Athanasius was justly deposed for violence against the Melitians.

Athanasius, for many people the hero of the fourth-century Arian Controversy, became bishop of Alexandria in 328. (RH, 246) However, seven years later, in 335, he was condemned for violence against the Melitians, deposed from being archbishop of Alexandria, and excommunicated. Traditionally, the church has accepted Athanasius’ explanation that these were false accusations formulated by heretics (Arians) to get rid of him as their theological opponent.

This article is a summary of chapter 9 of the book by the eminent historian RPC Hanson in which he shows that Athanasius was guilty of serious misconduct and violence. 1Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988 Hanson mentions several ancient sources but the most important evidence is ancient papyrus letters that were discovered during the 20th century in the sands of Egypt.

Due to discoveries of ancient documents and significant progress, the scholarship of the past hundred years has concluded that the traditional account of the fourth-century Arian Controversy presents history from the perspective of the winner and is a complete travesty. Hanson’s book reflects the revised account of that Controversy.

The Melitians were a Christian group in Egypt founded about 306 during the Great Persecution, by Bishop Melitius of Lycopolis. During the persecution, they taught that Christians should not hide from that persecution and they objected to the terms laid down by Peter, the bishop of Alexandria, for the readmission of “lapsed” Christians, i.e., those who had denied the faith under persecution.

The trouble began several years after 328.

Athanasius claimed that the Melitians began stirring as soon as Alexander died in 328. However, Hanson shows that it was only several years later that the Melitians moved against Athanasius:

“Though Athanasius declared that as soon as bishop Alexander died the Melitians began stirring up trouble again, we have no evidence of such trouble, even in Athanasius’ own Festal Letters, till the year 332.” (RH, 249) 2RH = Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988

“It is perhaps impossible to reconstruct the exact order of events, but the evidence seems to point clearly to the conclusion that several years must have elapsed between Athanasius succeeding to the see of Alexandria and the first moves of the Melitians against him.” (RH, 251)

The ‘Arians’ did not cause the trouble.

Athanasius referred to his enemies as ‘Arians’, implying that they were followers of Arius, which they were not. (See – Athanasius invented Arianism.) Hanson refers to the so-called Arians as ‘Eusebians’ because their real leaders were Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicomedia.

Athanasius blamed the ‘Arians’ for the trouble. He said that the Melitians and the ‘Arians’ were in cahoots from the beginning and that the ‘Arians’ formulated these false accusations. However, Hanson says that that partnership was only formed after the Melitians had already unsuccessfully appealed to the emperor about how Athanasius treated them:

“Athanasius in his account of the incidents leading up to Constantine’s letter puts the blame on the Arians and gives the impression that by this time the Melitians and the Arians had formed a deliberate alliance against him. But it is very likely that this alliance had not yet been formed.” (RH, 250)

“Epiphanius goes on to say that the leaders of the Melitians were, after their discomfiture [their failed appeal to the emperor], near the court … and were at that point taken in hand by Eusebius of Nicomedia who promised that he would obtain for them an audience with the Emperor if they would receive and champion Arius, and, on their agreeing, the fusion of the causes of Arius and of Melitius took place.” (RH, 250)

Hanson says that “in this year (333) or in the next the Melitians found an ally in the Eusebians.” (RH, 258) This was, therefore, five years after Athanasius became bishop of Alexandria.

“The Melitians, harried unmercifully by Athanasius and unable at first to obtain help from the Emperor, turned to the only help available to them, that of the Eusebians.” (RH, 255)

What did the Melitians accuse Athanasius of?

The Melitians accused Athanasius of causing divisions and disturbances, preventing people from entering church buildings, murders, imprisonments, beatings, wounding, and burning of churches:

“Why should the Melitians have been discontented with Athanasius? If half of what Sozomenus said was alleged by them was true, they had every reason for hostility to Athanasius.” (RH, 251) Sozomenus mentions “accusation made by Melitians (not Arians) to the Emperor against Athanasius, charging him with causing divisions and disturbances in his diocese, with preventing people from entering the church (i.e. the church building) and (charges made particularly by ‘John’, that is John Arcaph the Melitian leader, and the clergy associated with him) of murders and imprisonments and undeserved beatings and woundings and burning of churches.” (RH, 249-250)

“Epiphanius at one point admits that Athanasius had used fairly strong measures.” (RH, 249)

Were the allegations true?

