A Perversion of History
At Community Chapel Bible College a particular version of early church history was taught. It was summed up in a short work written by Don Barnett, the pastor and founder of the church, which was distributed to the students in one of the core courses, Introduction to The Unfolding Revelation of God (commonly referred to as UROG, this acronym is also frequently used to refer to our church's version of Oneness teaching).
The Bible college no longer exists because Community Chapel collapsed in a sordid scandal resuting from a practice known as "spiritual unions" which caused scores of divorces among its members and elders. I have long since re-evaluated the UROG doctrine taught there and now believe instead the Trinity is what the Bible indeed teaches about the nature of God and who Jesus is. I have also come to believe that the version of the Oneness doctrine taught there is heretical and was partially implicated in the collapse of that church, but it is not my purpose in this paper to rehash my reasons why I have come to that conclusion. Rather I would like to demonstrate how Don Barnett falsely supported his version of Oneness doctrine from history. (He also used scriptural arguments, of course, and I also believe that those were misleading and false, but in this article I want to focus only on the way he used history to support his doctrine. I think that a dishonest use of the historical record is an obvious indicator of weaknesses in other parts of one's argument.)
Oneness advocates are usually somewhat dismissive of the history of doctrine. They will tell you the reason is that they base their doctrine purely on the Bible and therefore regard church history as irrelevant. However, since they are also aware that theirs has not been the dominant doctrine of the nature of God in the historic church they have been led right back into offering doctrines of history to explain why this has come to be so. Because these doctrines, which have to do with the ways in which the early church began to entrench itself in ritual and hierarchy, were initially plausible to me, I for many years accepted them even though, coming from an academic background (I was working on a history degree at the University of Washington when I decided to go to Bible college instead), I was aware that the historical arguments used to support them were not very adequately presented. I chose not to think too much about this at the time. I believed that the overall theory was sound even if those who presented it were not overly detailed in their knowledge of history and disregarded scholarly conventions when they wrote about it.
However, I have recently gone back to study the version of church history promulgated by my old church—it is not far different than other Oneness verions of church history—and given it a second look. The results were embarassing for me; I have found it to be even less accurate and more deliberately misrepresentative of historical facts than I thought, and I realize that it was a mistake for me to disregard the early warning signs I had noticed. I believe that though church history is not to be our source of doctrine, a sound understanding of its course is important if for no other reason than to detect deceptive uses of the historical record. The irony regarding those who reject history as irrelevant for arriving at good doctrine is that they end up being led into false doctrine by bad history. I am going to demonstrate how I believe this was done at Community Chapel Bible College.
Below is the third section from the document I mentioned at the start of this article. It concerns the historical movement called Modalistic Monarchianism, which the pastor of our church believed was very close to the true, Biblical doctrine of the nature of God. In another part of the document, he defines it as the doctrine “that God is one person in three manifestations.” The document is titled “HISTORY OF THE DOCTRINE CONCERNING THE NATURE OF GOD IN THE EARLY CENTURIES OF CHRISTIANITY,” and carries the heading “Chapter Two”, so it is apparently part of an intended book on Oneness, though I am not aware that such a book was ever published. The entire document as we received it in class was thirty-five pages long, and though the copy I have is undated, I received it in the spring of 1981 when I took the class Introduction to the Unfolding Revelation of God at Community Chapel Bible College. (Curiously enough, about a year ago I ran across the same document posted on the Internet. I did not save the URL, but somebody from a Oneness church in the South, if I remember correctly, had posted it on their Web site as a good Oneness historical resource, though they did not credit the source.)
I have tried to reproduce this section of the document as close to the original as possible in regard to font, capitalization, underlining, and so on. In the introduction of the document, the pastor explains that he has printed direct quotes in all-uppercase letters, and that “words in small letters are either connecting words or are a rearranged condensation of quotations.” He also explains, “Words in small letters in parenthesis are ‘my’ comments. Key words have been underlined to draw them more forcibly to the attention of the reader.” He also notes that he has taken the liberty to dispense with the use of ellipses. This should be one's first warning that what you are about to read is not overly scrupulous in the presentation of historical sources. Ellipses (the three dots that indicate words have been omitted from a quoted source) are not an empty scholarly convention, but are an important part of honestly and accurately presenting a reference for evaluation by others.
