Gnostic Doctrine

Sunday, 12 April 2020

Novatian

from Eureka: An Exposition of the Apocalypse by Dr john thomas

Novatian

The latter class was favorable to the readmittance of the deserters, or "lapsed;" the minority was determinedly opposed to it. The head of the majority was Cornelius the bishop of the ecclesia in Rome; and the leader of the "few names" in the Sardian state, was Novatian, who was elected bishop in Rome in opposition to him about A.D. 251. He is acknowledged by his opponents to have been no heretic; and to have excelled in genius, learning, and eloquence. No immoralities have been proved against him, though he did not escape the evil speeches and maledictions of the majority; though it is certain, that while he continued a presbyter of the ecclesia in Rome, his fame was not only without a blot, but very fair in the camp. He was put to death for the faith in the reign of Valerian.

It will be well here to sound in the ears of the reader the voice of history concerning the state of the majority which the Spirit says had a name that it was living, while it was really dead; and the division of which is charged upon Novatius as a crime.

"The most respectable writers of that age," says Mosheim, "have put it out of the power of an historian to spread a veil over the enormities of ecclesiastical rulers. For, though several yet continued to exhibit to the world illustrious examples of primitive piety and Christian virtue (these were "the few names even in Sardis"), yet many were sunk in luxury and voluptuousness; puffed up with vanity, arrogance, and ambition; possessed with a spirit of contention and discord, and addicted to many other vices that cast an undeserved reproach upon the holy religion of which they were the unworthy professors and ministers. In many places the bishops assumed a princely authority, particularly those who had the greatest number of churches under their inspection, and who presided over the most opulent assemblies. They appropriated to their evangelical functions the splendid ensigns of temporal majesty. A throne, surrounded with ministers, exalted above his equals the servant of the meek and lowly Jesus; and sumptuous garments dazzled the eyes and the minds of the multitude into an ignorant veneration for their arrogated authority. Presbyters followed their example, neglected their duties, and abandoned themselves to the indolence and delicacy of an effeminate and luxurious life. Deacons imitated their superiors, and the effects of a corrupt ambition were spread through every rank of the sacred order."

In support of this statement, we have the testimony of Eusebius, who was contemporary with what he describes. "Through too much liberty," says he, "the Christians grew negligent and slothful, envying and reproaching one another -- waging, as it were, civil wars among themselves, bishops quarrelling with bishops, and the people divided into parties. Hypocrisy and deceit were grown to the highest pitch of wickedness. They were become so insensible, as not to think of appeasing the divine anger, but, like atheists, they thought the world destitute of any providential government or care, thus adding one crime to another. The bishops themselves had cast off almost all concern about religion; they were perpetually contending with one another, and did nothing but quarrel, and threaten, and envy, and hate one another; they were full of ambition and tyrannically used their power."

Such was the state into which the ecclesias had fallen in the second half of the third century, against which Novatian protested. Many, in all the Roman empire -- the brethren, in contrast to "Christians," a name disgraced then as now -- united with him in bearing a noble testimony against the prevailing corruption in the camp; and by so doing acquired the name of Novatianists. They were also termed Puritans, or in Greek, Cathari -- a name bestowed on them by their adversaries, who reproached them for what they considered their excessive severity of discipline and exclusiveness.

