He was a noted theologian and writer, the first Roman theologian who used the Latin language, at a time when there was much debate about how to deal with Christians who had lapsed and wished to return, and the issue of penance. Consecrated as pope by three bishops in 251, he adopted a more rigorous position than the established Pope Cornelius. Novatian was shortly afterwards excommunicated: the schismatic church which he established persisted for several centuries (see Novatianism). Novatian fled during a period of persecutions, and may have been a martyr.
Few details are known as to his life. He was the first convert to Christianity to have studied Stoic philosophy and been educated in literary composition.
Pope Cornelius, in a letter to Fabius of Antioch, states that a catechumen called Novatian was possessed by Satan for a whole season. He was exorcised but became so ill after the rite that he expected to soon die, and so his baptism was brought forward. When he recovered, he was not given the rest of the sacraments and the bishop would not confirm him. He thus asked Cornelius "How, then, can I receive the Holy Spirit?".
For his profound learning Cornelius sarcastically defined him as "that creator of dogmas, that champion of ecclesiastical culture", though his eloquence impressed Saint Cyprian of Carthage (Letter LX, 3) and a pope (probably pope Fabianus) made him a priest. Cornelius states that his priesting was not welcomed by the clergy or the laity, who held that one who had been baptised only at the point of death could not become a priest. The story told by Eulogius, bishop of Alexandria, in which Novatian was an archdeacon of Rome consecrated a priest by the pope to oversee the papal succession, is contradicted by Cornelius and is based on a later state of affairs in which Roman deacons were statesmen rather than religious ministers.
On 20 January 250, during the Decian Persecution, pope Fabian was martyred and the persecution was so fierce that it proved impossible to elect a successor, with the papal seat remaining vacant for a year. During this period the church was governed by several priests, including Novatian. In a letter the following year, Cornelius speaks of his rival whose cowardice and love of his own life made him deny to the persecutors that he was a priest and refuse to comfort his brothers in danger. The deacons urged him to come out of hiding but he told them that he was in love with another philosophy and thus did not want to be a priest any longer. The story's significance is unclear - Novatian may have been avoiding being an active priest to dedicate himself to an ascetic lifestyle. In any case, it must be borne in mind that the main source for Novatian is Pope Cornelius, who had reasons to attack his enemy and antagonist. The anonymous work Ad Novatianum (XIII) states that "[Novatian], while he was in the Church of Christ, considered his neighbours' sins to be his own, eased his brothers' burdens, as exhorted by the Apostle, and fortified with consolation those whose faith was shaken".
Novatian definitely wrote letters during the persecution in the name of the Roman clergy which later passed to Saint Cyprian (Letters XXX and XXXVI). These letters look at the question of those who had lapsed from the faith and the Carthaginians' demands that they all be allowed back into the church without penance. The Roman clergy agreed with Cyprian that the question had to be treated with moderation and balance by a council at the earliest possible opportunity, after the election of a new bishop. In any case, they held, they had to maintain the just church discipline that had marked the Roman church since the time of Saint Paul (Letter to the Romans 1:8), without being cruel to those who were penitent. These letters use strong expressions but show that the Roman clergy did not think the re-admission of lapsed Christians to communion was entirely impossible.
In March 251, with the emperor Decius's death, the persecution began to subside and the Roman community seized the opportunity to nominate a successor to Fabian. With the consent of almost all the clergy, the people and the bishops presented (Cyprian, Letter LV, 8-9) the Roman aristocrat and moderate Cornelius and he was elected. Novatian had hoped to be elected and accused Cornelius of foul play. He then summoned three bishops from the remote corners of Italy to come to Rome as fast as possible, along with the other bishops, to mediate on an internal division. These simple men were forced to make Novatian a bishop at 10 am. One of these bishops, however, returned to the church to confess his sin and Cornelius states "we sent replacements for the other two bishops to the places from which they came". To ensure his supporters' loyalty Novatian forced them to swear on the consecrated bread and wine at Holy Communion that they would not go back over to Cornelius. According to Saint Hippolytus of Rome (considered by some to be Novatian's teacher), Novatian thus became Christianity's second ever antipope.
Cornelius and Novatian rushed their messengers out to the churches to announce their elections. Saint Cyprian's correspondence tells of an accurate investigation carried out at the end of the Council of Carthage, which resulted in the whole African episcopate backing Cornelius. Even Saint Dionysius of Alexandria sided with Cornelius and with this influential support he soon consolidated his position. However, for some time the church was divided between the two competing popes. Saint Cyprian writes that Novatian "took over" (Letter LXIX, 8) and sent new apostles to many cities to get them to accept his election. Although all the provinces and all the cities held bishops of venerable age, pure faith and proven virtue, who had been proscribed during the persecution, Cyprian writes (Letter LV, 24) that Novatian dared to replace them with new bishops he had created himself.
Meanwhile, in October 251, Cornelius had called a council of 60 bishops (probably all those from Italy and the neighbouring territories) in which Novatian was excommunicated. The bishops unable to attend added their signatures to the council's closing document, which was sent to Antioch and all the other main churches. However, Novatian was aware of his intellectual superiority to Cornelius and still found supporters among Christians still in prison, such as Maximus, Urbanus and Nicostratus. Dionysius and Cyprian, however, wrote to them and convinced them to support Cornelius. At the beginning of the dispute between Novatian and Cornelius it took the form of a simple question of a schism, the argument of Cyprian's first letters about Novatian (XLIV-XLVIII, 1) centering on who was the legitimate occupant of St Peter's throne. After a couple of months this changed, with Cyprian (Letter LIV) finding it necessary to send his book De lapsis and letter LV to Rome, with the latter being the first document to speak of the "heresy of Novatian". Arguing that idolatry was an unforgivable sin and that the church had no right to readmit lapsed members to communion, he argued that the church could admit to the penitent to penitence-for-life, but only God could give forgiveness. Such a position was not completely new - Tertullian had criticised pope Callixtus I's introduction of pardons for adultery. Even Saint Hippolytus was inclined towards severity and laws were promulgated in many places and at various times to punished determined sinners with excommunication ending at the hour of death or even refusing them communion in the hour of death. Even St Cyprian concurred in the latter case for those who refused to repent until on their deathbed, but this was down to the fact that he felt such confessions might not be sincere. According to Cyprian, the gravity of this position was not in its cruelty or injustice, but in the negation of the church's power in such cases to give absolution. Novatian's heresy was thus to refuse the baptismal question "Do you believe in the remission of sins and in the life eternal, through the Holy Church?".
Novatian died in 258, probably during Valerian's persecutions, in the same year as his great opponent Cyprian.
- Novatian The Trinity, The Spectacle, Jewish Foods, In Praise of Purity, Letters translated by Russell J. DeSimone Catholic University of America Press (1974)
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- "Novatian". Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Retrieved 2008-03-09.
- Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XI New York 1911
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- Novatian, de Trinitate in Latin
- Multilanguage Opera Omnia