Augustine, the Donatists and the Catholic Church

 

It is better indeed that men should be brought to serve God by instruction than by fear of punishment or by pain. But because the former means are better, the latter must not therefore be neglected.... Many must often be brought back to their Lord, like wicked servants, by the rod of temporal suffering before they attain the highest grade of religious development.... The Lord Himself orders that the guests be first invited, then compelled, to His great supper.”  

This quotation is taken from Augustine’s anti-Donatist writings in which he offers his interpretation of the command in the parable of the Great Supper in Luke 14, “Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.” The quotation serves to highlight the significance and one of the central ecclesiological issues involved in the schismatic division that enveloped the church in North Africa during the fourth and fifth centuries AD.

The Donatist schism or controversy, as it has become known, had its origins in events that occurred before Augustine’s birth in 354 and were still unresolved at the time of his death in 430. Though this schism had its origins in events well prior to his birth, Augustine came to play a leading role in this controversy. His involvement arose with his ordination as a priest in Hippo in North Africa in 391, which was followed by his appointment as the bishop of Hippo in 395 (Hippo is the former name of present day Annaba in northeastern Algeria).

The significance of the Donatist controversy should not be underestimated. For an entire century it split the church in North Africa into two hostile camps. The schism concerned the purity of the church, the administration of church discipline, and the administration of the sacraments. In other words, the theological issues centered around ecclesiology, or the doctrine of the church. However, it should not be thought that this controversy was merely a doctrinal controversy. It was much more than that. It was a controversy that involved not only the church, but also the secular authorities and the relationship between the two, including the place of temporal force in church discipline.

The precise origins of the schism are somewhat uncertain, though it is generally agreed that it had its roots in the Diocletian persecutions (303-311) that followed a series of imperial edicts by the emperor aimed at the extermination of the church throughout the Roman empire. The ferocity of the Diocletian persecutions saw members of the church in North Africa respond with differing degrees of commitment and determination to the violent measures perpetrated against them by the empire. Some remained resolutely steadfast, even fanatically contemptuous of death. As a result, many confessors, as they became known, suffered martyrdom.

However, not all in the church embraced the attitude of the confessors. Some were willing to compromise their faith to varying degrees in order to preserve themselves and their way of life. Some of those fled out of fear and abandoned the faith. They became known as the lapsed. Still others, principally those in the ranks of the clergy, shrank back under the persecution and surrendered the Scriptures to their persecutors. This earned them the ignominious title of traditors (traditio, “handing over”). Not surprisingly, the confessors viewed the lapsed and the traditors as cowards and traitors, unworthy of a place in the church.

These different responses to the Diocletian persecutions produced conflict within the different Christian communities throughout the Roman empire, including North Africa. This internal conflict continued long after the Edict of Milan in 313 by which the emperor Constantine brought the persecution to an end, declaring “that it was proper that the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow the mode of religion which to each of them appeared best.”

In North Africa, tensions such as those between the confessors and the traditors came to a head in the diocese of Carthage. These tensions began during the period of the persecutions and continued long after they had ended. During the persecutions, Mensurius was the bishop of Carthage. He steered a course in which he vacillated between an accommodation of and a confrontation with the demands of the Roman authorities. He denounced the fanatical pursuit of martyrdom and resisted what he perceived to be the unnecessary antagonism of the secular authorities by the confessors. When the secular authorities demanded the sacred books from him, he hid them, leaving only heretical books that he surrendered to the authorities. This action led him to be branded a traditor.

Following the death of Mensurius, his archdeacon Caecilian was elected to fill the vacancy in Carthage. However, his appointment was strenuously opposed because he espoused views similar to those of Mensurius. His opponents accused him of having failed to support confessors imprisoned as a result of persecution. In addition, they asserted that one of those who ordained him to the office of bishop, Felix of Apthugni, was a traditor and that consequently his ordination was invalid. They also charged Caecilian with uncanonical procedure in not consulting with Secundus of Tigisi, the primate of Numidia, regarding his appointment. The latter was the senior bishop in North Africa in the absence of the bishop of Carthage.

