While the tendency today is to minimize the importance of doctrine, this was not how the fourth century Christians saw the matter. They knew that their debates about God, as bitter and controversial as they were, cut to the heart of the Church’s message and life. To these disputations St Basil of Caesarea brought a keen theological mind and a comprehensive grasp of Holy Scripture.
“Basil’s Against the Sabellians, Anomoians, and Pneumatomachians,” writes Mark DelCogliano, “is a rhetorical and theological masterpiece” (On Christian Doctrine and Practice, p. 277). Here he presents the orthodox understanding of the Trinity as a mean between heresies, designated by three codewords.
Sabellians was the title given to Marcellus of Ancyra and his followers. They were seen as reviving the modalism of the third century heretic Sabellius. Marcellus was a strong supporter of the Nicene homoousion. Eastern theologians interpreted him as denying the triadic distinctions of the Godhead. Ultimately the Deity is an undifferentiated monad. The (new) Sabellians deny, Basil writes, “God from God and confess the Son in name, but in deed and truth eliminate his existence” (Sab. 1). Hence when they speak of Christ as Word, they are invoking an analogy to the “internal word that resides in the mind”; when they speak of him as Wisdom, they are describing a state akin to “the state that arises in the soul of the learned.” Just as the human being is not divided but is one person, so God is one person. Sabellianism thus represents a return to the numerical monotheism of Judaism.
Anomoians was the title given to Aetius, Eunomius, and their followers. The word comes from anomoios, which means “unlike.” The Anomoians taught that the Son is unlike the Father in essence. They emphatically rejected the homoousion of Nicaea and affirmed an Arian-style subordinationism. Earlier scholarly literature referred to the Anomoians as “Neo-Arians,” but more recent scholarship questions any real linkage, beyond family resemblance, between the views of Arius and the Anomoians. Scholars today typically refers to the Anomoians as either “Eunomians” or “Heteroousians” (different in substance). As Basil explains: “While they concede the Son’s existence and agree that the Son and the Father each has a distinct person, they introduce unlikeness of nature” (Sab. 2). Basil sees the Anomoians as promulgating a Christianized form of polytheism: “For those who claim that the Only-Begotten is a work of God and something made, then adore him and speak of him as divine, are clearly introducing Hellenic teaching because they worship a creature and not the Creator” (Sab. 1).
Pneumatochians was the title given to those who affirmed the equal divinity of the Father and Son but denied the divinity of the Spirit. It was originally coined by St Athanasius of Alexandria and means “Spirit-fighters” or “enemies of the Spirit.” Basil adopted it to refer to Eustathius of Sebaste and his followers. Within the rhetorical structure of the homily, Sabellianism and Heteroousianism represent the two heretical extremes. Pneumatomochianism, however, doesn’t quite fit into either camp. Against the former but not the latter, it affirms the distinct hypostatic identity of the Son; against both it affirms the equal divinity of the Son; with both it denies the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Pneumatomachianism is thus almost-orthodox in a way that Sabellianism and Heteroousianism are not. But in the mind of St Basil it is just as dangerous, as it renders “baptism incomplete and the confession of faith defective” (Sab. 5).