Novatian and Novatianism
(Mid-Third Century)

Theology on the Web helps over 2.5 million people every year to find high quality theological resources that will help to equip them to serve God and to know Him better (2 Timothy 2:15). Like other websites that provide free services, it is dependent on donations to enable it to grow and develop and only 0.004% of visitors currently do so. If you would like to support this site, please use one of the options to the right of this message.



NOVATIAN. The whole Latin tradition, with the exception of those theologians of the fourth century who stood under Greek influence (Damasus, Prudentius, the Decr. Gelas., etc.), calls the great schismatic Novatianus; while by Greek authors his name is generally written . Only Dionysius of Alexandria calls him . The party he formed is generally designated as Novatiani: only once Cyprian writes Novatiamenses (Ep., 73,2).When Epiphanius (Ancorat., 13) calls the Novatians of Rome Montenses, he probably confounds them with the Donatists.

According to Philostorgius (Hist. Eccl., viii. 15),


Novatian was a native of Phrygia. Probably, however, this notice rose from the circumstance that he afterwards found many adherents in Phrygia; or perhaps it was purposely manufactured in order to insinuate a connection between him and the Montanists. With respect to his life before the schism, we depend entirely upon the spiteful and mendacious letter of Cornelius (Ep ad Fabiam Antioch.). Cyprian, Pseudo-Cyprian, and Socrates give very little, and Eulogius is wholly unreliable. The plain facts seem to be these: during a severe illness, which even made the aid of an exorcist necessary, Novatian received the clinical baptism without any consecutive episcopal confirmation. Such a form of baptism, however, was not generally recognized as valid; and, when he was ordained a presbyter by a bishop of Rome (either Fabian or his predecessor), his ordination, we are told, met with great opposition, both among the clergy and the laity, on that account. Otherwise he enjoyed great reputation in the congregation for learning and eloquence, as may be gathered from the letters of Cyprian (55, 24; 51, 2; 60, 3; 49, 2); and his official activity, as well as his private life, must have been without blemish, since Cornelius found only one dark spot to point to. At the time, he tells us, when the persecution was at its highest, Novatian kept himself shut up in his house; and, when the deacons admonished him to come to the aid of those who were in danger, he became angry, and threatened to resign his office, alleging at the same time, as an excuse for his behavior, that he belonged to "another philosophy." The story is proved false by the simple fact, that after the martyrdom of Fabian (Jan. 20, 250), Novatian took charge of the official correspondence of the congregation. And, as for the equivocal expression, "another philosophy," it later on became a favorite trick among his adversaries to represent his conceptions of sin and penance as the outcome of the Stoical philosophy, simply in order to cover up their own deviation from the principle hitherto held by the church. In reality he had as little to do with the Stoical philosophy as they themselves. The origin and further development of his views are not doubtful.

Down to 220, idolatry, adultery, fornication, and murder, were punished in the Catholic Church by formal excommunication. This practice was first broken by the peculiar power which was ascribed to the confessors, - in accordance with an archaic idea which lived on to the end of the third century, - and then by an edict of Pope Calixtus I., which spoke of re-admittance into the church as a possibility. The edict caused the schism of Hippolytus; but, as the schism was healed towards the middle of the third century, it seems probable that the successors of Calixtus returned to the old, more rigorous practice. At all events, it must be observed that the new and milder views were applied only to sins of the flesh. As none who in the peaceful period between 220 and 250 relapsed into Paganism was likely to ask for re-admittance into the Christian Church, idolatry was left entirely out of consideration. But, with the outbreak of the Decian persecution, a great change took place. The number of the lapsed became so great, that the very existence of the congregations was endangered. It was, however, by no means a simple practical consideration which compelled the church to change its practice. The dogmatical development led it in the very same direction. If, namely, the church, with its hierarchical constitution, were an indispensable means of grace extra quam nulla salus, how could it be hoped that God would ever re-admit into grace a sinner to whom the church had refused absolution and reconciliation? Indeed, when individual man could enter into relation with God only through the priest, his salvation became absolutely dependent on his connection with the clergy and the church. Now, it is very true that these ideas did not reach their full development until the end of the Decian persecution (see Cyprian: De unitate ecclesiæ and De lapsis); but it is also true that the whole doctrinal and constitutional development of the church had for a long time tended towards that point. The very practice (generally adopted throughout the church in 250) of absolving the penitent lapsed immediately before death was a move, perhaps unconscious in the direction indicated; and there is absolutely nothing which indicates that originally Novatian was either theoretically or practically opposed to the movement.

