Novatian: Freedom, God's Eternity, and (Wo)man's Death. (6/28/99)

One of the better explanations for the condition of human depravity that emerged in Christian ideology was written by a north African theologian in the first century. Novatian, in a work that came to be known as The Treatise of Novatian Concerning the Trinity, establishes a series of principles in the first several chapters of the work which he refers to as the "Rule of Truth." These principles create a foundation of facts, as they were perceived by the authors of early church doctrine, upon which the more advanced and difficult issues, like the problem of the tripartite nature of the Christian Godhead, had to be argued and resolved. Establishing a proper ground for a philosophical or metaphysical argument was a tendency in Christian theology derived from the encounter between the earliest missionaries of the faith, the Apostles say, and the Greek and Roman thinkers who were actively opposed to most of the ideas that were being spread by them in the crescent at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. North Africa, for one reason or another, became the most active ground of philosophical articulation of the faith in the first several centuries of the first millennium with people like Justin Martyr, Tertullian, St. Cyprian, Origen, and Novatian emerging as leading proponents of the philosophical traditions of the faith.

Novatian represents a special case as a spokesperson for early church doctrine on the ground that he chose to abandon the faith in the face of persecution rather than submit to martyrdom as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and St Cyprian did before and after him. This choice, of course, earned him the title of apostate and heretic for which he was "justly" reviled by his contemporaries in the most unflattering terms imaginable. One anonymous tract which survived, written apparently by a north African Bishop, perhaps even St. Cyprian himself though most scholars dispute that possibility on linguistic grounds, compares Novatian to a dog who

"does not cease stirring up his frenzy with barkings, after the manner of wolves seeking the gloomy darkness, where with his brutal cruelty he may easily rend in his dark caves the sheep snatched away from the Shepherd." (Chapter 1)

The implication here is that Novatian, after separating himself from the faith, continued to encourage others to do the same but there does not seem to be any evidence that he wrote anything other than the Treatise on the Trinity and that work has not been officially condemned as heretical and indeed contains only orthodox ideology. The condemnation expressed in the work which excoriates his wolfish characteristics probably does so only because of the example he set for others to leave the church rather than be sacrificed as martyrs for its principles. Setting a bad example in the context of martyrdom by fleeing from its possibility was a betrayal against the faith that the church Fathers could not allow to pass uncondemned because it effectively undermined every basic conceptualization of what it meant to be a Christian in the first place. This is true because the Fathers were teaching that one should exercise contempt for earthly life, and the wickedness it encompasses on every side, for the promise of eternal salvation in heaven. To reject martyrdom in order to go on living an earthly existence was to question the very ground of the religion itself and that could not be tolerated under any circumstance.

Chaucer's Parson uses the simile of the wolf in a slightly different context in the Canterbury Tales some 1,200 years after Novatian was compared to one. The Parson argues that from the beginning of time, which he measures from the moment of (wo)man's original sin and expulsion from the Garden, sin and thraldom were one and the same thing. He says that "synne was first cause of thraldom," and that from "thilke tyme that al this world was in synne, thanne was al this world in thraldom and subjeccioun." (X.769). He goes on from this point to assert that, when God's grace entered the world in the form of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross, "God ordeyned that som folk sholde be moore heigh in estaat and in degree, and som folk moore lough, and that everich sholde be served in his estaat and in his degree" (X.770). The idea of being "served" in one's estate and degree, in Middle English, means that a person is born into his/her hierarchical status in society and both cannot and should not ever aspire to rise above that position and that everyone must and should treat the other according to the rules and customs that have been established by traditional usage for the status one holds. In other words, it would be just as sinful for a baron to treat his servant as an equal as it would be for a servant to treat his Lord as he/she would one of his/her own kind.

The Parson uses the example of the Pope to specify what the rules of conduct are in the Middle Ages. He argues that the hierarchical structure was established by God to maintain a proper balance in society and that without that structure the church could not exist, the "commune profit" could not be kept, and there would be no possibility of peace and rest anywhere on the face of the earth (X.772). The duties of the Lord to his subjects were established in these specific terms:

"therfore was sovereyntee ordeyned, to kepe and mayntene and deffenden hire underlynges or hire subgetz in resoun, as ferforth as it lith in hire power, and nat to destroyen hem ne confounde." (X.773)

In other words, the Lord of the Manor was expected to maintain his subjects in a proper condition of well-being both in a physical and a spiritual sense. Serfs were expected to be fed, clothed, housed in proper circumstance in exchange for their loyalty to the Lord who provided their subsistence in exchange for their labor. The Lord was also expected to defend them against any physical danger that might arise due to a war with a neighbor or with a foreign invader, a point particularly important in Chaucer's day because of the war with France that began before Chaucer's birth (1342 ?) and lasted well beyond his death in 1400 A. D. The idea that the Lord was expected to defend his subjects against being "confounde[d]" is a reference to the possibility that they might fall victim to false doctrine and heresy from any number of sources that might be circulating in the realm at any given time. This problem was especially pertinent in Chaucer's day again because of the Great Schism that had arisen in the church between the Pope in Avignon (Clement VII; Benedict XIII) and the Pope in Rome (Urban VI and Boniface IX in Chaucer's lifetime), which persisted throughout Europe from 1378 to 1417 A. D.

