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Christian Intolerance—Justinian’s Law, enjoining Infant-Baptism—The
Novatians—The Donatists—Pelagianism.

The period now under consideration was marked by one “transition” which can never be sufficiently deplored. Hitherto, Christians had endured afflictions for the Lord’s sake, and had willingly suffered the loss of all things rather than renounce the faith. But a change had taken place, involving a temptation which proved too powerful for many of them. When Constantine the Great declared for Christianity, he expected to stand in the same position towards that religion as he had before occupied with regard to Paganism. The Emperors were the high priests of Paganism, and the civil government had from time immemorial directed and controlled the religion of the country. Was not the same policy still to be observed? Had Constantine examined the New Testament, the question would soon have been answered. But he was very imperfectly acquainted with that book; and, besides, the exclusive authority of God’s Word in matters of religion had long been given up. The profession of Christianity in those times was a very different thing from what it had been in the first and purest ages. Scripture was smothered by tradition. The simplicity of Apostolic form had given place to complicated ceremonies. Expediency had supplanted right. The enquiry was not, What has Christ commanded?—but rather, How may influence, and power, and patronage, and wealth be obtained? How may the Gospel become popular? Such being the views of the leaders, it is not surprising that the people groveled in worldliness, or that rulers determined to use Christianity as a State machine, as they had used Paganism. Constantine led the way, and his successors naturally trod in his steps. He began by enjoining external compliance with Christian institutions. The observance of the Lord’s-day was enforced by imperial law. Interference in Christian controversies followed. The bishops were too ready to invoke the exercise of the imperial authority, and there was not religious intelligence enough among the people to discern and resist the usurpation. The State set up the idol, uniformity, and they bowed down and worshipped it. The views entertained by the majority were called “Catholic,” because they were said to be held by all, and “Orthodox,” because they were assumed to be right. Those who differed from the majority were termed heretics. The words “orthodoxy” and “heresy” were not always employed, however, in the same sense. As each man deemed himself right and his opponent wrong, every man was orthodox in his own eyes; and as successive emperors patronized one or another form of belief, he who was orthodox in one reign was liable to be stigmatized as a heretic in the next. Patronage, power, and persecution are closely allied. When imperial intervention was called for, to settle Christian disputes or to suppress a rising sect, there was no way of exercising it but by means of penalties, for law must of necessity be powerless unless offences against it are punished. Hence arose the monstrous anomaly of Christian persecution. If orthodoxy was in the ascendant, the Catholic emperor pulled down Arian churches, and fined the people for attending Arian worship. The same measure was meted out to other sects. If an Arian sat on the throne, the Catholics were subject to the same indignities. It was unchristian on both sides. Pagans and Jews were hardened in their unbelief. When Christianity was forced into an alliance with the State, the form (though even that was disguised) remained, but the spirit had departed.

Were we writing an ecclesiastical history, we should enlarge here. We should expatiate on the sin of legislation in the Church, whose duty it is to obey Christ’s laws, not to make new ones,—on the pomp and pride of bishops,—the tyranny of kings,—the arrogance of councils,—and especially on the evils which have resulted from the wordly admixture connected with the introduction of infant-baptism. But just now we must confine ourselves to the influence of the State on religion, and particularly in relation to the subject before us.

The Emperor Justinian (who reigned from A.D. 527 to A.D. 565) was a thorough despot. He would acknowledge no will but his own. The rights of conscience were altogether ignored by him. He claimed absolute mastery over his subjects, and required them to renounce Paganism and embrace Christianity, because he willed it, without reference to other considerations. A notable edict of his illustrates these remarks. It enacted, “that such parents as were yet unbaptized should present themselves, with their wives and children, and all that appertained to them, in the Church; and there they should cause their little ones immediately to be baptized, and the rest as soon as they were taught the Scriptures according to the canons. But if any persons, for the sake of a public office or dignity, or to get an estate, received a fallacious baptism themselves, but in the meantime left their wives, or children, or servants, or any that were retainers, or near relations to them, in their ancient error, their goods in that case are ordered to be confiscated, and their persons punished by a competent judge, and excluded from bearing any office in the commonwealth.”1

Thus the fabric of infant-baptism rested on two pillars—delusion and force: delusion, inasmuch as the ceremony was supposed to be invested with regenerating and saving power,—force, as employed by the State, in the interest of the Church. It is true they called it an “apostolic institution;” but that was an after-thought. Exorcism, unction, the sign of the cross, holy water, infant-communion, and many other childish practices, were also called “Apostolic institutions,”—not at first, but long after they were invented, to conceal their real origin and prevent men from discovering the trickery.

