Sabellius, the originator of the doctrine described in the history of the church as Sabel-lianism. He was a native of Africa, a presbyter of Ptolemais, a city of the Libyan Pentapolis, and lived about the middle of the 3d century. The doctrine of Sabellius, so far as it can be gathered from the fragments preserved in the writings of his opponents, differed from the Patripassian tenets of Noëtus and Praxeas. They held that the divine in Christ was God or the Father, who became and was called the Son only when he willed to become incarnate. Sabellius taught that the Logos or Word existed before the incarnation, but not as a distinct person, being immanent in the essence of the Deity as the divine reason. He was regarded as therein differing from St. John in the fourth gospel, denying that the Logos, the creating, revealing, and redeeming principle, is a person really and eternally distinct from the Father. Wishing to preserve the revered Scriptural terms of "Father, Son, and Holy Ghost," used by the old Monarchians and by Christians generally, Sabellius rejected the ecclesiastical conception of these terms, as involving a trinity of distinct personal existences in the Godhead, and opposed to the prevailing theology a trinity of manifestations or offices.
God in himself, according to Sabellius, is one and personal; but this one divine person, subsisting in the absolute simplicity of the divine nature, becomes Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, according as he shows himself in creating, redeeming, and sanctifying mankind. Thus God, remaining ever one, shows himself in three ways. These three historic forms are not persons in the Deity, but aspects of it. The titles are contingent, as the offices which they represent are temporary; the manifestations cease when the work of the Son and the Holy Ghost is accomplished, both being reabsorbed in the absolute Deity. The most conspicuous opponent of Sabellius, through whom indeed his views and those of his party are best known, was Dionysius of Alexandria. In his controversy with Dionysius of Rome, while pointing out sharply the distinction between the Son and the Father which Sabellius denied, he went so far as to expose himself to the charge of denying their unity of nature. His hostility did not prevent the Sabellian opinion from finding partisans. Epiphanius, in the 4th century, says that the Sabellians were to be found in considerable numbers, not only in Mesopotamia, but in the neighborhood of Rome. The council of Constantinople, in 381, by rejecting their baptism, testified to their importance.
Augustine, a few years later, believed them to be extinct; but their opinions continued to flourish under other names. Marcellus and Photinus, in the 4th century, were only the first of a long line of eminent teachers who have sustained after Sabellius the theory of a trinity of offices rather than a trinity of persons in the Godhead. - The doctrine of Sabellius is very fully discussed in the various histories of dogmas, especially by Martini, Möhler, Baur, Meier, Dor-ner, and by Schleiermacher in his treatise on the opposition between the Sabellian and the Athanasian theory of the Trinity.