Novatian of Rome famously authored a treatise on the Trinity in the early third century, about a hundred years prior to the Nicene controversy. This work is of much interest as a relative rarity- the ante-nicenes did not write as much on the Trinity overall as later fathers would, nor did their writing that dealt with the Trinity usually appear in a treatise directed specifically toward that subject, rather than as part of an overview of Christian doctrine.
Novatian’s treatise gives us a detailed account of what third century trinitarian orthodoxy looked like, and as such is interesting to compare with what would become the orthodoxies of the Nicene and post-nicene eras. We can assume that the views expressed in his treatise were considered orthodox by the church at the time he wrote, both because of the way he himself speaks in the treatise, as representing the orthodoxy of the catholic church, and also because, due to the fact that Novatian was already a highly controversial figure during his time, had what he wrote fallen short of the orthodoxy of his era, his numerous and powerful opponents would have had both ample reason and ability to expose and condemn what he wrote as heretical.
Understanding Novatian’s trinitarian theology, then, helps us understand what would have been considered within the bounds of trinitarian orthodoxy of the church a century prior to Nicea.
Novatian’s treatise is thirty-one chapters long, beginning with a description of God, dealing with His attributes and roles, in which Novatian makes it clear that this one God is both Father and Creator. He emphasizes God’s uniqueness and transcendence, with special focus given to God’s utter uniqueness in being without origin, cause, or beginning. From God’s ‘unoriginateness’, Novatian argues in chapter four that He is immutable, since that which is without birth or creation cannot change. From this He argues that God is simple, immortal, and incorruptible. This may be noted to strongly resemble the arguments that Arius would later make, emphasizing the Father’s uniqueness in contrast even with the Son, and proclaiming that the Son, since He was begotten, was mutable.
In the same chapter Novatian argues that God (the Father) alone is infinite, because it is impossible that there should be two infinites.
After spending considerable time on the one God, the Father, Novatian turns to examine the Son beginning in chapter nine, giving a detailed examination of His manhood and Godhood. Novatian does not follow the same train of thought Arius later would; despite having proclaimed that only that which was without origin is immutable and immortal, proclaims that the Son according to His divinity was immortal and incorruptible. Thus we see in the trinitarianism of the early third century the seeds of each party of the fourth century, at once saying things that would later be applauded by both Arians and Homoousians, which neither side would consider compatible.
In the respect to the incarnation Novation in chapter twenty-four Novatian expressly mentions that the Son, as being both God and man, has two substances. In this respect he foreshadows Chalcedonian christology nicely. Yet Novatian goes about declaring the Son to have both a human substance and a divine substance, one from His human mother, and one from God His Father, in a way that later ‘orthodoxy’ would utterly reject.
Firstly we may note that Novatian strongly implies that the Son was human and had a human nature inasmuch that He had a human body- yet by all appearances, he seems to have thought that in Christ the pre-existent Logos took the place of a human soul. We see this in chapter 25:
“When, therefore, Christ is understood to be mingled and associated as well of that which God is, as of that which man is — for the Word was made flesh, and dwelt in us— who cannot easily apprehend of himself, without any teacher and interpreter, that it was not that in Christ that died which is God, but that in Him died which is man? For what if the divinity in Christ does not die, but the substance of the flesh only is destroyed, when in other men also, who are not flesh only, but flesh and soul, the flesh indeed alone suffers the inroads of wasting and death, while the soul is seen to be uncorrupted, and beyond the laws of destruction and death?”
Other men, Novatian says, have both flesh and soul, in contrast to the Son, Who was the Word and flesh, apparently lacking a human soul.
This carries heavy implications of course for Novatian’s understanding of the Son’s divine nature as well. If the Son were homoousias with the Father, ontologically identical to Him in essence, one would expect that the Son would be infinite and transcendent like the Father, not able to merely take the place of a human soul in a human body, but in some inexplicable way being united to a whole human being.
But Novatian does not leave us to wonder based on this if he thinks the Son’s divine nature is identical to that of the Father. After briefly turning attention to the Holy Spirit as a third distinct person in chapter twenty-nine, and enumerating His operations, Novatian spends the remaining two chapters giving a detailed apology to both Modalists and Ebionites, as to how the Son can be a second person Who is God in addition to the Father, while there is only one God.
In it, in chapter thirty-one which I will quote at full length below, Novatian adds a great deal of clarity to his christology. The Father is the one God, the Son is a distinct person (rational individual being), begotten of Him before creation, through Whom creation was made. The Son is thus co-eternal with the Father, yet is from the Father as His Cause and Beginning. The Son is subordinate to the Father, the one God, and thus does not in any way make a second God.
