Prosopon and Hypostasis in the Arian Controversy

Overview

Originally, the term prosopon (pl. prosopa) meant ‘face’. A hypostasis is a ‘distinct existence’; something that exists distinctly from other things.

In the second century, after the church became Gentile-dominated, Logos-theologians claimed that the Logos is a hypostasis, meaning that He exists distinctly from the Father. The Monarchians opposed them, claiming that Father and Son are two faces (prosopa, understood as two roles) of the same hypostasis.

In the third century, Sabellius refined Monarchianism but still taught that the Trinity are three faces (prosopa) of the same hypostasis. Origen opposed him, arguing that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases (three distinct existences).

This theological war continued in the fourth century. While Alexander, Athanasius, the Sabellians, and other pro-Nicenes defended the ‘one hypostasis’ view of God, the ‘Arians’ defended Origen’s ‘three hypostases’ view.

Later in the fourth century, the pro-Nicenes divided between:

      • ‘One hypostasis’ theologians (Athanasius, Damasus of Rome, Peter of Alexandria, Paulinus of Antioch, etc.), and
      • ‘Three hypostasis’ theologians (the Cappadocians, Meletius of Antioch, etc.)

Basil of Caesarea, the first of the Cappadocian Father, rejected the idea that the Father, Son, and Spirit are merely three prosopa (faces) of one hypostasis. He insisted they are three hypostases.  

 Purpose

Some church fathers described the Father, Son, and Spirit as three hypostases (plural of hypostasis) but others as three prosōpa (plural of prosōpon). Both terms are sometimes translated as ‘Persons’ but this article shows that these two terms had very different meanings that are critical for understanding the Controversy.

Original meaning

Originally, the term prosōpon meant “face” or “mask”.

Almost all instances in the New Testament are translated as ‘face’ or as figurative applications of ‘face’, such as ‘appearance’ or ‘presence’. For example, “they spat in His face” (Mt 26:67). (see here)

Pre-Nicene Fathers

Sabellius

Sabellius described the Father, Son, and Spirit as three prosōpa (three roles or faces) of the same one hypostasis.1“The mirage of persons (prosōpa) without hypostaseis is not denied even by Sabellius, who said that the same God, though he is one subject, is transformed according to the need of each occasion and is thus spoken of now as Father, now as Son, and now as Holy Spirit.” (Basil of Caesarea, Epistle 210.5.36–41)

Sabellius, the father of Sabellianism, and Origen wrote at the beginning of the third century. During that century, church councils denounced Sabellianism as heresy and Origen’s view dominanted. He declared that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three faces of three hypostases. See here for a discussion of Sabellius’ theology, here for Origen’s, and here for fourth-century Sabellians.

Tertullian

Tertullian, writing in Latin, like Sabellius, described the Father, Son, and Spirit as three personae (Latin for prosōpa). However, for him, the Son is part of the Father. Consequently, his personae are not ‘Persons’ in the normal sense of that English term but rather two faces of the same Person.

In Tertullian’s schema, Father and Son are a single hypostasis or ‘Person’. In the following quote, Bryan Litfin revealingly explains what Tertullian believed but uses the misleading term ‘Persons’ for the Father and Son:

“Tertullian believed … (that) God,
while not ceasing to be what he always was,
nonetheless extended himself or projected himself forward,
so that the three Persons (‘roles’ might be better)
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)

In other words, the Son did not become a distinct Person. He always was and still is a part of “the one God,” the Father, but became “more clearly distinguished.” There are not two Beings or two minds; it is still “the one God” who creates and saves “by means of” the Son, as a man would work with his hands. For example, Tertullian wrote:

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

Therefore, in Tertullian’s materialistic schema, the English term ‘Persons’, which implies a distinct mind, is not appropriate for the Son.

Fourth Century

Basil of Caesarea

Basil understood prosōpon to mean ‘roles’. He rejected that term and argued that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases.

