Sabellians inserted homoousios in the Nicene Creed.

PURPOSE

This is a summary of the article on the meaning of the term homoousios in the Nicene Creed produced in AD 325. Since this crucial subject puts a new perspective on the entire fourth-century Arian Controversy, I made this summary a separate post. The Nicene Creed says that the Son:

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

The conclusions in this article may seem heterodox but are based on the writings of recent leading scholars on the fourth-century Arian Controversy. Over the last hundred years, certain ancient documents have become more readily available.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) Consequently, the scholarly view of the Controversy has changed dramatically.2“The four decades since 1960 have produced much revisionary scholarship on the Trinitarian and Christological disputes of the fourth century.” (Ayres, p. 11) Hanson even describes the traditional account of the Arian Controversy as a complete travesty.

The two meanings of Homoousios

‘Same substance’ has two possible meanings:

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

Two Substances – Alternatively, it could indicate two substances (two Beings) with equal divinity.

These alternative meanings of homoousios are related to the core issue in the Arian Controversy, which was whether the Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis (one Person with one mind) or three:

      • In one-hypostasis theologies, such as Sabellianism, the Son is not a distinct Person with a distinct mind. Consequently, homoousios means one substance (one hypostasis or Person).
      • In three-hypostasis theologies, such as taught by the Basil of Caesarea, the Son is a distinct hypostasis (Person). Consequently, homoousios means two substances of the same type.

Recent scholarship, however, seems to agree that homoousios does not have either of these two meanings but has a looser, more ambiguous meaning.

Before Nicaea, it implied one hypostasis.

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

In Egyptian paganism, the word homoousios meant that the Nous-Father and the Logos-Son – 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 homoousios to say that the lower deities are of a similar kind as the highest deity from whom they were derived or emanated. Gnostics were not real Christians and 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 exactly to homoousios. He used “the expression unius substantiate,” which means one hypostasis (one Person), which implies ‘one substance’.

Sabellius (fl. ca. 215) used homoousios to say that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one Person (one hypostasis). In other words, he used the term to say they are 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 to the contrary. He is famous for his ‘three hypostases’ teaching, opposing Tertullian and Sabellius.

Libyan Sabellians (c. 260) described the Son as homoousios with the Father. They meant that the Father and Son are one substance and one hypostasis (Person).

Dionysius, bishop of Rome (c. 260), agreed with the Libyan Sabellians that Father and Son were homoousios and also understood that to mean one hypostasis. His doctrine is similar to the Sabellians.

Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria (c. 260), opposed those Libyan Sabellians and rejected homoousios because Sabellius used it in rejecting the distinction of hypostases. But the Libyan Sabellians complained to the bishop of Rome. The latter persuaded Dionysius of Alexandria to accept the term but he accepted it reluctantly and only in a general sense, meaning ‘of a similar kind’. In other words, for him, the term did not mean that Father and Son are one Person or even that they are equal.

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

Conclusion

Before Nicaea, the term homoousios was used only by the ‘one-hypostasis’ theologians. They used it to say that Father and Son are one single Person (hypostasis). Consequently, the Son is not a distinct Person.

At Nicaea, Sabellians inserted the term.

Homoousios was a surprising innovation.

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

The Emperor dominated the council.

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 and were the tools whereby the emperors governed the church.3“The history of the period shows time and time again that … the general council was the very invention and creation of the Emperor. General councils … were the children of imperial policy and the Emperor was expected to dominate and control them.” (Hanson, p. 855) In the Roman culture, the emperor had the final say in church doctrine.4“If we ask the question, what was considered to constitute the ultimate authority in doctrine during the period reviewed in these pages, there can be only one answer. The will of the Emperor was the final authority.” (Hanson, p. 849)

Consistent with this principle, at Nicaea, the emperor not only proposed but also insisted on the term.5Constantine “pressed for its inclusion.” (Hanson, p. 211)6“’Homoousios’ and ‘from the essence of the Father’ were added to the creed by Constantine himself, bearing witness to the extent of his influence at the council.” (Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15.) Constantine even dared to explain the term.

