Homoousios – What does it mean?

This is a summary of my article on the meaning of the term homoousios. That article is already very long and involved. And since this is, in my view, a crucial subject that puts a new perspective on the entire fourth-century Arian Controversy, I decided to make this summary a separate post.

These conclusions will seem heterodox to the average Christian but they’re based entirely on the writings of recent world-class scholars. Over the last century, after ancient documents have become more readily available, scholars have realized that the traditional textbook account of the Arian Controversy is a complete travesty. For a discussion, see – The Revised Scholarly View.

The Nicene Creed was first formulated at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325). It says that the Son

    • Was begotten of the substance (ousia) of the Father and that
    • He is of the same substance (homoousios) as the Father.

Alternative Meanings  

‘Same substance’ has two possible meanings:

One Substance – In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the Trinity doctrine has existed right from the beginning. In the Trinity doctrine, God is one Being (ousia) but three Persons (hypostases). Therefore Trinitarians claim that the word homoousios in the Creed means that Father and Son are one single substance (one Being).

Two Substances – The alternative meaning is two substances (two Beings) with equal divinity.

But recent scholarship, however, seems to agree that homoousios does not have either of these two meanings. They say that it was intended to have a looser, more ambiguous sense.

Two Views at Nicaea

A minority was able to dominate the Nicene Council because they had the support of the emperor. Consequently, they were able to put the term homoousios in the Creed, despite the objections of the majority. So, we must distinguish between two meanings:

    • The meaning the minority intended with the term and
    • The meaning the majority assigned to it that enabled them to accept the Creed.

To determine those meanings, consider what homoousios meant (1) before, (2) during, and (3) after Nicaea:

Homoousios before Nicaea

In Greek Philosophy, Aristotle used the term οὐσία (ousia) to describe his philosophical concept of Primary Substances.

In Paganism, particularly in the theological language of Egyptian paganism, the word homoousios meant that the Nous-Father and the Logos-Son, who are two distinct beings, share the same perfection of the divine nature.

The Bible never talks about God’s ousia and never says that the Son is homoousios with the Father.

Gnostics used the term homoousios to indicate that the lower deities are of the ‘same ontological status’ or ‘of a similar kind’ as the highest deity from whom they were derived or emanated. But Gnostics were not really Christians and they did not use the term to describe the Son’s relationship to the Father.

Tertullian (155-220), writing in Latin, nowhere uses any term corresponding to homoousios. He used “the expression unius substantiae.” In the past, it was often claimed that this is equivalent to homoousios but it means ‘mia hypostasis’ (one hypostasis).

Sabellius (fl. ca. 215) used the term homoousios in his theory in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one and the same Person (hypostasis). In other words, he said there is only one substance.

Origen (c. 185 – c. 253) did not apply the word homoousios to the Son and did not teach that the Son is ‘from the ousia’ of the Father, despite claims in the past to the contrary. There is one celebrated fragment where Origen appears to sanction the use of homoousios, but the translator probably altered the text to make it appear consistent with Nicene theology.

Libyan Sabellians, around the year 260, described the Son as homoousios with the Father. They were meaning that the Father and Son are one single hypostasis (Person). Consequently, the Son does not have a real distinct existence.

Dionysius, bishop of Rome, agreed with the Libyan Sabellians that Father and Son were homoousios. He, effectively, was a Sabellian. His doctrine could only with difficulty be distinguished from that of Sabellius.

Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, opposed those Libyan Sabellians and rejected the term because Sabellius used it in rejecting the distinction of hypostases. But those ‘Sabellians’ in Libya complained to the bishop of Rome who persuaded Dionysius of Alexandria to accept the term. However, the latter only adopted it with reluctance and only in a general sense, meaning ‘of similar kind’. In other words, for him, the term did not mean that Father and Son are one and the same or even that they are equal.

Paul of Samosata was deposed only a few years later in 268. Paul used the term to say that Father and Son were ‘a primitive undifferentiated unity’. That same council also condemned homoousion because it spelt to them Sabellianism.

Conclusion

Before Nicaea, the term homoousios was used only by Sabellians. They used it to say that Father and Son are one single Person. In their view, the Son has no real distinct existence. The only non-Sabellian to use the term was Dionysius of Alexandria, but he only adopted it with reluctance and only in a general sense, meaning ‘of similar nature’.

Therefore, to determine the meaning of the term in the Nicene Creed, one needs to identify the theology of the party that was able to force the inclusion of the term in the Creed.

Homoousios at Nicaea

A Surprising Innovation

The inclusion of the term in the Nicene Creed must be regarded as a surprising innovation because it is not a Biblical term, was not part of the standard Christian language at the time, but was borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day. Furthermore, the Sabellian history of the term rendered it particularly suspect. For these reasons, some very powerful force must have been at work to ensure its inclusion.

The Emperor’s Role

That powerful force was the emperor. In the fourth century, the general councils (the so-called ecumenical councils) were called and controlled by the emperors. They were the tools by which the Emperor ruled the church. In the Roman culture, the emperor had the final say in church doctrine.

Consistent with this principle, at Nicaea, the emperor not only proposed but also insisted the inclusion of the term. Constantine even dared to explain the meaning of the term.

Alexander’s Party

However, Constantine did not come up with the term homoousios by himself. The term was favored by the minority party of Alexander. That party was able to dominate and insert the term in the Creed because the emperor took their side.

