Was Tertullian a Sabellian?

Summary

Tertullian’s enemies were the Monarchians. They believed that Father, Son, and Spirit are simply three names for the same Reality. In other words, the Father suffered on the Cross. They are also called Modalists.

Tertullian was not alone in his war against the Monarchians. From the late second century, non-Jewish Christianity was dominated by Logos-theology. It taught a two-stage existence for the Logos: He always existed inside God but became a separate Being – a distinct Reality – when God decided to create. Tertullian was one of those Logos-theologians.

Another name for Monarchianism is Sabellianism. Therefore, since Tertullian opposed Monarchianism, he was a critic of Sabellianism.

However, Sabellius himself was also not a Monarchian. He did not believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are simply three names for the same Reality. He maintained that, just like a man is one person, but has a body, a soul, and a spirit, so God is one Person, yet in that Person, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit can be discriminated.

Sabellianism, therefore, is a wider concept than just Monarchianism. It may be defined as that only one hypostasis – only one distinct existence – exists in the Godhead.

The question then is, if we use this wider definition of Sabellianism, was Tertullian a Sabellian? Did he teach one or more hypostases? 

Tertullian is often portrayed as a prescient figure who accurately anticipated the Nicene consensus about the Trinity. However, as a Logos theologist, he believed that the Son and the Spirit are subordinate to the Father and he did not believe that the Father was not always Father. Tertullian, therefore. was not really a forward-thinking Nicene trinitarian born a century out of time. He was a typical theologian of his day. His importance lies not in his theology, but in specific words which he introduced into the debate that later became ‘orthodox’, such as ‘trinity’, ‘substance’, and ‘person’.

But, to determine whether Tertullian was a Sabellian, we need to determine whether he taught one single hypostasis. Tertullian argues for the true existence of the Son as a distinct reality. But the question is, was that a distinction within one hypostasis, as in Sabellius’ theology?

Consistent with Logos-theology, Tertullian believed and taught that, though the Son or Logos was eternally within the being of the Father, he only became distinct at a particular point for the purposes of creation, revelation, and redemption. However, to overcome the criticism of the Monarchians, namely that Logos-theology teaches two creators and two Gods, Tertullian adjusted the standard Logos theory by saying that the Logos did not become distinct from the substance of the Father. Therefore, the Son always was part of the Father and always will remain part of the Father. So, it is possible to distinguish between the Father and the Son but, if the Son is part of the Father, then there is only one hypostasis.  It seems to me, therefore, as if it is valid to classify Tertullian as a Sabellian if one uses the wider definition of Sabellianism as that God is only one single hypostasis.

– END OF SUMMARY – 


Recently, I stated in an article that Tertullian was a Sabellian. One person objected and quoted a passage that states that Tertullian was “one of the chief critics of Sabellianism.” Consequently, I removed that statement from my article, but I also continued to read and think. My response to this issue is now as follows:

Tertullian’s Enemies were the Monarchians.

Tertullian did not oppose Sabellius as such. Tertullian (ca. 160–225) wrote slightly before Sabellius. For example:

“Shortly after Tertullian’s day, a theologian named Sabellius gave …” (Litfin) 1Bryan M. Litfin, University of Virginia, Professor of Theology at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago

Tertullian’s enemies were the Monarchian theologians. For example:

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

The following quote describes the theology of Tertullian’s enemies:

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

The Monarchians were the people who conflated Father and Son. They said that Father and Son are two names for the same Entity. For example:

“This ‘monarchian’ view was … suggesting the Father and Son were different expressions of the same being, without any personal distinctions between them. In other words, the Father is himself the Son, and therefore experiences the Son’s human frailties.” (Litfin)

“In the words of Noetus: … the Father … Himself became His own Son.” “It was therefore God who was born from a virgin and who confessed himself to humankind as the Son of God. At the cross, God commended his spirit to himself, as he acted to be dead, but he was not dead in reality, although he raised himself on the 3rd day.” (Willem Oliver2Willem H. Oliver, Department of Christian Spirituality, Church History and Missiology, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa

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

As already mentioned above:

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

Tertullian was a Logos-theologian.

