Friday, November 23, 2012

A (Very) Brief History of Sabellius at Rome

Over these last three posts we have attempted to demonstrate that the Syrian tradition that indeed there was a 'council of Ancyra' organized at the time of Hadrian to combat the heresy of Sabellius.  While it is difficult to determine when Sabellius lived beyond saying that it was 'some time in the second century' the Hadrianic period is a quite workable suggestion.  We need only think of the example of Polycarp who lived roughly at the same as Sabellius.  Indeed Stuart George Hall's identification of Irenaeus as Praxeas of Tertullian's Against Praxeas seems to complete the circle.  Philaster and Augustine have no distinct articles for Praxeas, but speak of him in their chapters of Sabellius as a disciple of Sabellius.

Yes the information is spotty about Sabellius.  No one can deny that.  Nevertheless the fact that Irenaeus omits reference to Sabellius entirely can mean one of three things - (a) Sabellius wasn't yet alive or (b) Sabellius was alive but Irenaeus didn't know him or (c) Irenaeus knew him but didn't consider him a heretic.  There are three prominent teachers of the doctrine that the Son was the Father and the Father was the Son - Sabellius, Noetus and Praxeas.  Our sources are unclear about which teacher was the earliest.  Nevertheless it should be noted that Sabellius was always the epitome of the monarchian tradition at least outside of individual 'reports' of heresiologists.

Dionysius of Alexandria specifically wrote against the latter in his Exercitations against Sabellius and over time it is clear that the view that Rome was the home of Sabellianism.  If we start with Zephyrinus and Callistus as the earliest 'Sabellian bishops' of Rome, it is clear from the letters of the letters of Dionysius of Alexandria to his namesake Dionysius of Rome that the latter was also of this persuasion.  Can it be claimed that the entire line of Roman bishops from Zephyrinus - or perhaps better stated 'from the time of Irenaeus' - to Dionysius?  Standing against this view is of course Novatian (or 'Novatius' or whatever other name this shadowy figure took on) and the influence that he had over Pope Fabian c. 250 CE.

It is enough to say that Sabellianism was centered in Rome in the early third century and identified as its orthodoxy.  It is impossible not to make the connection between monarchism and the monarchic tendencies of the Roman Church in the early third century (i.e. imposing its one God, one faith, one dogma on the rest of the churches).  It is increasingly obvious from the surviving literature that Polycarp on some level must be identified with the historical Sabellius and thus it he who was condemned in the council of Ancyra during the reign of Hadrian.

It isn't just the failure of Sabellius to appear in any of the heretical lists of the Church Fathers.  Nor is it merely owing to the fact that both Irenaeus and Florinus the two students of Polycarp were both 'Sabellianists.'  It is the fact that Irenaeus is so incredibly coy with the actual name of his master.  Why should anyone believe that 'Polycarp' is indeed the name of his master that 'elder' references outnumber that name ten to one?  Could it be that the name 'Sabellius' was a corruption of an epithet for his elder (= Aram sab, saba)?

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.