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Baptist History Notebook
By Berlin Hisel

Chapter 5

      Here is another group of our Baptist ancestors. Again, we do not claim kin with all of them any more than we claim kin with "all" of the people who go by the name Baptist today. We do claim that among them we find the true churches of our Lord Jesus Christ.

      This group of our ancestors takes their name after a preacher in Rome who lived from A. D. 210-280. Neander says that Novatian was "an eminent presbyter, who had acquired celebrity as a theological writer."1 Novatian composed many works. There are four that are extant. The two major ones are his work on the Trinity and his work on the Jewish meats. These are in the Anti-Nicene Fathers, volume 5. There are several works written against him that exist today. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage wrote a lot against him.

      It is to be noted that much of what is written about him in the history books came from his enemies. "The biography of Novatian belongs to the ecclesiastical history of the third century. He was, or is reputed to have been, the founder of the sect which claimed for itself the name of 'Puritan' (Cathari). 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."2 This is a very honest statement.

      For those who are interested in the charges made against him and those charges refuted, please read Neander, Vol. 1, pages 237-248 and W.A. Jarrel.3 Anyone should be able to see that the best place to get the truth about someone would not be from their enemies. I like the words of Robert Robinson on this subject: "The character of the man ought no more to be taken from Cyprian, than his ought from

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the pagans, who by punning on his name called him Coprian, or the scavenger."4

The Novatian Rupture

      J.M. Carroll, in the Trail of Blood, says that in A. D. 251, the loyal churches declared non-fellowship with the churches that had fallen into the errors that we have mentioned in chapter 2. This is known as the Novatian Rupture and was primarily over two things: church discipline and what constitutes the idea and essence of a true church. As we examine the matter of these two questions, we will see that J.M. Carroll was correct. Let us see what led to the division in A.D. 251.

      We begin with a quote from the historian Kurtz.

      "In the Schism of Novatian, a Presbyter at Rome (251), the cause of dispute was an almost opposite character from that just described. Cornelius, Bishop of Rome, exercised a mild discipline; a practice opposed by a stricter party, under the presbyter Novatian. When Novatus of Carthage arrived at Rome, he joined the discontented party, although his own views on ecclesiastical discipline had been the very opposite of theirs, and incited them to separation. The strict party now chose Novatian as their bishop. Both parties appealed for recognition to the leading churches. Cyprian pronounced against Novatian, and contested the sectarian principles of his adherents, according to which the Church had not the right to assure forgiveness to the lapsed, or to those whom by gross sin, had broken their baptismal vows (though they admitted the possibility that, by the mercy of God, such persons might be pardoned). The Novatians also held that the Church, being a communion of pure persons, could not tolerate in its bosom any who were impure, nor readmit a person who had been excommunicated, even though he had undergone ecclesiastical discipline. On this ground the party called itself the cathari. Owing to the moral earnestness of their principles, even those bishops who took a different view from theirs were disposed to regard them more favourably; and almost through the whole Roman Empire

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Novatian communities sprung up, of which remnants existed so late as the sixth century." 5

     You can see how this controversy relates around church discipline and the nature of the true church. Novatian and his followers believed a church was to be pure (hence Puritan or Cathari) and discipline was the only way to achieve it. Baptismal Regeneration and Infant Baptism would surely place into the church lost people and a pure church could not be maintained.


     Next, we quote the German historian, Dr. John C. L. Gieseler. "The presbyter Novatian was dissatisfied with the choice of the bishop Cornelius at Rome (251) because Cornelius, in his opinion, had conducted himself with too great lenity toward the lapsed. In the controversy that now ensued, in which the Carthaginian presbyter Novatus proved particularly active in favor of Novatian, the latter returned to the old principle that none of the lapsed ought to be admitted to church communion. Hence arose a division in the church. Novatian was chosen bishop of his party at Rome. Though the other bishops, particularly Cyprian at Carthage, and Dionysius at Alexandria, stood on the side of Cornelius, yet many different countries joined the strict party. At first the Novatians (Cathari) declared themselves only against the readmission of the lapsi; but afterwards they fully returned to the old African notion, that all who had defiled themselves by gross sins after baptism should be forever excluded from the church, because the church itself would be tainted if they were received again. In accordance with this view they declared all other churches to have forfeited the rights of a Christian church; and baptized anew those who came over to them. This party was widely extended, and continued for a long time. In Phrygia they united with the remnant of the Montanists." 6

