Novatianism was a Christian “heresy” originating in the third century C.E., based on the teachings of the antipope Novatian, who was elected in opposition to the more lenient policy of Pope Cornelius (251-253) regarding the forgiveness of apostate Christians who had been willing to commit the sin of idolatry under persecution.
Novatian was an respected and erudite churchman who had acted as secretary for the Roman church during the persecution of Emperor Decius c. 250 C.E. Believing that it was both a mistake and beyond the authority of the church to absolve apostate Christians of the grievous public sin of idolatry, he was ordained bishop of Rome in opposition to Cornelius. The Novatianists soon formed a major schism throughout the Roman Empire that continued well into the fifth century and beyond. Novatian himself became a martyr to his faith in 258.
Also called the Novatians, his followers held a puritanical view of the church, adopting the policy that mortal sins could be absolved only by God, not the bishops. While they did not shun repentant sinners who had committed crimes such as apostasy, adultery, fornication, and murder, they refused such persons readmission to full communion. At stake in the controversy was whether the Christian church was “holy” (comprised of saints willing to sacrifice their lives for the faith) or “catholic” (universal: for sinners too, including those who committed serious sins after being baptized).
By the time Christianity became the favored religion of the Roman state, the Catholic Church had succeeded in gaining the upper hand and used the state’s power to suppress the Novatianists. Some of the Novatianists’ policies were also adopted by the Donatists, but by the end of the seventh century they had all but ceased to exist.
Novatian was a Roman priest or deacon of considerable learning who had been trained in literary composition. Even his rival, Pope Cornelius, speaks of him bitterly as “that champion of ecclesiastical learning.” His eloquence is mentioned by Cyprian (Ep. lx, 3). Cornelius relates that Novatian was made a priest by a previous pope, probably Fabian, over the protests of others in the Roman clergy and laity, possibly because he had received baptism while deathly ill and had not received the sacrament of confirmation. The later writer Eulogius of Alexandria, however, says that Novatian was Rome’s archdeacon.
The anonymous work Ad Novatianum (xiii) tells us that Novatian, while still in communion with the Roman church, possessed a deep and abiding concern for the spiritual welfare of the community. He “bewailed the sins of his neighbors 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.”
Novatian is known to have written letters during the Decian persecution in the name of the Roman clergy, some of which were preserved by Cyprian (Epp. xxx and xxxvi). These letters express concern over the claim that the church of Carthage intended not only to restore repentant apostates to communion, but to do so without requiring penance. Here, he did not express the idea that granting absolution to the lapsed was itself improper, but he did express himself in severe terms. According to Cornelius, Novatian was noted for his boldness during the persecution, so much so that some in the church refused to associate with him.
In 251, Novatian opposed the election of Cornelius on the grounds that he was too lax in accepting the lapsed Christians. Shortly after this, Novatian was consecrated as a rival pope. He was not the first antipope, as Saint Hippolytus had done likewise during the pontificate of Pope Callixtus and his successors, one of the issues at that time also being the treatment of the lapsi. Novatian’s opponents allege that he had to summon three country bishops from a distant corner of Italy] to consecrate him, but given the success of his movement, we may take this report with a grain of salt.
In any case, Cornelius and Novatian both sent messengers throughout the empire to announce their respective papacies, and Novatian was able to establish churches widely during his lifetime. Both men appointed their own bishops and priests in cities where the current occupant favored their rival. Several well known Christians still in prison initially favored Novatian—namely Maximus, Urbanus, and Nicostratus, for example—but were later persuaded by Cyprian and others to moderate their views. The Carthaginian priest Novatus, on the other hand, became a staunch supporter of Novatian’s cause in opposition to Cyprian.
Some of Novatian’s writings have been preserved, at least in part. His De trinitate (“On the Trinity”) takes an orthodox approach to the issue. His “On Spectacles” criticizes the Roman tradition of public games and condemns Christians who patronize them. In “Concerning the Value of Chastity,” he emphasizes the importance of sexual purity and marital fidelity, a theme which would become a major issue for his later followers. In “Concerning Jewish Foods,” he takes the position that the kosher dietary laws and other Jewish regulations were not meant to be taken literally by Christians. In all of the above, he expresses opinions that were wholly orthodox.
In the initial period of the schism, no mention is made by Novatian’s enemies of his “heresy,” but only of which pope should be considered the true occupant of Peter’s chair. Not even Cornelius, who wrote very bitterly against his rival, and dared to call him a heretic. Saint Dionysius of Alexandria, a supporter of Cornelius wrote to Novatian in surprisingly respectful terms, chiding him for causing a schism, but not for preaching heresy (Eusebius, VI, xlv).
Condemnation as a heretic
As the schism persisted, however, Cyprian and many others escalated their attacks and indeed called Novatian’s doctrine a departure from orthodoxy. Novatian held that idolatry, even performed under threat of death, was such a serious sin that the bishops could not take it upon themselves to forgive it. However, he did not shun those who had lapsed. Rather, they should be urged to repent and should be admitted to fellowship with other Christians in lifelong penance. They could not, however, receive the Eucharist, and their forgiveness must be left to God.