“Was this more than wild hearsay? Had they any genuine grievances? We might dismiss the accusations against Athanasius retailed by Sozomenus and Epiphanius as the product of sheer partisanship and not worthy of credence, as, for instance, Gwatkin does, and many a church historian before and after him who was willing to take Athanasius’ protestations of his innocence at their face value.” (RH, 251)

“But, accidentally or providentially, we have available to us contemporary evidence which we cannot possibly dismiss as invention or exaggeration or propaganda, to decide this point.” (RH, 251-2) “This evidence consists of papyrus letters discovered by British archaeologists and published by H. I. Bell in his book Jews and Christians in Egypt. … They plunge us into the middle of the events which concerned Athanasius between the years 331 and 335.” (RH, 252) “It is a factual account written for people under persecution, a private missive not intended for publication nor propaganda, and therefore all the more damning.” (RH, 252) “It describes … the barbarous treatment which he (Athanasius) is meanwhile dealing out to those Melitians who have opposed him.” (RH, 252) The following is an example from those letters:

“Isaac bishop of Leto came to Heraiscus (evidently an eminent Melitian bishop) in Alexandria, wanting to have supper with the bishop in the camp (near Alexandria, called Nicopolis). Some drunken adherents of Athanasius arrived at the 9th hour (3 p.m.), with soldiers. They shut the gates of the camp and began searching for Isaac and Heraiscus. Some soldiers in the camp had hidden them and when the Athanasian party could not find them, they attacked some Melitians whom they met coming into the camp and maltreated them and threw them out of Nicopolis. They then arrested five Melitians who were in a hostel imprisoned them for a time and then threw them too out of Nicopolis, and beat the keeper of the hostel for putting up Melitian monks. And they shut up somebody called Ammon in the camp because he welcomed Melitians into his house. So Callistus and his friends are afraid to visit Heraiscus in the camp.” (RH, 252-3)

For the church in general, Athanasius is the hero of the fourth century. While scholars in previous centuries have described Athanasius as “’the tenderness which could not but be loved’, the gentleness which made him … so patient and equitable as a peacemaker, the ‘majestic moral unity’ of his conduct and the freedom from anything ignoble in it,” Hanson says, “we find Athanasius behaving like an employer of thugs hired to intimidate his enemies.” (RH 254)

Not all accusations were true. One of the accusations was “that Athanasius had either murdered a bishop called Arsenius or … practised sorcery by using the severed hand of his corpse.” (RH, 256) However, “the agents of Athanasius discovered that Arsenius was alive and in possession of both his hands … and had him identified’ before Paul, bishop of Tyre.” (RH, 257). However, these accusations were not all false. Bell is cautious in his conclusions:

“The evidence of papyrus 1914, Bell remarks, makes it certain that the charges of violent and unscrupulous behaviour made against Athanasius at Caesarea in 334, at Tyre in 335, at Serdica in 343 and many times thereafter were not baseless.” (RH 254)

“’It was always suspicious’, says Bell, that Athanasius, while dwelling on the charges … which he could refute, says nothing of those which accused him of violence and oppression towards the Melitians. The reason is now clear: these charges were in part true … We must conclude that there was a germ of truth in the picture given of Athanasius by his enemies as a self-willed, unruly man apt to treat even the Imperial authority with contempt.’” (RH 254)

But Hanson concludes:

“The charge against him at Tyre was the unscrupulous use of strong-arm methods against his opponents, and that charge as a general accusation … was abundantly justified.” (RH, 255)

Was this part of the Arian Controversy?

Athanasius claimed that ‘Arians’ drummed up false charges to neutralize him as their theological opponent. However, “it seems clear also that Athanasius’ first efforts at gangsterism in his diocese had nothing to do with difference of opinion on the subject of the Arian Controversy, but were directed against the Melitians. He had not agreed with the arrangement made about the Melitians at Nicaea. Once he was in the saddle, he determined to suppress them with a strong hand, and was not at all scrupulous about the methods he used.” (RH, 254)

Council of Tyre (AD 335)

“In this year (333) or in the next the Melitians found an ally in the Eusebians. … But it was not till the next year, 334, that the fruit of this alliance appeared. A Council was called to Caesarea in Palestine … to examine the conduct, not the doctrine, of Athanasius.” (RH, 258) “Athanasius was summoned to it, but refused to attend.” (RH, 259)

