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Novatian and Novatianism

Novatian was a schismatic of the third century, and founder of the sect of the Novatians; he was a Roman priest, and made himself antipope. His name is given as Novatus (Noouatos, Eusebius; Nauatos, Socrates) by Greek writers, and also in the verses of Damasus and Prudentius, on account of the metre.


We know little of his life. St. Cornelius in his letter to Fabius of Antioch relates that Novatian was possessed by Satan for a season, aparently while a catechumen; for the exorcists attended him, and he fell into a sickness from which instant death was expected; he was, therefore, given baptism by affusion as he lay on his bed. The rest of the rites were not supplied on his recovery, nor was he confirmed by the bishop. "How then can he have received the Holy Ghost? " asks Cornelius. Novatian was a man of learning and had been trained in literary composition. Cornelius speaks of him sarcastically as "that maker of dogmas, that champion of ecclesiastical learning". His eloquence is mentioned by Cyprian (Ep. lx, 3) and a pope (presumably Fabian) promoted him to the priesthood in spite of the protests (according to Cornelius) of all the clergy and many of the laity that it was uncanonical for one who had received only clinical baptism to be admitted among the clergy. The story told by Eulogius of Alexandria that Novatian was Archdeacon of Rome, and was made a priest by the pope in order to prevent his succeeding to the papacy, contradicts the evidence of Cornelius and supposes a later state of things when the Roman deacons were statesmen rather than ministers. The anonymous work "Ad Novatianum" (xiii) tells us that Novatian, "so long as he was in the one house, that is in Christ's Church, bewailed the sins of his neighbours as if they were his own, bore the burdens of the brethren, as the Apostle exhorts, and strengthened with consolation the backsliding in heavenly faith."

The Church had enjoyed a peace of thirty-eight years when Decius issued his edict of persecution early in 250. Pope St. Fabian was martyred on 20 January, and it was impossible to elect a successor. Cornelius, writing in the following year, says of Novatian that, through cowardice and love of his life, he denied that he was a priest in the time of persecution; for he was exhorted by the deacons to come out of the cell, in which he had shut himself up, to assist the brethren as a priest now that they were in danger. But he was angry and departed, saying he no longer wished to be a priest, for he was in love with another philosophy. The meaning of this story is not clear. Did Novitian wish to eschew the active work of the priesthood and give himself to an ascetic life?

At all events, during the persecution he certainly wrote letters in the name of the Roman clergy, which were sent by them to St. Cyprian (Epp. xxx and xxxvi). The letters are concerned with the question of the Lapsi (q. v.), and with the exaggerated claim of the martyrs at Carthage to restore them all without penance. The Roman clergy agree with Cyprian that the matter must be settled with moderation by councils to be held when this should be possible; the election of a new bishop must be awaited; proper severity of discipline must be preserved, such as had always digtinguished the Roman Church since the days when her faith was praised by St. Paul (Rom., i, 8), but cruelty to the repentant must be avoided. There is evidently no idea in the minds of the Roman priests that restoration of the lapsed to communion is impossible or improper; but there are severe expressions in the letters. It seems that Novatian got into some trouble during the persecution, since Cornelius says that St. Moses, the martyr (d. 250), seeing the boldness of Novatian, separated him from communion, together with the five priests who had been associated with him.

At the beginning of 251 the persecution relaxed, and St. Cornelius was elected pope in March, "when the chair of Fabian, that is the place of Peter, was vacant", with the consent of nearly all the clergy, of the people, and of the bishops present (Cyprian, Ep. lv, 8-9). Some days later Novatian set himself up as a rival pope. Cornelius tells us Novatian suffered an extraordinary and sudden change; for he had taken a tremendous oath that he would never attempt to become bishop. But now he sent two of his party to summon three bishops from a distant corner of Italy, telling them they must come to Rome in haste, in order that a division might be healed by their mediation and that of other bishops. These simple men were constrained to confer the episcopal order upon him at the tenth hour of the day. One of these returned to the church bewailing and confessing his sin, "and we despatched" says Comelius, "successors of the other two bishops to the places whence they came, after ordaining them." To ensure the loyalty of his supporters Novatian forced them, when receiving Holy Communion, to swear by the Blood and the Body of Christ that they would not go over to Cornelius.