Unquestionably the progress of religion in the community, which was emphatically designated “the Church,” was altogether downward during the “Transition Period.” It is an interesting inquiry, how far the spirit of the Gospel was preserved, and its essential truths maintained, by those whom ecclesiastical historians have denominated “heretics” and “schismatics.” We shall pursue this inquiry in succeeding chapters. In order to find the true Church, we must look out of the “Church” commonly so called.

The Novatians and Donatists were the two leading sects of the period now under consideration. There were many other sects, so called, for it was the fashion to designate as a “heretic” every individual who thought differently from the majority, and to consider those who agreed with him as constituting a party, usually bearing his name. If we were to do so now, the multiplication of sects would be indefinite.

Novatian lived at Rome. He had embraced Christianity, but his baptism had been deferred; and it has been already stated that in sickness which threatened to be fatal he had been sprinkled or poured on as he lay on his bed, since it was impossible to immerse him. This is the first recorded instance of clinic baptism. It was in fact no baptism at all, though it differed from infant-sprinkling. In the latter, both the subject and the act are wrong. In Novatian’s case, there was a proper subject, but the ceremony performed was not baptism, though it was the best substitute they could think of. It shows us, by the way, how error was creeping in. Novatian ought to have waited for his recovery, when he would have been in a fit state to receive the ordinance. Had it pleased God that his sickness should be fatal, he would have died without baptism, and he would have been in David’s position, who desired to build the temple, but was not permitted. The desire was approved, though the purpose was not accomplished. He “did well that it was in his heart.” Already, however, the pernicious notion of the necessity of baptism to salvation had become prevalent, and consequently Novatian was sprinkled or received a pouring.

Novatian possessed such talent and zeal that he became a popular teacher. On the death of Fabian, Bishop of Rome, in the year 250, there was a strong desire that Novatian should succeed him, and so he would, had it not been for his known sentiments on one point. Lax habits of discipline, as he believed, had grown up, and were very mischievous in their tendencies. In the Decian persecution great numbers had apostatized, who, on the return of tranquility, sought re-admission into the churches. Novatian differed from his brethren on this subject. He held that apostasy was a sin which wholly disqualified an individual for restoration to Christian fellowship, and that it would be destructive to the purity of the Church to readmit those who had so grossly fallen. God might pardon them. They might find a place in heaven. But the Church must not be defiled, for it is a congregation of saints. Now, whatever opinion we may form respecting Novatian’s particular theory, it is undeniable that the principle on which it rested was derived from the New Testament. Yet it was too spiritual for the times. A majority declared in favour of Cornelius, who was duly installed Bishop of Rome. Nevertheless, the minority would not yield. The time had come (so they argued) for a decided stand. The holiness of the Church was in danger, and must be maintained at all hazards. Separation was better than corruption. They withdrew, formed a separate church, and invited Novatian to become their pastor. Others imitated their example in various parts of the empire, and Novatian churches sprang up in great abundance. They continued in existence more than three centuries. In all the principal towns and cities, these dissenting communities might be found. They were the Puritans of those days, and were so designated. There was a wholesome rivalry for some time between them and the “Orthodox” or “Catholic” body, each operating as a stimulus and a check upon the other.

Carrying out their governing principle in all its details, they baptized all who joined their churches, even though they had been already baptized by ministers of the orthodox body, deeming the baptism of a corrupt church invalid. They were therefore the first “Anabaptists,” in the strict and proper sense of that word. They were also genuine reformers. Dr. Waddington, an Episcopalian historian, observes, that Novatian “considered the genuine Church of Christ to be a society where virtue and innocence reigned universally, and refused any longer to acknowledge those as its members who had even once degenerated into unrighteousness. His followers were called Cathari or Puritans, and they comprehended many austere and independent Christians, in the East no less than in the West. But this endeavour to revive the spotless moral purity of the primitive faith was found inconsistent with the corruptions even of that early age: it was regarded with suspicion by the leading prelates, as a vain and visionary scheme; and those rigid principles which had characterized and sanctified the Church in the first century, were abandoned to the profession of schismatic sectaries in the third.”2

