Novatian (Antipope) and Novatianism

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Pontificate: 251. Novatian was the first, and for a long time the only, writer of the Roman Church to use Latin. The little that is known of his life is dependent on untrustworthy information supplied by his enemies. His name was certainly Novatianus, not Novatus as given by the Greeks. He must have been born c. 200, and received a good education in Latin, as his language attests, but he was not a Phrygian as Philostorgius asserts (Ecclesiastical History 8.15).

Pope Cornelius. In his letter to Bp. Fabius of Antioch, Pope cornelius furnishes information on the baptism, ordination, and later conduct of Novatian (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.43.622) that is at least questionable. It may be true that he received Baptism by sprinkling during a severe sickness, but it is hardly credible that his ordination was performed despite the opposition of the clergy and many of the laity or that he hid himself during a persecution, refusing to give priestly assistance to his suffering fellow Christians. If these contentions are true, it is difficult to understand how he became the administrator of the Roman college of priests after the martyr death of Pope fabian (Jan. 20, 50). As such, he wrote letters to the Church throughout the world, of which two to St. cyprian of carthage have been preserved (Cyprian, Epistolae 30, 36; Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 3:2).

Novatian as Bishop. After the election of Cornelius as the new pope in March or April of 251, Novatian had himself consecrated a bishop by three south Italian bishops, certainly not merely through foolish ambition as his enemies asserted; otherwise he would not have had the support of many clerics and contemporary confessors (Cyprian, Epistolae 46: Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.43); but rather as a protest against the compliant attitude of the new pope on the question of penance.

Roman Synod. In an encyclical letter to the other bishops, Novatian announced his consecration (Cyprian, Epistolae 55; Ad Novat. 13). That same year a Roman synod of 60 bishops excommunicated him (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.43.2). The confessors made their peace with Pope Cornelius (Cyprian, Epistolae 53; Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum [Vienna 1866] 3), and, after some hesitation, Cyprian and the bishops of Asia Minor unanimously deserted Novatian (Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History 3.8). Nevertheless, he was able to propagate his church with his own bishops in every sector of the Christian world.

In the persecution under Gallus and Volusianus (251253), Novatian had to flee Rome, and under Valerian in 258 he suffered martyrdom (Pacian, Epistolae 2.7), or at least became a confessor (Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 4.28). In 1932 a tombstone was discovered on the Via Tiburtina with the inscription: Novatiano Beatissimo/Martyri Gaudentius Diac [onus ]/fec [it ]; however, the relationship is questionable. The martyrology of jerome cites a Roman martyr named Novatianus for June 27 or 29, but without a title.

Writings. Novatian's writings do not merely show him to have been an elegant stylist, but they likewise manifest a good theological and philosophical education. Of the nine works listed by Jerome (De vir. ill. 70), only two have been preserved: one of them, his chief work, the De Trinitate, is basically apologetic in character and brings the teaching on the Trinity down to his time. In it he defends the oneness of Almighty God, and God the Creator, against the Gnostics (see gnosticism); Christ as the Son of God the Creator, against Marcion; Christ as true man, against the Docetists; as true God, against the Adoptionists (see adoptionism); and as Second Person to the Father, against Sabellius (see sabellianism); and he demonstrates, after a hymn of praise to the Holy Spirit, that despite the Godhood of Christ, there is only one God. The Holy Spirit is considered as unequal to the Father, but on this point Novatian merely reflects the consensus of Trinitarian theology of the third century.

