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The Heresy of Sabellius, Who Denied the Distinction of Persons in the Trinity

The Catholic Church teaches that there are in God one Nature and three distinct Persons. Arius, of whose heresy we shall have to speak in the next chapter, admits the distinction of Persons in the Trinity, but said that the three Persons had three different Natures among themselves, or, as the latter Arians said, that the three Persons were of three distinct Natures. Sabellius, on the other hand, confessed, that in God there was but one Nature; but he denied the distinction of Persons, for God, he said, was distinguished with the name of the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Ghost, by denomination alone, to signify the different effects of the Divinity, but that in himself, as there is but one Nature, so there is but one Person. The Sabellian heresy was first taught by Praxeas, who was refuted by Tertullian in a special work. In the year 257, the same heresy was taken up by Sabellius (1), who gave it great extension, especially in Lybia, and he was followed by Paul of Samosata. These denied the distinction of the Persons, and, consequently, the Divinity of Jesus Christ, and, therefore, the Sabellians were called Patropassionists, as St. Augustine (2) tells us, for, -as they admitted in God only the Person of the Father alone, they should, consequently, admit that it was the Father who became incarnate, and suffered for the redemption of mankind. The Sabellian heresy, after being a long time defunct, was resuscitated by Socinus, whose arguments we shall also enumerate in this dissertation. (1) Euseb. His. Eccles. (2) St. Augus. trac. 26, in Jo.  


2. In the first place, the plurality and the real distinction of the three Persons in the Divine Nature is proved from the words of Genesis: " Let us make man to our own image and likeness" (Gen. i, 26); and in chap, iii, v. 22, it is said:  "Behold, Adam is become one of us;" and again, in chap, xi, ver. 7: " Come ye, therefore, let us go down, and there confound their tongues." Now these words, " let us do," " let us go down," " let us confound," show the plurarity of Persons, and can in no wise be understood of the plurality of Natures, for the Scripture itself declares that there is but one God, and if there were several Divine Natures, there would be several Gods; the words quoted, therefore, must mean the plurality of Persons. Theodoret (1), with Tertullian, makes a reflection on this, that God spoke in the plural number, "let us make," to denote the plurality of Persons, and then uses the singular, "to our image," not images, to signify the unity of the Divine Nature.  

3. To this the Socinians object: First That God spoke in the plural number, for the honour of his Person, as kings say "We" when they give any order. But we answer, by saying, that sovereigns speak thus, "we ordain," "we command," in their ordinances, for then they represent the whole republic, but never when they speak of their private and personal acts; they never say, for example, " we are going to sleep," or " we are going to walk," nor did God speak in the way of commanding, when he said, " Behold Adam is become as one of us." Secondly They object, that God did not thus speak with the other Divine Persons, but with the Angels; but Tertullian, St. Basil, Theodoret, and St. Iræneus, laugh at this foolish objection (2), for the very words, " to our image and likeness," dispose of it, for man is not created to the image of the Angels, but of God himself. Thirdly They object, that God spoke with himself then, as if exciting himself to create man, as a sculptor might say, " come, let us make a statue. St. Basil (3), opposing the Jews, disposes of this argument. " Do we ever see a smith," he says, " when sitting down among his tools, say to himself Come, let us make a sword?" The Saint intends by this to prove, that, when God said, " let us make," he could not speak so to himself alone, but to the other Persons; for no one, speaking to himself, says, " let us make." It is clear, therefore, that he spoke with the other Divine Persons.  

4. It is proved, also, from the Psalms (ii, 7): " The Lord hath said to me, thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee." Here mention is made of the Father begetting the Son, and of the Son begotten; and in the same Psalm the promise is made: " I will give thee the Gentiles for thy inheritance, and the utmost parts of the earth for thy possession." Here a clear distinction is drawn between the Person of the Son and the Person of the Father, for we cannot say it is the same Person who begets and is begotten. And St. Paul declares that these words refer to Christ the Son of God: " So Christ also did not glorify himself, that he might be made a high priest, but he that said unto him:  Thou art my son; this day have I begotten thee" (Heb. v, 5).  