Such sentiments regarding the forgiveness of mortal sin were not new. Tertullian had resisted the forgiveness of adultery by Pope Callixtus I as an innovation, and the antipapacy of Saint Hippolytus was based in part on whether or not the church should embrace those who had committed moral sins. The popular late-second century work known as the Shepherd of Hermas, still widely read in Novatian’s day, had threatened no future forgiveness of serious post-baptismal sins. Moreover, in various churches, rules had been made which punished certain sins by deferring of communion until the hour of death, or even refusing it altogether. Even Cyprian favored withholding the sacrament from those who escaped penance for their crimes by repenting only on their death-bed.
To his opponents, Novatian had fallen into error by doubting the authority of the church to forgive even mortal sin. Cyprian thus accused the Novatianists of making a mockery of the baptismal creed: “Dost thou believe in the remission of sins, and everlasting life, through Holy Church?” The controversy had the side effect of strengthening the position of the bishop of Rome, who—though not yet called “pope”—was thought by some to hold Saint Peter’s authority of “binding and loosing” from Jesus.
Novatian and those who supported him were excommunicated at a Roman synod convened by Pope Cornelius in 251. When the persecutions at Rome were renewed, Novatian appears to have left the city, but was martyred under Valerian in 258. In 1932, an inscription was found in a cemetery near San Lorenzo, Rome reading novatiano. . . martyri.
As with most heresies, the later church suppressed the writings of the Novatianists, and we must thus rely mainly on their opponents for information concerning them. However, the History of Socrates Scholasticus (fifth century), treats them with some sympathy. Socrates provides details about their bishops, especially those of Constantinople, and also speaks of persecutions carried out against them by the orthodox bishops and emperors.
Their chief opponent was Cyprian of Carthage, who wrote during Novatian’s lifetime. Other Latin writings against them include the anonymous Ad Novatianum, the De paenitentia of Ambrose of Milan, and the Contra Novatianum of Augustine of Hippo. In the Greek East they are mentioned by such figures as Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom, and Eulogius of Alexandria.
A puritan sect
The followers of Novatian called themselves katharoi, a Greek word which later entered the English language as “puritans,” and is rendered in Latin as cathari. They were found in every province of the Roman Empire, and in some places were very numerous.
The Novatianists thus refused forgiveness to Christians who had committed “mortal sins,” namely idolatry, murder, and adultery or fornication. Most of the Novatianists, following a dictum of Jesus, also forbade second marriage. They are known to have made considerable use of the works of Tertullian, who had been a type of puritan himself and had joined the Montanist sect in his later career. In Phrygia, where the Montanists were still active, the two groups seem to have cooperated and even merged. Eulogius of Alexandria (late sixth century) complained that they refused to venerate the martyrs, although he may refer to martyrs who were specifically Catholics and not Novatianists themselves, as opposed to earlier saints.
The Novatianists successfully maintained a rival church and bishop at Rome in opposition to the Catholic pope, except when prevented by the authorities. Their church governance, like the Catholics, was episcopal. According to Socrates, their bishops at Constantinople and elsewhere were highly esteemed, no doubt in part due to their strict moral standards during a period when high church office was a lucrative and powerful prize. The Novatianist bishop of Constantinople, Acesius, was invited by Constantine I to the Council of Nicaea (325). Socrates relates the following instructive conversation between the emperor and the bishop:
(When Constantine asked) ‘For what reason then do you separate yourself from communion with the rest of the Church?’ he (Acesius) related what had taken place during the persecution under Decius and referred to the rigidness of that austere canon which declares that it is not right for persons who after baptism have committed a sin, which the sacred Scriptures denominate ‘a sin unto death’ to be considered worthy of participation in the sacraments: that they should indeed be exhorted to repentance, but were not to expect remission from the priest, but from God, who is able and has authority to forgive sins.
Persecution and decline
Constantine at first treated the Novatianists as schismatics rather than heretics, but later persecuted them by ordering the closing of their churches and cemeteries. In the fourth century, the Novatianists conformed to the orthodox practice in almost everything, including monasticism, except the matter of absolving those who had committed mortal sins. The fifth-century Syrian writer Theodoret, however, states that they did not use the sacrament of confirmation, which Novatian himself had never received. They were persecuted like the Catholics by Emperor Constantius II (d. 361), who supported Semi-Arianism. After the death of Constantius, they were protected by Julian the Apostate (d. 363), but Valens (d. 378) persecuted them once again.
The pro-Catholic Emperor Honorius included them in his law against heretics in 412, and Pope Innocent I accordingly closed some of their churches in Rome. John Chrysostom forcibly closed their churches at Ephesus. Pope Celestine I (d. 431) expelled them from capital, as Bishop Cyril of Alexandria had done in his city. Regarding the persecution of the Novatianists by Cyril, Socrates relates the following:
On the third day after the death of (Bishop) Theophilus, Cyril came into possession of the episcopate, with greater power than Theophilus had ever exercised. For from that time the bishopric of Alexandria went beyond the limits of its sacerdotal functions, and assumed the administration of secular matters. Cyril immediately therefore shut up the churches of the Novatians at Alexandria and took possession of all their consecrated vessels and ornaments; and then stripped their bishop Theopemptus of all that he had.
In the fourth and fifth centuries, the policy of the Novatianists regarding the treatment of the lapsed was inherited by Donatists of North Africa. They too were declared to be heretics by the Catholic Church and were repressed by the state, sometimes taking the form of open warfare. The work of Eulogius of Alexandia shows that the Novatianists were still active there about 600, enough so that he wrote six volumes against them. However, the movement left no direct traces after the seventh century.