Was Athanasius a Sabellian?

SUMMARY

Purpose

During the Arian Controversy, Athanasius was the main defender of the Nicene Creed. He presented himself as the preserver of scriptural orthodoxy. But this article argues that Athanasius was a Sabellian; a theology that was already rejected as heretical during the preceding century.

The Arian Controversy began with a dispute between Arius and his bishop Alexander of Alexandria. Much less of Alexander’s writings survived but this article concludes that he was also a Sabellian.

What is a Sabellian?

A Sabellian believes that Father and Son are one single Being and Person with one single rational capacity. In the language of the fourth century, Father and Son are one single hypostasis. They argued that the Son is part of the Father and does not have real distinct existence. The Logos is merely a power or aspect of the Father.

In opposition to them. the Eusebians (the so-called Arians) believed that the trinity exists as three ousiai (substances) and three hypostases with three distinct Minds.

Athanasius’ Theology

The Son is part of the Father.

Similar to the Sabellians, Athanasius regarded the Son (the Logos) as part of the Father. For example:

1. “In the Father we have the Son: this is a summary of Athanasius’ theology.” (RH, 426)

2. Athanasius often used the Greek term idios to describe how the Son relates to the Father. Idios was used to indicate that certain qualities and activities are intrinsic to a being.

3. While the Eusebians (the anti-Nicenes, usually but inappropriately called ‘Arians’) postulated two Logoi in the Godhead – (1) the Logos that became incarnated and (2) the Father’s own Logos, Athanasius said that there is only one Logos, namely, the Father’s own internal Logos (rational capacity).

4. For Athanasius, the Holy Spirit is also part of the Father.

Father and Son are only one Hypostasis.

1. While the Eusebians taught that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct hypostases (Persons), the “clear inference from his (Athanasius’) usage” is that “there is only one hypostasis in God.” (LA, 48)

2. Athanasius opposed the concept of “three hypostases.” He regarded the phrase as “unscriptural and therefore suspicious.” (LA, 174; RH, 440)

3. Athanasius “defends constantly … the ontological unity of the Father and the Son.” (RH, 422, cf. 428) This may sound as if he was a Trinitarian, believing that Father and Son are one single Being (substance). But “clearly for him hypostasis and ousia were still synonymous.” (RH, 440) In other words, when he argues for “ontological unity,” meaning that Father and Son are one ousia (substance), he is also saying that they are one single hypostasis (Person).

4. While the Eusebians regarded the Logos as Mediator between God and creation both during His incarnation and beyond, Athanasius, because he does not recognize the Logos as a distinct hypostasis, limited the Son’s role as mediator to the incarnation.

Other Evidence.

Thus far, this article has shown that Athanasius believed that the Son is part of the Father and that the Father and Son are one single hypostasis. Both are clear indications of Sabellianism. Further indications include the following:

1. The similarity of their theologies allowed Athanasius to ally with Marcellus; the main Sabellian of the fourth century. “They considered themselves allies.” (LA, 106)

2. At the time, their beliefs were regarded as similar. “The perception that these two trajectories (Athanasius and Marcellus) held to very similar beliefs would help to shape widespread eastern antipathy to both in the years after Nicaea.” (LA, 69)

3. The Meletian Schism also identifies Athanasius as a Sabellian. That schism was a dispute between two factions within the pro-Nicene camp, namely, between the ‘one hypostasis’ and the ‘three hypostases’ factions. Athanasius was one of the leaders of the ‘one hypostasis’ faction.

4. In conclusion, “until he (Athanasius) could come to terms with a theology which admitted the existence of three hypostases, and no longer regarded the word hypostasis as a synonym for ousia, he could not fail to give the impression that he was in danger of falling into Sabellianism.” (RH, 444)

Alexander of Alexandria

Alexander, similar to Athanasius and the Sabellians:

      • Maintained that the Son is a property or quality of the Father, 
      • Taught that the Logos in Christ is the Father’s intrinsic Word and Wisdom, and
      • Never spoke about hypostases (plural for hypostasis).

Scholars conclude that “the fragments of Eustathius that survive present a doctrine that is close to Marcellus, and to Alexander and Athanasius. Eustathius insists there is only one hypostasis.“ (LA, 69) Since “Alexander’s theology found its most famous advocate in his successor Athanasius” (LA, 45), this is further evidence that Athanasius was a Sabellian.

