Sabellius - Encyclopedia




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SABELLIUS (fl. 230), early Christian presbyter and theologian, was of Libyan origin, and came from the Pentapolis to Rome early in the 3rd century. To understand his position a brief review of the Christian thought of the time is necessary. Even after the elimination of Gnosticism the church remained without any uniform Christology; the Trinitarians and the Unitarians continued to confront each other, the latter at the beginning of the 3rd century still forming the large majority. These in turn split into two principal groups - the Adoptianists and the Modalists - the former holding Christ to be the man chosen of God, on whom the Holy Spirit rested in a quite unique sense, and who after toil and suffering, through His oneness of will with God, became divine, the latter maintaining Christ to be a manifestation of God Himself. Both groups had their scientific theologians who sought to vindicate their characteristic doctrines, the Adoptianist divines holding by the Aristotelian philosophy, and the Modalists by that of the Stoics; while the Trinitarians (Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, Novatian), on the other hand, appealed to Plato.

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In Rome Modalism was the doctrine which prevailed from Victor to Calixtus or Callistus (c. 190-220). The bishops just named protected within the city the schools of Epigonus and Cleomenes, where it was taught that the Son is identical with the Father. But the presbyter Hippolytus was successful in convincing the leaders of that church that the Modalistic doctrine taken in its strictness was contrary to Scripture. Calixtus saw himself under the necessity of abandoning his friends and setting up a mediating formula designed to harmonize the Trinitarian and the Modalistic positions. But, while excommunicating the strict Unitarians (Monarchians), he also took the same course with Hippolytus and his followers, declaring their teaching to be ditheism. The mediation formula, however, proposed by Calixtus became the bridge by which, in the course of the decades immediately following, the doctrine of the Trinity made its way into the Roman Church. In the year 250, when the Roman presbyter Novatian wrote his book De Trinitate, the doctrine of Hippolytus, once discredited as ditheism, had already become official there. At the same time Rome and most of the other churches of the West still retained a certain leaning towards Modalistic monarchianism. This appears, on the one hand, in the use of expressions having a Modalistic ring about them - see especially the poems of Commodian, written about the time of Valerian - and, on the other hand, in the rejection of the doctrine that the Son is subordinate to the Father and is a creature (witness the controversy between Dionysius of Alexandria and Dionysius of Rome), as well as in the readiness of the West to accept the formula of Athanasius, that the Father and the Son are one and the same in substance (O,uoou6coc). The strict Modalists, whom Calixtus had excommunicated along with their most zealous opponent Hippolytus, were led by Sabellius. His party continued to subsist in Rome for a considerable time afterwards,' and withstood Calixtus as an unscrupulous apostate. In the West, however, the influence of Sabellius seems never to have been important; in the East, on the other hand, after the middle of the 3rd century his doctrine found much acceptance, first in the Pentapolis and afterwards in other provinces. 2 It was violently controverted by the bishops, notably by Dionysius of Alexandria, and the development in the East of the philosophical doctrine of the Trinity after Origen (from 260 to 320) was very powerfully influenced by the opposition to Sabellianism. Thus, for example, at the great synod held in Antioch in 268 the word oµoou6cos was rejected, as seeming to favour Unitarianism. The Sabellian doctrine itself, however, during the decades above mentioned underwent many changes in the East and received a philosophical dress. In the 4th century this and the allied doctrine of Marcellus of Ancyra were frequently confounded, so that it is exceedingly difficult to arrive at a clear account of it in its genuine form. Sabellianism, in fact, became a collective name for all those Unitarian doctrines in which the divine nature of Christ was acknowledged. The teaching of Sabellius himself was very closely allied to the older Modalism ("Patripassianism") of Noetus and Praxeas, but was distinguished from it by its more careful theological elaboration and by the account it took of the Holy Spirit. His central proposition was to the effect that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the same person, three names thus being attached to one and the same being. What weighed most with Sabellius was the monotheistic interest. The One Being was also named by him vioraro.p - an expression purposely chosen to obviate ambiguity. To explain how one and the same being could have various forms of manifestation, he pointed to the tripartite nature of man (body, soul, spirit), and to the sun, which manifests itself as a heavenly body, as a source of light and also as a source of warmth. He further maintained that God is not at one and the same time Father, Son and Spirit, but, on the contrary, has been active in three apparently consecutive manifestations or energies - first in the rp60-corov of the Father as Creator and Lawgiver, then in the 7rpovcoro-v of the Son as Redeemer, and lastly in the 7rp6vcairov of the Spirit as the Giver of Life. is by this doctrine of the succession of the 7rpoounra that Sabellius is distinguished from the older Modalists. In particular it is significant, in conjunction with the reference to the Holy Spirit, that Sabellius regards the Father also as merely a form of manifestation of the one God - in other words, has formally put Him in a position of complete equality with the other Persons. This view prepares the way for Augustine's doctrine of the Trinity. Sabellius himself appears to have made use of Stoical formulas (irXaruveQ6ac,avvriXXeo-Oai), but he chiefly relied upon Scripture, especially such passages as Deut. vi. 4; Exod. xx. 3; Isa. xliv. 6; John x. 38. Of his later history nothing is known; his followers died out in the course of the 4th century.

