Introductory Notice to Novatian, a Roman Presbyter
[a.d. 210-280.] When we reflect upon the history of Solomon, and his marvellous contributions to the sacred canon of Scripture, we must not be surprised to find a Tatian, a Tertullian, and a Novatian among the Fathers. We deplore the lapse of such characters, but after death they are not subject to human judgment. Let us cherish the gratitude we owe to them for their good works, and use their testimony so far as it was faithful; covering their shame with the mantle of charity, and praying for grace never to imitate their faults. "If any teacher have wandered from the faith, it is permitted," says St. Vincent of1 , "by Divine Providence for our trial, whether we love God or not, with all our heart and with all our soul."
We find Novatian apparently exercising jurisdiction, sede vacante, in Rome, with his co-presbyters, and as vicar-general (to use a later term) corresponding with Cyprian. This was about a.d. 250, after the death of Fabian. His marked abilities and real services had fitted him to preside thus over the Roman presbytery, and to be their "secretary for foreign affairs." But he laboured under the impediment of clinic baptism, and had not an unblemished record, if we credit Eusebius,2 in his conduct during persecution.
He was not called, therefore, to the episcopate. Cornelius was made bishop June 4, a.d. 251; and, apparently, disappointed ambition soon bore its thorny fruits. "Emulation of the episcopal office is the mother of schisms," said Tertullian;3 even in that period when to be a bishop was so often to be a martyr. And we find Novatian grasping a shadowy titular bishopric, which, wholly irregular and universally disowned, could have been to such a man the source of nothing but misery. I say, "to such a man," for, without hearing the other side, I cannot accept what was unquestionably supposed to be fact amid the excitements of the times. And Novatian was not a common or a vulgar character. The arguments of Lardner4 teach us at least to be Christians,-to accept the facts, but "forbear to judge," seeing, as that writer observes, "we have not one remaining line of his in self-defence or against his adversaries."
Now as to his orthodoxy, so far as his extant writings are concerned, I think any scholar, not anxious to make out a case, will abide by the candid judgment of Bull, who defends his reputation against Petavius.5 "By no means," he says, "should we tolerate that injustice of the Jesuit Petau towards the ancient writers, against their manifest mind and purpose; twisting, as he everywhere does, their sound and Catholic sayings into a sense alien and heretical."
The work upon the Trinity, which is a most valuable contribution to ante-Nicene theology, is said by Cave to have been written about a.d. 257; and that upon the Jewish meats seems to have been composed during the Decian persecution. His heresy, such as it was, turned upon unrelenting discipline, and was a sin against charity, which is greater than faith itself. It violated the "seventy times seven" maxim of our Lord, and the comprehensive precept, "Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven." It wounded Christian unity at a perilous period, and when every breach in the wall of the fold was sure to let in the wolves.
"He may have aspired to the papal chair," says a contemporary writer6 of no mean repute, adding, "to which he had the best claim." Then he says, "Novatian was elected anti-pope by a minority, and consecrated by three Italian bishops." Is this history? What impression must it give to the young student? The learned writer whom I quote shows clearly enough that there was no "papacy" in primitive times, as that word is universally understood. Why, then, put a face upon Antiquity so utterly misleading? Neither Novatian, nor his consecrators, nor Cornelius, against whom he rebelled, ever dreamed of anything more than of an episcopal chair; venerable, indeed, for its succession of pastors from the times of SS. Peter and Paul, but as yet hardly felt in the Christian brotherhood; which for two centuries had produced many pious but few eminent men, and in which Novatian himself was the earliest contributor to the "Latin Christianity," already founded and flourishing, not in Italy, but in Northern Africa.
The following is the Introductory Notice of the Edinburgh translator, the Rev. Dr. Wallis, who, I am glad to observe, is tender towards our author's memory :-
The biography of Novatian belongs to the ecclesiastical history of the third century. He was, or is reputed to have been, the founder of a sect which claimed for itself the name of "Puritan"7 (kaqaroi/). For a long time he was in determined opposition to Cornelius, bishop of Rome, in regard to the admission of the lapsed and penitent into the Church; but the facts of the controversy and much of our information in regard to Novatian are to be got only from his enemies, the Roman bishop and his adherents. Accordingly, some have believed all the accusations that have been brought against him, while others have been inclined to doubt them all.8
It is not known where Novatian was born. Some have appealed to Philostorgius9 in behalf of the opinion that he was a Phrygian; but others maintain that, supposing this to be a statement of the historian, it is a mere conjecture of his, based on the character of Novatian's teaching. It is also stated by Cyprian, that he was a Stoic before he passed over to the Christian Church; but this also has been doubted. While amongst the catechumens, he was seized by a violent disease, attributed to demoniac agency; and, being near death, he received baptism. He was ordained presbyter by Fabian, bishop of Rome, against the wishes of the rest of the clergy, who objected thereto because he had received clinic baptism.10 The subsequent circumstances of his schism and his contest with Cornelius, are stated at length with no friendly spirit in a letter to Antonianus by Cyprian.11 Socrates12 states that he suffered martyrdom; but his authority, amid the silence of all others, is not sufficient to guarantee the fact.
Novatian composed many works. The following are extant:-
I. De Trinitate, formerly attributed by some to Tertullian, by others to Cyprian; but now on all hands allowed to be the work of Novatian, to whom Jerome expressly assigns it.13 It was written after the heresy of Sabellius, which appeared 256 a.d.
II. De Cibis Judaicis: at first also attributed by some to Tertullian or Cyprian; but now assigned to Novatian on the testimony of Jerome. It was written during the time of the Decian persecution, about 250 a.d.
III. Novatian was the author of the letter14 addressed by the Roman clergy to Cyprian. So Cyprian himself states.15 Some have also attributed to him Ep. xxix. without any authority.
IV. Jerome attributes to him writings on Circumcision, on the Sabbath, on the Passover, on the Priesthood, on Prayer, on Attalus, on the Present Crisis, and Letters.
The best editions of Novatian are by Welchman, Oxford, 1724; and by Jackson, London, 1728.