Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine – Available articles

These articles trace the development of the Trinity doctrine through the first about 500 years, with the emphasis on the fourth century (the 300’s).

First 300 years

During the first three centuries, the church was persecuted by the Roman Empire. Did the Pre-Nicene Fathers describe Jesus as God? Did they believe in the Trinity?

Nicene Creed of AD 325

The Nicene Creed is the most famous and influential creed in the history of the church (Justin Holcomb).

Fourth Century Arianism

After the Nicene Creed was formulated in 325, the church soon rejected it and returned to the views it held during the previous centuries. In the year 380, emperor Theodosius made an end to the Arian Controversy. These articles explain the intervening period:

The end of Roman Arianism

Authors on the Arian Controversy

These are extracts from the writings of some authors that themselves analyzed the ancient documents:

Fifth Century Arianism

Sixth Century

Later developments

Trinity – General

Articles I must improve

Other series

Was Sabellius the first Trinitarian?

Context of this article

In my understanding, Jesus never claimed to be God but always indicated that He is subordinate to the Father. He claimed to be the Son of God (John 10:36). Even at Pentecost, Peter proclaimed Jesus as:

A man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst” (Acts 2:22).

The high Christology passages of the Bible, such as John 1, Hebrews 1, Galatians 1, and Philippians 2, were only revealed by the Holy Spirit in the subsequent decades because, before Christ died, the disciples were not ready to process such information (John 16:12).

This left the church, after the New Testament was compiled, to work out how Christ relates to God. At first, while the church still was persecuted, the apologists found it convenient to explain Christ as the Logos of Greek philosophy; separate from and subordinate to the transient high God. This was also the view of Origen – the great theologian of the third century

But in the third century, a movement developed, spearheaded by Noetus, Praxeus, and Sabellius, in which the Son was no longer subordinate to the Father. However, to remain true to the Jewish/Christian principle that God is one, they proposed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three faces or modes of the one God. We refer to this as modalism or Sabellianism.

However, this was condemned as heresy (Wikipedia). The majority view remained the logos theology of the previous centuries. This is confirmed by Frend (Frend, WHC: The Rise of Christianity) who stated that, at Nicaea:

“The great majority of the Eastern clergy were ultimately disciples of Origen. … they were simply concerned with maintaining the traditional Logos-theology of the Greek-speaking Church.”

But now the question in this article is whether Sabellius really taught modalism. In Christianity, God is always one. The question always is whether He is also three, as in the Trinity doctrine. In modalism, God is not three. The question here is whether Sabellius taught that God is both one and three.

Summary

Johann Lorenz von Mosheim (1694-1755), a German Lutheran theologian who founded the pragmatic school of church historians (Britannica), discusses the theology of Sabellius – a third-century priest and theologian – on pages 215 to 225 of his book – The Christianity of the first 325 years – which is available on Google Play Books.

Contrasting views

Since none of Sabellius’ own writings have survived, and since everything that we know about him comes from the writings of his opponents (Wikipedia), it is difficult to determine what he really taught. On page 217, Von Mosheim explains that, in ancient times, different people had different views of what Sabellius taught:

According to the majority, Sabellius taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are only three names of the one God (modalism).

But others said that Sabellius taught that the Father is truly God and that the Son and the Holy Spirit both are divine virtues that came from the Father. Therefore, they conclude that Sabellius’ doctrine approximates that of the Socinians.

Von Mosheim’s View

Von Mosheim, “after very carefully comparing and pondering the statements of the ancients,” concludes that both these views are wrong. As from the last paragraph on page 217, Von Mosheim explains his own understanding:

Sabellius’ goal was “to reconcile … the scriptural doctrine of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with the doctrine of the unity of the divine nature. His goal, therefore, was to prevent “a plurality of Gods” by denying a “distinction of persons in the divine nature.” In other words, he maintained that there is only one divine person. (p217-218)

But Sabellius still believed the distinction of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be a real distinction, and not a mere appellative or nominal one.

Like body, soul and spirit

In the remainder of the chapter, Von Mosheim, from ancient writings, defends his interpretation. One example is particularly striking. From the writings of Epiphanius, he shows that the Sabellians used to illustrate their doctrine by saying that, just as a man is but one person, and yet in his one person, three things may be discriminated – 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. (p219-220)

Conclusion

On this basis, Von Mosheim concludes that Sabellius considered the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be three portions of the divine nature, severed, as it were, from God, and differing from each other – not subsisting as three persons. (p220)

Consequently, these three forms of God, according to Sabellius, were neither three qualities of the divine nature, nor three modes of acting, nor three names of the one God; but they were parts or portions, separated in a sense from God, and yet in another sense connected with him.