The sources of our knowledge of Sabellianism are Hippolytus (Philos. bk. ix.), Epiphanius (Haer. lxii.) and Dionys. Alex. (Epp.); also various passages in Athanasius and the other fathers of the 4th century. For modern discussions of the subject see Schleiermacher (Theol. Ztschr. 1822, Hft. 3); Lange (Ztschr. f. hist. Theol. 1832, ii. 2); Dollinger (Hippolyt u. Kallist. 1853), Zahn (Marcell v. Ancyra, 1867); R. L. Ottley, The Doctrine of the Incarnation (1896); various histories of Dogma, and Harnack (s.v. "Monarchianismus," in HerzogHauck, Realencyk. fur Prot. Theol. and Kirche, xiii. 303). (A. HA.) Sabians. The Sabians (ac-Sabi'un) who are first mentioned in the Koran (ii. 59, v. 73, xxii. 17) were a semi-Christian sect of Babylonia, the Elkesaites, closely resembling the Mandaeans or so-called "Christians of St John the Baptist," but not identical with them. Their name is probably derived from the Aramaic mss, a dialectical form of Ins, and signifies "those who wash themselves"; the term al-mughtasila, which is sometimes applied to them by Arab writers, has the same meaning, and they were also known as 77µEpo(3arrtcrrai. How Mahomet understood the ' In the 18th century there was discovered in one of the catacombs of Rome an inscription containing the words "qui et Filius diceris et Pater inveniris." This can only have come from a Sabellian.

2 Whether Sabellius himself ever visited the East is unknown.

term "Sabians" is uncertain, but he mentions them together with the Jews and Christians. The older Mahommedan theologians were agreed that they possessed a written revelation and were entitled accordingly to enjoy a toleration not granted to mere heathen. Curiously enough, the name "Sabian" was used by theMeccanidolaters to denote Mahomet himself andhisMoslem converts, apparently on account of the frequent ceremonial ablutions which formed a striking feature of the new religion.

From these true Sabians the pseudo-Sabians of IIarran (Carrhae) in Mesopotamia must be carefully distinguished. In A.D. 830 the Caliph Ma'mun, while marching against the Byzantines, received a deputation of the inhabitants of Ilarran. Astonished by the sight of their long hair and extraordinary costume, he inquired what religion they professed, and getting no satisfactory answer threatened to exterminate them, unless by the time of his return from the war they should have embraced either Islam or one of the creeds tolerated in the Koran. Consequently, acting on the advice of a Mahommedan jurist, the IIarranians declared themselves to be "Sabians," a name which shielded them from persecution in virtue of its Koranic authority and was so vague that it enabled them to maintain their ancient beliefs undisturbed. There is no doubt as to the general nature of the religious beliefs and practices which they sought to mask. Since the epoch of Alexander the Great IIarran had been a famous centre of pagan and Hellenistic culture; its people were Syrian heathens, star-worshippers versed in astrology and magic. In their temples the planetary powers were propitiated by blood-offerings, and it is probable that human victims were occasionally sacrificed even as late as the 9th century of our era. The more enlightened Ilarranians, however, adopted a religious philosophy strongly tinged with Neoplatonic and Christian elements. They produced a brilliant succession of eminent scholars and scientists who transmitted to the Moslems the results of Babylonian civilization and Greek learning, and their influence at the court of Baghdad secured more or less toleration for Sabianism, although in the reign of Harlan al-Rashid the Harranians had already found it necessary to establish a fund by means of which the conscientious scruples of Moslem officials might be overcome. Accounts of these false Sabians reached the West through Maimonides, and then through Arabic sources, long before it was understood that the name in this application was only a disguise. Hence the utmost confusion prevailed in all European accounts of them till Chwolsohn published in 1856 his Ssabier and der Ssabismus, in which the authorities for the history and belief of the IIarranians in the middle ages are collected and discussed.

See also "Nouveaux documents pour l'etude de la religion des Harraniens," by Dozy and De Goeje, in the Actes of the sixth Oriental congress, ii. 281 f. (Leiden, 1885). (R. A. N.)


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