Tertullian was not alone in his war against the Monarchians. As from the late second century, following Justin Martyr, non-Jewish Christianity was dominated by Logos-theology. It taught a two-stage existence for the Logos: He always existed inside God but became a separate Being – a distinct Reality – when God decided to create. (See – the Apologists.)

Consequently, in Tertullian’s day, in the early third century, the two main competing Christological views were Logos-theology (the Apologists) and Monarchianism. Monarchians objected that:

“The theology of the Apologists involves a division in the being and unity of God that is unacceptable.” (LA, 68)

Logos-theology teaches two creators and two Gods (bi-theism), “inconsistent with monotheism (Tertullian Praxeas, ch. 3)” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Tertullian was a Logos-theologian. For example, similar to the Logos-theologians:

“For Tertullian, the Son is second in order and comes from the Father in connection with the Father’s decision to create, he also insists that the Son was always in the Father: the same two-stage conception …” (LA, 73-74)

“Tertullian … believed and taught that, though the Son or Logos was eternally within the being of the Father, he only became distinct … at a particular point for the purposes of creation, revelation and redemption” (RH, 872)

Tertullian, therefore, was one of the Logos theologians:

“When he (Tertullian) is examined against the background of his immediate predecessors, he falls into place as a typical second-century Logos theologian.” (Litfin)

“His ideas were essentially those of the Greek Logos theologians combined with insights from Bishop Irenaeus.” (Litfin)

As a Logos-theologian, he was one of those who opposed Monarchianism:

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

Ayres here uses the word “thing.” That is not meant to be disrespectful. In the context of the Arian Controversy with its ambiguous terminology, “thing” is a useful word because it is devoid of content. But, perhaps a more neutral word such as ‘entity’ would have been better.

Sabellianism is Monarchianism.

So, Tertullian’s enemy was Monarchianism. The purpose of this section, however, is to show that Sabellianism is another name for Monarchianism. Both systems refuse to acknowledge the distinct existence of the Persons. Both claim that Father, Son, and Spirit are simply three names for the same Reality. For example:

Hanson defines Sabellianism as the “refusal to acknowledge the distinct existence of the Persons.” (RH, 844)

Referring to the Dedication creed, Hanson says: “Its chief bête noire [the thing that it particularly dislikes] is SABELLIANISM, the denial of a distinction between the three within the Godhead.” (RH, 287)

Ayres says similarly: “The [Dedication] creed clearly and strongly argues against SABELLIAN emphases and those emphases were associated with Marcellan theology. We see these emphases, for instance, in the insistence that there are three names which ‘signify exactly the particular hypostasis and order and glory of each’.” (LA, 119)

“Paulinus was a rival of Basil’s friend and ally Meletius. … Basil suspected that Paulinus was at heart a SABELLIAN, believing in only one Person (hypostasis) in the Godhead. Paulinus’ association with the remaining followers of Marcellus and his continuing to favour the expression ‘one hypostasis’ … rendered him suspect.” (RH, 801)

Basil of Caesarea “goes on to introduce another argument in favour of homoousios: ‘this expression (homoousios) also corrects the fault of SABELLIUS for it excludes identity of Person (hypostasis) … for nothing is consubstantial with itself. (RH, 694-5)

Sabellianism, therefore, is another name for Monarchianism. For example:

“This movement called themselves ‘Monarchians’, the Greek Fathers called them ‘Sabellians’, as Sabellius was the person who has put this doctrine in its philosophical form, supplying its metaphysical basis.” (Willem Oliver)

Since Tertullian opposed Monarchianism, and since Sabellianism is another name for Monarchianism, Tertullian was a critic of Sabellianism.

Sabellius was not a Monarchian.