Cornelius and Novatian sent messengers to the different Churches to announce their respective claims. From St. Cyprian's correspondence we know of the careful investigation made by the Council of Carthage, with the result that Cornelius was supported by the whole African episcopate. St. Dionysius of Alexandria also took his side, and these influential adhesions soon made his position secure. But for a time the whole Church was torn by the question of the rival popes. We have few details. St. Cyprian writes that Novatian "assumed the primacy" (Ep. lxix, 8), and sent out his new apostles to many cities to set new foundations for his new establishment; and, though there were already in all provinces and cities bishops of venerable age, of pure faith, of tried virtue, who had been proscribed in the persecution, he dared to create other false bishops over their heads (Ep. lv, 24) thus claiming the right of substituting bishops by his own authority as Cornelius did in the case just mentioned. There could be no more startling proof of the importance of the Roman See than this sudden revelation of an episode of the third century: the whole Church convulsed by the claim of an antipope; the recognized impossibility of a bishop being a Catholic and legitimate pastor if he is on the side of the wrong pope; the uncontested claim of both rivals to consecrate a new bishop in any place (at all events, in the West) where the existing bishop resisted their authority. Later, in the same way, in a letter to Pope Stephen, St. Cyprian urges him to appoint (so he seems to imply) a new bishop at Arles, where the bishop had become a Novatianist. St. Dionysius of Alexandria wrote to Pope Stephen that all the Churches in the East and beyond, which had been split in two, were now united, and that all their prelates were now rejoicing exceedingly in this unexpected peace in Antioch, Caesarea of Palestine, Jerusalem, Tyre, Laodicea of Syria, Tarsus and all the Churches of Cilicia, Caesarea and all Cappadocia, the Syrias and Arabia (which depended for alms on the Roman Church), Mesopotamia, Pontus and Bithynia, "and all the Churches everywhere", so far did the Roman schism cause its effects to be felt. Meanwhile, before the end of 251, Cornelius had assembled a council of sixty bishops (probably all from Italy or the neighbouring islands), in which Novatian was excommunicated. Other bishops who were not present added their signatures, and the entire list was sent to Antioch and doubtless to all the other principal Churches.