     Let us make a few observations from this quote, remembering that Gieseler follows Eusebus and others who would quickly side with Cyprian in this controversy. The charge that they were excluded forever from church

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fellowship is doubtful. They most probably demanded true repentance for having lapsed and watched those who were excluded for a long time. Even if they did (which is improbable) keep them out, that would be much better than allowing the impure to remain as members. This makes for weak churches as all in our day should know. It sounds like they were what all Baptists ought to be.

     Gieseler says they were joined by others in other countries. This would mean there were others in our countries who already believed what the Novatianists believed. There were true churches already opposing the heretical churches. He said they united with the Montanists and we have already seen that they were Baptists. He said these Novatianists regarded themselves as the true churches and the others as false. Is that not what Baptists (true Baptists) believe today?

Origin of Novatianism

     Albert Henry Newman has the following to say:

     "Origin of Novatianism. So far as the Novatianist party was a new party, it originated as follows: During the Decian persecution, many Christians in all parts of the empire denied the faith. At the close of the persecution, it was a most important question with the churches how to deal with the multitudes party, which was at this time predominant at Rome, was in favor of readmitting them without much delay or ceremony. An influential party, led by Novatian, opposed this laxity, and when they failed to carry their point in the church, withdrew, Novatian becoming bishop of the protesting party. The Novatianists had the sympathy of a large element in the North African churches, and they soon formed there a strong organization. In North Africa and in Asia Minor they probably absorbed most of the Montanist party, which was still important. This was certainly the case in Phrygia, the original home of Montanism. Novatianist congregations persisted till the fifth century or later."7

     Robert Robinson, in his work published in 1792, gives the following account: "The case in brief was this: Novatian was an elder in the church at Rome. He was a man of extensive learning, and held the same doctrine as the church

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did, and published several treaties in defence of what he believed. His address was eloquent and insinuating, and his morals were irreproachable. He saw with extreme pain the intolerable depravity of the church. Christians within the space of a very few years were caressed by one emperor, and persecuted by another. In seasons of prosperity many rushed into the church for base purposes. In times of adversity they denied the faith, and ran back to idolatry again. When the squall was over away they came again to the church with all their vices to deprave others by their examples. The bishops, fond of proselytes, encouraged all this, and transferred the attention of Christians from the old confederacy for virtue to vain shows at Easter, and other Jewish ceremonies, adulterated too with paganism. On the death of bishop Fabian, Cornelius, a brother elder, and a vehement partisan for taking in the multitude, was put in nomination. Novatian opposed him: but as Cornelius carried his election, and he saw no prospect of reformation, but on the contrary a tide of immorality pouring into the church, he withdrew, and a great many with him. Cornelius, irritated by Cyprian, who was just in the same condition through the remonstrances of virtuous men at Carthage, and who was exasperated beyond measure with one of his elders, named Nocatus, who had quitted Carthage, and had gone to Rome to espouse the cause of Novatian, called a council, and got a sentence of excommunication passed against Novatian. In the end, Novatian formed a church and was elected bishop. Great numbers followed his example, and all over the empire Puritan churches were constituted and flourished through the succeeding two hundred years. Afterward, when penal laws obliged them to lurk in corners, and worship God in private, they were distinguished by a variety of names and a succession of them continued until the reformation."8

     The churches believing these doctrines were the true churches. The others were the false ones that developed into the Roman Catholic Church. Novatian, Novatus and others like them, did not invent those doctrines of church discipline and a pure church. They only ably expounded them. People believing the truth existed all over the empire so churches sprang up everywhere, ". . . which, on account of the severity

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of its discipline, was followed by many, and flourished until the fifth century, in the greatest part of those provinces which had received the gospel."9 So writes Mosheim, the father of Modern Church History.

