Athanasius was not a Trinitarian. He was a Unitarian.

PURPOSE: The Trinity doctrine was adopted by the church at the conclusion of the fourth-century ‘Arian’ Controversy. However, over the last 100 years, scholars have uncovered that the traditional account of how it came that the church accepted this doctrine is grossly inaccurate. Different articles in this series discuss different critical errors in the traditional narrative. The present article addresses the misconception that Athanasius was a proponent of scriptural orthodoxy. It shows that he was a Sabellian and not a Trinitarian, meaning that he believed that the Father and Son are one and the same Person; a theology that had already been denounced as heretical in the preceding century.

INTRODUCTION

Purpose

During the Arian Controversy, Athanasius was the main defender of the Nicene Creed and the term homoousios. He presented himself as the preserver of scriptural orthodoxy.1“Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of the one theological tradition that is equivalent with scriptural orthodoxy.” (Ayres, p. 107)

But this article shows that Athanasius was a one-hypostasis theologian, meaning that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are a single Person with a single Mind. This is similar to Sabellianism; a theology already rejected as heretical during the preceding century.

The Arian Controversy began with a dispute between Arius and his bishop Alexander of Alexandria. Much less of Alexander’s writings survived but this article concludes that he was also a one-hypostasis theologian.

The green blocks summarize the various sections.

Authors

This article quotes from the world-class specialists in the fourth-century Arian Controversy.

Hanson Lecture – An informative 1981 lecture by R.P.C. Hanson on the Arian Controversy.

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

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1988

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

Ayres, Lewis
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

What is a Sabellian?

The Trinity is one Person.

Sabellians believed that, before the world existed, the Word was IN the Father and an aspect of the Father. Consequently, Father and Son are only one Person (hypostasis).

As discussed in the article – The Sabellians of the Fourth Century, concerning the eternal Godhead:

Sabellians believed that “before the world existed the Word was IN the Father.” (Ayres, p. 63) In their view, the Logos is the Father’s only rational capacity.

Hanson refers to “a Sabellian, believing in only one Person (hypostasis) in the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 801)

The preexistent Logos is merely “a power or aspect” of the Father and “not in any serious sense distinct from him.” (Hanson, p. 237)

The Son is a mere man.

Since the Logos has no real distinct existence, the incarnated Jesus is a mere man. He may be maximally inspired, but he remains a mere man.

Consequently:

      1. Christ did not exist before He was born from Mary.
      2. The Logos dwells in the man Jesus merely as an energy, an activity, or as inspiration from God.
      3. Christ is a complete human being with a human soul and mind. That soul or mind absorbed all human suffering so that God did not suffer at all. It was a human being that suffered, died, was resurrected, and now sits at God’s right hand.

The purpose of this article is to show that this is also what Alexander and Athanasius believed.

The Eusebians taught three Minds.

In opposition to this view, the Eusebians (the so-called Arians) believed that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct ousiai (substances), meaning three hypostases (Persons), with three distinct Minds that are united in agreement.

For example:

The Eusebians were followers of Origen, who “speaks of Father and Son as two ‘things (πργματα) in hypostasis, but one in like-mindedness, harmony, and identity of will’.” (Ayres, p. 25) “Like-mindedness” speaks of two distinct minds united in agreement.

Arius, one of the Eusebians, spoke about a second Wisdom and Word; that the Son is not the Father’s only Wisdom and Word. He said: “There are … two Wisdoms, one God’s own who has existed eternally with God, the other the Son who was brought into existence. … There is another Word in God besides the Son” (Hanson, p. 13). 2“Arius also talks of two wisdoms and powers, speaking of a Logos that was not distinct from the Father’s hypostasis, after whom the Son is designated Word.” (Ayres, p. 55) In other words, Arius believed that each Person has a distinct mind. See – Arius’ Theology.

“Asterius (a leading Eusebian) insists also that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases.” (Ayres, p. 54) He made a distinction between God’s wisdom and Christ, implying distinct minds. For example: “God’s own power and wisdom is the source of Christ.” (Ayres, p. 53-54)

The Dedication Creed, which was a statement of the Eusebian Eastern Church, says: “They are three in hypostasis but one in agreement.” The phrase “one in agreement” implies three minds.