It is not surpr sing that a man of such talents as Novatian should have been, conscious of his superiority to Cornelius, or that he should have found priests to assist his ambitious views. His mainstay was in the confessors yet in prison, Maximus, Urbanus, Nicostratus, and others. Dionysius and Cyprian wrote to remonstrate with them, and they returned to the Church. A prime mover on Novatian's side was the Carthaginian priest Novatus, who had favoured laxity at Carthage out of opposition to his bishop. In St. Cyprian's earlier letters about Novatian (xliv-xlviii, 1), there is not a word about any heresy, the whole question being as to the legitimate occupant of the place of Peter. In Ep. li, the words "schismatico immo haeretico furore" refer to the wickedness of opposing the true bishop. The same is true of " haereticae pravitatis nocens factio" with Ep. liii. In Ep. liv, Cyprian found it necessary to send his book "De lapsis" to Rome, so that the question of the lapsed was already prominent, but Ep. lv is the earliest in which the "Novatian heresy" as such is argued against. The letters of the Roman confessors (Ep. liii) and Cornelius (xlix, 1) to Cyprian do not mention it, though the latter speaks in general terms of Novatian as a schismatic or a heretic; nor does the pope mention heresy in his abuse of Novatian in the letter to Fabius of Antioch (Eusebius, VI, xliii), from which so much has been quoted above. It is equally clear that the letters sent out by Novatian were not concerned with the lapsi, but were "letters full of calumnies and maledictions sent in large numbers, which threw nearly all the Churches into disorder"' (Cornelius, Ep. xlix). The first of those sent to Carthage consisted apparently of "bitter accusations" against Cornelius, and St. Cyprian thought it so disgraceful that he did not read it to the council (Ep. xlv, 2). , The messengers from Rome to the Carthaginian Council broke out into similar attacks (Ep. xliv). It is necessary to notice this point, because it is so frequently overlooked by historians, who represent the sudden but short-lived disturbance throughout the Catholic Church caused by Novatian's ordination to have been a division between bishops on the subject of his heresy. Yet it is obvious enough that the question could not present itself: "Which is preferable, the doctrine of Cornelius or that of Novatian?" If Novatian were ever so orthodox, the first matter was to examine whether his ordination was legitimate or not, and whether his accusations against Cornelius were false or true. An admirable reply addressed to him by St. Dionysius of Alexandria has been preserved (Eusebius, VI, xlv): "Dionysius to his brother Novatian, greeting. If it was against your will, as you say, that you were led, you will prove it by retiring of your free will. For you ought to have suffered anything rather than divide the Church of God and to be martyred rather than cause a schism woul have been no less glorious than to be martyred rather than commit idolatry, nay in my opinion it would have been a yet greater act; for in the one case one is a martyr for one's own soul alone, in the other for the whole Church". Here again there is no question of heresy.

But yet within a couple of months Novatian was called a heretic, not only by Cyprian but throughout the Church, for his severe views about the restoration of those who had lapsed in the persecution. He held that idolatry was an unpardonable sin, and that the Church had no right to restore to communion any who had fallen into it. They might repent and be admitted to a lifelong penance, but their forgiveness must be left to God; it could not be pronounced in this world. Such harsh sentiments were not altogether a novelty. Tertullian had resisted the forgiveness of adultery by Pope Callistus as an innovation. Hippolytus was equally inclined to severity. In various places and at various times laws were made which punished certain sins either with the deferring of Communion till the hour of death, or even with refusal of Communion in the hour of death. Even St. Cyprian approved the latter course in the case of those who refused to do pennance and only repented on their death-bed; but this was because such a repentance seemed of doubtful sincerity. But severity in itself was but cruelty or injustice; there was no heresy until it was denied that the Church has the power to grant absolution in certain cases. This was Novatian's heresy; and St. Cyprian says the Novatians held no longer the Catholic creed and baptismal interrogation, for when they said "Dost thou believe in the remission of sins, and everlasting life, through Holy Church?" they were liars.


St. Jerome mentions a number of writings of Novatian, only two of which have come down to us, the "De Cibis Judaicis" and the "De Trinitate". The former is a letter written in retirement during a time of persecution, and was preceded by two other letters on Circumcision and the Sabbath, which are lost. It interprets the unclean animals as signifying different classes of vicious men; and explains that the greater liberty allowed to Christians is not to be a motive for luxury. The book "De Trinitate" is a fine piece of writing. The first eight chapters concern the transcendence and greatness of God, who is above all thought and can be described by no name. Novatian goes on to prove the Divinity of the Son at great length, arguing from both the Old and the New Testaments, and adding that it is an insult to the Father to say that a Father who is God cannot beget a Son who is God. But Novatian falls into the error made by so many early writers of separating the Father from the Son, so that he makes the Father address to the Son the command to create, and the Son obeys; he identifies the Son with the angels who appeared in the Old Testament to Agar, Abraham. etc. "It pertains to the person of Christ that he should be God because He is the Son of God, and that He should be an Angel because He announces the Father's Will" (paternae dispositionis annuntiator est). The Son is "the second Person after the Father", less than the Father in that He is originated by the Father; He is the imitator of all His works, and is always obedient to the Father, and is one with Him "by concord, by love, and by affection".