“Next year, however, in the summer of 335, the Council of Caesarea was re-constituted or re-summoned in Tyre. And on this occasion Constantine showed openly his support of this move by appointing an imperial official, the consular Dionysius, to oversee it. It was not a vast assemblage, there were only about sixty bishops present, but it held a wide representation. … Athanasius was unwillingly compelled to attend by threats from Constantine. … He also knew that they had a strong case” (RH, 259)

“Athanasius had arrived (July 11th) accompanied by 30 Egyptian bishops who were his supporters, and who behaved during the session of Council in a disturbing and threatening manner. His encouragement over several years to his supporters to behave like hooligans was now recoiling on his own head.” (RH, 260)

“After some time the Council decided to send a Commission (to Egypt) … to collect evidence on the spot.” (RH, 260) “The result was that the Council of Tyre condemned Athanasius on a number of charges, deposed him from being archbishop of Alexandria, excommunicated him, and forbade him to return to his former see. Precisely what the charges upon which he was condemned is not altogether clear. … They had not convicted Athanasius of murdering Arsenius nor of any doctrinal error at all.” (RH, 261) “His conviction had nothing to do with doctrinal issues.” (RH, 255)

“It must have been clear to everybody that he had been for some time using indefensible violence in the administration of his see, even though it was not easy to bring him to book on exact charges.” (RH, 262)

“We can now see why, for at least twenty years after 335, no Eastern bishops would communicate with Athanasius. He had been justly convicted of disgraceful behaviour in his see.” (RH, 254-5)

How did Athanasius defend himself?

Athanasius did not defend himself by showing that the accusations were false, but by personal attacks on the people who accused him:

The alliance between the Eusebians and Melitians “gave Athanasius an opportunity of clouding the issue by ascribing all protest against his outrageous conduct to bias towards Arianism, an opportunity of which he strove earnestly to take advantage. But … Athanasius’ offence had nothing to do with doctrine.” (RH, 255)

“Athanasius never actually denies that Ischyras was assaulted. ‘He confines his defence to pointing out that Ischyras was not in a strict sense a presbyter at all; he came from the sect of Colluthus and Colluthus had never been consecrated bishop. … In short, his opponents cried ‘Violence and sacrilege’ and Athanasius replies ‘No: only violence’.” (RH, 256-7)

“He switches the attention from what was actually done to the status and history of Ischyras himself. He completely ignores the serious and well-attested evidence of his own continual use of violence.” (RH, 262)

“He represents the Council of Tyre, which was a properly constituted and entirely respectable gathering of churchmen, some of whom had been confessors in the Great Persecution, as a gang of disreputable conspirators, and brands all his opponents as favourers of heresy.” (RH, 262)

Since history is written by the winner, most of the available information about Athanasius and the Melitians is in the writing of Athanasius himself. “We must bear in mind that our main informant (Athanasius himself) is determined to conceal his violent behaviour by alleging that all was invented by people who were dangerous heretics, and that most of the rest of the sources, and most writers since, have taken this plea at its face value.” (RH, 255)

Conclusions

At the time of his conflict with the Melitians, Athanasius had not yet begun to defend the Nicene Creed. Another article shows that the Nicene Creed and the term homoousios fell out of the Controversy soon after Nicaea and were only brought back in the mid-350s when Athanasius began to use it to defend against emperor Constantius. At the time of the Melitian conflict, the Eusebians had no theological axe to grind with Athanasius. 

“We can see by virtue of historical hindsight that Athanasius in following this policy set an evil example to his successors of the use of force and intrigue.” (RH, 255)

This verdict was a crushing blow for Athanasius, one from which it took him a long time to recover; and perhaps only he could have recovered from it.

For a further discussion, see – Estimates of Athanasius’ Character.


OTHER ARTICLES

Origin of the Trinity Doctrine

CHURCH FATHERS

ARIAN CONTROVERSY

ARIUS

THE NICENE CREED

ARIANISM

    • The Dedication Creed 22This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
    • Athanasius invented Arianism. 23The 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? 24‘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 25In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
    • Homoi-ousian theology 26This 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? 27Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.

