The Doctrine of Marcellus of Ancyra: The Position that He Opposed

I enjoy good theology, and as of late, I have become a ‘fan’ of Marcellus of Ancyra, so for a time, I will post from time to tome concerning his doctrine and an exegesis of some of his writings, surviving in fragments. For those of you who do not want to participate, I will try to alert you to this study in the title. I understood fully that some do not like talking about dead men and perhaps dead ideas, and frankly, that is fine – however, I do, so please allow me this chance to study a forgotten dead man who withstood the Arians and lost many friends during his lifetime. Remember, his miahypostatic theology was considered orthodox at the beginning of the fourth century, but by the end, even his long time friend and ally, Athanasius, had abandoned it and him in favor of a compromise with the dyohypostatic theology of the Arians.

In the beginning of the fourth century the Arians found a theologian to carry on their propaganda in Asterius the Sophist. Nothing of his work remains, except fragments, but we know that he was a student of Lucian of Antioch and had several works attributed to him. If you remember, the Arians believed in a multi-personal Godhead, and did not hesitate from using the plurality of number when speaking about the Godhead. This was considered heretical by the Westerners, as well as some of the East such as Athanasius and Marcellus of Ancyra. While we have a collection of Athanasius’ work, we have shreds of fragments, usually by his detractors (such as Eusebius of Caesaria), of Marcellus’ writings.

Marcellus did not shy away from theological controversy, going to far as to present his book against Asterius to the Emperor Constantine – which later decreed that all copies of that book were to be burned. In the book, which Eusebius of Caesaria describes as a work “to proclaim the one God”, we find a general overview of Marcellus’ thoughts and theology, from soteriological to eschatological. It remains, unlike Athanasius and others, consistent throughout his life time, with only minor refinements. Before we proceed to Marcellus’ doctrine, we have to understand that like most of those that come on the the wrong side of history, his words are preserved through the pens of his opponents. We can grasp details; however, we have to remember, some things may be considered propaganda.

A. The Position that Marcellus Opposes

His work was written to persuade someone, perhaps the Emperor, against the teachings of Asterius and the Arians[1]. He considered their idea of a ‘begotten Word’, a second God, as a vile addition to the doctrine of the Church. He considered as the most dangerous principles of this new doctrine of the Arians that the number ‘two’ or ‘three’ could be predicated of the Godhead. The Arians assigned names to the Rule of Faith, and because of the assigned names of ‘Father’, ‘Son’, and ‘Holy Spirit’ then each must refer to one in the Godhead, and for Marcellus, this flew in the face of his strict Christian monotheism.

Marcellus writes,

Now I will begin with the letter that he wrote and refute each point of false teaching. He wrote that he believes in the Father, the Almighty God, and in his Son, the only-begotten God, our Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, he says that he learned this type of piety from the Divine Scriptures. And when he says this, I totally accept what he says, for this manner of piety is common among all of us, that we believe in the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But when, although not totally dismissing his divine power, through some artful speculation he makes the Father more human when calling him Father, and the Son likewise when calling him Son, at that point I can no longer praise such speculations without running into danger. For it now happens that the heresy concocted by them has spread through such speculation, which I clearly and readily intend to show from his words. For he said, The Father must truly be considered a father, and the Son a son, and the Holy Spirit likewise[2].

Marcellus’ opponents held that there were two essences (this was before the debate concerning the nature of the holy Spirit), or hypostaseis – persons, powers, natures, objects, or Gods[3]. The Arians would constantly use symphonia to describe the harmony of will shared between the Father and the Son. This doctrine, as promoted by Asterius, carried with it the corollary that since there cannot be two first principles, than the Son must be subordinate because the Son came from the Father. This gave the Arius party the tag of considering Christ a creature, although He was the first-born of all creation. This was one of the main reasons why Athanasius and his Bishop Alexander first called the Council together which would later result in the Nicene Creed.

In brief, Marcellus opposes the plurality of number in the Godhead (this is important to distinguish as opposing the Father, Son and Spirit of Sabellius). He understood his opponents to mean that the Word/Son was actually a second God, a creature, begotten; because of this, he only used the word ‘begotten’ to refer to the Son and never to the Word. Further, he separates in his theology, which is rather linear, the Preincarnate Word and the Incarnated Son of God, which Marcellus labels, Life, Way, Day, Door, Bread, and Resurrection. For Marcellus, the Incarnation is a decisive turning point in the history of salvation and it figures into his every aspect of this theology. When God’s Word became Man, Marcellus sees a new dynamic and bases entire theology on that Event.