Challenges with Terminology

Terminology is a major barrier to understanding. Firstly, in the fourth century, the terms ousia and hypostasis were synonyms but the Trinity doctrine uses them for contrasting concepts.

Another article shows that, during the Arian Controversy, most people used hypostasis (Person) and ousia (substance) as synonyms. However, the traditional Trinity doctrine uses these terms as contrasting concepts, saying that God exists as one substance but three hypostases.

Secondly, while, in the fourth century, each hypostasis had a distinct Mind, in the Trinity doctrine, the three hypostases (Persons) share a single Mind.

If the Trinity doctrine taught three distinct and equal minds, that would have been Tritheism. Karl Rahner, a leading Catholic scholar, confirms that, in the traditional Trinity doctrine, the three Persons share a single Mind:

“Each Person shares the Divine will … that come from a mind. … Each Person’s self-awareness and consciousness is not inherent to that Person (by nature of that Person being that Person) but comes from the shared essence.”

“There is only one real consciousness in God, which is shared by the Father, Son, and Spirit, by each in his own proper way.”

For that reason, R.P.C. Hanson says that the term “Person” in the traditional Trinity doctrine is misleading. He describes the three ‘Persons’ as “three ways of being or modes of existing as God.” (Hanson) Since, in normal English, each Person has a unique mind, it is false to explain the Trinity doctrine as teaching one Being but three Persons.

The term ousia (substance) is fairly clear. We understand it today more or less in the same way as the ancients did. Two substances are two beings with two distinct minds. In the Trinity doctrine, the Father, Son, and Spirit are one substance and, therefore, one mind.

The term hypostasis was fairly clear during the Arian Controversy. As shown above, each hypostasis or Person is a distinct substance with a distinct mind. However, since the Trinity shares a single substance and a single mind in the traditional Trinity doctrine, modern readers find it difficult to understand the writings of fourth-century theologians.

The core issue is the Number of Minds.

We can avoid the confusion by asking how many Minds a particular theology taught. That approach goes directly to the core of the Controversy.

To sidestep the difficulties with terminology, this article asks how many Minds (rational capacities, wills, or consciousness) a specific theologian taught:

      • The Sabellians taught one.
      • The Eusebians taught three.
      • The Trinity doctrine also teaches one.

ATHANASIUS’ THEOLOGY

The quotes in this article sometimes refer to ‘the Son’ and sometimes to ‘the Logos’. Alexander and Athanasius used these terms as synonyms.3For example: “The original Logos and Wisdom … is the Son.” (Hanson, p. 427). “The Word and Son is idios to the Father’s essence.” (Ayres, p. 114)

The Son is part of the Father.

Athanasius regarded the Son (the Logos), similar to the Sabellians, as part of the Father. Firstly, he described the Son as IN the Father.

Athanasius described the Son, not as in God generally, but specifically as IN the Father. For example:

“In the Father we have the Son: this is a summary of Athanasius’ theology.” (Hanson, p. 426)

“The Son is in the Father ontologically.” (Hanson, p. 428)

“Athanasius’ increasing clarity in treating the Son as intrinsic to the Father’s being” (Ayres, p. 113) 4Other relevant quotes include: (1) “Athanasius’ argument speaks not of two realities engaged in a common activity, but develops his most basic sense that the Son is intrinsic to the Father’s being.” (Ayres, p. 114) [Note that this quote uses ‘reality’ as a synonym for ‘Person’.] (2) “The Son’s existence is intrinsic to the Father’s nature.” (Ayres, p. 116) (3) “Although Athanasius’ theology was by no means identical with Marcellus’, the overlaps were significant enough for them to be at one on some of the vital issues—especially their common insistence that the Son was intrinsic to the Father’s external existence.” (Ayres, p. 106)

The Son is one of the Father’s faculties.

Secondly, Athanasius often described the Son as idios to the Father, meaning He is one of the Father’s faculties, confirming that He is part of the Father.

