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

Basil of Caesarea taught three substances (three Beings).

Summary

Basil was elected bishop of Caesarea in 370. In some accounts, he was the architect of the pro-Nicene triumph.

In the traditional Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit are one undivided substance (one Being and one single Centre of Consciousness). In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, Basil of Caesarea taught something similar to the Trinity doctrine. However, the purpose of this article is to show that Basil taught three distinct substances (three Beings and three distinct Centres of Consciousness).

All previous theologians, even Athanasius, assumed “a certain ontological subordination.” Basil was the first to propose that “the Father’s sharing of his being involves the generation of one identical in substance and power.” (Ayres, p. 207) However, for the following reasons, Basil believed that Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct substances:

1. Basil did not begin his career as a pro-Nicene. He began as an ‘Arian’; specifically, a Homoi-ousian. As such, he believed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same, meaning two distinct substances.

2. Even after he had moved away from the ‘similar substance’ formula of the Homoi-ousians, and taught that the Son’s substance is the same as the Father’s, Basil continued to say that the Son’s substance is “like” the Father’s, implying two distinct substances.

3. While a Trinitarian may understand homoousios as saying that two things are really one, Basil understood homoousios as saying that two things are really distinct but “like unalterably according to ousia.” This also shows that he believed in two distinct substances.

4. Basil argued, just like three people are three instances of humanity, that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three instances of divinity. This is perhaps the clearest indication that Basil had two distinct substances in mind.

5. Basil speaks of the Father as choosing to work through the Son—not needing to, and the Son chooses to work through the Spirit, but does not need to. This means that Father and Son have distinct wills, which means that they must be distinct substances.

6. “Basil showed himself reluctant to apply homoousios to the Holy Spirit. … Homoousios was a word which applied particularly to the relation of the Son to the Father.” (Hanson, p. 698) If the Spirit is not homoousios with the Father and Son, then the Three cannot be one substance.

7. “Basil consistently presents the Father as the source of the Trinitarian persons and of the essence that the three share.” (Ayres, p. 206) If the Father is the only Being who exists without cause, it is difficult to imagine that Father, Son, and Spirit could be one substance.

8. Basil maintained a certain order among the Persons, described the Spirit as third in order, dignity, and even rank, and never referred to the Holy Spirit as ‘God’. Again, this argues against Them being one single substance.

– END OF SUMMARY –


Introduction

Authors

This article is largely based on the following recent writings of world-class specialists in the fourth-century Arian Controversy:

Hanson, Bishop RPC
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God –

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1988

Ayres, Lewis
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

Basil’s Importance

The three ‘Cappadocian theologians’, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa “were together decisively influential in bringing about the final form of the doctrine of the Trinity.” (Hanson, p. 676) “In some accounts Basil is the architect of the pro-Nicene triumph.” (Ayres, p. 187)

Basil’s History

“Basil was born around 330” and “was extremely well educated in rhetoric and philosophy” (Ayres, p. 187-188) “In 370 … Basil was elected bishop.” (Ayres, p. 188)

Terminology

Terminology is a huge hurdle in discussing the fourth-century Arian Controversy. During that Controversy, for most people, the Greek words ousia (substance) and hypostasis (distinct individual) were synonyms.

      • So, when the Eusebians said that Father, Son, and Spirit are three substances, they are also three hypostases.
      • And when the Sabellians said they are only one substance, they are also only one hypostasis. That is also how Athanasius used these words. (See – Athanasius

However. the Trinity doctrine causes confusion by using ousia and hypostases for contrasting concepts. In the Greek language of the fourth century, it says that God is one ousia existing as three hypostases. Similarly, in modern language, where Being and Person are synonyms, it says that God is one Being existing in three Persons.

So, the challenge is to find terminology for discussing the fourth-century controversy that will be clear to modern readers:

This article avoids the term hypostasis because, during the fourth century, it was used as a synonym for ousia but, in the Trinity doctrine, one ousia is three hypostases. 

This article focuses on the term “substance” because that term had more or less the same meaning in the fourth century as it has today. One substance is then one Being.

The question in this article is how many substances (Beings) the Father, Son, and Spirit are, and also, if they are more than one, whether their substances are the same.

Purpose

In the traditional Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit are one undivided substance (one Being). This may be compared to the various views held during the fourth century:

Sabellianism was still a strong force during the fourth century. Sabellians said that Father and Son are one single substance and that the Son emerges from the Father merely as an energy. For example:

“Marcellus of Ancyra uses the language of ἐνέργεια (energy) to explain how it is that the Son can come forth and work without God being extended materially.” (Ayres, p. 197) 

The Eusebians (the anti-Nicenes, usually but inappropriately called ‘Arians’) believed that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three unequal substances (Beings).