[1] Fragment 34 is directed to one person, making it clear that Marcellus has one person in mind:

Let me remind you of the things Asterius has written commending what Eusebius has incorrectly written, so that you may know that he clearly shrinks from the earlier promise. For he has written in his very own words, The main point of the letter is to show that it was the plan of the Father to bring about the birth of the Son, and that the offspring of God was not produced by fleshly passion, which the wisest of the fathers showed in their personal writings, guarding themselves against the wickedness of heretics. Yet, certain fleshly and sensual people speak falsely about God as bearing a child, making their proposals into fact. (Vinzent 2, Klostermann 34, Rettb. 29)

[2] Vinzent 1, Klostermann 65, Rettb. 59

[3] Fragments 35; 40; 63; 67; 76; 80-84

Joel L. Watts
Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

10 thoughts on “The Doctrine of Marcellus of Ancyra: The Position that He Opposed

  1. Hi P

    1. Did the Apostle John intend to convey that only God’s Word is eternal and ever-existed,but not his Son Jesus? Is this what Marcellus of Ancrya understood?

    2.Could you explain again your understanding of the Pre-incarnate Word and the incarnate Son of God.

    3…Do you know wether or not the original Manuscripts used by William Tyndale, Coverdale,the Great or Matthew’s bible and the King James version,are in the same chronological order that we have John 1:1-14 in?

    Thank you

  2. Thank you P

    On the third question, i have read where a non Trinitarian has made the assertion that John 1:1-14 is not in the correct chronological order of the original manuscripts.His point was that John 1:14 actually follows John 1:4.

    Otherwise the readers assume that the C0-eternal existence of the Son of God is taught by the Apostle John.

    Moreover,others have said that the translators of the original manuscripts used by Tyndale/Coverdale, Matthew (the great bible),the King James version bibles and all modern paraphrases,were and are the work of Trinitarians.

    There is also the theory that a man named Erasmus added 1 John 5:7 to the King James version manuscripts in order to promote the teaching of the trinity…

    P, i believe that non trinitarians have the overall teachings of the scriptures themselves,as proof that there is no trinity or truine God taught…

    I do wonder if there is any truth to these assertions of others.

  3. 1,) Indeed, this is what Marcellus understood John to mean. The Logos is eternal, and God’s agent in Creation, but when He became Flesh (God spoke Himself) He became Son.

    2.) For Marcellus, the Preincarnate was always the Logos, existing in the Father, as the Father’s hand. The Son, upon Incarnation, was what the Logos became. The Son is distinct from the Father, because the nature of the Incarnation demands it; however, is God every without His Logos (Reason, Word)? And is the Incarnation eternal? No. The Logos, as Irenaeus said, is God’s hand in salvation. It is God sent forth. One of the best explanations that I have heard is to take mercury. Mercury can be separate into two parts, but upon reconnection, there is no distinction that you can find.

    3.) Not sure what you mean here. I believe that most biblical MSS do not show any textual variants in that portion of Scripture, if that is what you mean.

  4. YtLoG,

    I have not found that support in any of the resources that I have. I do not have it with me at the office, but when I get home this afternoon, I will scan something for you that I think highlights what John was saying, perhaps even in hymns sung by the early Church.

    The problem with ‘co-eternal’ is that it was not applied to Christ until 300 years after John wrote his gospel. The Logos was begotten from eternity, a common thought found in Tertullian, but even for Tertullian, there was a time when God was alone. He had to bring forth His Logos for creation.

    I believe that in any translation, the translator has a habit of putting forth their own theology into the translation. The KJV is essentially a revision of earlier works, although they made other insertions, etc….and translated, in my opinion, some things that are clearly a theological basis. Look at Hebrews 1.3, for example. They translated the word hypostasis according to the Latin formula of the Trinity, not what the actual Greek word means, as in Substance (Hebrews 11.1).

    Erasmus was the first Textual Critic of any importance since Origen (although I would debate the character of Origen and his works as being important to the Church). As far as placing 1st John 5.7 into the text, it may be that he chose that particular variant for a theological basis. This is not his fault, as we must understand the man in his own time, but there is textual evidence of 1st John 5.7 dating back to the 4th century.

    It is true, as many assert, that in all of the Trinitarian debates, that particular verse was never mentioned, but in reality, why would it be so?

    The Father, the Logos, and the Spirit are One. They are not as one, are in one, but simply, one.

    This is a pretty good book for textual criticism, the best that I have seen.

    This is a great book, and inexpensive on Marcellus.

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