THE PRO-NICENES

EMPEROR THEODOSIUS

AUTHORS 

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

LATER

TRINITY DOCTRINE – GENERAL

    • Elohim 37Elohim (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 38The 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
    Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988
  • 2
    RH = Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988
  • 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
    The Controversy gave us the Trinity doctrine but the traditional account of the Controversy is a complete traversy.
  • 7
    RPC Hanson states that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed but that is not entirely true. This article shows that subordination was indeed ‘orthodox’ at that time.
  • 8
    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.
  • 9
    Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of this. This article explains why that is a false accusation.
  • 10
    There are significant differences between Origen and Arius.
  • 11
    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?
  • 12
    New research has shown that Arius is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness, and originality.
  • 13
    The word theos, which is translated as “God” in John 1:1 is not equivalent to the modern English word “God.”
  • 14
    Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.
  • 15
    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.
  • 16
    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.
  • 17
    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
  • 18
    The Nicene Creed describes the Son as homoousios (same substance) as the Father. But how was the term used before, during, and after Nicaea?
  • 19
    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.
  • 20
    The word is not found in the Bible or in any orthodox Christian confession before Nicaea.
  • 21
    The Creed seems to say that the Father and Son are the same hupostasis. This is Sabellianism.
  • 22
    This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
  • 23
    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.
  • 24
    ‘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.
  • 25
    In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
  • 26
    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.
  • 27
    Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.
  • 28
    Eustathius and Marcellus played a major role in the formulation of the Creed but were soon deposed for Sabellianism.
  • 29
    Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of Biblical orthodoxy but this article argues that he was a Sabellian.
  • 30
    Many believe that these accusations were false but RPC Hanson shows that Athanasius was justly condemned.
  • 31
    In the Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit are one substance or Being. This article shows that Basil taught three distinct substances.
  • 32
    This council reveals the state of Western theology at that time.
  • 33
    It was a regional synod of Antioch and attended only by bishops who were friendly to the bishop of Antioch. But the emperor hijacked it.
  • 34
    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.
  • 35
    A very informative lecture on the Arian Controversy by RPC Hanson, a famous fourth-century scholar
  • 36
    In the fifth century, Arian ‘barbarians’ dominated the Western Empire, but they tolerated and even respected the Trinitarian Roman Church.
  • 37
    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?
  • 38
    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.

The Sabellians of the Fourth Century

OVERVIEW

This article discusses the views of the three main Sabellian theologians of the fourth century:

      • Eustathius of Antioch,
      • Marcellus of Ancyra, and
      • Photinus of Sirmium.

The first two attended Nicaea, joined forces with Alexander, vigorously opposed the Arians, and had a significant role in formulating the Nicene Creed. However, both were deposed for Sabellianism within about ten years after Nicaea. Photinus lived a little later and was deposed in 351.

After the Eastern Church deposed Marcellus, the Western Church vindicated him. Athanasius, who was found guilty of violence and tyranny by the Eastern Church, was also declared orthodox and innocent of crimes by the Western Church.

Alexander and Athanasius were similar enough in their theology to the Sabellians to join forces with them, both at Nicaea and during the decades after Nicaea.

In Sabellian theology, the Logos is not a distinct Person and does not have a real distinct existence. The Logos or Son is God’s only Logos and is “in” the Father. Consequently, Father and Son are one single hypostasis (one single Person with one single mind). The Son and Holy Spirit are simply attributes or activities of the one God. The Logos is merely a word spoken by God or God’s thought. This has some important implications:

(1) Christ did not exist before He was born from Mary.

(2) Christ is a complete human being with a human soul (mind). In other words, it was a mere human being who suffered, died, was resurrected, and now sits at God’s right hand. The Logos or Son did not suffer or die.

(3) The eternal Logos dwells in the man Jesus as an Energy, an Activity, Inspiration, and Moral agreement.

INTRODUCTION

Authors quoted:

In this article, the main authors quoted are:

Hanson RPC,
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381 (1988(

Williams, Rowan,
Arius: Heresy and Tradition (2002/1987)

Ayres, Lewis,
Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (2004)

Based on ancient documents that have become available during the previous century1“In the first few decades of the present (20th) century … seminally important work was … done in the sorting-out of the chronology of the controversy, and in the isolation of a hard core of reliable primary documents.” (Williams, p. 11-12) and based on significant progress in research,2Ayres wrote in 2004: “A vast amount of scholarship over the past thirty years has offered revisionist accounts of themes and figures from the fourth century” (Ayres, p. 2). modern scholarship has concluded that the traditional account of the fourth-century Arian Controversy is history written from the winner’s perspective and a complete travesty. These books reflect the revised account of that Controversy.

