Says W. W. Everts, Jr.: “A century later than Montanus, 250 A. D., there was converted at Rome, on what seemed his dying bed, and amid severe conflicts, a distinguished Pagan philosopher, named Novatian. The genuineness of this conversion was attested, not only by his learned treatises — which, in Neander's estimation, rank him as the most distinguished of the early theologians of Rome — but, by his life of stern self-denial and his death by martyrdom. He renewed the moral protest of Montanus.”1
The Novatians extended throughout “the Roman Empire, from Armenia to Numedia, in Spain. They
were especially strong in Phrygeia, where the Montanists fused with them, and in the great cities, Constantinople, Alexandria, Carthage and Rome.”2
“The occasion of the schism was the election of Cornelius bishop of Rome. Novation was elected by a minority who objected to the lax discipline favored by Cornelius.”2
Scriptural church discipline, consecrated church membership and church purity, being the issues between Cornelius and Novatian, in their candidacy for the pastorate of the church of Rome, the election of Cornelius was equivalent to a repudiation, by the majority of that church, of these marks of a scriptural Church. There…
1 Baptist Layman's Book, p. 17.
2 Idem, p. 17.
…being no other course left, the scriptural minority of that church, led by Novation, withdrew fellowship from the unscriptural majority. In Baptist church life this has often since been done. Baptist councils and civil courts, whenever they have been called upon to decide which is the original church, have invariably decided it is that party which stands upon the original platform. †
The charge that the division was caused by Novatian's ambition and jealousy is the attempt of Cornelius to shield himself and his apostate party. (1.) From the great issue which historians agree to have divided them, the charge is evidently false. (2.) Historians exonerate Novatian and his people from this charge. Instead of jealousy being the ground on which Novatian and his people withdrew fellowship from Cornelius and his party the biographer of Socrates, the church historian of the fourth century, who did not belong to the Novatians, says: “Socrates takes no notice whatever of the declaration of Cornelius, that Novatian separated from ecclesiastical communion through jealousy, because he had not been elected bishop; that he managed to get himself elected by three prelates. whose reason had been clouded by the fumes of wine, and that pardon granted to those who sacrificed to idols during the persecution excited by Decius against the church was but a pretext for his schism.”1
Says Schaff: “Novatian against his will was chosen bishop by the opposition.”2
Of Cornelius' letter, whence these charges against Novatian are mainly gathered, Neander says: “Not less wanting in good sense than unworthy of a Christian.”3
† The action of Baptist councils, in all cases. Is but advisory. That of Civil courts only to protect the original body in its property rights.
1 p, 9,10, of the Life of Socrates, in Socrates' Eccl. Hist.
2 Schaff's Hist. Chr. Ch , vol. l, p. 450.
3 Meander's Hist. Chr. Ch., vol. 1, p. 238,239.
…Neander says: “According to the accusation of this passionate opponent we must, indeed, suppose at the outset he was striving, from motives of ambition, after the episcopal dignity, and was thence trying to throw himself at the head of a party,… We have the less reasons to doubt that it was his zeal for the more rigid principles which inspired Novatian from the first, because they accorded so perfectly with his character. The accusations of his opponents should not be suffered to embarrass us; for it is the usual way with the logical polemics to trace schisms and heresies to some untoward, unhallowed motive, even when there is no evidence at all that any such motive exists. Novatian had on some occasion solemnly declared, after the Roman bishopric was vacated by the death of Fabian, that he would not be a candidate for the Episcopal dignity — an office to which, perhaps, on account of the high respect entertained for him by a large portion of the community he might easily have attained. But he said he had no longing for that office. We have no reason, with Bishop Cornelius, to accuse Novatian in this case with falsehood. He could say this with perfect sincerity; he, the quiet, loving ascetic, the theologian, glad to be left undisturbed to his dogmatic speculations, surely had no wish to burden himself with an office so overwhelmed with cares as that of a Roman bishop had already become. …Novatian was only contending for what he conceived to be the purity of the church and against the decline of discipline, without wishing or seeking for anything beside. Settled in his own convictions, zealous in the defense of them, but averse, by natural disposition, to everything that savored of boisterous, outward activity, he was, against his own will, made the head of a party by those who agreed with him in principles, and compelled by them to assume the episcopal dignity. In this regard he could say with truth, in his letter to Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, that he had been carried on against his will.”1
To the charge that Novatian never was immersed, † the reply is (1.) His pouring was intended to be so profuse as to cover him in his sick bed — to be an immersion. “Baptize” signifies that its object shall be covered and had nothing to do with how that covering is effected. While there may be a debatable question as to whether they really got Novatian covered with water, the intent being immersion as near as possible is clear from the Greek record. †† (2.) Considering that immersion was the universally recognized law and custom at that time, as he recovered, if they did not get him covered in baptism at first, there is reason to believe that on his recovery he was baptized. Vales states that clinics, when they recovered, were required to go to the bishop to supply what was wanting in that baptism.2
That Novatian did not so do may be only another slander against him. Considering the extent to which he was slandered, to believe that on his recovery he was baptized, is much easier than to believe that, against the rule,…
† Eusebius thus quotes Cornelius' slanderous letter. In which Novatlan's baptism Is mentioned; “Who aided by the exorcists, when attacked with an obstinate disease, and being supposed at the point of death, was baptized by aspersion, in the bed in which he lay; if, indeed, it be proper to say that one like him did receive baptism.” — Eusebius' Eccl. Hist., p. 6, chap. 43.