5. It is also- proved by the 109th Psalm: " The Lord said to my Lord, sit thou at my right hand;" and it was this very passage that our Saviour made use of to convince the Jews, and make them believe that he was the Son of God. " What think you of Christ, said he? Whose Son is he? They say to him: David’s. He saith to them: How, then, doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying, &c. If David then call him Lord, how is he his Son" (Mat. xxii, 42 45). Christ wished by this to prove that, although the Son of David, he was still His Lord, and God, likewise, as his Eternal Father, was Lord. (1) Theod. qu. 19, in Gen. (2) Tertull. 1. contra Prax. c. 12; St. Basil, t. 1; Hom. 9 in Hexamer.; Theod. qu. 19, in Gen.; St. Iran. l. 4, n. 37. (3) St. Basil, loc. cit. p. 87.  

6. The distinction of the Divine Persons was not expressed more clearly in the Old Law, lest the Jews, like the Egyptians, who adored a plurality of Gods, might imagine that in the three Divine Persons there were three Essential Gods. In the New Testament, however, through which the Gentiles were called to the Faith, the distinction of the three Persons in the Divine Essence is clearly laid down, as is proved, first, from St. John, i, 1: " In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Now, by the expression, " the Word was with God," it is proved that the Word was distinct from the Father, for we cannot say of the same thing, that it is with itself and nigh itself at the same time. Neither can we say that the Word was distinct by Nature, for the text says, " the Word was God;" therefore, the distinction of Persons is clearly proved, as St. Athanasius and Tertullian agree (4). In the same chapter these words occur: " We saw his glory, the glory as it were of the only-begotten of the Father." Here no one can say, that the Son is begotten from himself; the Son, therefore, is really distinct from the Father.  

7. It is proved, also, from the command given to the Apostles: " Go, therefore, teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (Matt, xxviii, 19). Hence the words, in the name, denote the unity of Nature, and signify that Baptism is one sole operation of all the three named Persons; and the distinct appellation afterwards given to each Person, clearly proves that they are distinct. And, again, if these three Persons were not God, but only creatures, it would be absurd to imagine that Christ, under the same name, would liken creatures to God.  

8. It is proved, also, by that text of St. John: " Philip, he that seeth me seeth the Father also I will ask the Father, and he shall give you another Paraclete" (John, xiv, 9, 16). By the words, " he that seeth me seeth the Father," he proves the unity of the Divine Nature; and by the other expression, " I will ask," &c., the distinction of the Persons, for the same Person cannot be at once the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. This is even more fully explained by the words of St. John, xv, 26: " But the Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, whom the Father shall send in my name." (4) Tert. adv. Prax. c. 26; St. Ath. Orat. contr. Sab, Gregal.  

9. It is also proved by that text of St. John: " There are three who give testimony in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost, and these three are one" (John, I. Epis. v. 7). Nor is the assertion of the adversaries of the Faith, that the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost, are merely different in name, but not in reality, of any avail, for then it would not be three testimonies that are given, but only one alone, which is repugnant to the text. The Socinians labour hard to oppose this text especially, which so clearly expresses the distinction of the three Divine Persons, and they object that this verse is wanting altogether in many manuscripts, or, at all events is found only in part; but Estius, in his commentaries on this text of St. John, says, that Robert Stephens, in his elegant edition of the New Testament, remarks that, having consulted sixteen ancient copies collected in France, Spain, and Italy, he found that, in seven of them, the words " in heaven" alone were omitted, but that the remainder of the text existed in full. The Doctors of Louvain collected a great number of manuscripts for the Edition of the Vulgate brought out in 1580, and they attest, that it was in five alone that the whole text was not found (5). It is easy to explain how a copyist might make a mistake in writing this verse, for the seventh and eighth verses are so much alike, that a careless copyist might easily mix up one with the other. It is most certain that in many ancient Greek copies, and in all the Latin ones, the seventh verse is either put down entire, or, at least, noted in the margin: and, besides, we find it cited by many of the Fathers, as St. Cyprian, St. Athanasius, St. Epiphanius, St. Fulgentius, Tertullian, St. Jerome, and Victor Vitensis (6). The Council of Trent, above all, in its Decree of the Canonical Scriptures, Sess. IV., obliges us to receive every book of the Vulgate edition, with all its parts, as usually read in the Church: "If any one should not receive as holy and canonical the entire books, with all their parts, as they are accustomed to be read in the Catholic Church, and contained in the old Vulgate edition let him be anathema." The seventh verse quoted is frequently read in the Church, and especially on Low Sunday. (5) Tournel. Theol. Comp. t. 2, qu. 3, p. 41; Juenin, Theol. t. 3, c. 2. (6) St. Cypr. LI, de Unit. Eccl. St Ath. l. 1, ad Theoph.; St. Epiph. Hær. St. Fulg. 1. contra, Arian. Tertull. 1. adv. Prax. 25; St. Hier. (aut Auctor) Prol. ad Ep. Canon, Vitens. l. 3, de Pers. Air. 