The Parson's condemnation of Lords who do not observe the standards of behavior demanded by God's creation of hierarchical status in society takes the form of an invective against people who behave like wolves:

"Wherfore I seye that thilke lordes that been lyk wolves, that devouren the possessiouns or catel of povre folk wrongfully, withouten mercy or mesure,/ they shul receyven by the same mesure that they han mesured to povre folk the mercy of Jhesu Crist, but if it be amended." (X.774-775)

In short, if the Lords who do not defend and protect their subjects from harm, but instead cause it, fail to amend their ways, they will be judged by Jesus Christ in the same measure that they have used against their underlings. The simile of the wolf, in this particular context, while not precisely the same as the one used by Novatian's detractor in the second century, does nevertheless play with and around the same complex of spiritual issues that were raised by his defection from the fold because he refused to accept his Christian duty to become a martyr for the faith.

With regard to Novatian's text on the Trinity itself, he establishes God's absolute eternity and freedom, in the following passage from Chapter 2 of his Treatise, wherein he also formulates the inevitable consequence of Christianity's notion of hierarchy at one and the same time:

"For we read that He contains all things, and therefore that there could have been nothing beyond Himself. Because, since He has not any beginning, so consequently He is not conscious of an ending; unless perchance-and far from us be the thought-He at some time began to be, and is not above all things, but as He began to be after something else, He would be beneath that which was before Himself, and would so be found to be of less power, in that He is designated as subsequent even in time itself. For this reason, therefore, He is always unbounded, because nothing is greater than He; always eternal, because nothing is more ancient than He."

The sense of this conceptualization of God being limitless in time, since he has neither beginning nor end, is meant to establish, as Novatian points out, that nothing whatsoever exists anywhere in or out of the universe that is more powerful than God. This kind of argument was necessary in the first century of Christianity's existence for several reasons. There were any number of other religious ideologies competing for followers in the region of the Middle East at the time which were also prone to claim various kinds and forms of power that were possessed by their gods and goddesses. In most heathen religions, there was also an established hierarchy in the structure of deification that included categories like strongest in this or that activity, best in this or that talent, and oldest in terms of being perceived as the "father" of all other gods. Several heretical Christian sects had also arisen among various populations of apostates, like Novatian himself may have been at some level. A Roman thinker named Hermogenes, for instance, argued that God created the world out of pre-existing matter, a concept which, according to Tertullian, reduced God's status to a position that was less than superior to all other things in the universe, since their prior existence as matter placed them before God Himself. Other groups of heretics tended to mix and match certain attributes of deity into composites that could include virtually every positive and negative power that anyone contemplating godhead might be able to imagine. One thing to keep in mind in this context is that no one was actually describing something he/she had ever seen but were only inventing aspects of what they thought God must be like: filling an empty signifier, as it were, with whatever attribute seemed most likely to draw the largest number of believers into their fledgling flock. Being "unbounded" by time was a necessary condition of being said to "contain all things" and so Novatian employed this double attribute to make his God more powerful seeming than any other god could possibly be. His emphasis on this point may reflect a concern he shared with Tertullian over the heresy of Hermogenes.

The hierarchy inherent in this kind of ideology grows and extends outward from the notion that God possesses and projects an infinite and absolute power, since he is more powerful than any other conceptualization of deity can be. Anything less than that, which all other gods must necessarily be, stands in subjugation to the infinite and absolute power of the one true and only God in the universe. (Wo)man, being the creature of this God, is also obviously less than He is and, since God ordained that hierarchical structures were necessary to preserve both the church and the social order from chaos and destruction, as Chaucer's Parson makes clear, some men must be perceived as occupying a higher degree than others do. Novatian anticipates the Parson's concern with maintaining an orderly and just society by noting that God "is a certain Mind generating and filling all things, which, without any beginning or end of time, controls, by the highest and most perfect reason, the naturally linked causes of things, so as to result in benefit to all" (Chapter 2). This notion of God's goodness, and His infinite capacity to be concerned for the welfare of all His creatures, is a necessary component of arguing that hierarchy, which always already sorts people out according to their inherent worth, rules and controls both nature and society absolutely. To argue otherwise would always risk revolt against the authority that relegates the few to positions of absolute power over the many in any given context where this idea exists as a structuring device for social relationships. That Christian ideology always supports the ruling class goes here, in Novatian that is, against the grain of actual social reality because most Christians at the time were members of the slave and lower classes where their lords and masters were primarily heathens. This aspect of the "Rule of Truth" proved its value, its mettle, when Christians gained the dominant role in Western society and were able to justify their own lordship over anyone they considered to be their inferiors.

