Tertullian was a Sabellian.

This article series quotes extensively from leading scholars. Since not all readers are interested in detail, the green blocks summarize the longer sections. 

SUMMARY

  The consequence is that Tertullian’s theology was similar to Sabellius’:

Like Monarchianism, both taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are a single hypostasis (Person).

But, while Monarchianism claimed that Father = Son = Spirit, both distinguished between Father, Son, and Spirit within the one hypostasis.

INTRODUCTION

Hypostases

The ancients used the Greek word hypostasis in their Christological debates. A hypostasis is something that exists distinctly from others. So, to say that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases implies that they are three distinct Beings or Persons.

For example:

Hanson explains hypostasis as “individual existence.” (Hanson, p. 193) 1“Dionysius of Alexandria had ‘rejected it because for him it implied that the Father and the Son had the same hypostasis, i.e. individual existence.” (Hanson, p. 193, quoting Simonetti)

Litfin defines hypostases as “distinct personalities” and as “to be existent.” He says, to say that the the Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases implies “three distinct existences within the Godhead.” 2“To defend themselves against charges of Sabellianism, the Nicenes developed not just the language of three prosopa, or ‘roles’ within the Trinity, but three hypostaseis, or distinct personalities. This approach proved problematic … for the Greek word hypostasis … meant ‘to stand under or among’, that is, ‘to be existent’. Such language suggested three distinct existences within the Godhead, and this sounded to nervous Christian ears like tritheism.” 

Logos-theology vs Monarchianism

There were two main views at the time of Tertullian:

      • Logos theology taught that the Son always existed inside God but became a separate hypostasis when God decided to create.
      • Monarchianism, also known as Modalism, taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are merely three names for one and the same hypostasis (Person).

Logos-theology

Beginning in the second century, following Justin Martyr, non-Jewish Christianity was dominated by Logos-theology. It taught a two-stage existence for the Logos: He always existed inside God, became a distinct hypostasis (Person) when God decided to create, and is subordinate to the Father. (See – the Apologists.)

Monarchianism

Opposing Logos-theology, the Monarchians believed that Father, Son, and Spirit are merely three names for one and the same Person. The Son is not a distinct Being from the Father. Consequently, the Father suffered on the Cross:

“By their opponents they are accused of teaching that the Son and the Spirit do not have real independent existence and are in fact simply modes of the Father’s being.” (Ayres, p. 68) 3Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its legacy, 2004, Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

“This ‘monarchian’ view was … suggesting the Father and Son were different expressions of the same being, without any personal distinctions between them. In other words, the Father is himself the Son, and therefore experiences the Son’s human frailties.” (Litfin) 4“In the words of Noetus: … the Father … Himself became His own Son.” “It was therefore God who was born from a virgin and who confessed himself to humankind as the Son of God. At the cross, God commended his spirit to himself, as he acted to be dead, but he was not dead in reality, although he raised himself on the 3rd day.” (Willem H. Oliver, Department of Christian Spirituality, Church History and Missiology, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa)

“The Latin Fathers … called them ‘Patripassians‘ because they have identified the Father and the Son to such an extent that they believed that it was the Father who suffered and died on the cross.” (Willem Oliver)

It is also known as Modalism:

“Adolph Von Harnack coined the term ‘Modalism’ for this 2nd-century doctrine, which referred to the Trinity as consisting of ‘three modes or aspects of one divine existence’.” (Willem Oliver)

SABELLIANISM

Both Monarchianism and Sabellius taught a single hypostasis (a single Person with a single mind) in God but, while the Monarchians taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three names for the same Person, Sabellius, in the early third century, taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three different parts of one Person, just like a human person consists of a body, soul, and spirit. 

Sabellianism is named after the early third-century theologian Sabellius. 

