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Novatians also known as “Novatian schism, Novatianism” Alexopoulos, Lampros


One of the oldest schisms in the Early Church is the Novatian schism. After the persecution of Decius (249- 250) arose a disagreement within the Church of Rome about the way to accept the Christians who denied their Christian faith, because of the persecutions and the pressure to worship pagan idols. The result of this disagreement was the Novatian schism (251). Novatian (or Novatus) was a scholar (Stoic philosopher before his conversion to Christianity), who became a priest and a noted theologian and prolific writer. He was the first Roman theologian who used the Latin language. After the death of the Bishop of Rome Fabianus (236-250), who was killed in prison, the administration of the local Church was taken over by elders and deacons, with Novatian as their head. With the end of the persecutions of Decius the elders faced the question of the admission to the Church of those who had lapsed and wished to return to the Christian faith, as well as the issue of their penance. They thus adopted the so-called lifelong penance, meaning that the lapsed would be accepted to the Church on their deathbed. 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. Although Novatian was an eminent theologian in Rome and had a hand in running the Church after the death of Fabian, the moderate Roman aristocrat Cornelius (251-253) was elected. Cornelius adopted a more lenient attitude towards those who did not sacrifice to idols, but refused Christianity in a written declaration. The lapsed could be restored to communion after varying forms of repentance, demonstrated by a period of penance. Those who supported a more rigorous position, however, had Novatian consecrated as bishop and refused to recognize Cornelius as Bishop of Rome. In 251, Cornelius assembled a council of sixty bishops in Rome to acknowledge him as the rightful pope and excommunicated Novatian, as well as all of his followers, while the council settled also the question of the lapsed. While Novatian had refused redemption to the those who had renounced their Christianity under persecution but later wanted to return to the Church, his followers extended the doctrine to include all “mortal sins”, such as idolatry, murder, and adultery, or fornication. Many of them forbade second marriage as well. The repentance of these groups was lifelong in the broadest sense, that is, until the Second Coming, when the Lord Himself would judge them. Novatians considered the baptism of the clergy under the Bishop Cornelius invalid, so they and baptized those who joined their sect. Intolerant and authoritarian himself, Novatian forced his followers to swear that they would not follow Cornelius of Rome. Novatian died in 258, probably during Valerian’s persecutions. After his death, Novatianist churches continued to thrive side by side with the orthodox churches up to the fifth century in the West and up to the eighth century in the East, particularly in Asia Minor. In the West, Novatianist communities with their own bishops spread from Rome and Africa as far as Spain. Those who allied themselves with his doctrines were called Novatianists, but they called themselves “Catharoi” or “Purists” (not to be confused with the later Cathars) to reflect their desire not to be identified with what they regarded as the lax and tolerant practices of a corrupt ecclesiastical power. They always had a successor of Novatian at Rome. Some Novatians blended with the Montanists and, mostly in the East, many of the cities of Phrygia (former stronghold of the Montanists) had Novatianist bishops. The last of their communities survived till the end of the seventh century.

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