The Sabellians caused the term to be inserted.

At Nicaea, the Sabellians dominated7“Eustathius of Antioch and Marcellus … Both were influential at the council.” (Ayres, p. 99) because they allied with Alexander8“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) and because the emperor took Alexander’s side.9“Constantine had taken Alexander’s part.” (Ayres, p. 89) Consequently, they were able to cause the insertion of the term, despite the majority’s objections. So, it really means ‘one hypostasis’. Consequently, after Nicaea, the Sabellians claimed the Creed as support for their doctrine. On the other hand, the majority agreed with the Creed because they had accepted the emperor’s explanation that it simply means that the Son is truly from the Father. In reality, they knew it meant ‘one hypostasis’.

After Nicaea

Leading Sabellians were deposed.

After Nicaea, Arius was out of the picture and Alexander died in 328. However, the conflict that began at Nicaea around the term homoousios continued for a few years. The dispute was specifically between the Eusebian majority and the leading Sabellians. As a result of this conflict, many leading Sabellians were deposed: This site calls it the ‘Post-Nicaea Correction’ because it corrected the distortions caused at Nicaea by the emperor’s interference. This period, therefore, should be regarded as part of the Nicene event.

After that, homoousios was not mentioned.

After the ‘Post-Nicaea correction’, homoousios was not mentioned again for about 20 years. During this period, two councils were held that revealed the true views of the delegates at Nicaea. Neither of these councils referred to homoousios. These councils focused on the more fundamental issue, of which homoousios was only a symptom, of the number of hypostases in God:

East – At first, the ‘West’ was not part of the Arian Controversy.10“Very few Western bishops took the trouble to attend the Council (of Nicaea). The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church. … The Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.” (Hanson, p. 170) 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 they regarded the Nicene Creed as dangerously Sabellian and explicitly confessed three hypostases.

West – Two years later, in 343, at the council at Serdica, the Western delegates produced a manifesto that explicitly says that Father and Son are one hypostasis (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 341.

Homoousios returned to the Controversy in the 350s.

In the 350s, about 30 years after Nicaea, Athanasius brought homoousios 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, Father and Son are one Person. This again shows the Sabellian nature of the term homoousios.

The Eusebians formed an anti-Sabellian Front.

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

Basil was the first three-hypostases pro-Nicene.

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’ theologians (the Sabellians) were led by bishop Damasus of Rome and by Athanasius.
    • Basil of Caesarea led the ‘three hypostasis’ side. He regarded the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three distinct Beings (substances) and, therefore, three distinct Persons. But he claimed that they have exactly the same type of substance. See – Basil.

After Basil, the pro-Nicenes interpreted homoousios as referring to two distinct Persons (hypostases). But as the Trinity doctrine later developed, it accepted Basil’s terminology of three hypostases but combined it with Athanasius’ principle that Father Son, and Spirit have one single mind. For this purpose, in the traditional Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit are three ‘Persons’ but one Being with one mind. In this doctrine, the term ‘Person’ is misleading.11Hanson says: “I refrain from using the misleading word’ Person.” He describes the Three as “three ways of being or modes of existing as God.

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.

Within a few years after Nicaea, the Sabellian drivers of the term homoousios were removed from their positions. After that, 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 accepted homoousios but he opposed Athanasius’ one-hypostasis explanation and explained it as indicating three Persons.

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


OTHER ARTICLES

CHURCH FATHERS

ARIAN CONTROVERSY

ARIUS

THE NICENE CREED

ARIANISM

    • Athanasius invented the term ‘Arian’. 31The 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.
    • The Dedication Creed – AD 341 32This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if Emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
    • The Long Lines Creed – AD 344 33In contrast to the one-hypostasis view of the Western manifesto at Serdica in 343, the Long Lines Creed reflects a three-hypostasis theology.
    • Did Arians describe the Son as a creature? 34‘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 35In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
    • Homoi-ousian theology 36This 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? 37Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.