Basil of Caesarea, the first of the Cappadocian fathers, said it is not enough to confess the Father, Son, and Spirit as three prosōpa because that merely indicates three roles. He argued that even Sabellius, who taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are a single Person (hypostasis), claimed they are three prosōpa. It is also necessary to say that there are three hypostases. For example, Basil wrote:

“It is not enough to count differences in the Persons (prosōpa). It is necessary also to confess that each Person (prosōpon) exists in a true hypostasis. The mirage of persons (prosōpa) without hypostaseis is not denied even by Sabellius, who said that the same God, though he is one subject, is transformed according to the need of each occasion and is thus spoken of now as Father, now as Son, and now as Holy Spirit.” (Basil of Caesarea, Epistle 210.5.36–41)

Hanson2Hanson, Bishop RPC The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987 and Ayres3Lewis Ayres Nicaea and its legacy, 2004 commented:

Basil “can readily use prosopon in the traditional exegetical sense of ‘character‘ or ‘part‘ (almost as in a play) which God or Christ or others were supposed to have assumed.” (Hanson, p. 692)

“Basil treats hypostasis and πρσωπον (prosopon, the face) as synonymous, but he also sees πρσωπον as less appropriate, too close to Sabellianism. Hypostasis indicates a reality of existence that he feels πρσωπον may not.” (Ayres, p. 210)

Jerome

Jerome objected strongly to Basil’s three hypostases and said that Father, Son, and Spirit are three prosopa of the same single hypostasis.

Jerome, well-known as the father of the Latin Bible, the Vulgate, wrote in Latin more or less at the same time as Basil. He confirmed the important distinction between hypostasis and prosōpon (persona in Latin). Strongly objecting to Basil’s view of three hypostases, he explained the Trinity as ‘one substance’, meaning one hypostasis (see here), but three personae (Latin for the Greek prosōpon):

He described “the tri-unity as ‘one substance, three persons’ (una substantia, tres personae).”

Jerome represents the view that dominated the Western church at the time, which was similar to Sabellius’. On the other hand, Basil of Caesarea represents the Eastern pro-Nicene view.

Meletian Schism

Referring to the Meletian Schism, in which Basil and Jerome were on opposite sides, Philip Schaff wrote that, while prosōpon stresses one-ness (unity), hypostasis stresses three-ness (triplicity):

“The doctrinal difference between the Meletians [including Basil] and the old Nicenes [i.e., Athanasius, Damasus of Rome, Jerome, etc.] consisted chiefly in this: that the latter acknowledged three hypostases in the divine trinity, the former only three prosōpa; the one laying the stress on the triplicity of the divine essence, the other on its unity.” (Philip Schaff)

See here for a discussion of the Meletian Schism.

Modern Scholars

Bryan M. Litfin’s research explains a prosōpon as a ‘role’ and a hypostasis as a ‘distinct existence:

“To defend themselves against charges of Sabellianism, the Nicenes developed not just the language of three prosōpa, 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)

Hanson defines hypostasis as an ‘individual existence’ and prosōpon as a ‘role’.

“Dionysius of Alexandria [in the middle of the third century] had ‘rejected it (homoousios) because for him it implied that the Father and the Son had the same hypostasis, i.e. individual existence.” (Hanson, p. 193, quoting Simonetti)

Prosōpon is sometimes translated as “role” (Hanson, p. 649)

Conclusions

In the fourth-century Arian Controversy, a hypostasis is a Person; a Being who exists distinctly from other Beings. Prosōpa, on the other hand, are roles. A single person may have more than one role. The Sabellians claimed that Father, Son, and Spirit are three prosōpa of a single Person. Therefore, prosōpa are not ‘Persons’, as we today understand the term in normal English.

When a Greek author describes the Father, Son, and Spirit as three hypostases, they are “three distinct existences;” three distinct Beings with three distinct minds. The term hypostasis, therefore, should be translated as ‘Person’.

Trinity Doctrine

The Trinity doctrine teaches that Father, Son, and Spirit are three roles of a single Person. 

The traditional Trinity doctrine is sometimes stated as one Being existing in three hypostases or Persons. However, that is misleading. The ‘Persons’ in the Trinity doctrine share a single mind. Therefore, they are not hypostases or ‘Persons’ as we understand the term in normal English. The ‘Persons’ in the Trinity doctrine are mere modes of existing as God and are equivalent to three prosōpa, similar to Tertulian’s and Sabellius’ prosōpa. (Read More)


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FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    “The mirage of persons (prosōpa) without hypostaseis is not denied even by Sabellius, who said that the same God, though he is one subject, is transformed according to the need of each occasion and is thus spoken of now as Father, now as Son, and now as Holy Spirit.” (Basil of Caesarea, Epistle 210.5.36–41)
  • 2
    Hanson, Bishop RPC The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987
  • 3
    Lewis Ayres Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Tertullian was a Sabellian.

