Were the Novatians Early Baptists? Part 2

Read part 1.

The doctrine of baptism

Baptists believe the New Testament teaches that baptism is only for a believer, by immersion, upon a profession of faith, as a step of obedience and public testimony. Baptists do not believe baptism is a means of grace or regeneration. Novatian disagreed with all of these propositions.

On the Apostolic Tradition (possibly written by Hippolytus) records the practices of the church in Rome in the early third century.1 Since the Decian persecution, and the subsequent Novatian schism, took place during the early to late 250s AD, the Apostolic Tradition is a very important resource for understanding how the church at Rome likely operated in Novatian’s day. It is a fact that the church practiced infant baptism:

You are to baptize the little ones first. All those who are able to speak for themselves should speak. With regard to those who cannot speak for themselves their parents, or somebody who belongs to their family, should speak. Then baptize the grown men and finally the women, after they have let down their hair and laid down the gold and silver ornaments which they have on them. Nobody should take any alien object down into the water.2

This snapshot of church polity in Rome around the time of Novatian demonstrates that the church practiced infant baptism.3 “Little ones” were to be baptized before adults. These “little ones” were divided into those who could speak for themselves, and those who could not. Apparently, the little ones were members of a family who were all being baptized together. Unless a critic is prepared to (1) dismiss Apostolic Traditions out of hand, or (2) is willing to explain away the baptism of these “little ones” too young to speak for themselves, or perhaps even (3) argue that Novatian secretly disagreed with this practice in his own church where he was already an acknowledged leader, then it is a fact that Novatian’s church in Rome practiced infant baptism and he likely approved of the practice.

Novatian himself was baptized by pouring. He was sick and near death, and was baptized upon his sickbed. Eusebius, the historian, recorded a now lost epistle from Cornelius (Novatian’s successor) to this effect:

But Satan, who entered and dwelt in him for a long time, became the occasion of his believing. Being delivered by the exorcists, he fell into a severe sickness; and as he seemed about to die, he received baptism by affusion, on the bed where he lay; if indeed we can say that such a one did receive it. And when he was healed of his sickness he did not receive the other things which it is necessary to have according to the canon of the Church, even the being sealed by the bishop. And as he did not receive this, how could he receive the Holy Spirit?4

Cornelius also observed that Novatian’s irregular baptism was not becoming of a clergyman, and it nearly cost Novatian his position:

For this illustrious man forsook the Church of God, in which, when he believed, he was judged worthy of the presbyterate through the favor of the bishop who ordained him to the presbyterial office. This had been resisted by all the clergy and many of the laity; because it was unlawful that one who had been affused on his bed on account of sickness as he had been should enter into any clerical office; but the bishop requested that he might be permitted to ordain this one only.5

There is more evidence to suggest that Novatian’s doctrine of baptism was suspect. In his treatise on the Trinity, in the context of defending the humanity of Christ, Novatian wrote that “in baptism and in the dissolution of death the flesh is raised up and returns to salvation, by being recalled to the condition of innocency when the mortality of guilt is put away.”6 Is Novatian speaking of Spirit baptism, or of the ordinance of water baptism? Elsewhere, commenting on the fulfillment of Jewish dietary laws in the finished work of Christ, Novatian condemns those who still observed the Mosaic Law—likening it to voluntary slavery. “Yet there is no advantage at all of righteousness, while we are recalled by a voluntary slavery to those elements to which by baptism we have died.”7 This quotation could also be seen to refer to Spirit baptism.

Novatian does make one very clear statement that strongly suggests he held to some form of baptismal regeneration:

He it is who effects with water the second birth, as a certain seed of divine generation, and a consecration of a heavenly nativity, the pledge of a promised inheritance, and as it were a kind of handwriting of eternal salvation; who can make us God’s temple, and fit us for His house; who solicits the divine hearing for us with groanings that cannot be uttered; filling the offices of advocacy, and manifesting the duties of our defence.8

J.N.D. Kelly, for one, is convinced that Novatian believed the Spirit did something at baptism. 9 One cannot read Novatian’s words and come away with another interpretation. His successor in Rome, Cornelius, went a step further and taught that the Holy Spirit was only given to a believer after baptism and after the bishop laid hands on the candidate!10 He went so far as to question whether Novatian was actually indwelt by the Spirit because of his irregular baptism:

And as he did not receive this confirmation by laying on of hands after baptism, how could he receive the Holy Spirit?11

On the Apostolic Tradition describes what the church in Rome (Novatian’s church!) did immediately after baptism:

And afterwards…the bishop, laying his hand on them invokes, saying: Lord God, you have made them worthy to deserve the remission of sins through the laver of regeneration: make them worthy to be filled with the Holy Spirit, send your grace upon them that they may serve you in accordance with your will.12

Briefly, it has been demonstrated that (1) the church at Rome likely practiced infant baptism during Novatian’s day, (2) Novatian himself was baptized by pouring, not immersion, and (3) his baptism was not conducted as a public testimony of his new-found faith—it was done in private, upon a sickbed.13 Moreover, Novatian made numerous statements that could be interpreted to support some form of baptismal regeneration.

