The Doctrine of Marcellus of Ancyra: His Theology

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.

B. Marcellus’ Theology

Whereas Marcellus referred to the preincarnate Christ as ‘Word’, the Arians preferred the title ‘Son’, applying it to both the Incarnation and the Preincarnation of the Logos of God. Marcellus consistently separated the Preincarnate with the Incarnation, using Word only for the Preincarnation while applying a wide range of titles to the Incarnation of the Word. This is because for Marcellus, God is a Monad, but during certain activities, such as Creation, God expands into a Dyad (although the word is never used in Marcellus’ writings), the Father and the Logos. At the Incarnation, when God spoke Himself, the Logos became the Son. Following this line of reasoning, a further expansion would create a Triad when Christ sent the Spirit. At the end of Time, when the Kingdom is handed over to the Father, when God is all in all, God will be a Monad.

There is a scholarly problem with this assessment of Marcellus’ dogma – there is a scarcity of evidence found in his writings. The above interpretation has been offered by the opponents to Marcellus, perhaps in hopes of making him look somewhat foolish. In reality, Marcellus holds fast to the Christian doctrine of monotheism, opposing the three Gods of the Arians, but lacks words – because he often refused to use nonbiblical words – to define and defend his doctrine. Although he uses, rarely, the term ‘triad’ he never fully applies it nor does he define what in the Godhead is a triad. For Marcellus, he had to admit that biblical terms, such as ‘Father’ and ‘Word’ had to have some meaning, but refused to go as far as the Arians in assigning to them personhood. Because of this ‘economic’ view of the Godhead, he felt that he was able to defend against the term ‘Sabellian’, the opposite end of the Arians.

1. The Rule of Faith

The Rule of Faith was essential in the early Church, before the Canon available for all to read. It helped to united the Church and set a standard for doctrine that even the laypeople could profess. The point of agreement for both the Arians and Marcellus is the Rule of Faith, but it was also the point of departure.

In fragment 65, 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.

Marcellus considered any non-biblical application to the words ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ as heresy. Neither the Jews, the Apostles, or many of the early Christian writers considered the term ‘Father’ when applied to God in any human manner, nor the Son when applied to Christ. It was not until a few centuries after the Apostles that ‘Father’ (and thus ‘Son’) took on, as Marcellus says, ‘human’ connotations.

The three – Father, Son, and holy Spirit – where agreed to throughout Christendom, and had been so, as a rule of faith, since the time of the Apostles. This much, Marcellus could offer a demur to his opponents.

2. God, Father, and Word

For Marcellus, the referents ‘Father’ and ‘God’ was not always addressed to the same entity. We examine two fragments, 104:

Asterius names the power and authority that was given him “glory,” and not simply “glory” but “pre-universe glory.” He does not comprehend that the world had not yet been made nor was there anything else except God alone.

And 103:

Indeed before the entire creation there was a certain quiet, one can reasonable assume (hos eikos), since the Logos was (still) in God. For if Asterius believes that God is the maker of all things, clearly he will also agree with us that God has always existed, that he never had a beginning of his existence, and that everything came into being from him and came into being from nothing. Indeed I do not suppose he would believe someone saying that some things are uncreated, but clearly he is persuaded that both heaven and earth and everything in heaven and earth came into being through God. If now this were his belief, necessarily he would confess with us that except for God there was nothing else. Therefore the Logos had his own kind of glory as one who was in the Father.

For Marcellus, God alone was in the beginning while the Logos was in dynamis. There was nothing besides the Father – no Son, no Spirit. Unlike earlier understandings of Logos, Marcellus never understood it to mean ‘Reason.’ For Marcellus, the Word was with the Father, ready to be spoken. He writes that there was silence because the ‘Word was with God.’ In fragment 121, Marcellus states, ‘Now I believe the divine Scriptures, that there is one God, and that His Word went forth.’ Thus, because of this statement and his writes, we understand that Marcellus sees only the Father (God) and His Word from the beginning, but only Son from the Incarnation.

Marcellus gave a very human perspective when he wrote,

Just as all things created by the Father came into being through the Logos, thus also the things spoken by the Father are made known through the Logos. And for this reason the most holy Moses in that place calls the Logos an angel, for he appeared for no other reason than to announce what was advantageous for the sons of Israel. He knew it was beneficial to believe that God is one. And therefore he said to him, “I am the one who is” (Exodus 3:14) in order to teach that there is no other God besides himself. This is easily understood, I believe, by those whose thinking is right, with the help of a small and humble illustration. For it is not possible for a man and his logos to be separated from him as some power or essence (hypostasis), for the Logos is one and the same with the man, and is not distinct in any way as something else, except in the effectual working of a matter.