Sabellius (fl. ca. 215) lived more or less at the same time in history as Tertullian (ca. 160–225).

Sabellianism was named after Sabellius. It is often stated that Sabellius, as in Monarchianism, taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are simply three names for the same Reality. However, if we believe Von Mosheim, Sabellius also opposed that concept.

None of Sabellius’ writings have survived. Everything we know about him comes from the writings of his opponents and we know that one’s enemies seldom give a fair reflection of one’s views. So, we are not quite sure what he taught. But Von Mosheim made a study and concluded that Sabellius, while maintaining that Father, Son, and Spirit are one Reality, still managed to distinguish between them. Sabellius, namely, argued that Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct forms or portions of the one divine Being. For example:

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

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

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

Sabellianism teaches one hypostasis.

So, if we are to define Sabellianism to include Sabellius’ theology, it would be a wider concept than simply Monarchianism.

Note that, in the descriptions of Sabellianism quoted above, it is twice defined as that only one hypostasis exists in the Godhead. Today, hypostasis is often translated as ‘Person’. But the following quote explains the meaning of hypostasis during the fourth century:

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

A hypostasis, therefore, is a distinct existence. Sabellius believed that “there is but one undivided person in God;” i.e., only one hypostasis.

To believe, like the Monarchians did, that Father = Son = Spirit, means that only one hypostasis exists. However, as the Sabellius example shows, it is possible to believe in one hypostasis but still to distinguish between Father, Son, and Spirit. To define Sabellianism as the belief in one single hypostasis, therefore, is a wider concept. The question then is, if we use this wider definition of Sabellianism, was Tertullian a Sabellian? Did he teach one or more hypostases? 

Was Tertullian a Sabellian?

Did he anticipate the Nicene Consensus?

“Tertullian is often portrayed as a prescient figure who accurately anticipated the Nicene consensus about the Trinity.” For example:

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

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

He was a Logos-theologian.

However, as shown above, Tertullian was a Logos-theologian. That has the following consequences:

The Son is Subordinate.

The Son and the Spirit are subordinate to the Father:

“He tended toward a profound theological subordination of the Son and the Spirit. … The Trinity, he believed, possessed a genuine, stepwise ranking according to each Person’s gradus, forma, and species. This is indeed a bold view of the architecture of the Trinity, one that skirts close to Arian subordinationism.” (Litfin)

“The Son and Spirit are emissaries of the Father’s will—not ontologically inferior to him, yet ranked lower.” (Litfin)

The Father was not always Father.

In Logos-theology and Tertullian, the Logos always existed inside God and was only begotten to become a distinct entity when He was begotten from the Father:

“But even more problematic from an orthodox point of view was Tertullian’s firm conviction that a relationship of fatherhood and sonship is not intrinsic to the Trinity.” (Litfin)

“The notion that the First Person was not essentially and eternally a Father … became anathema to later generations. Yet this was precisely what Tertullian believed, and for this reason his doctrine of temporal paternity and filiation was closer to the Arian point of view.” (Litfin)

Conclusion – a far cry from fully Nicene

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

“Historical theologians need to start admitting that Tertullian was a far cry from being fully Nicene.” (Litfin)

Tertullian used the right words.

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

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

He taught one single hypostasis.

But, to determine whether Tertullian was a Sabellian, we need to determine whether he taught one single hypostasis.

Tertullian and his fellow Logos theologians accused the Monarchians “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.” (LA, 68) In contrast:

“Tertullian argues for the true existence of the Son as a distinct reality.” (LA, 74-75).

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

But the question is, was that a distinction within one hypostasis, as in Sabellius’ theology? What is the nature of the personae in Tertullian?

The Son is part of the Father.