THE PRO-NICENES

EMPEROR THEODOSIUS

AUTHORS 

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

LATER

TRINITY DOCTRINE – GENERAL

    • Elohim 48Elohim (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 49The 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.

OTHER

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
    “The four decades since 1960 have produced much revisionary scholarship on the Trinitarian and Christological disputes of the fourth century.” (Ayres, p. 11)
  • 3
    “The history of the period shows time and time again that … the general council was the very invention and creation of the Emperor. General councils … were the children of imperial policy and the Emperor was expected to dominate and control them.” (Hanson, p. 855)
  • 4
    “If we ask the question, what was considered to constitute the ultimate authority in doctrine during the period reviewed in these pages, there can be only one answer. The will of the Emperor was the final authority.” (Hanson, p. 849)
  • 5
    Constantine “pressed for its inclusion.” (Hanson, p. 211)
  • 6
    “’Homoousios’ and ‘from the essence of the Father’ were added to the creed by Constantine himself, bearing witness to the extent of his influence at the council.” (Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15.)
  • 7
    “Eustathius of Antioch and Marcellus … Both were influential at the council.” (Ayres, p. 99)
  • 8
    “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)
  • 9
    “Constantine had taken Alexander’s part.” (Ayres, p. 89)
  • 10
    “Very few Western bishops took the trouble to attend the Council (of Nicaea). The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church. … The Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.” (Hanson, p. 170)
  • 11
    Hanson says: “I refrain from using the misleading word’ Person.” He describes the Three as “three ways of being or modes of existing as God.
  • 12
    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.
  • 13
    Sabellius taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three portions of one single Being.
  • 14
    Both Sabellius and Tertullian taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are one Person with Father, Son, and Spirit as portions of that one Person.
  • 15
    The Controversy gave us the Trinity doctrine but the traditional account of the Controversy is a complete traversy.
  • 16
    RPC Hanson states that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed but that is not entirely true. This article shows that subordination was indeed ‘orthodox’ at that time.
  • 17
    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.
  • 18
    Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of this. This article explains why that is a false accusation.
  • 19
    There are significant differences between Origen and Arius.
  • 20
    Arius wrote that the Son was begotten by the Father timelessly before everything. But Arius also said that the Son did not always exist. Did Arius contradict himself?
  • 21
    New research has shown that Arius is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness, and originality.
  • 22
    The word theos, which is translated as “God” in John 1:1 is not equivalent to the modern English word “God.”
  • 23
    Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion that he thought best.
  • 24
    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.
  • 25
    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.
  • 26
    At Nicaea, Sabellians caused homoousios to be inserted through an alliance with Alexander and because the emperor took Alexander’s side.
  • 27
    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.
  • 28
    The word is not found in the Bible or in any orthodox Christian confession before Nicaea.
  • 29
    While the Creed describes Father and Son as one single hypostasis (Person), the Trinity doctrine teaches that they are distinct hypostases.
  • 30
    There was no Arian Conspiracy. It was a campaign against the claim that homoousios identifies Sabellianism as the church’s official theology.
  • 31
    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.
  • 32
    This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if Emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
  • 33
    In contrast to the one-hypostasis view of the Western manifesto at Serdica in 343, the Long Lines Creed reflects a three-hypostasis theology.
  • 34
    ‘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.
  • 35
    In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
  • 36
    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.
  • 37
    Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.
  • 38
    Eustathius and Marcellus played a major role in the formulation of the Creed but were soon deposed for Sabellianism.
  • 39
    Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of Biblical orthodoxy but this article argues that he was a Sabellian.
  • 40
    Many believe that these accusations were false but RPC Hanson shows that Athanasius was justly condemned.
  • 41
    The West deposed Athanasius for violence but the West, which, like Athanasius, preferred a one hypostasis theology, declared him blameless.
  • 42
    In the Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit are one substance or Being. This article shows that Basil taught three distinct substances.
  • 43
    This council reveals the state of Western theology at that time.
  • 44
    It was a regional synod of Antioch and attended only by bishops who were friendly to the bishop of Antioch. But the emperor hijacked it.
  • 45
    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.
  • 46
    A very informative lecture on the Arian Controversy by RPC Hanson, a famous fourth-century scholar
  • 47
    In the fifth century, Arian ‘barbarians’ dominated the Western Empire, but they tolerated and even respected the Trinitarian Roman Church.
  • 48
    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?
  • 49
    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.