Tensions between Caecilian and Secundus saw the church in Carthage divided into two factions. The confessors urged Secundus to exercise his authority. As a result, Secundus, accompanied by some seventy Numidian bishops who supported the position of the confessors, assembled in Carthage, whereupon they condemned Caecilian, as having been ordained by a traditor and as having failed to care for imprisoned confessors. Secundus then proceeded to appoint Majorinus, an opponent of Caecilian, to replace him as the bishop of Carthage. In 313, Majorinus was succeeded by Donatus of Casae Nigrae, who occupied the see of Carthage until 347. It was his name that gave rise to the description “Donatists.”

With the appointment of Majorinus, in effect, two churches existed in Carthage: one Catholic (not Roman, but universal), the other Donatist. Within a short period of time, the schism spread throughout North Africa and further afield, as advocates of the two opposing bishops sought the support of other churches.

From a theological perspective, the issues between the two parties concerned differences regarding the doctrine of the church. The Donatists maintained the pure church ideal. On that basis, they contended that the lapsed and traditors had no place in the church; some even going so far as to contend that the lapsed should be forever barred from rejoining the church. Others allowed for their reinstatement, but contended that before they could be reinstated, they had to be rebaptized. Likewise, the Donatists maintained that traditors by their actions forfeited their offices; for them to be reinstated to office, they had to be rebaptized and re-ordained. They also maintained that any ecclesiastical functions purportedly performed by traditors were invalid. It followed that baptisms and ordinations performed by those identified as traditors were not recognized.

The Donatists proceeded from an ideal and spiritualistic conception of the church. They considered themselves to be the only true and pure church. They laid stress upon the subjective holiness or personal worthiness of members, and made the catholicity of the church and the efficacy of the sacraments to depend upon that. The true church for the Donatists was, in effect, a body which was already holy, or at least had the appearance of being so. They considered that, by the toleration of those who were openly sinful, the church lost her holiness. This was the basis on which they rejected the appointment of Caecilian. It was also on this basis that they demanded the excommunication of all unworthy members, especially those who had denied the faith or who had given up the Scriptures under persecution.

In 313, the Donatists, in an attempt to resolve the schism, appealed to Constantine to determine which group was entitled to imperial recognition. Constantine referred the matter to Miltiades, the bishop of Rome who fought against the Donatists. However, this decision was rejected by the Donatists. The schism became even more deeply entrenched.

Constantine tried to persuade the Donatists to come back into the fold of the Catholic Church. But those attempts failed and he eventually resorted to force. However, coercive measures by the imperial authorities failed to curtail the expansion of Donatism in North Africa. In 321, Constantine was forced to change tack, which resulted in him granting the Donatists full liberty of faith and worship. At the same time, he urged the Catholic Church to patience and indulgence. However, patience and indulgence were in short supply.

Despite sporadic bouts of imperial repression after the death of Constantine (337), the schism continued unabated throughout the fourth century. It was toward the latter part of that century that Augustine became involved in the controversy following his ordination as a priest in the diocese of Hippo in 391. At that time, Hippo was home to a large congregation of Donatists. Catholics and Donatists lived and worked side by side in Hippo. Families in Hippo included members of both the Catholic and Donatist communities. The tension between the two groups waxed and waned.

At the time that Augustine settled in Hippo, tension between the groups was on the rise. Therefore, from the outset of his ministry Augustine engaged the Donatists in debate. He spoke and wrote against them. Reputedly, Augustine’s dialectics were formidable and so the Donatists avoided him whenever possible.

Through his studies and writings on the Donatist schism, Augustine developed his doctrine of the church. He taught that there is one universal church in the world. For him, that was the Catholic Church. He also maintained that within that one church there were two realities, the visible church and the invisible church; the visible church being the institutional body established by Christ on earth appointed to proclaim the gospel and to administer the sacraments; the invisible being the body of the elect, made up of genuine believers from all ages and who are known only unto God. Furthermore, Augustine maintained that the church visible will, according to the parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13:24ff., be made up of the godly and the ungodly until the end of the world. True holiness will only be attained in a state of grace.

Nonetheless, Augustine also contended that the church was to be holy. He taught that the church was holy, in principle, and that it was that in and through Jesus Christ. Though he maintained the holiness of the church, Augustine neglected to emphasize that the church must also seek to manifest its holiness. His failure to emphasize that meant that little or nothing was done to deal with those in the church who were blatantly living unholy lives. In support of his approach, Augustine relied upon the fact that in the parable of the wheat and the tares, the tares were removed, but only at the end. Augustine’s reluctance to pursue holiness within the church led to the church retaining within her ranks those who openly violated the word of God.