Consistent with Logos-theology, “Tertullian … believed and taught that, though the Son or Logos was eternally within the being of the Father, he only became distinct … at a particular point for the purposes of creation, revelation and redemption.” (RH, 872)

However, to overcome the criticism of the Monarchians, namely that Logos-theology teaches two creators and two Gods, “inconsistent with monotheism (Tertullian Praxeas, ch. 3),” Tertullian adjusted the standard Logos theory by saying that the Logos did not become distinct from the substance of the Father. He was formed from a portion of the Father’s substance but that portion remained part of the Father. So, there is only one substance and only one God, and that is the Father. For example:

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

The point is that the Son always was part of the Father and always will remain part of the Father. In the same way, the Holy Spirit is part of the Father. So, it is possible to distinguish between the Father and the Son but, if the Son is part of the Father, then there is only one hypostasis. For example:

“For the Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole.” (Against Praxeas, Chapter 9)

How Tertullian used the term substance, it means one hypostasis. For example:

“The term substantia as Tertullian used it signified the existence of a single, discrete entity (here, the One God).” (Litfin)

“The word in Greek translation of Tertullian’s una substantia would not be the word homoousios but mia hypostasis (one hypostasis).” (RH, 193)

It seems to me, therefore, as if it is valid to classify Tertullian as a Sabellian, if one uses the wider definition of Sabellianism as that God is only one single hypostasis.


Other Articles in this Series

Church Fathers

Arian Controversy

Arius

The Nicene Creed

Arianism

    • Athanasius invented Arianism. 18The 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? 19‘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 20In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
    • Homoi-ousian theology 21This 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? 22Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.

The Pro-Nicenes

Authors on the Arian Controversy

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

Trinity Doctrine – General

    • Elohim 27Elohim (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 28The 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.

All articles on this Site

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Bryan M. Litfin, University of Virginia, Professor of Theology at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago
  • 2
    Willem H. Oliver, Department of Christian Spirituality, Church History and Missiology, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa
  • 3
    The pre-Nicene fathers described the Son as “our God” but the Father as “the only true God,” implying that the Son is not “true” God. This confusion is caused by the translations.
  • 4
    Sabellius taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three portions of one single Being.
  • 5
    If we define Sabellianism as that only one hypostasis – only one distinct existence – exists in the Godhead, was Tertullian a Sabellian?
  • 6
    RPC Hanson states that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed but that is not entirely true. This article shows that subordination was indeed ‘orthodox’ at that time.
  • 7
    The term “Arianism” implies that Arius’ theology dominated the fourth-century church. But Arius was not regarded in his time as a significant writer. He left no school of disciples.
  • 8
    Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of this. This article explains why that is a false accusation.
  • 9
    There are significant differences between Origen and Arius.
  • 10
    Arius wrote that the Son was begotten timelessly by the Father before everything. But Arius also said that the Son did not always exist. Did Arius contradict himself?
  • 11
    New research has shown that Arius is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness, and originality.
  • 12
    The word theos, which is translated as “God” in John 1:1 is not equivalent to the modern English word “God.”
  • 13
    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.
  • 14
    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.
  • 15
    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.
  • 16
    The word is not found in the Bible or in any orthodox Christian confession before Nicaea.
  • 17
    The Trinity doctrine uses two terms that are basically synonyms to describe both what the Father, Son, and Spirit are individually and collectively.
  • 18
    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.
  • 19
    ‘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.
  • 20
    In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
  • 21
    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.
  • 22
    Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.
  • 23
    Eustathius and Marcellus played a major role in the formulation of the Creed but were soon deposed for Sabellianism.
  • 24
    Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of Biblical orthodoxy but this article argues that he was a Sabellian.
  • 25
    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.
  • 26
    A very informative lecture on the Arian Controversy by RPC Hanson, a famous fourth-century scholar
  • 27
    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?
  • 28
    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.

Did Arius corrupt theology with pagan philosophy?