The First Trinity Doctrine

In the Trinity doctrine, God is one substance or essence but three distinct persons. According to Von Mosheim, Sabellius also taught that God is one in one sense and three in another, namely one “person” but three “forms” that really differ.

Since the difference between the words “person” (hypostasis) and ousia (substance) was only worked out by Basil the Great late in the fourth century (see, e.g., Lienhard or Pomazansky), these words had different meanings when Sabellius lived. For example, Sabellius used the words “person” and “nature” as synonyms (page 220). When we compare Sabellius’ teachings with the Trinity doctrine, therefore, we must look beyond words to the underlying principles.

What Sabellius taught, as explained by Von Mosheim, is clearly not the Trinity doctrine as described, for example, in the Athanasian Creed, but if we replace Sabellius’ references to “person” with “divine essence,” and “forms” with “person,” do we not have an entry-level Trinity doctrine? As Prof Ninan stated, “The first attempt to understand the concept of Trinity was proposed by Sabellius around 217-220 AD.”

Perhaps Sabellian is so prominent in fourth-century writings because these writers attempted to show how their teachings differ from Sabellianism because that was already condemned as heresy (Wikipedia).

Since virtually all orthodox theologians prior to the Arian controversy in the latter half of the fourth century were subordinationists to some extent (Badcock, Gary D. (1997), Light of Truth and Fire of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit, p. 43 or Origen (Wikipedia)), and since Sabellius’ theology was a significant break away from the subordinationist orthodoxy of his day, perhaps the orthodox theologians should rename ‘Sabellius the heretic’ to ‘Sabellius the Great!’

– END OF SUMMARY – 

Purpose

Johann Lorenz von Mosheim (1694-1755) was a German Lutheran theologian who founded the pragmatic school of church historians, which insisted on objective, critical treatment of original sources. In 1723, Mosheim became professor at Helmstedt and in 1747 was made professor of divinity and chancellor of the university at Göttingen. (Britannica).

Von Mosheim’s 514-page book – The Christianity of the first 325 years – was translated into English by James Murdock and is available on Google Play Books. Pages 215 to 225 discuss Sabellius – a third-century priest – and his theology. This post is an extract from those pages. I provided headings and certain bolded key phrases. [In square brackets I provide some explanations.] And I also provided a summary below.

Introduction

After the middle of this century, Sabellius, an African bishop, or presbyter, of Ptolemais, the capitol of the Pentapolitan province of Libya Cyrenaica, attempted to reconcile, in a manner somewhat different from that of Noetus, the scriptural doctrine of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with the doctrine of the unity of the divine nature. (page 215)

… the error of Sabellius infected several of the Pentapolitan bishops, and perhaps some others … from unquestionable testimony, it appears that, in the fourth and fifth centuries, there were Sabellians in various places. (page 215-6)

Different from Noetus

The doctrine of Sabellius was not identical to that of Noetus. I rephrase the rest of this paragraph:

Noëtus taught that the person of the supreme Deity assumed the human nature of Christ into union with himself. Sabellius did not teach this. He taught that only “an energy or virtue, emitted from the Father of all, or, if you choose, a particle of the person or nature of the Father, became united with the man Christ.” (page 216)

And such a virtue or particle of the Father, he also supposed, constituted the holy Spirit. (page 216)

[This point is important because it is generally thought that Sabellius and Noetus had the same teaching (Wikipedia).]

Hence, when the ancients call Sabellius and his disciples Patripassians, the appellation must be understood differently from what it is when applied to Noetus and his followers. (page 216)

[“Patripassianism” comes from the Latin words pater for “father”, and passus from the verb “to suffer” and is the teaching that the Father suffered on the Cross.]

Evidence of Sabellius’ teachings

The name of Sabellius is of much more frequent and marked notice, in the writings of the ancients, than the name of Noetus. Nor is he mentioned solely by those who treat expressly of the sects in the early ages … but there is frequent mention of him also, by those who contended with the Arians and the other corrupters of the doctrine of three persons in God, and by those who expounded the true doctrine concerning God and Christ. (page 216)

Nevertheless, the history of Sabellius is very brief.

[None of Sabellius’ writings have survived. Everything that we know about him comes from the writings of his opponents (Wikipedia).]