Pro-Nicene theology is more complex:

Emperor Constantine proposed and insisted on the inclusion of the term homoousios (literally, same substance) but he also asked the delegates not to interpret the term literally. He glossed the term with some vague meaning, based on which the majority accepted the term homoousios and the Creed. So, for the majority, the term was pretty meaningless.

How the minority, who supported the term homoousios, understood that term, is a different story altogether. See – Alexander.

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, Basil of Caesarea taught something similar to the Trinity doctrine, in which Father, Son, and Spirit are one single undivided substance (Being). However, the purpose of this article is to show that Basil taught three distinct substances (Beings).

The Same Substance Exactly

But before we discuss the number of substances, it is important to show that, what makes Basil different, is that he believed that Father Son, and Spirit have exactly the same type of substance:

Lewis Ayres says that “in all the previous discussions (before Basil of Caesarea) of the term (homoousios) … a certain ontological subordination is at least implied.” (Ayres, p. 206) For the Eusebians, that is obviously true. But it was even true for Athanasius; the great defender of Nicaea. For example:

“Athanasius’ pointed lack of willingness to” say that the Father is homoousios with the Son.

And Athanasius always described the Word “as proper to the Father, as the Father’s own wisdom,” namely, as being part of the Father, never the other way round. (Ayres, p. 206)

In contrast, “in Basil, the Father’s sharing of his being involves the generation of one identical in substance and power.” (Ayres, p. 207) Basil “says, of the Three Persons of the Trinity ‘their nature is the same and their Godhead one’.” (Hanson, p. 688)

This fact is often stated with phrases that sound as if he believed in only one single undivided substance (Being). For example:

He taught a “distinction between a unitary shared nature at one level, and the personal distinctions of Father, Son, and Spirit at another.” (Ayres, p. 190)

“Community of essence is the core of his teaching.” (Ayres, p. 194)

But the next section shows that he believed in three distinct substances:

Three Distinct Substances

The following shows that Basil did not yet understand Father, Son, and Spirit as one single undivided Being (substance), as in the Trinity doctrine, but taught that Father and Son are two distinct substances (Beings):

1. Homoi-ousian

Basil did not begin his career as a pro-Nicene. He began as an ‘Arian’; specifically, a Homoi-ousian. For example:

“Basil emerged from a background, not of the strongly pro-Nicene theology of Athanasius, but of the school of Basil of Ancyra.” (Hanson, p. 693) “He came from what might be called an ‘Homoiousian’ background.” (Hanson, p. 699)

“We may even think of Basil’s major dogmatic work, the Contra Eunomium, as the logical conclusion of one strand of Homoiousian theology.” (Ayres, p. 189)

“Through the 360s and especially in the 370s we see him gradually … (traveling) his road towards pro-Nicene theology.” (Ayres, p. 189)

As a Homoi-ousian, he believed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same, meaning two distinct substances. For example:

“Throughout Contra Eunomium 1–2 Basil continues to speak of essential ‘likeness’.” (Ayres, p. 204)

“None of the Cappadocian theologians derived their theological tradition directly from him (Athanasius). Their intellectual pedigree stemmed from the school of Basil of Ancyra. … The doctrine of ‘like in respect of ousia’ was one which they could accept, or at least take as a startingpoint, and which caused them no uneasiness.” (Hanson, p. 678)

2. Continued ‘like’ language

But, even after he had moved away from the ‘similar substance’ formula of the Homoi-ousians, and taught that the Son’s substance is the same as the Father’s, Basil continued to say that the Son’s substance is “like” the Father’s, implying two distinct substances:

Basil insists that “the Son, like the Father, is simple and uncompound.” (Ayres, p. 204)

He described the relationship between Father and Son as “invariably like according to essence” (Ayres, p. 189) or “like without a difference” (Ayres, p. 190).

“Basil still seems to view the relationship between Father and Son in a fundamentally Homoiousian way.” (Ayres, p. 190)

3. Homoousios – Meaning

Two Alternative Meanings

Basil’s explanation of the term homoousios in the Nicene Creed also shows that he believed in two distinct substances. Literally, the term homoousios means ‘same substance’, from homós (same) and ousía (substance). However, there are two ways in which the term has been explained over history:

In the Trinitarian understanding, it means ‘one substance’, saying that Father and Son are one single substance. That is called the numeric understanding because there is only one substance.

Alternatively, it means two different substances with the same qualities. This is also called the generic interpretation.

