The Novatianists were early Christians followers of Novatian, who held a strict view that refused readmission to communion of Lapsi, those baptized Christians who had denied their faith or performed the formalities of a ritual sacrifice to the pagan gods, under the pressures of the persecution sanctioned by Emperor Decius, in AD 250. The Novationists were declared heretical.
After the martyrdom of Pope Fabian during the Decian persecution, a Roman priest, Novatian, opposed the election of Pope Cornelius in 251, on the grounds that Cornelius was too liberal in accepting lapsed Christians. Novatian held that lapsed Christians, who had not maintained their confession of faith under persecution, may not be received again into communion with the church. He was consecrated bishop by three bishops of Italy and presented himself as Bishop of Rome. He and his followers were excommunicated by a synod held at Rome in October of the same year. Novatian is said to have suffered martyrdom under the Emperor Valerian I (253–60).
Novatian should not be confused with one Novatus, a priest of Carthage, who advocated re-admitting the "lapsi" without an enforced penance. Cyprian of Carthage came to a position opposed to both and advocated a council be held to establish a policy under which former idolaters could be once again admitted to communion with the church.
Lardner argues that Eusebius and the Greeks in general were correct in calling the Roman presbyter Novatus, not Novatianus. He attributes the origin of the latter name to Cyprian, who called the Roman presbyter Novatianus, as being a follower of his own rebellious priest, Novatus of Carthage.
Novatianism after Novatian
Novatian's strict views existed before him and may be found in The Shepherd of Hermas. After his death, the Novatianist sect spread rapidly and could be found in every province, and were very numerous in some places. Those who allied themselves with the doctrines of Novatian were called Novatianists. However, they called themselves καθαροι ("katharoi") or "Purists" (not to be confused with the later Cathars) reflecting their desire not to be identified with what they considered the lax practices of a corrupted and what was hitherto a universal Church.
While Novatian had refused absolution to the "lapsi" (those who had renounced their Christianity under persecution but later wanted to return to the church), his followers extended this doctrine to include all "mortal sins" (idolatry, murder, and adultery, or fornication). Most of them forbade second marriage. They always had a successor of Novatian at Rome, and everywhere they were governed by bishops.
Because Novatianists (including Novatian) did not submit to the bishop of Rome, they were labeled by Rome as schismatics. Additionally, Rome also labeled Novatianists heretics for denying that the Church had the power to grant absolution in certain cases (such as to the lapsi). Beyond that, their practices were the same as that of the universal Church, including monasticism in the fourth century.
In the 4th and 5th centuries, the Donatists of North Africa maintained a similar belief about Christians who had lapsed under the pressures of persecution. They too were declared heretics.
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- Chapman, John. "St. Cyprian of Carthage." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 24 February 2016
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