Athanasius used the Greek term idios to describe how the Son relates to the Father. For example:

“The Word and Son is idios to the Father’s essence.” (Ayres, p. 114)

“For the Son is in the Father … because the whole being of the Son is idios to the Father’s essence, as radiance from light and stream from fountain.” (Ayres, p. 115)

He “insisted continually that the Son was the Father’s own (idios).” (Hanson, p. 425)

Idios means “pertaining to one’s self, one’s own, belonging to one’s self” (Bible Study Tools). Ayres comments:

“Initially used to indicate that certain qualities and activities are intrinsic to being human, the use of the term to indicate that the Son is idios to the Father’s ousia serves to reinforce his tendency to present the Father/Son relationship as most like that of a person and their faculties.” (Ayres, p. 115)

The Son is the Father’s only Wisdom.

Thirdly, while the Eusebians taught two Logoi (two Wisdoms or minds or ‘Words’), namely, the Father and the Son, Athanasius said there is only one Logos, namely, that the Son is also God’s one and only Logos and Wisdom (rational capacity).

The Eusebians were the anti-Nicenes, usually but inappropriately called ‘Arians’. As already quoted above, Arius, as an example of the Eusebians, said:

“There are … two Wisdoms, one God’s own who has existed eternally with God, the other the Son who was brought into existence. … There is another Word in God besides the Son” (Hanson, p. 13).

In this view, the one Word or Wisdom is the Son and the other is the Father. In contrast, Athanasius said that the Son is the Father’s one and only Logos:

“In Alexander, and in Athanasius … Christ is the one power and wisdom of the Father.” (Ayres, p. 54)

Athanasius wrote: “There is no need to postulate two Logoi.” (Hanson, p. 431)

He argued that the pre-existent Son is “present with Him (the Father) as his Wisdom and his Word.” (Ayres, p. 46)

He criticized “the [Arian] idea that Christ is a derivative Wisdom and not God’s own wisdom.” (Ayres, p. 116)

This again means that the Son is part of the Father.

The Holy Spirit is also a part of the Father.

Fourthly, the Holy Spirit is also part of the Father. Just as the Son is part of the Father, the Holy Spirit is part of the Son and, therefore, not a distinct Person.

“Just as his (Athanasius’) account of the Son can rely heavily on the picture of the Father as one person with his intrinsic word, so too he emphasizes the closeness of Spirit to Son by presenting the Spirit as the Son’s ‘energy’.” (Ayres, p. 214)

Consequently, the Cappadocians concluded that Athanasius did not afford the Holy Spirit a distinct existence (a separate Person or hypostasis). For example:

“The language also shows Athanasius trying out formulations that will soon be problematic. … ‘The Cappadocians’ will find the language of νργεια [superhuman activity] used of the Spirit … to be highly problematic, seeming to indicate a lack of real existence.” (Ayres, p. 214)\

Father, Son, and Spirit are a single hypostasis.

Following Origen, the Eusebians taught that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct hypostases (Persons). In contrast, consistent with the idea that the Son is part of the Father, Athanasius believed that Father and Son are a single hypostasis (a single Person).

For example:

The “clear inference from his (Athanasius’) usage” is that “there is only one hypostasis in God.” (Ayres, p. 48)

“Athanasius’ most basic language and analogies for describing the relationship between Father and Son primarily present the two as intrinsic aspects of one reality or person.” (Ayres, p. 46)

“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)

“He [Athanasius] had attended the Council of Serdica among the Western bishops in 343, and a formal letter of that Council had emphatically opted for the belief in one, and only one, hypostasis as orthodoxy. Athanasius certainly accepted this doctrine at least up to 359, even though he tried later to suppress this fact.” (Hanson, p. 444)

Therefore, Athanasius opposed the concept of “three hypostases.” He regarded the phrase as “unscriptural and therefore suspicious.” (Ayres, p. 174; Hanson, p. 440)

For example:

“He clearly approves of the sentence of … that it is wrong to divide the divine monarchy into ‘three powers and separate hypostases and three Godheads’, thereby postulating ‘three diverse hypostases wholly separated from each other’.” (Hanson, p. 445)

Another article argues that the real and fundamental issue in the entire Arian Controversy was whether God is one or three hypostases. For Athanasius, the enemy was those who taught more than one hypostasis (Person) in God:

“Athanasius and Marcellus now seem to have made common cause against those who insisted on distinct hypostases in God.” (Ayres, p. 106)

Father, Son, and Spirit are a single Person.