Not only that, but documents from the church at Rome from the third century suggest that Novatian’s church believed the Holy Spirit was bestowed after baptism and after confirmation by the bishop. Cornelius, Novatian’s own successor, criticized him for (1) his irregular baptism, and (2) not having been confirmed. This is not the portrait of a Baptist crusader.

Autonomy of the local church

Baptists believe that the local church is an autonomous, independent, democratic body. It is not a representative democracy, like the Presbyterian model. It is a direct democracy, more akin to a town-hall meeting, where every member has a say and carries equal weight. This does not rule out cooperation and consultation with other like-minded churches; it simply means that, in the end, the local church makes its own decisions.

In 250 AD, Novatian had stepped into the breach when good bishop Fabian was martyred. In this capacity, he corresponded with other churches on behalf of the church at Rome. He was on friendly and cordial terms with Cyprian at this time. In a letter to Cyprian, Novatian14 agreed with him that, as soon as the persecution ended, a council should be convened to determine what to do about those who had lapsed from the faith.

However, what you also have yourself declared in so important a matter, is satisfactory to us, that the peace of the Church must first be maintained; then, that an assembly for counsel being gathered together, with bishops, presbyters, deacons, and confessors, as well as with the laity who stand fast, we should deal with the case of the lapsed.15

More specifically, Novatian believed this issue was too big for individual churches to make on their own. He believed in what Robert Reymond would call a connectionalism,16 or a catholicity among churches. Important decisions ought to be made only after close consultation with other men from other churches:

Look upon almost the whole world devastated, and observe that the remains and the ruins of the fallen are lying about on every side, and consider that therefore an extent of counsel is asked for, large in proportion as the crime appears to be widely propagated.17

J.M. Carroll warned his readers that if they found a church which didn’t hold to a series of identifiable “marks,” then beware! Among these marks, he wrote:

The churches in their government and discipline to be entirely separate and independent of each other. Jerusalem to have no authority over Antioch; nor Antioch over Ephesus; nor Ephesus over Corinth; and so forth. And their government to be congregational, democratic. A government of the people, by the people, and for the people.18

If this be the case, Landmarkers should stop claiming Novatians as their kin!

After the persecution ended, Cyprian held his own council in North Africa, as did Cornelius in Rome19 (by this time Cornelius had been elected as Bishop and Novatian had split from the church). The Western churches by this time appear to have developed a distinctly Presbyterian-style of polity, whereby the decrees of representative councils were expected to be obeyed. Notice the corporate decision-making process in Cyprian’s North African council:

[T]he advice gathered from the comparison of all opinions being communicated and weighed, we might determine what was necessary to be done. But if any one, before our council, and before the opinion decided upon by the advice of all, should rashly wish to communicate with the lapsed, he himself should be withheld from communion.20

Novatian agreed with the idea of a council to decide what was to be done with the lapsed. His successor, Cornelius, later held a council in Rome to formulate that policy. There is no concept of the autonomy of individual, local churches. The best that can be said for Novatian is that he wished to include the laity in his council. Instead, there is a distinctly Presbyterian flavor to this ecclesiology. In the ensuing controversy, Cyprian moved the church well along the path towards an Episcopalian polity.


1 See the introductory material to Hippolytus of Rome, On the Apostolic Tradition, trans. Alistair Stewart-Sykes, Popular Patristics Series, Number 22, ed. John Behr (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 20-32.

2 Ibid 21.4-5, 110–111.

3 The interpretation of this passage is hotly contested! G. Wainwright observes, “[h]istorians and exegetes have a heavy ecclesial and ecclesiological investment here, for the answer effects, even if it does not finally settle, the contested issue of the impropriety, legitimacy or necessity of infant baptism,” (“Baptism, Baptismal Rites,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, ed. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids [Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 1997], 123).

4 Eusebius, Church History 6.43.14-16, NPNF2 1:288-289.

5 Ibid, 6.43.17, NPNF2 1:289.

6 Novatian, On the Trinity 10, ANF 5:620. Emphasis mine.

7 Ibid, On the Jewish Meats 5, ANF 5:649. Emphasis mine.

8 Ibid, On the Trinity 29, ANF 5:641. Emphasis mine.

9 J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, revised ed. (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1978), 209.