No wonder such a description should seem to opponents to make two Gods; and consequently, after a chapter on the Holy Ghost (xxix), Novatian returns to the subject in a kind of appendix (xxx-xxxi). Two kinds of heretics, he explains, try to guard the unity of God, the one kind (Sabellians) by identifying the Father with the Son, the other (Ebionites, etc.) by denying that the Son is God; thus is Christ again crucified between two thieves, and is reviled by both. Novatian declares that there is indeed but one God, unbegotten, invisible, immense, immortal; the Word (Sermo), His Son, is a substance that proceeds from Him (substantia prolata), whose generation no apostle nor angel nor any creature can declare. He is not a second God, because He is eternally in the Father, else the Father would not be eternally Father. He proceeded from the Father, when the Father willed (this syncatabasis for the purpose of creation is evidently distinguished from the eternal begetting in the Father), and remained with the Father. If He were also the unbegotten, invisible, incomprehensible, there might indeed be said to be two Gods; but in fact He has from the Father whatever He has, and there is but one origin (origo, principium), the Father. "One God is demonstrated, the true and eternal Father, from whom alone this energy of the Godhead is sent forth, being handed on to the Son, and again by communion of substance it is returned to the Father." In this doctrine there is much that is incorrect, yet much that seems meant to express the consubstantiality of the Son, or at least His generation out of the substance of the Father. But it is a very unsatisfactory unity which is attained, and it seems to be suggested that the Son is not immense or invisible, but the image of the Father capable of manifesting Him. Hippolytus is in the same difficulty, and it appears that Novatian borrowed from him as well as from Tertullian and Justin. It would seem that Tertullian and Hippolytus understood somewhat better than did Novatian the traditional Roman doctrine of the consubstantiality of the Son, but that all three were led astray by their acquaintance with the Greek theology, which interpreted of the Son as God Scriptural expressions (especially those of St. Paul) which properly apply to Him as the God-Man. But at least Novatian has the merit of not identifying the Word with the Father, nor Sonship with the prolation of the Word for the purpose of Creation, for He plainly teaches the eternal generation. This is a notable advance on Tertullian.

On the Incarnation Novatian seems to have been orthodox, though he is not explicit. He speaks correctly of the one Person having two substances, the Godhead and Humanity, in the way that is habitual to the most exact Western theologians. But he very often speaks of "the man" assumed by the Divine Person, so that he has been suspected of Nestorianizing. This is unfair, since he is equally liable to the opposite accusation of making "the man" so far from being a distinct personality that He is merely flesh assumed (caro, or substantia carnis et corporis). But there is no real ground for supposing that Novatian meant to deny an intellectual soul in Christ; he does not think of the point, and is only anxious to assert the reality of our Lord's flesh. The Son of God, he says, joins to Himself the Son of Man, and by this connection and mingling he makes the Son of Man become Son of God, which He was not by nature. This last sentence has been described as Adoptionism. But the Spanish Adoptionists taught that the Human Nature of Christ as joined to the Godhead is the adopted Son of God. Novatian only means that before its assumption it was not by nature the Son of God; the form of words is bad, but there is not necessarily any heresy in the thought. Newman, though he does not make the best of Novatian, says that he "approaches more nearly to doctrinal precision than any of the writers of the East and West" who preceded him (Tracts theological and ecclesiastical, p. 239).

