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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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were so called from Sabellius, a presbyter, or, according to others, a bishop, of Upper Egypt, who was the founder of the sect. As, from their doctrine, it follows that God the Father suffered, they were hence called by their adversaries, Patripassians; and, as their idea of the trinity was by some called a modal trinity, they have likewise been called Modalists. Sabellius having been a disciple of Noetus, Noetians is another name by which his followers have sometimes been known; and as, from their fears of infringing on the fundamental doctrine of all true religion, the unity of God, they neglected all distinctions of persons, and taught the notion of one God with three names, they may hence be also considered as a species of Unitarians. Sabellius flourished about the middle of the third century, and his doctrine seems to have had many followers for a short time. Its growth, however, was soon checked by the opposition made to it by Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, and the sentence of condemnation pronounced upon its author by Pope Dionysius, in a council held at Rome, A.D. 263. Sabelius taught that there is but one person in the Godhead; and, in confirmation of this doctrine, he made use of this comparison: As man, though composed of body and soul, is but one person, so God, though he is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, is but one person. Hence the Sabellians reduced the three persons in the trinity to three characters or relations, and maintained that the Word and Holy Spirit are only virtues, emanations, or functions, of the Deity; that he who is in heaven is the Father of all things; that he descended into the virgin, became a child, and was born of her as a son; and that, having accomplished the mystery of our redemption, he effused himself upon the Apostles in tongues of fire, and was then denominated the Holy Ghost. This they explain by resembling God to the sun, the illuminative virtue or quality of which was the word, and its quickening virtue the Holy Spirit. The word, according to their doctrine, was darted, like a divine ray, to accomplish the work of redemption; and having re-ascended to heaven, the influences of the Father were communicated, after a like manner, to the Apostles. They also attempted to illustrate this mystery, by one light kindled by another; by the fountain and stream, and by the stock and branch. With respect to the sentiments of Sabellius himself, the accounts are various. According to some, he taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, were one subsistence, and one person, with three names; and that, in the Old Testament, the Deity delivered the law as the Father; in the New Testament dwelt among men as the Son; and descended on the Apostles as the Holy Spirit. According to Mosheim, his sentiments differed from those of Noetus, in this, that the latter was of opinion, that the person of the Father had assumed the human nature of Christ; whereas Sabellius maintained, that a certain energy only proceeded from the supreme Parent, or a certain portion of the divine nature was united to the Son of God, the man Jesus; and he considered, in the same manner, the Holy Ghost as a portion of the everlasting Father.

Between the system of Sabellianism and what is termed the indwelling scheme, there appears to be a considerable resemblance, if it be not precisely the same, differently explained. The indwelling scheme is chiefly founded on that passage in the New Testament, where the Apostle speaking of Christ says, "In him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily." Dr. Watts, toward the close of his life, adopted this opinion, and wrote several pieces in its defence. His sentiments on the trinity appear to have been, that the Godhead, the Deity itself, personally distinguished as the Father, was united to the man Christ Jesus; in consequence of which union or indwelling of the Godhead, he became properly God. Mr. Palmer observes, that Dr. Watts conceived this union to have subsisted before the Saviour's appearance in the flesh, and that the human soul of Christ existed with the Father from before the foundation of the world: on which ground he maintains the real descent of Christ from heaven to earth, and the whole scene of his humiliation, which he thought incompatible with the common opinion concerning him.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Sabellians'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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