Were the Novatians Early Baptists? Novatian's Reversal

(Read the series.)

What did Novatian really think about lapsed apostates? Could they ever be re-admitted to fellowship? Some irresponsible historians have painted a false picture in their writings. One of these men is G.H. Orchard, who wrote:

Novatian, with every considerate person, was disgusted with the hasty admission of such apostates to communion, and with the conduct of many pastors, who were more concerned about numbers than purity of communion.1

To Orchard, Novatian was a pious, principled Baptist—a man who exercised an influence of “an upright example, and moral suasion.”2 The fundamental question is this—is there any circumstance where an apostate may be re-admitted to fellowship in a local church? Is any amount of repentance sufficient? Or, are these believers cut off from fellowship, let alone membership, in a local church? Novatian believed the sin was unforgiveable. J.M. Cramp accurately summed up the issue:

Novatian held that apostacy was a sin which disqualified them from again entering into church fellowship, and to secure a pure community, he formed a separate church, which elected him for its pastor.3

Alas, it wasn’t always this way! Novatian did not leave many extant writings. The best and most helpful of these is Epistle 30, found in Cyprian’s collection of writings. In this letter, before the schism, Novatian was in full agreement with Cyprian on what to do about the lapsed. Strict discipline was essential for preserving the church.4 Hasty restoration of the lapsed was an insult to the fallen and a detriment to the lapsed themselves.5 He advocated for a prolonged and genuine repentance; what Novatian himself called a “middle course.”6

Let them indeed knock at the doors, but assuredly let them not break them down; let them present themselves at the threshold of the church, but certainly let them not leap over it; let them watch at the gates of the heavenly camp, but let them be armed with modesty, by which they perceive that they have been deserters; let them resume the trumpet of their prayers, but let them not therewith sound a point of war; let them arm themselves indeed with the weapons of modesty, and let them resume the shield of faith, which they had put off by their denial through the fear of death, but let those that are even now armed believe that they are armed against their foe, the devil, not against the Church, which grieves over their fall. A modest petition will much avail them; a bashful entreaty, a necessary humility, a patience which is not careless. Let them send tears as their ambassadors for their sufferings; let groanings, brought forth from their deepest heart, discharge the office of advocate, and prove their grief and shame for the crime they have committed.7

In all respects, the Novatian who wrote Epistle 30 around AD 250, before the schism, was in complete agreement with Cyprian. Anyone who compares Epistle 30 with Cyprian’s On the Lapsed would believe they were written by kindred spirits. Unfortunately, Novatian changed his mind. Nobody knows why he changed his mind; there are no extant writings which tell us. There are rumors that Novatian was a reluctant figurehead, but Eusebius very much doubted it.8 All the record tells us is that, after the schism at the church of Rome, Novatian apparently decided that the lapsed could never be forgiven.

Novatian’s severity

Cyprian complained to Cornelius in Rome (who had been elected to the position Novatian likely craved for himself) that the Novatians were guilty of “grievous rigor” and “inhuman hardness.”9 Novatian was “the opponent of mercy and love.”10 Moreover, Dionysius lamented that Novatian “has calumniated our most compassionate Lord Jesus Christ as unmerciful.”11 Cyprian wrote to a church leader in Arles that Novatian was in grave error:

… holding that most extreme depravity of heretical presumption, that the comforts and aids of divine love and paternal tenderness are closed to the servants of God who repent, and mourn, and knock at the gate of the Church with tears, and groans, and grief; and that those who are wounded are not admitted for the soothing of their wounds, but that, forsaken without hope of peace and communion, they must be thrown to become the prey of wolves and the booty of the devil.12

It appears, from the words of his enemies, that Novatian decided the lapsed were simply without hope of forgiveness. This was why Dionysius called him “brother-hating and inhuman.”13 He had become an exclusivist somewhere along the way; an anonymous critic sneered, “Certainly he declares that he and his friends whom he collects are gold!”14 Cornelius, for his part, saw Novatian as a “wily and subtle man” with the “poisoned cunning” of a serpent.15

Novatian apparently based his position on Matthew 10:33, “But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.” The same anonymous author quoted above rejected this line of argument, noting that “its meaning is assuredly with respect to future time—to the time at which the Lord shall begin to judge the secrets of men—to the time at which we must all stand before the judgment-seat of Christ.”16 The author did not understand how Novatian could change his mind so radically. He compared Novatian to Saul, who likewise turned rotten at the end.17

Other men have wondered the same thing throughout the years. Ambrose, writing in the late 4th century about the Novatian schism, remarked that “[f]or when the Lord forgave all sins, He made an exception of none.”18 How could Novatian be so harsh as to suggest that the lapsed could never be forgiven? Jerome, writing at roughly the same time, went even further. Denying Christ, he argued, certainly was not the unpardonable sin. How could Novatian suggest it was?