Summary

Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of mixing philosophy with theology. This article shows that that is not true. There are two ways in which Greek philosophy could have influenced the debate in the fourth century:

Logos-theology

In Greek philosophy, the Logos was the Intermediary between God and creation. The Christian theologians of the second and third centuries (the Apologists) identified the Son of God as that Greek Logos. Consequently, Logos-theology was orthodoxy when the Arian Controversy began. It was accepted by most delegates to Nicaea. Therefore, Arius did not bring Logos-theology into the church. In fact, Arius was not comfortable with Logos-theology.

Classical Theism

Classical Theism includes principles such as that God is immaterial, unable to change or do evil, exists outside time, and incapable of suffering or feeling pain. These principles from Greek philosophy were accepted by Christian theologians in the centuries before Arius and all theologians of the fourth century accepted these principles. Theologians, generally accept these principles even to this day.

Arius was not a philosopher.

Our authors conclude:

Arius. “is not a philosopher, and it would be a mistake to accuse him of distorting theology to serve the ends of philosophical tidiness. On the contrary: the strictly philosophical issues are of small concern to Arius.” (RW, 230)

The Cappadocians were philosophers.

However, while Arius was traditionally accused of using philosophy, according to R.P.C. Hanson, it was the Cappadocian fathers who, in the years 360-380, developed the Trinity Doctrine (pro-Nicene theology) as a way to explain “how the Nicene creed should be understood” (LA, 6), who were deeply influenced by philosophy. “The Cappadocians … were all in a sense Christian Platonists.” (RH, 863) 

– END OF SUMMARY –

Arius is accused of philosophy.

Scholars have often accused Arius of combining Christian theology with philosophy. For example:

Up to the 1830s, “it had been customary to associate the Arian system primarily with Neoplatonism” (RW, 3).

Gwatkin (1900) described Arianism as the result of “irreverent philosophical speculation” and “almost as much a philosophy as a religion.” (RW, 9)

“Harnack’s … sees Aristotelian Rationalism as the background of Arius’ system.” (RW, 6)

Even modern writers sometimes say, for example: “The heretics typically took pre-existing Christian or Jewish tradition (and) combined it with certain philosophical rhetoric.” (Wedgeworth)

The purpose of this article is to determine whether Arius and/or his opponents were primarily philosophers.

Authors quoted

This article series is largely based on three books:

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

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

RW = Archbishop Rowan Williams
Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987

LA = Lewis Ayres
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004
Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

These are world-class scholars and Trinitarians who have made in-depth studies of the Arian Controversy of the fourth century and are regarded as specialists in this field.

Forms of Philosophy in Theology

There are two forms of philosophy that could have influenced theology, namely:

      • The general principles of Classical Theism and
      • The more specific application of such principles in the traditional Christian Logos-theology.

Logos-Theology

The Logos of Greek Philosophy

In Greek philosophy, the Logos was the Intermediary between God and creation.

In Greek philosophy:

The Supreme Being is immutable, abstract, and immaterial.

For that reason, He is unable to communicate directly with our world of change, decay, transitoriness, and matter.

Therefore, He brought forth the divine Logos or nous as His agent for creating the world and for revealing Himself in the world. (Hanson)

The Logos of the Apologists

The Apologists identified the Son as that Greek Logos.

These concepts from Greek philosophy were generally accepted in the intellectual world of the Roman Empire. The Christian Apologists (the pre-Nicene fathers), therefore, found it effective to identify the Biblical Son of God with the divine Logos of Greek philosophy; both before and after He ‘became a man’. (Hanson) For example:

“Ever since the work of Justin Martyr, Christian theologians had tended to use the identification of the pre-existent Son with some similar concept in contemporary Middle Platonism as a convenient philosophical device” (RH, 22-23).

The Apologists’ Logos-theology, therefore, was strongly based on Greek philosophy.

Logos-theology was orthodoxy.

Logos-theology was orthodoxy when the Arian Controversy began.