The three prominent Sabellians

In chapter 8 of his book, RPC Hanson discusses the three Sabellian bishops who were prominent during the fourth-century Arian Controversy. They are:

    • Eustathius of Antioch
    • Marcellus of Ancyra, and
    • Photinus of Sirmium. (Sirmium was one of the four main centers of the Roman Empire. For example, Emperor Constans made “Sirmium his Head Quarters.” (Hanson, p. 316))

Ayres, in chapter 3.1 of his book, discusses Marcellus as one of the four “trajectories” in the church when the Arian Controversy began. The current article summarizes these two sections in these two books.

The theologies of the three Sabellians were similar. Marcellus learned his theology from Eustathius and Photinus was a devoted disciple of Marcellus. They continued the tradition of the second-century Monarchians.3“Marcellus learnt the main lines of his theology from Eustathius.” (Hanson, p. 234) Their theologies only differ “in minor respects” (Hanson, p. 216) and “stem from the same theological tradition.” (Hanson, p. 234)4“Photinus, bishop of Sirmium … came from Ancyra, was a devoted disciple of Marcellus of Ancyra.” (Hanson, p. 235-6)

OVERVIEW OF HISTORY

The Nicene Council

Both Eustathius and Marcellus attended Nicaea. There, they joined forces with Alexander5“Marcellus, Eustathius and Alexander were able to make common cause against the Eusebians.” (Ayres, p. 69)6“Eustathius and Marcellus … certainly met at Nicaea and no doubt were there able to join forces with Alexander of Alexandria and Ossius.” (Hanson, p. 234) (Ossius presided over the meeting as the emperor’s agent.) and were some of the most vocal opponents of Arius.7Eustathius “was clearly a vigorous opponent of Arius and Arianism.” (Hanson, p. 208)

Through their alliance with Alexander, and since the emperor had taken Alexander’s part in his dispute with Arius,8“Tension among Eusebian bishops was caused by knowledge that Constantine had taken Alexander’s part and by events at the council of Antioch only a few months before.” (Ayres, p. 89) Eustathius and Marcellus were able to influence the wording of the Nicene Creed:

“Marcellus … played a major role at Nicaea.” (Ayres, p. 62)

“If we are to take the creed N at its face value, the theology of Eustathius and Marcellus was the theology which triumphed at Nicaea. That creed admits the possibility of only one ousia and one hypostasis. This was the hallmark of the theology of these two men.” (Hanson, p. 235)

In the previous quote, note that “one ousia and one hypostasis … was the hallmark of the theology of these two men.” This means that Father and Son are one single Person with one single mind, meaning that the Son does not have a distinct existence.

After Nicaea

Deposed for Sabellianism

Both Eustatius and Marcellus were deposed within about ten years after Nicaea. Photinus lived a little later and was deposed in 351.9Eustathius was “deposed from the see of Antioch by a council and exiled by Constantine.” (Hanson, p. 209) Ayres says that this was “soon after Nicaea, probably in 327.” (Ayres, p. 68-69). Hanson says it “cannot have been later than 331.” (Hanson, p. 209)10“About ten years after the Council of Nicaea he (Marcellus) was deposed by a council held in Constantinople.” (Hanson, p. 217)11Photinus was “censured” and “condemned” in 344, 345, and 347, “but was only ousted and exiled finally … in 351.” (Hanson, p. 236) Eustathius and Marcellus were deposed for Sabellianism:

“It seems most likely that Eustathius was primarily deposed for the heresy of Sabellianism.” (Hanson, p. 211)

“Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian.” (Hanson, p. ix)12Marcellus of Ancyra “cannot be acquitted of Sabellianism.” (Hanson Lecture) “Marcellus was deposed for Sabellian leanings.” (Hanson, p. 228)

Marcellus’ book “was accused of favouring the ideas of Paul of Samosata.” (Hanson, p. 217). (This Paul was a prominent third-century Sabellian who had been condemned at a council in Antioch in 268.)

Eusebius regards Marcellus’ “doctrine as outright Sabellianism, that is a failure to distinguish Father and Son.” (Hanson, p. 224)

In the last quote, note again that Sabellianism is defined as “a failure to distinguish Father and Son.” They are regarded as one single Person. 