 Augustine insisted that there could be no salvation outside of the Catholic Church. From this understanding, he derived his view on the sacraments. His views on the sacraments were also developed as a result of the Donatist controversy, particularly his view on the administration of the sacraments. In reaction to the assertions of the Donatists, Augustine developed a distinction between the “regularity” and “validity” of the sacraments. He contended that the sacraments when performed by the clergy of the Catholic Church were “regular,” whereas those performed by the Donatists were “irregular.” Nonetheless, he asserted that because the validity of the sacraments did not depend upon the holiness of the priest who administered them, irregular sacraments could still be valid provided they were administered in the name of Jesus Christ and in the manner prescribed by the church.

Augustine maintained that baptism only existed in the Catholic Church and that only in the Catholic Church could it rightly be received. While he granted to the Donatists that they may have a proper baptism, he denied that they could have the efficacy of baptism.

Having developed these views through study, reading and debate, Augustine attacked the Donatists’ conception of the holiness and purity of the church; he repudiated their attempts to separate physically the holy from the unholy in the midst of the church; he contended that the Donatists were sectarian and not catholic; he challenged their practice of rebaptism; and he contended that those who administered the sacraments were mere instruments, not fountains of grace upon which the efficacy of the sacrament depended.

In 411, Augustine participated in a conference in Carthage called by the emperor in a further attempt to bring the schism to an end. The conference, which was designed to settle matters once and for all, was attended by 286 Catholic bishops and 279 Donatist bishops. The bishops met three times over the course of a week. Seven delegates from each side engaged in heated debate over the origins of the schism and their divergent ecclesiastical views. However, the conference failed to resolve the differences. The Donatists reasserted their biblical warrant for separating from those who had cooperated with the Romans in the persecutions under Diocletian. They also maintained their view of the need for separation between the holy and unholy on the basis that the sins of one might affect the spiritual health of others. Furthermore, they forcefully argued against compulsion in religion and the confusion of the powers of the church and the state.

The failure of the conference saw the reimposition of stringent imperial laws upon the Donatists. Donatist bishops were banished from North Africa, fines were imposed on the laity, and Donatist churches were confiscated. In 415, the Donatists were even forbidden to meet for worship upon the pain of death.

Tensions between the two groups ran high. Even Augustine, who had previously maintained that only spiritual measures should be employed against the Donatists, began to advocate the use of force in order to bring them back into fellowship with the Catholic Church. In support of this proposition, he appealed erroneously to the command in the parable of the Great Supper in Luke 24:23 to “compel them to come in.”

The Donatist schism was never formally resolved, though it was effectively brought to an end by the invasion of North Africa in 428 by the Arian Vandals—an invasion that devastated both the Catholic and Donatist churches in North Africa. Nonetheless, remnants of the thinking of the Donatists lived on and, in fact, can still be found in Christendom today.

As noted, through his anti-Donatist writings, Augustine developed and clarified his doctrine of the church, not only for himself, but for the church. This is not to suggest that every conclusion that Augustine espoused in his anti-Donatist writings was right. Clearly, Augustine erred in a number of areas. For example, he erred in his willingness to see heretics and schismatics compelled to return to the church. Though Augustine himself was reluctant to see persecution of heretics and schismatics, nonetheless, his views were the catalyst for the whole system of spiritual despotism, intolerance, and persecution adopted by the Church of Rome during the Middle Ages. He also erred in his toleration of ungodliness within the visible church. Likewise, he erred in his views on the efficacy of the sacrament of baptism being tied to the Catholic Church.

Nonetheless, Augustine has bequeathed to the church today an enduring legacy. Consider the following excerpts from the Westminster Confession of Faith and you can discern ecclesiology that first found expression in the writings of Augustine.

1. The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof.

2. The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion.

4. This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them (WCF, Chapter 25).

Augustine was truly one of the great church fathers, and his doctrine of the church, which was shaped and honed through the Donatist schism, continues to benefit the church today.

Soli Deo Gloria