Two Substances

The following shows that Basil understood “homoousios” in a generic sense of two Beings (two distinct substances) with the same type of substance, rather than as saying that Father and Son are one single Being (one single substance):

“Basil … gives his own interpretation of it (homoousios).” He said: “Whatever ousia is hypothetically taken to be the Father’s, that certainly must also be taken to be the Son’s.” He proposes “like unalterably according to ousia.” (Hanson, p. 696-7)

“He says that in his own view ‘like in respect of ousia’ the slogan of the party of Basil of Ancyra) was an acceptable formula, provided that the word ‘unalterably’ was added to it, for then it would be equivalent to homoousios.” (Hanson, p. 694)

“Basil himself prefers homoousios.” “Basil has moved away from but has not completely repudiated his origins.” (Hanson, p. 694)

Hanson himself is not fully convinced of this conclusion but he mentions that Adolf von Harnack, a famous scholar in the fourth-century Controversy, “argued that Basil and all the Cappadocians interpreted homoousios only in a ‘generic’ sense … that unity of substance was turned into equality of substance.” (Hanson, p. 696)

Keeps the Persons Apart.

“Later, when he (Basil) had accepted homoousios as a proper term to apply to the Son, he still argued that it was preferable because it actually excluded identity of hypostases. This … forms the strongest argument for Harnack’s hypothesis.” (Hanson, p. 697)

“This expression (homoousios) also corrects the fault of Sabellius for … (it keeps) … the Persons (prosopon) intact, for nothing is consubstantial with itself.” (Hanson, p. 694-5)

These two quotes say the same thing. They use hypostasis and Person as synonyms. The Sabellians taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit are only one single Person. But Basil argued that homoousios, by saying that the Persons are of the same substance, keeps the Persons apart. The point is that, while a Trinitarian may understand homoousios as saying that two things are really one, Basil understood homoousios as saying that two distinct things have the same substances. For that reason, Hanson says that this “forms the strongest argument for Harnack’s hypothesis.

Brothers are not homoousios

Basil said that “when both the cause and that which has its existence from the cause are of the same existence, they are said to be homoousios.” However, “things which are brothers to one another cannot be homoousios.” (Ayres, p. 205). Why Basil said this is not quite clear, but what is clear is that ‘fathers’ and ‘sons’ are not one single substance. Therefore Ayres concludes:

Basil “argues—in a manner unique in his corpus—that homoousios is appropriately used in a ‘genetic’ sense.” (Ayres, p. 206)

4. Like humans

Basil argued, just like three people are three instances of humanity, that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three instances of divinity. This is perhaps the clearest indication that Basil had two distinct substances in mind. For example:

Basil “discusses the idea that the distinction between the Godhead and the Persons is that between an abstract essence, such as humanity, and its concrete manifestations, such as man.” (Hanson, p. 698)

Basil assumed “that human persons are particularly appropriate examples” of “the nature of an individual divine person.” (Ayres, p. 207-8)

“Basil discusses the individuation of Peter and Paul as analogous to the individuation of Father and Son.” (Ayres, p. 207)

Basil explains that “that relation which the general has to the particular, such a relation has the ousia to the hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 692)

“Elsewhere he can compare the relation of ousia to hypostasis to that of ‘living being’ to a particular man and apply this distinction directly to the three Persons of the Trinity.” This suggests “that the three are each particular examples of a ‘generic’ Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 692)

“The instances … in which Basil compared the relation of hypostasis to ousia in the Godhead to that of particular to general, or of a man to ‘living beings’ … (is one of) the strongest argument for Harnack’s hypothesis.” (Hanson, p. 697)

5. Distinct Wills

“Basil … speaks of the Father choosing to work through the Son—not needing to. Similarly, the Son chooses to work through the Spirit, but does not need to.” (Ayres, p. 208)

This means that Father and Son have distinct wills, which means that they must be distinct substances.

6. The Holy Spirit is not Homoousios.

For Basil, the Spirit has the same substance as the Father:

“Basil deploys two tactics: The first is to argue that the Spirit participates in all the activities of Father and Son.” (Ayres, p. 216) The second, building on the first, is that “common activity demonstrates a common essence.” (Ayres, p. 216)

But, for some strange reason, Basil did not regard the Holy Spirit as homoousios:

“Basil showed himself reluctant to apply homoousios to the Holy Spirit. … Homoousios was a word which applied particularly to the relation of the Son to the Father.” (Hanson, p. 698)

“The On the Holy Spirit of 375 is notoriously reticent about using homoousios of the Spirit.” (Ayres, p. 211)

“Basil goes on to defend the application of homoousios to the Son … he never applies this term to the Holy Spirit.” (Hanson, p. 694)

As mentioned above, Basil said that ‘brothers’ are not homoousios. (LA 205). If the Spirit is not homoousios with the Father and Son, then the Three cannot be one substance.

