The Donatist Controversy or Donatism was a significant movement that arose in the early part of the 4th century and according to the renowned church historian Justo Gonzales it started in North Africa, a movement claiming that: …consecrations performed by bishops who had faltered in time of persecution were invalid, and therefore rejecting the authority of Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage at the time, who had allegedly been consecrated by one who had lapsed. This led to a schism that eventually was named after Donatus, one of its leaders (p. 48). It is obvious that something had changed dramatically.
In order for the Church to be embroiled in such a high level of controversy never before seen since the time when the Apostles had to argue passionately against dietary rules. There is a turning point in Christianity and it was brought about by the sudden change in the way Christianity was viewed by the known world at that time. This major development came when the Roman Empire embraced Christianity. There were two sides to the coin so to speak. On one hand Christianity gained a great ally in perhaps one of the greatest empires in the history of mankind.
While on the other hand Christianity was faced with the possibility of diluting the holiness of the Body of Christ. According to C. H. Ren the greatest challenge is how to uphold the standards established by the brave and zealous Christian men and women of the past and he wrote, “Those who had for the past three centuries ignored or rejected Christianity suddenly found it practical to become Christians. With an emperor who was overseeing the Church and showering wealth upon it, Christianity found itself in a treacherous intertwining with the secular world” (2000, p.
37). More importantly, the adoption of the Christian religion by the once repressive empire allowed the “traditores” the opportunity to be assimilated back to their first love. On one side this is a breakthrough for the Church not does it have the full backing of the Emperor but it has allowed others to find grace and the chance for those who so grievously sinned to be able to drink from the satisfying waters of salvation once again. There is just one major problem. There are those who gave their lives defending Christianity.
There were those who sacrificed their bodies and subject it to mutilation, enduring unimaginable physical torture just so they can be counted among the elect. There were many who firmly believed that Christianity is not a mere social club that one could easily affiliate oneself because at that time was perceived to be meritorious and when the tough gets going opt to abandon ship realising that life is more dear than a set of doctrines and beliefs. It is not hard to imagine that the proponents of Donatism belong to the heroes of the faith – those who survived the great persecutions of the 3rd century.
Now, at the turn of the century, atht ecoming of the Holy Emperor, the Church is divided in the same intensity as when the Apostles argued about the role of Judaism in the new religion. But before going any further it is important to establish that the Donatists were not really heretics in the purest sense of the word. They were merely guilty of schism to a greater extent. It is important to note that in essence members of the Donatist movement and members of the Catholic Church are both Christians who believed in basically the same tenets and doctrines.
James Alexander asserted that were not strictly heretics and he added that, “…they shared the same creed ad observed identical sacraments” and Donatists coming over to the Catholic Church did not require rebaptism (p. 962). This is not the case though with the Donatists they want “rebaptism” to be standard protocol for those that decide to cross-over from the Roman Catholic side to theirs. This last two statements is revealing as to the mindset of the two camps.
The Roman Catholics led by Augustine in the 4th century wanted to preserve the unity of the Church while the Donatists on the other hand does not seem to care what will happen to the big picture as long as they satisfy their dogmatic stance. Still it is not easy to merely dismiss the Donatists as merely religious zealots aching for trouble and that familiar posture from fanatics of always wanting to experience a spiritual slugfest with those who the deem are less holy. Root Cause Donald McKim wrote, “As with the earlier persecutions, not all capitulated in the same way.
Some bishops handed over heretical books and led the Romans to believe they were sacred Scriptures” In the heat of persecution many indeed gave in to the demands of the Roman authority and they willingly gave up the sacred books, the same books that could be found in the modern day Holy Bible. For an organization founded on the blood of martyrs, chief of them is their master and founder Jesus Christ, this act of cowardice in the face of death is something that is unacceptable. Aside from Donatus and Augustine of Hippo there is another personality that added flavour and intensity into the debate, Thascius Caecilianus Cyprianus (ca.
