John Henry Newman

The Arians of the Fourth Century

Chapter I
Section 5

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John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

The Arians of the Fourth Century

Chapter I:
Schools and Parties in and about the Ante-Nicene Church, Considered in Their Relation to the Arian Heresy

Section 5: Sabellianism

One subject more must be discussed in illustration of the conduct of the Alexandrian school, and the circumstances under which the Arian heresy rose and extended itself. The Sabellianism which preceded it has often been considered the occasion of it;—viz. by a natural reaction from one error into its opposite; to separate the Father from the Son with the Arians, being the contrary heresy to that of confusing them together after the manner of the Sabellians. Here, however, Sabellianism shall be considered neither as the proximate nor the remote cause, or even occasion, of Arianism; but first, as drawing off the attention of the Church from the prospective evil of the philosophical spirit; next, as suggesting such reasonings, and naturalizing such expressions and positions in the doctrinal statements of the orthodox, as seemed to countenance the opposite error; lastly, as providing a sort of justification of the Arians, when they first showed themselves;—that is, Sabellianism is here regarded as facilitating rather than originating the disturbances occasioned by the Arian heresy.


The history of the heresy afterwards called Sabellian is obscure. Its peculiar tenet is the denial of the distinction of Persons in the Divine Nature; or the doctrine of the Monarchia, as it is called by an assumption of exclusive orthodoxy, like that which has led to the term “Unitarianism” at the present day. It was first maintained as a characteristic of party by a school established (as it appears) in Proconsular Asia, towards the end of the second century. This school, of which Noetus was the most noted master, is supposed to be an offshoot of the Gnostics; and doubtless it is historically connected with branches of that numerous family. Irenæus is said to have written against it; which either proves its antiquity, or seems to imply its origination in those previous Gnostic systems, against which his extant work is entirely directed. It may be added, that Simon Magus, the founder of the Gnostics, certainly held a doctrine resembling that advocated by the Sabellians.

At the end of the second century, Praxeas, a presbyter of Ephesus, passed from the early school already mentioned to Rome. Meeting there with that determined resistance which honourably distinguishes the primitive Roman Church in its dealings with heresy, he retired into Africa, and there, as founding no sect, he was soon forgotten. However, the doubts and speculations which he had published, concerning the great doctrine in dispute, remained alive in that part of the world, though latent, till they burst into a flame about the middle of the third century, at the eventful era when the rudiments of Arianism were laid by the sophistical school at Antioch.

The author of this new disturbance was Sabellius, from whom the heresy has since taken its name. He was a bishop or presbyter in Pentapolis, a district of Cyrenaica, included within the territory afterwards called, and then virtually forming, the Alexandrian Patriarchate. Other bishops in his neighbourhood adopting his sentiments, his doctrine became so popular among a clergy already prepared for it, or hitherto unpractised in the necessity of a close adherence to the authorized formularies of faith, that in a short time (to use the words of Athanasius) “the Son of God was scarcely preached in the Churches.” Dionysius of Alexandria, as primate, gave his judgment in writing; but being misunderstood by some orthodox but over-zealous brethren, he in turn was accused by them, before the Roman See, of advocating the opposite error, afterwards the Arian; and in consequence, instead of checking the heresy, found himself involved in a controversy in defence of his own opinions. Nothing more is known concerning the Sabellians for above a hundred years; when it is inferred from the fact that the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381) rejected their baptism, that they formed at that time a communion distinct from the Catholic Church.

Another school of heresy also denominated Sabellian, is obscurely discernible even earlier than the Ephesian, among the Montanists of Phrygia. The well-known doctrine of these fanatics, when adopted by minds less heated than its original propagators, evidently tended to a denial of the Personality of the Holy Spirit. Montanus himself probably was never capable of soberly reflecting on the meaning of his own words; but even in his lifetime, Æschines, one of his disciples, saw their real drift, and openly maintained the unreserved monarchia of the Divine Nature. Hence it is usual for ancient writers to class the Sabellians and Montanists together, as if coinciding in their doctrinal views. The success of Æschines in extending his heresy in Asia Minor was considerable, if we may judge from the condition of that country at a later period.—Gregory, the pupil of Origen, appears to have made a successful stand against it in Pontus. Certainly his writings were employed in the controversy after his death, and that with such effect, as completely to banish it from that country, though an attempt was made to revive it in the time of Basil (A.D. 375).—In the patriarchate of Antioch we first hear of it at the beginning of the third century, Origen reclaiming from it Beryllus, Bishop of Bostra, in Arabia. In the next generation the martyr Lucian is said to have been a vigorous opponent of it; and he was at length betrayed to his heathen persecutors by a Sabellian presbyter of the Church of Antioch. At a considerably later date (A.D. 375) we hear of it in Mesopotamia.