Marcellus allows for a distinction between God and His Logos for an ‘effectual working of a matter’, or simply, for an economic activity. If we take Marcellus here, we understand that he believes that there is a distinction between the Father and His Word when the Father sends the Word, but when the activity is over, the separation is over. This feeds into Marcellus’ use of Word for the Preincarnate while Son is readily applied for the Incarnation.

For Marcellus, the Word in John 1.1 was nothing else but the Word, and refused to apply any title to it but Logos. To him, all titles of the flesh could only be applied the Incarnation, including Jesus, Son, and Bread. In a title is found in the Old Testament, then for Marcellus it was applied through prophecy. This countered the Arian’s claim of subordination because of Marcellus, subordination applied only to the Incarnate.

Marcellus resented the used the ‘begotten’ for the Word (although readily used it for the Incarnation), accusing his opponents of lying:

For when Asterius said, “The Logos was begotten before the ages/eons,” the statement itself proves he is lying, in that he not only misses the main point but also the literal meaning.  For if the Proverb (8.23) says, “He established me before the age/eon,” how can he say, “He was begotten before the ages/eons”? For one saw he was “established before the age,” and the other that he was “begotten before the ages.

3. The Holy Spirit

In the Rule of Faith, as it was later creeds, the terms ‘Spirit’ and ‘Holy Spirit’ was used, and to these terms, Marcellus agreed. In fragment 6, Marcellus writes that the Spirit testifies in Scripture, giving the Spirit the same power to awaken the minds, as Christ promised in John; however, for Marcellus, the Spirit, like the Word, proceeds from the Father but received its mission from the Son.

The Arians moved for three hypostaseis, or three ousiai, neither sharing the other’s nature; it was not until after Nicaea that the compromise was reached which allowed the East and the West to agree, that there were three substances in one essence. Marcellus, almost prophetically, wrote,

For it is impossible for three natures (hypostaseis) (if they do exist) to be united into a single being (monad), unless the three had previously originated from that single being (monad).  For Saint Paul said that those things which did not belong to the unity of God are “gathered up” (Eph. 1.10) in the single being (monad).  For the Logos and the Spirit alone belong to his unity.

This was not Marcellus’ view (note the impossibility that Marcellus sees in the view) but an hypothesis of what needed to be in order make the doctrine of the Arians work; however, this idea is well within the perimeters the eventual compromise. The one thing that Marcellus failed to mention is that if the Father, the Son, and the Spirit were of different hypostaseis, then the single essence was not the Father, meaning that the essence was the first principle, not the Father, as was long held by the Church.

Like the Arians, and as the Cappadocians, later admitted that they themselves lacked, Marcellus did not have a fully developed doctrine of the holy Spirit.

1st Corinthians 15.28

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



We have to remember that Marcellus was not alone in his thinking – he was supported by Rome (The West) and Athanasius.

Frag. 61, M. Vinzent, Markell von Ankyra: Die Fragmente (Leiden, 1997).

This is a favorite passage for Marcellus

It would be difficult to not understand Isaiah 55.11 has playing a key role here in Marcellus’ thought.

Frag 42, The Logos was “in the beginning” (John 1.1), being nothing other than the Logos.” Frag. 48, Surely then, before he came down and was born of the virgin, he was only the Logos.

Fragment 36, M. Vinzent, Markell von Ankyra: Die Fragmente (Leiden, 1997).

Fragment 47, M. Vinzent, Markell von Ankyra: Die Fragmente (Leiden, 1997).

Of the wise among us, some consider the Holy Spirit an influence, others a creature, others God imself (oi de theon) and again others know not which way to decide, from reverence, as they say, for the Holy Scripture, which declares nothing exact in the case. For this reason they waver between worshipping and not worshipping the Holy Spirit, and strike a middle course which is in fact, however, a bad one (see also Schaff, fnn 5,6, p. 664).

Basil in 370, still carefully avoided calling the Holy God, though with the view of gaining the weak. Hilary of Poietiers (sic) believed that the Spirit, who searches the deep things of God, must be divine, but could find no Scripture passage in which he is called God, and thought that he must be content with the existence of the Holy which the Scripture teaches and the heart attests (De Trinitate, ii, 29; and xii, 55; cf. Schaff, ibid.).

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