Tertullian was a Sabellian.

SUMMARY

Hypostases – The ancients used the Greek word hypostasis in their Christological debates. A hypostasis is a distinct existence. So, if we say that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases, then it means that they are three distinct Beings or Persons.

The two main Christological views at the time of Tertullian were Logos-theology and Monarchianism:

Logos-theology – Beginning in the second century, non-Jewish Christianity was dominated by Logos-theology. It taught that the Logos always existed inside God, became a distinct hypostasis when God decided to create, and is subordinate to the Father.

Monarchianism – Monarchianism opposed Logos-theology and taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are merely three names for one and the same hypostasis (Person). It is also known as Modalism.

Sabellianism – In the early third century, Sabellius refined Monarchianism into what is known as Sabellianism. It still teaches that Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis (Person) but says that they are three portions of that Person, just like a human consists of a body, soul, and spirit.

Tertullian did not oppose Sabellianism because he wrote slightly before Sabellius. Tertullian’s enemy was the Monarchians. He was a Logos theologian, believing that the Son is subordinate to the Father. However, to combat the Monarchians, who criticized the Logos-theologians for dividing the substance of God, he said that the Logos remained part of the substance of God. The consequence is that Tertullian’s theology was similar to Sabellius’:

Like Monarchianism, both taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are a single hypostasis (Person).

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

INTRODUCTION

Hypostases

The ancients used the Greek word hypostasis in their Christological debates. A hypostasis is a distinct existence. So, if we say that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases, then it means that they are three distinct Beings or Persons. However, if the three hypostases are equal, then you have three Gods, which is tritheism.1The 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)

Logos-theology

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

Monarchianism

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

“By their opponents they are accused of teaching that the Son and the Spirit do not have real independent existence and are in fact simply modes of the Father’s being.” (Ayres, p. 68)2Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its legacy, 2004, Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology“This ‘monarchian’ view was … suggesting the Father and Son were different expressions of the same being, without any personal distinctions between them. In other words, the Father is himself the Son, and therefore experiences the Son’s human frailties.” (Litfin)3“In the words of Noetus: … the Father … Himself became His own Son.” “It was therefore God who was born from a virgin and who confessed himself to humankind as the Son of God. At the cross, God commended his spirit to himself, as he acted to be dead, but he was not dead in reality, although he raised himself on the 3rd day.” (Willem H. Oliver, Department of Christian Spirituality, Church History and Missiology, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa)

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

It is also known as Modalism:

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

SABELLIANISM

Sabellianism is named after the early third-century theologian Sabellius. He refined Monarchianism into what is known as Sabellianism.

To believe, like the Monarchians did, that Father = Son = Spirit, means that only one hypostasis exists. Similarly, Sabellius taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis (Person). He believed that “there is but one undivided person in God.” (219-220) Consequently, Sabellianism has been defined as:

The “refusal to acknowledge the distinct existence of the Persons.” (Hanson, p. 844)4“The proof texts which he (Hilary) throws at Sabellianism (refusal to acknowledge the distinct existence of the Persons) are …”Hanson, Bishop RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1988

“The denial of a distinction between the three within the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 287)5“Its (the Dedication Creed’s) chief bête noire (the thing that it particularly dislikes) is Sabellianism, the denial of a distinction between the three within the Godhead …”

“Believing in only one Person (hypostasis) in the Godhead. … favour the expression ‘one hypostasis’.” (Hanson, p. 801)6“Basil suspected that Paulinus was at heart a Sabellian, believing in only one Person (hypostasis) in the Godhead. Paulinus’ association with the remaining followers of Marcellus and his continuing to favour the expression ‘one hypostasis’ … rendered him suspect.”