†† πεрιхνθεις, by which Novatian's baptism is mentioned, is from περı which means “around, about,” and from хεω, to “pour, flow, stream.” Perikutheis, therefore, should be here rendered, “ poured around,” with the idea of intended covering over, as when, on a dam giving way, the waters overflow and bury all before them— baptizing by pouring. Thus Liddell and Scott define perikrino, “to plaster over;” perikusos, “covered with gold;” perikusis, “a pouring round, or over;” perikuteerion, “a vessel for pouring over,” pericuteerios, “pouring round about or over, bathing,” perikonnumi, “to heap around with earth.” These uses of peri with keo and its family, clearly show that Novation's pouring was Intended to cover him, as near as could be done. Had it been the intention to only pour on him, as affusion for baptism does, Cornelius would certainly have used the word epikutheis Instead of perikutheis. See Liddell and Scott's Lexicon on epikeo, epikusis, etc.
1 Neander's Hist. Chr. Ch., vol. 1, pp. 239, 241.
2 Armitage, p. 178.
…the custom and the Scriptures, which were for only immersion, he was content with his clinic baptism and that so many hundreds of ministers and churches followed his leadership when he was unbaptized, and that, too, without protesting against his imperfect baptism. (3.) Admit all that Baptists opponents claim, viz.: that he never was, in any way, immersed, as the Novatians were not founded by him and did not get their baptism from him, all it proves is, that one Baptist minister, among hundreds, from a failure in the attempt to cover him with water, was never baptized. But, as Novatian baptized by the authority of immersionist churches, his baptisms were all valid though the churches were censurable for allowing him to baptize while himself imperfectly baptized. Should it, then, be conceded to Baptist opponents that Novatian was imperfectly baptized, it proves but a censurable irregularity, in but one case, in no way invalidating any church claim.
As to Novatian and his people believing in baptismal regeneration, the charge rests on Cornelius' slanderous account of his baptism. In fact, Cornelius does not say Novatian was baptized to save his soul. He says he was baptized on what was, at the time of his baptism, thought to be his death bed. Death bed baptisms are as reliable as death bed conversions. The Novatian high conception of spiritual life and the consequent battle of the Novatians for a spiritual church are utterly incompatible with the charge that Novation and his people believed in water salvation. No party has ever contended for a scripturally regenerate church while holding to baptismal regeneration.
Hippolytus has been quoted as a Novatian and as proving the Novatians believed in baptismal salvation. But Armitage says Hippolytus “is supposed to have suffered martyrdom by drowning in the Tiber, A. D. 235-239.” Hase2 says: “Hippolytus could hardly have lived to witness the Novatian schism.”
