It might be said that last week’s subject – the churches of the Montanists – were a REACTION to the growing false doctrines and unbiblical practices in some areas of Christendom. While that is not altogether untrue, it must be emphasized that the Montanists considered their churches to be true to the New Testament example. They were simply carrying on in the doctrines and authority of the churches established by Christ and His apostles. While certainly protesting the Alexandrian heresies and the Roman ecclesiastical system, they were not protestant churches, but the true original churches. I concluded last week’s lesson with a quote from a Protestant historian named Möller and another from the Baptist W.A. Jarrel. Möller wrote “Montanism was….not a new form of Christianity; nor were the Montanists a new sect. On the contrary, Montanism was simply a reaction of the old, the primitive church, against the obvious tendency of the day, to strike a bargain with the world and arrange herself comfortably in it.” Then Jarrel followed that with, “That the Montanist churches were Baptist churches is the only legitimtate conclusion from their comparison with the facts…..”
In time, the name “Montanism” spread from Phrygia in Turkey in every direction – south into Egypt and across northern Africa, towards the east, and northwest into Italy and other parts of Europe. That success was not because of the arise of new churches necessarily, but because the older, sound churches, which opposed Rome and Alexandria were being given the “Montanist” label. It was not a name chosen by themselves, despite the fact that they eventually accepted it. It was a name given to them by those who hated Montanus – his doctrines and his practices. Not only did the name “Montanism” extend throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, it extended for a couple of hundred years.
And during that time came a man named Novatian.
In about the year 250, a hundred years after Montanus, there was a man in Rome who was converted to Christ while on his death bed. Novatian had been a well-known and distinguished Pagan philosopher. History tells us that he became very, very sick, but it hasn’t told us what his disease was. Like Hezekiah, he turned to the Lord while in this dying state, and Christ slowly healed him. Apparently there was no instantaneous miracle in his case, but once he began to seek the blessing of Christ Jesus, his condition improved. And with that he became more and more interested in the Lord, in the Bible and in the doctrines of Christianity. That he was truly converted is attested by what writings of his which have endured – accurately reflecting the Word of God. After he left his sick-bed, and as he began to mature in the Lord, he picked up the mantle of Montanus and began preaching faith in the Christ and purity of life.
Now, here is an anomaly for which I have no absolute explanation – In his naivete, while trusting Christ to save him but still near the point of death, Novatian asked for baptism. Armitage says that his was the first recorded departure from immersion in baptism. His was the first known case of “clinic baptism” – the “baptism” of someone who was believed to be dying. Considering baptism to be extremely important, whether or not he thought it contributed to salvation, the dying man talked someone into helping him. While stretched out on his bed, buckets of water were brought in and water was poured all around him, inclosing his body, before even more was pour all over him until he was thoroughly drenched. It was as near to immersion as possible under the circumstances without actually being true immersion.
How do we explain or justify this? From my Baptist standpoint, justification is impossible – it was not immersion and therefore not baptism. But it might be that all this is a lie created by Novatian’s enemies in order to destroy his credibility. Another explanation might be that as he matured and recovered, that he was later scripturally immersed. We do have in his writings some clearly worded statements about the nature of baptism. True baptism – scriptural baptism – is the dipping in water of a believer under the authority of one of Christ’s churches. Certainly, in Rome at that time, there was no such thing as sprinkling, and there was no baptism of infants. A century later, Boniface, the bishop of the church in Rome was asking Augustine about infant baptism, as though it was a novelty.
Robinson’s “Researches” describes the conditions of Christianity in Italy in the third century. “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 example. 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 a thousand other Jewish ceremonies, adulterated, too, with paganism.”
Novatian was one of several elders in the church at Rome before the formation of Roman Catholicism. When, Fabian, the bishop of the church died, the names of two men were set forward to replace him – Novatian and a man named Cornelius. Cornelius was of the party that encouraged the church to accept without question the returning shallow, secular professing Christians, while Novatian demanded that they be rejected outright. Cornelius, who became an implacable enemy of Novation, was elected to become pastor of the church. And when in power, he took steps to excommunicate his theological opponent.