After the death of Fabian, in the beginning of the Decian persecution, no new bishop was elected in Rome. As he could probably not be elected without his name being given to the police (Cyprian: Ep. 55, 9), he would be sure to be immediately put to death; and thus it happened that the see remained vacant for fifteen months. During the interval, the congregation was represented and governed by the college of presbyters and deacons, which, when complete, consisted of fifty-three persons (Eusebius: Hist. Eccl., VI. 43, 11). Among those members of the college who are known to us, Novatian stands in the first rank; while the name of the later bishop, the presbyter Cornelius, is never heard of. Of special interest for the history of this interval are the three letters which the Roman clergy issued, and which have come down to us in the correspondence of Cyprian (8, 30, 36). The second of those letters is certainly written by Novatian, and it may be plausibly assumed that he also wrote the two others. In the first, the Roman clergy state, that, though they have separated from the lapsed, they have by no means abandoned them. On the contrary, if any penitent falls sick, and wishes to enter again into communion with the church, they re-admit him. Cyprian recognized the maxim as authoritative. In Ep. 15-17 he never speaks of the dying; but in Ep. 18 he acknowledges, and quotes the letter from Rome in his support, that the dying must be re-admitted. Thus it was Rome which first turned the Bishop of Carthage in the direction of mildness and forbearance. In the second letter, the Roman clergy state, that, in agreement with other bishops present in Rome, they have adopted a middle course with respect to the lapsed, and that no new disciplinary measures will be adopted until after the election of a bishop; which implies, that, from principle, Novatian, the writer of the letter, was not opposed to the introduction o£ new measures. The three letters show, as does the correspondence between Cyprian and the Roman confessors Moses, Maximus, etc., that at that time there reigned perfect


agreement, both in Rome itself and between Rome and Cyprian. Indeed, down to the spring of 251, not the slightest foreboding can be found of the coming schism in Rome.

But in March, 251, Cornelius was elected bishop of Rome. He was elected by a majority, and. as it would seem, in accordance with all accepted rules. Nevertheless, there was in Rome a minority; comprising several presbyters and some of the most revered confessors, which was unwilling to accept the issue of the election, but put forward Novatian as anti-bishop, and had him ordained by three Italian bishops. Thus the schism began, It is evident, however, that though Cornelius represented the laxer, and Novatian the sterner, portion of the congregation, there was, in the beginning of the contest, no theoretical point of controversy, but simply a conflict between two persons. On the one side, a theoretical difference between Cornelius and Novatian is, in the correspondence between Cyprian and Cornelius (Ep., 41-53), even not hinted at until Ep. 54; and from the beginning to the end Cyprian confines himself to lamenting the fact of the schism, without entering upon a condemnation of the theory of the schismatics. On the other side, it has been shown above, that Novatian was not from principle opposed to the re-admittance of the lapsed; and this is furthermore proved by the letter of Dionysius of Alexandria to Novatian (Eusebius: Hist. Eccl., VI. 45) and by Pseudo-Cyprian (Ad Novatianum, 1I). The contest began as a merely personal conflict, and Cornelius proved the more fortunate. In the spring of 251, even before he could leave his place of refuge, and return to his congregation, Cyprian was, by the schism of Felicissimus, compelled to abate his rigor, and consent to the re-adinittance of the lapsed. This step naturally placed him on the side of Cornelius, though Novatian and the confessors Maximus and Moses had hitherto been his supporters in Rome. He recognized Cornelius, though not in so precise and unqualified terms as the latter wished. Their friendship, however, soon became firmly cemented by the arrival of Novatus in Rome. Novatus was a zealous adherent of Felicissimus, and one of the most dangerous adversaries of Cyprian. For what reason he in Rome joined Novatian, though on the point in question he held the very opposite views, cannot now be made out; but the circumstance contributed much to bring Cornelius and Cyprian nearer to each other. In the summer of 251 the confessors left Novatian, and returned to the Catholic Church; not, as Cornelius says, deceived by the cunning, lies, and perjuries of the schismatical a-nd heretical beast Novatian, but, as they say themselves, in order to restore peace and unity to the church. The loss was, nevertheless, of great effect on the position of the schismatic community in Rome. In other countries, quite a number of bishops rejected the laxer practice. Some joined Novatian, though without breaking with the church: others simply declared in favor of him. In Fabius of Antioch he found a very warm friend; but he died just before the great Oriental synod convened at Antioch, and the milder views were adopted by that assembly. Nevertheless, the schism gradually assumed very dangerous proportions in the East, the views of Novatian finding many adherents in Egypt, Armenia, Pontus, Bithynia, Cilicia, Cappadocia, Syria, Arabia, and Mesopotainia.

