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.

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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.

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