Were the Novatians Baptists? Many Baptists like to claim the Novatians as their own. Landmarkers believe the Novatians were Baptists through and through. For example, J.R. Graves (1880) declared “that all the churches of Christ, before the ‘apostasy,’ which took place in the third and fourth centuries…were what are now called Baptist churches” (Old Landmarkism: What is It? Kindle Locations 2235-2236).
Thomas Armitage, the great Baptist historian, rightly said this was a rash characterization (1890, p. 482). If the Novatians cannot be claimed as direct descendants, can they be claimed as the distant spiritual kin of modern-day Baptists? Some Baptists would agree.
Much of what has been written of the Novatians by Baptists of any stripe is at best a gloss, and at worst completely incorrect. As an example of the latter, G.H. Orchard, a Landmarkist, wrote (1855):
One Novatian, a presbyter in the church of Rome, strongly opposed the readmission of apostates, but he was not successful…. 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. (p. 53)
J.M. Carrol, in his infamous treatise Trail of Blood, declared that when the errors of compromised local church autonomy, infant baptism and baptismal regeneration crept into true churches, the Novatian Baptists sallied forth for the cause of ecclesiastical purity:
Some of the churches vigorously repudiated them. So much so that in A.D. 251, the loyal churches declared non-fellowship for those churches which accepted and practiced these errors. And thus came about the first real official separation among the churches. (2013, Kindle Locations 294-295)
Jack Hoad, a solid historian, likewise missed the boat when he wrote that Novatians were “making a strong protest against the same moral laxity and the weak, almost non-existent disciplinary standards in the churches” (1986, p. 30). Thomas Armitage observed that “[t]he Novatians demanded pure Churches which enforced strict discipline, and so were called Puritans” (178).
All of these brief characterizations are wrong. They are either so simplistic as to be unintentionally misleading, or terribly anachronistic. A thorough review of what Cyprian and Novatian actually wrote demonstrates that the Novatian’s doctrine of (1) baptism, (2) local church autonomy and (3) church discipline are completely incompatible with Baptist ecclesiology.
The background to the controversy*
Cyprian was Bishop of Carthage from 248-258 A.D. He fled Carthage during the Decian persecution (250-251 A.D.) and communicated with his flock by letter. He returned to Carthage after the persecution ended, and quickly worked to restore order in his church and deal with the problem of the “lapsed”—those who worshipped the Roman Emperor during the persecution.
Novatian was a leader in the church at Rome, which may have numbered over 50,000 at this time. The Bishop of that church, Fabian, perished at the beginning of the Decian persecution. Novatian handled official correspondence from the church after Fabian’s death, and probably expected to be appointed as the new Bishop. It was not to be. Cornelius was installed instead, and shortly thereafter Novatian officially broke with the church at Rome over how to handle the problem of the lapsed (Schaff, History, 2:849-850).
In the year 250 A.D., Roman Emperor Decius ordered all Christian “spokesmen” to offer a sacrifice of incense to him, to demonstrate their submission to his authority. Christian “spokesmen” were the clergy, and thus each Christian pastor had a very serious decision to make. Sooner rather than later, a Roman pro-consul would roll into town and require all Christian leaders to come forth and make the requisite offering and, in return, receive a certificate proving obedience. Many Christian leaders resisted this; infamy and persecution, imprisonment and martyrdom soon followed. The persecution ended as abruptly as it began when Decius was slain on the field of battle in 251 A.D. fighting the Goths.
Aftermath of persecution
It is a fact that many Christians apostatized during this time of trial. The tortures were great and terrible. Eusebius, for example, relates a representative account (Church History 6.41.3, NPNF2, 1:283):
They seized first an old man named Metras, and commanded him to utter impious words. But as he would not obey, they beat him with clubs, and tore his face and eyes with sharp sticks, and dragged him out of the city and stoned him.
Cyprian wrote a comprehensive treatise entitled On the Lapsed after he returned from exile. He admitted that, in Carthage, “the greatest number of the brethren betrayed their faith” (7, ANF 5:439). They voluntarily betrayed their Savior! Cyprian was shocked that all the clear warnings from the New Testament about persecution could be ignored. “Have not prophets aforetime, and subsequently apostles, told of these things?” (Ibid). He reminded his readers that Christ had ordained eternal punishment for those who rejected Him. Even worse, many Christians apparently rushed to deny Christ and escape potential harm; “freely they hastened to death, as if they had formerly wished it, as if they would embrace an opportunity now given which they had always desired” (On the Lapsed 8).
Cyprian couldn’t help but wonder if their consciences betrayed them as they offered worship to Emperor Decius: “did not their tread falter? Did not their sight darken, their heart tremble, their arms fall helplessly down?” (8). In their zeal to apostatize, some Christian mothers even brought their infants along as they offered worship to Decius (9)! Cyprian flatly condemned all apostasy during the persecution; “[n]or is there, alas, any just and weighty reason which excuses such a crime,” (10) and attributed the lax character of Christians to love of things of the world rather than Christ (11-12).
