NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 14.1
Today and next week the selection from Tom Lee's manuscript is from a short chapter entitled "Two Asps in One Basket". It looks at the activities of the two like-named stirrers, Novatus and Novatian, or made life a little difficult for Bishops Cornelius and Cyprian. As though Bishops of the time needed these sort of vipers given the pressure the Romans continued to place on Christians.
Two Asps in One Basket– Part 14.1
Novatus and Novatian — like two asps…
In the midst of the persecution initiated by the Emperor Decius, while Bishop Cyprian of Carthage was lurking incognito around his vicious city, one of his rigorist parishioners, Novatus, came to Rome to complain about his bishop's cowardice and to enlist the aid of the Council of Presbyters who were running the Roman church. Novatus wanted their support against Cyprian, whom he thought should be boldly and publicly defending his faith before the Roman magistrates.
Novatus apparently got short shrift from the Roman presbyters who had problems enough of their own without interfering in the affairs of another church. The most likely to be elected among their number, named Moses, had been captured and jailed and died in prison soon after. But Novatus gained a sympathetic hearing from one of the electors, a former Stoic philosopher, who had become a presbyter, and bore a similar name, Novatian.
As the Christian mission penetrated the upper classes the proportion of Latin-speaking Christians in Rome had begun to outnumber the Greeks. Novatian was one of these Latins and he'd written a well-composed tract on the Trinity that summarized Tertullian's speculative doctrine on the subject. The heated debates on the subject of the Trinity had cooled, at least temporarily, but would soon be rekindled on another front.
Novatian may have come to Christianity from Neo-Platonism. Plotinus (205-270), a Greek from Alexandria, opened his school of philosophy at Rome in 244, and taught a non-Christian blend of Stoic ethics and Aristotelian logic combined with Platonic metaphysics that later became known as Neo-Platonism. A friend of Origen, Plotinus regarded the inner mind of every man as a manifestation of God and believed in the necessity of the soul's liberation from all fleshly desires. He extolled the ideal of absolute purity, but he was much more lenient and indulgent to his followers than Novatian.
A bitter spring...
The early church had been ruled by strict discipline and many had considered it impossible for anyone to gain forgiveness of sins committed after baptism, and especially forbade the readmission to the Church of repentant apostates. The faithful believed that there was no penance that could atone for past treachery. Novatian held to this strict ethic, ignoring the Gospel record of Jesus' forgiveness without penalty. Indulging in rhetorical flagellations, he was to be the last vocal advocate of such strictures in the early Western Church.
When Emperor Decius was forced to rush to the Danube to try and cope with another Gothic invasion that led to his death, the Roman presbyters seized the opportunity to elect a new bishop. Apparently the choice no longer resided with the whole community; for practical reasons it had become an exclusively clerical decision. Their choice after the fourteen-month interregnum fell on a seemingly pleasant enough fellow called Cornelius. This was in April 251, but it was to prove a bitter spring.
Like Novatian, Cornelius was a Roman aristocrat, but he was markedly soft on sinners and began to readmit apostates. Novatian did not approve. Victim of an exalted, self-deluding fanaticism, he secured the support of other puritanical pedants like himself, including the Carthaginian, Novatus, and managed, by surprisingly underhand methods, considering his holier-than-thou self-estimate, to have himself made a bishop in direct opposition to Cornelius — becoming in effect the second anti-pope. Novatian and Novatus venomously intertwined like two asps in the one basket, each of them initiating verbal and written onslaughts against his rightful bishop.
The bewildered Cornelius, provoked to a little spite himself, wrote to Bishop Fabius of Antioch describing the manner of Novatian's election:
"This master of doctrine, this champion of the Church's discipline, when he was attempting to wrest and filch away the episcopate ... chose to himself two companions who had renounced their own salvation, that he might send them to a small and very insignificant part of Italy, and entice thence by some made-up device three bishops, rough and very simple men ... When they arrived ... they were shut up by certain disorderly men like himself, and at the tenth hour, when they were drunk, and sick with the after effects, he forcibly compelled them to give him a bishop's office by a counterfeit and vain laying on of hands ... One of the bishops not long afterwards returned to the Church, bewailing his fault; with whom we had communion as a layman, all the laity present interceding for him. And as for the remaining bishops, to these we appointed successors, whom we sent into the places where they were."
Councils of bishops at Rome, at Antioch and in North Africa, confirmed Cornelius as the rightful bishop of Rome and condemned Novatian. Not surprisingly Cornelius of Rome and Cyprian of Carthage came to each other's defense. Most of the presbyters and deacons of the Roman Church were well-disposed towards Cyprian, whom they'd written to during the interregnum asking for his advice, and addressing him as "most blessed and glorious Pope".
The strength of the Christian Church in Africa…
From about 100 to 600 the Christian Church in Africa was one of the great bulwarks of the faith, a church with millions of adherents, hundreds of bishops and an imposing list of martyrs and leaders. This powerful organization covered the whole of Northern Africa from the mountains of Ethiopia to the shores of the Atlantic. Yet it was wiped out almost overnight, except for the remnant of the Copts in Egypt and the Ethiopians in their mountain fastness, by the conquest of the Muslim Arabs from the seventh century onwards.
In response to the situation of the schism and anti-pope at Rome, Cyprian wrote his famous treatise On the Unity of the Church. In this document, Cyprian is the first of the early fathers to recognize Cornelius as succeeding to St. Peter's episcopal chair, but he is not conscious of this giving the Bishop of Rome any jurisdiction over other churches or any special prerogatives. For Cyprian, no bishop had jurisdiction over another bishop. "The episcopate is one, of which each singly holds a part, being jointly and severally responsible."
The Order of Widows and Virgins…
There were a great number of women in the Order of Widows and Virgins at Rome in 260 consecrated to the divine mysteries. Fifteen hundred widows are cited in a letter of Pope Cornelius. Some would have been deaconesses and others canonnesses. The latter lived in community in service to a particular church. Others lived singly in private apartments. They actively participated in the administration and service of the Church. The church at Rome had about 50,000 members at that time.
The death of Emperor Decius gave the church only a momentary respite from persecution; Gallus his successor enforced still more rigorously the laws against Christians. Bishop Cornelius was apprehended at Rome and died after six months imprisonment. He was not at first considered a martyr, but subsequent hagiographers would claim that he was. His successor, Lucius, was sent into exile almost immediately after his election in June 253. Then a new emperor, Valerian, came to power and granted limited toleration to Christianity. Lucius was sent home and became one of the very few early bishops of Rome to die in his bed, on the fifth of March 254, a year which also saw the demise of the great theologian Origen, at Caesarea.
NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 14.1
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