At first sight it may seem an assumption to refer these various exhibitions of heterodoxy in Asia Minor, and the East, to some one school or system, merely on the ground of their distinguishing tenet being substantially the same. And certainly, in treating an obscure subject, on which the opinions of learned men differ, it must be owned that conjecture is the utmost that I am able to offer. The following statement will at once supply the grounds on which the above arrangement has been made, and explain the real nature of the doctrine itself in which the heresy consisted.

Let it be considered then, whether there were not two kinds of Sabellianism; the one taught by Praxeas, the other somewhat resembling, though less material than, the theology of the Gnostics:—the latter being a modification of the former, arising from the pressure of the controversy: for instance, parallel to the change which is said to have taken place in the doctrine of the Ebionites, and in that of the followers of Paulus of Samosata. Those who denied the distinction of Persons in the Divine Nature were met by the obvious inquiry, in what sense they believed God to be united to the human nature of Christ. The more orthodox, but the more assailable answer to this question, was to confess that God was, in such sense, one Person with Christ, as (on their Monarchistic principle) to be in no sense distinct from Him. This was the more orthodox answer, as preserving inviolate what is theologically called the doctrine of the hypostatic union,—the only safeguard against a gradual declension into the Ebionite, or modern Socinian heresy. But at the same time such an answer was repugnant to the plainest suggestions of scripturally-enlightened reason, which leads us to be sure that, according to the obvious meaning of the inspired text, there is some real sense in which the Father is not the Son; that the Sender and the Sent cannot be in all respects the same; nor can the Son be said to make Himself inferior to the Father, and condescend to become man,—to come from God, and then again to return to Him,—if, after all, there is no distinction beyond that of words, between those Blessed and Adorable Agents in the scheme of our redemption. Besides, without venturing to intrude into things not as yet seen, it appeared evident to the primitive Church, that, in matter of fact, the Son of God, though equal in dignity of nature to the Father, and One with Him in essence, was described in Scripture as undertaking such offices of ministration and subjection, as are never ascribed, and therefore may not without blasphemy be ascribed, to the self-existent Father. Accordingly, the name of Patripassian was affixed to Praxeas, Noetus, and their followers, in memorial of the unscriptural tenet which was immediately involved in their denial of the distinction of Persons in the Godhead.

Such doubtless was the doctrine of Sabellius, if regard be paid to the express declarations of the Fathers. The discriminating Athanasius plainly affirms it, in his defence of Dionysius. The Semi-Arian Creed called the Macrostich, published at Antioch, gives a like testimony; distinguishing, moreover, between the Sabellian doctrine, and the doctrines of the Paulianists and Photinians, to which some modern critics have compared it. Cyprian and Augustin, living in Africa, bear express witness to the existence of the Patripassian sect. On the other hand, it cannot be denied, that authorities exist favourable to a view of the doctrine different from the above, and these accordingly may lead us, in agreement with certain theological writers, without interfering with the account of the heresy already given, to describe a modification of it which commonly succeeded to its primitive form.

