The Rise of the Sabellian Heresy

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Hitherto S. Dionysius^ though often well nigh overwhelmed with affliction, and suffering alike from sickness and want, from the oppression of enemies, and the calumnies of false friends, had run a course equally glorious for himself and profitable for the Church over which he presided. He had stood forth the pacificator of the East and West ; he had crushed, in its rise, a dangerous heresy ; he had been distinguished for his zeal in ascertaining the discipline, as well as maintaining the doctrine of the Church, and he had gloriously confessed Christ in two several persecutions. Again he was called to defend the One Faith against a new and more perilous heresy; and although, through the infirmity of human nature, he had nearly tarnished his former glory, and from an illustrious defender, become a powerful adversary of the Truth, the same meekness and humility that had made him willing to listen to the reasonings of the partizans of Nepos, rendered him ready to give ear to the admonitions of a Roman Council.

It was at the commencement of the persecution of Valerian, or perhaps even somewhat earlier, that Sabellius began to disseminate his doctrine in Pentapohs : and denying the real distinction of Persons, to annihilate the doctrine of the Ever Blessed Trinity. The heresy was not new :—it was, in effect, the same with that which had, at an earlier period, been propagated by Praxeas; and had been taught to Sabellius by his master, the heretic Noetus. In its earlier forms, it had made but little progress; but now, assuming a more definite shape, and attracting to itself the elements of congenial errors, it spread rapidly through the whole of Pentapolis. If it be true that Sabellius was Bishop of Ptolemais, as an uncertain tradition asserts, it had a firm basis whence to propagate itself: and falling in, as we have elsewhere

observed,, with the mystical temperament of Egyptian minds, it had, soon infected not only a large portion of the laity, with a considerable number of Priests, but was cherished by more than one Bishop in the neighbouring Sees, in particular, by Ammonius of Bernice. The dogma thus acquiring strength may be briefly stated as follows:—That the Father, the Son, and the Holy and Ghost are one Hypostasis; one Person with Three Names; that the same Person, in the old dispensation, as Father, gave the law; in the new, as Son, was incarnate for the sake of man; and as Holy Ghost, descended upon the Apostles at the Day of Pentecost. As the natural consequence of the dissemination of this doctrine, the Son of God was no more preached in the churches. But some there were who were valiant for the Truth of God, and who girded up their loins to contend for the Faith. They represented, in the words of S. Dionysius, that the new teaching was full of impiety and blasphemy against the Almighty God, the Father of Our Lord Jesus: full of unbelief against His Only begotten Son, the First-born of every creature, the Word, That dwelt among men; and full of madness against the Holy Ghost.

The partisans of Sabcllius daily increasing, both parties appeal to Dionysius, who was then in exile at Kefro. Not content with consulting him by letter, they despatched trustworthy persons to receive his decision by word of mouth; and he listened with patience to the assertions and arguments of the contending factions. When they had concluded, he lost no time in making his decision, and in setting himself, by several letters, to oppose the new heretic. Of his proceedings, he gave an account to Sixtus of Rome, in the first Epistle which he addressed to the Pontiff on the subject of re-baptism, to which we have heretofore damns the referred. He wrote to Ammonius, who seems to have been a Prelate of talent, and one whom it was therefore important, on all accounts, to reclaim from error; to Tclesphorus, and to Euphranor, who were probably also Bishops in the Pentapolis, and again to Ammonius and Euphranor conjointly.

But the last letter, instead of composing, did but excite the controversy. Since the Sabellians, confounding the FATHER  and the SON, attributed to the former those things which referred to the Human Nature of the latter, in the same manner that the Patripassians had done before them; it was the object of Dionysius to demonstrate that what was attributed to the Humanity of CHRIST, could not be predicated of the FATHER.  He thus intended to compel his adversaries to an admission of  the distinction between the Persons of the Father and the Son; and this was to be considered only as the first part of his argument. He would then have demonstrated the Divinity of the Son of God; and having confuted those that confounded the Persons, would have guarded himself against the imputation of dividing the Substance. And this method of teaching is approved by S. Athanasius.

That Father was constantly traduced by the Arians, as if he contradicted the doctrine delivered by S. Dionysius; he devoted a treatise to the consideration and refutation of their objections: and from it we obtain a fuller insight into the merits of the Pcntapolitan controversy, than the meagre and somewhat unfair account of Eusebius supplies. The method pursued by Dionysius was considered by his great successor to be consonant with that employed by the Apostles. They, he says, exhibited first the Human Actions of Christ to the Jews: they thus endeavoured to convince them, from His miracles, that Messiah was come, and then, and not till then, made manifest, by the consideration of His marvellous works, that this same Messiah was their Lord and their God.

But the epistle to Ammonius and Euphranor unfortunately contained only the first portion of the Patriarchs argument. Incautiously, it would appear, Dionysius suffered himself to be hurried on in his most true assertion of the SAVIOUR’S real Personality and Humanity, to the failure of setting forth, according to the full analogy. His Consubstantiality and Divinity. He asserted nothing, so far as we now have the means of judging, that was contrary to Catholic Truth; but he did not sufficiently guard his assertions from the possibility of misconception and misrepresentation. When he was in reality speaking of the Human Nature, his enemies might say, and weaker brethren might believe, that he was speaking of the Divine. And one famous passage gave a handle to a formal impeachment of his orthodoxy.