10. The Socinians, however, say that it cannot be proved from that text of St. John, that there are in God three distinct Persons, and one sole essence, because, say they, the words " these three are one" signify no other union but the union of testimony, as the words of the eighth verse signify, " There are three that give testimony on earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood, and these three are one." These words prove, according to us, that Christ is truly the Son of God, which is what St. John is speaking about; and this, he says, is testified by the water of Baptism, by the blood shed by Jesus Christ, and by the Holy Spirit, who teaches it by his illuminations, and in this sense St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, and Liranus explain it, and especially Tirinus, who rejects the explanation of an anonymous author, who interprets the water as that which flowed from our Lord’s side; the blood, that which flowed from his heart when it was pierced with a spear, and the spirit, the soul of Jesus Christ. To return to the point, however; I cannot conceive any objection more futile than this. So from the words of St. John, " the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost," the distinction of the Divine Persons cannot be proved, because these Persons " are one," that is, make one testimony alone, and denote by that, that they are but one Essence. But we answer, that we are not here labouring to prove that God is one, that is, one Essence, and not three Essences; for our adversaries themselves do not call this in doubt, and, besides, it is proved from a thousand other texts of Scripture adduced by themselves, as we shall soon see; so that granting even that the words " are one" denote nothing else but the unity of testimony, what do they gain by that? The point is this not whether the unity of the Divine Essence is proved by the text of St. John, but whether the real distinction of the Divine Persons is proved by it, and no one, I think, can deny that it is, when St. John says, " There are three who give testimony in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost." If three give testimony, it is not one Person, but three distinct Persons, who do so, and that is what we mean to prove. I have found several other answers to this objection in various authors, but this, I think, is the clearest and the most convincing against the Socinians.  

11. The real distinction of the Divine Persons is also proved from the traditions of the Fathers, and from their unanimous consent in teaching this truth. To avoid doubtful meanings, however, it is right to premise that in the fourth century, about the year 380, there were great contests in the Church, even among the Holy Fathers themselves, regarding the word Hypostasis, and they were split into two parties. Those who adhered to Miletius taught that there are in God three Hypostases; and those who followed Paulinus, that there was only one, and so the followers of Miletius called the followers of Paulinus Sabellians, and these retorted by calling the others Arians. The whole dispute, however, arose from the doubtful meaning of the word Hypostasis, as some of the Fathers, the Paulinians, understood by it the Essence or the Divine Nature, and the others, the Miletians, the Person; and the word Ousia was also of doubtful meaning, being taken for Essence or for Person. When the words were, therefore, explained in the Synod of Alexandria, both parties came to an agreement, and from that to this, by the word Ousia we understand the Essence, and by the word Hypostasis, the Person. The doctrine, therefore, of one Essence and three Persons, really distinct in God, is not taught alone by St. Cyprian, St. Athanasius, St. Epiphanius, St. Basil, St. Jerom, and St. Fulgentius, already cited (n. 9), but also by St. Hilary, St. Gregory Nazianzan, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. John of Damascus, &c. (10). Among the Fathers of the three first centuries we have St. Clement, St. Polycarp, Athenagoras, St. Justin, Tertullian, St. Irenæus, St. Dionisius Alexandrinus, and St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (11). (10) St. Hilar. in 12 lib.; St. Greg. Nazian, in plur. Orat. Nyss. Orat. contra Ennom.; St. Chrys. in 5 Hom.; St. Amb. lib. de Spir. S. St. Augus. l. 15; Jo. Dam. l. 1 de Fide. (11) St. Clem. Epis. ad Corint; St. Polyear. Orat. in suo marg. apud Euseb. L 4; His. c. 14; Athenagor. Leg. pro. Chris.; St. Iren. in ejus , oper.; Tertullian, contra Prax. Diony. Alex. Ep. ad Paul, Samosat.; St. Gregor. Thaum. in Expos. Fid.  Many general Councils declare and confirm the same truth. It is taught by the Nicene (in Symb. Fidei); by the first of Constantinople (in Symb.); by that of Ephesus (act 6), which confirms the Nicene Symbol; of Chalcedon (in Symb.); of the second of Constantinople (act 6); third of Constantinople (act 17); fourth of Constantinople (act 10); fourth of Lateran (cap. 1); second of Lyons (can. 1); of Florence, in the Decree of Union, and finally, by the Council of Trent, which approved the first of Constantinople, with the addition of the word Filioque. It was so well known that the Christians believed this dogma, that the very Gentiles charged them with believing in three Gods, as is proved from the writings of Origen against Celsus, and from the Apology of St. Justin. If the Christians did not firmly believe in the Divinity of the three Divine Persons, they would have answered the Pagans, by saying that they only considered the Father as God, and not the other two Persons; but they, on the contrary, always confessed, without fearing that by doing so they would admit a plurality of Gods, that the Son and the Holy Ghost were God equally with the Father; for although with the Father they were three distinct Persons, they had but one Essence and Nature. This proves clearly that this was the faith of the first ages.  