But to put a more searching question still: let Novatian tell us how he distinguishes speaking against the Son of Man from blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. For I maintain that on his principles men who have denied Christ under persecution have only spoken against the Son of Man, and have not blasphemed the Holy Ghost.19

Later Novatians continued to believe that the lapsed had indeed committed an unpardonable sin. The historian Socrates Scholasticus, writing sometime in the late 4th and early 5th century, recorded Emperor Constantine’s interview with a Novatian Bishop. The record tells us that Constantine was casting about, trying to find a way to heal the division between the Novatians and the church. He called for the Novatian Bishop, Acesius, and asked why the schism still persisted:

When, therefore, the emperor further asked him, “For what reason then do you separate yourself from communion with the rest of the Church?” he 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 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. When Acesius had thus spoken, the emperor said to him, “Place a ladder, Acesius, and climb alone into heaven.”20

Constantine’s answer can still draw a laugh today! The implication, of course, is that Acesius is arrogant, haughty and exclusivistic. Later in his church history, Socrates Scholasticus relates his own account of the Novatian schism, and makes it quite clear that Novatian believed the church had no power to accept the lapsed back into fellowship. They had committed a “deadly sin” and could not partake of the sacraments. Novatian exhorted the lapsed to repent and to hope that God would forgive them. Meanwhile, they could not fellowship with other believers. Socrates observed:

As he asked that they should not receive to the sacraments those who after baptism had committed any deadly sin this appeared to some a cruel and merciless course: but others received the rule as just and conducive to the maintenance of discipline, and the promotion of greater devotedness of life.21

It appears, in the final analysis, that Novatian changed his mind somewhere along the line. He and Cyprian had been in essential agreement. However, he came to believe the following:

  1. The sin of the lapsed was so great (a “deadly sin”) that the church could not re-admit them to fellowship under any circumstances.
  2. Meanwhile, the lapsed must be encouraged to seek repentance from God and could be given no encouragement or assurance that He even would forgive their sin.
  3. He felt Cyprian’s policy towards the lapsed was too loose; indeed, it was blasphemous for the lapsed to be allowed to partake of the Lord’s Supper.

Conclusion

So, was Novatian a Baptist? Much more could be written about the Novatian schism. However, just from a brief examination of Novatian’s doctrine, it is apparent that the man cannot be claimed as Baptist:

  • His church likely practiced infant baptism, he himself was baptized by pouring and, in his own case, the ordinance was not performed as a public testimony of his faith. Moreover, there is good evidence that Novatian’s church believed in some form of baptismal regeneration.
  • Novatian favored a primitive, Presbyterian-style church polity characterized by a connectionalism between churches. He favored large ecclesiastical councils which decided doctrine and practice for several churches. There is no evidence that Novatian believed in the independence and autonomy of the local church.
  • Finally, Novatian was unbiblical in his exclusion of the lapsed from fellowship in the church. He felt their sin was unpardonable, and declared they were without hope of forgiveness. He was schismatic and exclusivistic.

This is a far cry from the sweeping generalizations in so many Baptist publications. In three key areas of Baptist polity, (1) baptism, (2) autonomy and (3) church membership, Novatian was sub-biblical and decidedly un-Baptist. John Christian, in his Baptist history, gamely tried to salvage something from the Novatians:

The Montanists, the Novatians, and the Donatists held diverse opinions, not only from each other, but from the teachings of the New Testament; but they stressed tremendously the purity of the church.22

Novatian did not merely stress the purity of the church; he believed the lapsed were without hope of forgiveness! No amount of honest repentance was apparently enough for Novatian; it would be difficult to find a fiery Baptist who would agree with Novatian on this point. The man was not a Baptist, and cannot legitimately be claimed as the spiritual kin of any Baptist.