The ecclesiastical historian, Socrates, says that "Novatius separated from the Roman Church because Cornelius the bishop received into communion believers who had sacrificed during the persecution which the emperor Decius had raised against the ecclesia. Having seceded on this account, on being afterwards elevated to the episcopacy by such prelates as entertained similar sentiments, he wrote to all the ecclesias insisting that they should not admit to the sacred mysteries those who had sacrificed; but exhorting them to repentance, leave the pardoning of their offence to God, who has the power to forgive all sin. These letters made different impressions on the parties in the various provinces to whom they were addressed, according to their several dispositions and judgments. The exclusion from participation in the mysteries (Lord’s Supper) of those who after baptism had committed any sin ‘unto death,’ appeared to some a cruel and merciless course; but others thought it just and necessary for the maintenance of discipline, and the promotion of greater devotedness of life. In the midst of the agitation of this important question, letters arrived from Cornelius the bishop, promising indulgence to delinquents after baptism. On these two persons writing thus contrary to one another, and each confirming his own procedure by the testimony of the divine word, as it usually happens every one identified himself with that view which favored his previous habits and inclinations. Those who had pleasure in sin, encouraged by the license thus granted, took occasion from it to revel in every species of criminality. The Phrygians, however, appear to be more temperate than other nations, and are seldom guilty of swearing. The Scythians and Thracians are naturally of a very irritable disposition, while the inhabitants of the East are addicted to sensual pleasures. But the Paphlagonians and Phrygians are prone to neither of these vices; nor are the sports of the circus nor theatrical exhibitions in much estimation among them even to the present day (A.D. 445). And this will account, as I conceive, for these people, as well as others of a similar temperament and habit in the West, so readily assenting to the letters written by Novatius. Fornication and adultery are regarded among the Paphlagonians and Phrygians as the grossest enormities; and it is well known that there is no race of men upon the face of the earth who more rigidly govern their passions in this respect."

This testimony of Socrates shows that morality and virtue were on the side of the Novatians; and even their catholic adversaries did not accuse them of unsoundness in the faith. Cornelius, the bishop of the church in Rome, styles Novatius, "that artful and malicious beast;" and denounces him in his letters for his artifice and duplicity, his perjuries and falsehoods, his dissocial and savage character. But this proves nothing against Novatius or his friends, and is prima facie evidence that the spirit in him, Cornelius, was the spirit of the flesh, which afterwards became so rampant in his successors the Popes. From Eusebius’ account, Novatius and his adherents appear to have been excommunicated by a council assembled in Rome; and the course pursued against him there evinces more of party malignity than of zeal for the truth in faith and discipline. But it did not succeed in suppressing the Novatians, who prospered in Rome considerably. Socrates says, that A.D. 421, Cornelius’ representative was one Celestinus. "This prelate," says he, "took away the churches from the Novatians at Rome also, and obliged Rusticula their bishop to hold his meetings secretly in private houses. Until this time that sect had flourished exceedingly in the imperial city of the West, possessing many churches there, which were attended by large congregations. But envy attacked them also, as soon as the Roman episcopate, like that of Alexandria, extended itself beyond the limits of the jurisdiction of priesthood, and degenerated into the present state of secular domination. For thenceforth the Roman bishops would not suffer even those who perfectly agreed with them in matters of faith, and whose purity of doctrine they extolled, to enjoy the privilege of assembling in peace, but stripped them of all they possessed. From such tyrannical bigotry the Constantinopolitan prelates kept themselves free, inasmuch as they not only permitted the Novatians to hold their assemblies within the city, but treated them with every mark of Christian regard."

The position assumed by the Novatians was perfectly scriptural. Sins unto death disqualify for inheritance in the kingdom of the Deity, and therefore for fellowship with those who are "the Heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to them who love him," or obey him; which is the same thing, for "love is the fulfilling of law." There can be no sin more deadly than that of a christian sacrificing to other gods, and cursing Christ, for the sake of present ease and comfort. Paul settles this clearly enough to the minds of all who receive the word as the end of all controversy. "If they who were once enlightened," says he, "shall fall away, it is impossible to renew them again unto a change of mind eis metanoian, seeing they crucify again for themselves the Son of the Deity, and expose him to public shame." This is bearing thorns and briars; and such, Paul saith, "is rejected, and nigh to cursing; whose end is to be burned" (Heb. vi. 4-8). For an enlightened man to sacrifice to the gods of Greece and Rome, was for him to "sin wilfully" -- a sin for which no sacrifice is provided in the system of righteousness devised by the Deity. It is therefore "a sin unto death;" and for that -- for pardon of that, John discountenanced all petition: "there is a sin unto death; I say not that ye shall pray for it" (1 John v. 16). Of sins of this sort, Paul says: "If we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy who hath trodden under foot the Son of the Deity, and hath counted the Blood of the Covenant wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace" (Heb. x. 26). The christian who sacrificed to the gods of the Gentiles, in so doing, "trod under foot the Son of the Deity, and counted the Blood of the Covenant wherewith he was sanctified an unholy thing." The gospel of the kingdom has no good news for such. They have denied Christ; and Paul saith again, "If we deny him, he also will deny us" (2 Tim. ii. 12); and Jesus himself says, "Whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father who is in heaven" (Mat. x. 33).

