The Doctrine of Marcellus of Ancyra: His Theology (2)

We are continuing our series examining the Arian controversy from the eyes and pen of Marcellus of Ancyra. Note, I am not responding to his doctrine, or to that of the Arians, nor am I willing to back up either side with Scriptures, trying to let Marcellus speak for himself, as much as possible. I realize that not everyone like theology or Church history – (Imagine my surprise in school when I found out that 99% of my history classes hated history!) For some, this is boring, for others, it is a click through. For me, I am edified through discussions on theology, and can spend ours listening to lectures and then in turn discussing the finer points until the wee hours of the morning. As I said, I understand that I may be boring – but at least it makes you feel some compassion for my wife and children.

4. Unity and Plurality in the Godhead

Unlike the Arians (and the subset Eusebians), Marcellus refused to accept a plurality in the Godhead. Until long after Nicaea, neither did Athanasius nor Rome. Whereas the tradition of some since the time of Justin was to say ‘two Gods’ (Father and Son), or for Justin ‘another’, Marcellus saw only one. Although the doctrine of Justin is not the point here, it is worth noting that the idea of ‘another God,’ or ‘second God’, was not a creation of the Eusebieans.

In Justin’s Dialog (56) with Trypho, he attempts to convince the monotheistic Jew that the God which visited Abraham and Sarah was ‘another God, distinguished from God the Father. He writes,

“Moses, then, the blessed and faithful servant of God, declares that He who appeared to Abraham under the oak in Mamre is God, sent with the two angels in His company to judge Sodom by Another who remains ever in the supercelestial places, invisible to all men, holding personal intercourse with none, whom we believe to be Maker and Father of all things…


Then I replied, “I shall attempt to persuade you, since you have understood the Scriptures, of what I say, that there is, and that there is said to be, another God and Lord subject to 2127 Some, “besides;” but probably as above.
the Maker of all things; who is also called an Angel, because He announces to men whatsoever the Maker of all things—above whom there is no other God—wishes to announce to them.”

Justin’s dialog in this chapter is to convince the monotheist that there is ‘another God’ besides the Maker of all things. Justin tells Trypho, “Reverting to the Scriptures, I shall endeavour to persuade you, that He who is said to have appeared to Abraham, and to Jacob, and to Moses, and who is called God, is distinct from Him who made all things,—numerically, I mean, not in will.”

Tertullian, on the other hand would reject Justin, and rightly so, for destroying the monotheistic foundation of the Church. As he developed his doctrine, he coined the phrase ‘three persons in one substance;’ however, the personae of the Latin is not the hypostasis of the Greek. For Tertullian, ‘person’ meant ‘face’. Tertullian formulated the Godhead in Latin as tres personae, una substantia. The Greek prospon which meant “face” and later “representative” or “type.” Damasus (c. 304-384) approved the use of persona and substantia as equivalent to hypostasis and ousia respectively, but this was long after Tertullian. The Trinitarian formula which was settled on, was three persons (substances) in one essence.

Writing in chapter 17 of his Apology, Tertullian writes,

The object of our worship is the One God, He who by His commanding word, His arranging wisdom, His mighty power, brought forth from nothing this entire mass of our world, with all its array of elements, bodies, spirits, for the glory of His majesty; whence also the Greeks have bestowed on it the name of Κσμος (LORD).

For Tertullian, God existed as Reason, Word, and Power or Father, Son, and Spirit. In the 21 chapter of the same work, the Latin writer pens,

And we, in like manner, hold that the Word, and Reason, and Power, by which we have said God made all, have spirit as their proper and essential substratum, in which the Word has in being to give forth utterances, and reason abides to dispose and arrange, and power is over all to execute. We have been taught that He proceeds forth from God, and in that procession He is generated; so that He is the Son of God, and is called God from unity of substance with God.  For God, too, is a Spirit.

Tertullian, unlike Justin, saw only one God, and unlike Justin, refused the influence of Athens into the Church.

