Novatians, or Novatianists
Novatians, Or Novatianists is the name of a powerful Christian sect, a sort of dissenters from the Church of. Rome, who owe their origin to Novatian (q.v.). They have been misrepresented in many respects by devoted Romanists and other extreme High-Churchmen for their doctrinal views. There is no good reason for such a view, as will be apparent to any one inquiring carefully and discriminately into the character of Novatian himself, and those who were prominently associated in disseminating the peculiar views he held regarding the lapsed. There does not now remain to us, unfortunately, from any original authority, a detailed account of the rise and progress of this sect. Its history must be gathered from unsystematic notices 'in Cypria's epistles; from some few epistles. of particular bishops and doctors of the Roman, African, and Eastern churches extant among Cyprian's works; from the remains of some tracts and epistles of Dionysius of Alexandria preserved by Eusebius; from Pacian's epistles; from Ambrose's treatise, De Poenitentia; from a few conciliar determinations; from the occasional notes of Socrates and Sozomen; and from statements of particular points of doctrine or history by Jerome, Augustine, and Basil. By far the greater part of the reports, therefore, are untrustworthy, for they come from opponents, and consequently in this chapter of Church history there is likely to be much more distortion, by reason of the prepossession of the historian, than in other chapters.
In the article NOVATIAN we have indicated that the distinguishing tenet of the sect was that no one who after baptism had fallen away from the faith by the commission of great sils, or through dread of persecution, could, however sincere his contrition, be again received into the bosom of the Church, a doctrine grounded upon the utterance of Paul: "It is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift,... if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance" (Heb 6:4-6). The Novatians, however, did not deny that a person falling into any sin, how grievous soever, might obtain pardon by repentance; for they themselves recommended repentance in the strongest terms; their doctrine simply was that the Church had it not in its power to receive sinners into its communion, as having no way of remitting sins but by baptism, which, once received, could not be repeated.
In close connection with this tenet was another, that they could not look upon a Church as anything short of an assembly of unoffending persons;
persons who, since they first entered the Church, had not, defiled themselves with any sin which could expose them to eternal death; and this error obliged them to regard all associations of Christians that allowed great offenders to return to their communion (that is, the greatest part of the Christian commonwealth) as unworthy of the name of true churches, and as destitute of the Holy Spirit; thus arrogating to themselves alone the appellation of a genuine and pure Church. And this they ventured publicly to proclaim; for they assumed to themselves the name of Καθαροί (the Pure), thereby obviously stigmatizing all other Christians as impure and defiled; and, like the Pharisees among the Jews, they would not suffer other men to come near them, lest their own purity should be thereby defiled; and they rebaptized the Christians who came over to them, thereby signifying that the baptisms of the churches from which they differed were a vain and empty ceremony. In baptizing, however, they used the received forms of the Church, and had the same belief concerning the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, in whose name they baptized. Cyprian rejected their baptism, as he did that of all heretics; but it was admitted by the eighth canon 'of the Council of Nice. The Novatians also held the unlawfulness of second marriages, against which they were as severe as against apostates, denying communion forever to such persons as married a second time, after baptism, and treating widows who married again as adulteresses. They are also said to have had other disagreements with the Church as it was then constituted, but the assertion is based upon no certain support, and is probably altogether untrue.