When other godly members of the church in Rome saw that Novatian was no longer welcome, they associated with him, and a new congregation was formed. Cornelius accused Novatian of forming a new church out of jealousy and spite, but that was not the case. Soon as other believers saw what happened in Rome, and they too took their stand for truth – for the old doctrines and ancient practices. There were churches across Italy and elsewhere which expelled members with their pagan doctrines, thus purifying their congregations. And there were others who left churches which had sunk too far into sinful practices, making purification impossible. Robinson says – “Great numbers followed (Novatian’s) example, and all over the empire Puritan churches were constituted, and flourished through the succeeding two hundred years. Afterward, when penal laws obligated them to lurk in corners and worship God in private, they were distinguished by a variety of names and a succession of them continued til the Reformation.”
The Novatian churches.
Jarrel says, “so we discover that Novatian had nothing more to do with the organization of the Novatian churches throughout the empire than the force of example. And, as in all such cases, no doubt, when the line of separation was drawn, some churches sided with the popular party, while others were numbered with those called Novatian.” He says, the Novatian period extended from about the middle of the third century to the middle of the fifth.
I don’t think that I can emphasize enough the great success – the immediate success – of the churches to which the name “Novatian” was applied. They were quickly springing up all over the Roman Empire from Israel to Spain; from France to Africa. And these sheer numbers remind us that this was not some new movement spurred on by the appeal of a charismatic leader with a television ministry and a million Facebook friends. The success of these churches was due to the fact that these were the original churches. The example in one city was followed in an adjacent town and then in a third. This was a call, not to reform, but to a return to the way things had been for more than two hundred years. And the return was not a huge step backward, but a relatively small one. Grandparents, if not moms and dads in their youth, had been in churches like the Novatians and Montanists, and many of those people had been persecuted for it. Novatianism was just a return to original Christian roots.
The Lutheran, August Neander, a hundred fifty years ago, characterized the Novatian controversy in this way: The Novatian churches refused to readmit former members who had apostatized into paganism and idolatry. While acknowledging that God might forgive them personally, they refused to restore them to church fellowship. Orchard described the Novatian invitation to prospective members this way – “If you wish to join any of our churches, you may be admitted among us by baptism; but observe, that if you fall away into idolatry or vice, we shall separate you from our communion, and on no account can you be readmitted among us. We shall never attempt to injure you, in your person, property or character; we do not presume to judge the sincerely of your repentance, or your future state; but you can never be readmitted to the fellowship of our churches without giving up the securest guardian we have for the purity of our communion.”
Neander concluded his thoughts with – “As the mark of purity and holiness is one of the essential marks of a true church, every church which, neglecting the right use of church discipline suffers those who have violated their baptismal vow by great sins to remain in the mist of her, or to receive them into her again, ceases thereby to be a true church, and loses all the rights and advantages of such a church. The Novatianists, therefore, as they claimed to be the only unstained pure church, called themselves ‘oi katharoi’ – ‘the pure.’” “Cathari” is one of the titles of later Christian people. The Protestant, Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia in its article about Novatian says – “It is unquestionable that the Novatians retained many of the most valuable remnants of the old traditions, and their idea of the church was as a communion of the saints corresponds exactly to the idea prevalent in the first days of christendom.” And anoother Protestant Encyclopedia affirms that the Novatians have “just claims to be regarded as the pure, uncorrupted and apostolic Church of Christ.” After recording that quote, Jarrel then added, “This unites the Baptist history to the apostolic churches of Jesus Christ in the first century.” And Orchard wrote – “The churches thus formed upon a plan of strict communion and rigid discipline, obtained the reproach of Puritans; they were the oldest body of Christian churches of which we have any account; and a succession of them, we shall prove, has continued ot the present day. Novatian’s example had a powerful influence, and Puritan churches rose in different parts in quick succession. So early as 254 these dissenters are complained of as having infected France with their doctrine, which will aid us in the Albigensean churches, where the same severity of discipline is traced and reprobated.” And Cramp added – “We may safely infer that they abstained from compliance with the innovations, and that the Novatian churches were what are now called Baptist churches, adhering to the apostolic and primitive practice.” It needs to be understood that while some churches refused to receive any traditors, others were willing to accept some of them – but it was upon their re-baptism. They were anabaptists.
We have no record of what became of Novatian. It is suggested that he was martyred, but of that we have no proof. But we do have proof that the churches to which his name was applied were for the most part true churches of Christ and they persisted to exist until the days of Waldenses and Albigenses. Fifteen hundred years ago, many of the people of God were called “Novatians.”