The most sophisticated form of modalist Monarchian opinions concerning the godhead and named after its originator, Sabellius “the Libyan” (fl. c. 220). Nothing is known of Sabellius, except that he was in all probability a Christian from one of the cities of Cyrenaica, where his opinions continued to be supported throughout the third century, and that he is likely to have taught at Rome in the time of Pope Callixtus (217-222). (On Sabellianism in Cyrenaica, see Dionysius of Alexandria, quoted by Eusebius Historia ecclesiastica 7.6; Athanasius De sententia Dionysii 5.9).
Sabellius taught that in God there was one substance but three activities, while God was a unit or Monad. He manifested Himself under three distinct aspects, in creation and giving the law, as Father; as Son in the work of redemption; and as Holy Spirit in the work of sanctification and grace. Sabellius thought of the Monad that was God as expanding and extending when carrying out the various phases of the divine life. These phases, however, did not constitute independent activities, but were the simple assumption of a fresh guise or outward appearance (prosopon) of the Godhead, just as an actor might assume a different mask in performing a different role while remaining himself.
Sabellius stressed the unity of God, and the indivisibility of God and Christ. In Cyrenaica around 260, during their defense against Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, his disciples invented a new theological term, Huiopator (Son-Father) to demonstrate their beliefs (Athanasius Epistula de synodis 16), which continued to attract adherents in Egypt. The Melitians may have tended toward Sabellianism, and ARIUS seems to have thought Bishop ALEXANDER I of Alexandria (312-326) had Sabellian leanings when he challenged his views regarding the unity of the Godhead (Socrates Scholasticus Historia ecclesiastica 1.5). In the long controversy between Athanasius and his opponents among the Eastern episcopate, Sabellianism was a charge frequently urged against the bishop of Alexandria and his adherents, but one that ATHANASIUS repudiated vigorously (Athanasius Tomus ad Antiochenos 3 and 6, from the Council of Alexandria in 362).
The objection to Sabellius was that in asserting that there was in the Godhead a single substance but threefold operation, he was leading the church back to Judaism. As BASIL OF CAESAREA put the matter about 375, “Sabellianism is Judaism imported into the preaching of the Gospel,” teaching “the same God transformed as the need of the moment required” (Letter 210; compare Letters 189 and 236). Despite formal condemnation at the Council of CONSTANTINOPLE in 381 (Canon 1), in Egypt the Sabellian tendencies of many ordinary Christians continued and pointed the way to MONOPHYSITISM in the fifth and later centuries.
- Bethune-Baker, J. H. The Early History of Christian Doctrine, 9th ed. London, 1951.
- Kidd, B. J. A History of the Church to A. D. 461, Vol. 1. Oxford, 1922.
W. H. C. FREND