Logos-theology was the standard explanation of the Son when the Arian Controversy began. Both Arius and his opponents inherited and accepted Logos-theology. For example:

“Our mistake is to try to interpret him (Arius) in terms of a theology with which he was not at home, the Logos-theology he shares with his opponents.” (RW, 12)

Most delegates to Nicaea accepted Logos-theology. The West was poorly represented at Nicaea (Erickson) and “the great majority of the Eastern clergy (at Nicaea) … were simply concerned with maintaining the traditional Logos-theology.”1Frend, W.H.C.: The Rise of Christianity

Hanson uses the term “Logos-doctrine” for “the theological structure provided by the Apologists” and confirms that it was “the basic picture of God with which the great majority of those who were first involved in the Arian Controversy were familiar and which they accepted.” (Hanson’s article)

Arius did not bring Logos-theology into the church.

While writers have often accused Arius of attempting to bring pagan philosophy into the church, the above shows that pagan philosophy, in the form of Logos-theology, had entered the church during the centuries before Arius. It was something that both Arius and his enemies inherited and accepted. Arius did not attempt to bring it into the church.

Arius was not comfortable with Logos-theology.

On the contrary, as Williams stated, Arius was not “at home” with Logos-theology (RW, 12-13). It was not part of his language.

Classical Theism

What is Classical Theism?

“‘Classical theism’ is the name given to the model of God we find in Platonic, neo-Platonic, and Aristotelian philosophy.” (Springer) In this model, God is, amongst others:

      • “Unqualifiedly perfect,”
      • Immutable, meaning unable to change or do evil,
      • Impassible, meaning incapable of suffering or feeling pain,
      • An “absolute unity,” meaning that He does not consist of parts,
      • Fully self-sufficient, including that He exists without cause,
      • “Atemporal,” meaning that He exists outside time and is not subject to time,
      • Immaterial, meaning that He is free from all limitations of space and matter.

The pre-Nicene fathers accepted Classical Theism.

Arius inherited these concepts from the church fathers. For example:

“The Christian theologians of the second and third centuries” used “this particular type of Platonism … for explaining the relation of the Father to the Son.” (RH, 85-86)

Arius received “this type of Platonism … through Clement and Origen.” (RH, 87) (Clement and Origen are famous Alexandrians from the third century.)

Arius’ opponents accepted Classical Theism.

Arius did use such principles from Classical Theism in his arguments but if we judge Arius to be a philosopher for that reason, then all theologians in the fourth century were philosophers for they all accepted these principles. For example:

“For all the writers of the early Church, that freedom from time, matter, fate and chance expressed in the classical philosophical attribution of negative predicates to God (immateriality, immutability, and so on) was self-evidently the only way to make sense of scriptural data … Athanasius is at one with Arius here.” (RW, 111)

“All Greek-speaking writers in the fourth century were to a greater or lesser degree indebted to Greek philosophy.” (RH, 858-9)

All fourth-century theologians accepted Classical Theism.

“It would … be absurd to deny that discussion and dispute between 318 and 381 were conducted largely in terms of Greek philosophy.

The reason for this was … a realization that the deepest questions which face Christianity cannot be answered in purely biblical language, because the questions are about the meaning of biblical language itself.” (RH, xxi)

“The fourth-century Fathers thought almost wholly in the vocabulary and thought-forms of Greek philosophy.” (Hanson’s Article)

Hanson wrote:

“One can draw up a rough list of the general presuppositions derived from contemporary philosophy which were likely to occupy the mind of any Christian theologian in the fourth century:

        • reality meant ontological permanence so that God, the highest form of reality, is most immutable of all;
        • and he cannot in any way involve himself with pathos (process, change or flux or human experience)” (RH, 859)

He says:

“These did not necessarily cancel nor obscure Biblical ideas and assumptions in the minds of those who held them, but they certainly coloured and shaped their general outlook.” (RH, 859)

“Christians were capable of using Platonist terms without necessarily being Platonists.” (RH, 861-2)

Arius was not a philosopher.