Athanasius defended the view that Father and Son are one Being. This sounds like the Trinity doctrine but he did not distinguish between Person and Being. For him, one Being is one Person. So, he said that Father and Son are one Person.

Athanasius “defends constantly … the ontological unity of the Father and the Son.” (Hanson, p. 422, cf. 428) This sounds like the Trinity doctrine, believing that Father and Son are a single ousia (substance or Being). However, “clearly for him hypostasis and ousia were still synonymous.” (Hanson, p. 440) In other words, when he argues for “ontological unity,” meaning that Father and Son are one ousia (substance), he is also saying that they are a single hypostasis (Person).

The Logos is not a Mediator.

Athanasius’ opposition to the idea of the Logos as Mediator between God and creation further illustrates his insistence on a single hypostasis in God.

The Logos-theology of the church in the second and third centuries, which was based mostly on principles from Greek philosophy, said that God cannot interact directly with matter. Therefore, it proposed a two-stage existence of the Logos: God’s Logos always existed inside Him but, when God decided to create, the Logos became a separate hypostasis with a lower divinity enabling Him to create and interact with matter. God created all things through the Logos and reveals Himself to the creation through the Logos. (See – the Apologists.)

Since this was largely based on Greek philosophy, Hanson refers to this Logos as “a convenient philosophical device.” But Athanasius rejected the idea of the pre-existent Logos as Mediator between God and creation:

“He never accepted the Origenistic concept of the Logos as a mediating agent within the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 425)

“He refused to use the pre-existent Christ as a convenient philosophical device.” (Hanson, p. 423)

He said: “He (the Father) was no remote God who required a lesser god (the Logos) to reveal Him.” (Hanson, p. 423)

The Mediator is the man Jesus.

The Bible describes Christ as the Mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5). In the Eusebian view, the Son always was the Mediator between God and creation. But Athanasius, since he did not recognize the Logos as a distinct hypostasis, limited Christ’s role as Mediator to the incarnation.

For example:

Athanasius said: “God needed no mediator to create the world. … The Logos/Son is a redemptive, not a cosmic principle.” (Hanson, p. 423)

“When he comes to interpret the crucial text, Proverbs 8:22 ff, [The Lord made me at the beginning of His ways] he insists that its terms apply to the incarnate, not the pre-existent Christ … it shows that Athanasius placed the mediating activity of the Son, not in his position within the Godhead, but in his becoming incarnate.” (Hanson, p. 424; cf. ) OR

“Athanasius firmly places the mediating activity of the Logos, not within the Godhead, but in the Incarnation.” (Hanson, p. 447)

Athanasius was a Unitarian, not a Trinitarian.

Therefore, Athanasius had a ‘unitarian’ theology, similar to the Sabellians.

Ayres describes both Athanasius’ and Marcellus’ Sabellian theologies as “unitarian:”

Ayres refers to “Athanasius’ own strongly unitarian account.” (Ayres, p. 435)

But he also describes Marcellus’ theology as ‘Unitarian’. He refers to “supporters of Nicaea whose theology had strongly unitarian tendencies. Chief among these was Marcellus of Ancyra.” (Ayres, p. 431)

“Studer’s account [1998] 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)

Athanasius and Marcellus

Thus far, this article has shown that Athanasius believed that the Son is intrinsic to the Father ontologically and that the Father and Son are a single hypostasis. Both are clear indications of Sabellianism. This section provides additional support for this conclusion:

Athanasius’ theology was similar to Marcellus’.

The theologies of Marcellus, the main Sabellian of the fourth century, and Athanasius were similar.

For example:

“The perception that these two trajectories (Athanasius and Marcellus) 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) (Eustatius was the other important Sabellian in the fourth century. See – The Sabellians of the Fourth Century).