The following apparently inconsistent testimonies, suggest both the history and the doctrine of this second form of Sabellianism. While the Montanists and Sabellians are classed together by some authors, there is separate evidence of the connexion of each of these with the Gnostics. Again, Ambrosius, the convert and friend of Origen, was originally a Valentinian, or Marcionite, or Sabellian, according to different writers. Further, the doctrine of Sabellius is compared to that of Valentinus by Alexander of Alexandria, and (apparently) by a Roman Council (A.D. 324); and by St. Augustin it is referred indifferently to Praxeas, or to Hermogenes, a Gnostic. On the other hand, one Leucius is described as a Gnostic and Montanist. It would appear then, that it is so repugnant to the plain word of Scripture, and to the most elementary notions of doctrine thence derived, to suppose that Almighty God is in every sense one with the human nature of Christ, that a disputant, especially an innovator, cannot long maintain such a position. It removes the mystery of the Trinity, only by leaving the doctrine of the Incarnation in a form still more strange, than that which it unavoidably presents to the imagination. Pressed, accordingly, by the authority of Scripture, the Sabellian, instead of speaking of the substantial union of God with Christ, would probably begin to obscure his meaning in the decorum of a figurative language. He would speak of the presence rather than the existence of God in His chosen servant; and this presence, if allowed to declaim, he would represent as a certain power or emanation from the Centre of light and truth; if forced by his opponent into a definite statement, he would own to be but an inspiration, the same in kind, though superior in degree, with that which enlightened and guided the prophets. This is that second form of the Sabellian tenet, which some learned moderns have illustrated, though they must be considered to err in pronouncing it the only true one. That it should have resulted from the difficulties of the Patripassian creed, is natural and almost necessary; and viewed merely as a conjecture, the above account of its rise reconciles the discordant testimonies of ecclesiastical history. But we have almost certain evidence of the matter of fact in Tertullian’s tract against Praxeas, in which the latter is apparently represented as holding successively, the two views of doctrine which have been here described. Parallel instances meet us in the history of the Gnostics and Montanists. Simon Magus, for instance, seems to have adopted the Patripassian theory. But the Gnostic family which branched from him, modified it by means of their doctrine of emanations or æons, till in the theology of Valentinus, as in that of Cerinthus and Ebion, the incarnation of the Word, became scarcely more than the display of Divine Power with a figurative personality in the life and actions of a mere man. The Montanists, in like manner, from a virtual assumption of the Divinity of their founder, were led on, as the only way of extricating themselves from one blasphemy, into that other of denying the Personality of the Holy Spirit, and then of the Word. Whether the school of Noetus maintained its first position, we have no means of knowing; but the change to the second, or semi-humanitarian, may be detected in the Sabellians, as in Praxeas before them. In the time of Dionysius of Alexandria, the majority was Patripassian; but in the time of Alexander they advocated the Emanative, as it may be called, or in-dwelling theory.


What there is further to be said on this subject shall be reserved for the next chapter. Here, however, it is necessary to examine, how, under these circumstances, the controversy with the Sabellians would affect the language of ecclesiastical theology. It will be readily seen, that the line of argument by which the two errors above specified are to be met, is nearly the same: viz. that of insisting upon the personality of the Word as distinct from the Father. For the Patripassian denied that the Word was in any real respect distinct from Him; the Emanatist, if he may so be called, denied that He was a Person, or more than an extraordinary manifestation of Divine Power. The Catholics, on the other hand, asserted His distinct personality; and necessarily appealed, in proof of this, to such texts as speak of His pre-existent relations towards the Father; in other words, His ministrative office in the revealed Economy of the Godhead. And thus, being obliged from the course of the controversy, to dwell on this truly scriptural tenet, and happening to do so without a protest against a denial, as if involved in it, of His equality with the Father in the One Indivisible Divine Nature (a protest, which nothing but the actual experience of that denial among them could render necessary or natural), they were sometimes forced by the circumstances of the case into an apparent anticipation of the heresy, which afterwards arose in the shape of Arianism.

This may be illustrated in the history of the two great pupils of Origen, who, being respectively opposed to the two varieties of Sabellianism above described, the Patripassian and the Emanative, incurred odium in a later age, as if they had been forerunners of Arius: Gregory of Neocæsarea, and Dionysius of Alexandria.

The controversy in which Dionysius was engaged with the Patripassians of Pentapolis has already been adverted to. Their tenet of the incarnation of the Father (that is, of the one God without distinction of Persons), a tenet most repugnant to every scripturally-informed mind, was refuted at once, by insisting on the essential character of the Son as representing and revealing the Father; by arguing, that on the very face of Scripture, the Christ who is there set before us, (whatever might be the mystery of His nature,) is certainly delineated as one absolute and real Person, complete in Himself, sent by the Father, doing His will, and mediating between Him and man; and that, this being the case, His Person could not be the same with that of the Father, who sent Him, by any process of reasoning, which would not also prove any two individual men to have one literal personality; that is, if there be any analogy at all between the ordinary sense of the word “person” and that in which the idea is applied in Scripture to the Father and the Son: for instance, by what artifice of interpretation can the beginning of St. John’s Gospel, or the second chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, be made to harmonize with the notion, that the one God, simply became and is man, in every sense in which He can still be spoken of as God?