His alleged angelology, as well as his supposed teaching on the absorption of Son in the Father, is a misunderstanding. Since he did not distinguish between the substantial attributes of the Godhood and the properties of the Persons, he could only preserve the Oneness of God through a subordinationism; all the more so, since he sees God not from an ontological viewpoint, but rather in the aspect of His power. Still his work is an improvement over that of Tertullian and Hippolytus

Opposition To the Church. Cause of the Strife. Novatian's dispute with the Church stemmed from the problem concerning the reception into the Church of those who had fallen in persecution. In his two letters to Cyprian, he praised Cyprian's refusal to grant a pardon to the lapsi before the end of the persecution, except in cases involving danger of death. Thus far one could go along with him, but as the sharpness of his first letter had caused some estrangement, so the second went beyond the limit. Novatian saw in Cyprian's temporary solution, not merely a cautionary measure, but a fundamental challenge. He thus betrayed the rigorism of an earlier period of which, at Rome, Callistus, and, in Africa, Agrippius, had broken through the first barriers. Behind Novatian's attitude there was a different conception of the Church.

If, with Cyprian, one believed that only an unconditional membership in the Church was a guarantee of eternal salvation, one would act differently than if, with Novatian, he believed the Church should be announced as a community of saints who must be kept free of all taint. While Cyprian saw in the refusal to grant pardon a prejudgment involving eternal damnation, Novatian believed that God's judgment would be compromised through pardon, since the way to God's mercy led through penance, compunction, and sorrow.

De Cibis Judaicis. This work, which has been preserved and is mentioned by Jerome, was written to Novatian's community from a distance. Here Novatian shows that the Old Testament prohibitions regarding food are to be understood in a spiritual and not in a literal sense. In particular, it is the vices symbolized by impure animals that should be avoided. The taste of their flesh is not forbidden, but rather the flesh of sacrifice. A particular chapter is directed against the immorality of early morning drinking.

Other writings listed by Jerome are lost, but apparently Novatian is the author of two works that have been preserved under the name of Cyprian. In a De spectaculis, the author is dependent on Cyprian and Tertullian for his condemnation of Christian attendance at spectacles and advises his readers to meditate instead on the beauties in nature and on the word of God. In a De bono pudicitiae, he praises virginity, continence in marriage, and marital fidelity.

Novatianist Churches. Thanks to his animated activity (Cyprian, Epistolae 55.24) and his rigorism, which later led his followers to deny the forgiveness of all grave sins after Baptism (Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 5.22), Novatian won a large following. Marcian of Arles went over to his side; and even in Spain, Rome, and Africa, there were Novatian communities with their own bishops. On their return to the Church, a dispute over Baptism broke out in Africa.

In the East, it was above all in Phrygia, where the Montanists had prepared the way, that almost all the greater cities had Novatian bishops; Constantine I invited the Novatian Bishop of Constantinople, Acesius, to attend the Council of Nicaea (Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 1.10). Their acceptance of the homoousios and their good relations with the Catholics won them longstanding sufferance in Constantinople (Socrates, ibid. 5.10). Cyril fought against them in Alexandria (Socrates, ibid. 7.7), and in Rome, they were opposed by Popes Innocent I and Celestine I.

In the West, the Novatians gradually submitted to the larger Church, and we hear of the return of a bishop with his whole community (Leo I, Epistolae 12.6). In the East they held out longer. Eulogius of Alexandria directed a large work against them, but cooperation between Church and State forced them to disappear, at first in the cities and then in the country, and by the end of the seventh century the last communities were extinct.

Bibliography: É. amann, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 190350) 11.1:816849. Cyprianische Untersuchungen (Bonn 1926) 403406. m. simonetti, "Alcune osservazioni sul De Trinitate di Novaziano," Studi in onore di Angelo Monteverdi, 2 v. (Modena 1959) 2:771783. f. scheidweiler, Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschicte 55 (195455) 126139. c. mohrmann, "Les Origines de la Latinité chrétienne à Rome," Vigiliae christianae 3 (1949) 67106, 163183. r. j. disimone, trans. On the Trinity (Fathers of the Church 64; Washington, D.C. 1974). e. ferguson, ed., Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (New York 1997), 2.819820. h. ginzlow, Cyprian und Novatian (Tübingen 1974). j. n. d. kelly, Oxford Dictionary of Popes (New York 1986), 1819. p. mattei, "L'anthropologie de Novatien," Revue des Études Augustiniennes 38 (1992), 235239.

[p. h. weyer]