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This article is about the third-century theologian. For the Finnish composer, see Jean Sibelius.

Sabellius (fl. ca. 215) 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.[1] What is known of Sabellius is drawn mostly from the polemical writings of his opponents.


The Catholic Encyclopedia writes:

It is true that it is easy to suppose Tertullian and Hippolytus to have misrepresented the opinions of their opponents, but it cannot be proved that Cleomenes was not a follower of the heretical Noetus, and that Sabellius did not issue from his school; further, it is not obvious that Tertullian would attack Callistus under a nickname.[1]

Sabellius' opposition to the emerging idea of the Trinity led to his excommunication as a heretic by Pope Callixtus I (Callistus) in AD 220. Wace and Bunsen have both suggested that Calixtus' action was motivated more by a desire for unity rather than by conviction.[2]


Sabellius taught that God was single and 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. (Because of this focus on God's revelation of himself to man, Modalism is often confused with economic Trinitarianism).


This understanding has been called Sabellianism and modalistic monarchianism.[3] The suggestion of development and change within the Godhead was seen as contradicting the concept of impassibility. It also stood in contrast to the position of distinct persons existing within a single godhead by representing Father, Son and Spirit as different “modes” (hence the term "modalism"), “aspects” or “faces”, "masks" (persona in Latin)[4] that God presented successively to the world. More importantly it stood against the Trinitarian teaching that "God was one God in Father" rather than One in the Father's essence only.[5]

It has been noted also that the Greek term "homoousios", which Athanasius of Alexandria favored, was actually a term that was reported to be put forth and favored also by Sabellius, and was a term that many followers of Athanasius took issue with and were uneasy about. Their objection to the term "homoousios" was that it was considered to be "un-Scriptural, suspicious, and of a Sabellian tendency."[6] This was because Sabellius also considered the Father and the Son to be "one substance." By that Sabellius meant that the Father and Son were "one essential Person", though operating as different manifestations, roles, faces, or modes. Athanasius, however, used the term differently than Sabellius, affirming oneness of the Divine Essence while maintaining the distinctions between the Divine Persons.

The term "homoousios" was accepted, however, at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., using the Athanasian formula and doctrine, of the Father and Son being distinct persons, though co-eternal, co-equal, and con-substantial. The objections to using the term were addressed by clarifying that it was not being used in the Sabellian sense of oneness of Person, but rather to denote oneness of Essence while affirming the distinctions of the Persons or "hypostases".


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.[7] Sabellius used the term "prosopa" which is Greek for "faces" to describe how the person of God has three faces, this idea is found in 2 Corinthians 4:6 "...God’s glory displayed in the face (prosopon - singular form of prosopa) of Christ.

God in essence[edit]

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.[8]


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.[9] 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.[10] Epiphanius (died 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.[11]

Modern movements[edit]

Although there are some doctrinal characteristics shared by a modern group called Oneness Pentecostals with those of Sabellius, the former do not teach the exact doctrine of Dispensational Modalism as purportedly taught by Sabellius.

Some of the known doctrinal characteristics of ancient Sabellians may compare with the doctrines in the modern Oneness movement. Both movements hold that the Biblical God is one Person, not Three. And that Father, Son, and Spirit are different aspects or manifestations of that one Person, and not three distinct persons.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Monarchians, New Advent, Catholic Encyclopedia
  2. ^
    • Wace, H., A Dictionary of Christian Biography: And Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D. With an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies, Hendrickson Publishers, 1994. ISBN 1-56563-057-2. Partly reproduced online at CCEL
    • Bunsen, C. C., Hippolytus and His Age, Kessinger Publishing, 2007. Originally published by Longmans, 1852. Partly reproduced online at Google Book Search
  3. ^ Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), The University of Chicago Press, 1975, pp.179-181
  4. ^ pgs 51-55Vladimir Lossky The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, SVS Press, 1997. (ISBN 0-913836-31-1) James Clarke & Co Ltd, 1991. (ISBN 0-227-67919-9)[1]
  5. ^ pgs 51-55 Vladimir Lossky The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, SVS Press, 1997. (ISBN 0-913836-31-1) James Clarke & Co Ltd, 1991. (ISBN 0-227-67919-9)[2]
  6. ^ Select Treatises of St. Athanasius - In Controversy With the Arians - Freely Translated by John Henry Cardinal Newmann - Longmans, Green, and Co., 1911, footnote, page 124
  7. ^ Von Mosheim, J. L., Historical Commentaries on the State of Christianity During the First Three Hundred and Twenty-Five Years from the Christian Era, Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006, p220. ISBN 1-59752-704-1 Originally published by Trow & Smith Book Manufacturing Co, 1868. Partly reproduced online at Google Book Search
  8. ^ Von Mosheim, J. L., op cit, p218
  9. ^ Mattison M. M., Jesus and the Trinity, Auburn University, Alabama Retrieved Oct 7, 2007.
  10. ^ Clissold, A., The Creeds of Athanasius, Sabellius and Swedenborg, Adamant Media Corporation, 2001 (originally published by Longmans Green and Co, 1873) Partly reproduced online at The Creeds of Athanasius, Sabellius and Swedenborg: Examined and Compared With Each Other
  11. ^ Northcote, J. S., Epitaphs of the Catacombs", 1878, p. 102. Cited by Christian Classics Ethereal Library

External links[edit]