To believe, like the Monarchians did, that Father = Son = Spirit, means that only one hypostasis exists. Sabellius taught similarly that the Father, Son, and Spirit are a single hypostasis (a single Person with a single mind). He believed that “there is but one undivided person in God.” (Von Mosheim) Consequently, Sabellianism has been defined as:

The “refusal to acknowledge the distinct existence of the Persons.” (Hanson, p. 844) 5“The proof texts which he (Hilary) throws at Sabellianism (refusal to acknowledge the distinct existence of the Persons) are …” (Hanson, Bishop RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1988)

“The denial of a distinction between the three within the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 287)6“Its (the Dedication Creed’s) chief bête noire (the thing that it particularly dislikes) is Sabellianism, the denial of a distinction between the three within the Godhead …”

“Believing in only one Person (hypostasis) in the Godhead. … favour the expression ‘one hypostasis’.” (Hanson, p. 801)7“Basil suspected that Paulinus was at heart a Sabellian, believing in only one Person (hypostasis) in the Godhead. Paulinus’ association with the remaining followers of Marcellus and his continuing to favour the expression ‘one hypostasis’ … rendered him suspect.”

The main purpose of the Dedication Creed of 431 is to oppose Sabellianism. For that purpose, while Sabellianism favors “the expression ‘one hypostasis,’” (Hanson, p. 801) that creed explicitly confesses three hypostases.“ 8“The creed clearly and strongly argues against Sabellian emphases and those emphases were associated with Marcellan theology. We see these emphases, for instance, in the insistence that there are three names which ‘signify exactly the particular hypostasis and order and glory of each’.” (Ayres, p. 119)

It is sometimes stated that Sabellianism is another name for Monarchianism. 9For example: “This movement called themselves ‘Monarchians’, the Greek Fathers called them ‘Sabellians’, as Sabellius was the person who has put this doctrine in its philosophical form, supplying its metaphysical basis.” (Willem Oliver) None of Sabellius’ writings have survived. Everything we know about him comes from the writings of his opponents and we know that one’s enemies seldom give a fair reflection of one’s views. But Von Mosheim made a study and concluded that Sabellius, while maintaining that Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis (Person), opposed the Monarchian concept that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are simply three names for the same Person. Rather, he argued that Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct forms or portions of the one divine Person. He maintained that, just like a man is one person, but has a body, a soul, and a spirit, so God is one Person, yet in that Person, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit can be discriminated:

“While he maintained that there was but one person in God, he yet held that there are three forms, or aspects of the one God. Divers forms of one and the same being involve some real distinction.” (page 218)

“Sabellius …  believed that, as a man in just one person, and yet in his person three things may be discriminated, not in thought only, but as having a real existence, namely, the body, the soul, and the spirit, so, also, although there is but one undivided person in God, yet in that person, the Father, the Son, and the holy Spirit can be discriminated, not in thought only, but they must be really discriminated and kept distinct.” (219-220)

“As Sabellius held to the simple unity of the person and nature of God, and yet supposed the Father, Son, and holy Spirit to differ really from each other, and not to be three names of the one God, acting in different ways; we are obliged to believe, that he considered the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as being three portions of the divine nature.” (220)

TERTULLIAN

Did not oppose Sabellianism.

Tertullian did not oppose Sabellianism because he wrote slightly before Sabellius. Tertullian’s enemy was the Monarchians.

Wikipedia states that Tertullian was “one of the chief critics of Sabellianism.” However, Sabellius (fl. ca. 215) wrote slightly later than Tertullian (ca. 160–225).10For example: “Shortly after Tertullian’s day, a theologian named Sabellius gave …” (Litfin) (Bryan M. Litfin, University of Virginia, Professor of Theology at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago) Consequently, Tertullian did not oppose Sabellius.

Was a Logos-theologian.

“Tertullian is often portrayed as a prescient figure who accurately anticipated the Nicene consensus about the Trinity.” But he did not teach the Trinity doctrine. He was a Logos theologian.

 For example:

“He also offered a formula that, more than a century later, would assume the status of doctrinal orthodoxy. God is … one substance cohering in three’.” (Litfin)

In Tertullian’s theology, “while the Son does share the substance of the Father, both are distinct Persons. This is precisely the trinitarian terminology that would eventually win the day.” (Litfin)

However, Tertullian was a Logos theologian:

Wrote that the Son is subordinate.

