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In Christian theology, Patripassianism (as it is referred to in the Western church) or Sabellianism in the Eastern church (also known as modalism, modalistic monarchianism, or modal monarchism) is the nontrinitarian or anti-trinitarian belief that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are three different modes or aspects of one monadic God, as perceived by the believer, rather than three distinct persons within the Godhead - that there are no real or substantial differences between the three, such that there is no substantial identity for the Spirit or the Son.
In the West it was known as patripassianism (from Latin patri- "father" and passio "suffering"), because the teaching required that since the Father had become incarnate in Christ, he had suffered.
From the standpoint of the doctrine of the Trinity—one divine being existing in three persons—patripassianism is considered heretical since "it simply cannot make sense of the New Testament's teaching on the interpersonal relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit." In this patripassianism asserts that God the Father—rather than God the Son—became incarnate and suffered on the cross for humanity's redemption. This not only denies the personhood of God-the-Son (Jesus Christ), but is seen by trinitarians as distorting the spiritual transaction that was taking place at the cross, which the Apostle Paul described as follows: "God [the Father] was reconciling the world to himself in Christ [the Son], not counting people’s sins against them. . . . God [the Father] made him who had no sin [God-the-Son] to be sin for us, so that in him [the Son] we might become the righteousness of God [the Father]." (2 Corinthians 5:19, 21)
It is possible, however, to modify patripassianism so as to acknowledge the Divine Being as having feelings toward, and sharing in the experiences of, both God-Incarnate (Jesus) and other human beings. Full-orbed patripassianism denies Trinitarian distinctions, yet it is not heretical to say that God "feels" or "experiences" things, including nonphysical forms of suffering. With regard to the crucifixion of Jesus, it is consistent with Scriptural teaching to say that God the Father "suffered"—that is, felt emotional/spiritual pain—along with His Son. This was due to the temporary breach of their relationship when the Son took upon himself the wrath of the Father toward sin. Jesus expressed this temporal divine rift when he cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46)
Patripassianism began in the third century AD. Patripassianism was referred to as a belief ascribed to those following Sabellianism, after its founder Sabellius, especially by the chief opponent Tertullian. Sabellius, considered a founder of an early movement, was a priest who was excommunicated from the Church by Pope Callixtus I in 220 and lived in Rome. Sabellius advanced the doctrine of one God sometimes referred to as “economic Trinity” and he opposed the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of the “essential Trinity”. Praxeas and Noetus were some major followers.
Because the writings of Sabellius were destroyed it is hard to know if he did actually believe in Patripassianism but one early version of the Apostles' Creed, recorded by Rufinus, explicitly states that the Father is 'impassible.' This reading dates to about 390 AD. This addition was made in response to patripassianism, which Rufinus evidently regarded as a heresy.
Cyprian and Tertullian famously accused the Modalistic Monarchians of patripassianism. The Monarchians taught the unity of the Godhead in Christ and that as the Son suffered the Father also experienced the sufferings. They did not teach that the Father died on the cross, though they were sometimes accused of this.
This term has been used by others such as F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press), accessed via Oxford Reference Online August 21, 2009 to describe other Oneness religions.
Association of patripassianism
- G. T. Stokes, “Sabellianism,” ed. William Smith and Henry Wace, A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects and Doctrines (London: John Murray, 1877–1887), 567.
- Alan Cairns, Dictionary of Theological Terms (Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International, 2002), 285.
- Trueman, Carl R (November 2014), Glomsrud, Ryan, ed., "Trinitarianism 101", Modern Reformation 23 (6), pp. 16–19
- Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2007): vol. 2, pp. 49–50.
- Williston Walker, History of the Christian Church, Page 73, Charles Scribner's Sons 1949