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History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325.
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§ 152. Sabellianism.


Sources: Hippolytyus: Philos. IX. 11 (D. and Schn. p. 450, 456, 458). Rather meagre, but important. Epiphan.: Haer: 62. The fragments of letters of Dionysius of Alex. in Athanasius, De Sentent. Dion., and later writers, collected in Routh, Reliqu. sacr. Novatian: De Trinit. Euseb.: Contra Marcellum. The references in the writiings of Athanasius (De Syn.; De Decr. Nic. Syn.; Contra Arian.). Basil M.: Ep. 207, 210, 214, 235. Gregory of Naz.: λόγος κατὰ Ἀρείου κ. Σαβελλίου.

Comp. Schleiermacher, Neander, Baur, Dorner, Harnack, l. c., and Zahn, Marcellus von. Ancyra (Gotha, 1867); Nitzsch, Dogmengesch. I. 206–209, 223–225.


5. Sabellius is by far the most original, profound, and ingenious of the ante-Nicene Unitarians, and his system the most plausible rival of orthodox trinitarianism. It revives from time to time in various modifications.10801080    We will only mention Marcellus of Ancyra., Schleiermacher, and Bushnell. Schleiermacher’s doctrine of the trinity is a very ingenious improvement of Sabellianism.080 We know very little of his life. He was probably a Lybian from the Pentapolis. He spent some time in Rome in the beginning of the third century, and was first gained by Callistus to Patripassianism, but when the latter became bishop be was excommunicated.10811081    This we learn from Hippolytus, who introduces him rather incidentally (in his account of Callistus) as a man well known at his time in the Roman church.081 The former fact is doubtful. His doctrine spread in Rome, and especially also in the Pentapolis in Egypt. Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, excommunicated him in 260 or 26110821082    Sabellius must have been an old man at that time.082 at a council in that city, and, in vehement opposition to him declared in almost Arian terms for the hypostatical independence and subordination of the Son in relation to the Father. This led the Sabellians to complain of that bishop to Dionysius of Rome, who held a council in 262, and in a special treatise controverted Sabellianism, as well as subordinatianism and tritheism, with nice orthodox tact.10831083    Comp. the close of § 149 (this vol.).083 The bishop of Alexandria very cheerfully yielded, and retracted his assertion of the creaturely inferiority of the Son in favor of the orthodox homo-ousios. Thus the strife was for a while allayed, to be renewed with still greater violence by Arius half a century later.

The system of Sabellius is known to us only from a few fragments, and some of these not altogether consistent, in Athanasius and other fathers.

While the other Monarchians confine their inquiry to the relation of Father and Son, Sabellius embraces the Holy Spirit in his speculation, and reaches a trinity, not a simultaneous trinity of essence, however, but only a successive trinity of revelation. He starts from a distinction of the monad and the triad in the divine nature. His fundamental thought is, that the unity of God, without distinction in itself, unfolds or extends itself10841084    ἡ μονὰς πλατυνθεῖσα γέγονε τρίας.084 in the course of the world’s development in three different forms and periods of revelation10851085    ὀνόματα, πρόσωπα,—not in the orthodox sense of hypostasis, however, but in the primary sense of mask, or part (in a play)—, also μορφαί, σχήματα.085 and, after the completion of redemption, returns into unity. The Father reveals himself in the giving of the law or the Old Testament economy (not in the creation also, which in his view precedes the trinitarian revelation); the Son, in the incarnation; the Holy Ghost, in inspiration. The revelation of the Son ends with the ascension; the revelation of the Spirit goes on in regeneration and sanctification. He illustrates the trinitarian relation by comparing the Father to the disc of the sun, the Son to its enlightening power, the Spirit to its warming influence. He is said also to have likened the Father to the body, the Son to the soul, the Holy Ghost to the spirit of man; but this is unworthy of his evident speculative discrimination. His view of the Logos,10861086    Which was for the first time duly brought out by Dr. Baur.086 too, is peculiar. The, Logos is not identical with the Son, but is the monad itself in its transition to triad; that is, God conceived as vital motion and creating principle, the speaking God,10871087    θεὸς λαλῶν.087 in distinction from the silent God.10881088    θεὸς σιωπῶν.088 Each πρόσωπον is another διαλέγεσθαι and the three πρόσωπα together are only successive evolutions of the Logos or the worldward aspect of the divine nature. As the Logos proceeded from God, so he returns at last into him, and the process of trinitarian development10891089    διάλεξις089 closes.

Athanasius traced the doctrine of Sabellius to the Stoic philosophy. The common element is the pantheistic leading view of an expansion and contraction10901090    ἕκτασις, or πλατυτμός and συστολή.090 of the divine nature immanent in the world. In the Pythagorean system also, in the Gospel of the Egyptians, and in the pseudo-Clementine Homilies, there are kindred ideas. But the originality of Sabellius cannot be brought into question by these. His theory broke the way for the Nicene church doctrine, by its full coordination of the three persons. He differs from the orthodox standard mainly in denying the trinity of essence and the permanence of the trinity of manifestation; making Father, Son, and Holy Ghost only temporary phenomena, which fulfil their mission and return into the abstract monad.



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