His views of God and Christ are stated variously, both by the ancients and moderns. (page 216)

Views Widespread

That his error spread widely … is fully stated by Athanasius…  and more concisely by Eusebius …. (page 216)

The zeal of Dionysius may have driven the Sabellians from Libya and Egypt. But in the fourth century, according to Epiphanius, (Hæres. Isii. § 1. p. 513) the Sabellians were considerably numerous in Mesopotamia, and at Rome. (page 216)

And in the fifth century, the abbot Euthymius … boldly assailed … the Sabellian doctrine which confounds or combines the Father and the Son. … (page 216)

The Majority View

Respecting the real sentiments of Sabellius, there is great disagreement among learned men. The majority says:

He taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are only three names of the one God, originating from the diversity of his acts and operations: that he is called the Father, when he performs the appropriate works of a Father, such as precreating, providing, cherishing, nourishing, and protecting; that he is called the Son, when operating in the Son, and thereby accomplishing what was necessary for the salvation of mankind; and that he is called the Holy Spirit, when he is considered as the source of all virtue and sanctification. (page 217)

This exposition of his views is supported by numerous passages from the ancients, who say that Sabellius taught that the Father himself bore the penalties of the sins of mankind; whence he and his disciples were denominated Patripassians. This opinion, Christian Worm, in his Historia Sabelliana, supports with all the arguments and authorities he can command. (page 217)

The Minority View (page 217)

But others, relying chiefly on the authority of Epiphanius, maintain that the ancients misunderstood Sabellius;

That he did not hold the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to be only three appellations of the one God, as acting in different ways;

But that he believed the Father to be truly God, in whom is no division; and the Son to be a divine virtue, descending from the Father upon the man Christ, so that he might be able to work miracles, and to point out correctly the way for men to be saved;

And that he believed the Holy Spirit to be another ray or virtue from the divine nature, moving the minds of men and elevating them to God.

And on this ground, they conclude

That there was a great difference between the doctrine of Sabellius and that of Noëtus, already described; and

That the name of Patripassians was inapplicable to Sabellius, because he did not teach that the Father, or God, suffered penalties, but only some [p. 690] virtue, proceeding from the Father, was present with the man Christ, and aided him when he bore our penalties.

And they say that the doctrine of Sabellius did not differ greatly from that which is maintained by the Socinians. –

Thus have thought, besides others of less fame, Alexander Morus …  Isaac de Beausobre … and Simon de Vries …

Von Mosheim’s View

After very carefully comparing and pondering the statements of the ancients, I have concluded,

That those err who make the Sabellian doctrine and that of Noëtus to be the same;

But those also are deceived, to some extent, who deny that the Sabellians could, with any propriety, be called Patripassians by the ancients, declaring that they were very much like the Socinians,

And that if the statements of Epiphanius are compared with those of the earlier writers, the whole controversy will be settled. (p 217)

I will now state, as carefully and perspicuously as I can, what appears to me true in regard to this subject.

Only one God

I That fear, lest God, who as both reason and the Scriptures teach is a perfectly simple unity, should be rent into a plurality of Gods, which influenced Noëtus, likewise induced Sabellius to deny the distinction of persons in the divine nature, and to maintain that there is only one divine person … And hence, according to Epiphanius, (Hæres. Isii. { 1, p504) whenever the Sabellians fell in with unlearned persons, whom they hoped easily to convert, they proposed to them this one question: … What then shall we say? Have we one God, or three Gods? (p217-218)

Real distinctions between Father, Son, and Spirit

II But while Sabellius maintained that there was but one divine person, he still believed the distinction of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, described in the Scriptures, to be a real distinction, and not a mere appellative or nominal one. (p218)

That is, he believed the one divine person whom he recognized, to have three distinct forms, which are really different, and which should not be confounded. (p218)

This remark is of the greatest importance to a correct understanding of Sabellius’ doctrine; and it ought, therefore, to be accurately substantiated.

First Witness – Arnobius

The first witness I adduce is … Arnobius, junior ~ a writer of the fifth century, whose work … was published by Francis Feuardent, subjoined to the works of Irenæus. Though he lived long after Sabellius, he is an author of much importance on this subject, because he gives us statements from a work of Sabellius himself, which he had before him.

He makes Serapion say, ( in Feuardent’s edition of Irenæus, Paris, 1675, Fol. p. 520): Ego tibi Sabellium lego, (Serapion, therefore, must be considered as holding in his hand some book of Sabellius, [p691] from which he read, )

anathema dicentem his, qui Patrem, et Filium et Spiritum sanctum esse negarent, ad convincendam Trinitatem. Serapion had before said : In Sabellii me insaniam induxisti, qui unum Deum, Patrem et Filium et Spiritum sanctum confitetur.