The concept of human freedom in Christian ideology has always been tied to the notion of (wo)man's original sin and the consequent condemnation to mortality that the violation of God's law necessarily brought down on His hapless creatures. One could argue, perhaps, that without the notion of free will, even in the somewhat logically strained context of God's omnipotence, and the absolute power over creation that it entails, the Christian perception of (wo)man's sinfully depraved condition would rank with the most unfair and perfidious circumstances that one could imagine or invent. What would be the point after all in arguing in favor of a God who made a creature already so sin-ridden that it had to be condemned to eternal hell because of the way the Omnipotent created it in the first place? If you were selling ideas like that in the ancient world for a dime a dozen, you would have starved to death without finding a single taker. Novatian's argument for man's freedom in the face of God's omnipotence takes its primary ground from the notion that a creature made in God's image cannot go around in a state of perpetual "bondage." God, at the same time He made (wo)man free, however, added a law to be obeyed "so that an unbridled liberty might not break forth even to a contempt of the Giver" (Chapter 1). Novatian also puts this same concept in these terms:

"And when [God] had given [(wo)man] all things for his service, He willed that he alone should be free. And lest, again, an unbounded freedom should fall into peril, He laid down a command, in which man was taught that there was no evil in the fruit of the tree; but he was forewarned that evil would arise if perchance he should exercise his free will, in the contempt of the law that was given."

Hence, according to this logic (illogic?), God warned (wo)man not to exercise his free will, freely given, in violation of the one law, which was necessary to prevent an "unbounded freedom" from falling into peril, to refrain from eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When (wo)man violated God's trust and disobeyed that single law, he fell heir, as it were, to a prescribed response which God fashioned as a just punishment for his willfully disobedient act. As Novatian puts it:

"So that he might receive as a consequence both worthy rewards [immortality for obedience] and a deserved punishment [mortality for disobedience], having in his own power that which he might choose to do, by the tendency of his mind in either direction: whence, therefore, by envy, mortality comes back upon him; seeing that, although he might escape it by obedience, he rushes into it by hurrying to be God under the influence of perverse counsel." (Chapter 1)

The point Novatian makes here, exactly like John Milton did after him, is that (wo)man is bound by envy to seek after that which she/he is not, and was never meant to be, that is, God. The "perverse counsel," of course, falls to the fallen angel, Satan, who seduced Eve with a false hope of becoming God when she was already immortal. Eve convinces Adam and all (wo)mankind from here to there and back again is condemned to a life of suffering mortality.

The point here is not that a man who was later deemed a heretic gave voice to this ideology, but that this generally convoluted illogic, in spite of Novatian's ultimate reputation as a heretic and apostate, is perfectly orthodox doctrine, as much now, as it was in the first century of the first millennium. From a native American point of view, of course, these kinds of stories do not ring with the bell and the rattle of truth because we do not perceive human beings as inevitably flawed by a desire to be more than they were intended by a Creator who makes them free in order to escape blame Himself from having created them flawed in the first place. Being less than God from the beginning, and by definition, why would God expect them to resist the temptation of rising beyond their lowly estate? Why would anyone expect that? Hierarchical structure both insures and demands that response. Freedom, but only the freedom to choose depravity over goodness, seems an equally hollow kind of dignity to lose at the drop of a serpent's word that you should disobey the only law your Creator expected you to keep. Freedom means more than that to tribal people. Native Americans also recognize more than one law to keep and we mostly observe them all without benefit of an overmatching coercion. The false consciousness inherent in hierarchical structures demands that Europeans break the only one they have ever bothered to know.

A final observation this analysis demands is that the symbol of the wolf, traditionally used by Christians to stand for the heretic, was not unknown in anti-native American diatribe in the New World. Solomon Stoddard, an esteemed Christian leader in New England at the beginning of the 18th Century, in advocating the annihilation of native people from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1703, argued they should be hunted down with packs of trained dogs because they were "wolves" and should be "dealt withal as wolves" (David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World, Oxford UP, 1992, p241). His advocacy of this policy, while never specifically implemented, nevertheless did not contradict the opinion of the vast majority of white Americans at the time. Equating heretics and non-believers with wolves has been a Christian tradition that began in Novatian's time, passed through the Parson's sermon in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and found a genocidal application in the decades prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in America. That native Americans became the objects of such bigotry, even to the point of extinction, is something we have always known, but remains a fact denied, ignored, and hidden by people who evoke the great heritage of freedom and justice America is supposed to represent.

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