Sabellius was a third century priest and theologian who most likely taught in Rome, but may have been an African from Libya. Basil and others call him a Libyan from Pentapolis, but this seems to rest on the fact that Pentapolis was a place where the teachings of Sabellius thrived, according to Dionysius of Alexandria, c. 260.
What is known of Sabellius is drawn mostly from the polemical writings of his opponents and there is a strong probablility that his views are misrepresented.
Sabellius taught that God was indivisible, with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being three modes or manifestations of one divine Person. A Sabellian modalist would say that the One God successively revealed Himself to man throughout time as the Father in Creation; the Son in Redemption; and the Spirit in Sanctification and Regeneration.
It has been noted also that Greek term "homoousian", which Athanasius of Alexandria later favored, was actually a term reported to be put forth and favored also by Sabellius, and was a term that many followers of Athanasius were uneasy about. Their objection to the term "homoousian" was that it was considered to be un-Scriptural, suspicious, and "of a Sabellian tendency." This was because Sabellius also considered the Father and the Son to be "one substance" which was intended by Sabellius to mean that the Father and Son were "one essential person."
According to Epiphanius of Salamis, Sabellius used the sun’s characteristics as an analogy of God’s nature. Just as the sun has "three powers" (warmth, light, and circular form), so God has three aspects: the warming power answers to the Holy Spirit; the illuminating power, to the Son; and the form or figure, to the Father.
Von Mosheim thus described Sabellius' views: 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. 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.
The Teachings of Sabellius were most vigorously opposed by Tertullian in North Africa and Hippolytus in Rome, who both proposed an hierarchical trinity of subordinate persons. Tertullian gave Sabellius' doctrine the name Patripassianism, meaning ‘the father suffered’, since Sabellius made no true distinction of persons between the Father and the Son. This is a distortion of Sabellius' teaching according to Clissold, who quotes scholars who have appealed to Epiphanius' writings. Epiphanius (d. 403) says that in his time Sabellians were still numerous in Mesopotamia and Rome - a fact confirmed by an inscription discovered at Rome in 1742, evidently erected by Sabellian Christians.
Last Update: January 25, 2011