12. The Sabellians bring forward several texts of Scripture, to prove that God is one alone, as " I am the Lord that make all things, that alone stretch out the heavens, that establish the earth, and there is none with me" (Isaias, xliv, 24); but to this we answer, that the words " I am the Lord" refer not alone to the Father, but to all the three Persons, who are but one God and one Lord. Again, " I am God, and there is no other" (Isaias, xlv, 22). Hence, we assert that the word I, does not denote the person of the Father alone, but also the Persons of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, because they are all but one God; and the words "there is no other" signify the exclusion of all other Persons who are not God. But, say they, here is one text, in which it is clearly laid down that the Father alone is God, " yet to us there is but one God the Father, of whom are all things, and we unto him, and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him" (I. Cor. viii. 6). To this we answer, that here the Apostle teaches the faithful to believe one God in three Persons, in opposition to the Gentiles, who, in many Persons, adored many Gods. For as we believe that Christ, called by St. Paul " one Lord," is not Lord alone, to the exclusion of the Father, so, when the Father is called " one Lord," we are not to believe that he is God alone, to the exclusion of Christ and of the Holy Ghost; and when the Apostle speaks of " one God the Father," we are to understand that he speaks of the unity of Nature, and not of Person.  

13. Again, they object that our natural reason alone is sufficient to prove to us, that as among men three persons constitute three individual humanities, so in God the three Persons, if they were really distinct, would constitute three distinct Deities. To this we reply, that Divine mysteries are not to be judged according to our stunted human reason; they are infinitely beyond the reach of our intellect. " If," says St. Cyril of Alexandria, " there was no difference between us and God, we might measure Divine things by our own standard; but if there be an incomprehensible distance between us, why should the deficiency of our nature mark out a rule for God" (12)? If, therefore, we cannot arrive at the comprehension of Divine mysteries, we should adore and believe them; and it is enough to know that what we are obliged to believe is not evidently opposed to reason. We cannot comprehend the greatness of God, and so we cannot comprehend the mode of his existence. But, say they, how can we believe that three Persons really distinct are only one God, and not three Gods? The reason assigned by the Holy Fathers is this because the principle of the Divinity is one, that is, the Father, who proceeds from nothing, while the two other Persons proceed from him, but in such a manner that they cease not to exist in him, as Jesus Christ says: " The Father is in me, and I in the Father" (John, x. 38). (12) St. Cyril, Alex. l. 11, in Jo. p. 99.  And this is the difference between the Divine Persons and human persons with us three persona constitute three distinct substances, because, though they are of the same species, they are still three individual substances, and they are also three distinct natures, for each person has his own particular nature. In God, however, the Nature or the substance, is not divisible, but is in fact one one Divinity alone, and, therefore, the Persons, although really distinct, still having the same Nature and the same Divine substance, constitute one Divinity alone, only one God.  