The Novatian church government was substantially that of Baptists of our own time. Bishop — cpiscopos — then meant what it meant in the first churches and what it now means with Baptists — a pastor, superintending the church of which he was pastor. Prelatical bishops in the Novatian age were just sprouting — not sufficiently adopted to be a characteristic of any large body of Christians. That the bishop of Rome was not a prelatical bishop is evident from the fact that Novatian was a bishop by an ordination, which gave to him no prelatical charge. Says Cornelius: “When he was converted he was honored by the presbytery, and that by the power of the bishop [the pastor] placing his hand upon him [according him] to the order of bishops.”3 Having by this no charge he became a candidate for pastor of the church of Rome. Of this age, Mosheim says: “But it is to be carefully observed, that even those who, with Cyprian, attributed this preeminence to the Roman prelate, insisted at the same time, with the utmost warmth, upon the equality, in point of dignity and authority, that subsisted among all the members of the episcopal order. In consequence of this opinion of an equality among all Christian bishops, they rejected, with contempt, the judgment of the bishop of Rome, when they found it ill-founded or unjust, and followed their own sense of things with a perfect independence.”4
l Armitage's Hist. Bap., p. 184.
2 Hase's Hist. Chr. Ch., p. 700.
3 Eusebius' Eccl. Hist., p. 5, ch. 43.
4 Mosheim's Church History, cent. 3, part 2, sec. 2.
To the charge that the Novations would never restore to church membership one who had been excluded for a gross offence, even on his repentance: Admitting this true, it only proves an error of discipline, not so bad as when easily proved guilty, to retain such — a thing often now done, and even done in Baptist churches.
To the charge that the Novatians held there was no forgiveness from God for such, the answer is, (a) They taught no such thing. (b) Even if they did teach it, it is no worse than, by retaining them in the church, to teach they are on the road to heaven.
Says Adolf Harnack, one of the most eminent and critical historians: “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 in the end of the third century, and then by an edict of Pope Calixtus I, which spoke of readmittance 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 the sins of the flesh. As none, who in the peaceful period, between 220 and 250, relapsed into Paganism, was likely to ask for readmittance into the Christian church, idolatry was left entirely out of the 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 congregation was endangered. …Novatian was not from principle opposed to the re-admittance of the lapsed. ...It is simply a stubbornly repeated calumny that Novatian or his party ever declared penitence to be of no use. …Cyprian's argument was, that since salvation could be obtained only through the church, every one who was definitely severed from her must forever perish. Consequently, to refuse communion of the church to one who had definitely separated himself from the church, would be an anticipation of the judgment of God; while the re-admittance of a lapsus could in no wise prevent God from refusing him salvation. On the other side, when Novatian considered it the right and 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 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 is 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, are questions of secondary importance. The one question of primary importance is to be a saint in the communion of saints. It is unquestionable that the Novatians retained many most valuable remnants of old traditions, and their idea of the church as a communion of the saints corresponds exactly to the idea prevalent in the first days of Christendom.”1
Socrates says that Novatian exhorted those who were excluded from the church for the gross offence of being traitors to the faith, “to repentance, leaving the pardoning…
1 Schaff-Herzog Ency., vol 2, pp. l670, 1671.
…of their offence to God, who has the power to forgive all sin.”1
Neander says: “Novatian, too, declared the fallen brethren must be cared for and exhorted to repentance. He, too, acknowledged God's mercy toward sinners, and allowed it right to recommend the fallen to that mercy; but that men could once more surely announce to them that forgiveness of sins they had trifled away, this he was unwilling to concede, because he could find no objective ground for such confidence.”2
Of course, Baptists know how to regard Harnack's succeeding statement, that such discipline was “an open injustice,” and that “the idea of the church as a community of saints could not fail to end in either miserable delusions, or in bursting asunder the whole existing Christendom.”
Says Hase: “Novation was a prudent advocate of the faith generally embraced in the church.
The Novatians excluded from the church all who had been guilty of deadly sins † and taught, that while such should be exhorted to repentance and hope of divine mercy, no prospect should be held out to them that they should ever be re-admitted to a church* which should consist of saints and purified persons.”3
Much of the trouble was to avoid persecution. Thousands of unregenerate church members in time of persecution denied Christ; then, when persecution was over, to get back into the church, would come up with a…
† A duty that Paul, in 1 Cor., 5:1-5, makes obligatory on churches in all ages.
*By 2 Cor., 2:6-10, this an error. But not as disastrous to the life of the church as disregard to 1 Cor, 6:5,— a sin in our churches now. The extreme corruption and aggravation of offenders in Novatian's time may be some excuse for this severity.