J. M. Cramp

     We will look at one other general account of Novatian and the Novatian Rupture. We will hear the voice of J. M. Cramp, one of the finest Baptist historians:

     "Novatian possessed such talent and zeal that he became a popular teacher. On the death of Fabiar, bishop of Rome, in the year 250, there was a strong desire that Novatian should succeed him, and he would have done so, had it not been for his known sentiments on one point. Lax habits of discipline, as he believed, had grown up, and were very mischievous in their tendencies. In the Decian persecution great numbers had apostatized who, in the return of tranquility, sought readmission into the churches. Novatian differed from his brethren on this subject. He held that apostasy was a sin which wholly disqualified an individual for restoration to Christian fellowship, and that it would be destructive to the purity of the church to readmit those who had so grossly fallen. God might pardon them. They might find a place in heaven. But the church must not be defiled, for it is a congregation of saints. Now, whatever opinion we may form respecting Novatian's particular theory, it is undeniable that the principle on which it rested was derived from the New Testament. Yet, it was too spiritual for the times. A majority declared in favor of Cornelius, who was duly installed bishop of Rome. Nevertheless, the minority would not yield. The time had come - so they argued - for a decided stand. The holiness of the church was in danger, and must be maintained at all hazards. Separation was better than corruption. They withdrew, formed a separate church, and invited Novatian to become their pastor. Others imitated their example in various parts of the empire, and Novatian churches sprang up in great abundance. They continued in existence more than three centuries. In all the principle towns and cities, these dissenting communities might be found. They were the

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"Puritans" of those days, and were so designated. There was a wholesome rivalry for some time between them and the "Orthodox" or "Catholic" body, each separating as a stimulus and a check to the other."10

Their Doctrines

     We have noticed, at length, what the Novatian churches believed about church discipline and purity of the church. None can doubt but that they believed in a regenerated church membership. Since everyone at this early date (almost everyone) believed in and practiced immersion, they immersed for baptism. Since infant baptism was almost unheard of, they rejected it. From these observations alone we conclude they were Baptists.

     Newman says, "Believing the general churches of the time to be apostate, they naturally rejected their ordinances, and rebaptized those who came to them from churches with which they did not affiliate."11

     Vedder writes, "The Novatians were the earliest Anabaptists; refusing to recognize as valid the ministry and sacraments of their opponents, and claiming to be the true church, they were logically compelled to rebaptize all who came to them from the Catholic Church."12

     Robinson had the following to say about them: "The Novatians said, If you be a virtuous believer, and will accede to our confederacy against sin, you may be admitted among us by baptism, or if any Catholick has baptized you before, by rebaptism: but mark this, if you violate the contract by lapsing into idolatry or vice, we shall separate you from our community, and, do what you will, we shall never readmit you. God forbid we should injure either your person, your property, or your character, or even judge the truth of your repentance, and your future state: but you can never be readmitted to our community without our giving up the best and only coercive guardian we have of the purity of our morals."13

     We read in D. B. Ray's book: "The Novatians claimed no other standard of faith and practice except the Bible. Very little need be said on this point, as they have

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never been charged with appealing to any standard except the Scriptures. The Novatians were also called Paterines in after times; and they are known to have claimed the Scriptures alone as their rule of conduct. It is, therefore, taken for granted -unless proof to the contrary can be produce -that the Novatians possessed the Baptist characteristic that the Word of God alone is the rule of faith and practice."14

     Reading these quotes from the pages of the church historians is much like reading a Baptist Confession of Faith. It seems, without doubt to me, that the Novatians believed in the local church as opposed to a universal, invisible church. What they believed about church purity and church discipline demands such a belief. Neander, in seeking to defend Novatian and take the edge off his rigid discipline, writes something that convinces me that the Novatianists held the local church view. "Hence was it, that Novatian, transferring the predicate of purity and unspotted holiness, which belongs to the invisible church appears, drew the conclusion, that every community which suffered unclean members to remain in it, ceased to be any longer a true church."15

     Novatian transferred nothing. He believed a true church was composed of born-again people who had been baptized and were living holy lives. Folks, that is what a church is -nothing more or nothing less or nothing else. That is what true Baptists believe today, yesterday and tomorrow.


