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The Troubles Connected with his Protest against Sabellianism

14. For another five years Dionysius was spared to administer his charge and to benefit the Church at large with his prudent counsels. But, though attacks upon himself never seem to have troubled him very much, he had still to endure one such attack which probably grieved him more than all the rest, and the after results of which lingered on till the days of Athanasius and Basil in the next century. This was in connexion with the Sabellian controversy, especially that phase of it which had recently arisen in the Libyan Pentapolis (on the north-west coast of Cyrenaica). Sabellius was a native of the district, and his heresy consisted in laying too much stress on 19 the unity of the Godhead and in so hopelessly confounding the Three Persons in the Trinity as to imply that the Person of the Father was incarnate in Christ. It is in 257 that we first find Dionysius, in a letter to Xystus II (see p. 55), calling the attention of the Bishop of Rome to these views, by which time Sabellius was himself probably already dead. From what he says there, it appears as if Dionysius was unaware that these views were not of quite recent origin and were already rather prevalent in both East and West, whilst his words seem also to imply that this later phase of Sabellianism endangered the dignity of the Third Person as well as of the First and Second. In Libya the heresy gained such a hold upon the Church that it even infected certain of the Bishops, and the Son of God was no longer preached. Dionysius, therefore, feeling his responsibility for the churches under his care, became active in trying to eradicate the evil. Among a number of letters which he wrote on the subject, there was one (about the year 260) in which he made use of certain expressions and illustrations with regard to the Son of God, which were seized hold of by some members of the Church either at Alexandria or in the Pentapolis as heretical. This letter was apparently one of the later letters of the series, when his earlier overtures had failed to produce the effect he desired.

15. Dionysius’s critics laid a formal complaint against him before his namesake (Dionysius), who had by now succeeded the martyred Xystus II as Bishop of Rome; they accused him of having fallen into five errors himself, while correcting the false views of the Sabellians.

They were as follows, as we gather them from Athan., de sent. Dion.:—


(1) Separating the Father and the Son.

(2) Denying the eternity of the Son.

(3) Naming the Father without the Son and the Son without the Father.

(4) Virtually rejecting the term ὁμοούσιος (of one substance) as descriptive of the Son.

(5) Speaking of the Son as a creature of the Father and using misleading illustrations of their relation to One Another.

One or two of these illustrations which were objected to will be found in the extract translated on p. 103, and they are sufficient to give some idea of the rest. It may, however, be acknowledged that neither Dionysius himself in his original statements and in his attempts to explain them, nor Athanasius, who, when Arius afterwards appealed to Dionysius in support of his opinions, put forward an elaborate defence of him, was altogether happy or successful.

16. Upon receiving the complaint mentioned, the Bishop of Rome appears to have convened a synod, which condemned the expressions complained of, and a letter was addressed by him on the modes of correcting the heresy to the Church of Alexandria. From motives of delicacy he made no actual mention of his Alexandrian brother-bishop in this letter, while criticizing his views, though he wrote to him privately asking for an explanation. A considerable portion of the public letter has been preserved for us by Athanasius, but it is not included in this volume, nor is it necessary to particularize his treatment of the question or to say more than this, that, though the Roman Bishop wrote quite good Greek and gives no impression that he felt hampered by it in expressing his meaning, yet he does naturally exhibit distinct 21 traces of Western modes of thought as opposed to Eastern, and is not always quite fair in his representation and interpretation of what Dionysius had said.

Dionysius’s answer to his Roman brother was embodied in the treatise called Refutation and Defence (Ἔλεγχοσ καὶ Ἀπολογία), some extracts from which (as given by Athanasius) will be found on pp. 101 ff.

The following is an indication of Dionysius’s line of defence against the five points raised against him, other matters which arose more particularly between him and his namesake of Rome being passed over.

(1) As to the charge of separating the Three Persons in the Trinity, he distinctly denies it: all the language he employs and the very names he gives imply the opposite: “Father” must involve “Son” and “Son” “Father”: “Holy Spirit” at once suggests His Source and the Channel.

(2) As to the eternity of the Son, he is equally emphatic. God was always the Father and therefore Christ was always the Son, just as, if the sun were eternal, the daylight would also be eternal.

(3) The charge of omitting the Son in speaking of the Father and vice versa is refuted by what is said under (1): the one name involves the other.

(4) Dionysius’s rejection or non-employment of the term ὁμοούσιος is less easily disposed of. He practically acknowledges that, as it is not a Scriptural word, he had not used it, but at the same time that the figures he employed suggested a similar relationship, e. g. the figure of parent and child who are of one family (ὁμογενεῖς) or seed, root and plant which are of one kind (ὁμοφυῆ), and again source and stream, and in another place the word in the heart and the mind springing forth by the tongue (see p. 106): but for the unsatisfactoriness of this defence the reader 22 should consult Bethune-Baker, Early History of Christian Doctrine, chap. viii. pp. 113 ff, who points out that Dionysius had not grasped the Western tradition of one substantia (οὐσία) of Godhead existing in three Persons.

(5) But the most serious misunderstanding naturally arose from Dionysius speaking of the Son as ποίημα (creature), and illustrating the word by the gardener with his vine and the shipwright with his boat. His defence is that though he had undoubtedly used such rather unsuitable figures somewhat casually, he had immediately adduced several others more suitable and apposite (such as those mentioned under (4) above). And he complains that not only here, but throughout, his accusers did not take his utterances as a whole, but slashed his writings about and made what sense of them they liked, not sincerely, but with evil intent. He tries further to explain that in his context ποιεῖν (make) was equivalent to γεννᾶν (beget), as of a Father, not a Creator, which he maintains is legitimate, but the defence is not very convincing all the same.

So far as we can now judge, however, his arguments seem to have satisfied his critics at the time, and were certainly held in high repute by the ancient Churches, for they are quoted or referred to not only by Athanasius, as has been stated, but also by Eusebius, by Basil of Cæsarea (who is, however, much more temperate in his support), and by Jerome and Rufinus.

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