Sabellius the Unitarian

Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Introduction

The ways of God are always perfect and wise. Sometimes we are given a glimpse of this perfection and wisdom; sometimes, not.

So it is in the development of the truth of Scripture from the time of Pentecost. As the truth developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit of Christ, we are sometimes given a peek at the astounding perfection of God's ways. So it is in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity.

The perfect wisdom of God is revealed in the fact that this doctrine was the first major doctrine of the Christian faith to be developed. When once God shows us that the truth concerning Himself is first, it is also evident to us why this had to be. The truth concerning God as the triune God is the most fundamental of all doctrines. That God is three in person and one in essence is the one great doctrine on which all other truth rests. Without establishing that doctrine near the beginning of her history, the church could not have gone on in that high calling of developing the other great truths of Scripture.

The reason for this is very simply that all truth is the truth concerning God. What God is in Himself, in His own divine being, is first. So it was that God led the church into a confession of that truth first.

There is another angle to this, however. The devil, probably better than we, recognizes how fundamental to all truth is the truth of God. And so it was that he attacked this truth first of all—before any others. If this could be destroyed, this great truth of God, the church would perish in the world.

God is sovereign—also over the devil. God decreed that Satan should launch a powerful attack against this truth first; and the church, called to defend the truth, would develop this truth—first.

The wisdom of God is also displayed in the fact that the truth of the Trinity took many years to develop and to be put in creedal form. It was not really till the Council of Nicea in 325 that the doctrine of the Trinity was set down for all the church. And even after this council, the battle continued for almost a century.

That it took so long is due to various important facts. One certainly was that the doctrine of the Trinity was very difficult to understand. Maybe there is a certain wisdom even in this. God showed His church that the truth concerning Himself was so great, so profound, so beyond all human comprehension, so utterly different from anything that could ever arise in the heart of man, that it took centuries before the church could even bring itself to say something about it.

But another reason why the doctrine took so long to develop was because it was inseparably bound up with another doctrine: the absolute divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. The doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of Christ's deity stand or fall together. And locked up in the doctrine of Christ's deity is our everlasting salvation. If we are saved, then it has to be that Christ is God. Only God can save. And Christ is our Savior.

The Problem

Actually, from the time the church began in this dispensation the saints never doubted that Christ was Himself God. Some very early second century writings prove this. "Brethren, we ought so to think of Jesus Christ as of God, as of the judge of living and dead. And we ought not to belittle our salvation; for when we belittle him, we expect also to receive little," one saint had written.

Notice how already shortly after the apostolic era, in some of the earliest extant writings of the church, Christ's divinity is tied up with our salvation.

Another quote: "It will be impossible for us to forsake Christ ... or to worship any other. For him, being the Son of God, we adore, but the martyrs ... we cherish."

Even an early pagan report on Christians spoke of these people gathering before sunrise to "sing a hymn to Christ as though to a god."

The problem arose from the fact that the gospel narratives made it clear that Christ ate, drank, suffered, and died. How could God eat and drink, suffer and die? That was no little problem.

The Gnostics (of whom we spoke in another article) solved the problem by saying that it was really impossible for God to eat and drink. So they proceeded to deny Christ's human nature and to teach that the human nature was only an appearance. He seemed to be like us, but really was not.

But a prior question also troubled the church, a question still more fundamental: What was the relation of the Son to the Father?

You must keep in mind that the church lived in a world in which polytheism was the universal religion. The Greeks and Romans, and, in fact, every nation everywhere, worshiped a whole temple full of gods almost too many to be counted. The Christian religion insisted absolutely that all polytheism was wrong, blasphemously wrong. There is only one true God. All other gods are simply idols, men's evil inventions, sinful corruptions of the truth.

But now the problem. The church insisted that God was God alone. But Christ, the One who died A.D. 33, who was sentenced by Pontius Pilate, and who arose from the grave—that Christ was also God! He was the Son of God, truly God. How could one avoid saying that, after all, the Christians had at least two gods?

Various solutions to this problem were proposed.

One solution said that Christ was the adopted Son. The status of sonship was confirmed on Christ either at the time of His baptism or at the time of His resurrection.

But this was not satisfactory. It denied that Christ was really God.

Another solution said that Christ was derived from the Father. The Father was greater than the Son. Maybe a very high angel; maybe a Spirit, maybe the Logos, maybe just son; but, for all the greatness He possessed, still inferior to the Father. Maybe "divine," but this divinity was not the same as that of the Father.

Nor was this satisfactory—although the greatest battle of all was to be fought over this question. (We will tell of it in our next article.)

And then a third solution was suggested. And this one constituted a real threat to the church in the third century. This theory suggested that Christ was, after all, to be identified with the Father. He was the same as the Father. The names "Father," "Son," and "Holy Spirit" were only three different names for God, three different ways to refer to Him, three different ways of thinking about the one and only God.

This third "solution" is the one we are going to talk about in this article.

Sabellius

There were a number of men in the early church who held to this third "solution." They may have disagreed in some minor points, but they agreed in one basic point: they had to maintain a rigid and strict monotheism at all costs. They could not sacrifice the truth that God is one God for some sort of polytheism or tritheism.

Sabellius is only the best known of the lot. And even he is not all that well known.