For these reasons, in contrast to the accusations listed above, our authors conclude that Arius was not a philosopher:

“We misunderstand him completely … if we see him as primarily a self-conscious philosophical speculator. … Arius was by profession an interpreter of the Scriptures.” (RW, 107-108)

“He is not a philosopher, and it would be a mistake to accuse him of distorting theology to serve the ends of philosophical tidiness. On the contrary: the strictly philosophical issues are of small concern to Arius.” (RW, 230)

“It is not just to dismiss him as one wholly preoccupied with philosophy. … His chief source was necessarily not the ideas of Plato or Aristotle or Zeno, but the Bible.” (RH, 98)

The Cappadocians were philosophers.

While Arianism is often accused of corrupting theology with philosophy, the shoe is on the other foot. Pro-Nicene theology was developed in the period 360-380 by essentially the three Cappadocian fathers, and they were, according to R.P.C. Hanson, deeply influenced by philosophy:

No philosophers before the Cappadocians

“Before the advent of the Cappadocian theologians there are two clear examples only of Christian theologians being deeply influenced by Greek philosophy.” (RH, 862) However, they did not have much influence:

“One is … Marius Victorinus … [who] had no influence that can be ascertained on his contemporaries.” (RH, 862)

“The other … is the Neo-Arian theologians Aetius and Eunomius … [who were] repudiated by almost all other Christian parties, pro-Nicene or anti-Nicene.” (RH, 862-3)

The Cappadocians were Christian Platonists.

“The Cappadocians, however, present us with a rather different picture. … They were all in a sense Christian Platonists.” (RH, 863)

Basil of Caesarea

“The debt of Basil of Caesarea to philosophy is undeniable” (RH, 863). “He … uses arguments drawn from several different philosophical traditions … along with arguments drawn from Scripture and tradition” (RH, 864). “Basil knew something of the work of Plotinus and consciously employed both his ideas and his vocabulary when he thought them applicable.” (RH, 866)

Gregory of Nazianzus

“Gregory of Nazianzus … certainly was deeply influenced by Platonism” (RH, 867). “In Trinitarian contexts, Gregory parallels Plotinus’ nous (mind) to the Father, and the Logos to the Son, and his thought of God as simple as ‘first ousia’, ‘first nature’ (Physis), the ‘first cause’ … all resemble doctrines of Plotinus.” (RH, 867)

Gregory of Nyssa

“Gregory of Nyssa … was more concerned than they (the other two Cappadocians) to build a consistent philosophical account of Christianity. He had therefore much more need of philosophy than they. … It is impossible to deny that he was influenced by the work of Plotinus.” (RH, 868)

What type of philosophy did Arius prefer?

Both RPC Hanson and Rowan Williams discuss the type of philosophy which Arius preferred, but they come to different conclusions:

Hanson proposes that “Middle Platonist philosophy” was a strong “candidate for the philosophical source of Arius’ thought.” (RH, 85-86)

But Williams thinks that “Arius’ metaphysics and cosmology … is of a markedly different kind from … ‘Middle Platonism'” (RW, 230) and that Arius “stands close to Plotinus and his successors.” (RW, 230)

Parallels to Middle Platonism

The following are some of the parallels which Hanson sees:

In both Arius and Middle Platonism, God and things exist ‘beyond’ time. “Arius … held that the Son was produced before all ages but yet there was a time when he did not exist.” (RH, 86)

Both Arius and Middle Platonism have a “drastic subordination of the Son to the Father.” (RH, 87)

In philosophy, Arius is ahead of his time.

Williams, therefore, concludes as follows:

“In philosophy, he is ahead of his time; he … presses the logic of God’s transcendence and ineffability to a consistent conclusion.” (RW, 233)

“And here is a still stranger paradox – his apophaticism (knowledge of God) foreshadows the concerns of Nicene theology later in the fourth century, the insights of the Cappadocians, or even Augustine.” (RW, 233)


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FOOTNOTES

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    Frend, W.H.C.: The Rise of Christianity