Conclusion

There is no real difference between the theology of Alexander and Athanasius and the main Sabellians of his day; Eustathius and Marcellus.

– END OF SUMMARY –


INTRODUCTION

Purpose

During the Arian Controversy, Athanasius was the main defender of the Nicene Creed and the term homoousios. “Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of the one theological tradition that is equivalent with scriptural orthodoxy.” (LA, 107)1Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004 But this article argues that Athanasius was a Sabellian; a theology that was already rejected as heretical during the preceding century.

The Arian Controversy began with a dispute between Arius and his bishop Alexander of Alexandria. Much less of Alexander’s writings survived but this article concludes that he was also a Sabellian.

What is a Sabellian?

To determine whether they were Sabellians, one needs to know what Sabellians believed. Sabellianism is described in the article – The Sabellians of the Fourth Century. In summary: 

Concerning the eternal Godhead:

Sabellians believed that “before the world existed the Word was IN the Father.” (LA, 63) In their view, the Logos is part of the Father as His only rational capacity. In other words, Father and Son are one single Person with one single rational capacity (Mind). Hanson refers to “a Sabellian, believing in only one Person (hypostasis) in the Godhead.” (RH, 801)2RH=Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988

If the Logos is IN the Father, the Logos has no real distinct existence. Rather, the preexistent Logos is merely “a power or aspect” of the Father and “not in any serious sense distinct from him.” (RH, 237)

Concerning the incarnated Jesus Christ, if the Logos has no real distinct existence, then Jesus Christ would be a mere man. He may be a maximally inspired man, but he remains essentially a man, meaning that:

Firstly, Christ did not exist before He was born from Mary.

Secondly, the Logos dwells in the man Jesus merely as an energy, an activity, or as inspiration from God.

Thirdly, God did not suffer or die. In Sabellian view, Christ is a complete human being with a human soul and mind. That soul or mind absorbed all human suffering so that God did not suffer at all. It was a human being that suffered, died, was resurrected, and now sits at God’s right hand.

Terminology is confusing.

During the Arian Controversy, most people used hypostasis and ousia (substance) as synonyms. So, one hypostasis = one ousia = one mind. However, there were only two basic views:

One Mind – The Sabellians believed that Father, Son, and Spirit exist as one ousia (substance) and one hypostasis and, therefore, one single Mind; “only one Person (hypostasis) in the Godhead.” (RH, 801) This quote uses hypostasis and ‘Person’ are synonyms. This article’s purpose is to show that this is what Athanasius believed.

Three Minds – The Eusebians (the so-called Arians) believed that Father, Son, and Spirit exist as three ousiai (substances) and three hypostases with three distinct Minds.

However, the traditional Trinity doctrine disrupts the simplicity of the terminology by using ousia and hypostasis as contrasting concepts and adds, therefore, a third view, namely that God exists as one ousia (substance or Being, with one single Mind) but three hypostases (Persons).

In all three options, a hypostasis is a ‘Person’. However, in the traditional Trinity doctrine, the term ‘Person’ is misleading because each Person does not have a separate rational capacity (mind). Rather, the three Persons ‘share’ one single rational capacity.

Terminology in this debate, therefore, is very confusing. It is challenging to find terminology that is clear and consistently used by all. This article proposes that we focus on asking how many rational capacities a theologian taught. This avoids the confusing ancient terminology and focuses on the core issue.

AUTHORS CITED

This article is largely based on the following recent writings of world-class scholars:

Hanson – An informative 1981 lecture by R.P.C. Hanson on the Arian Controversy.

RH Bishop R.P.C. Hanson
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God –

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

LA = Lewis Ayres
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

ATHANASIUS’ THEOLOGY

The Son is Part of the Father.