In respect to causality, the Son is subordinate as being caused by the Father, Who is Himself the uncaused Cause of all. The Son is also subordinate to the Father in authority, a divine monarchy being laid out as in the other ante-nicenes, in which monotheism is argued to consist not so much in their being one ontological nature shared by the persons of the Trinity, but by the fact that the Father, the one God, has authority (that is, Godhood) over all things, both His Son, and over the whole created universe made through Him, even while the Son, as the firstborn Son of the Father through Whom are all things, enjoys God-given authority over the created universe.
Additionally, according to Novatian the Son is subordinate to the Father in ontological attributes. His nature is not “the same nature”, ‘homoousias’, with the Father, but is described as being of “like nature with the Father in some measure” (Ch 31). Simply saying ‘like nature’ would be somewhat ambiguous, and allow for some essential differences. But when it is added that His nature is like that of the Father not entirely or completely, but “in some measure”, it is clear that Novatian does not believe the Son to be ontologically equal with the Father. Or perhaps better said, as noted earlier, it appears third century ante-nicene ‘orthodoxy’ did not assert that the Son was ontologically equal with the Father.
A bit later in the same chapter, Novatian specifies again that the Son is not ontologically equal with His Father in His divine attributes, in his thinking. Novatian declares that the Son does not make a second God because while the Father is invisible, the Son is visible, thus proclaiming an inequality. Likewise Novatian says the Son does not share the attribute of incomprehensibility with the Father, nor whatever other attributes belong to the Father specifically. For all this, see chapter thirty-one quoted in full at the end of this article.
In conclusion, for Novatian, the Son is God and man, not merely “God” in respect to dominion (although he does give focus to that), but also in substance. Yet this is not consubstantiality, but the assertion that the Son is of a similar nature to the Father. As to the Son being “God” in reference to the Son’s authority, much attention is also given. Novatian says that the Son was begotten of the Father for the very purpose that He might be God and Lord (both there terms signifying dominion and authority, not nature), and deals with this relationship of authority in detail at the end of chapter thirty-one, where he teaches that the Son is subject to the Father as His God, being under His authority, while the Father has given the Son Godhood (dominion) over all creation, which the Son exercises according to the Father’s will, and on His behalf.
In this context, divinity is clearly being spoken of as authority. Novatian declares that there is no inequality or dissonance between the divinity of the Father and the Son relative to creation; both are God over creation, the authority the Son exercises over creation being the Father’s own authority. The reason given for this equality is not essence, but is given: “For all things being subjected to Him as the Son by the Father, while He Himself, with those things which are subjected to Him, is subjected to His Father, He is indeed proved to be Son of His Father; but He is found to be both Lord and God of all else.” A little later Novatian goes on to speak of the Son “remit[ting] to the Father the whole authority of His divinity”. The Father glorifies the Son with divinity (that is, dominion) over creation, while the Son continually refers that authority back to His own Father, Who is also His God.
Whatever Novatian believed of did not believe, of course, does not make any given doctrine true. We must ascertain what is true from the holy scriptures, not fallible men. This article is not meant as an endorsement of Novatian’s theology, especially respecting the Son’s essential subordination to the Father. It is, however, of great relevance to historical theology to note the differences between ante-nicene orthodoxy and post-nicene orthodoxy.
