Heresy of Sabellianism


One of the most hotly debated theological issues in the early Christian church was the doctrine of the Trinity. How do God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit relate to one another? How can there only be one God, but three Persons? All of the various early heresies resulted from individuals overemphasizing or underemphasizing various aspects of the Godhead. Ultimately, all of these false views result from attempts by finite human beings to fully understand an infinite God. (Rom 11:33-36) Sabellianism, Patriapassianism, Modalism, and Monarchianism are just some of the numerous false views included with this heresy.

Monarchianism had two primary forms, Dynamic Monarchianism and Modalistic Monarchianism. Dynamic Monarchianism is the view that Jesus was not in His nature God. It is the view that God existed in Jesus, just as God exists in all of us, but that God existed in Jesus in a particularly powerful way. Jesus was God because God inhabited Him. Modalistic Monarchianism, also known as Modalism, is the view that God variously manifested Himself as the Father (primarily in the Old Testament), other times as the Son (primarily from Jesus’ conception to His ascension), and other times as the Holy Spirit (primarily after Jesus’ ascension into heaven). Modalistic Monarchianism / Modalism teaches that God has simply revealed Himself in three different modes, and that He is not three Persons, as the Bible asserts. Modalistic Monarchianism / Modalism is also known as Sabellianism, named after Sabellius, an influential early proponent of the view. Yet another aspect of Modalistic Monarchianism / Modalism / Sabellianism is Patripassianism, which is the view that it was God the Father who became incarnate, suffered, died, and was resurrected. Patripassianism essentially teaches that God the Father became His own Son.

With all that said, Sabellianism, Modalism, Monarchianism (dynamic and modalistic), and Patripassianism are all unbiblical understandings of the relationship between the Persons of the Trinity. It is impossible for us as finite human beings to fully understand an infinite God. The Bible presents God as one God, but then speaks of three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. How these two truths harmonize is inconceivable to the human mind. When we attempt to define the indefinable (God), we will always fail to varying degrees. Dynamic Monarchianism fails in that it does not recognize the true deity of Jesus Christ. Modalistic Monarchianism / Modalism / Sabellianism / Patripassianism fails because it does not recognize God as three distinct Persons.

It was an early Trinitarian heresy that exaggerated the oneness of the Father and the Son (John 10:30). It was promoted by Sabellius in Rome during the early third century. In the infant Church, the first confession of faith concerning the Divinity of Jesus Christ was based on St. Peter’s words: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” [Matt. 16:16] Early Christians worshipped and died for Jesus Christ based on this simple confession without thinking about what it actually implied. If Christ is God, then how does He relate to the God of the Old Testament? Is Christ another God, another Person or just another manifestation distinct from the Father? In the early third century, a few Christians, who included Noetus, were speculating that the Father and the Son are only different aspects or modes of the one Divine Being. The Father became the Son after taking flesh of Mary. This speculation developed further under Sabellius. The Sabellians (also called Monarchians or Modalists) claimed that since there is only one God, there is only one Person in the Godhead. There are no personal relationships between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The only distinguishing relationships were between God and man. The Trinity was not three Persons in one God, but three functional relationships with man. The Father is the mode that created man; the Son is the mode that redeemed man; the Holy Spirit is the mode that sanctified man. Pope Callistus condemned this heresy, but it continued to flourish in the East into the fifth century. Even today it makes a comeback with the formula: “In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier.” But what is the big difference between three Persons vs. three modes? God is love (1 John 4:8,16). The Son loves the Father (John 14:31; 15:10); however, true love can only be between distinct persons and not manifestations (modes). If there are no distinct personal relationships within the Godhead, then there is no love within the Godhead. God could only love after man was created. This causes problems for the eternal, loving God.

A modern version, Oneness Pentecostalism, teaches that God is one Person, and that the Father (a spirit) is united with Jesus (a man) as the Son of God. However, Oneness Pentecostalism differs somewhat by rejecting sequential modalism, and by the full acceptance of the begotten humanity of the Son, not eternally begotten, who was the man Jesus and was born, crucified, and risen, and not the deity. This directly opposes Patripassianism and the pre-existence of the Son as a pre-existent mode, which Sabellianism generally does not oppose.