He believed that the Son and the Spirit are subordinate to the Father.

For example:

“The Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole, as He Himself acknowledges: “My Father is greater than I.” … Thus the Father is distinct from the Son, being greater than the Son.” (In Against Praxeas 9, Tertullian)

“He tended toward a profound theological subordination of the Son and the Spirit.” (Litfin)11“The Trinity, he believed, possessed a genuine, stepwise ranking according to each Person’s gradus, forma, and species. This is indeed a bold view of the architecture of the Trinity, one that skirts close to Arian subordinationism.” (Litfin) “The Son and Spirit are emissaries of the Father’s will—not ontologically inferior to him, yet ranked lower.” (Litfin)12“For Tertullian, the Son is second in order.” (Ayres, p. 73-74)

Believed that the Father was not always Father.

Consistent with Logos-theology, Tertullian taught that the Son or Logos was eternally within the being of the Father and only became distinct at a particular point for the purpose of creation, revelation, and redemption.

For example:

“The notion that the First Person was not essentially and eternally a Father … became anathema to later generations. Yet this was precisely what Tertullian believed, and for this reason his doctrine of temporal paternity and filiation was closer to the Arian point of view.” (Litfin) 13“But even more problematic from an orthodox point of view was Tertullian’s firm conviction that a relationship of fatherhood and sonship is not intrinsic to the Trinity.” (Litfin)

“For Tertullian, the Son … comes from the Father in connection with the Father’s decision to create, he also insists that the Son was always in the Father: the same two-stage conception …” (Ayres, p. 73-74)14“Tertullian … believed and taught that, though the Son or Logos was eternally within the being of the Father, he only became distinct … at a particular point for the purposes of creation, revelation and redemption” (Hanson, p. 872)

Was a far cry from fully Nicene.

He was not a Trinitarian. He was a typical second-century Logos theologian.

For example:

“Tertullian was not really a forward-thinking Nicene trinitarian born a century out of time, but a typical theologian of his day. … We should not be too quick to anoint Tertullian as the Latin foundation upon which the Greek edifice of Nicaea was going to be built.” (Litfin) “Historical theologians need to start admitting that Tertullian was a far cry from being fully Nicene.” (Litfin)

“When he (Tertullian) is examined against the background of his immediate predecessors, he falls into place as a typical second-century Logos theologian.” (Litfin)15“His ideas were essentially those of the Greek Logos theologians combined with insights from Bishop Irenaeus.” (Litfin)

Used the right pro-Nicene words.

Tertullian is regarded as important, not because of his theology, but for introducing certain words into the debate that later became ‘orthodox’, such as ‘trinity’, ‘substance’, and ‘person’.

For example:

“Why such enthusiasm for Tertullian’s trinitarianism? As the above selections demonstrate, the answer is essentially terminological. Historical theologians like to suggest that Tertullian’s use of the term trinitas, and his one substantia/three personae formula, make him a kind of proto-Nicene hero.” (Litfin)

Tertullian’s enemies were the Monarchians.

When Tertullian wrote in the early third century, the two main competing Christological views were Logos-theology and Monarchianism. Since Tertullian was a Logos theologian, his main enemies were the Monarchians, also known as Modalism.

For example:

“Tertullian’s targets here are Monarchian theologians for whom the Word does not exist as a distinct existing thing.” (Ayres, p. 74)

Ayres here uses the word “thing.” He cannot use the word ‘hypostasis’ because Tertullian did not teach that the Son is a distinct hypostasis. But, unlike the Monarchians, Tertullian proposed a distinction between the Father, Son, and Spirit within that one hypostasis.

“The treatise Against Praxeas is widely recognized as Tertullian’s greatest work on the Trinity. The view apparently taught by Praxeas has come to be called ‘modalism’, thanks to that designation appearing in Adolf von Harnack’s History of Dogma (1897). Tertullian simply calls his opponent a ‘monarchian’.” (Litfin)

Tertullian’s “efforts were directed against a view whose chief error was to conflate the Father and Son, meaning that, among other things, the Father suffered on the Cross—a view known as ‘patripassianism’, which Tertullian found abhorrent.” (Litfin)

Was a Sabellian.

