Sabellius, the author of a heretical doctrine concerning the nature of the Trinity, which disturbed the Church in the 3d century, and has occasionally reappeared, under modified forms, even down to modern times. Sabellius, according to Hippolytus (Philosophoumena), spent some time at Rome in the beginning of the 3d century, and was gained by Callistus to patripassianism. Subsequently he appears as a presbyter of Ptolemais, in Egypt. There his doctrine assumed a modified form, and made such progress in the Church that Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, excommunicated him at a council in that city (A.D. 261), and opposed him so earnestly as to almost fall into the opposite error of a hypostatical independence of the Father and the Son. Thereupon the Sabellians complained of that bishop to Dionysius of Rome, who held a council on the subject in 262, and controverted Sabellianism in a special treatise, taking care also to refute subordinationism and tritheism. The bishop of Alexandria retracted his utterances on these last points. Thus this feature of the strife was largely allayed until the age of Arius, half a century later.
Sabellius is by far the most original and ingenious of the so called Monarchians. His system is known to us only from a few fragments imperfectly preserved in Athanasius and other fathers. It has been carefully discussed, and even partially revived, by Schleiermacher in modern times (see Schaff, Church History, p. 292-294). The beginnings of Sabellianism are found in Noetus, though there is no evidence of any historical connection between Noetus and Sabellius. The system seems rather to have sprung out of Judaizing and Gnostic tendencies which were indigenous to Egypt. Sabellius held the Jewish position of a strict monotheism, recognizing only a single divine substance and a single hypostasis, which are but two words for the same thing. In themselves they constitute the monad. As simple substance, the monad is "the silent God," i.e. it is inoperative and unproductive. It becomes active only through revelation and development, which are sometimes conceived of as an unfolding, sometimes as a speaking. The first form of Sabellianism seems to have held merely to a dyad, to wit, God simple and God speaking, that is, God and the Logos. But this earlier form soon disappears, and gives place to a triad. Thus the monad evolves itself as a triad, as three divine persons, but not in the Nicene sense. The one divine substance simply assumes three forms (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost) in its threefold relation to the world. This is not, however, simply three appellations, but it is three successive forms of manifestation of the one divine substance. In illustration of this, Sabellius compares the Father to the visible globe of the sun, the Son to its illuminating effects, and the Spirit to its warming influence, while the sun, per se, would correspond to the simple divine substance. To the first form of manifestation (the Father) is attributed the giving of the law, and in general the whole pre-Christian economy. Thereupon ensued the second form, the incarnation, in which God accomplished our objective redemption. Thereafter he appears under a third phase, the Spirit of sanctification, which exerts its efficiency in the hearts of believers. As the three manifestations are conceived of as successive, so, also, are they but temporary and transitory. The divine substance does not manifest itself simultaneously in three forms, but as each new manifestation is made the previous one ceases; and when, finally, all three stages have been passed, the triad will again return into the monad, and the divine substance will again be all and in all. Thus appears the pantheistic tendency of Sabellianism as a whole. God is the abstract substance which evolves itself into the world of reality, traverses the stage of finite life, and eventually retires within itself. The "silent" God speaks forth in the universe, and then returns back into silence. Some of the fathers traced the doctrine of Sabellius to the Stoic system. The only common element, however, is the pantheistic expansion and contraction of the divine nature immanent in the world. Kindred ideas are also found in Pythagoreanism, in the Gospel of the Egyptians, and in the Pseudo- Clementine Homilies. But this does not affect the vigorous originality of Sabellius. His theory broke the way for the Nicene Church doctrine by its full rejection of subordinationism, and by its complete coordination of the three persons. He differs from the orthodox view by his denial of the trinity of essence and the permanence of the threefold manifestation, thus making of the Father, Son, and Spirit simply a transient series of phenomena, which fulfil their mission, and then return into the abstract one divine substance.
See Athanasius, Contra Arianos Oratio, 3, 4; De Synodis, c. 7; Philastrius, De Hoeres.post Christi Passionem, lib. 26; Theodoret, Hoeret. Fab. Comnpend. 2, 9; Augustine, De Hoeres. lib. 41; Basil, Epist. 210, 214; Tillemont, Memoires, 4, 237; Mosheim, De Rebus Christian. saec. 3, § 38; Neander, Church Hist. (Rose's ed.), 2, 276; Milman, Hist. of Latin Christianity, 2, 429; Schleiermacher, Ueber den Gegensatz der Sabellianischen and athanasianischen Vorstellung von der Trinitdt; Herzog, Real-Encykl. 13, 214-216. (J.P.L.)