Once the persecution was over, what were churches to do with believers who had so readily and enthusiastically apostatized from the faith? There were two categories of people to consider (Beale, 1:187-188);
- those who had offered incense to the Emperor and obtained certificates proving it, and
- others, usually the wealthy, who had simply bribed Roman authorities and obtained their certificates without sacrificing to the Emperor.
This was the question which sparked the Novatian schism.
Novatian had a peculiar view on what ought to be done about the lapsed. He broke from the Church at Rome after Cornelius was elected as Bishop. Novatian’s enemies painted a picture of him as a bitter and spiteful man, consumed with jealousy, anxious for revenge. Dionysius claimed “a long time ago this remarkable man desired the episcopate, but kept this ambitious desire to himself and concealed it,—using as a cloak for his rebellion those confessors who had adhered to him from the beginning” (Church History 6.43.5, NPNF2, 1:287). Novatian’s split from the church, and his self-declaration as the Bishop of Rome, was a naked attempt “grasp and seize the episcopate, which had not been given him from above” (Ibid, 6.43.8, NPNF2, 1:288). Dionysius even claimed that Novatian plied gullible men with liberal amounts of alcohol and “compelled” them to support his rival claim to the Bishopric (6.43.9-10, NPNF2, 1:288)!
Schism was a matter that Cyprian could not tolerate. To him, the corporate, catholic church (in the true sense of the word) was unbreakable. Like distinct sunbeams come from a single source, and tree branches draw strength from one root, and tiny streams flow from one large body of water—the church was the source of divine life. Cyprian wrote, ”she is one mother, plentiful in the results of fruitfulness: from her womb we are born, by her milk we are nourished, by her spirit we are animated” (On the Unity of the Church 5, ANF 5:423). Indeed, Cyprian believed that those who left church, like the Novatians, proved they were never believers in the first place (1 John 2:19) [Ibid 9, ANF 5:424].
Whoever he may be, and whatever he may be, he who is not in the Church of Christ is not a Christian. Although he may boast himself, and announce his philosophy or eloquence with lofty words, yet he who has not maintained brotherly love or ecclesiastical unity has lost even what he previously had been. (Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 51.24, ANF 5:333)
To Cyprian, the Novatians and their ilk were like the men of Korah, Dathan and Abiram—traitors to Christ! Not only that, such men were actually worse than the lapsed (On the Unity of the Church 18-19, ANF 5:427). A schismatic may die a martyr’s death, but is without hope of salvation: “They cannot dwell with God who would not be of one mind in God’s Church” (Ibid 14, ANF 5:426). The Novatians, as far as Cyprian was concerned, were not even believers—they were counterfeits: “He professes himself to be a Christian in such a way as the devil often feigns himself to be Christ” (Ibid).
Sometime in 251 A.D., as the Novatian schism was heating up, Dionysius received a letter from Novatian asking for his support. His response sums up the prevailing attitude towards schism during this period. He told Novatian that it would better if he were martyred for the unity of the church, rather than to divide it! “For it were better to suffer everything, rather than divide the Church of God. Even martyrdom for the sake of preventing division would not be less glorious than for refusing to worship idols” (Eusebius of Caesaria, Church History 6.45.2, NPNF2, 1:290).
This is a brief background of the situation. This complicated intrigue is usually simplistically portrayed as (1) Novatian the Baptist (or Baptist forerunner) standing on principle against (2) the dark and sinister forces of a centralized church. But what did Novatian actually believe? Can he be claimed as a Baptist, or at least a Baptist forerunner? We’ll turn to his doctrine in the next installment.
- Armitage, Thomas. A History of the Baptists, revised and enlarged ed. New York: Bryan, Taylor, & Co., 1890; reprint, Watertown, WI: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, n.d.
- Beale, David O. Historical Theology In-Depth, 2 vols. Greenville: BJU Press, 2013.
- Carroll, J.M. The Trail of Blood, Kindle ed. Emmaus: Challenge Press, 2013.
- Cyprian of Carthage. “On the Lapsed.” Ante-Nicene Fathers, 5 vols. Trans. Robert Ernest Wallis. Ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1886. 5:437-447.
- Cyprian of Carthage. “On the Unity of the Church.” Ante-Nicene Fathers. 5:421-429.
- Cyprian of Carthage. “Epistle 51.” Ante-Nicene Fathers. 5:327-335.
- Eusebius of Caesaria. “The Church History of Eusebius.” Nicene-Post Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, 10 vols. Ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Trans. H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin, and H. T. F. Duckworth. New York: Christian Literature Company, 1896. 1:81-387.
- Graves, James R. Old Landmarkism: What Is It? Memphis: Graves, Mahaffey & Co, 1880; Kindle reprint, First Vision Publishers, n.d.
- Hoad, Jack. The Baptist. London: Grace Publications, 1986.
- Orchard, G.H. A Concise History of Baptists. Nashville: 1855; reprint, Watertown, WI: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 2003.
- Schaff, Philip. A History of the Christian Church, 8 vols., 5th ed. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1858; reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011.
* Two church historians have particularly excellent accounts of this whole matter. Philip Schaff, A History of the Christian Church, 8 vols., 5th ed. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1858; reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011), 2:193-197, 849-853. See also David O. Beale, Historical Theology In-Depth, 2 vols. (Greenville, SC: BJU Press, 2013), 1:183-199.