Oneness Pentecostals, believe that Jesus was “Son” only when he became flesh on earth, but was the Father before being made man. They refer to the Father as the “Spirit” and the Son as the “Flesh”. But they believe that Jesus and the Father are one essential Person. Though operating as different “manifestations” or “modes”. Oneness Pentecostals reject the Trinity doctrine, viewing it as pagan and un-Scriptural, and hold to the Jesus’ Name doctrine with respect to baptisms. They are often referred to as “Modalists” or “Sabellians” or “Jesus Only”. Oneness Pentecostalism can be compared to Sabellianism, or can be described as holding to a form of Sabellianism, as both are nontrinitarian, and as both believe that Jesus was “Almighty God in the Flesh”, but they do not totally identify each other.

Therefore, it cannot be certain whether Sabellius taught Modalism completely as it is taught today as Oneness doctrine, since only a few fragments of his writings are extant and, therefore, all we have of his teachings comes through the writing of his detractors.

The following excerpts which demonstrate some of the known doctrinal characteristics of ancient Sabellians may be seen to compare with the doctrines in the modern Oneness movement:

Cyprian wrote – “…how, when God the Father is not known, nay, is even blasphemed, can they who among the heretics are said to be baptized in the name of Christ, be judged to have obtained the remission of sins?[18]
Hippolytus (A.D. 170–236) referred to them – “And some of these assent to the heresy of the Noetians, and affirm that the Father himself is the Son…”

Pope Dionysius, Bishop of Rome from A.D. 259–269 wrote – “Sabellius…blasphemes in saying that the Son Himself is the Father and vice versa.”

Tertullian states – “He commands them to baptize into the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, not into a unipersonal God. And indeed it is not once only, but three times, that we are immersed into three persons, at each several mention of their names.”

-by Matt Fradd

““The Trinity is like how a man can be a Son, a Father, and an uncle at the same time. He’s one and three at the same time, just as God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at the same time.”

Nope. This analogy commits the heresy of modalism. Modalism is the false belief that God is one person who has revealed himself in three forms or modes. Modalism is also called Sabellianism after Sabellius, an ancient theologian whom Pope Callixtus I excommunicated in A.D. 220.

Modalists were heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, which taught that God was an ultimate one, or act of unity. While this was a big improvement over Greek polytheism that posited a pantheon of gods who fought each other, it goes too far when it denies that God can be three relationally distinct persons in one being.

Returning to the bad analogy that leads to modalism, though a man may be a son, father, and uncle, he is not three persons as God is but one person who has three titles.

Another popular but false analogy is the following: The Trinity is like how water can be ice, liquid, and steam. This again commits the heresy of modalism. God does not go through three different states. The Persons of the Holy Trinity coexist; the different forms water may take cannot. Water cannot be ice, liquid, and steam at the same time. It may be between two stages such as when ice is melting, but this isn’t coexisting, it’s transforming.

Another analogy—attributed to Sabellius—that lives on today is that of the sun. The Father is the sun, while the Son and Holy Spirit are the light and heat created by the Father. But this analogy also smacks of modalism, because the star is simply present under different forms.

Or it can be seen to express Arianism, which is the heretical view that the Father is superior to the Son and Holy Spirit by being a different and “higher” divine substance than the latter two. In the sun analogy, the light and heat are passive byproducts of the sun and are not true equals in the way that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share equally and completely in the divine nature.

Another heretical byproduct of sabelliansm is patripassianism (try saying that three times fast!): God exists as one “mode” and merely puts on the mask or role of “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit.” But this would mean that when the Son suffered on the cross, the Father also suffered on the cross (though he was wearing the mask or mode of being the son). The Church teaches that God is impassible and that nothing human beings do can cause God to literally suffer like us. Jesus was capable of suffering on the cross only because he assumed a human nature and possessed a human body.

Basically, the main problem with modalism is that it denies that God is three distinct persons. The Catechism states, “’Father,’ ‘Son,’ ‘Holy Spirit’ are not simply names designating modalities of the divine being, for they are really distinct from one another”(CCC 254). What you are left with is a confusing monotheism where God merely pretends to be three different persons instead of actually being three different persons. Unfortunately, in order to correct this error some analogies overcompensate.”