MODALISTIC MONARCHIANISM MADE ITS WAY TO ROME AT THE END OF THE FIRST CENTURY AND IN THE FIRST QUARTER OF THE SECOND CENTURY MONARCHIANISM IDENTIFIED THE FATHER, SON, AND HOLY SPIRIT SO COMPLETELY THAT THEY WERE THOUGHT OF ONLY AS DIFFERENT ASPECTS OF OR DIFFERENT MOMENTS IN THE LIFE OF ONE DIVINE PERSON, CALLED NOW FATHER, NOW SON, NOW SPIRIT, AS HIS SEVERAL ACTIVITIES CAME SUCCESSIVELY INTO VIEW. This DOCTRINE in THE SECOND, AND THIRD CENTURIES ALMOST SUCCEEDED IN ESTABLISHING ITSELF AS THE DOCTRINE OF THE CHURCH AT LARGE.4
(The term "Modalistic Monarchianism" refers to the "ism" (belief) of "mono" (One) "arch" (ruler) in various modes or manifestations.)
THIS WAS A FAIRLY WIDESPREAD, POPULAR TREND OF THOUGHT; AND THE DRIVING FORCE BEHIND IT WAS THE TWO-FOLD CONVICTION, PASSIONATELY HELD, OF THE ONENESS OF GOD AND THE FULL DEITY OF CHRIST. WHAT FORCED IT INTO THE OPEN WAS THE MOUNTING SUSPICION THAT THE FORMER TRUTHS WERE BEING ENDANGERED BY THE NEW LOGOS DOCTRINE AND BY THE EFFORTS OF THEOLOGIANS TO REPRESENT THE GODHEAD AS HAVING REVEALED ITSELF IN THE ECONOMY AS TRI-PERSONAL. AS EARLY AS JUSTIN'S TIME, WE READ OF OBJECTIONS TO HIS TEACHING THAT THE LOGOS WAS SOMETHING NUMERICALLY OTHER THAN THE FATHER.21
MODALISM WAS EXCEEDINGLY DIFFICULT TO OVERCOME. IT WAS SHARED BY THE MAJORITY OF THE COMMON PEOPLE AND WAS IN HARMONY WITH THE DOMINANT PIETY OF THE AGE. MODALISM, IN FACT, WAS OFFENSIVE ONLY TO THE THEOLOGIANS, PARTICULARLY TO THOSE WHO FELT THE INFLUENCE OF THE PLATONIC PHILOSOPHY.12 NOR IS IT SURPRISING THAT THESE MONARCHIANS SHOULD HAVE HAD A STRONG FOLLOWING. GOD IS ONE. FOR THIS MONOTHEISM THE PROPHETS HAD FOUGHT AND PREVAILED.16
Of those who took up the Monarchian defense, the more noted were HERACLITUS of the early second centruy; NOETUS, PRAXEAS, A FOLLOWER OF NOETUS WHO TRANSPLANTED THESE VIEWS TO ROME ABOUT 190; EPIGONUS AND CLEOMENES, TWO OTHER DISCIPLES OF NOETUS; and SABELLIUS, who was EXCOMMUNICATED for his views in 217.5
4 - [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, 1939.]
5 - [History of the Christian Church by W. Walker, Prof, of Ecclesiastical History at Yale.]
12 - [History of Christian Thought by McGiffert, Vol. I.]
16 - [The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics by James Hastings.]
21 - [Early Christian Doctrines by J. Kelley - Oxford U.]
At the time I first read this document I tried hard to overlook its awkward typography and ignorance of scholarly convention. All that distracting capitalization, those crude footnotes without page numbers, the constant running together of quotations from different works in the same paragraph—all very amateurish, but not necessarily indicative of its truth or falsehood, I told myself. But when, in just the last year, I closely checked the actual content, I found it contains falsifications which have to be deliberate. I will conclusively document this.
As it happens, I have most of the works from which Don quotes in the above section. Here is the first source from which he quotes, the article on the Trinity from The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. The sentences in bold italics are the ones Don excerpted for use in his document:
The determining impulse to the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity in the church was the church's profound conviction of the absolute Deity of Christ, on which as on a pivot the whole Christian conception of God from the first origins of Christianity turned. The guiding principle in the formulation of the doctrine was supplied by the Baptismal Formula announced by Jesus (Mt 28:19), from which was derived the ground-plan of the baptismal confessions and “rules of faith” which very soon began to be framed all over the church. It was by these two fundamental principia-- the true Deity of Christ and the Baptismal Formula-- that all attempts to formulate the Christian doctrine of God were tested, and by their molding power that the church at length found itself in possession of a form of statement which did full justice to the data of the redemptive revelation as reflected in the New Testament and the demands of the Christian heart under the experience of salvation.
