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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