And when Arnobius had replied:

Sabellium negare Filium et Spiritum sanctum; that is, that Sabellius taught that the Son and the Holy Spirit are nothing different from the Father,

Serapion produced an actual work of Sabellius and showed from it that Sabellius did not maintain what Arnobius asserted, or did not confound the Son and Holy Spirit with the Father, but clearly discriminated the two former from the latter. (p218)

Arnobius, on hearing this, yields the point, or admits that it is so; but still, he maintains, that there is a wide difference between the doctrine of Sabellius and that of other Christians; because the latter believed the Son to be begotten by the Father, which Sabellius denied:

Nos autem Patrem dicimus et credimus, qui genuit Fi liun, et est Pater unici sui Filii ante tempora geniti. And this is a just representation: for although Sabellius made a distinction between the Father and the Son, yet he would not admit that the Son was a divine person, begotten by the Father. (p218)

From this passage, therefore, it is manifest :

(a) That Sabellius held to a Trinity.

(b) That he anathematized those who denied the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or a Trinity. Whence it follows, that

(c) Sabellius held to a real, and not a merely nominal distinction between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (p218)

Had he supposed the terms Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, were three names of the one supreme Deity, there would have been no ground for his anathema. For there never was, and never can be, a single Christian who denies that these terms occur in the Bible, and are there applied to God. It is unquestionable, both from the course of the argument, and from the nature of the case, that Sabellius condemned those who commingled and confounded the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But, most certainly, they do confound the Trinity, who make the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to differ in nothing but in name. Therefore, it was such persons that Sabellius anathematized. (p218-9)

Second Witness – Basil the Great

A second witness comes forward, viz. Basil the Great; who, although he sometimes seems to favor those who held that Sabellius taught a nominal distinction in the Trinity, yet, in two passages shows, not obscurely, that Sabellius held to some real distinction in God.

One of the passages is, ( Epist. ccx. Opp. tom. iii. p. 317. edit Benedict. ):

‘Ανυπόστατον των προσώπων αναπλασμόν, ου δε ο Σαβέλλιος παρητήσατο, ειπών,, τον αυτόν Θεόν ένα το υποκειμένω όντα, προς τις εκάστοτε παραπιπτόυσας χρείας μεταμορφόυμενον, νύν μεν ως πατέρα, νύν δε ως υιόν, νύν δε ως πνεύμα άγιον suadézerfal. lllud hypostasi carens personarum commentum ne Sabellius qui dem rejecit, quippe cum dicat eundem Deum, cum subjecto unus sit, pro occur rentibus subinde occasionibus transformatum, modo ut Patrem, modo ut Filium, modo ut Spiritum s : inctum loqui.

The other passage is (Epist. ccxxxv. p. 364.):

Σαβέλλιος πολλαχου συγχέων την έννοίαν, επιχειρει διαιρεϊν τα πρόσωπα, την αυτήν υπόστασιν λέγων προς την εκάστοτε παρεμπίπτουσαν χρείαν μεταχηματίζεσ- [ p. 692. } fai. Sabellius, tametsi confundit notionem ( Dei ), tamen sæpe conatur personas distinguere, dum hypostasin eamdem ait pro usu subinde occurrente varias per sonas induere.

Basil, indeed, speaks less clearly than I could wish, on this very obscure subject. But this is plain enough, that the Trinity of Sabellius was not merely nominal or verbal. For 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, and that he assumes the one or the other of these forms, according to the state of things. But diverse forms of one and the same being, however they may be considered, involve some real distinction, and cannot be confounded with different appellations for the same thing.

Third Witness – An Analogy

But nothing will better elucidate and confirm my position, than the comparison by which the Sabellians were accustomed to illustrate their doctrine concerning the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as it is stated by Epiphanius, (Hæres. lxii. p513).

Having stated the Sabellian doctrine in the cornmon form: έιναι εν μία υποστάσει τρείς óvoparías, there are three appellations in one person; he proceeds to show that this language must not be construed too rigidly, by saying:

n’s ¿ v dvJpurco, σώμα, και ψυχή, και πνευμα. Και ειναι μεν το σώμα, ως ειπείν τον πατέρα, ψυχήν δε ώς ειπείν τον υιόν, το πνευμα δε ως ανθρώπου, δυσως και το άγιον πνευμα εν Tu Océrati. Patrem, Filium, Spiritum sanctum sic se habere in Deo quemad modum in homine corpus, animam et spiritum; corporis instar Patrem, animæ Filium, Spiritum denique sanctum in Divinitate instar spiritus se habere.

Comparisons, undoubtedly, are not to be pressed too far; but this one would lose every shadow of likeness and similarity, and would become a dissimilarity rather than a similarity if Sabellius had taught only a Trinity of names or words. If the difference between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the same — I do not say altogether, but only in part — as that between the body, the rational soul or spirit, and the sentient soul in man; then, necessarily, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, must differ really from each other. (p219)

Sabellius, therefore, believed that, as a man is but one person, and yet in his one 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. (p219-220)

Other testimonies will occur as we proceed.