10 See Eusebius, Church History 6.43.14-16, NPNF2 1:288-289.

11 Ibid.

12 Hippolytus of Rome, On the Apostolic Tradition 21:20-21, 112. The editor of this edition disagrees that the text supports bestowal of the Spirit. He believes it is a prayer that believers be filled with the Spirit at a later date; something like an early Keswick doctrine (123).

13 There is not sufficient space to explore why, precisely, Novatian felt it necessary to be baptized upon his sick-bed. Did he feel that baptism was more than a mere symbol, and actually did something to the subject? Philip Schaff noted that believers in this day often postponed baptism as long as possible, believing that baptism itself only washed sins away that were committed prior to baptism (History, 2:254). The seeds of baptismal regeneration and the concept of penance were germinating in Novatian’s day; and Cyprian would do a great deal of the fertilizing.

14 Cyprian later explicitly identifies Novatian as the author of this letter; see Epistle 51.5 ANF 5:328.

15 Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 30.5, ANF 5:310.

16 Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, revised ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 900-904.

17 Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 30.5, ANF 5:310.

18 Carroll, Trail of Blood, Kindle Locations 179-181.

19 Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 51.6, ANF 5:328

20 Ibid, Epistle 51.4, ANF 5:328.

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There are 7 Comments

Ed Vasicek's picture

Very well written.  I think it is important for us to embrace the "early crash and burn" of the church.  Compared to two thousand years, two hundred does not seem like a lot of time.  But consider how America has changed (not just because of technology, but values/thinking) in the last 200 years. 

"The Midrash Detective"

Dan Miller's picture

Thanks. Well written article.

“Little ones” were to be baptized before adults. These “little ones” were divided into those who could speak for themselves, and those who could not. Apparently, the little ones were members of a family who were all being baptized together. Unless a critic is prepared to (1) dismiss Apostolic Traditions out of hand, or (2) is willing to explain away the baptism of these “little ones” too young to speak for themselves,

#2 is pretty easy. "Little ones" refers to young children who express belief to their parents, but are too frightened to speak them to the whole body. How many baptists have seen such a thing done in our churches before baptism?

Aaron Blumer's picture


I'm not sure how soon infant baptism started. At best, there is little evidence that Novatian viewed baptism as Baptists do.

Relevant series by Dan a few years ago. Weren't using series tags back then so you kind of have to go to part 3 and work backwards.


Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

TylerR's picture


The interpretation of the "little ones" from On the Apostolic Tradition is a real battleground! I'd have to do some more study to see how common infant baptism was.

  • J.N.D. Kelly says it was nearly the universal practice by the 3rd century (Early Christian Doctrines, revised ed. [New York, NY: HarperOne, 1978], 207).
  • There's a good article in baptism in the Dictionary of the Later New Testament & its Developments. The author hedges a bit, but seems to support the idea that the excerpt in the article from On the Apostoolic Tradition is speaking about infant baptism.
  • Everett Ferguson has written what seems to be the definitive work on baptism in the early church. I don't have the money to get his book yet! Some good answers are probably in here. He is Church of Christ, though. 

At the very least, we can say that the theology of baptism in the church at Rome in the 3rd century was likely nowhere near what Baptists believe the NT teaches. Given all the supporting evidence, I felt comfortable saying that the church at Rome practiced infant baptism. Maybe I should have used more neutral language and not called it a "fact!" If someone can point me in the other direction, I'd listen.

All this means that Baptists who like to claim Novatians as (1) direct heirs or (2) spiritual-kin are probably wrong to do so.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture


I'm looking through your series on baptism that Aaron linked to. I appreciate it very much. Thanks! 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture


Incidentally, the Apostolic Tradition (which documents practices at Novatian's own church in Rome!) also has the following tidbits:

  • All candidates had to have evil spirits exorcized before baptism so that they would be pure (21.3-4), presumably so they'd be fit to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The night prior to baptism, the Bishop would exorcize the evil spirits from them, then blow on their faces and seal their ears, eyes and noses (21.8). Again, we can only assume that this bizarre ritual is meant to purify the candidates before they received the Spirit at baptism the next day.
  • Candidates were also baptized stark naked (21.11), and immersed three times in succession, after confessing they believed in each Person of the Trinity (21.12-18).

Try pulling all this at a Landmark church, or any Baptist church, for that matter!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Aaron Blumer's picture


Looks like they were innovating like crazy in those days

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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