Neha Patil (Editor)


Updated on
Share on FacebookTweet on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit

In Christianity, Sabellianism in the Eastern church or Patripassianism in the Western church (also known as modalism, modalistic monarchianism, or modal monarchism) is the nontrinitarian or anti-trinitarian belief that the Heavenly Father, Resurrected Son, and Holy Spirit are three different modes or aspects of one monadic God, as perceived by the believer, rather than three distinct persons within the Godhead—that there are no real or substantial differences among the three, such that there is no substantial identity for the Spirit or the Son.


The term Sabellianism comes from Sabellius, who was a theologian and priest from the 3rd century.

Meaning and origins

God is said to have three "faces" or "masks" (Greek πρόσωπα prosopa; Latin personae). Modalists note that the only number ascribed to God in the Holy Bible is One and that there is no inherent threeness ascribed to God explicitly in scripture. The number three is mentioned in relation to God in scripture, which of course is the number that is central to the word Trinity. The main examples of this are the Great Commission Matthew 28:16-20, 2 Corinthians 13:14, and the Comma Johanneum, which some regard as a spurious text passage in First John (1 John 5:7) known primarily from the King James Version and some versions of the Textus Receptus but not included in modern critical texts. It is also suggested by some modern "Oneness Pentecostal" critics, that Matthew 28:19 is not part of the original text, because Eusebius of Caesarea quoted it by saying "In my name", and there is no mention of baptism in the verse. Eusebius did, however, quote the trinitarian formula in his later writings. (Conybeare (Hibbert Journal i (1902-3), page 102). Matthew 28:19 is quoted also in the Didache (Didache 7:1), which dates to the late 1st Century or early 2nd Century) and in the Diatesseron (Diatesseron 55:5-7), which dates to the mid 2nd Century harmony of the Synoptic Gospels. The Shem-Tob's Hebrew Gospel of Matthew (George Howard), written during the 14th century, also has no reference of baptism or a trinitarian formula in Matthew 28:19. However, it is also true that no Greek manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew has ever been found which does not contain Matthew 28:19. The earliest extant copies of Matthew's Gospel date to the 3rd Century, and they contain Matthew 28:19. Therefore, scholars generally agree that Matthew 28:19 is likely part of the original Gospel of Matthew, though a minority disputes this.

Trinitarians believe that all three members of the Trinity were present as seemingly distinct persons at Jesus' baptism, and believe there is other scriptural evidence for Trinitarianism (see main page for details). Modalism has been mainly associated with Sabellius, who taught a form of it in Rome in the 3rd century. This had come to him via the teachings of Noetus and Praxeas.

Hippolytus of Rome knew Sabellius personally and mentioned him in the Philosophumena. He knew Sabellius disliked Trinitarian theology, yet he called Modal Monarchism the heresy of Noetus, not that of Sabellius. Sabellianism was embraced by Christians in Cyrenaica, to whom Demetrius, Patriarch of Alexandria, wrote letters arguing against this belief.

Modalism teaches that the Heavenly Father, Resurrected Son, and Holy Spirit, identified by the Trinity Doctrine, are different modes, faces, aspects, or roles of the One God, as perceived by the believer, rather than three co-eternal persons within the Godhead, or a "co-equal trinity". In passages of scripture such as Matthew 3:16-17 where the Son, Father, and Holy Spirit are separated in the text, they view this phenomenon as confirming God's omnipresence, and His ability to manifest himself as he pleases. Oneness Pentecostals and Modalists dispute the traditional Trinitarian doctrine, while affirming the Christian doctrine of God taking on flesh as Jesus Christ. Like Trinitarians, Oneness adherents believe that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. However, whereas Trinitarians believe that "God the Son", the eternal second person of the Trinity, became man, Oneness adherents hold that the one and only true God—who manifests himself in any way he chooses, including as Father, Son and Holy Spirit—became man. Oneness Pentecostals and other modalists are regarded by Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and some other mainstream Christians as heretical for rejecting the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople and the Trinity Doctrine, which most mainstream Christendom regards as equivalent to Unitarianism. Modalists differentiate themselves from Arian or Semi-Arian Unitarians by affirming Christ's full Godhead, whereas Semi-Arians view the pre-existent Christ as God's first-begotten Son, with a beginning, and brought forth by the Father, before ages. Oneness teaches that there is only one being, revealing himself in different ways. Explaining the Oneness view of God, as opposed to the Trinitarian viewpoint, Modalists cite passages in the New Testament that refer to God in the singular, and note the lack of the word "Trinity" in any canonical scripture. They claim that Colossians 1:15-20 refers to Christ's relationship with the Father in a similar sense:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities; all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

They also cite Christ's response to Philip's query on who the Father was in John 14:10:

Jesus answered: "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?

Ancient opposition

The chief critic of Sabellianism was Tertullian. In his work Adversus Praxeas, Chapter I, he wrote "By this Praxeas did a twofold service for the devil at Rome: he drove away prophecy, and he brought in heresy; he put to flight the Paraclete, and he crucified the Father." From this notion came the term "Patripassianism" for the movement, from the Latin words pater for "father", and passus from the verb "to suffer" because it implied that the Father suffered on the Cross.

It is important to note that our only sources extant for our understanding of Sabellianism are from their detractors. Scholars today are not in agreement as to what exactly Sabellius or Praxeas taught. It is easy to suppose Tertullian and Hippolytus misrepresented the opinions of their opponents.

Tertullian seems to suggest that most of the unwise and unlearned believers at that time favoured the Sabellian view of the oneness of God. Epiphanius (Haeres 62) about 375 notes that the adherents of Sabellius were still to be found in great numbers, both in Mesopotamia and at Rome. The first general council at Constantinople in 381 in canon VII and the third general council at Constantinople in 680 in canon XCV declared the baptism of Sabellius to be invalid, which indicates that Sabellianism was still extant.