Athanasius and Marcellus were allies.

The similarity of their theologies allowed Athanasius to form an alliance with Marcellus and Athanasius never repudiated Marcellus.

For example:

“They considered themselves allies.” (Ayres, p. 106)

“Athanasius and Marcellus now seem to have made common cause against those who insisted on distinct hypostases in God.” (Ayres, p. 106)

They supported and defended each other:

“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)

It is often claimed that Athanasius at a point repudiated Marcellus. However:

“it is … no longer clear that Athanasius ever directly repudiated Marcellus, and he certainly seems to have been sympathetic to Marcellus’ followers through into the 360s.” (Ayres, p. 106)

“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)

The Meletian Schism

The Meletian Schism was a dispute in Antioch between two factions within the pro-Nicene camp. The one faction was Sabellian, and Athanasius sided with them.

The faction which Athanasius supported was the Eustathians. They followed the theology of Eustathius,5He derived “his tradition in continuity from Eustathius who had been bishop about forty years before” (Hanson, p. 800-1). who was deposed some decades earlier for Sabellianism.6“It seems most likely that Eustathius was primarily deposed for the heresy of Sabellianism.” (Hanson, p. 211) Their rallying call was ‘one hypostasis’,7“’One hypostasis’ of the Godhead was to become the slogan and rallying-cry of the continuing Eustathians.” (Hanson, p. 213) which means that Father, Son, and Spirit are one Person, which is a Sabellian statement. In the 360s, the Eustathians elected a rival bishop for Antioch named Paulinus. He was also a Sabellian:

Hanson says Paulinus was “Marcellan/Sabellian.” (Hanson, p. 799)

“Basil suspected that Paulinus was at heart a Sabellian, believing in only one Person (hypostasis) in the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 801)

Athanasius supported Paulinus:

Paulinus “was recognized as legitimate bishop of Antioch by Athanasius.” (Hanson, p. 801)

This illustrates again the Sabellian tendency of Athanasius’ theology.

“Basil was never sure in his own mind that Athanasius had abandoned Marcellus of Ancyra and his followers.” (Hanson, p. 797)

“About the year 371 adherents of Marcellus approached Athanasius, presenting to him a statement of faith. … He accepted it and gave them a document expressing his agreement with their doctrine.” (Hanson, p. 801)

See here for a detailed discussion of the Meletian Schism.

ALEXANDER’S THEOLOGY

Alexander believed similar to Athanasius.

Athanasius learned his theology from Alexander. Similar to the Sabellians, both believed that the Son is a property or quality of the Father, namely, God’s only Wisdom or Word, and explained Father and Son as a single hypostasis; a single Person.

“Alexander’s theology found its most famous advocate in his successor Athanasius.” (Ayres, p. 45) Similar to Athanasius and the Sabellians, Alexander:

      • Maintained that the Son is a property or quality of the Father and, therefore, part of the Father.

“[Rowan] Williams’ work is most illuminating. Alexander of Alexandria, Williams thinks, had maintained that the Son … is a property or quality of the Father, impersonal and belonging to his substance. Properties or qualities cannot be substances …; they are not quantities.” (Hanson, p. 92)

      • Described the Son as idios to the Father.

“The (Alexander’s) statement then that the Son is idios to (a property or quality of) the Father is a Sabellian statement.” (Hanson, p. 92)

      • Taught that the Logos in Christ is the Father’s intrinsic Word and Wisdom, God’s only Wisdom or Word and, therefore, part of the Father.

“Alexander taught that … as the Father’s Word and Wisdom the Son must always have been with the Father.” (Ayres, p. 16)

“Alexander argues that as Word or Wisdom the Son must be eternal or the Father would, nonsensically, have been at one time bereft of both.” (Ayres, p. 44)

“In Alexander, and in Athanasius … Christ is the one power and wisdom of the Father.” (Ayres, p. 54)

      • Explained Father and Son as a single hypostasis, similar to the Sabellians.