In examining Novatianism, it is necessary to take into account, if it be heretic in tendency by declaring against the Church-membership of the lapsed, first, who were meant by the lapsed; and, secondly, whether the lapsed were excluded simply from Christian fellowship by membership, or also from heaven and eternal salvation. As to the first question, it may be stated that the contest between Cornelius and Novatian, in its origin, related solely to those who had fallen away in the Decian persecution. Yet it is no less certain that Novatian. as Cyprian gravely charges upon him (Epist. lii, p. 74), placed all persons whatever, whose conduct showed a deficiency of Christian firmness, in one and the same predicament; and he inflicted the same penalties on the Libellatici as on the Sacrificati and the Thurificati. As the laws of the ancient Church considered certain other transgressors, especially adulterers and murderers, as equally guilty with the apostates, Novatian also seems to have comprehended them all in one sentence, and to/have ordered the Church doors to be forever closed against others, as well as against apostates. Those writers of the 4th and 5th centuries who mention this Novatian doctrine, whether they refute it or only explain it, all so understand it, telling us that Novatian prohibited all persons guilty of any great fault from readmission to the Church. And this rule certainly was practiced by the Novatian churches in those centuries. This is most explicitly affirmed by Asclepiades, the Novatian bishop of Nice, in the 4th century (Socrates, Hist. Eccles. l. vii, c. 25, p. 367). In nearly the same manner Acesius, another Novatian bishop, explains the views of his sect (ibid. 1. i, c. 10, p. 38). He says that from the times of Decius there prevailed among. his people this austera lex (αὐστηρὸς κανών): "Neminem qui post baptismum ejusmodi crimen admiserit, quod peccatum ad mortem divinae scripturse pronuntiant, ad divinorum mysteriorum communionern admitti oportere." None of the ancients has left us a catalogue of the sins which the Novatians accounted mortal; and, of course, it is not fully known how far their discipline reached, though all pronounce it very rigid. They did not punish vicious mental habits, such as avarice and the like; but confined themselves, it would appear, to acts contravening any of the greater commands of God, or what are called crimes. But, beyond a question, the Novatian Church, in its maturity, refused to commune, not only with apostatizing Christians, but also with all persons guilty of gross sins. This principle of the Novatians, in itself, appears to be of no great moment, as it pertained merely to the external discipline of the Church; but in its consequences it was of the greatest importance, as being in the highest degree adapted to rend the Church, and to corrupt religion itself. The Novatians did not dissemble and conceal these consequences, as other sects did, nor did they deny, but avowed them openly. In the first place, as they admitted no one to their communion who had been guilty of any great sin after baptism, they must have held that the visible Church of Christ is a congregation of holy and innocent persons. This theory might have been borne with provided they had allowed that salvation was also attainable in the other churches, which permitted sinners to become reconciled by penitence; although they might hold its attainment to be more difficult than in the churches denying restoration to the lapsed. But this they utterly denied, or at least represented as extremely dubious and uncertain. They certainly did not hold out to sinners a sure and undoubting. hope of salvation. They would not indeed have the. persons whom the Church excluded sink into utter despair; but, while committing their case to God alone, and urging them to persevere in their penitence through life, they declared that the lapsed might hope, but must not feel assured, or that they were unable to promise anything certain in regard to the judgment of God. This surely was sufficiently hard and discouraging. One utterly uncertain of his salvation is not much happier than one who is in despair, for he must pass his life in continual fear. In what condition those of the lapsed were placed whom the Novatians admitted to penitence is manifest; they remained through life in the class of penitents. They could therefore be present at the public discourses to the people, for this was allowed to penitents; and in a particular place, distinct from that of the faithful, they could manifest the sorrows of their heart in the sight of the brethren; and they could live and converse with their kindred and relatives; but from the common prayers and from the sacred supper they remained excluded. This is, after all, different from total deprivation of hope of salvation hereafter. Yet, notwithstanding this clearly established fact, a great number of modern writers tell us that Novatian cut off all those who fell into the greater sins after baptism, not only from the hope of readmission to the Church, but likewise from the hope of eternal salvation. And they have respectable authorities for their assertion in writers of the 4th and 5th centuries, namely, Eusebius (Hist .Eccles. 