Three portions of the one divine nature

III 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 (p693) being three portions of the divine nature, severed, as it were, from God, and differing from each other, yet not subsisting as three persons, but all dependent on the one individual divine nature.

[Notice that person and nature are used as synonyms.]

The Father

And therefore God, when about to create the universe, did not put his whole person in action, but he sent out a portion of his nature, by which he accomplished his design. And this portion of the Divinity is called the Father; because, by its agency, God has become the parent of all things, or procreates, sustains, cherishes, and governs all. This Father produced Christ in the womb of the virgin Mary, and for that reason is emphatically Christ’s Father; and Christ is called the Son of God, because he holds the relation of a Son, in regard to this divine energy.

The Son

Again, when the same God would reclaim to himself the human race by Christ, he sent forth another portion of himself, which, being united to Christ, is called the Son; because he resides in the Son of God, and by that Son teaches and works, and, in a certain sense, makes one person with the Son.

Holy Spirit

Lastly, God sent out a third particle of his nature, perfectly separate from the two former, by which he animates the universe, and enlightens, excites, and regenerates the minds of men. This portion of God is called the Holy Spirit; because, like a wind, he excites and produces holy movements in men.

The three forms … of God, therefore, according to Sabellius, were neither three qualities of the divine nature, … nor three modes of acting, nor three appellations of the one God; but they were parts or portions, rent, indeed, in a sense from God, and yet in another sense connected with him.

Comparison with the Sun

This exposition is compatible with that celebrated comparison taken from the sun, which Epiphanius mentions, and which had led some worthy men to make the Sabellians agree with the Socinians.

Epiphanius (Hæres. lxii. p. 513) says, that the Sabellians were accustomed to explaining their doctrine by comparison with the sun, thus:

In the sun there is but one substance … but there are three powers … namely … the illuminating power, the warming power, and the circular form. The warming power answers to the Holy Spirit; the illuminating power, to the Son; and the form or figure … to the Father. (p220)

This representation seems in itself to favor the opinions of those who make Sabellius discard all real distinctions in the divine nature. But Epiphanius explains the comparison in a manner that makes it apparent, that Sabellius did not intend, by this new comparison, to subvert his former comparison, taken from the soul, body, and spirit in a man. For he adds, that the Son was sent out like ray from the Father, to perform what was requisite for the salvation of mankind, and, having accomplished the business, returned again to heaven; and that the Holy Spirit also, in like manner, should be viewed as something sent into the world. Now, whatever is sent forth from God, and afterward returns to God, must undoubtedly be something actually separate in some way from the divine nature: because, it could not possibly return back [p694) to God, unless it had departed and been separated from God. (page 220-221)

Let no one trouble himself with the difficulties which this dogma involves; for the question is, not how wisely Sabellius reasoned, but what distinction he made between the Father, the Son, and the holy Spirit.

What the ancients said about Sabellius

In the remainder of the chapter, Von Mosheim discusses what various ancient writers have written about Sabellius. He argues that they sometimes contradict and correct themselves. But since the purpose of this post is simply to show what Von Mosheim’s conclusions were – not what earlier authors argued – that analysis is not copied here.

Final Observation

At Nicaea, as the conservative website BIBLE.CA confesses, most of the delegates opposed the Nicene Creed because of the phrases containing the word ousia (substance), including homoousios (same substance). They were concerned that this taught Sabellianism, which was already condemned (Wikipedia). The Sabellian theologians used these words to explain their theories. The use of the word homoousios by the Sabellian bishops of Libya had been condemned by Dionysius of Alexandria in the 260s (WHC Frend. The Rise of Christianity, 1985, p140-141).

Now, if it is true that the Nicene Creed is a revived form of Sabellianism, then it revived a theory which the church already condemned in previous centuries. In another article, I argue that the traditional Trinity doctrine is essentially modalism.

It is further important to understand that these controversial ousia-terms were included in the Nicene Creed because Emperor Constantine insisted on it (BIBLE.CA or Erickson or A Short History of Christian Doctrine, Bernard Lohse, 1966, p51-53). As Frend stated, “The Emperor exerted all his influence toward securing unanimity.”

In conclusion, it seems as if the Nicene Creed is a revival of an already condemned theology because of pressure from the emperor.

Trinity – Available Articles

First 300 years (the persecuted church)

Nicene Creed – AD 325

Fourth Century Arianism

Authors on the Arian Controversy

Fifth Century Arianism

Sixth Century

Later developments

Trinity – General