     The Novatianists, like all of our Baptist ancestors, suffered for their strong beliefs. William Manius Nevins writes of them: "At the conclusion of the fourth century, the Novatians had three, if not four, churches in Constantinople: they also had churches at Nice, Nicomedia, and Cotivetus, in Phrygia, all of them large and extensive bodies, besides which they were very numerous in the western empire. There were several churches in Alexandria in the fifth century. Here Cyril, ordained bishop of the Catholics, shut up the churches of the Novatians. They awakened the anger of the Catholics because they rebaptized all who came to them from the Catholics. An edict was issued in 413 by the emperors

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Theodosius and Honorius, declaring, that all persons rebaptized, and the rebaptizers should both be punished with death. Accordingly, Albanus, a zealous minister, with others, was punished with death for baptizing. As a result of the persecution at this time, many abandoned the cities and sought retreats in the country and valleys of the Piedmont, where later they were called Waldenses."16

     Concerning the edict of Theodosius, persecution and Baptist perpetuity, I should like to give the following quote from van Braght: "A.D. 413 -As those Christians greatly increased, who valued only the baptism which is administered upon faith, and, consequently rebaptized (as not having been baptized aright) those who had been baptized by unbelievers or in infancy, when they attained to the true faith, the Emperor Theodosius, A.D. 413, issued an edict against the Anabaptists, commanding they should be put to death.

     "But lest anyone should think that the people who, under the name Anabaptists, where threatened with death by the Emperor Theodosius, held, with regard to the point, views different from those maintained by the Baptists of the present day, who are likewise called Anabaptists, it is expedient to mention what was said about their views by the inquisitor of Leeuwaerden, in opposition to one of our latest martyrs, namely, Jagues d' Auchi. When Jagues wanted the inquisitor, who appealed to the Emperor's edict, to prove that the said edict was just or founded on holy Scripture, the inquisitor made this reply to him: 'I believe you think that all our fathers were deceived, and that your sect is saved: what do you say? It is now 1200 or 1300 years since the Emperor Theodosius issued an edict, that the heretics should be put to death, namely, those who were rebaptized like your sect.'

     "When, therefore, the inquisitor says that they 'were rebaptized like your sect' he certainly indicates thereby, that they were people like Jagues d' Auchi was, and consequently, like the Anabaptists who at that time, namely, A.D. 1558, gave their lives for the truth."17

     How very clear is this, then, that the Novatians were Baptists. How clear that they continued on as Anabaptists. Martyrs' Mirror was published in 1660. van Braght gives the whole of the inquisition of d' Auchi and his martyrdom on

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pages 591-611 of his book. Let me repeat one more time, "Everyone should buy and read Martyrs Mirror." Herald Press of Scottsdale, Pa., has reprinted it. C. H. Spurgeon: "Novatian held that apostasy was a sin which disqualified them from again entering into church fellowship, and to secure a pure community, he formed a separate church, which elected him for its pastor. The purer churches multiplied, and continued in existence for more than three centuries, the members being everywhere looked upon as Puritans and Dissenters. They were Anabaptists, baptizing again all who had been immersed by the orthodox and corrupt church. The Novatianists, then, were Baptists."18

Notes on Chapter 5

1 History of the Christian Religion and Church, Volume I, page 237.
2 The Anti-Nicene Fathers, Volume 5, page 608.
3 Baptist Church Perpetuity or History, pages 77-78.
4 Ecclesiastical Researchers, page 126.
5 Church History, pages 134-135.
6 A Compendium of Ecclesiastical History, Volume 1, pages 284-285.
7 A Manual of Church History, Volume 1, page 207.
8 Ecclesiastical Researches, pages 126 and 127.
9 Church History, page 74.
10 Baptist History, pages 55-57.
11 A Manual of Church History, Volume 1, page 207.
12 Short History of the Baptists, page 64.
13 Ecclesiastical Researchers, pages 127-128.
14 Baptist Succession, page 315.
15 History of the Christian Religion and Church, Volume 1, page 247.
16 Alien Baptism & the Baptists, page 49.
17 Martyrs Mirror, page 190.
18 The Sword & the Trowel, Vol. 2, page 92.

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