There is no evidence that, at the time of Novatian’s separation from the Roman Church, infant-baptism had found its way into Italy. The probability is all on the other side, since one hundred and sixty years after that event we find Boniface, Bishop of Rome, propounding doubts and questions to Augustine which indicated that infant-baptism was looked on by him quite distrustfully. These difficulties would not have existed if he had believed that the rite had a divine origin. The incongruity between the ceremonial employed and the reality struck him forcibly. The ceremonial had been originally prepared for catechumens, and was then a reasonable service. When infants were substituted for catechumens, the same forms were observed, but they were strangely out of place. In answer to the usual question, the sponsor replied on behalf of the infant, “I believe,” whereas, as Boniface remarked, not only was the child unable to believe, but no one could tell whether he would believe in after life or not. No wonder the good man was puzzled.3

It reminds us of an incident that occurred in England some years ago. A lad, the child of Baptist parents, was sent to a school where the Church of England catechism was taught. Abraham (that was his name) was compelled to stand up with the other boys. It happened one day that it came to his turn to answer this question— “Why then are infants baptized, when by reason of their tender age they cannot perform them” [that is, the conditions, of repentance and faith]? Abraham looked full in his master’s face, and said, “Why indeed, sir?” He was not asked to recite any more.4

Novatianism and infant-baptism were diametrically opposed to each other. It was impossible to preserve the purity for which the Novatians contended in any church which had admitted the novel institution. Those who had been baptized in infancy might evince, when they reached maturity, an utter destitution of vital godliness, and consequent unfitness for union with a Christian body; but being already members by virtue of their baptism, they could not be expelled unless they fell into gross vice, and so their influence and example might operate most injuriously on the religious character of the Church. This could not escape the observation of Novatian Christians. It would prove a salutary caution. We may safely infer that they abstained from compliance with the innovation, and that the Novatian churches were what are now called Baptist churches, adhering to the Apostolic and primitive practice. Had the writings of Novatian authors been preserved, we should have had more explicit information; but it was the ancient policy to destroy all books written by alleged heretics. Novatian published a work on the Trinity, which has not been involved in the common destruction. A copy of it is now before the writer. It is generally commended for its clearness and orthodoxy, but there is no allusion to the baptismal controversy.

The Donatists first appeared in the early part of the fourth century. A dispute about an election to a bishopric was the occasion of their separation from the Catholic Church. C?ilian was chosen Bishop of Carthage in a somewhat irregular manner, and hastily ordained. Among those who officiated at his ordination was Felix, Bishop of Aptunga. This man was said to be a traditor, that is, one who had delivered up copies of the Scriptures to the civil authorities during the Diocletian persecution. His concurrence in the ordination was thought by some to vitiate the service. They refused to regard C?ilian as a regularly appointed bishop. A secession took place, which spread rapidly and extensively, so that in a short time the Donatist churches in Africa were nearly equal in number to those of the hitherto dominant party.

As in the case of the Novatians, the discussion of the general question of church purity arose out of the circumstances that originated the division. The Donatists pleaded for purity. They maintained that Christian churches should consist of godly persons, and no others, and that, in all the arrangements made for their management, that important principle should be kept in view. They followed the ex?ample of the Novatians in rebaptizing those who joined them from other churches. They baptized new converts on a profession of faith, as a matter of course, for that was the practice of all churches. Whether they went further than this is open to question. Their principles would undoubtedly lead them to the rejection of infant-baptism. Some authors affirm that they did reject it. For our own part, we are disposed to hesitate on that point. We are inclined to think that they were divided in opinion, and that some of them admitted infant-baptism, though the admission was inconsistent with their acknowledged principles. The majority, we are willing to believe, adhered to the New Testament practice.

At one of the African Councils, held about the year 397, it was agreed to consult their “brethren and fellow-priests,” Siricius, Bishop of Rome, and Simplician, Bishop of Milan, respecting those who had been baptized in in?fancy among the Donatists, and who, when they reached mature age, desired to join the church which assumed the title “Catholic.”5

It was subsequently decided that they should not be re-baptized. This proves that infant-baptism was practiced in that sect; whether universally or not, is another question. Augustine never charges them, as a body, with heresy on that point; nor does Opatus, a cele?brated writer against the Donatists.