“The Son of God, he wrote, was made and produced. He is not proper in His Nature, but differing, in essence, from the Father, as the vine from the husbandman, and the boat from the shipwright: for seeing that He was made. He was not before He was produced.”

These expressions of S. Dionysius occasioned no small controversy throughout Pentapohs. Some, who were entirely opposed to the doctrine of Sabellius, saw as much danger in that of Dionysius; and their zeal caused them to forget their charity. —Without writing to their own Patriarch, without considering that he might be able to explain or willing to retract that which they deemed heretical in his statements, they laid a formal complaint before S. Dionysius of Rome, who had succeeded S. Sixtus in a.d. 259. The heads of their charge were two;—that the Bishop of Alexandria asserted the Son of God to be a creature, and refused the word and the doctrine of Con- substantiality. A Council, whether already assembled for some other cause, or convoked by the Pope to decide on this, condemned without hesitation the doctrine contained in, or deduced from, the extracts submitted to them. The Bishop of Rome wrote, in their name as well as in his own, to his namesake of Alexandria, informing him both of the charges made against him, and of the decision to which the Council of Rome had come. At the same time, perhaps to vindicate himself from the suspicion of holding an opposite error, the Pontiff himself composed a work against the Sabellians.

The Bishop of Alexandria, on the receipt of these missives, found himself put, as it were, on his trial, with Rome for his accuser, and the whole Church for his judge. That he, whose whole life had been one long struggle with heresy, —he, who could look back on the time when he confirmed in the faith or disposed to unity the very Pontiff who now appeared as his opponent, —that he should thus be compelled to stand on his defence must have been a bitter task; and one which a proud spirit would probably have refused even though he had thereby plunged the whole Church into an abyss of confusion. Not so Dionysius.

He had already, it appears, addressed a letter to the Bishop of Rome on the same subject; and more particularly in defence the Bishop of his unwillingness to use the word Consubstantial. But he now, under the title of a Refutation and Apology, composed four books, or epistles, (for they are indifferently called by both names) against the accusations of the Pentapolitans. He complains that his accusers quoted his words in so disjointed and arbitrary a manner, that they misrepresented his sense;—that they uniformly affixed to them the worst signification, and made him say things which he was far from intending. His adversaries had urged against him that he had asserted the Son to be different in substance from the Father; bringing forward the unhappy,—because nakedly stated,—illustration of the Vine and the Vinedresser.

He replies, that he had not used the term Consubstantial, as not having found it in Scripture; but that his meaning, if rightly considered, was the same with that of those who employed it ; that the examples in his first letter sufficiently proved this, and that on this account he was grieved to be unable, at the moment, to lay his hands on a copy of it;—that as a plant differed from its root, a river from its fountain, while yet in each case, the nature of both was the same; so it was with respect to these Divine Persons.

It had been urged against him that he had asserted the Son not of necessity to be eternally existent. He answers, that what he affirmed was totally different; namely, that the FATHER  only was self-existent, the Son existing in and by the FATHER; in the same manner as if the Sun were eternal its splendour would be co-eternal; yet not self-existent, but eternally derived from the Sun. He had always, he said, affirmed the eternity of theFATHER’s existence as FATHER; and therefore by implication affirmed the eternity of the Son. It had also been objected that he had spoken of the FATHER and Son separately, as if wishing to make a division of Their substance.^ He answers, that in naming theFATHER, he implied the SON by the very title; if there were no SON, how could there be a FATHER ? In like manner, in naming the SON, he implied the FATHER ; if there were no FATHER, how could there be a SON? His opponents had said, that the FATHER, according to him, had created all things. He defends himself by returning that he had expressly guarded that assertion. The FATHER, he had affirmed, was not properly and by way of generation FATHER of the things which He created; therefore He had not created that of which He was properly and by way of generation FATHER; and therefore it followed from his statement, that the Word was uncreated.

Proceeding to another illustration, he says, that as the heart indites a good word, the thought and word yet remaining entirely distinct and unconfused, the one dwelling in the heart, the other on the lips, while yet one does not exist without the other, but the thought engenders the word, and the word exhibits the thought, and the thought is an implicit word, and the word an explicit thought, and the thought is the father of the word, and the word the child of the thought, existing with it, existing from it; even so that Great FATHER and Universal Mind hath before all things His Son, as His Word, Interpreter, and Angel.

This apology was considered satisfactory;—and the Bishop of Alexandria retained his reputation as the first living Doctor of the Church. Doubtless it was providentially ordered that the suspicious passages in the letter against Sabellius received so full an explanation;—otherwise that Epistle would have formed the great bulwark of the Arians in the subsequent controversy. Even as it was, they as we have seen, abused it to their own purposes;—and there have not been wanting some, and they not unable, judges who have believed him, however innocently, to have given the first hint to the then undeveloped frenzy of Arius.