The two pseudo-Cyprianic works, both by one author, "De Spectaculis" and "De bono pudicitiae", are attributed to Novatian by Weyman, followed by Demmler, Bardenhewer, Harnack, and others. The pseudo-Cyprianic "De laude martyrii" has been ascribed to Novatian by Harnack, but with less probability. The pseudo-Cyprianic sermon, "Adversus Judaeos", is by a close friend or follower of Novatian if not by himself, according to Landgraf, followed by Harnack and Jordan. In 1900 Mgr Batiffol with the help of Dom A. Wilmart published, under the title of "Tractatus Origenis de libris SS. Scripturarum", twenty sermons which he had discovered in two MSS. at Orleans and St. Omer. Weyman, Haussleiter, and Zahn perceived that these curious homilies on the Old Testament were written in Latin and are not translations from the Greek. They attributed them to Novatian with so much confidence that a disciple of Zahn's, H. Jordan, has written a book on the theology of Novatian, grounded principally on these sermons. It was, however, pointed out that the theology is of a more developed and later character than that of Novatian. Funk showed that the mention of competentes (candidates for baptism) implies the fourth century. Dom Morin suggested Gregorius Baeticus of Illiberis (Elvira), but withdrew this when it seemed clear that the author had used Gaudentius of Brescia and Rufinus' translation of Origen on Genesis. But these resemblances must be resolved in the sense that the "Tractatus" are the originals, for finally Dom Wilgory showed that Gregory of Elvira is their true author, by a comparison especially with the five homilies of Gregory on the Canticle of Canticles (in Heine's "Bibliotheca Anecdotorum" Leipzig, 1848).

The Novationist Sect

The followers of Novatian named themselves katharoi, or Puritans, and affected to call the Catholic Church Apostaticum, Synedrium, or Capitolinum. They were found in every province, and in some places were very numerous. Our chief information about them is from the "History" of Socrates, who is very favourable to them, and tells us much about their bishops, especially those of Constantinople. The chief works written against them are those of St. Cyprian, the anonymous "Ad Novatianum" (attributed by Harnack to Sixtus II, 257-8), writings of St. Pacian of Barcelona and St. Ambrose (De paenitentia), "Contra Novatianum", a work of the fourth century among the works of St. Augustine, the "Heresies" of Epiphanius and Philastrius, and the "Quaestiones" of Ambrosiaster. In the East they are mentioned especially by Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Chrysostom. Eulogius of Alexandria, not long before 600, wrote six books against them. Refutations by Reticius of Autun and Eusebius of Emesa are lost.

Novatian had refused absolution to idolaters; his followers extended this doctrine to all "mortal sins" (idolatry, murder, and adultery, or fornication). Most of them forbade second marriage, and they made much use of Tertullian's works; indeed, in Phrygia they combined with the Montanists. A few of them did not rebaptize converts from other persuasions. Theodoret says that they did not use confirmation (which Novatian himself hadnever received). Eulogius complained that they would not venerate martyrs, but he probably refers to Catholic martyrs. They always had a successor of Novatian at Rome, and everywhere they were governed by bishops. Their bishops at Constantinople were most estimable persons, according to Socrates, who has much to relate about them. The conformed to the Church in almost everything, including monasticism in the fourth century. Their bishop at Constantinople was invited by Constantine to the Council of Nicaea. He approved the decrees, though he would not consent to union. On account of the the Novatians were persecuted like the Catholics by Constantius. In Paphlagonia the Novatianist peasants attacked and slew the soldiers sent by the emperor to enforce conformity to the official semi-Arianism. Constantine the Great, who at first treated them as schismatics, not heretics, later ordered the closing of their churches and cemeteries. After the death of Constantius they were protected by Julian, but the Arian Valens persecuted them once more. Honorius included them in a law against heretics in 412, and St. Innocent I closed some of their churches in Rome. St. Celestine expelled them from Rome, as St. Cyril had from Alexandria. Earlier St. Chrysostom had shut up their churches at Ephesus, but at Constantinople they were tolerated, and their bishops there are said by Socrates to have been highly respected. The work of Eulogius shows that there were still Novatians in Alexandria about 600. In Phrygia (about 374) some of them became Quartodecimans, and were called Protopaschitoe; they included some converted Jews. Theodosius made a stringent law against this sect, which was imported to Constantinople about 391 by a certain Sabbatius, whose adherents were called Sabbatiani.

John Chapman.

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Catholic Encyclopedia. "Novatian and Novatianism." Early Christian Writings. <>.