The leaders of that party were:

    • Alexander himself,
    • Ossius – the chairperson, as the emperor’s representative, and
    • the two leading Sabellians, Eustathius and Marcellus.

However, all four of them were Sabellians. The Nicene Creed, therefore, was the work of a Sabellian minority.

How was Homoousios understood?

How, then, did the delegates to the Council understand the term homoousios?

The Sabellians intended to term to mean that the Father and Son are one single Person (one hypostasis). Consequently, after Nicaea, the Sabellians claimed the Creed as support for their doctrine.

The majority, on the other hand, was able to agree to the Creed because they had accepted the emperor’s explanation that it simply means that the Son is truly from the Father. With that understanding, it does not mean that Father and Son are one Person or even that they are equal. However, after the council meeting, that same majority opposed the Creed because they thought it taught Sabellianism.

So, in conclusion, all parties understood the term homoousios in a Sabellian sense.

Homoousios after Nicaea

Post-Nicaea Correction

After Nicaea, the conflict over the term homoousios continued for a few years. I refer to it as the ‘Post-Nicaea Correction’ because it corrected the distortions caused at Nicaea by the sway of the emperor. This ‘correction’, therefore, should be regarded as part of the Nicene event.

By this time, Arius was out of the picture. Alexander also retired a year after Nicaea. The conflict was specifically between the Eusebian majority and the two leading Sabellians; Eustathius and Marcellus. As a result of this conflict, both of them were deposed for Sabellianism:

Not Mentioned

After the ‘Post-Nicaea correction’, Nicaea and homoousios were mentioned again for about 20 years. It was not regarded as useful or important.

During this period when homoousios was not mentioned, two councils were held that are important because they reveal the true views of the delegates at Nicaea.

East – At first, the ‘West’ was on the fringes of the Arian Controversy. For example, the delegates at Nicaea were drawn almost entirely from the East. So, what the delegates to Nicaea really believed when not compelled by the emperor can be seen in the Eastern Dedication Creed formulated in 431. It shows that they regarded the Nicene Creed as dangerously Sabellian.

West – Two years later, in 343, the West held a council at Sardica. The ‘West’ is generally known for being defenders of Nicaea, but the creed from that council explicitly says that Father and Son are one Person, which reveals the Sabellian preference of the West at this time. This is confirmed by their vindication of Marcellus, the main Sabellian at the time, in the year 431.

Neither of these councils used the term homoousios.

Athanasius re-invented Homoousios.

That would have been the end of homoousios. However, in the 350s – 30 years after Nicaea, Athanasius brought it back into the Controversy. Athanasius is known as the main defender of the Nicene Creed and homoousios during the years after Nicaea but, as another article shows, Athanasius also was a Sabellian. In his view, the Son is part of the Father. Athanasius, therefore, re-invented homoousios to defend his Sabellian theology; not to defend the Nicene Creed.

Anti-Sabellian Front

In the 350s, after homoousios had become a key factor in the Controversy, and the West attacked the East with it, the Eusebians (the so-called Arians) were divided into several factions with respect to homoousios, but they formed a united front against the Sabellian thrust of the Western church. This shows that the main enemy remained Sabellianism.

Meletian Schism

In the 360s and 370s, in what is known as the Meletian Schism, there were two factions in the pro-Nicene camp:

    • The ‘one hypostasis’-side (the Sabellians) was led by bishop Damasus of Rome and by Athanasius.
    • The ‘three hypostasis’-side was led by Basil of Caesarea. He regarded the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be three distinct Beings (substances) but he claimed that they have exactly the same type of substance. See – Basil.

Final Conclusions

Before Nicaea, the only Christians who favored the term were Sabellians.

At Nicaea, a Sabellian minority was able to insert the term in the Creed, against the wishes of the majority, because the emperor took Alexander’s part.

During the decade after Nicaea, the main drivers of the term homoousios were removed from their positions. There-after, the term was not mentioned again until Athanasius brought it back into the dispute about 30 years after Nicaea; not to defend the term as such, but to defend his own Sabellian theology.

The West accepted Athanasius’ explanation because the West was traditionally Sabellian.

Basil of Caesarea later accepted homoousios. However, he opposed Athanasius’ understanding of the term and explained it in a generic sense.

Therefore, before, during, and after Nicaea, the advocates of the term homoousios were Sabellians. It must be understood in a Sabellian sense.


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
    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.
  • 2
    Sabellius taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three portions of one single Being.
  • 3
    If we define Sabellianism as that only one hypostasis – only one distinct existence – exists in the Godhead, was Tertullian a Sabellian?
  • 4
    RPC Hanson states that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed but that is not entirely true. This article shows that subordination was indeed ‘orthodox’ at that time.
  • 5
    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.
  • 6
    Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of this. This article explains why that is a false accusation.
  • 7
    There are significant differences between Origen and Arius.
  • 8
    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?
  • 9
    New research has shown that Arius is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness, and originality.
  • 10
    The word theos, which is translated as “God” in John 1:1 is not equivalent to the modern English word “God.”
  • 11
    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.
  • 12
    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.
  • 13
    Does it mean that Father and Son are one single Being, as the Trinity doctrine claims? How was it understood before, at, and after Nicaea? – Summary of the next article
  • 14
    The Nicene Creed describes the Son as homoousios (same substance) as the Father. But how was the term used before, during, and after Nicaea?
  • 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 Creed seems to say that the Father and Son are the same hupostasis. This is Sabellianism.
  • 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.

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.