Vindicated in the West

While Marcellus was deposed in the East (Constantinople), he was vindicated as orthodox in the West (Rome):

“Julius (bishop of Rome), in the year 341, summoned a council to Rome, which vindicated the orthodoxy of Marcellus, as well as that of Athanasius.” (Hanson, p. 218)

Note that the West also vindicated Athanasius. His theology was similar to the Sabellians:

“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.” (Ayres, p. 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.“ (Ayres, p. 69)

The similarity of their theologies is also shown by their alliance:

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

“Athanasius … continued to defend the orthodoxy of Marcellus.” (Hanson, p. 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.” (Hanson, p. 220)

Another article provides further evidence of the Sabellian leaning of the theologies of Alexander and Athanasius. For example, “Studer’s account here follows the increasingly prominent scholarly position that Athanasius’ theology offers a strongly unitarian Trinitarian theology whose account of personal differentiation is underdeveloped.” (Ayres, p. 238) The question is, why did the West vindicate these two Sabellians?

One possible answer is that the West did not understand the issues. At first, the West was not involved in the Arian Controversy. For example, the delegates at Nicaea were “drawn entirely from the East. almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19) Hanson concludes that the East failed to properly understand the issues:

“Pope Julius and his associates who declared Marcellus’ doctrine to be orthodox can have never met the works of Origen nor known anything of the theology of the Eastern Church.” (Hanson, p. 231)

An alternative answer is that the West was also Sabellian. Hanson comments: “In this medley of opinions it is quite unrealistic to indulge in the business of labelling some as ‘heretical’ and some as ‘orthodox’.” (Hanson, p. 216)

THEOLOGY

The Son is in the Father.

These Sabellians described the Logos, not only as in “God,” but as in “the Father.” With respect to Marcellus, for example:

“The Word … eternally is in the Father.” (Ayres, p. 63) “Before the world existed the Word was in the Father.” (Ayres, p. 63) “The Word was in the Father as a power.” (Ayres, p. 63)

“To describe the relationship between Word and God he (Marcellus) deploys the analogy of a human person and her reason.” In other words, the Word eternally exists “intrinsic to” the Father’s existence. (Ayres, p. 62)

Father, Son, and Spirit are one Hypostasis.

Hanson defines Sabellianism above as “a failure to distinguish Father and Son.” (Hanson, p. 224) Since the Logos is “in” the Father, it follows that God is only One Hypostasis (Reality). In later Trinitarian language, these Sabellians believed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one single ‘Person’. The Son and Holy Spirit are simply attributes or activities of the one God. For example:

Hanson refers to Eustathius’ “insistence that there is only one distinct reality (hypostasis) in the Godhead, and his confusion about distinguishing Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” (Hanson, p. 216) The “’one hypostasis’ of the Godhead was to become the slogan and rallying-cry of the continuing Eustathians.” (Hanson, p. 213)

“One point about Marcellus which is unequivocally clear is that he believed that God constituted only one hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 229-230) “The point’ which was to them (Marcellus’ followers) crucial, that there was one hypostasis with one ousia.” (Hanson, p. 223-4) “Marcellus … is particularly incensed at the use of hypostasis or ousia in the plural.” (Ayres, p. 63)

The Logos has no real existence.

It follows that the Logos does not have a real distinct existence. For that reason, Ayres also refers to them as Unitarians (Ayres, p. 431). For example:

“’The Logos for Eustathius,’ says Loofs, … ‘has or is no proper hypostasis’.” (Hanson, p. 215) In other words, the Logos does not have an existence distinct from the Father.

Eusebius of Caesarea “accuses Marcellus of Ancyra of rejecting the hypostasis i.e. the distinct individuality, of the Son.” (Hanson, p. 53) 13Bishop RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987 For Marcellus, the Logos was only a temporary word spoken by God: “The Son was a mere word … immanent [inherent] during the time that the Father was silent, but active in fashioning the creation, just as one’s speech is inactive when we are silent, but active when we speak.” (Hanson, p. 224)

For Photinus, “The Logos … was simply a mode of manifestation of the Father, a power or aspect of him not in any serious sense distinct from him.” (Hanson, p. 237) “Like Marcellus, he favoured the analogy of a man and his thought for the relation of the Father to the Son.” (Hanson, p. 237)

They claimed they are not Sabellians.