Notes

1 Orchard (Concise History of the Baptists, 53).

2 Ibid, 54.

3 J. M. Cramp, Baptist History: From the Foundation of the Christian Church to the Close of the Eighteenth Century (London, UK: Paternoster, 1871; reprint, Watertown, WI: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, n.d.), ii.

4 Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 30.2, ANF 5:309.

5 Ibid, Epistle 30.3, ANF 5:309

6 Ibid, Epistle 30.8, ANF 5:311.

7 Ibid, Epistle 30.6, ANF 5:310.

8 Eusebius, Church History 6.45.1, NPNF2, 1:290.

9 Cyprian, Epistle 53.5, ANF 5:338.

10 Ibid, Epistle 66.4, ANF 5:369.

11 Eusebius of Caesaria, Church History 7.8, NPNF2, 1:296.

12 Cyprian, Epistle 66.1, ANF 5:368. See also Epistle 54.13, ANF 5:343.

13 Eusebius of Caesaria, Church History 6.43.2, NPNF2, 1:286.

14 A Treatise Against the Heretic Novatian by an Anonymous Bishop 1, ANF 5:657.

15 Cyprian, Epistle 45.1, ANF 5:322-323.

16 A Treatise Against the Heretic Novatian by an Anonymous Bishop 7-8, ANF 5:659.

17 Ibid, 14, ANF 5:661.

18 Ambrose of Milan, Two Books Concerning Repentance 1.2.5, NPNF2 10:330.

19 Jerome, Letters 42.2, NPNF2 6:57.

20 Socrates Scholasticus, Eccesiastical History 1.10, NPNF2 2:17, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. A. C. Zenos (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890).

21 Ibid, Ecclesiastical History 4.28, NPNF2 2:112.

22 John T. Christian, A History of the Baptists, 2 vols. (Texarkana, TX: Bogard Press, 1922; Kindle reprint, 2013), vol. 1, Kindle Locations 79-80.

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There are 3 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I appreciate the series. To me, it's a bit unclear that Novatian was open to readmitting the lapsed prior the schism... his statements do sound very similar to those of Cyprian on the matter in general, but he doesn't seem to say specifically in epistle 30 that readmission to the church was eventually possible, does he? It's implied though, I have to concede that much.

TylerR's picture

Editor

The trouble with Epistle 30 is that it was written in the direct aftermath of Bishop Fabian's death, who was the Bishop of the church at Rome but had just been martyred. As something of a trusted lieutenant, Novatian steadied the reins and managed the church there for a short while, fully expecting to be appointed as Fabian's successor. That didn't happen!

Epistle 30 was written in a transitional period. Novatian makes frequent reference to the fact that a council needs to be called so the churches could decide what to do. In the meantime, he called for a middle course where everyone should "take anxious care that neither ungodly men should praise our smooth facility, nor truly penitent men accuse our severity as cruel," (30.8, ANF 5:311).

I seems as though he was groping his way towards some kind of solution, but it wasn't formed in his own mind yet. Epistle 30 almost reads as if Novatian is thinking out loud. He mentions Mt 10:33, which is later his justification for permanently excommunicating lapsed apostates. He speaks of the "ever-guarded rule of discipline" as the "rudder of safety in the tempest," (30.2). He calls Cyprian his brother, and praises him as a man of "modesty and inborn industry" (30.1). He does seem to be on the same page as Cyprian (e.g. On the Lapsed) at this point, but I think you can see seeds of the schism hiding in the letter. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture

Editor

I'd be interested to hear from you folks:

  • You are a Pastor in 252 A.D. in North Africa
  • You have church members who offered incense to Emperor Decius, or bribed officials to obtain certificates without actually offering incence - either way you have apostates in your church

You kicked them out. Now, the persecution is over:

  • Some apostates come back. 
  • They cry, beg, promise that they've repented
  • You're smart, so you wait and ponder the matter. You meet with them many times and explain what a terrible sin they committed. They seem to fully understand and claim they've repented. 
  • Their lives are exemplery and they show real fruit

What would you do? 

  • Novatian says they can never come back
  • Cyprian says they can eventually, if they show honest fruit of repentance
  • Have they committed an unforgivable sin? Do you agree with Novatian that Mt 10:33 is the key text here?

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

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