Wednesday, November 21, 2012

There is No Evidence For Sabellius Being Alive in the Third Century

We have been investigating the ancient tradition in the East that a council was established during the reign of Hadrian - either at Ancyra or Nicaea - to combat the heresy of Sabellius.  The idea is not as crazy as it seems.  As we have noted in a previous post, there had to have been a justification for the 'war against the heresies' that emerges in the late second century.  It is interesting to note that Irenaeus himself - the great general of the war on heresy - points to two important precursors in the century for this effort, Justin and Polycarp.  Justin is especially interesting for us as he is principally associated with a 'syntagma' which most scholars identify as the source behind the list of heresies that emerge in Irenaeus's writings and those of his close associates.

The difficulty of course is that the eastern tradition specifically reinforces 'Sabellius' as the admonished heretic at this 'first council of Nicaea' and Irenaeus completely ignores Sabellius.  Irenaeus has been demonstrated to have shared the views of Sabellius so we can understand why 'Sabellianism' didn't make it into Irenaeus's list of condemned heresies.  Nevertheless the fact that Justin takes such an interest in condemning the views associated with Sabellius is a curious problem.  It calls into question Irenaeus's claim that he and Justin - the original 'heresiologist' as it were - were fighting the same fight.

Of course scholars don't want to acknowledge the existence of this lost 'council of Nicaea' simply because it calls into question their simple-minded adherence to a handful of sources.  Irenaeus not only ignores the heresy of Sabellius, he doesn't mention any sort of 'council' taking place during the time of Hadrian.  Eusebius too ignores the event as do all the later western Church Fathers who based their historical reconstrictions on his original Chronology.  Nevertheless it has to be acknowledged that the Syrian tradition that there was indeed such a council is very old and very well established.  The only objection which seems to have some legs as it were is that we have evidence which allegedly shows Sabellius as being alive in the third century, thus making a council against him in the age of Hadrian impossible.

The evidence for this claim is rather weak.  Epiphanius certainly says that it was 'in recent times' that Sabellius made his appearance.  Nevertheless the lack of specificity here is rather unconvincing.  The entire entry in the Panarion, which makes Sabellius a contemporary of Origen reads:

Not many years ago, one Sabellius made his appearance; indeed, within recent times; and from him the Sabellians take their name. With some slight exceptions, his opinions were like those of the Noëtians. Most of his followers are to be found in Mesopotamia and in Rome; and they are the victims of folly. Their tenet is as follows: that one and the same Being is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in such sense that to one substance belong three names, much as in a man [we find] body, soul and spirit. The body, so to say, is the Father; the soul, so to say, the Son; and the Spirit in the Godhead is what the spirit is in a man. Or as in the sun: it is one substance but has three activities; I mean light, heat and orb. The heat, whether warmth or fervour, is the Spirit; the light is the Son; and the Father Himself is the form of the whole substance. Once on a time the Son was sent forth, like a ray; and, after accomplishing in the world all that had to do with the dispensation of the Gospel and human salvation, was then received back again into heaven; just as a ray is emitted by the sun and is then withdrawn into the sun again. The Holy Spirit is still being sent forth into the world; and, successively and severally, into every one of those who are worthy to receive it. The Spirit re-creates him; fills him with fresh fervour; and supplies him, so to say, with heat and warmth, infusing fresh power and influence into his spirit. Such are the tenets they inculcate. They make use of all the Scriptures of the Old and the New testament; or, rather, of such phrases as they select to suit their own perverse insanity and folly. They start off with the terms in which God spake to Moses: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one Lord; though shalt not make to thyself other gods.” “There shall no strange gods be in thee.” “I am the first and I am the last and beside me there is no God,” and any other texts they can find to suit their own notions. These they adopt to prove their position. Or again, from the Gospel: “I am in the Father and the Father in Me.” “I and the Father are one.”

The connection between Sabellius and Noetus seems to indicate that Hippolytus or perhaps someone in his circle is Epiphanius ultimate source.  The original Syntagma of Hippolytus ended with the reference to Noetus.  So clearly, as our Philosophumena demonstrates, the reference to Sabellius was tacked on to the end of the narrative as part of the author's attack (whether Hippolytus or one of his students) against Callistus.