There is another circumstance proper to be mentioned. The difference between the Donatists and their opponents had been submitted several times to imperial decision. In the first instance the Donatists, it appears, consented to the reference; but they soon discovered the impropriety. “What has the Emperor to do with the Church? What have Christians to do with kings, or bishops at court?” they asked. Were they not right? Have not the Baptists been distinguished in all ages by the maintenance of these views? Have they not ever held that civil government has nothing to do with religion, that Christianity asks for no support from the State, and that the union of Church and State has been productive of some of the worst evils that have defiled the Christian profession? Have they not always repudiated the use of carnal weapons in the defense and propagation of the truth, and demanded, for themselves and for all men, entire freedom of thought and action in all religious concerns? This is their glory, and no man can take it from them.

Both the Novatians and the Donatists suffered severely for their dissent, especially the latter. The celebrated Augustine taught the unchristian doctrine that heresy should be suppressed by the civil magistrate, and invoked the imperial sword against the Donatists. Their property was confiscated, the prisons were crammed with them, and great numbers lost their lives by the hands of the execu?tioner. A sanguinary law was enacted, that the re-baptizer and the re-baptized should be put to death. That so atrocious an enactment should excite tumults in a country where the separatists constituted one-half of the Christian population, cannot be considered surprising. Other persons, not connected with them, took advantage of it, and great disorders ensued. But Augustine and his party were the aggressors.

Pelagianism troubled the Church in the fifth century. As Pelagius taught that infants derive no moral taint from Adam’s transgression, it has been inferred that he was of necessity an opposer of infant-baptism, since it had then become a generally admitted notion that baptism cleanses from original sin. Pelagius, however, did not deny the propriety of baptizing infants, who obtained, he said, the kingdom of heaven by their baptism, which “kingdom of heaven” he distinguished from eternal life, and represented as a kind of intermediate state. We need hot dwell on such follies, and therefore pass on to observe, that as many in that age stoutly denied the right of infants to baptism, refusing to acknowledge the power of the Church to add to the ordinances of Christ, the Council of Milevi, held A.D. 416, passed a decree in the following terms: “Whosoever denies that newly-born infants are to be baptized, or affirms that they are indeed baptized for the remission of sins, but that they derive no original sin from Adam, . . . let him be accursed.”6

Such are the supports of infant-baptism—the frail buttresses of the building; Justinian’s mandate, and this anathematizing decree of Milevi. But what has the Saviour said? “Every plant which My heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted up” (Matthew 15:13).

Much has been said respecting the contest of Augustine the monk with the British Christians on the subject of baptism. It has been supposed that infant-baptism was then unknown in England, and that Augustine endeavoured to force it on the people, as an integral part of Romish policy. Neither assertion is correct. There is no good reason to suppose that infant-baptism, which had been gaining prevalence all over Europe, by the zealous labours and powerful influence of Augustine of Hippo, had been kept out of England. We have just seen that Pelagius, who was a Welshman, did not oppose it. Augustine’s object was to procure uniformity of ceremonies, and to induce the Britons to adopt the observances grafted by the Romish Church on the simple baptismal service of the New Testament. Nothing was said about children. Their baptism was no doubt gradually introduced into England, as in other parts, and ultimately superseded, as it did elsewhere, the primitive ordinance. At any rate, we find traces of it in Wales in the sixth century.7

Whether compliance was refused by any parties, and in what numbers, cannot now be ascertained. Here, as in many other respects, there is a lack of information. God’s witnesses lay hid for ages.8


1 Bingham, book xi. chap. iv.

2 History of the Church, i, p. 166 (Second Edition).

3 See his letter in Augustin. Opera, xxxix. pp. 235-244 (Ed. Caillau).

4 The lad was a son of the Rev. Abraham Austin, many years pastor of the Baptist Church meeting in Elim Chapel, Fetter Lane, London. He died in 1816. See Baptist Magazine, vol. viii. pp. 397, 441.

5 Labbe and Cossart, ii. p. 1071. Bingham’s Antiquities, book iv. chap. iii. Sect. 12.

6 Labbe and Cossart, ii. p. 1538.

7 See the Liber Landavensis. Llandovery, 1840.

8 Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is the only authority for the account of Augustine’s interview with the British clergy. The monk required of them, among other things, that they should “administer baptism, by which we are born to God, according to the custom of the holy Roman Apostolic Church” (Dr. Giles’s Translation). The word used by Bede was “compleatis,” and his meaning was that they should render the administration complete or perfect, by the addition of Romish ceremonies. In some editions of Fabian’s Chronicle, Augustine is represented as saying, “that ye give Christendom to children.” Fabian, it may be supposed, knew of no baptism but that of infants, and translated, or rather paraphrased, accordingly. He died A.D. 1513.

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