Marcellus used the Greek word for Tertullian’s personae, prosopon. The word appears between 73 and 78 times in the Greek New Testament, usually with the meaning of ‘presence.’ It is defined as the ‘form which the hypostasis (substance) appears’ He quotes several biblical passages, using prosopon to show that there was but one speaking in God.

In fragment 76, Marcellus writes, “Indeed before the entire creation there was a certain quiet, one can reasonable assume (hos eikos), since the Logos was (still) in God.” Here, Marcellus argues for the silence that was in God before Creation. Until God spoke the Word, there was silence, which excludes the idea of three Gods, and the idea that the Word was co-eternal apart from the Father.

In one of the key arguments against Asterius (and Eusebius, along with Arius, Paul of Samosata before him, and even Justin, Marcellus dissects Exodus 3.14 to show that in God, there is but one speaker (prosopon) and if one speaker, then one reality (hypostasis).

Therefore, if he says that the Father had told Moses this to make a distinction between himself and the Son, then he would be confessing that the Son was not God. Of course, he who says “I am the one who is” (Exodus 3:14) means that he himself “is,” in contrast to one who “is not”. But on the other hand, if he claims that it is the Son who says “I am he who is,” as one divided in essence (hypostasis) , then he in turn will seem to say this of the Father . Both of these things are irreverent.

Marcellus demonstrates the argument for true unity, not merely in essence or will, but in prosopon, united, as for Tertullian, in one hypostasis. His doctrine of unity was united, but not centered, on the idea that God always spoke with one voice, prosopon.

Whence spring those “fables and endless genealogies,” and “unprofitable questions,” and “words which spread like a cancer? ” From all these, when the apostle would restrain us, he expressly names philosophy as that which he would have us be on our guard against. Writing to the Colossians, he says, “See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost.” He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects. What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from “the porch of Solomon,” who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.” Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. – Tertullian, VII, On the Prescription of Heretics

M. Vinzent, Markell von Ankyra: Die Fragmente (Leiden, 1997).

You Might Also Like

12 Replies to “The Doctrine of Marcellus of Ancyra: His Theology (2)”

  1. “Tertullian formulated the Godhead in Latin as tres personae, una substantia. The Greek prospon which meant “face” and later “representative” or “type.” Damasus (c. 304-384) approved the use of persona and substantia as equivalent to hypostasis and ousia respectively, but this was long after Tertullian. The Trinitarian formula which was settled on, was three persons (substances) in one essence.”

    Yes and that is why we have problems today btwn the Catholics and the Orthodox over the Filioque.

  2. it was not until the year 589 at the Synod of Toledo that the word ‘filioque’ was added. The East has considered this to be heresy since it was added.

  3. Your correct. However the 2nd Ecumenical Council was not recognized as such until Chalcedon in 451. The wests acceptance of that was based on the latin Vulgate translation.

    And wbmoore is correct as well, but given that the creed in 381 was strickly an eastern council which the west was not invited too, and its (the western churches)acceptance is based on Pope Leo the Great’s acceptance of it.
    The Latin translation of the Constantinopolitan Creed in the Greek term for “proceeds” (ekporeusis – “ek tou Patros ekporeuomenon”) was translated into Latin as “procedit” (“ex Patre procedentum”) –a term that, unlike the Greek, does not imply procession from a single source, principal, or cause. It would seem that there was an implicit acknowledgement on the latin side for the filioque especially given Pope Leo the Great Letter 15 To Turribius, Bishop of Asturia in 447 in reference to the Spirit as proceeding from both(eternally).

    On the other hand the Byzantine Catholic Churches recite the Creed without the Filioque, and why Catholics are able to recite the Creed without the Filioque when participating in an Eastern Orthodox Liturgies. This is also why we reject the clause “…kai tou Uiou …” (“…and the Son”) being added to the Creedal expression “ek tou Patros ekporeuomenon” in Greek, even when used by Latin Rite Catholics in Greek-speaking communities.

Leave a Reply, Please!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.