The quotes in this article sometimes refer to ‘the Son’ and sometimes to ‘the Logos’. Alexander and Athanasius used these terms as synonyms. For example:

    • “The original Logos and Wisdom … is the Son.” (RH, 427).
    • “The Word and Son is idios to the Father’s essence.” (LA, 114)

There are several indications that Athanasius regarded the Son (the Logos) as part of the Father:

1. The Son is IN the Father.

Athanasius described the Son, not as in God generally, but as IN the Father specifically. For example:

“In the Father we have the Son: this is a summary of Athanasius’ theology.” (RH, 426) “The Son is in the Father ontologically.” (RH, 428)

“Athanasius’ increasing clarity in treating the Son as intrinsic to the Father’s being” (LA, 113)

“Athanasius’ argument speaks not of two realities engaged in a common activity, but develops his most basic sense that the Son is intrinsic to the Father’s being.” (LA, 114) [Note that this quote uses ‘reality’ as synonym for ‘Person’.] 

“The Son’s existence is intrinsic to the Father’s nature.” (LA, 116)

“Although Athanasius’ theology was by no means identical with Marcellus’, the overlaps were significant enough for them to be at one on some of the vital issues—especially their common insistence that the Son was intrinsic to the Father’s external existence.” (LA, 106)

2. The Son is Idios to the Father.

Athanasius often used the Greek term idios to describe how the Son relates to the Father. For example:

“The Word and Son is idios to the Father’s essence.” (LA, 114)

“For the Son is in the Father … because the whole being of the Son is idios to the Father’s essence, as radiance from light and stream from fountain.” (LA, 115)

He “insisted continually that the Son was the Father’s own (idios).” (RH, 425)

Idios means “pertaining to one’s self, one’s own, belonging to one’s self” (Bible Study Tools). Ayres comments as follows on the meaning of idios:

“Initially used to indicate that certain qualities and activities are intrinsic to being human, the use of the term to indicate that the Son is idios to the Father’s ousia serves to reinforce his tendency to present the Father/Son relationship as most like that of a person and their faculties.” (LA, 115)

So, to say that the Son (the Logos) is idios to the Father means that He is part of the Father. Ayres says that “it probably served only to reinforce his opponents’ sense that the use of ousia language could only serve to confuse the clear distinction between Father and Son.” (LA, 115)

3. The Son is God’s Internal Wisdom.

While Eusebians postulated two Logoi in the Godhead – (1) the Logos that became incarnated and (2) the Father’s own Logos – Athanasius, similar to the Sabellians, said that there is only one Logos. The Logos in Christ must then necessarily be the Father’s own internal Logos (wisdom, rational capacity, or mind); not a separate hypostasis or Person. For example:

Athanasius wrote: “There is no need to postulate two Logoi.” (RH, 431)

He argued that the pre-existent Son is “present with Him (the Father) as his Wisdom and his Word.” (LA, 46)

He criticized “the [Arian] idea that Christ is a derivative Wisdom and not God’s own wisdom.” (LA, 116)

4. The Holy Spirit is also part of the Father.

For Athanasius, just as the Son is part of the Father, the Holy Spirit is part of the Son and, therefore, not a distinct Person:

“Just as his (Athanasius’) account of the Son can rely heavily on the picture of the Father as one person with his intrinsic word, so too he emphasizes the closeness of Spirit to Son by presenting the Spirit as the Son’s ‘energy’.” (LA, 214)

The Cappadocians concluded that Athanasius did not afford the Holy Spirit a distinct existence (a separate Person or hypostasis). For example:

“The language also shows Athanasius trying out formulations that will soon be problematic. … ‘The Cappadocians’ will find the language of νργεια [superhuman activity] used of the Spirit … to be highly problematic, seeming to indicate a lack of real existence.” (LA, 214)

One Hypostasis (One Person)

1. Only one hypothesis in God

Following Origen, Eusebians taught that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct hypostases. The previous section has shown in several ways that Athanasius regarded the Son as part of the Father; similar to the Sabellians. This section reinforces that conclusion by showing that Athanasius believed that Father and Son are one single hypostasis (one single Reality):

The “clear inference from his (Athanasius’) usage” is that “there is only one hypostasis in God.” (LA, 48)

“Athanasius’ most basic language and analogies for describing the relationship between Father and Son primarily present the two as intrinsic aspects of one reality or person.” (LA, 46)

“The fragments of Eustathius that survive present a doctrine that is close to Marcellus, and to Alexander and Athanasius. Eustathius insists there is only one hypostasis.“ (LA, 69)

