1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sabellius

SABELLIUS (fl. 230), early Christian presbyter and theologian, was of Libyan origin, and came from the Pentapolis to Rome early in the 3rd century. ' To understand his position a brief review of the Christian thought of the time is necessary. Even after the elimination of Gnosticism the church remained without any uniform Christology; the Trinitarians and the Unitarians continued to confront each other, the latter at the beginning of the 3rd century still forming the large majority. These in turn split into two principal groups—the Adoptianists and the Modalists—the former holding Christ to be the man chosen of God, on whom the Holy Spirit rested in a quite unique sense, and who after toil and suffering, through His oneness of will with God, became divine, the latter maintaining Christ to be a manifestation of God Himself. Both groups had their scientific theologians who sought to vindicate their characteristic doctrines, the Adoptianist, divines holding by the Aristotelian philosophy, and the Modalists by that of the Stoics; while the Trinitarians (Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, Novatian), on the other hand, appealed to Plato.

In Rome Modalism was the doctrine which prevailed from Victor to Calixtus or Callistus (c. 190-220). The bishops just named protected within the city the schools of Epigonus and Cleomenes, where it was taught that the Son is identical with the Father. But the presbyter Hippolytus was successful in convincing the leaders of that church that the Modalistic doctrine taken in its strictness was contrary to Scripture. Calixtus saw himself under the necessity of abandoning his friends and setting up a mediating formula designed to harmonize the Trinitarian and the Modalistic positions. But, while excommunicating the strict Unitarians (Monarchians), he also took the same course with Hippolytus and his followers, declaring their teaching to be ditheism. The mediation formula, however, proposed by Calixtus became the bridge by which, in the course of the decades immediately following, the doctrine of the Trinity made its way into the Roman Church. In the year 250, when the Roman presbyter Novatian wrote his book De Trinilate, the doctrine of Hippolytus, once discredited as ditheism, had already become official there. At the same time Rome and most of the other churches of the West still retained a certain leaning towards Modalistic monarchianism. This appears, on the one hand, in the use of expressions having a Modalistic ring about them—see especially the poems of Commodian, written about the time of Valerian—and, on the other hand, in the rejection of the doctrine that the Son is subordinate to the Father and is a creature (witness the controversy between Dionysius of Alexandria and Dionysius of Rome), as well as in the readiness of the West to accept the formula of Athanasius, that the Father and the Son are one and the same in substance (ὁμοούσιοι).

The strict 'Modalists, whom Calixtus had excommunicated along with their most zealous opponent Hippolytus, were led by Sabellius., His party continued to subsist in Rome for a considerable time afterwards,[1] and withstood Calixtus as an unscrupulous apostate. In the West, however, the influence of Sabellius seems never to have been important; in the East, on the other hand, after the middle of the 3rd century his doctrine found much acceptance, first in the Pentapolis and afterwards in other provinces [2] It was violently controverted by the bishops, notably by Dionysius of Alexandria, and the development in the East of the philosophical doctrine of the Trinity after Origen (from 260 to 320) was very powerfully influenced by the opposition to Sabellianism. Thus, for example, at the great synod held in Antioch in 268 the word δμοονσιος was rejected, as seeming to favour Unitarianism. The Sabellian doctrine itself, however, during the decades above mentioned underwent many changes in the East and received a philosophical dress. In the 4th century this and the allied doctrine of Marcellus of Ancyra were frequently confounded, so that it is exceedingly difficult 'to arrive at a clear account of it in its genuine form. Sabellianism, in fact, became a collective name for all those Unitarian doctrines in which the divine nature of Christ was acknowledged. The teaching of Sabellius himself was very closely allied to the older Modalism (“Patripassianism”) of Noetus and Praxeas, but was distinguished from it by its more careful theological elaboration and 7 by the account it took of the Holy Spirit. His central proposition was to the effect that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the same person, three names thus being attached to one and the same being, What weighed most with Sabellius was the monotheistic interest. The One Being was also named by him νίοπάτωρ—an expression purposely chosen to obviate ambiguity. To explain how one and the same being could have various, forms of manifestation, he pointed to the tripartite nature of man (body, soul, spirit), and to the sun, which manifests itself as a heavenly body, as a source of light and also as a source of warmth. He further maintained that God is not at one and the same time Father, Son and Spirit, but, on the contrary, has been active in three apparently consecutive manifestations or energies-first in the 1rp6aw1rov of the Father as Creator and Lawgiver, then in the 1rp6<rw1rav of the Son as Redeemer, and lastly in the 1rp6¢1o, nrov of the Spirit as the Giver of Life. It is by this doctrine of the succession of the 1rp6ow1ra that Sabellius is distinguished from the older Modalists. In particular it is significant, in conjunction with the reference to the Holy Spirit, that Sabellius regards the Father also as merely a form of manifestation of the one Godin other words, has formally put Him in a position of complete equality with theother Persons. This view prepares the way for Augustine's doctrine of the Trinity. Sabellius himself appears to have made use of Stoical formulas (1r)a.Ti9veo'0at, ¢1vUré))ecr0at), but he chiefly relied upon Scripture, especially such passages as Deut. vi. 4; Exod. xx. 3; Isa. xliv. 6; John x. 38. Of his later history nothing is known; his followers died out in the course of the 4th century.

The sources of our knowledge of Sabellianism are Hipolytus (Philos. bk. ix.), Epiphanius (Haer. lxii.) and Dionys. Alex. (3E{>p.); also various passages in Athanasius and the other fathers of the 4th century. For modern discussions of the subject see Schleiermacher (Theol. Ztschr. 1822, Hft. 3);~Lange (Ztschr. f. hist. Theol. 1832, ii. 2); Dollin er (Hippolyt u. Kallist. 1853), Zahn (Marcell v. Ancyra, 1867); R. L. gttley, The, Doctrine of the Incarnation (1896); various histories of Dogma, and Harnack (s.v. " Monarchianismus, " in " Herzog-Hauck, Realencyk. ffzf pmt. Theol. 'und Kirche, xiii. 303). (A. HA.)

  1. In the 18th century there was discovered in one of the Catacombs of Rome an inscription containing the words “qui et Filius diceris et Pater inveniris.” This can only have come from a Sabellian.
  2. Whether Sabellius himself ever visited the East is unknown.