Many of these heretics were like meteors that flashed across the ecclesiastical heavens in one great burst of light—only to burn out in a short time, their graves unknown and their lives forgotten.

So with Sabellius.

He was born in North Africa in the area of Pentapolis, probably in what is now Libya. But he did not stay there long. At the beginning of the third century he was in Rome and had begun to ponder the mysteries of the Godhead. In fact, he was bold and brash enough to teach his views there, which brought him into conflict with the bishop of Rome, Calistus. Apparently Sabellius was not about to change his views, and he was excommunicated by Calistus.

He ran into much the same troubles when he went to Egypt and began to propagate his views there. Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria, called a council meeting of the city in 260 or 261, which council also saw fit to excommunicate Sabellius. One would think that two excommunications would have given the man pause; but his views were beginning to have influence on others, and apparently his growing following, as with so many heretics, fed his pride.

Dionysius, however, over-reacted in his fear of Sabellius' teachings. As a kind of antidote to Sabellianism, Dionysius so emphasized the distinctions between the Father and the Son that he nearly denied their essential unity. And, in emphasizing the distinction, he taught that Christ was subordinate to the Father—a view which was a kind of forerunner to Arianism—a heresy which we will discuss in our next article.

But all of this showed the confusion over the doctrine of God which prevailed in the early church. No one was sure what was the solution to the difficult problems which faced the church.

Sabellius saw in the over-reaction of Dionysius an opportunity to get his views approved in Rome after all. And so he appealed to the bishop of Rome against the views of Dionysius.

But his ploy did not work. The bishop of Rome called a synod in 262, the result of which was: 1) Sabellius was condemned for his views; 2) Dionysius was condemned for teaching tritheism (three gods) and subordinationism (Christ was inferior to the Father). This decision in Rome effectively settled the controversy—at least for a few years.

To the credit of Dionysius, when his errors were pointed out by the bishop of Rome, he gladly retracted them.

Sabellius' Teachings

The views of Sabellius have become known as Monarchianism. 

While many different heretics taught Monarchianism, and while these heretics differed somewhat from each other in certain emphases and peculiarities of their teachings, generally speaking they all taught firmly that there was only one God. They clung tenaciously to their monotheism. But they insisted that the only way to protect the view that God is one is to deny any kind of "personal" distinction between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I put the word "personal" in quotes because at this stage of the church's development the theologians possessed no vocabulary to define the doctrine in the way we do today. Indeed, this was part of the problem, because Scripture itself gives us no vocabulary to use in connection with the doctrine of God. We speak of God being one in essence and three in person; but the early church had no biblical idea of the concepts essence and person and never thought to use these terms in connection with the doctrine of God.

But, however that may be, Sabellius, in order to explain the fact that Scripture spoke of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, explained these names as only three different ways or "modes" in which God revealed Himself. The one God, also one in person, revealed Himself as a Father, as a Son, and as a Spirit.

God revealed Himself as a Father in the work of creation, as a Son in the work of redemption, and as a Spirit in the work of sanctification in our hearts.

And so the Trinity was denied.

The Response of the Church

The church knew that these views were wrong. It was with good reason, therefore, that Sabellius was disciplined in whatever place he attempted to propagate his views.

But there are some things that have to be remembered.Generally speaking, the church did not, at this early day, know what the truth of Scripture really was on the question of the doctrine of God. That would take another 50+ years, and many bitter controversies. It knew what was wrong; it did not know what was right. It was prepared to say to Sabellius and his henchmen: "You teach what is contrary to the Scriptures." It was not prepared to say, "The Scriptures teach this and this."

But what I have just said is not entirely true.

The Western part of the church was ahead of the Eastern part in those days. This was evident from the fact that the bishops of Rome understood exactly the error of Sabellius, while the Bishop of Alexandria himself strayed into other errors in his fear of Sabellianism.

But what the West saw more clearly than the East could not be easily shared with the East because of the huge language barrier: the West wrote and talked in Latin; the East, in Greek. The East did not know what the West was thinking and doing for the most part, although the West was more informed about the East because Greek was more common throughout the Mediterranean world than Latin.

The advanced ideas of the West on the doctrine of the Trinity were due, in large measure, to the work of Tertullian. Our readers will recall how this great church father disappointed us all when he drifted into the error of that early form of Pentecostalism which has become known as Montanism. But Tertullian had come very close to defining what was to become the doctrine of the Trinity, and had given the church a vocabulary which included in it words like "Trinity," "person," "essence."

In fact, Tertullian was the first to define the error of Sabellianism in a graphic and unforgettable way. "These heretics," said Tertullian, "have crucified the Father and deposed the Holy Spirit."

These were all preliminary skirmishes in the great battles that were yet to be fought before the issues were settled. But they would have to be settled because the doctrine of God is the basis of all truth.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not the abstract, difficult, icy cold doctrine of theologians. To mention only a few instances of how important the doctrine is, we must remember that the whole doctrine of the covenant rests upon the Trinity and the triune covenant life God lives in Himself. The absolute divinity of Christ rests on the truth of the Trinity; and on that doctrine of Christ's divinity rests all our salvation. The divinity of the Holy Spirit is the rock on which is to be built the whole blessed concept of our union with Christ—and union with God Himself through Christ.