7. The Father is the Source.

Basil was sensitive to the accusation, since he teaches that Father and Son have exactly the same substance, that he could be accused of tritheism; three Ultimate Principles; three Beings who exist without cause and gave existence to all else:

“To speak of Father and Son as simply having the same ousia would be … to present him as logically another God.” (Ayres, p. 190)

Basil did not defend by saying that Father, Son, and Spirit really are one, as one would expect if he was teaching the Trinity doctrine, but by identifying the Father alone as the ultimate Source:

“Let no one think that I am saying that there are “three ultimate principles … There is one ultimate principle of all existent things, creating through the Son and perfecting in the Spirit.” (Hanson, p. 691)

“Basil consistently presents the Father as the source of the Trinitarian persons and of the essence that the three share.” (Ayres, p. 206)

He explains John 14:28 (‘the Father is greater than I’) by saying that “the Father is greater only by being the cause, not at the level of substance.” (Ayres, p. 206)

“It is the Father’s characteristic ‘to be Father and to exist as derived from no cause’.” (Hanson, p. 689)

If the Father is the only Being who exists without cause, it is difficult to imagine that Father, Son, and Spirit could be one substance.

8. The Priority of the Father

Although Basil described Father, Son, and Spirit as the same in substance, he maintained a certain order among the Persons:

“Father and Son are, indeed, the same in essence, but distinct at another level thus preserving a certain order among the persons.” (Ayres, p. 195)

“The Spirit is third in order and dignity.” (Ayres, p. 216)

“The Spirit is third in order and even rank.” (Hanson, p. 689)

He preserved the priority of the Father:

“By the 370s Basil had evolved a formula stating that the activities of God all come from the Father, are worked in the Son, and are completed in the Spirit. In this formula Basil seems … to find a way to speak of the unity of divine action while still preserving the priority of the Father.” (Ayres, p. 196)

He never referred to the Holy Spirit as ‘God’:

“While the Spirit is third in order and dignity, the Spirit is not third in an order of essences. Basil insists that the Spirit is to be accorded equal worship and honour with the Father and the Son, even if he is not willing to say directly that the Spirit is God in the same terms as Father and Son.” (Ayres, p. 216)

“Its treatment of the Holy Spirit as uncreated and endowed with every exalted epithet except homoousion and theos is eminently reminiscent of Basil.” (Hanson, p. 687)

“Perhaps the major contribution of pro-Nicene pneumatology is the insistence that the work of the Spirit is inseparable from Father and Son … but on the subject of the Spirit’s place in the Godhead as such little progress is made.” (Ayres, p. 217)

Contemplation

“For Basil, arguing that Father and Son are ‘unlike’ flies in the face of biblical material such as Col 1:15, Heb 1:3, and Phil 2:6.” As Basil read these texts, they “all … point to a community of essence between the generated and the one who has generated.” (Ayres, p. 194)

But how did Basil know that these verses point to “a community of essence.” Basil answers: “By ἐπίνοια [epinoia] we know that there is a unity of ousia between Father and Son.” (Ayres, p. 194)

Ayres explains epinoia as:

    • “Concepts developed by the human mind,” (Ayres, p. 191-2) as
    • “A process of reflection and abstraction” (Ayres, p. 192), and as
    • “An intellectual contemplation of the reality of things” (Ayres, p. 193)

For Basil, we can only understand the Father, Son, and Spirit through “contemplation:”

Contemplation “throws away the letter and turns to the Lord.” (Ayres, p. 219)

“The contemplation of the Spirit necessary to understand the Spirit is itself at the core of Christian life.” (Ayres, p. 219) 

That sort of contemplation is only available to “Christians who have attained ‘purity of heart’.” (Ayres, p. 219)

But Eunomius, Basil’s rival against whom he wrote three books, dismissed ἐπίνοια as a way of gaining knowledge of God, as unreliable (Ayres, p. 191-2) and condemned it. (Ayres, p. 193) He argued: “If we know God only according to ἐπίνοια, then our knowledge is insignificant and our faith useless.” (Ayres, p. 195)

Basil’s Philosophy

Basil obtained his distinction between common diety and the differentiation of persons not from the Bible but from pagan philosophy.

Basil argued that “particularities, being added onto the substance … distinguish what is common by means of individual characteristics … For instance, deity is common, fatherhood and sonship are individualities.” (Ayres, p. 198) Ayres identifies “three basic influences on Basil’s account:”

“The first is Stoic terminologies about the relationship between general and individuated existence. … Stoics posited a universal … substrate (or ousia). … At the level of concrete existence individuals are also qualified by further qualities.” (Ayres, p. 199-200)

Secondly, “Neoplatonic-Aristotelian conceptions are used to interpret a basically Stoic scheme.” (Ayres, p. 202)

Thirdly, “we cannot, however, treat Basil’s distinction against a purely philosophical background. … It seems most likely that Basil’s evolution of the distinction occurred within a context where some such distinction was already clearly in the air.” (Ayres, p. 202) 

Hanson concludes that “the Cappadocians all relied on the aid of contemporary philosophy more than … Athanasius and Hilary.” (Hanson, p. 677) “A small work (by Basil) … at the end of Book V of Adversus Eunomium … is full of echoes of passages in Plotinus’ Enneads.” (Hanson, p. 687)


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