Dionysius of Rome – The Error of Three Hypostaseis

I am continuing my exploration into fourth century Christianity, coming now to Bishop Dionysius of Rome, who became bishop during a persecution, and is the first not listed as a martyr. The Bishop was a presbyter under the previous Bishop of Rome, Stephen, who had entered into controversy with Cyprian over baptism. Dionysius was Greek by birth, but dwelt in Latin Rome. I would contend that unlike Damasus 100 years later, if Tertullian’s formula of three personae, one substantia (Latin) had been meant to indicate three hypostaseis (Greek) then Dionysius would not have written against three hypostaseis (or persons, in modern English).

Although the letter preserved for us is from the 3rd century, it was used by Athanasius of Alexandra to defend his own teachings, which mirrored Rome’s at this time.

The Bishop of Alexander, Origen’s successor as head of the Cathechial school, had written him a letter, declaring his innocence of heresy – yet he received what I would imagine was an unwelcomed response. The Bishop of Rome was a Monarchian, seeing nothing divided in the Monad of God. We must, unlike previous commentators, allow the Bishop to speak plainly, in his own time and without his own voice. If we do that, then we may very well see a that Rome held to a tradition, apostolic, doctrine of an undivided Monad – something which Marcellus defended.

The text of the letter has been preserved by Athanasius:

“Next, I may reasonably turn to those who divide and cut to pieces and destroy that most sacred doctrine of the Church of God, the Divine Monarchy, making it as it were three powers and separated substances (hypostaseis) and three deities. I am told that some among you who are catechists and teachers of the Divine Word, take the lead in this tenet, who are diametrically opposed, so to speak, to Sabellius’s opinions; for he blasphemously says that the Son is the Father, and the Father the Son, but they in some sort preach three Gods, as dividing the sacred Monad into three substances (hypostaseis) foreign to each other and utterly separate.

Indeed, then is the error which Tertullian and Hippolytus not two decades prior stated clearly – Is the Father the Son? The Son the Father? Hardly, but does that indicate three hypostaseis or three prosopons (personae) of Tertullian? The error of many oneness believers today is that they deny the distinction between the work of the Father and the Work of the Son. For Tertullian and Dionysius, God’s prosopon of the Father was indeed truly Father, while God’s prosopon of the Son was truly Son, a beam of light from the Sun (God) which became flesh for oursakes. Neither Tertullian or Dionysius attempted to divide the Monad by making separate persons (hypostaseis) but recognized the prosopons (faces, modes) which God operated through.)

For it must needs be that with the God of the Universe, the Divine Word is united, and the Holy Ghost must repose and habitate in God; thus in one as in an apex, I mean in the God of the Universe, must the Divine Triad be gathered up and brought together. For it is the doctrine of the presumptuous Marcion, to sever and divide the Divine Monarchy into three origins,—a devil’s teaching, not that of Christ’s true disciples and lovers of the Saviour’s lessons. For they know well that a triad is preached by divine Scripture, but that neither Old Testament nor New preaches three Gods.

Dionysius is clear that he is miahypostatic, and that he sees any attempt to have a plurality of substances as leading, if not giving completely in, to Tritheism. There is no separation in the Monad (hence the word Monad.)

Equally must one censure those who hold the Son to be a work, and consider that the Lord has come into being, as one of things which really came to be; whereas the divine oracles witness to a generation suitable to Him and becoming, but not to any fashioning or making. A blasphemy then is it, not ordinary, but even the highest, to say that the Lord is in any sort a handiwork.

Writing long before Arius, the Bishop takes on what we know as Arian doctrine – I have to wonder just how old that particular doctrine is.

For if He came to be Son, once He was not; but He was always, if (that is) He be in the Father, as He says Himself, and if the Christ be Word and Wisdom and Power (which, as ye know, divine Scripture says), and these attributes be powers of God. If then the Son came into being, once these attributes were not; consequently there was a time, when God was without them; which is most absurd. And why say more on these points to you, men full of the Spirit and well aware of the absurdities which come to view from saying that the Son is a work?

This is the same linear thought of Irenaeus and Theophilus of Antioch who described the Logos and Sophia as the two hands of God, and pulls directly from Wisdom, Proverbs, and Hebrews 1.3.