200-258) known more popularly as Cyprian “was the major theologian and bishop of North Africa in the pre-Donatist period” (Tilley, p. 1). Cyprian while still active in church was leaning towards the idea brought forward by Donatists yet interestingly he was unwilling to justify the necessity of any form of schism within the church. Cyprian made the following profound insights into the state of those who compromised to the pressure of intense persecution (Mcgrath, p. 479): 1. By lapsing, the bishop has committed the sin of apostasy (literally, “falling away”).
He has therefore placed himself outside the bounds of the church, and can no longer be regarded as administering the sacraments validly. 2. By his repentance, the bishop has been restored to grace, and is able to continue administering the sacraments validly. McGrath was correct in saying that Cyprian’s theory is at best ambiguous and could be interpreted two ways. Still these ideas espoused by Cyprian made him popular with both the Donatists and the Roman Catholic Church when the controversy was raging a century after his death. But the fact that Cyprian was martyred made him all the more attractive to the cause of Donatism.
Later, his unique theological stance would play a major role in resolving the conflict. Heart of the Matter It was very difficult to judge the case brought before the Christian leaders after the age of persecution. Many have claimed that they handed over the holy books because they were merely looking after the interest of their flock – that they were avoiding bloodshed (McKim, p. 55). There are basically two issues that need resolution. What must be done to those who willingly submitted to the demands of the Roman government and allowed the sacred books to be burned?
Secondly, what must be done to those who did a one-hundred-eighty-degree turn and went back to their previous ways, that of paganism? “…many in the churches, both leaders and others, worshiped the pagan gods, and some reported that pagan temples were filled to overflowing”, these words from McKim succinctly described the gravity of the matter (p. 55). As mentioned earlier the fact that many before them had given their lives for the cause, the capitulation of the 4th century Christians is something that has to be addressed. The theological issue that consequently followed can be simplified into the following, as provided by Justo Gonzales:
1. The purity of the Church 2. The validity of the sacraments and rites administered by unworthy persons. Moreover, another aspect of the issue concerns how the Donatists and Augustine’s camp view the Church in relation to the world. According to William Frend and Peter Brown both the Donatists and the Catholic Church thought of the Church as an alternative society that could help the world around them find salvation and God. With regards to the Donatists, their specific belief is outlined by Peter Brown, “They felt their identity to be constantly threatened: first by persecution, later, by compromise.
Innocence, ritual purity,meritorious suffering, predominate in their image of themselves” (as cited in Alexander, p. 963). In the Donatists’ mind if the Church becomes tainted with the grievous error such as apostasy then they will cease to be an effective catalyst for change. And that the power of the church to impact society is seriously diminished. On the other hand, Agustine’s Roman Catholic Church is a group, “…confident of its powers to absorb the world without losing its identity” (Alexander, p. 963).
This early it looks like the Donatists are ultra-conservative in the sense that they could go forward without first constantly checking themselves of their worthiness in performing their purpose as vessels of the eternal blessings of God. While the Augustine’s group on the other hand would love nothing more to immerse itself in the midst of a depraved world and proclaim Christ’s offer of salvation. Two Diverging Streams In order to fully understand Augustine’s view regarding the Donatists one has to go back to his time and to look at the issue in its context.
The problem with 21st century critiquing of the issue is that modern people are so influenced by what is happening in the present and it greatly influence their way of thinking. This problem is very much evident in the way people judge the actions of others based on the universal ideas such as freedom of speech, freedom to chose one’s religion, freedom to do just about everything as long as one is not putting someone in harm’s way. But Augustine is in a different era. One has to understand that Christianity at this point, in the 4th and 5th century is not as established as it is today. The foundation is laid but the structure is still wobbly.
It requires a man of vision and leadership to usher in a Christianity that will be able to influence the world. To be able to get a glimpse of her worldview one has to only review some of the imagery Augustine used to describe the Church and he remarked that the Catholic Church was the Mother, “One Mother prolific with offspring: of her are we born, by her milk we are nourished, by her sprit we are made alive” (as cited in Brown, p. 207). With this kind of mindset it would be difficult for any person to present an idea that will ravage the picture of a strong mother able to take care of her young.