Taught one hypostasis.

To combat the Monarchians, who criticized the Logos-theologians for dividing the being and unity of God into two Gods, Tertullian described God as three Persons in one substance. But Tertullian’s ‘Persons’ are not distinct Persons with distinct minds. He said that the Logos remained part of the substance of the Father and that the Father and Son remained one hypostasis; a single Mind. We see this also in his spiritual followers; Alexander, Athanasius, and the fourth-century Western church.

To show that Tertullian was a Sabellian, we must first show that he taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit are a single hypostasis (a single Person with a single mind).

The Monarchians criticized the Logos-theorists by saying that:

“The theology of the Apologists involves a division in the being and unity of God that is unacceptable.” (Ayres, p. 68) 16Logos-theology teaches two creators and two Gods (bi-theism), “inconsistent with monotheism (Tertullian Praxeas, ch. 3)” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Tertullian developed his theology in response to this criticism. He deviated from the standard Logos theory by describing God as three Persons in one substance:

“In Tertullian’s new trinitarian schema, God is characterized by a single divine ‘substance’ of rulership over the cosmos. Yet he is fundamentally arranged or disposed in three personae.” (Litfin)

But the question remains, is that a distinction within one hypostasis (Person), as Sabellius proposed? Or did he understand Father, Son, and Spirit to be three hypostases (three Persons with three distinct minds)? What did he mean by “personae?” For the following reasons, it is proposed that Tertullian’s God is one single hypostasis:

Part of the Father – Tertullian said, “For the Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole.” (Against Praxeas, Chapter 9) Therefore, the Son is part of the Father and not a distinct Person.

A Single Discrete EntityLitfin said, “The term substantia as Tertullian used it signified the existence of a single, discrete entity (here, the One God).” In other words, the entire substance is a “discrete entity;” not the individual parts. 

One hypostasis – Hanson explicitly states that the entire substance is one hypostasis: “The word in Greek translation of Tertullian’s una substantia would not be the word homoousios but mia hypostasis (one hypostasis).” (Hanson, p. 193)

Tertullian’s followers – We can also see the nature of Tertullian’s doctrine in the views of his spiritual children. The pro-Nicenes of the fourth century continued Tertullian’s understanding. Both Alexander and Athanasius described the Father, Son, and Spirit as a single hypostasis, with the Logos being part of the Father. (See here) And the manifesto compiled by the Western delegates at the Council of Serdica explicitly confesses one hypostasis.

Tertullian’s Persons are not real.

The Logos theologians said that the Logos separated from the Father to become a distinct hypostasis. Tertullian’s proposal was that the Logos became more clearly distinguished but remained part of the Father. Consequently, Father and Son remained a single hypostasis (one single Mind) and Tertullian’s ‘Persons are not ‘Persons’ in the sense of distinct Beings with distinct minds.:

“Tertullian believed … (that) God, while not ceasing to be what he always was, nonetheless extended himself or projected himself forward, so that the three Persons became more clearly distinguished. By means of these now-more-distinct Persons, the one God creates the world, rules over it, and enters into it for salvation.” (Litfin)

Ayres says that “Tertullian argues for the true existence of the Son as a distinct reality” (Ayres, p. 74-75) but not a distinct hypostasis. Sabellius would have said the same.

The Trinity doctrine follows Tertullian.

.

Both the traditional Trinity doctrine and Tertullian:

      • Assert three Persons in one substance.
      • Use the term ‘Person’ misleadingly because the ‘Persons’ are not distinct and they do not each have a mind. The Three are a single Being with a single mind. (See here for a discussion of the Trinity doctrine.)
      • Equate the ‘substance’ with the Being of God.