“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)

With respect to Alexander and Athanasius, Ayres concludes, “This trajectory … is also resistant to speaking of three hypostases.” (Ayres, p. 43)

In conclusion, there is no substantial difference between the theology of Alexander and Athanasius and that of the main Sabellians of their day; Eustathius and Marcellus. Since Athanasius learned his theology from Alexander, this is further evidence that Athanasius was a Sabellian.

THE INCARNATION

Athanasius described Jesus as God the Father walking around on earth in a human body but without a human mind. This is different from the Sabellian explanation of Jesus as a mere human being but is also a very unconvincing explanation.

If Athanasius was a Sabellian, we should also see this in his theory of the incarnation. If he was a Sabellian, he should describe the incarnated Christ as a maximally inspired man, but still a mere man with a human soul (mind).

However, Athanasius refused to admit that Jesus had a human mind. He describes Jesus as the Logos dwelling in a human body. Since, in his view, the Logos is part of the Father, it is really the Father who dwells in the human body.

He completely ignored the human side of Jesus Christ, so much so that scholars “conclude that whatever else the Logos incarnate is in Athanasius’ account of him, he is not a human being.” (Hanson, p. 451) In other words, he described Jesus as God in a human body. For example, when he discusses Jesus’ ignorance and fears, Athanasius says that God only pretended to be ignorant and to fear. For such reasons, scholars say:

“The chief reason for Athanasius’ picture of Jesus being so completely unconvincing is of course that, at least till the year 362, it never crossed his mind that there was any point in maintaining that Jesus had a human soul or mind.” (Hanson, p. 451)

“Athanasius involves himself in the most far-fetched explanations to explain away some of the texts which obviously represents Jesus as having faith.” (Hanson, p. 450)

See – The Incarnation for a discussion of Athanasius’ view on the subject.

CONCLUSION

As ‘one hypostasis’ theologians, Alexander and Athanasius were part of a minority in this church. And since both Sabellius’ theology and the term homoousios were already formally condemned as heretical during the preceding century, they followed an already discredited theology.

The Western Council of Serdica in 343, where Athanasius played a dominant part, is devastating evidence. It explicitly describes the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as one hypostasis and Athanasius approved and supported this creed.

“The Westerners had at Serdica in 343 produced a theological statement which appeared to have the most alarmingly Sabellian complexion, and ‘Athanasius had certainly supported this statement, though he later denied its existence.” (Hanson, p. xix)

People struggle with this conclusion is that it shows that Athanasius, who is regarded as the hero of the Arian Controversy, was a Sabellian; not a Trinitarian. But, as Hanson stated, the traditional account of the Arian Controversy is a Complete Travesty.


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    “Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of the one theological tradition that is equivalent with scriptural orthodoxy.” (Ayres, p. 107)
  • 2
    “Arius also talks of two wisdoms and powers, speaking of a Logos that was not distinct from the Father’s hypostasis, after whom the Son is designated Word.” (Ayres, p. 55)
  • 3
    For example: “The original Logos and Wisdom … is the Son.” (Hanson, p. 427). “The Word and Son is idios to the Father’s essence.” (Ayres, p. 114)
  • 4
    Other relevant quotes include: (1) “Athanasius’ argument speaks not of two realities engaged in a common activity, but develops his most basic sense that the Son is intrinsic to the Father’s being.” (Ayres, p. 114) [Note that this quote uses ‘reality’ as a synonym for ‘Person’.] (2) “The Son’s existence is intrinsic to the Father’s nature.” (Ayres, p. 116) (3) “Although Athanasius’ theology was by no means identical with Marcellus’, the overlaps were significant enough for them to be at one on some of the vital issues—especially their common insistence that the Son was intrinsic to the Father’s external existence.” (Ayres, p. 106)
  • 5
    He derived “his tradition in continuity from Eustathius who had been bishop about forty years before” (Hanson, p. 800-1).
  • 6
    “It seems most likely that Eustathius was primarily deposed for the heresy of Sabellianism.” (Hanson, p. 211)
  • 7
    “’One hypostasis’ of the Godhead was to become the slogan and rallying-cry of the continuing Eustathians.” (Hanson, p. 213)

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