In the beginning of the controversy the question was not about the casus mortis, or the sacrificati, or the relation of the bishop to the presbyters and confessors, or the efficacy of penitence, etc. It is simply a stubbornly repeated calumny, that Novatian or his party ever declared penitence to be of no use; but, as the Roman-Catholic Church afterwards adopted the view that the excommunicated could not be saved, the calumny appears to have had its reason. Though all those questions were raised and answered during the progress of the schism, the true principle at stake in the controversy was that of the power of the keys. The great ruling party received its theory from Cyprian, though that theory was fully developed only in the West, and not until the time of Augustine. In a general way the party argued, that Scripture enjoined mercy and love; that the church could not abandon the lapsed to the world, to heresy, and to schism; that the granting of aid in casu mortis necessarily led further, as many dying recovered; that it was unjust to demand penitence without promising absolution, etc. But none of those arguments were decisive to Cyprian. His argument was, that, since salvation could be obtained only through the church, every one who was definitely severed from her must necessarily perish. Consequently, to refuse the communion of, the church to any one who had not definitely separated himself from her would be an anticipation of the judgment of God; while the re-admittance of a lapsus could in no wise prevent God from still refusing him salvation. On the other side, when Novatian considered it the right and the duty of the church to exclude forever all heavy sinners, and denied her power to give absolution to the idolater, it is apparent that his idea of the church, of the absolution of the church, of the right of the priest, in short, his idea of the power of the keys, is another than that held by his adversaries. The church is to him, not the conditio sine qua non for salvation, an institution educating mankind for salvation, but the congregation of saints, whose very existence is endangered if there is one single heavy sinner among its members. To him the constitution of the church, the distinction between laity and clergy, the connection with the clergy, that is, the bishop, - are questions of secondary importance: the one question of prime importance, the one great question, is to be a saint in the communion of saints. The verdict on the respective worth and value of these two opposite movements depends upon the point of view from which it is given, - the demands of religion, or the demands of the time. It is unquestionable that the Novatians retained many most valuable remnants of old traditions; and their idea of the church as a communion of saints corresponds exactly to the idea prevalent in the first days of Christendom. But, on the other hand, to punish libellatici harder than adulterers and defrauders must seem to everybody an open injustice; and, in order to carry their point, the Novatians were very soon compelled to break with the whole disciplinary development during the last two or three generations. Indeed, the idea of the church as a community of saints could not fail ending


either in miserable delusion, or in bursting asunder the whole existing Christendom. According to Socrates (Hist. Eccl., IV. 28) and some later Cathari (see Eulogius in Photius Biblioth., 208, 280), Novatian suffered martyrdom. But the report is doubtful; and the acts, dating from the sixth century, are spurious. During the next two generations after the Decian persecution, the Church of the Cathari became consolidated. Many Montanist congregations joined it, especially in Phrygia. In constitution and doctrine the difference between the Catholic Church and the Church of the Cathari was very small. Besides the question of discipline, - which the Novatian bishop Asclepiades formulated thus, "For deadly sins the Catholics excommunicate clergymen, but we also laymen," - the question of the second marriage also acquired some importance, especially in regions formerly occupied by Montanists. Novatian himself never forbade it, and in the West it was generally allowed. With respect to the extension of the schismatic church, notice, for Spain, Pacian; for Gaul, the polemical work of Bishop Reticius of the fourth century; for Upper Italy, Ambrose (De poenitentia); for Rome, where, in the fifth century, the Novatians had a bishop and many churches, Socrates (Hist. Eccl., V. 14, VII. 9, 11); for Mauritania, Alexandria (where they also had a bishop and several churches), Syria, Paphlagonia, Phrygia, Bithynia, Scythia, etc., Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret. In Constantinople they had three churches; and Socrates gives the list of their bishops, with the principal events of their lives. At the Council of Nicaea the Novatian bishop Arius was present. He accepted the decisions of the council concerning the faith and the Easter controversy, and was treated with much regard by the council. But the emperor did not succeed in alluring him and his party back into the bosom of the church. Ten years later, however, when Constantine had somewhat changed his theological views, he placed the Novatians in rank with the Marcionites and Valentinians, forbade them to worship in public, closed their churches, and ordered their books to be burnt. During the Arian controversy the relation between the Novatians and the Catholic Church was generally good, as the former showed no inclination towards that heresy. But the danger was hardly over, before the Catholic Church began persecutions. In Rome, Innocent I. closed their churches, and Celestine 1. forbade them to worship in public. In the East, however, the party lived on until the sixth or seventh century.