The Donatist must conform and go back to their source and stop all these divisive acts that is not only hurting the image of Christianity but also of their mother the Catholic Church. Augustine’s of Hippo In dealing with the Donatists, Augustine just like any other great leader before was forced to make a decision that would be able to do the greatest amount of good. At this point in history there is no other religion that has great promise as Christianity. Augustine was convinced of this because his life was in disarray before he came to know the salvation power of Crist.
It is easy to believe that apart from any other motivation Augustine was driven to protect the unity of the Catholic Church if that is the only way that it could be a great influence to mankind. Augustine was like a one man army in the struggle against Donatism. His mighty pen was able to arrest their influence and with wise arguments and carefully timed expositions Augustine was able to rally the whole Roman Catholic Church to his side and strengthen their position that the Church must not be divided and that there is now grace and restitution available to those who have fallen away.
Augustine based most of his counter-argument in the two parables namely: a) parable of the net that catches many fish; and b) the parable of the wheat and the tares. It is the latter which really offered the foundation for a very effective counter-offensive. According to McGrath the farmer sowed seed and discovered that the resulting crop included both wheat and tares – grains and weeds: What could be done about? To attempt to separate the wheat and the weeds while both were still growing would be to court disaster, probably involving damaging the wheat while tying to get rid of the weeds.
But at harvest, all the plants … are cut down and sorted out without any danger of damaging the wheat (p. 480). McGrath then added that in the end of time a similar scenario will be played out for all to see. God in his sovereignty allowed the bad tares to prosper, grow, assimilate, come in fellowship with the good crops of the Lord. It is for the big picture, for the good of the whole body that God allowed for this tricky co-existence between the chosen and the condemned. With such line of reasoning it would be difficult – even for a hardened Donatist – not to take sides with Augustine.
In the end Augustine masterfully appealed to the teachings of the martyred Cyprian – a hero among Donatists – that differences in within the Body of Christ must be settle and must not permit to divide the Church. With this appeal and an airtight defence there is little that others can do to contest Augustine’s view. Aside from Augustine other forces came into the picture and hasten the demise of the Donatist movement rendering them almost irrelevant in the coming centuries.
In the end the final blow did not come from papal edict or charges of heresy from the opposing camp but from another growing threat of another religious superpower. “The Islamic invasion of North Africa … served to eliminate all traces of Donatism” (C. H. Ren, 2000, p. 43). Looking back it was good that Augustine and his cohort won the case if not it would be difficult to see Christianity spread far and wide. It would be difficult to imagine a Christianity that is so open to the weaknesses of man that it is able to offer forgiveness and grace.
It is possible that the Western world as it is known today may not exist. Conclusion The argument of the Donatists were valid. One only has to look at the lives of the Biblical martyrs Stephen, James, Peter, Paul and the rest of the Christians who did not capitulate to the demands of a pagan Empire. They willingly offered their lives just like their Master Jesus Christ. By forgiving spiritual leaders guilty of apostasy threatens to create a brand of Christianity that would be nothing more than a sham.
On the other hand one only has to be reminded of the “falling away” of Peter and the Apostles when they were so severely tested that night when Jesus was arrested and the subsequent forgiveness offered by Christ when he rose from the dead to see the other valid argument coming from the Augustine and the Roman Catholic Church. Furthermore, it would have been impossible for Christianity to spread to places where it is much needed if they could not go forward because of this issue. It has to be resolved and based on the discussion Augustine did a great job ushering Christianity into the new age.
References Brown, P. (2000). Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Los Angeles California: University of California Press. Esler, P. (2000). The Early Christian World. Glasgow,UK: Bell & Bain Ltd. Gonzales, J. (2005). Essential Theological Terms. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. McGrath, A. (2001). Christian Theology: An Introduction. UK: Blackwell Publishing. __________ (1999). Reformation Thought: An Introduction. 3rd Ed. UK: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd. McKim, D. (1988). Theological Turning Points. Louisville, Kentuck