Marcellus insists “that he is not a Sabellian.” (Ayres, p. 63) Technically, this may be true. In Sabellianism, the Father and Son are parts of the one God. See – Sabellius. In contrast, as stated, for Marcellus, the Son is “in the Father.” (Ayres, p. 63, 64) Nevertheless, in both views, the Father and Son are one single hypostasis (Reality) and the Son is not a distinct reality. This article, therefore, uses the term “Sabellian” for any view in which God is only one hypostasis.

WHO IS JESUS?

The discussion above pertains only to the nature of God apart from the incarnation. But the more important issue is what ‘one hypostasis’ theology means for the question of who Jesus Christ is or was. That, after all, was the big question in the Arian Controversy.

Christ had no pre-existence.

All three theologians made a distinction between the Logos and the Son:

      • The Logos is eternal and an attribute of God.
      • The Son came into existence when He was born from Mary.

For example, for Marcellus, “the only-begotten Son” was equal to “Logos + assumed flesh.” (Hanson, p. 227) We usually say that the Son was “begotten” in eternity past. But, for Marcellus, the term “begotten” refers to the event, 2000 years ago, when the Logos assumed flesh. Before that event, the “Son” did not exist:

“It was not the Logos that was begotten, but the Son.” (Hanson, p. 224)

“The Logos was only called Son or Jesus or Christ after the Incarnation.” (Hanson, p. 225)

Eustathius, similarly, “distinguishes between ‘the Logos … and ‘Christ’s man’ who was raised from the dead and is exalted and glorified.” (Hanson, p. 213) “It is the man who sits at God’s right hand.” (Hanson, p. 214)

And Photinus wrote: “The Son did not come into existence until the Incarnation and was defined as the whole human being who was born of Mary; Christ had no pre-existence.” (Hanson, p. 237)

Christ has a Human Mind.

The fourth-century Eusebians (the so-called Arians) said that Christ does not have a human soul: God gave Him a body without a human soul or mind so that the Logos may function as Christ’s soul and mind. In that way, the Logos suffered all the pain and insult of the Cross. The Eusebians described the Son as God (divine) but with a lower form of divinity that is able to suffer and even die. They, therefore, were able to say that God suffered and God died. 

In contrast, the Sabellians said that the Son has a human soul (mind) and that that soul absorbed all human experiences. The underlying principle is that the Logos is God and God cannot suffer. For example:

Eustathius wrote:

“The man whom the Logos assumed was a complete man: ‘he consists of soul and body.” (Hanson, p. 213)

“The human being absorbs all the human experiences attributed to Christ in the Gospels, leaving the divine element untouched.” (Hanson, p. 215)

“This soul was able to endure the human experiences which it was unfitting for the divine element in Christ to endure.” (Hanson, p. 212)

So, in this theology, it was only a human person that suffered and died.

With respect to Marcellus, Hanson at first says:

“There is no reason to conclude that Marcellus saw the necessity of postulating a human psyche in the flesh assumed by the Logos at the Incarnation.” (Hanson, p. 229)

But he later mentions factors that: “might cause us to consider again the conjecture discussed above, that Marcellus did in his middle or later period admit a human soul to Christ.” (Hanson, p. 238)

Photinus “certainly taught that the human body of Jesus had a human mind or soul.” (Hanson, p. 236)

Christ is Limited.

Since Christ has a human mind, He is limited. For example:

Eustathius said: “God hid the knowledge of the day of the Second Coming from the man, but the divine element in Jesus Christ was omniscient.” (Hanson, p. 213-4)

And Photinus argued: “Christ was only Son of God in the sense that all Christians are.” (Hanson, p. 238)

The Logos dwells as an Energy in Jesus.

So, the question is, in what sense was God in this man? For the Sabellians, the eternal Logos dwells in the man Jesus as an Energy or an Activity or as Inspiration and Moral agreement:

“It would seem that Eustathius … holds that the Logos is … dwelling as an ‘ENERGY’ in Jesus.” (Hanson, p. 215)

For Marcellus, with respect to “the Incarnation … the Godhead would appear to be extended simply by ACTIVITY so that in all likelihood the Monad is genuinely indivisible.” (Hanson, p. 228)

“Everybody in the ancient world accuses Photinus of reducing Christ to a mere man adopted by God, i.e. the union between Logos and man was one of INSPIRATION AND MORAL AGREEMENT” (Hanson, p. 237)

There is only one Logos.