1 Socrates' Eccl. Hist., p. 248.
2 Neander's Hist. Chr. Ch., vol. 1, p. 246.
3 Hase's Hist. Chr. Ch., p. 67.
…whining confession. Thus the church was greatly scandalized, as this led on to greater disregard of church obligations. Hence, says Socrates: “Those who took pleasure in sin, encouraged by the license thus granted them, took occasion from it to revel in every species of criminality.”1
Robinson says: “The case is briefly this: Novatian was an elder in the Church of Rome. He was a man of extensive learning, and held the same doctrine † as the church did, and published several treatise in defense of what he believed. His address was eloquent and insinuating, and his morals were irreproachable. He saw with extreme pain the intolerable depravity of the church, Christians within the space of a very few years were caressed by one emperor and persecuted by another. In seasons of prosperity many rushed into the church for base purposes. In times of adversity they denied the faith and ran back to idolatry again. When the squall was over, away they came again to the church, with all their vices, to deprave others by their example. The bishops, fond of proselytes, encouraged all this, and transferred the attention of Christians from the old confederacy for virtue, to vain shows at Easter, and a thousand other Jewish ceremonies, adulterated, too, with paganism. On
the death of Bishop Fabian, Cornelius, a brother elder, and a vehement partisan for taking in the multitude, was put in nomination. Novatian opposed him; but as Cornelius carried his election and he saw no prospect of reformation, but, on the contrary, a tide of immorality…
† The Scriptures include all the Christian belief and practice as doctrine. But, since the latter part of the eighteenth century, the history of dogmas and dogmatics has been raised, in Germany, to the rank of a distinctive branch of sacred science.” Hence, in church history, the word doctrine often or generally means only dogmatics— having no allusion to church government, ceremonies or discipline.— See Schaff-Herzog Ency., vol. l. p. 650: Aldens' Univ. K., vol. 5, p. 341. Thus the term is used in stating that the various names agreed in “doctrine” with the Romish church.
1 Socrates' Eccl. Hist., b. 4, ch. 28, p. 248.
…pouring into the church, he withdrew and a great many with him. …Great numbers followed his example, and all over the empire Puritan churches were constituted, and nourished through the succeeding two hundred years. Afterward, when penal laws obliged them to lurk in corners and in private, they were distinguished by a variety of names and a succession of them continued until the Reformation.”1
Neander says: “The controversy with the Novatians turned upon two general points; one relating to the principles of penitence, the other to the question, what constitutes the idea and essence of a true church? In respect to the first point of dispute, Novatian had been often unjustly accused of maintaining that no person, having once violated his baptismal vows, can ever obtain the forgiveness of sin. …But, first, Novatian by no means maintained that a Christian is a perfect saint. …Novatian, too, declared that the fallen brethren must be cared for and exhorted to repentance. He, too, acknowledged God's mercy toward sinners, and allowed it right to commend the fallen to that mercy; but that men could once more surely announce to them that forgiveness of sins which they had trifled away; this he was unwilling to concede because he could find no objective ground for such confidence. With regard to the second main point in the controversy, the idea of the church, Novatian maintained that one of the essential marks of a true church being purity and holiness, every church which neglected the right exercise of church discipline, tolerated in its bosom, or readmitted to its communion such persons as, by gross sins, have broken their baptismal vow, ceased by that very act to be a true Christian church, and forfeited all rights and…
1 Robinson's Eccl. Researches, p. 126.
…privileges of such a church. …Novatian …laid at the basis of his theory the visible church as a pure and holy one, and this was, in his view, the condition of the truly catholic church.”1
Without adding other testimonies, suffice it to conclude this chapter with J. M. Cramp, D. D., whom Dr. Armitage pronounces, “A sound theologian and thoroughly versed in ecclesiastical history.”2 “We may safely infer that they abstained from compliance with the innovation, and that the Novatian churches were what are now called Baptist churches, adhering to the apostolic and primitive practice.”3
The biographer of Socrates says: “The Novation church was not only sounder in doctrine, but at the same time abounded with the most eminent clergy.”4
1 Neander's Hist. Chr. Ch., vol. l, pp. 243, 246, 247.
2 Armitage's Hist. Bap., p. 926.
3 Cramp's Hist. of Bap., p. 59.
4 Intro. to Socrates' Eccl. Hist., p. 7.