“He [Athanasius] had attended the Council of Serdica among the Western bishops in 343, and a formal letter of that Council had emphatically opted for the belief in one, and only one, hypostasis as orthodoxy. Athanasius certainly accepted this doctrine at least up to 359, even though he tried later to suppress this fact.” (RH, 444)

2. Opposed three Hypostases

This is also indicated by Athanasius’ opposition to the concept of “three hypostases:”

He regarded the phrase as “unscriptural and therefore suspicious.” (LA, 174; RH, 440)

“He clearly approves of the sentence of … that it is wrong to divide the divine monarchy into ‘three powers and separate hypostases and three Godheads’, thereby postulating ‘three diverse hypostases wholly separated from each other’.” (RH, 445)

Another article argues that the real issue and the fundamental dispute in the entire Arian Controversy was whether God is one or three hypostases. For Athanasius, the enemy was those who taught more than one hypostasis (Person) in God:

“Athanasius and Marcellus now seem to have made common cause against those who insisted on distinct hypostases in God.” (LA, 106)

3. Opposed Logos-theology

Athanasius’ insistence on one single hypostasis in God is further illustrated by his opposition to the two hypotheses of Logos-theology:

In the traditional Logos-theology of the previous centuries, based mostly on principles from Greek philosophy, which says that God cannot interact directly with matter, the church fathers developed the two-stage Logos-theology. In it, God’s Logos always existed inside Him but, when God decided to create, God’s Logos became a separate hypostasis with a lower divinity which enabled Him to create and interact with matter. Through the Logos, God created all things and, through the Logos, God reveals Himself to the creation. Since this was based mostly on Greek philosophy, Hanson refers to this Logos as “a convenient philosophical device.” But Athanasius rejected the idea of the pre-existent Logos as a distinct hypostasis.

Athanasius said: “He (the Father) was no remote God who required a lesser god (the Logos) to reveal Him.” (RH, 423)

“He refused to use the pre-existent Christ as a convenient philosophical device.” (RH, 423)

“He never accepted the Origenistic concept of the Logos as a mediating agent within the Godhead.” (RH, 425)

The point is that, for Athanasius, in the Godhead, there was only one hypostasis.

4. Ontological Unity

Athanasius “defends constantly … the ontological unity of the Father and the Son.” (RH, 422, cf. 428)

This may sound as if he was a Trinitarian, believing that Father and Son are one single ousia (substance or Being). But “clearly for him hypostasis and ousia were still synonymous.” (RH, 440) In other words, when he argues for “ontological unity,” meaning that Father and Son are one ousia (substance), he is really saying that they are one single hypostasis (Person).

5. No Mediator outside the Incarnation

The Bible describes Christ as the Mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5). In the Eusebian view, the Son always had this role; also before His incarnation. But Athanasius, since he did not believe in the Logos as a distinct hypostasis, limited Christ’s role as Mediator to the incarnation. For example:

“God needed no mediator to create the world. … The Logos/Son is a redemptive, not a cosmic principle.” (RH, 423)

“When he comes to interpret the crucial text, Proverbs 8:22 ff, [The Lord made me at the beginning of His ways] he insists that its terms apply to the incarnate, not the pre-existent Christ … it shows that Athanasius placed the mediating activity of the Son, not in his position within the Godhead, but in his becoming incarnate.” (RH, 424; cf. ) OR

“Athanasius firmly places the mediating activity of the Logos, not within the Godhead, but in the Incarnation.” (RH, 447)

In other words, for Athanasius, apart from the Incarnation, there is no Mediator.

6. Unitarian

Ayres refers to “Athanasius’ own strongly unitarian account.” (LA, 435) The term “unitarian” is used for ‘one hypostasis’ theologies, with Marcellus of Ancyra as the prime example. For example:

“… supporters of Nicaea whose theology had strongly unitarian tendencies. Chief among these was Marcellus of Ancyra.” (LA, 431)

“Studer’s account [1998] here follows the increasingly prominent scholarly position that Athanasius’ theology offers a strongly unitarian Trinitarian theology whose account of personal differentiation is underdeveloped.” (LA, 238)

Further Evidence

Thus far, this article has shown that Athanasius believed that the Son is part of the Father and that the Father and Son are one single hypostasis. Both are clear indications of Sabellianism. This section provides additional support for this conclusion:

(A) Alliance with Marcellus

The similarity of their theologies allowed Athanasius to form an alliance with the main Sabellian of the fourth century; Marcellus:

“They considered themselves allies.” (LA, 106) At the time when both were exiled to Rome, “Athanasius and Marcellus now seem to have made common cause against those who insisted on distinct hypostases in God.” (LA, 106)

“At the Council of Jerusalem and the Council of Tyre in the same year he (Marcellus) had supported Athanasius.” (RH, 217)

“Athanasius … continued to defend the orthodoxy of Marcellus.” (RH, 220) “Though he (Athanasius) may temporarily at this period, when he was preparing to return from his second exile, have wished to place a distance between himself and Marcellus, he had no intention of making a final break with him. It is doubtful if he ever did this.” (RH, 220)

Contrary to the traditional account, “it is … no longer clear that Athanasius ever directly repudiated Marcellus, and he certainly seems to have been sympathetic to Marcellus’ followers through into the 360s.” (LA, 106)

(B) Similar Beliefs to the Marcellians

At the time and still today, their beliefs were regarded as similar:

“Athanasius and Marcellus could come together in Rome. The perception that these two trajectories held to very similar beliefs would help to shape widespread eastern antipathy to both in the years after Nicaea.” (LA, 69)

“The fragments of Eustathius that survive present a doctrine that is close to Marcellus, and to Alexander and Athanasius. Eustathius insists there is only one hypostasis.“ (LA, 69) (Eustatius was the other important Sabellian in the fourth century. See – The Sabellians of the Fourth Century).

“Athanasius and Marcellus can and should both be counted as ‘original Nicene’.” (LA, 99) This again implies a strong similarity between their theologies.

(C) Meletian Schism

Hanson’s discussion of the Meletian schism also identifies Athanasius as a Sabellian.

That schism was a dispute between two factions within the pro-Nicene camp, namely, between the ‘one hypostasis’ and the ‘three hypostases’ factions. The leaders of the ‘one hypostasis’ faction were bishop Damasus of Rome and Athanasius. Basil of Caesarea and Meletius of Antioch led the ‘three hypostases’ faction:

In a letter to Basil, “Damasus sent a very cool reply … deliberately avoided making any statement about the three hypostases. It was the adhesion of Basil, Meletius and their followers to this doctrine of the hypostases which caused Damasus … to suspect them of heresy.” (RH, 798)

The Bishop of Antioch

One of the main issues in this dispute was about the rightful bishop of Antioch. Damasus and Athanasius supported Paulinus because Paulinus taught ‘one hypostasis’:

In 375, Damasus wrote a letter that “constituted also an official recognition of Paulinus, not Meletius, as bishop of Antioch.” (RH, 799) 

Paulinus “was recognized as legitimate bishop of Antioch by Athanasius.” (RH, 801)

Paulinus was “Marcellan/Sabellian.” (RH, 799) He derived “his tradition in continuity from Eustathius who had been bishop about forty years before” (RH, 800-1). (Eustathius and Marcellus were the two famous Sabellians of the fourth century.)

Basil, on the other hand, opposed Paulinus:

“Paulinus was a rival of Basil’s friend and ally Meletius. … Basil suspected that Paulinus was at heart a Sabellian, believing in only one Person (hypostasis) in the Godhead.” (RH, 801)

Note that the previous quote confirms that:

    • A person who believes in one hypostasis is a Sabellian.
    • Basil believed in three hypostases.
Support for the Marcellans

The theologies of Damasus, Athanasius, and Basil are also reflected in their support or opposition to the Marcellans. The ”watch-word” of “these disciples of Marcelius … had always been ‘only one hypostasis in the Godhead’.” (RH, 802)

Damasus and Athanasius supported the Marcellans:

“Basil was never sure in his own mind that Athanasius had abandoned Marcellus of Ancyra and his followers.” (RH, 797)

“About the year 371 adherents of Marcellus approached Athanasius, presenting to him a statement of faith. … He accepted it and gave them a document expressing his agreement with their doctrine.” (RH, 801)

But Basil opposed the Marcellians:

Basil wrote a letter that “contained some shafts directed at Damasus because of his toleration of Eustathius and the Marcellans.” (RH, 799)

“In a letter written to Athanasius he (Basil of Caesarea) complains that the Westerners have never brought any accusation against Marcellus.” (RH, 802)