It's incredible that anyone should say that we have evidence that Sabellius was 'alive' in Rome at the time of Callistus when the narrative says the exact opposite.  The problem is that the section of the text which is used to justify this claim is very ambiguously written.  The name 'Sabellius' doesn't even appear.  Instead we hear continual reference to 'he' after an allusion to 'the heresy of Sabellius' even though it is patently obvious from the section that Zephyrinus - not Sabellius - is meant.  Why did Epiphanius and virtually everyone else (though not all scholars) decide to interpret the 'he' in the narrative as referencing 'Sabellius'?  The answer should be obvious.  The author of the Philosophumena is attacking a Pope - in this case Pope Zephyrinus.  He is openly saying that Zephyrinus was an idiot who fell under the spell of Callistus, who was a 'Sabellian' and that despite Hippolytus (or those of his circle) to convince the Pope to change his mind, he remained mired in Sabellianism his whole life thanks to the influence of Callistus.

Here is the passage in question.  The readers can judge for themselves whether the plain meaning of the material is as I claim it to be:

Callistus attempted to strengthen (ἐκράτυνε) this heresy (i.e. Noetus 'that the Son and Father are the same'),--a man cunning in wickedness, and subtle where deceit was concerned, (and) who was impelled by restless ambition to mount the episcopal throne. Now this man moulded to his purpose Zephyrinus, an ignorant and illiterate individual, and one unskilled in ecclesiastical definitions (τῶν ἐκκλησιαστικῶν ὅρων). And inasmuch as Zephyrinus was accessible to bribes, and covetous, Callistus, by luring him through presents, and by illicit demands, was enabled to seduce him into whatever course of action he pleased. And so it was that Callistus succeeded in inducing Zephyrinus to create continually disturbances among the brethren, while he himself took care subsequently, by knavish words (κερκώπων λόγοις), to attach both factions in friendship (φιλίαν) to himself.  And, at one time, to those who entertained truth (ἀλήθειαν), he would in private allege that they held similar beliefs (with himself), and thus make them his dupes; while at another time he would act similarly towards those (who embraced) the tenets of Sabellius.  And he changed him (ὃν καὶ αὐτὸν ἐξέστησε), though he had the ability to set him straight (δυνάμενον κατορθοῦν).  For during our council (παραινεῖσθαι) he did not evince stubbornness (ἐσκληρύνετο); but as long as he continued alone with Callistus, he was wrought upon to relapse into the system of Cleomenes by this very Callistus, who alleges that he entertains similar opinions to Cleomenes. He, however, did not then perceive the knavery of Callistus; but he afterwards came to be aware of it, as I shall narrate presently. [Philosophumena 9.6]

The standard translation of the various references to 'he' in these last sentences is to make it seem that 'Sabellius' is the subject of the sentence - "But Callistus perverted Sabellius himself, and this, too, though he had the ability of rectifying this heretic's error. For (at any time) during our admonition Sabellius did not evince obduracy; but as long as he continued alone with Callistus, he was wrought upon to relapse into the system of Cleomenes by this very Callistus, who alleges that he entertains similar opinions to Cleomenes. Sabellius, however, did not then perceive the knavery of Callistus; but he afterwards came to be aware of it, as I shall narrate presently."

This translation is downright senseless.  Are we now to believe that Callistus 'perverted' or 'changed' Sabellius?  This after the author makes reference to Callistus holding secretly to 'the doctrines of Sabellius' only a line earlier?  Dollinger rightly references this claim as "Now, this certainly sounds somewhat astonishing : Callistus expounds the dogma, of Sabellius to the orthodox, and praises the teaching of Cleomenes to Sabellius."  The problem again is that no one wants to see Zephyrinus - the subject of the paragraph at the very beginning - as the 'he' throughout the conclusion.  In this case then both Sabellius and Cleomenes are pre-existent figures who are not alive at the time of Zephyrinus.