ABSTRACT: Tertullian’s theology was similar to Sabellius’:

Like Monarchianism, both taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are a single hypostasis, meaning, a single Person with a single mind.

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

Reading only the green blocks should provide a sufficient overview of this article.

INTRODUCTION

A hypostasis is a distinct existence.

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

For example:

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

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

Logos-theology vs Monarchianism

These were two main views in Tertullian’s time.
– Logos theology taught that the Son always existed inside God but became a separate hypostasis when God decided to create.
– Monarchianism, also known as Modalism, taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are merely three names for the same hypostasis.

Logos-theology – two hypostases

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

Monarchianism – one hypostasis

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

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

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

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

It is also known as Modalism:

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

SABELLIANISM

Like the Monarchians, Sabellius, writing in the early third century, explained the Father, Son, and Spirit as a single hypostasis (a single Person with a single mind). However, while the Monarchians taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are merely three names for the same Person, Sabellius maintained that they are three different parts of one Person, just like a human consists of a body, soul, and spirit. 

Sabellianism is named after the early third-century theologian Sabellius. He believed “there is but one undivided person in God.” (Von Mosheim) Consequently, Sabellianism has been defined as:

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

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

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

The main purpose of the Dedication Creed of 341 was to oppose Sabellianism. For that purpose, while Sabellianism favors the expression ‘one hypostasis’, that creed explicitly confesses three hypostases.“ 8“The creed clearly and strongly argues against Sabellian emphases and those emphases were associated with Marcellan theology. We see these emphases, for instance, in the insistence that there are three names which ‘signify exactly the particular hypostasis and order and glory of each’.” (Ayres, p. 119)

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

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

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

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

TERTULLIAN

Did not oppose Sabellianism.

Tertullian did not oppose Sabellius directly. He wrote slightly before Sabellius. His enemy was the Monarchians.

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

Was a Logos-theologian.

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

 For example:

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

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

However, Tertullian was a Logos theologian:

The Son is subordinate.

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

For example:

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

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

“For Tertullian, the Son is second in order.” (Ayres, p. 73-74)

Time when the Son did not exist

Similar to Arius, Tertullian believed there was a time that the Son did not exist. Consistent with Logos-theology, Tertullian taught that the Son or Logos was eternally within the being of the Father and only became distinct at a particular point for the purpose of creation, revelation, and redemption.

For example:

Tertullian wrote: “There was, however, a time when neither sin existed with Him, nor the Son … He was only to become Lord at some future time: just as He became the Father by the Son.” (see here)

“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)

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

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

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

He was far from fully Nicene.

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

For example:

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

“When he (Tertullian) is examined against the background of his immediate predecessors, he falls into place as a typical second-century Logos theologian.” (Litfin)12“His ideas were essentially those of the Greek Logos theologians combined with insights from Bishop Irenaeus.” (Litfin)

He used the right pro-Nicene words.

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

For example:

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

Tertullian’s enemies were the Monarchians.

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

Was a Sabellian.

Taught one hypostasis.

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

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

The Monarchians criticized the Logos-theorists by saying that:

“The theology of the Apologists involves a division in the being and unity of God that is unacceptable.” (Ayres, p. 68) 13Logos-theology teaches two creators and two Gods (bi-theism), “inconsistent with monotheism (Tertullian Praxeas, ch. 3)” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tertullian’s Persons are not real.

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

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

The term for ‘person’ (prosopon) was also used by Sabellius. (Hanson, p. 328) It is sometimes translated as “role.” (Hanson, p. 649) Basil of Caesarea “can readily use prosopon in the traditional exegetical sense of ‘character’ or ‘part’ (almost as in a play) which God or Christ or others were supposed to have assumed.” (Hanson, p. 692)

The Trinity doctrine follows Tertullian.

Both the traditional Trinity doctrine and Tertullian:

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

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

Conclusion

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


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FOOTNOTES

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