Note first of all here that Don has added a sentence to the first part of the quotation, which apparently comes from nowhere other than his own imagination, “MODALISTIC MONARCHIANISM MADE ITS WAY TO ROME AT THE END OF THE FIRST CENTURY AND IN THE FIRST QUARTER OF THE SECOND CENTURY...” This is quite simply false. As I will show below, and in fact as Don's own sources show, he has here moved back the advent of Monarchianism one hundred years. He has made it appear in Rome at the close of the apostolic age when in reality it did not appear at Rome until the the end of the second century. But worse, he has quite clearly given the false impression that this “fact” is supported by the historical scholars who compiled ISBE. (Remember that he has stated that letters in all caps indicate direct quotations.) He has even taken the additional liberty of underlining the falsely-added “fact” to give it emphasis.
In the nature of the case the formulated doctrine was of slow attainment. The influence of inherited conceptions and of current philosophies inevitably showed itself in the efforts to construe to the intellect the immanent faith of Christians. In the 2nd century the dominant neo-Stoic and neo-Platonic ideas deflected Christian thought into subordinationist channels, and produced what is known as the Logos-Christology, which looks upon the Son as a prolation of Deity reduced to such dimensions as comported with relations with a world of time and space; meanwhile, to a great extent, the Spirit was neglected altogether. A reaction which, under the name of Monarchianism, identified the Father, Son, and Spirit so completely that they were thought of only as different aspects or different moments in the life of the one Divine Person, called now Father, now Son, now Spirit, as His several activities came successively into view, almost succeeded in establishing itself in the 3rd century as the doctrine of the church at large.
In the conflict between these two opposite tendencies the church gradually found its way, under the guidance of the Baptismal Formula elaborated into a “Rule of Faith,” to a better and more well-balanced conception, until a real doctrine of the Trinity at length came to expression, particularly in the West, through the brilliant dialectic of Tertullian. It was thus ready at hand, when, in the early years of the 4th century, the Logos-Christology, in opposition to dominant Sabellian tendencies, ran to seed in what is known as Arianism, to which the Son was a creature, though exalted above all other creatures as their Creator and Lord; and the church was thus prepared to assert its settled faith in a Triune God, one in being, but in whose unity there subsisted three consubstantial Persons. Under the leadership of Athanasius this doctrine was proclaimed as the faith of the church at the Council of Nice in 325 AD, and by his strenuous labors and those of “the three great Cappadocians,” the two Gregories and Basil, it gradually won its way to the actual acceptance of the entire church.
(Excerpted from International Standard Bible Encylopaedia, article “Trinity,” section 22, Electronic Database Copyright ©1996 by Biblesoft)
So far it could perhaps be said that he or the typist accidentally put his own commentary in all caps instead of in lower case, having also made the common mistake of calling the “late 100's” the “late first century” when in fact it is of course the late second century. We immediately see this explanation won't work, however: in the very next sentence he adds words to the text he is quoting. He adds the words THE SECOND (again capitalized to indicate direct quotation) where they do not appear in the original to make it read “This DOCTRINE in THE SECOND, AND THIRD CENTURIES ALMOST SUCCEEDED IN ESTABLISHING ITSELF AS THE DOCTRINE OF THE CHURCH AT LARGE.” ISBE (shown above) actually reads .“..almost succeeded in establishing itself in the 3rd century as the doctrine of the church at large.” This is a blatant case of tampering with the text of one's source materials to make them appear to support one's own position when in fact they do nothing of the kind. Don has deliberately inserted words into a document to make Modal Monarchianism seem a hundred years older than it in fact was.
Let us go on to the next capitalized paragraph. It is a quotation from J.N.D. Kelly's well-known work Early Christian Doctrines, Don's source #21. Again, the words Don used are in bold italics:
...This was a fairly widespread, popular trend of thought which could reckon on, at any rate, a measure of sympathy in official circles; and the driving-force behind it was the twofold conviction, passionately held, of the oneness of God and the full deity of Christ. What forced it into the open was the mounting suspicion that the former of these truths was being endangered by the new Logos doctrine and by the efforts of theologians to represent the Godhead as having revealed Itself in the economy as tri-personal. Any suggestion that the Word or Son was other than, or a distinct Person from, the Father seemed to the modalists (we recall that the ancient view that ‘Father’ signified the Godhead Itself was still prevalent) to lead inescapably to the blasphemy of two Gods.
We can pause to note first of all that here, right in the same paragraph from which Don has quoted other words, is the statement that Noetus, the first of the monarchian theologians, was teaching in the closing years of the second century, not the first as Don has just said two paragraphs before. Don's additions to his sources are looking less and less innocent.
As early as Justin's time we read of objections to his teaching that the Logos was ‘something numerically other’ (arithmô éterón ti) than the Father; the critics argued that the Power issuing from the Godhead was distinct only verbally or in name, being a projection of the Father Himself. The first theologian, however, formally to state the monarchian position was Noetus of Smyrna, who was twice summoned before the presbyters of that city in the closing years of the second century; his contemporary, Hippolytus, and the fourth-century Epiphanius are our chief authorities for his teaching.