Not attending, as I consider, to this circumstance, the authors of this opinion have entirely missed the truth, in explaining, contrary to the sense of divine and prophetic Scripture in the passage, the words, ‘The Lord created me a beginning of His ways unto His works.’ For the sense of ‘He created,’ as ye know, is not one, for we must understand ‘He created’ in this place, as ‘He set over the works made by Him,’ that is, ‘made by the Son Himself.’ And ‘He created’ here must not be taken for ‘made,’ for creating differs from making. ‘Is not He thy Father that hath bought thee? hath He not made thee and created thee?’ says Moses in his great song in Deuteronomy. And one may say to them, O reckless men, is He a work, who is ‘the First-born of every creature, who is born from the womb before the morning star,’ who said, as Wisdom, ‘Before all the hills He begets me?’ And in many passages of the divine oracles is the Son said to have been generated, but nowhere to have come into being; which manifestly convicts those of misconception about the Lord’s generation, who presume to call His divine and ineffable generation a making. Neither then may we divide into three Godheads the wonderful and divine Monad; nor disparage with the name of ‘work’ the dignity and exceeding majesty of the Lord; but we must believe in God the Father Almighty, and in Christ Jesus His Son, and in the Holy Ghost, and hold that to the God of the universe the Word is united. For ‘I,’ says He, ‘and the Father are one;’ and, ‘I in the Father and the Father in Me.’ For thus both the Divine Triad, and the holy preaching of the Monarchy, will be preserved.”

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17 Replies to “Dionysius of Rome – The Error of Three Hypostaseis”

  1. As JND Kelly shows in his book Early Christian Doctrines the Roman pope Dionysius, was not so much against the Son’s eternity, as the idea that ‘hypostases’ might lead to tritheistism.  Though, this pope was certainly not a theolog, or infallible. I think it is simple as that. But of course, the idea of the Monad to Triad to Trinity was also seen in the deep divine unity, and its understanding was finally seen, historically. In simplicity, we can perhaps see this in the supernatural design of numbers, as the numbers One, Two and Three. See E.W, Bullinger’s book: Number in Scripture. “The number “three” points us to what is real, essential, perfect, substantial, complete, and Divine.”  Three is the number of the Godhead. Three times the Seraphim cry, “Holy, Holy, Holy” -one for each of the persons of the Trinity (Isa. 6:3) Also see the living creatures in Rev. 4:8. And three times is the blessing given in Num. 6:23-24.
    “Each of these three blessings is two-fold, so that there are two members in each, while the name Jehovah occurs “three” times. This marks the blessing as Divine in its source. No merit drew it forth; grace was its origin and peace was its result.” (EWB)

    I have always maintained, that the understanding of the Triune God, took some time. Thus our pre-nicene and post-nicene theology. Also the doctrine of the Church, Christology, etc.  And even here, we find the transmission of the Holy Scripture! (Thru the Church, but never by the Church, etc.)

    But finally, like Augustine (and really the East in St. Cyril) I see that the center of the Triune God, is the relationship between the Father and the Son, an eternal one – St. John 1:14! See in this too, St. John 15:26.

    I am seeking to give some biblical simplification here. The doctrine will always be profound…the Godhead!

    Fr. R.

  2. Joel,
    For me at least, this would always depend on the manner of the person. I know so-called Trinitarians that do not have the manner of the awe and profound of the Godhead. So rote is never of language just orthodox in itself. Thus Augustines view of the relational in the Godhead. A relation of love! Of course there is more, and even quite to the orthodox, but the nature of quest and humility is also quite important, least to my mind.
    Fr. R.

  3. The whole point, is it possible to be “orthodox” in doctrine & theology, yet miss the “spirituality” of the truth? I would yes!  “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life!” The manner in which we hold truth, is as important as the truth itself!  Always with grace & mercy! 
    Fr. R.

  4. Again, we find the Antiteses in God!  To quote Pascal: Recognize then the truth of religion (godliness) in the fact that it is obscure, in the fact that our enlightenment is small, and that we are indifferent in our efforts to understand it. (588 Pensees)
    Fr. R.

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