveries, babbling with their tongues and being incapable of
bringing these sophisms and fallacies into even a plausible
formulation." (Basil, Letter CCVII, p. 183, Loeb edition, St. Basil,
The Letters, Volume III.)
It would appear Marcellus was, or had been, unwilling to describe the pre-incarnate
Logos as 'Son': "'Now the Son also "is;" but Paul the Samosatian
and Marcellus took advantage of the text in the Gospel according to John,
"In the beginning was the Word." [John 1:1] No longer willing
to call the Son of God a true Son, they took advantage of the term, "Word,"
I mean verbal expression and utterance, and refused to say "Son of
God."'" (Letter of George, quoted p. 447, Epiphanius, Panarion,
Books II and III, Section VI, Against Semi-Arians, Chapter 53 (73), 12,1).
He was, in short, an exponent of the 'Incarnational Sonship,' which
Basil considers indistinguishable from modalism.