Writing zealously and freely on this side of the Catholic doctrine, Dionysius laid himself open to the animadversion of timid and narrow-minded men, who were unwilling to receive the truth in that depth and fulness in which Scripture reveals it, and who thought that orthodoxy consisted in being at all times careful to comprehend in one phrase or formula the whole of what is believed on any article of faith. The Roman Church, even then celebrated for its vigilant, perhaps its over earnest exactness, in matters of doctrine and discipline, was made the arbiter of the controversy. A council was held under the presidency of Dionysius its Bishop (about A.D. 260), in which the Alexandrian prelate was accused by the Pentapolitans of asserting that the Son of God is made and created, distinct in nature from the incommunicable essence of the Father, “as the vine is distinct from the vine-dresser,” and in consequence, not eternal. The illustration imputed to Dionysius in this accusation, being a reference to our Lord’s words in the fifteenth chapter of St. John, is a sufficient explanation by itself of the real drift of his statement, even if his satisfactory answer were not extant, to set at rest all doubt concerning his orthodoxy. In that answer, addressed to his namesake of Rome, he observes first, that his letter to the Sabellians, being directed against a particular error, of course contained only so much of the entire Catholic doctrine as was necessary for the refutation of that error;—that his use of the words “Father and Son,” in itself implied his belief in a oneness of nature between Them;—that in speaking of the Son as “made,” he had no intention of distinguishing “made” from “begotten,” but, including all kinds of origination under the term, he used it to discriminate between the Son and His underived self-originating Father;—lastly, that in matter of fact he did confess the Catholic doctrine in its most unqualified and literal sense, and in its fullest and most accurate exposition. In this letter he even recognizes the celebrated Homoüsion (consubstantial) which was afterwards adopted at Nicæa. However, in spite of these avowals, later writers, and even Basil himself, do not scruple to complain of Dionysius as having sown the first seeds of Arianism; Basil confessing the while that his error was accidental, occasioned by his vehement opposition to the Sabellian heresy.

Gregory of Neocæsarea, on the other hand, is so far more hardly circumstanced than Dionysius, first, inasmuch as the charge against him was not made till after his death, and next, because he is strangely accused of a tendency to Sabellian as well as Arian errors. Without accounting for the former of these charges, which does not now concern us, I offer to the reader the following explanation of the latter calumny. Sabellianism, in its second or emanative form, had considerable success in the East before and at the date of Gregory. In the generation before him, Hermogenes, who professed it, had been refuted by Theophilus and Tertullian, as well as by Gregory’s master, Origen, who had also reclaimed from a similar error Ambrosius and Beryllus. Gregory succeeded him in the controversy with such vigour, that his writings were sufficient to extinguish the heresy, when it reappeared in Pontus at a later period. He was, moreover, the principal bishop in the first Council held against Paulus of Samosata, whose heresy was derived from the emanative school. The Synodal Letter addressed by the assembled bishops to the heresiarch, whether we ascribe it to this first Council, with some critics, or with others to the second, or even with Basnage reject it as spurious, at least illustrates the line of argument which it was natural to direct against the heresy, and shows how easily it might be corrupted into an Arian meaning. To the notion that the Son was but inhabited by a divine power or presence impersonal, and therefore had no real existence before He came in the flesh, it was a sufficient answer to appeal to the great works ascribed to Him in the beginning of all things, and especially to those angelic manifestations by which God revealed Himself to the elder Church, and which were universally admitted to be representations of the Living and Personal Word. The Synodal Letter accordingly professes a belief in the Son, as the Image and Power of God, which was before the worlds, in absolute existence, the living and intelligent Cause of creation; and cites some of the most striking texts descriptive of His ministrative office under the Jewish law, such as His appearance to Abraham and Jacob, and to Moses in the burning bush. Such is the statement, in opposition to Paulus of Samosata, put forth by Gregory and his associate bishops at Antioch; and, the circumstances of the controversy being overlooked, it is obvious how easily it may be brought to favour the hypothesis, that the Son is in all respects distinct from the Father, and by nature as well as in revealed office inferior to Him.