(J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Revised Edition, HarperSanFrancisco, 1978, pp. 119-120)
Secondly, read the second sentence from Kelly carefully. Note that Don has made a subtle change. He has changed the words “the former of these truths” to “the former truths,” and then to compound this error has even underlined these words to give them emphasis. In Don's context, this makes it appear that Monarchianism existed prior to Logos Christology, that it was the body of “former truth” that was was being displaced by Logos Christology and that it (Monarchianism) was therefore reasserted against the effort to displace it. The original context is much narrower, however. The actual phrasing (“the former of these truths”) refers only to the first part of the immediately preceding conjunction – the oneness of God. In other words, the formal teaching of Monarchianism arose after Logos Christology because of a simplistic misunderstanding that the oneness of God was being threatened. Again, Don has changed the text of his source material to make it appear to support his own position more than it actually does.
In Don's third paragraph, which consists of a quotation from A History of Christian Thought by Arthur Cushman McGiffert, there are no inaccuracies, though true to his announced intent, Don does omit a couple of sentences without using ellipses. But if we were to read the entire chapter (which is not long) from which Don took this quotation we would again see it clearly states that the Monarchian teachers arose in the late second century (the 190's), not in the late first century as Don has tried to make it appear.
For those interested, here is the complete paragraph from which Don took his McGiffert quotation:
Modalism was exceedingly difficult to overcome. It was shared by the majority of the common people and was in harmony with the dominant piety of the age. “What harm am I doing in glorifying Christ?” was the question of Noetus and in it he voiced the sentinment of multitudes. Modalism in fact was offensive only to theologians, particularly to those who felt the influence of the Platoninc philosophy. Despite its condemnation in Rome and the establishment of the Logos Christology there and elsewhere the tendency toward Modalism has always been strong in the west. In the east, on the other hand, where Plato had more influence, the tendency has been rather the other way. But of this later.
Following the quotation from McGifferert, Don appends three short sentences concerning the Monarchianism emphasis on monotheism from The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings. I do not have this work, so I cannot speak for the accuracy of Don's quotation here, though it looks harmless enough at face value.
(A.C. McGiffert, A History of Christian Thought, vol. 1, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1932, pp. 239-240.)
Don's final paragraph is referenced as a partial quotation from Williston Walker's A History of the Christian Church (the words reproduced in uppercase type) combined with Don's own commentary (in lowercase type). It consists of a list of the teachers of Modalistic Monarchianism, and it contains the worst falsification of all. The first part of the sentence reads, "Of those who took up the Monarchian defense, the more noted were HERACLITUS of the early second century..." Now this is a real howler. There is no figure named Heraclitus in church history – not one. The Walker book does talk about a Heraclitus, however, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus who taught around 490 B.C. I have no idea what Don could be thinking when he inserted Heraclitus into this list and labeled him a Monarchian teacher of the early second century. All of the other teachers here are placed (accurately) in the late second century and early third century. Was Don's need to place Monarchianism at the close of the apostolic age so great that he here resorts to out-and-out fabrication? Apparently so. One possible explanation of this starkly erroneous reference is that Don did some reading in Hippolytus, who Walker mentions as an opponent of Monarchianism, and came across his statements that Noetus (a Monarchian) was influenced by the philosophy of Heraclitus. For example, Hippolytus opens his Book IX with the words
The following are the contents of the ninth book of the Refutation of All Heresies:
Then after a brief exposition of Heraclitus' teachings (which make it clear that the subject is the fifth century B.C. philosopher), Hippolytus writes “I have briefly demonstrated Noetus to be not a disciple of Christ, but of Heraclitus.” Wanting to believe so strongly that there must have been Monarchian teachers in the early second century, Don (being ignorant of who Heraclitus really was) may have leapt to the conclusion that this Heraclitus must have been one of them. But yet note the capitalization – Don is claiming that he is quoting this name directly from Walker, even though the Heraclitus that Walker mentions is clearly identified as a Greek philosopher who lived five hundred years before Christ, and even though this mention comes in a different chapter than the one from which Don got the names of the Monarchian teachers.
What the blasphemous folly is of Noetus, and that he devoted himself to the tenets of Heraclitus the Obscure, not to those of Christ.
As much as I have come to disagree with the theology taught by Don Barnett, and as deceptive as I think his behavior was during the connection era at the Chapel, it is still difficult for me to believe he has deliberately falsified history to support his position, but I can see no other explanation for the obvious errors of fact presented here.