“Thus God the Father, the Founder and Creator of all things, who only knows no beginning, invisible, infinite, immortal, eternal, is one God; to whose greatness, or majesty, or power, I would not say nothing can be preferred, but nothing can be compared; of whom, when He willed it, the Son, the Word, was born, who is not received5297 in the sound of the stricken air, or in the tone of voice forced from the lungs, but is acknowledged in the substance of the power put forth by God, the mysteries of whose sacred and divine nativity neither an apostle has learnt, nor prophet has discovered, nor angel has known, nor creature has apprehended. To the Son alone they are known, who has known the secrets of the Father. He then, since He was begotten of the Father, is always in the Father. And I thus say always, that I may show Him not to be unborn, but born. But He who is before all time must be said to have been always in the Father; for no time can be assigned to Him who is before all time. And He is always in the Father, unless the Father be not always Father, only that the Father also precedes Him,—in a certain sense,—since it is necessary—in some degree—that He should be before He is Father. Because it is essential that He who knows no beginning must go before Him who has a beginning;5298 even as He is the less as knowing that He is in Him, having an origin because He is born, and of like nature with the Father in some measure by His nativity, although He has a beginning in that He is born, inasmuch as He is born of that Father who alone has no beginning. He, then, when the Father willed it, proceeded from the Father, and He who was in the Father came forth from the Father; and He who was in the Father because He was of the Father, was subsequently with the Father, because He came forth from the Father,—that is to say, that divine substance whose name is the Word, whereby all things were made, and without whom nothing was made. For all things are after Him, because they are by Him. And reasonably, He is before all things, but after the Father, since all things were made by Him, and He proceeded from Him of whose will all things were made. Assuredly God proceeding from God, causing a person second to the Father as being the Son, but not taking from the Father that characteristic that He is one God. For if He had not been born—compared with Him who was unborn, an equality being manifested in both—He would make two unborn beings, and thus would make two Gods. If He had not been begotten—compared with Him who was not begotten, and as being found equal—they not being begotten, would have reasonably given two Gods, and thus Christ would have been the cause of two Gods. Had He been formed without beginning as the Father, and He Himself the beginning of all things as is the Father, this would have made two beginnings, and consequently would have shown to us two Gods also. Or if He also were not the Son, but the Father begetting from Himself another Son, reasonably, as compared with the Father, and designated as great as He, He would have caused two Fathers, and thus also He would have proved the existence of two Gods. Had He been invisible, as compared with the Invisible, and declared equal, He would have shown forth two Invisibles, and thus also He would have proved them to be two Gods. If incomprehensible, if also whatever other attributes belong to the Father, reasonably we say, He would have given rise to the allegation of two Gods, as these people feign. But now, whatever He is, He is not of Himself, because He is not unborn; but He is of the Father, because He is begotten, whether as being the Word, whether as being the Power, or as being the Wisdom, or as being the Light, or as being the Son; and whatever of these He is, in that He is not from any other source, as we have already said before, than from the Father, owing His origin to His Father, He could not make a disagreement in the divinity by the number of two Gods, since He gathered His beginning by being born of Him who is one God. In which kind, being both as well only-begotten as first-begotten of Him who has no beginning, He is the only one, of all things both Source and Head. And therefore He declared that God is one, in that He proved Him to be from no source nor beginning, but rather the beginning and source of all things. Moreover, the Son does nothing of His own will, nor does anything of His own determination; nor does He come from Himself, but obeys all His Father’s commands and precepts; so that, although birth proves Him to be a Son, yet obedience even to death declares Him the minister of the will of His Father, of whom He is. Thus making Himself obedient to His Father in all things, although He also is God, yet He shows the one God the Father by His obedience, from whom also He drew His beginning. And thus He could not make two Gods, because He did not make two beginnings, seeing that from Him who has no beginning He received the source of His nativity before all time.5300 For since that is the beginning to other creatures which is unborn,—which God the Father only is, being beyond a beginning of whom He is who was born,—while He who is born of Him reasonably comes from Him who has no beginning, proving that to be the beginning from which He Himself is, even although He is God who is born, yet He shows Him to be one God whom He who was born proved to be without a beginning. He therefore is God, but begotten for this special result, that He should be God. He is also the Lord, but born for this very purpose of the Father, that He might be Lord. He is also an Angel, but He was destined of the Father as an Angel to announce the Great Counsel of God. And His divinity is thus declared, that it may not appear by any dissonance or inequality of divinity to have caused two Gods. For all things being subjected to Him as the Son by the Father, while He Himself, with those things which are subjected to Him, is subjected to His Father, He is indeed proved to be Son of His Father; but He is found to be both Lord and God of all else. Whence, while all things put under Him are delivered to Him who is God, and all things are subjected to Him, the Son refers all that He has received to the Father, remits again to the Father the whole authority of His divinity. The true and eternal Father is manifested as the one God, from whom alone this power of divinity is sent forth, and also given and directed upon the Son, and is again returned by the communion of substance to the Father. God indeed is shown as the Son, to whom the divinity is beheld to be given and extended. And still, nevertheless, the Father is proved to be one God; while by degrees in reciprocal transfer that majesty and divinity are again returned and reflected as sent by the Son Himself to the Father, who had given them; so that reasonably God the Father is God of all, and the source also of His Son Himself whom He begot as Lord. Moreover, the Son is God of all else, because God the Father put before all Him whom He begot. Thus the Mediator of God and men, Christ Jesus, having the power of every creature subjected to Him by His own Father, inasmuch as He is God; with every creature subdued to Him, found at one with His Father God, has, by abiding in that condition that He moreover “was heard,” briefly proved God His Father to be one and only and true God.”