Lastly, it so happened, that in the course of the third century, the word Homoüsion became more or less connected with the Gnostic, Manichæan, and Sabellian theologies. Hence early writers, who had but opposed these heresies, seemed in a subsequent age to have opposed what had been by that time received as the characteristic of orthodoxy; as, on the other hand, the Catholics, on their adopting it in that later age, were accused of what in an earlier time would have been the Sabellian error, or again of the introduction of corporeal notions into their creed. But of this more hereafter.

Here a close may be put to our inquiry into the circumstances under which Arianism appeared in the early Church. The utmost that has been proposed has been to classify and arrange phenomena which present themselves on the surface of the history; and this, with a view of preparing the reader for the direct discussion of the doctrine which Arianism denied, and for the proceedings on the part of the Church which that denial occasioned. Especially has it been my object in this introduction, following the steps of our great divines, to rescue the Alexandrian Fathers from the calumnies which, with bad intentions either to them or to the orthodox cause, have been so freely and so fearlessly cast upon them. Whether Judaism or whether Platonism had more or less to do in preparing the way for the Arian heresy, are points of minor importance, compared with the vindication of those venerable men, the most learned, most eloquent, and most zealous of the Ante-Nicene Christians. With this view it has been shown above, that, though the heresy openly commenced, it but accidentally commenced in Alexandria; that no Alexandrian of name advocated it, and that, on its appearance, it was forthwith expelled from the Alexandrian Church, together with its author;—next, that, even granting Platonism originated it, of which there is no proof, still there are no grounds for implicating the Alexandrian Fathers in its formation; that while the old Platonism, which they did favour, had no part in the origination of the Arian doctrine, the new Platonism or Eclecticism which may be conceived to have arianized, received no countenance from them; that Eclecticism must abstractedly be referred to their schools, it arose out of them in no more exact sense than error ever springs from truth; that, instead of being welcomed by them, the sight of it, as soon as it was detected, led them rather to condemn their own older and innocent philosophy; and that, in Alexandria, there was no Eclectic successor to Ammonius (who concealed his infidelity to the last), till after the commencement of the Arian troubles;—further, that granting (what is undeniable) that the Alexandrian Fathers sometimes use phrases which are similar to those afterwards adopted by the heretics, these were accidents, not the characteristics of their creed, and were employed from a studied verbal imitation of the Jewish and philosophical systems;—of the philosophical, in order to conceal their own depth of meaning, and to conciliate the heathen, a duty to which their peculiar functions in the Christian world especially bound them, and of the Jewish, from an affectionate reverence for the early traces, in the Old Testament, of God’s long-meditated scheme of mercy to mankind;—or again, that where they seem to arianize, it is from incompleteness rather than from unsoundness in their confessions, occasioned by the necessity of opposing a contrary error then infecting the Church; that five Fathers, who have more especially incurred the charge of philosophizing in their creed, belong to the schools of Rome and Antioch, as well as of Alexandria, and that the most unguarded speculator in the Alexandrian, Origen, is the very writer first to detect for us, and to denounce the Arian tenet, at least sixty years before it openly presented itself to the world.

On the other hand, if, dismissing this side of the question, we ask whence the heresy actually arose, we find that contemporary authors ascribe it partially to Judaism and Eclecticism, and more expressly to the influence of the Sophists; that Alexander, to whose lot it fell first to withstand it, refers us at once to Antioch as its original seat, to Judaism as its ultimate source, and to the subtleties of disputation as the instrument of its exhibition: that Arius and his principal supporters were pupils of the school of Antioch; and lastly, that in this school at the date fixed by Alexander, the above-mentioned elements of the heresy are discovered in alliance, almost in union, Paulus of Samosata, the judaizing Sophist, being the favourite of a court which patronized Eclecticism, when it was neglected at Alexandria.

It is evident that deeper and more interesting questions remain, than any which have here been examined. The real secret causes of the heresy; its connexion with the character of the age, with the opinions then afloat, viewed as active moral influences, not as parts of a system; its position in the general course of God’s providential dealings with His Church, and in the prophecies of the New Testament; and its relation towards the subsequently developed corruptions of Christianity; these are subjects towards which some opening may have been incidentally made for inquirers, but which are too large to be imagined in the design of a work such as the present.

Chapter I
Section 4

Chapter II
Section 1