‘Monarchian Trinitarianism’ is a view that has begun to gain some traction in recent years, especially among the Eastern Orthodox, largely as a result of going back to the fourth century pro-Nicene church fathers and learning from them. Church fathers like Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers, Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory of Nyssa have been especially influential in modern articulation of this view. Monarchian trinitarians typically look to Athanasius and the Cappadocian fathers’ controversial interpretations of the Nicene Creed as authoritative for catholic Christianity, and interpret the Bible through a lens of these fathers’ interpretive tradition.
The result is a good aggregate of the views of these fathers, who didn’t always agree with each other on the details or carry the same emphases. Monarchian trinitarians consider themselves ‘trinitarian’ because they believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three equally divine persons; however, they also believe that the one God is only one person, the Father. This doctrine is variously called either ‘unitarianism’ or ‘the monarchy of the Father’, but the basic idea is much the same; the one God and the only uncaused person is Father specifically out of the three persons.
In Monarchian Trinitarianism, however, the Father being the one God does not mean that the Father alone is divine or alone possesses the attributes of the one God, but rather that only the Father is uncaused. In all other respects, the Son and Spirit are taught to be equal and generically identical to the one God. The Son and Spirit are believed to be two distinct individual beings, or persons (not merely distinct personalities or modes), who bear this generic identicality to the one God because they are eternally, and each in a unique fashion, caused by the one God; the Son by means of generation, and the Spirit, in a markedly unimaginative use of language, by ‘spiration’.
But lest one reason that just as three persons with a human nature are three humans, the three persons of the monarchian trinity, sharing a divine nature, are three Gods, Monarchian Trinitarianism throws in a few more caveats to ostensibly solve the problem of having two too-many deities. Firstly, the Son and Holy Spirit are said to share the mind and will of God the Father. What’s meant by this is debatable; the question of whether this patristic language should be taken more along the lines of some sort of numerically singular hive-mind the three persons share, or if it should be taken as a generic identicality of will and mind (as in the case of the divine nature shared by the persons) seems unclear. But either way, the idea that you can’t count three minds and three wills is thought to help prevent us from being able to count three Gods. Additionally, Monarchian Trinitarianism teaches that all three persons perform all actions performed toward creation together in a single token action. That means not simply that the three cooperatively perform actions together, but that somehow, while being three distinct individuals, they each do the exact same thing, in the most specific sense imaginable. What prevents the simple fact that the persons are individuated from each other by the fact that they are three individual beings (hypostases) in the first place from making this joint non-individuated performance of single token actions impossible? Good question, but one to which this author has found no good answer.
What are we left with then, overall, from this doctrine? That what makes the one God special and makes Him the one and only God is not that He alone is divine, nor His special attributes like omniscience, omnipotence, and immutability, but merely the fact that He is the uncaused original amid what are effectively two clones -two other beings produced from Him which are identical to Him in every way, and just as old as Him, while being distinct individuals from Him. These two clones think what He thinks and want what He wants, and act with Him in every action; but the Son and Spirit in this system are by all account no different in any meaningful way than if God had two clones.
The obvious problem with this is, how does this not make three Gods? If human cloning were a reality, a man and his two clones would not be one man, but three men. And no matter how absolutely generically identical they might be in attributes and characteristics, they will always be distinguishable from one another as three men by the fact that each is a distinct individual human being from the others; they are, to put it in church-father language, three hypostases. So long as having a human nature makes you human, then no matter how identical this man and his two clones are, and no matter how much they pal around together and do the same stuff and think the same way, they shall always remain three men. So likewise if there is any sense in which a person having a divine nature makes them God -which is exactly the sense in which pro-Nicene church fathers like Hilary of Poitiers and Basil of Caesarea said the Son and Spirit were God- then the three persons of Father, Son, and Spirit all having a divine nature will make them three Gods. One of these persons being the uncaused original and the other two being carbon-copies of that original makes little difference here; three individuals of the human nature remain three men, and three individuals of the divine nature would be three Gods.
The fact that this view is in a very real sense tritheism is one of the greatest obstacles this view faces. But lets’ suppose for sake of argument, for a moment, that this tritheism issue were resolved by the aforementioned hive-mind and shared token actions among these three persons; somehow, and in no way which appears to really be the case, this made it impossible for us to count three Gods of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Are there any other significant problems with what Monarchian Trinitarianism proposes?
The answer must be yes, if we consider the scriptures’ teaching that the one God is unique and incomparably greater than all to be of any importance. Monarchian Trinitarianism will affirm this, of course, in a very heavily qualified sense; the Father is first, not in time, but in logical priority, and gets the glorious title “one God” pinned on Him like a token badge to distinguish Him from His two clones, as being the original from which they are atemporally multiplied. In this sense alone, the Father is said to be greater than the Son and Holy Spirit. But at the end of the day, the original in a threesome comprised of himself and two clones is hardly unique. To say that ‘there is none like him’ would be a patent and unconvincing lie. Yet the God of the scriptures declares, quite truthfully, that there is none like Him: “Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me,” (Isaiah 46:9). Again and again in the scriptures this important truth of God’s total uniqueness is reiterated (see Deut 33:26, Ps 40:5, 86:8, Isa 40:18, 46:5, Job 23:13). This truth that the one God is unique, incomparably greater than all, and has none like Him, is too central to the glory of God proclaimed in the scriptures to be ignored. No view of Jesus and the Holy Spirit which jeopardizes this important truth can be acceptable to those committed to believing all that scripture teaches. However logically plausible one will deem Monarchian Trinitarianism to be, it is rendered utterly incompatible with the scriptures by making the one God out to be nothing more than one out of three of a kind, the original alongside two identical clones.
That Monarchian Trinitarianism says the Father is technically unique in being uncaused is not enough- as the Monarchian Trinitarians are quick to point out in their debates against Eunomians, unique causal relations are not sufficient to make the persons substantially different from one another; despite these differences in causation, the persons of the the Monarchian Trinity are all essentially equal and exactly alike. Yet in stark contrast to this, the one God proclaims that there is none alike to Him; He is unique not merely in some heavily qualified sense, like being the uncaused original who serves as a basis for two identical clones who are exactly alike to him in all ways except that they are clones, but in an absolute and unqualified sense. We must note that in scripture the uniqueness of God is never limited to God’s unique attribute of being uncaused, but is broad, absolute, and unqualified. In the Monarchian Trinity, it is not the person of the Father Himself that is unique in any way, but merely His origin (or lack thereof) that is unique. But there is nothing about Him in His own being that is unique compared to the Son and Holy Spirit. This does not agree with scripture in the slightest. “Many, O LORD my God, are the wonders which You have done, And Your thoughts toward us; There is none to compare with You.” (Psalm 40:5 NASB)