Saturday, December 27, 2008

Novatian, De Trinitate

I’m about to head off for some holidays during January, a week here and a week there, but I thought I’d fit in a couple of quick Patristic summary posts before I go off and forget what I’ve been reading. Beach reading for this week is Jenkin’s The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died, but until then here are some thoughts on Novatian.

Novatian is roughly contemporaneous with Cyprian, a good half-century later than Tertullian. Unlike Tertullian’s more polemical Against Praxeas, Novatian’s De Trinitate (On the Trinity) is a slightly more ‘systematic’ presentation of Trinitarian doctrine, though the presence of polemic is quite evident. It is dated ca. 256 AD, certainly after the appearance of Sabellianism as a serious threat.

Novatian begins by appeal to the “Rule of Truth” handed down, and begins with a credal type unpacking of the doctrine of God. He details the supremacy of God, his creator-ship, goodness, inexpressible substance (Novatian speaks strongly against understanding metaphors and anthropomorphisms as reflecting what God is in himself).

He then turns to a treatment of the Son, beginning with extensive Old Testament quotation of messianic promises. He refutes doctrines of Christ being a phantasm or appearance, and on the other hand attempts to assert that he was “only and alone man”. Novatian is quick to affirm both the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus. In defending the divinity of Jesus he reflects on how the OT ascribes certain acts and prerogatives to God, which are transferred to Jesus, especially in the NT. He turns this further into an argument against the Sabellians, that Christ is not the Father, though he is God.

Like Tertullian, Novatian understands the OT appearances of God as pre-incarnate appearances of the Son, based on the ‘invisibility’ of God, and yet the visibility that belongs to the Son therefore most apply pre-incarnation. The more I read the Father’s on this peculiar subject, the more convincing I find it (!).

A clear signal that Novatian is not only concerned with refuting heresy comes in 21. “ And indeed I could set forth the treatment of this subject by all heavenly Scriptures, and set in motion, so to speak, a perfect forest of texts concerning that manifestation of the divinity of Christ, except that I have not so much undertaken to speak against this special form of heresy, as to expound the rule of truth concerning the person of Christ”

In 23., Novatian employs the novel strategy of using the heretics to refute heresies. The logic of his rhetoric is persuasive – if even those who are so wrong get X, Y, Z right, then so-and-so are very far from the truth.

In the later section Novatian follows a clear logic in refuting Sabellianism, going over the propositions:
1.God is One
2.Christ is God
3.Christ is the Father

Like Tertullian’s arguments, he refers again and again to the Scriptures, especially John’s Gospel, tho show how nonsensical it is to suppose the Christ to be the Father, and instead to assert the functional distinctness of the Son to the Father in the economy.

He brings his arguments to a close.

The Sabellians say: God is one, Christ is God, therefore Christ is the Father.

Others argue if the Father is one, the Son another, the Father is God, Christ is God, then there are two gods. And again, following the latter, then since God is one, Christ must be a man.

Novatian says instead, we read the scriptures and hold what they teach, that God is one, that the Father and the Son are two, and that Christ is both God and Man.

Whatever else his faults (and indeed, I must side with Cyprian on the issue of the lapsed and church discipline), Novatian’s trinitarian doctrine stands as orthodox and sound, following a trajectory of Latin thought that will grow dim against the luminaries of the Greeks in the following two centuries.

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