Sabellius, a Christian priest, theologian, and teacher, was active during the first decades of the third century, propounding a Christological doctrine that was later deemed heretical. Specifically, he advocated a modalistic view of divinity that described God possessing a single unified substance, albeit one that took particular forms (Father, Son, Spirit) in relation to human beings. As this doctrine denied full, discrete reality of each "Person" of the Trinity, it was anathematized, leading to Sabellius' excommunication from the church in 220 C.E. Little else is known of either his life or his teachings.
Like many other challengers to early Christian orthodoxy, little is known of the life of Sabellius save the (potentially unreliable) details that can be gleaned from the writings of his critics. In the case of the arch-monarchian himself, few details survive, save the writings of Hippolytus, who appears to have had some contact with the heresiarch, and some later Church Fathers (such as Basil the Great and Epiphanius). In these scant sources, Sabellius is described as a third century priest and theologian who taught in Rome during the reigns of Popes Victor (186/189–197/201), Zephyrinus (199–217), and Callixtus I (217–222), though the last of them arranged for his excommunication (c. 220 C.E.). No extant information remains regarding his fate in the years after being anathematized, though some sources suggest that he remained in Rome during the writing of Hippolytus' Philosophumena (c. 230 and 235). Though certain sources (such as the writings of Basil the Great) suggest that Sabellius was a Libyan from Pentapolis, this attribution seems to rest solely on the grounds that Pentapolis proved a fertile environment for the development of monarchian thought in the later third century.
Regardless, his teachings were actually relatively popular during this period, as they provided a theological counterpoint to the adoptionist heresies that were then prevalent, as noted by Epiphanius's unsubtle claim that "there are many insane people in Mesopotamia and the region of Rome who hold to his doctrine." As such, it has been theorized that the rejection of this doctrine was motivated by political as well as theological exigences. This thesis is aggressively forwarded by Hippolytus, a roughly contemporaneous theologian, who suggests that the excommunication of the heretic was orchestrated by Pope Callixtus in order to bolster his own claims of orthodoxy:
And Callistus, who was in the habit of always associating with Zephyrinus, and, as I have previously stated, of paying him hypocritical service, disclosed, by force of contrast, Zephyrinus to be a person able neither to form a judgment of things said, nor discerning the design of Callistus, who was accustomed to converse with Zephyrinus on topics which yielded satisfaction to the latter. Thus, after the death of Zephyrinus, supposing that he had obtained (the position) after which he so eagerly pursued, he 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. He was then an impostor and knave, and in process of time hurried away many with him. And having even venom imbedded in his heart, and forming no correct opinion on any subject, and yet withal being ashamed to speak the truth, this Callistus, not only on account of his publicly saying in the way of reproach to us, “Ye are Ditheists,” but also on account of his being frequently accused by Sabellius, as one that had transgressed his first faith, devised some such heresy as the following. Callistus alleges that the Logos Himself is Son, and that Himself is Father; and that though denominated by a different title, yet that in reality He is one indivisible spirit. And he maintains that the Father is not one person and the Son another, but that they are one and the same; and that all things are full of the Divine Spirit, both those above and those below.
Further, he goes so far as to suggest that the "fall" of Sabellius could have been actively prevented by the pope, who chose instead to concentrate on his own advancement:
- Callistus perverted Sabellius himself, and this, too, though he had the ability of rectifying this heretic’s error. For (at any time) during our admonition Sabellius did not evince obduracy; but as long as he continued alone with Callistus, he was wrought upon to relapse into the system of Cleomenes by this very Callistus, who alleges that he entertains similar opinions to Cleomenes. Sabellius, however, did not then perceive the knavery of Callistus; but he afterwards came to be aware of it, as I shall narrate presently. This accusation confirms the hypothesis that Calixtus' ecclesiastical action was motivated more by a desire for unity (or power) than any actual theological conviction.
In keeping with the Monarchian doctrines of Noetus and Praxeas, Sabellius taught that God was indivisible, with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being three modes (or manifestations) of the same divine Person. Thus, a Sabellian modalist would suggest that the One God successively revealed Himself to humanity as the Father in Creation; the Son in Redemption; and the Spirit in Sanctification and Regeneration. This understanding has been called Sabellianism and Modalistic Monarchianism. However, the suggestion of development and change within the Godhead was seen to contradicting the concept of impassibility, which argues that God does not experience joy or pain from the actions of His creation. It also stood in contrast to the position of distinct persons existing within a single godhead (as in the mature doctrine of the Trinity) by representing Father, Son and Spirit as different “modes” (hence the term "modalism"), “aspects” or “faces” that God presented successively to the world.
According to Epiphanius of Salamis, Sabellius used the sun’s characteristics as an analogy of God’s nature. Just as the sun has "three powers" (warmth, light, and circular form), so God has three aspects: The warming power answers to the Holy Spirit; the illuminating power, to the Son; and the form or figure, to the Father. Von Mosheim described Sabellius' views thusly: "But while Sabellius maintained that there was but one divine person, he still believed the distinction of Father, Son and holy Spirit, described in the Scriptures, to be a real distinction, and not a mere appellative or nominal one. That is, he believed the one divine person whom he recognized, to have three distinct forms, which are really different, and which should not be confounded."
The Teachings of Sabellius were most vigorously opposed by Tertullian in North Africa and Hippolytus of Rome who both proposed an hierachical trinity of subordinate persons. Tertullian gave Sabellius' doctrine the name Patripassianism, meaning "the father suffered," since Sabellius made no true distinction of persons between the Father and the Son. However, this seems to be a distortion of Sabellius' teaching, at least as it is presented in the writings of Epiphanius.
- Catholic Encyclopedia, Sabellius. Retrieved April 2, 2008.
- Chapman (1911).
- Brown, 103.
- Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies IX:7.
- Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies IX:6.
- Wace (1994); Bunsen (2007).
- Cozens, 29.
- Pelikan, 179-181.
- Richard E. Creel, Divine Impassibility (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
- Von Mosheim, 220.
- Von Mosheim, 218.
- M. M. Mattison, Jesus and the Trinity. Retrieved Oct 7, 2007.
- A. Clissold, The Creeds of Athanasius, Sabellius and Swedenborg (Adamant Media Corporation, 2001).
- Brown, Harold O. J. Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998. ISBN 1565633652
- Bunsen, C.C. Hippolytus and His Age. Kessinger Publishing, 2007.
- Chapman, John. "Monarchianism" in the Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911.
- Cozens, M. L. A Handbook of Heresies. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1959.
- Hultgren, Arland J. and Steven A. Haggmark, eds. The Earliest Christian Heretics: Readings from their Opponents. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996. ISBN 0800629639
- McGrath, Alister E. Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998. ISBN 0631208445
- Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Volume 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975. ISBN 0226653714
- Von Mosheim, J. L. Historical Commentaries on the State of Christianity During the First Three Hundred and Twenty-Five Years from the Christian Era. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006. ISBN 1597527041
- Wace, H. A Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century C.E. with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies. Hendrickson Publishers, 1994. ISBN 1565630572
All links retrieved August 31, 2019.
- Barnett, D., History of the Doctrine Concerning the Nature of God in the Early Centuries of Christianity: Sabellius (part 8).
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