The main purpose of the Dedication Creed of 431 is to oppose Sabellianism. For that purpose, while Sabellianism favors “the expression ‘one hypostasis,’” (Hanson, p. 801) that creed explicitly confesses three hypostases.“7“The creed clearly and strongly argues against Sabellian emphases and those emphases were associated with Marcellan theology. We see these emphases, for instance, in the insistence that there are three names which ‘signify exactly the particular hypostasis and order and glory of each’.” (Ayres, p. 119)

It is sometimes stated that Sabellianism is another name for Monarchianism.8For example: “This movement called themselves ‘Monarchians’, the Greek Fathers called them ‘Sabellians’, as Sabellius was the person who has put this doctrine in its philosophical form, supplying its metaphysical basis.” (Willem Oliver) None of Sabellius’ writings have survived. Everything we know about him comes from the writings of his opponents and we know that one’s enemies seldom give a fair reflection of one’s views. But Von Mosheim made a study and concluded that Sabellius, while maintaining that Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis (Person), opposed the Monarchian concept that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are simply three names for the same Person. Rather, he argued that Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct forms or portions of the one divine Being. He maintained that, just like a man is one person, but has a body, a soul, and a spirit, so God is one Person, yet in that Person, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit can be discriminated:

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

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

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

TERTULLIAN

He did not oppose Sabellianism.

Wikipedia states that Tertullian was “one of the chief critics of Sabellianism.” However, Sabellius (fl. ca. 215) wrote slightly later than Tertullian (ca. 160–225).9For example: “Shortly after Tertullian’s day, a theologian named Sabellius gave …” (Litfin) (Bryan M. Litfin, University of Virginia, Professor of Theology at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago) Consequently, Tertullian did not oppose Sabellius.

He was a Logos-theologian.

“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 … one substance cohering in three’.” (Litfin)

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

However, Tertullian was a Logos theologian:

He believed that the Son is subordinate.

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

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

“He tended toward a profound theological subordination of the Son and the Spirit.” (Litfin)10“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)11“For Tertullian, the Son is second in order.” (Ayres, p. 73-74)

He believed that the Father was not always Father.

Consistent with Logos-theology, Tertullian taught that the Son or Logos was eternally within the being of the Father and only became distinct at a particular point for the purpose of creation, revelation, and redemption:

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

“For Tertullian, the Son … comes from the Father in connection with the Father’s decision to create, he also insists that the Son was always in the Father: the same two-stage conception …” (Ayres, p. 73-74)13“Tertullian … believed and taught that, though the Son or Logos was eternally within the being of the Father, he only became distinct … at a particular point for the purposes of creation, revelation and redemption” (Hanson, p. 872)

He was 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)

“When he (Tertullian) is examined against the background of his immediate predecessors, he falls into place as a typical second-century Logos theologian.” (Litfin)14“His ideas were essentially those of the Greek Logos theologians combined with insights from Bishop Irenaeus.” (Litfin)

He used the right pro-Nicene words.

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

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

Tertullian’s enemy was Monarchianism.

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

“Tertullian’s targets here are Monarchian theologians for whom the Word does not exist as a distinct existing thing.” (Ayres, p. 74)15Ayres here uses the word “thing.” That is not meant disrespectfully. In the context of the Arian Controversy with its ambiguous terminology, where the terms ‘Being’, hypostasis, and ‘Person’ are understood differently by different people, the word “thing” is useful because it lacks content. But, perhaps a less negative-sounding word such as ‘entity’ would have been better.

“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)16Tertullian’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)

He was a Sabellian.

He taught one hypostasis.

To show that Tertullian was a Sabellian, we must first show that he taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis.

The Monarchians criticized the Logos-theorists by saying that:

“The theology of the Apologists involves a division in the being and unity of God that is unacceptable.” (Ayres, p. 68)17Logos-theology teaches two creators and two Gods (bi-theism), “inconsistent with monotheism (Tertullian Praxeas, ch. 3)” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Tertullian developed his theory in response to this criticism. He deviated from the standard Logos theory by describing God as three Persons in one substance.18“In Tertullian’s new trinitarian schema, God is characterized by a single divine ‘substance’ of rulership over the cosmos. Yet he is fundamentally arranged or disposed in three personae.” (Litfin)

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

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

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

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

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

Tertullian’s Persons are not real.

