What we know of Sabellius is drawn mostly from the polemical writings of his opponents. The Catholic Encyclopedia "New Advent" writes: It is true that it is easy to suppose Tertullian and Hippolytus to have misrepresented the opinions of their opponents, but it cannot be proved that Cleomenes was not a follower of the heretical Noetus, and that Sabellius did not issue from his school; further, it is not obvious that Tertullian would attack Callistus under a nickname."
.. Sabellius' opposition to the emerging idea of the Trinity led to his excommunication as a heretic by Pope Calixtus I (Callistus) in AD 220. Wace and Bunsen have both suggested that Calixtus' action was motivated more by a desire for unity rather than by conviction.
Sabellius taught that God was indivisible, with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being three modes or manifestations of the same divine Person. A Sabellian modalist would say that the One God successively revealed Himself to man throughout time as the Father in Creation; the Son in Redemption; and the Spirit in Sanctification and Regeneration. (Because of this focus on God's revelation of himself to man, Modalism is often confused with "Economic Trinitarianism").
This understanding has been called Sabellianism and Modalistic Monarchianism. The suggestion of development and change within the Godhead was seen as contradicting the concept of impassibility. It also stood in contrast to the position of distinct persons existing within a single godhead by representing Father, Son and Spirit as different “modes” (hence the term "modalism"), “aspects” or “faces” that God presented successively to the world.
According to Epiphanius of Salamis, Sabellius used the sun’s characteristics as an analogy of God’s nature. Just as the sun has "three powers" (warmth, light, and circular form), so God has three aspects: the warming power answers to the Holy Spirit; the illuminating power, to the Son; and the form or figure, to the Father..
Von Mosheim described Sabellius' views thusly: But while Sabellius maintained that there was but one divine person, he still believed the distinction of Father, Son and holy Spirit, described in the Scriptures, to be a real distinction, and not a mere appellative or nominal one. That is, he believed the one divine person whom he recognized, to have three distinct forms, which are really different, and which should not be confounded.
The Teachings of Sabellius were most vigorously opposed by Tertullian in North Africa and Hippolytus of Rome who both proposed an hierarchical trinity of subordinate persons. Tertullian gave Sabellius' doctrine the name Patripassianism, meaning ‘the father suffered’, since Sabellius made no true distinction of persons between the Father and the Son. This is a distortion of Sabellius' teaching according to Clissold, who quotes scholars who have appealed to Epiphanius' writings. Epiphanius (died 403) says that in his time Sabellians were still numerous in Mesopotamia and Rome - a fact confirmed by an inscription discovered at Rome in 1742, evidently erected by Sabellian Christians.
Although there are some doctrinal characteristics shared by a modern group called Oneness Pentecostals with those of Sabellius, the former do not teach the doctrine of despensational Modalism as purportedly taught by Sabellius.
However it cannot be certain whether Sabellius taught a despensational Modalism or taught what is known today as the Oneness Cult since all we have of his teaching comes through the writing of his enemies. All of his original works were burned. For example the outrageous doctrines that were purportedly believed by the Templars have recently been shown to be falsifications. Cathari were falsley accused of kissing cat anus' (Cathari actually means "Pure"). The following excerpts demonstrate some of the known doctrinal characteristics that ancient Sabellians may be seen to compare with the doctrines in the modern Oneness movement:
Sabellianism was doctrine adhered to by a sect of the Montanists. Cyprian wrote of them "How, when God the Father is not known-nay, is even blasphemed-can they who among the heretics are said to be baptized in the name of Christ only, be judged to have obtained the remission of sins? In 225AD Hippolytus spoke of them saying "Some of them assent to the heresy of the Noetians, affirming the Father Himself is the Son." Victorinus had this to say of them "Some had doubts about the baptism of those who appeared to recognize the same Father with the Son with us, yet who received the new prophets."
Saballianism was also referred to by the following Church fathers: Dionysius (c.200-265 AD) wrote "Those baptized in the name of three persons...though baptized by heretics..shall not be rebaptized. But those converted from other heresies shall be perfected by the baptism of the Holy Church." "Sabellius...blasphemes in saying that the Son Himself is the Father and vice versa." "Jesus commands them to baptize into the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-not into a unipersonal God."
Sabellianism teaching of Modalism and singular name baptism was also accompanied by glossolalia and prophecy among the abovementioned sect of Montanists. In 225 AD Turtullian speaks of "those who would deserve the excellent gifts of the spirit-and who...by means of the Holy Spirit would obtain the gift of language, wisdom, and knowledge."
It is reported that Sabellians experienced glossolalia and baptized in the"shorter formula" because of their denial of the Trinity.