(D) Conclusions

So, was Athanasius a Sabellian? Hanson concludes:

“Athanasius, not through lack of good intention but through lack of vocabulary, verges dangerously close to Sabeilianism.” (RH, 429)

“Loofs in his earlier work said that Athanasius swung between the Sabellian and the anti-Sabellian tendencies in his thought.” (RH, 443)

“The evidence that for Athanasius hypostasis was the same as ousia is unmistakable.” (RH, 445) “He could not fail to give many the impression that he did not distinguish between the ‘Persons’ of the Trinity. This was not his intention; he was not a Sabellius, not even a Marcellus. But until he could come to terms with a theology which admitted the existence of three hypostases, and no longer regarded the word hypostasis as a synonym for ousia, he could not fail to give the impression that he was in danger of falling into Sabellianism.” (RH, 444)

All the people I quote are Trinitarians and, naturally, defend Athanasius. But, from an independent perspective, in my opinion, the evidence seems quite clear that Athanasius was a Sabellian.

ALEXANDER OF ALEXANDRIA

“Alexander’s theology found its most famous advocate in his successor Athanasius.” (LA, 45) Alexander’s theology, therefore, should provide additional information on the question of whether Athanasius was a Sabellian.

RPC Hanson wrote:

“[Rowan] Williams’ work is most illuminating. Alexander of Alexandria, Williams thinks, had maintained that the Son … is a property or quality of the Father, impersonal and belonging to his substance. Properties or qualities cannot be substances …; they are not quantities. The statement then that the Son is idios to (a property or quality of) the Father is a Sabellian statement.” (RH, 92)

Both Athanasius and Alexander, therefore, described the Son as idios to the Father. Furthermore, similar to the Sabellians and Athanasius, Alexander taught that the Logos in Christ is the Father’s intrinsic Word and Wisdom:

“Alexander taught that … as the Father’s Word and Wisdom the Son must always have been with the Father.” (LA, 16)

“Alexander argues that as Word or Wisdom the Son must be eternal or the Father would, nonsensically, have been at one time bereft of both.” (LA, 44)

“In Alexander, and in Athanasius … Christ is the one power and wisdom of the Father.” (LA, 54)

Alexander never spoke about hypostases:

With respect to both Alexander and Athanasius, Ayres concludes, “This trajectory … is also resistant to speaking of three hypostases.” (LA, 43)

“We never find him (Alexander) using hypostasis as a technical term for the individual existence of one of the divine persons, and he never speaks of there being two or three hypostases.” (LA, 45)

Both Alexander and Athanasius, therefore, believed, since He is God’s only Wisdom or Word, that the Son is part of the Father. In their view, there is only one hypostasis in God. Consequently, scholars conclude that their theologies were close to that of the ‘one hypostasis‘ theology of the Sabellians:

“The fragments of Eustathius that survive present a doctrine that is close to Marcellus, and to Alexander and Athanasius. Eustathius insists there is only one hypostasis.“ (LA, 69)

ATHANASIUS ON THE INCARNATION

If Athanasius was a Sabellian, we would also see that in his theory of the incarnation. If he was a Sabellian, the incarnated Christ would be a maximally inspired man, but still a mere man with a human soul (mind).

However, Athanasius refused to admit that Jesus had a human mind. He describes Jesus as the Logos dwelling in a human body. Since, in his view, the Logos is part of the Father, it is really the Father that dwells in the human body.

But he completely ignored the human side of Jesus Christ, so much so that scholars “conclude that whatever else the Logos incarnate is in Athanasius’ account of him, he is not a human being.” (RH, 451) In other words, he described Jesus as God in a human body.

When he discusses Jesus’ ignorance and fears, Athanasius says that God only pretended to be ignorant and to fear. For such reasons, scholars say:

“The chief reason for Athanasius’ picture of Jesus being so completely unconvincing is of course that, at least till the year 362, it never crossed his mind that there was any point in maintaining that Jesus had a human soul or mind.” (RH, 451)

“Athanasius involves himself in the most far-fetched explanations to explain away some of the texts which obviously represents Jesus as having faith.” (RH, 450)

See – The Incarnation for a discussion of Athanasius’ view on the subject.