Marcellus described the Logos as “the proper and true Logos of God.” (Hanson, p. 230). He said: There is not “another Logos and another Wisdom and Power.” (Hanson, p. 230) This is an attack aimed at the Eusebians who said that Jesus Christ is the Logos of God but God also has His own Logos. The Sabellians, therefore, found it ‘surprising’ that the Eusebians spoke of two Logoi. For the Sabellians, God only has one Logos, and that Logos works in Jesus as an activity.

Eventually, Jesus will be no more.

If the Logos is only an activity of God in the man Jesus, then that activity might end when the goal is accomplished. “Marcellus set a limit to this period of Christ’s reign. At the end of this reign the flesh of Christ was to be abandoned, the body deserted, and the Logos would return to God from whom he had (before the creation of the world) come forth.” (Hanson, p. 226-7) “He is most concerned to uphold God’s rule as complete and unmediated, and thus the kingdom of Christ must end.” (Ayres, p. 66)

Marcellus seemed to have later changed his view on this. “He played down his more eccentric earlier ideas” (Hanson, p. 238)

THE HOLY SPIRIT

An activity of or an energy from God

In the same way, the Holy Spirit is merely an activity of or an energy from God. For Marcellus: “The Spirit remains inseparably in God, but goes forth as activity from the Father and the Logos.” (Hanson, p. 229) “The same language of going forth in energy is used for the Spirit as was used in the case of the Son.” (Ayres, p. 67)

ANTECEDENTS

The Monarchians

“Scholarship has also consistently linked Marcellus with ‘Monarchian’ theologies. Monarchian theologians in the second and third centuries appear to have focused on the unity of God centred in the person of the Father. 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. … Some scholarship has seen this theological tendency as a strong and persistent theological voice, both in Rome and in Asia through the third century, with Marcellus as the last prominent Monarchian voice.” (Ayres, p. 69)

CONCLUSIONS

The perhaps surprising conclusion is that the Arian (Eusebian) view of Jesus Christ is infinitely higher than the Sabellian view.

Another perhaps surprising conclusion is that the Socianians or so-called Biblical Unitarians are the continuation of the ancient Sabellians.


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    “In the first few decades of the present (20th) century … seminally important work was … done in the sorting-out of the chronology of the controversy, and in the isolation of a hard core of reliable primary documents.” (Williams, p. 11-12)
  • 2
    Ayres wrote in 2004: “A vast amount of scholarship over the past thirty years has offered revisionist accounts of themes and figures from the fourth century” (Ayres, p. 2).
  • 3
    “Marcellus learnt the main lines of his theology from Eustathius.” (Hanson, p. 234) Their theologies only differ “in minor respects” (Hanson, p. 216) and “stem from the same theological tradition.” (Hanson, p. 234)
  • 4
    “Photinus, bishop of Sirmium … came from Ancyra, was a devoted disciple of Marcellus of Ancyra.” (Hanson, p. 235-6)
  • 5
    “Marcellus, Eustathius and Alexander were able to make common cause against the Eusebians.” (Ayres, p. 69)
  • 6
    “Eustathius and Marcellus … certainly met at Nicaea and no doubt were there able to join forces with Alexander of Alexandria and Ossius.” (Hanson, p. 234) (Ossius presided over the meeting as the emperor’s agent.)
  • 7
    Eustathius “was clearly a vigorous opponent of Arius and Arianism.” (Hanson, p. 208)
  • 8
    “Tension among Eusebian bishops was caused by knowledge that Constantine had taken Alexander’s part and by events at the council of Antioch only a few months before.” (Ayres, p. 89)
  • 9
    Eustathius was “deposed from the see of Antioch by a council and exiled by Constantine.” (Hanson, p. 209) Ayres says that this was “soon after Nicaea, probably in 327.” (Ayres, p. 68-69). Hanson says it “cannot have been later than 331.” (Hanson, p. 209)
  • 10
    “About ten years after the Council of Nicaea he (Marcellus) was deposed by a council held in Constantinople.” (Hanson, p. 217)
  • 11
    Photinus was “censured” and “condemned” in 344, 345, and 347, “but was only ousted and exiled finally … in 351.” (Hanson, p. 236)
  • 12
    Marcellus of Ancyra “cannot be acquitted of Sabellianism.” (Hanson Lecture)
  • 13
    Bishop RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987
  • 14
    Overview of the history, from the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, through the fourth-century Arian Controversy
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