Athanasius taught one hypostasis. Basil of Caesarea was the first three-hypostasis pro-Nicene. He said that Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct Persons with the same type of substance and, therefore, equal divinity. As stated, the difficulty with that view is tritheism. For that reason, the traditional Trinity doctrine says that Father, Son, and Spirit are one Being. Essentially, that reverts to Athanasius’ one-hypostasis view but adds Basil’s ‘three Persons’ (three hypostases). However, since the hypostases are not real persons, that is misleading. The traditional Trinity doctrine is camouflaged Sabellianism!

Conclusion

.

It is valid to classify Tertullian as a Sabellian if we define Sabellianism as teaching that Father, Son, and Spirit are only one Person within whom the Father, Son, and Spirit are somehow distinguished.


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FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    “Dionysius of Alexandria had ‘rejected it because for him it implied that the Father and the Son had the same hypostasis, i.e. individual existence.” (Hanson, p. 193, quoting Simonetti)
  • 2
    “To defend themselves against charges of Sabellianism, the Nicenes developed not just the language of three prosopa, or ‘roles’ within the Trinity, but three hypostaseis, or distinct personalities. This approach proved problematic … for the Greek word hypostasis … meant ‘to stand under or among’, that is, ‘to be existent’. Such language suggested three distinct existences within the Godhead, and this sounded to nervous Christian ears like tritheism.”
  • 3
    Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its legacy, 2004, Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology
  • 4
    “In the words of Noetus: … the Father … Himself became His own Son.” “It was therefore God who was born from a virgin and who confessed himself to humankind as the Son of God. At the cross, God commended his spirit to himself, as he acted to be dead, but he was not dead in reality, although he raised himself on the 3rd day.” (Willem H. Oliver, Department of Christian Spirituality, Church History and Missiology, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa)
  • 5
    “The proof texts which he (Hilary) throws at Sabellianism (refusal to acknowledge the distinct existence of the Persons) are …” (Hanson, Bishop RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1988)
  • 6
    “Its (the Dedication Creed’s) chief bête noire (the thing that it particularly dislikes) is Sabellianism, the denial of a distinction between the three within the Godhead …”
  • 7
    “Basil suspected that Paulinus was at heart a Sabellian, believing in only one Person (hypostasis) in the Godhead. Paulinus’ association with the remaining followers of Marcellus and his continuing to favour the expression ‘one hypostasis’ … rendered him suspect.”
  • 8
    “The creed clearly and strongly argues against Sabellian emphases and those emphases were associated with Marcellan theology. We see these emphases, for instance, in the insistence that there are three names which ‘signify exactly the particular hypostasis and order and glory of each’.” (Ayres, p. 119)
  • 9
    For example: “This movement called themselves ‘Monarchians’, the Greek Fathers called them ‘Sabellians’, as Sabellius was the person who has put this doctrine in its philosophical form, supplying its metaphysical basis.” (Willem Oliver)
  • 10
    For example: “Shortly after Tertullian’s day, a theologian named Sabellius gave …” (Litfin) (Bryan M. Litfin, University of Virginia, Professor of Theology at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago)
  • 11
    “The Trinity, he believed, possessed a genuine, stepwise ranking according to each Person’s gradus, forma, and species. This is indeed a bold view of the architecture of the Trinity, one that skirts close to Arian subordinationism.” (Litfin)
  • 12
    “For Tertullian, the Son is second in order.” (Ayres, p. 73-74)
  • 13
    “But even more problematic from an orthodox point of view was Tertullian’s firm conviction that a relationship of fatherhood and sonship is not intrinsic to the Trinity.” (Litfin)
  • 14
    “Tertullian … believed and taught that, though the Son or Logos was eternally within the being of the Father, he only became distinct … at a particular point for the purposes of creation, revelation and redemption” (Hanson, p. 872)
  • 15
    “His ideas were essentially those of the Greek Logos theologians combined with insights from Bishop Irenaeus.” (Litfin)
  • 16
    Logos-theology teaches two creators and two Gods (bi-theism), “inconsistent with monotheism (Tertullian Praxeas, ch. 3)” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
  • 17
    Overview of the history, from the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, through the fourth-century Arian Controversy
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