I’m no Indiana Jones, but I’ve been trying to get into the tomb of Novatian for over a decade now. Last May I got close, and in a few weeks, I’m going to try again…
If you don’t know the name Novatian, don’t feel bad. Most people either have never heard of him, or they only know him from a brief mention in a survey of early Christianity (and those almost never get him right). Novatian was the third century Roman priest who helped define orthodox christology and Trinitarian theology, almost got to be the bishop of Rome, and then created a schism that lasted at least two centuries. I first met him when I was looking for a dissertation topic. He seemed like the perfect guy to be the subject of my dissertation: a brilliant theologian, a hardline rigorist, a quirky, self-righteous but passionate man of God who tried to take matters into his own hands, and then everything slipped through his fingers.
Novatian was actually the acting bishop of Rome during a time of persecution in the middle of the third century. Bishop Fabian had been martyred in January of the year 250, and for almost a year and a half, no election could be held to choose the next bishop. During that time, Novatian functioned as the chair of the council of priests in Rome. It was his document On the Trinity that probably earned him that position. This document is the very definition of early Christian orthodoxy, taking his predecessors to the next level, and even anticipating later more famous theologians like St. Augustine. But when the persecution subsided, Novatian advocated excommunication for all those who had committed idolatry to save their lives. This was a minority position, so he lost the election for bishop of Rome, and a more pastoral priest was chosen. At this point Novatian was raised up as a rival bishop of Rome, or “anti-pope,” creating a separate ecclesial body that would eventually be the first group ever recognized as Christian, but not Catholic.
When you write a dissertation about a person, you spend years researching that person’s life and reading that person’s writings. So you come away from it feeling like you know that person. Therefore, I feel like Novatian is my third century friend. And like any real friend, you may understand him, but you don’t always agree with him. In fact, as I said in my recent book, “I see in him aspects of myself, some with which I’m comfortable, others not so much” (the book is Novatian of Rome and the Culmination of Pre-Nicene Orthodoxy, see www.Novatian.org).
So I’ve been on this quest to visit his tomb. Archaeologists have identified the tomb of someone named Novatian, in a catacomb on the outskirts of Rome. While there is no way to prove that this is my Novatian, I’m sufficiently confident that it is (for reasons that I explain in the book), and so the same career that I’ve spent writing about Novatian has also been spent trying to visit his last resting place. Last year I got this close – the photo is one I took of the entrance to the catacomb. According to the authorities who oversee catacombs in Rome, this particular catacomb cannot be visited because it’s considered unstable. But I remain undeterred.
Actually, I had to sneak into a locked garden to get this close. I found a gate that was left open, and trespassed my way over to the catacomb entrance. This picture was one of the last ones I took before the battery in my camera went dead. I eventually got closer, but of course the door into the catacomb was securely locked. Realistically, I would not have gone in without a guide anyway, but this is the closest I’ve ever gotten. I’m going back in a few weeks…
Novatian deserves to be more well known. Because of him, the west did not have some of the theological controversies that the eastern church had. Because of him, the west already knew about important theological concepts, like “consubstantial.” Also because of him (in the sense that he represented the wrong way of doing things), the Church was able to establish a way of reconciling apostates, and reassuring them that theirs was not the unforgiveable sin. In fact, the consensus of the Church would be that the real unforgiveable sin is schism.
* This blog post was originally published on the website of the American Society of Church History. Please note that Spiritual Blueprint: The Blog will be on hiatus for a few weeks, returning in June. Also, Novatian can be your friend, too! LIKE him on facebook:
(Disclaimer: Liking Novatian on facebook does not imply that you condone his schism! It only means that you think he’s an interesting guy who should be more famous.)