14. They next object that rule received by all philosophers: " Things equal to a third are equal to each other." Therefore, say they, if the Divine Persons are the same thing as the Divine Nature, they are also the same among themselves, and cannot be really distinct. We might answer this by saying, as before, that a philosophical axiom like this applies very well to created, but not to Divine things. But we can even give a more distinct answer to it. This axiom answers very well in regard to things which correspond to a third, and correspond also among themselves. But although the Divine Persons correspond in every thing to the Divine Essence, and are, therefore, the same among themselves as to the substance, still, because in the personality they do not correspond, on account of their relative opposition, for the Father communicates his Essence to the two other persons, and they receive it from the Father, therefore, the Person of the Father is really distinct from that of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

15. They object, Fourthly that as the Divine Presence is infinite, therefore it must be but one, for what is infinite in all perfections, cannot have a second like itself, and that is the great proof of the Unity of God; for if there were many Gods, one could not possess the perfections of the other, and would not, therefore, be infinite, nor be God. To this we answer, that although on account of the infinity of God, there can be no more Gods than one, still from the infinity of the Divine Persons in God, it does not follow that there can be only one Divine Person; for although in God there are three distinct Persons, still each, through the unity of essence, contains all the perfections of the other two. But, say they, the Son has not the perfection of the Father to generate, and the Holy Ghost has not the perfection of the Father and the Son to spirate, therefore the Son is not infinite as is the Father, nor has the Holy Ghost the perfections of the Father and the Son. We reply, that the perfection of anything is that which properly belongs to its nature, and hence it is that the perfection of the Father is to generate, of the Son, to be generated, and of the Holy Ghost to be spirated. Now, as these perfections are relative, they cannot be the same in each Person, for otherwise, the distinction of Persons would exist no longer, neither would the perfection of the Divine Nature exist any longer, for that requires that the Persons should be really distinct among themselves, and that the Divine Essence should be common to each. But then, say they, those four expressions, the Essence, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are not synonymous; they, therefore, mean four distinct things, and that would prove not alone a Trinity, but a Quarternity in God. The answer to this frivolous objection is very simple. We freely admit that these four words are not synonymous, but for all that, the Essence is not distinct from the Persons; the Divine Essence is an absolute thing, but common to all the three Persons, but the three Persons, though distinct among themselves, are not distinct from the Essence, for that is in each of the three Persons, as the Fourth Council of Lateran (can. 2) declares: "In Deo Trinitas est non quaternitas quia qualibet trium personarum, est ilia res videlicet essentia, sive natura Divina quæ sola est universorum principium præter quod aliud inveniri non potest."  

16. The Socinians object, Fifthly The Father generated the Son, either existing or not existing; if he generated him already existing, he cannot be said to be generated at all, and if the Son was not existing, then there was a time when the Son was not; therefore they conclude that there are not in God Three Persons of the same Essence. To this we reply, that the Father has always generated the Son, and that the Son is always existing, for he was generated from all eternity, and will be generated for ever, and, therefore, we read in the Psalms: " To-day I have begotten thee" (Psalms, ii, 7); because in eternity there is no succession of time, and all is equally present to God. Neither is there any use in saying that the Father has generated the Son in vain, as the Son already existed always, for the Divine generation is eternal, and as the Father generating is eternal, so the Son is eternally generated; both are eternal, but the Father has been always the principium in the Divine Nature.  

17. Finally, they object that the primitive Christians did not believe the mystery of the Trinity, for if they did, the Gentiles would have attacked them, on the great difficulties with which this mystery, humanly speaking, was encompassed; at all events, they would have tried to prove from that, that they believed in a plurality of Gods, but we find no such charge made against the Christians by the Gentiles, nor do we find a word about it in the Apologies written by the early Fathers in defence of the Faith. To this we answer: First That even in these early days the Pastors of the Church taught the Catechumens the Apostles Creed, which contains the mystery of the Trinity, but they did not speak openly of it to the Gentiles, who, when their understanding could not comprehend Divine things, only mocked them. Secondly many of the writings of the Gentiles have been lost in the lapse of centuries, and through the prohibitory decrees of the Christian Emperors, and many of the Apologies were lost in like manner. Praxeas, however, who denied the Trinity, uses this very argument against the Catholics: " If you admit three Persons in God," says he, " you admit a plurality of Gods like the Gentiles." Besides, in the first Apology of St. Justin, we read that the Idolaters objected to the Christians, that they adored Christ as the Son of God. The pagan Celsus, as we find in Origen (13), argued that the Christians, by their belief in the Trinity, should admit a plurality of Gods, but Origen answers him, that the Trinity does not constitute three Gods, but only one, for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, though three Persons, are still only one and the same essence. The acts of the martyrs prove in a thousand places, that the Christians believed that Jesus Christ was the true Son of God, and they could not believe this, unless they believed, at the same time, that there were three Persons in God. (13) Origen lib. Con. Celsum. 

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