It is clear, then, in relation to "the lapsed," apostates, or deserters from the Heavenly Camp, the Novatians were in the right, though they were in the minority. Cornelius and his Council who excommunicated them, in so doing, turned the truth into the streets a houseless wanderer. Having ejected Christ, who, when on earth, said, "I am the truth," the Spirit who spoke to the ecclesias, forsook them, and left them to their own waywardness. Having things now all their own way, they received again into the bosom of what they called "Mother Church," apostates, adulterers, drunkards, lovers of pleasures, &c., upon profession of sorrow, but without amendment of life. Well might the Spirit say to such "churches:" "Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead." The institutions and worship of such a dead body could be of no worth. The "few names in Sardis," called Novatians, were satisfied of that, and therefore they rejected the baptism, and ordination of the so-called "Mother." They repudiated Jezebel and all her ordinances; so that they reimmersed and reordained all who came over to them from the majority, which now began to designate itself the HOLY CATHOLIC CHURCH.

Here then were two leading and rival divisions in antipagan society, both claiming the christian name, with the addition of Catholic and Puritan, as the names distinguishing their several hosts in the long warfare waged between them. These antagonist camps were in active conflict during the fifth seal; how then could the Four Living Ones, who symbolized the undivided heavenly camp, be introduced into the imagery of the fifth seal, inasmuch as in that and the sixth seal period, the original organization of the camp no longer obtained? The time was rapidly advancing after the close of the fourth seal, when the Spirit would fulfil his threat of spuing them out of his mouth; and of organizing a new advocacy of the truth -- a protest, not so much against paganism, as against Laodiceanism incorporated in the Synagogue of Satan, styled in the language of the Apostasy, THE HOLY APOSTOLIC CATHOLIC CHURCH -- Mother and Mistress of all the churches of Antichristendom.

Thirdly, the unity of the Heavenly Camp having been broken by this great schism, the blame of which before the Lamb would rest on them who sympathized with the deserters who denied him, and who excommunicated the friends of purity and good morals, the Deity could no longer reside in it by his Spirit; the symbol of the four living ones consequently could not be introduced into the imagery of the fifth seal. But though as a community they were dead, yet we learn from the epistle to Sardis, that "even" in that dead community there were a few living ones who had not defiled their garments. These were the brethren or true believers. The Deity walked in these. His spirit was in them, because Christ was in them by faith. "Know ye not," saith the apostle, "that Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates," or without judgment. "I am the truth," saith Jesus. "Let Christ dwell in your hearts by faith," saith Paul: from all which it is manifest that every real christian has Christ in him; and that he has Christ in him when he intelligently believes the truth, and by obeying that truth, puts on Christ, and walks in him by walking in the truth. Now, as "the spirit is the truth," and "my words are spirit and life," it follows that the spirit of the Deity resides in all in whom the truth and His words influentially resides. In this sense, the spirit may have dwelt in a few among the Sardian dead, who did not actually separate themselves with the Novatians. As the Spirit had not till the sixth seal-period spued the ecclesias out of his mouth, there would till then continue to be some living among the dead; and according to the proportion and quality of these living, would be the spirit-possession of each ecclesia. The Sardian state under the fifth seal merged into the Philadelphian; and the "few names" of the former, became the "little strength" of the latter. This little strength was derived from the truth believed, as before explained. For there to be a little strength in the Philadelphian state was for there to be a little spirit still; for there is no christian, spiritual, or moral strength where there is no spirit or power. The gospel is the power of the Deity for salvation; but it is not power to numb or deaden the pain of torment inflicted upon the bodies of the saints when tortured by the cruel pagans, and afterwards by the more savage Laodiceans. It is probable that with the "little strength" there was also a little physical power still possessed by the subjects of that little strength by which the torture they were called on to endure was deadened. The only evidence of the spirit being possessed in the fifth seal-period in any other than a doctrinal sense as before explained, is the question and answer it contains. Had the four living ones been in the imagery, we should have known that the Spirit, or "the Lamb," still occupied the camp, plaguing from thence the Roman Horse, and fortifying the bodies of his servants to the patient endurance of the most cruel torments inflicted upon them in the good fight. But they are not there; so that we can only infer that His "grace" was not entirely withdrawn, and was still sufficient for the emergencies of the few, who, in the fifth seal period "kept his word, and denied not his name" (cf. ch. VI, sec.iii, 1).