CONCLUSION

There is no real difference between the theology of Alexander and Athanasius and the main Sabellians of their time; Eustathius and Marcellus. As ‘one hypostasis’ theologians, Alexander and Athanasius were part of a minority in this church. And since both Sabellius’ theology and the term homoousios were already formally rejected as heretical by the church during the preceding century, they followed an already discredited theology.

The Western Council of Serdica in 343, where Athanasius played a dominant part, is devastating evidence. It explicitly describes the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as one hypostasis and Athanasius approved and supported this creed. People struggle with this conclusion is that it shows that Athanasius, who is regarded as the hero of the Arian Controversy, was a Sabellian; not a Trinitarian. Remember, as Hanson stated, the traditional account of the Arian Controversy is a Complete Travesty.


OTHER ARTICLES

In this Series

Church Fathers

Arian Controversy

Arius

The Nicene Creed

Arianism

    • The Dedication Creed 21This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
    • Athanasius invented Arianism. 22The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
    • Did Arians describe the Son as a creature? 23‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
    • Homoian theology 24In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
    • Homoi-ousian theology 25This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
    • How did Arians interpret Colossians 2:9? 26Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.

The Pro-Nicenes

Authors on the Arian Controversy

Extracts from the writings of scholars who have studied the ancient documents for themselves:

Trinity Doctrine – General

    • Elohim 33Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
    • The Eternal Generation of the Son 34The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

Other Articles

All articles on this Site

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004
  • 2
  • 3
    The pre-Nicene fathers described the Son as “our God” but the Father as “the only true God,” implying that the Son is not “true” God. This confusion is caused by the translations.
  • 4
    Sabellius taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three portions of one single Being.
  • 5
    If we define Sabellianism as that only one hypostasis – only one distinct existence – exists in the Godhead, was Tertullian a Sabellian?
  • 6
    RPC Hanson states that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed but that is not entirely true. This article shows that subordination was indeed ‘orthodox’ at that time.
  • 7
    The term “Arianism” implies that Arius’ theology dominated the fourth-century church. But Arius was not regarded in his time as a significant writer. He left no school of disciples.
  • 8
    Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of this. This article explains why that is a false accusation.
  • 9
    There are significant differences between Origen and Arius.
  • 10
    Arius wrote that the Son was begotten timelessly by the Father before everything. But Arius also said that the Son did not always exist. Did Arius contradict himself?
  • 11
    New research has shown that Arius is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness, and originality.
  • 12
    The word theos, which is translated as “God” in John 1:1 is not equivalent to the modern English word “God.”
  • 13
    Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.
  • 14
    Eusebius of Caesarea, the most respected theologian at the Council, immediately afterward wrote to his church in Caesarea to explain why he accepted the Creed and how he understood the controversial phrases.
  • 15
    The Creed not only uses non-Biblical words; the concept of homoousios (that the Son is of the same substance as the Father) is not in the Bible.
  • 16
    Does it mean that Father and Son are one single Being, as the Trinity doctrine claims? How was it understood before, at, and after Nicaea? – Summary of the next article
  • 17
    The Nicene Creed describes the Son as homoousios (same substance) as the Father. But how was the term used before, during, and after Nicaea?
  • 18
    The term homoousios was not mentioned by anybody during the first 30 years after Nicaea. It only became part of that controversy in the 350s.
  • 19
    The word is not found in the Bible or in any orthodox Christian confession before Nicaea.
  • 20
    The Creed seems to say that the Father and Son are the same hupostasis. This is Sabellianism.
  • 21
    This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
  • 22
    The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
  • 23
    ‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
  • 24
    In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
  • 25
    This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
  • 26
    Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.
  • 27
    Eustathius and Marcellus played a major role in the formulation of the Creed but were soon deposed for Sabellianism.
  • 28
    Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of Biblical orthodoxy but this article argues that he was a Sabellian.
  • 29
    In the Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit are one substance or Being. This article shows that Basil taught three distinct substances.
  • 30
    This council reveals the state of Western theology at that time.
  • 31
    A summary of this book, which provides an overview of the fourth-century Arian Controversy. Lewis Ayres is a Catholic theologian and Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology.
  • 32
    A very informative lecture on the Arian Controversy by RPC Hanson, a famous fourth-century scholar
  • 33
    Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
  • 34
    The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

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