A hypostasis is a distinct existence. Tertullian used the right words. However, since Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis (one single existing Entity) his Persons are not real ‘Persons’, as is also indicated by the phrase “now-more-distinct:”

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

Ayres says that “Tertullian argues for the true existence of the Son as a distinct reality” (Ayres, p. 74-75) but Sabellius would have said the same. Part of a being can still be called a “distinct reality.”

The Trinity doctrine follows Tertullian.

Some modern scholars argue for a social Trinity doctrine which claims that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases with three distinct minds. The problem is that this is tritheism unless the Son and Spirit are subordinate, which Trinitarians cannot allow.

In contrast, the traditional Trinity doctrine and Tertullian use the term ‘Person’ in the same sense. In the traditional Trinity doctrine, the term ‘Persons’ is misleading because they are not real ‘persons’ but share one single mind (one rational faculty): 

“The champions of the Nicene faith … developed a doctrine of God as a Trinity, as one substance or ousia who existed as three hypostases, three distinct realities or entities (I refrain from using the misleading word ‘Person’), three ways of being or modes of existing as God.” (Hanson)

Therefore, the traditional Trinity doctrine and Tertullians’ are very similar: Both assert three Persons in one substance. But since, in both, the ‘Persons’ are not real, both are essentially Sabellian:

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

Conclusion

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


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FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    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)
  • 2
    Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its legacy, 2004, Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology
  • 3
    “In the words of Noetus: … the Father … Himself became His own Son.” “It was therefore God who was born from a virgin and who confessed himself to humankind as the Son of God. At the cross, God commended his spirit to himself, as he acted to be dead, but he was not dead in reality, although he raised himself on the 3rd day.” (Willem H. Oliver, Department of Christian Spirituality, Church History and Missiology, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa)
  • 4
    “The proof texts which he (Hilary) throws at Sabellianism (refusal to acknowledge the distinct existence of the Persons) are …”
  • 5
    “Its (the Dedication Creed’s) chief bête noire (the thing that it particularly dislikes) is Sabellianism, the denial of a distinction between the three within the Godhead …”
  • 6
    “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.”
  • 7
    “The creed clearly and strongly argues against Sabellian emphases and those emphases were associated with Marcellan theology. We see these emphases, for instance, in the insistence that there are three names which ‘signify exactly the particular hypostasis and order and glory of each’.” (Ayres, p. 119)
  • 8
    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)
  • 9
    For example: “Shortly after Tertullian’s day, a theologian named Sabellius gave …” (Litfin) (Bryan M. Litfin, University of Virginia, Professor of Theology at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago)
  • 10
    “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)
  • 11
    “For Tertullian, the Son is second in order.” (Ayres, p. 73-74)
  • 12
    “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)
  • 13
    “Tertullian … believed and taught that, though the Son or Logos was eternally within the being of the Father, he only became distinct … at a particular point for the purposes of creation, revelation and redemption” (Hanson, p. 872)
  • 14
    “His ideas were essentially those of the Greek Logos theologians combined with insights from Bishop Irenaeus.” (Litfin)
  • 15
    Ayres here uses the word “thing.” That is not meant disrespectfully. In the context of the Arian Controversy with its ambiguous terminology, where the terms ‘Being’, hypostasis, and ‘Person’ are understood differently by different people, the word “thing” is useful because it lacks content. But, perhaps a less negative-sounding word such as ‘entity’ would have been better.
  • 16
    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)
  • 17
    Logos-theology teaches two creators and two Gods (bi-theism), “inconsistent with monotheism (Tertullian Praxeas, ch. 3)” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
  • 18
    “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)
  • 19
    Overview of the history, from the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, through the fourth-century Arian Controversy