I may remark here, that in the first four seals, the four living ones were all present in the arrangements of each, though only one is specially indicated by ordinal number. This presence of all the four in each seal is intimated in the first verse, "I heard from one out of the four living ones, saying:" and though only one is named in the second seal, yet in the third a voice is said to be sounded in the midst of the four about the taxation of wheat and barley. They were all four present in reality; and the Lamb, or Spirit, was in the midst of them, attacking the Roman people and empire with sword, taxation, famine, pestilence, and beasts of the earth. And the pagans were not altogether unaware of this, for they charged the miseries of the times upon the christians. And they had unquestionably to do with them as being associated with the Lamb who opened and supervised the seals. Cyprian, in his letter to Demetrian, a heathen, endeavored to persuade him of the unreasonableness of the charge. But there was more reason in it than Cyprian knew; and if he had known, he might have made a powerful argument in favor of christianity, on account of so reasonable a fact.

Treating of the first eighteen years of Diocletian’s reign, and therefore the eighteen concluding years of the fourth seal-period, Milner says, after Eusebius: "During this period he was extremely indulgent to the christians. His wife Prisca and his daughter Valeria, were christians in some sense secretly. The eunuchs of his palace and his most important officers were christians; and their wives and families openly professed the gospel. Christians held honourable offices in various parts of the empire; innumerable crowds attended christian worship; the old buildings could no longer receive them; and in all cities wide and large edifices were erected."

The rider of the first seal was still "conquering" paganism; and a state of things had obtained indicating that the time was not far off when the coronal wreath or stephan, would adorn his brow. If the strength and beauty of christianity were to be measured by secular prosperity, here might be fixed the era of its greatness. "But, on the contrary, the era of its actual declension must be dated in the pacific part of Diocletian’s reign. During the whole third century the work of God, in purity and power, had been tending to decay. The connection with philosophers was one of the principal causes. Outward peace, and secular advantage completed the corruption. Ecclesiastical discipline was now relaxed exceedingly. Bishops and people were in a state of malice. Endless quarrels were fomented among contending parties; and ambition and covetousness had in general gained the ascendancy in the christian church. Some there were who mourned in secret, and strove in vain to stop the abounding torrent of the evil." These were the "little strength," and "the brethren" of the fifth seal. For the space of thirty years no bishop, or priest, among the catholics appeared eminent for piety, zeal, or labor. Eusebius, indeed, mentions the names and characters of several bishops; but he extols only their learning and philosophy, or their moral qualities. "Notwithstanding this decline, both of zeal and of principle; still christian worship was constantly attended; and the number of nominal converts was increasing after the fashion of our time; but the faith of Christ itself appeared a mere ordinary affair. And "here terminated," says Milner, "or nearly so, as far as appears, that great first effusion of the Spirit of God which began at the day of Pentecost. Human depravity effected throughout a general decay of godliness; and one generation of men elapsed with very slender proofs of the spiritual presence of Christ with the church."


Novatian's strict views existed before him and may be found in The Shepherd of Hermas.[4] After his death, the Novatianist sect spread rapidly and could be found in every province, and were very numerous in some places.[2] 

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