1. vi, c. 43, p. 241), Jerome (In Jovinianum, c. 2), and all those who affirm (and there are many who do so) that Novatian discarded and abolished all penances. A careful examination of the best and most trustworthy documents of this controversy makes it appear rather that Novatian was not so destitute of clemency, and that those who so represent him attribute to him a consequence which they deduce from his principles, but which he did not allow. Let it be remembered, too, that very many in that age believed that the road to heaven was open only to members of the Church, and that those who were without the Church must die with. no hope of eternal salvation; and therefore they baptized catechumens, if dangerously sick, before the regularly appointed time; and they restored to the Church the unfaithful or the lapsed Christians, when alarmingly sick, without any, penances or satisfaction, lest they should perish forever. Cyprian decides (Epist. 52, p. 71) thus: "Extra ecclesiam constitutus, et ab unitate atque caritate divisus, coronari in morte non poterit." And as there were many holding this doctrine, they most likely reasoned thus: Novatian would leave the lapsed to die excluded from the Church; but there is no hope of salvation to those out of the Church. Therefore it appeared to them that Novatian excluded the lapsed not only from the Church, but also front heaven. Novatian, however, rejected this conclusion and did not wholly take from the lapsed all hope of making their peace with God. For this assertion, our first great authority is Cyprian, who otherwise exaggerates the Novatian error quite too much. He says (Epist. lii, p. 75): "O haereticae institutionis inefficax et vana traditio! hortari ad satisfactionis-penitentiam et subtrahere de satisfactione medicinam, dicere fratribus nostris, plange et lacrymas fiunde, et diebus ac noctibus ingemisce, et pro abluendo et purgando delicto tuo largiter et frequenter operare, sed extra ecclesiam post omnia ista morieris; quascunque ad pacem Fertinent facies, sed nullam pacem quam quaeris accipies. Quis non statim pereat, quis non ipsa desperatione deficiat, quis non animum suum a proposito lamentationis avertat?" After illustrating these thoughts with his usual eloquence, he concludes thus (p. 525): "Quod si invenimus (in the Scriptures) a poenitentia agenda neminem debere prohiberi . . admittendus est- plangentium gemitus et poenitentiae fructus dolentibus non negandus." So, then, Novatian exhorted sinners ejected from the Church to weep, to pray, to grieve over their sins — in short, to exercise penitence. But why did he so, if he believed there was no hope of salvation for the lapsed? Undoubtedly he urged sinners to tears and penitence, that they might move God to have compassion on them, or, as Cyprian expresses it ("ut delictum abluerent et purgarent"), to wash and purge away their sin. Therefore he did not close up heaven against them, but only the doors of the Church; and he believed that God had reserved to himself the power of pardoning the greater sins committed after baptism. This opinion of their master his disciples continued to retain. The Novatian bishop Acesius, at the Council of Nice, in the presence of Constantine the Great, according to the testimony of Socrates (Hist. Eccles. 1. i, C. 10, p. 39), thus stated the doctrine of his sect: Ε᾿πὶ μετανοίαν μὲν ἡμαρτικότας προτρέπειν, ἐλπίδα δὲ τῆς ἀφίσεως μὴ παρὰ τῶν ἱερέων, ἀλλὰ παρὰ τοῦ θἓου ἐκδέχεσθαι, τοῦ δυναμένου καὶ ἐξουσίαν ἔχοντος συγχωρεῖν ἁμαρτήματα ("Ad peenitentiam quidem invitandos esse peccatores, remissionis vero spem non a sacerdotibus expectare debere, verum a Deo, qui solus jus potestatemque habet dimittendi peccata"). A similar statement by Asclepiades, another Novatian bishop, is found in Socrates (ib. 1. vii, c. 25, p. 367): θεῶ μόνῳ τὴν συγχώρησιν ἁμαρτιῶν ἐπιτρέποντες ("Soli Deo potestatem condonandi relinquimus"). Socrates himself (1. iv, c. 28, p. 245) obviously explains the doctrine of Novatian in the same manner. In short, most authors have ascribed to Novatian a denial of the possibility of salvation to those who after baptism fall into the greater or deadly sins. That this is an exaggeration is shown by Petavius, and our limits compel us to refer to his Essay. Novatian denied that the Church can reconcile them.
The schism which Novatian had formed in the Roman Church was not confined to Rome nor Italy, nor even to the West (comp. Eusebius, Eccles. Hist. bk. 6). It made its way into the East, and subsisted a long time at Alexandria, in several provinces of Asia, at Constantinople, in Scythia, and in Africa. The Novatians abounded particularly in Phrygia and Paphlagonia. Constantine seems to have favored them a little by a law of the year 326, which preserved to them their churches and burying-places, provided they never belonged to the Catholic Church. But in a famous edict about the year 331 he sets them at the head of the heretics, forbidding them to hold public or private assemblies, confiscating their oratories or churches, and condemning their leaders to banishment. This edict, however, was modified in its effect as to the Novatians by means of Acesius, their bishop, who resided at Constantinople, and was in great esteem with the emperor on account of his virtuous and irreproachable life. Subsequent emperors were anything but indulgent to them. A law of the younger Theodosius, A.D. 423, decreed the same penalties against them as against the other sects. He had previously, in A.D. 413, enacted a severe law against a branch of the Novatian sect, who bore the name of Sabbatians (or Proto-paschites), so called after one Sabbatius, who near the beginning of the 5th century separated from the other Novatians because he thought the feast of Easter should be celebrated at the same time with the Jewish Passover., From the 5th century the sect gradually died away, and only slight relics remained in the 6th century.