LIT. - Novatian was the first theologian of the Church of Rome who developed a comprehensive literary activity in the Latin language; but of his works, only his De Sabbato, De Circumcisione, and De Trinitate have come down to us. Of great importance for the history of the schism are the Letters of CYPRIAN, EUSEBIUS (Hist. Eccl., VI. 43-VII. 8.), SOCRATES (who was at one time suspected of having been a Novatian), the polemical work of EULOGIUS, of which large extracts are found in PHOTIUS (Cod. 182, 208, 280). Of modern representations, the best is still WALCH Ketzerhistorie, ii. 185-288.

Adolf Harnack, "Novatian," Philip Schaff, ed., A Religious Encyclopaedia or Dictionary of Biblical, Historical, Doctrinal, and Practical Theology, 3rd edn, Vol. 3. Toronto, New York & London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1894. pp.1669-1672.

Primary Sources

On-line Resource Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Caius, Novatian, Appendix. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5. (Christian Classics Ethereal Library)
Book or monograph Novatian: A Treatise Of Novatian Concerning The TrinityNovatian, A Treatise Of Novatian Concerning The Trinity. Lightning Source UK Ltd., 2004. Pbk. ISBN: 1419103881. pp.72.
Book or monograph Novatian, Trinity, the Spectacle, Jewish Foods, in Praise of Purity, Letters. Fathers of the Church Series. Russell J. DeSimone, translator. Washington, D.C.: Hardcover 223 pages (December 1992) Publisher: Catholic University of America Press, 1992. Hbk. ISBN: 0813200679. pp.223.

Secondary Sources

On-line Resource Edward Cuthbert Butler [1858-1934], "The So-Called Tractatus Origenis and Other Writings Attributed to Novatian," Journal of Theological Studies 6 No 24 (July 1905): 587-598.View in PDF format pdf [This material is in the Public Domain]
On-line Resource Novatian and Novatianism (Catholic Encyclopedia)
Book or monograph Russell J. DeSimone, .The treatise of Novatian, the Roman presbyter on the Trinity: A Study of the Text and the Doctrine. Studia Ephemeridis "Augustinianum"; 4. Roma: Institutum Patristicum "Augustinianum", 1970. pp.197.
On-line Resource Robert Wilson Evans [1789-1866], Biography of the Early Church, 2nd series. London: J.G. & F. Rivington, 1839. Hbk. pp.368. View in PDF format pdf [This material is in the Public Domain]
Article in Journal or Book Allan M. Harman, "Speech about the Trinity: With Special Reference to Novatian, Hilary and Calvin," Scottish Journal of Theology 26 (1973): 385-
Article in Journal or Book Ronald Kydd, "Novatian's De Trinitate 29: Evidence of the Charismatic?" Scottish Journal of Theology 30 (1977): 313-318.

Related Subjects

Alexander of Alexandria | Ambrose | Aristides | Arnobius | Athanasius | Athenagoras | Augustine | Basil | Boethius | John Cassian | Celsus | Clement of Alexandria | Clement of Rome | Constantine | Cyprian | Cyril of Alexandria | Cyril of Jerusalem | Ephraem the Syrian | Epiphanius | Eusebius of Caesarea | Gregory of Nazianzus | Gregory of Nyssa | Gregory Thaumaturgus | Hermas | Hilary of Poitiers | Hippolytus | Ignatius of Antioch | Irenaeus of Lyons | Julius Africanus | Jerome | John Chrysostom | Josephus | Justin Martyr | Justinian I | Lactantius | Leo the Great | Marcellus | Martin of Tours | Melito | Methodius | Minucius Felix | Novatian | Origen | Pachomius | Papias | Philo | Polycarp | Synesius of Cyrene | Tatian | Tertullian | Theodore of Mopsuestia | Theodoret | Theophilus | Tyconius | Ulfilas | Victorinus | Marius Victorinus

Become a Patron!Buy Me a Coffee! Support this siteSponsored Ad: Biblemesh ActivEreader