Historic Sabellianism taught that God the Father was the only true existence of the Godhead, a belief known as Monarchianism. One author has described Sabellius' teaching thus: The true question, therefore, turns on this, viz., what is it which constitutes what we name ‘person’ in the Godhead? Is it original, substantial, essential to divinity itself? Or does it belong to and arise from the exhibitions and developments which the divine Being has made of himself to his creatures? The former Sabellius denied; the latter he fully admitted.

It has been noted that the Greek term "homoousian" or "con-substantial", which Athanasius of Alexandria favoured, was a term reported to be put forth by Sabellius, and was a term that many followers of Athanasius were uneasy about. Their objection to the term "homoousian" was that it was considered to be un-Scriptural, suspicious, and "of a Sabellian tendency." This was because Sabellius also considered the Father and the Son to be "one substance." Meaning that, to Sabellius, the Father and Son were one essential person, though operating as different manifestations or modes.

Sabellianism has been rejected by the majority of Christian churches in favour of Trinitarianism, which was eventually defined as three distinct, co-equal, co-eternal persons by the Athanasian Creed, probably dating from the late 5th or early 6th century.

Eastern Orthodox view

The Greek Orthodox teach that God is not of a substance that is comprehensible since God the Father has no origin and is eternal and infinite. Thus it is improper to speak of things as "physical" and "metaphysical"; rather it is correct to speak of things as "created" and "uncreated." God the Father is the origin and source of the Trinity, not God in substance or essence. Therefore, the consciousness of God is not obtainable to created beings either in this life or the next (see apophatism), though through co-operation with God (called theosis) Mankind can become good (God-like) and from such a perspective reconcile himself to the Knowledge of Good and the Knowledge of Evil he obtained in the Garden of Eden (see the Fall of Man). Thus returning himself to the proper relationship with his creator and source of being.

Current adherents

At the Arroyo Seco World Wide Camp Meeting, near Los Angeles, in 1913, Canadian evangelist R.E. McAlister stated at a baptismal service that the apostles had baptized in the name of Jesus only and not in the triune Name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Later that night, John G. Schaeppe, a German immigrant, had a vision of Jesus and woke up the camp shouting that the name of Jesus needed to be glorified. From that point, Frank J. Ewart began requiring that anyone baptized using the Trinitarian formula needed to be rebaptized in the name of Jesus “only.” Support for this position began to spread, along with a belief in one Person in the Godhead, acting in different modes or offices.

The General Council of the Assemblies of God convened in St. Louis, Missouri in October 1916, to confirm their belief in Trinitarian orthodoxy. The Oneness camp was faced by a majority who required acceptance of the Trinitarian baptismal formula and the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity or remove themselves from the denomination. In the end, about a quarter of the ministers withdrew.

Oneness Pentecostalism teaches that God is one Person, and that the Father (a spirit) is united with Jesus (a man) as the Son of God. However, Oneness Pentecostalism differs somewhat by rejecting sequential modalism, and by the full acceptance of the begotten humanity of the Son, not eternally begotten, who was the man Jesus and was born, crucified, and risen, and not the deity. This directly opposes Patripassianism and the pre-existence of the Son as a pre-existent mode, which Sabellianism generally does not oppose.

Oneness Pentecostals believe that Jesus was "Son" only when he became flesh on earth, but was the Father before being made man. They refer to the Father as the "Spirit" and the Son as the "Flesh". But they believe that Jesus and the Father are one essential Person. Though operating as different "manifestations" or "modes". Oneness Pentecostals reject the Trinity doctrine, viewing it as pagan and un-Scriptural, and hold to the Jesus' Name doctrine with respect to baptisms. They are often referred to as "Modalists" or "Sabellians" or "Jesus Only". Oneness Pentecostalism can be compared to Sabellianism, or can be described as holding to a form of Sabellianism, as both are nontrinitarian, and as both believe that Jesus was "Almighty God in the Flesh", but they do not totally identify each other.

Therefore, it cannot be certain whether Sabellius taught Modalism completely as it is taught today as Oneness doctrine, since only a few fragments of his writings are extant and, therefore, all we have of his teachings comes through the writing of his detractors.

The following excerpts which demonstrate some of the known doctrinal characteristics of ancient Sabellians may be seen to compare with the doctrines in the modern Oneness movement:

  • Cyprian wrote - ", when God the Father is not known, nay, is even blasphemed, can they who among the heretics are said to be baptized in the name of Christ, be judged to have obtained the remission of sins?
  • Hippolytus (A.D. 170–236) referred to them - "And some of these assent to the heresy of the Noetians, and affirm that the Father himself is the Son..."
  • Pope Dionysius, Bishop of Rome from A.D. 259–269 wrote - "Sabellius...blasphemes in saying that the Son Himself is the Father and vice versa."
  • Tertullian states - "He commands them to baptize into the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, not into a unipersonal God. And indeed it is not once only, but three times, that we are immersed into three persons, at each several mention of their names.”
  • Current opposition

    While Oneness Pentecostals seek to differentiate themselves from ancient Sabellianism, modern theologians such as James R. White and Robert Morey see no difference between the ancient heresy of Sabellianism and current Oneness doctrine. This is based on the denial by Oneness Pentecostals of the Trinity based upon a denial of the distinction between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Sabellianism, Patripassianism, Modalistic Monarchianism, functionalism, Jesus Only, Father Only, and Oneness Pentecostalism are viewed as being derived from the Platonic doctrine that God was an indivisible Monad and could not be divided into three separate Persons.


    Sabellianism Wikipedia