The formal actions of the Church of Rome against the Novatians were as follows: Immediately upon the consecration (Blunt, p. 388) of Novatian a council was called at Rome by Cornelius in A.D. 251. Sixty bishops and as many presbyters assembled. Novatian and his followers were declared to be separated from the Church, and it was decreed that the brethren who had fallen were to be admitted to the remedies of repentance (Euseb. Hist. Eccles. 6:43). Eusebius states that the epistles of Cornelius show not only the transactions of the Council of Rome, but the opinions of those in Italy and Africa. The opinions of the Africans were delivered in a council, A.D. 251, mentioned by Cyprian, Epist. 58; and Jerome speaks of three councils, supposing that the opinions of the Italians were formally delivered also in an Italian council. At Antioch likewise a council was held, A.D. 253, which came to the same determination. It was summoned by Fabius, but he died before it met; and it was held by his successor, Demetrianus (Euseb. Hist. Eccles. 5:46). The Council of Nicaea assigned to the Cathari their place in the Church upon reconciliation. Canon eighth decreed that those already ordained should continue to rank among the clergy upon written promise that they would adhere to the decrees of the Catholic Church; that is, that they would communicate with those who had married a second time, and those who had lapsed under persecution, to whom a term of penance had been assigned. In places where there were no clergy, they were to remain in their order; where there was a bishop or priest of the Catholic Church, that bishop was to retain his dignity, the Novatian bishop having the honor of a priest, unless the bishop should think fit to allow him the nominal honor of episcopate; otherwise the bishop was to provide for him the place of a chorepiscopus, or of a priest, so that there should not be two bishops in one city. The Council of Laodicea, A.D. 367, directs that Novatians are not to be received until they have anathematized all heresy, especially that in which they have been engaged. Their communicants having learned the creeds, and having been anointed with the chrism, may then partake of the holy mysteries (can. 7). The Council of Constantinople, A.D. 381, receives "the Sabbatians and Novatians, who call themselves Cathari, if they give in a written renunciation of their errors and anathematize heresy, by sealing them with the holy chrism on the forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, and ears, with the words, The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit" (can. 7). The Council of Telepte (Thala, in Numidia), A.D. 418, decreed: "Ut venientes a Novatianis vel Montensibus per impositionem suscepiantur, ex eo quod rebaptizant" (Brun's Canones Apost. et Concil. 1:154). The sixth of Carthage (A.D. 419) enforced and explained the Nicene decisions (canons 1-8); the second of Aries (A.D. 432) directs that a Novatian shall not be received into communion without undergoing penance for his disbelief and condemning his error (can. 9). Of these the Constantinopolitan canon is to be noticed as determining against St. Basil the validity of Novatian baptism. In Basil's first canonical epistle to Amphilochius, canons 1 and 47 involve this point. There are several difficulties regarding their interpretation; but thus much seems to be clear, that Basil proceeded on the general principle of the invalidity of lay baptism, and argued that the Cathari had no longer the communication of the Holy Ghost, having broken the succession; that, being schismatics, they were laymen; he ordered them (at least such as had received only Novatian baptism) to be received into the Church by baptism. The first Council of Aries (A.D. 314)
had laid down the principle that those baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity should be received by the imposition of hands (can. 8).
See Walch, Hist. der Ketzereien, 2:185-310; Haag, Hist. des Dogrmes Chretiennes, 1:137 sq.; 2:28, 33, 110; Mosheim, Ch. Hist. of the first Three Centuries, 2:59 sq.; Schaff, Ch. Bist. 1:450 sq.; Tillemont, Meizoires, etc., vol. iii; Hagenbach, Hist. of Doctrines, 1:75 sq., et al., 194, et al.; Milman, Hist. of Lat. Clhristianity, 1:83 sq.; Neander, Ch. Hist. 1:237 sq.; id. Dogmas, 163, 222, 226, 235; Augusti, Dogmengesch. p. 41 sq., 388, 414 sq.; Shepherd, Hist. of Rome, p. 26, 129, 180; Guette, Papacy, p. 88 sq.; Gibbon, Decline and FIall of the Roman Empire; Theol. and Lit. Journal (Jan. 1855); Ffoulkes; Divisions of Christendom.