This understanding is confirmed by the later section in the account to which the author of the Philosophumena refers us.  We see quite clearly that it is to the intimacy between Callistus and Zephyrinus was is the actual subject of what follows:

And Callistus, who was in the habit of always associating with Zephyrinus, and, as I have previously stated, of paying him hypocritical service, disclosed, by force contrast, Zephyrinus to be a person able neither to form a judgment of things said, nor discerning the design of Callistus, who was accustomed to converse with Zephyrinus on topics which yielded satisfaction to the latter. Thus, after the death of Zephyrinus, supposing that he had obtained (the position) after which he so eagerly pursued, he pushed away (ἀπέωσεν) Sabellius, as not entertaining orthodox opinions. He acted thus from apprehension of me, and imagining that he could in this manner obliterate the charge against him among the churches, as if he did not entertain strange opinions. He was then an impostor and knave, and in process of time hurried away many with him. And having even venom imbedded in his heart, and forming no correct opinion on any subject, and yet withal being ashamed to speak the truth, this Callistus, not only on account of his publicly saying in the way of reproach to us, "Ye are Ditheists," but also on account of his being long ago accused (συχνῶς κατηγορεῖσθαι) by Sabellius, as one that had transgressed his first faith, devised some such heresy as the following. Callistus alleges that the Logos Himself is Son, and that Himself is Father; and that though denominated by a different title, yet that in reality He is one indivisible spirit. And he maintains that the Father is not one person and the Son another, but that they are one and the same; and that all things are full of the Divine Spirit, both those above and those below. And he affirms that the Spirit, which became incarnate in the virgin, is not different from the Father, but one and the same. And he adds, that this is what has been declared by the Saviour: "Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me?" For that which is seen, which is man, he considers to be the Son; whereas the Spirit, which was contained in the Son, to be the Father. "For," says (Callistus), "I will not profess belief in two Gods, Father and Son, but in one. For the Father, who subsisted in the Son Himself, after He had taken unto Himself our flesh, raised it to the nature of Deity, by bringing it into union with Himself, and made it one; so that Father and Son must be styled one God, and that this Person being one, cannot be two." And in this way Callistus contends that the Father suffered along with the Son; for he does not wish to assert that the Father suffered, and is one Person, being careful to avoid blasphemy against the Father. (How careful he is!) senseless and knavish fellow, who improvises blasphemies in every direction, only that he may not seem to speak in violation of the truth, and is not abashed at being at one time betrayed into the tenet of Sabellius, whereas at another into the doctrine of Theodotus. [ibid 9.7]

The point of course is that nowhere in the narrative does Hippolytus say that Sabellius was alive at the time of these proceedings.  The Philosophumena's account of Callistus is not only mean-spirited but also - like a Quinton Tarantino movie - goes back and forth between events in the course of the life of the third century bishop of Rome.

Zephyrinus was bishop of Rome at the very end of the second century yet much of the narrative shifts back to Callistus being sent to the mines during the reign of Victor and Commodus.  If Callistus was already a Christian c. (180 - 190 CE) and moreover a 'knave' it is important to note that he is already identified as having dealings with the Christian Carpophorus extending many years earlier.  We have no idea of course when it was Callistus was born.  Nevertheless his death seems to have occurred in 222 CE.  The idea then that a council could have been established at the end of Hadrian's reign (c. 138 CE) which condemned the heresy of Sabellius and that this Sabellius lived on to 160 CE (like Polycarp) or even 170 CE (like Hegesippus) long enough to have associated himself with this Callistus who went on to fall in with those of the Imperial household i.e. Carpophorus (c. 175 CE) and ultimately Victor (185 CE) and Zephyrinus (c. 195 CE) and ultimately the chair of St Peter (c. 220 - 222 CE) seems highly believable.  The end result is that Sabellius could indeed have been alive at the time of Justin Martyr and the alleged 'first council of Nicaea.'

In fact I am strongly leaning toward the idea that 'Sabellius' might well have been Polycarp himself.  This way the monarchian dogma of Irenaeus might finally be explained.

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