A trinitarian heresy, named after one of its proponents, the heretic Sabellius (fl. c. 220), and theologically defined by the terms monarchianism or modalism, the latter term devised by A. von Harnack. It consists in so emphasizing the unity of the Divine Being as to deny that the Son has a subsistence (or personality) distinct from that of the Father. Sabellianism gave rise to two series of discussions: one in the West, at the close of the 2d century; the other in the East, during the second half of the 3d century.
According to Tertullian (Adv. Prax. 1), the first teacher of this doctrine was an Asiatic called Praxeas, who came to Rome under the pontificate of Victor (189–198) (see patripassianism). hippolytus, however, traces its origin to "a person named Noetus, of Smyrna" (Philos. 4.7), whose disciple Epigonos settled in Rome. Epigonos's pupil, Cleomenos, enjoyed the favor of Pope Zephyrinus. Possibly a native of Cyrenaica, Sabellius became a follower of Cleomenos; and if reports from 4th-century authors, notably athanasius and epi phanius of salamis, are accurate, he provided the doctrine with a metaphysical basis. Hippolytus relates further that Sabellius was at first favorably received by Callistus I, then excommunicated when Callistus became pope (217). Thereafter Sabellius may have gone back to his native country to propagate his doctrine, for a trinitarian controversy arose in Cyrenaica in 257 when some bishops hesitated to speak about Christ as the Son of God. Their metropolitan, dionysius of alexandria, a disciple of Origen, challenged their teaching, but some of the expressions he used in correcting them seemed in turn to be tainted with subordinationism. In answer to an appeal, Pope Dionysius (259–268) wrote against both the Sabellians and their subordinationist opponents and sent a personal letter to Dionysius of Alexandria, who answered with a Refutation and Apology, cited by Eusebius (Praep. evang. 7.9) and Athanasius (Ep. de sent. Dion. ). His doctrinal explanations seem to have satisfied the pope.
Bibliography: a. von harnack, History of Dogma, tr. n. buchanan et al., ed. a. b. bruce, 7 v. (London 1896–99) 3:11–18. tertullian, Treatise against Praxeas, tr. and ed. e. evans (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London; 1949) 6–15. j. daniÉlou and h. marrou, The First Six Hundred Years, tr. v. cronin, v. 1 of The Christian Centuries (New York 1964–).