Donatism (1)

This continues a short series on ancient church heresies.

Though the body of Christ is one, holy, and catholic, the Devil does his utmost to keep her institutions divided, unholy, and parochial. He must have smiled to himself when in the fourth century “Constantine enacted that property should be restored to the churches [and] found two parties in North Africa claiming to be the church.”[1] This sad situation was born from the Donatist controversy. Lasting from the early fourth century, all the way to the sixth century, the controversy was, according to Augustus Neander, “the most important and influential church division” of this period.[2] It involved doctrine, but was primarily a church-political fight. Principles were involved, but often took a back seat to the passions of factious bickering.

The history is sad, but God used it for good: “If it was Pelagianism that stimulated Augustine to formulate his doctrine of grace, it was the Donatist schism that stimulated him to formulate his doctrine of the Church.”[3] This paper will treat the history of the Donatist controversy, identify its main issues, and give a brief evaluation of its significance for Christ’s church today.

Like the Novation controversy before it, the Donatist controversy was the fallout from varying responses to persecution. When Diocletian’s deputies would knock on church doors demanding that the Scriptures be handed over, there were mostly two responses: Some would thumb their noses and announce that they would never comply. Many (not all) of these people had an unhealthy desire for martyrdom. Others would comply, choosing the destruction of holy writings (faux or real) over their bodies. Such were called “traditores.” In this climate, and after the persecution subsided, a rift developed in the church between those who tended toward “prudence” and those with more grand, “fanatic” ideals.[4] The former would make up the Catholic party. They represented mainline orthodoxy. The latter became known as the Donatists, named after “a fiery and energetic man” from among them who became “the head and soul of the sect…well-suited to stand at the head of the party, being a man of fiery, untutored eloquence, of great firmness of principle, and of great energy of action.”[5]

The fault lines became a chasm in 305 A.D. when the bishop of Carthage, an old man named Mensurius, died on the way home from a trip to Rome. His successor, an arch-deacon named Caecilianus was installed as bishop. Caecilianus was of the “moderate” persuasion. He did not think that his parishioners should make public shows of solidarity with their brothers who had landed themselves in prison. He discouraged the veneration of martyrs. He rebuked a lady from church for her relic collection. He was not the sort of bishop that the radical element in Carthage were looking for.[6]

Complaining that Caecilianus had been elected too quickly and publishing to whomever would listen that Caecilian’s predecessor, Mensurius, had been a traditore, the radical faction split. They elected Majorinus, the church reader, to be the new bishop, excommunicated Caecilianus and all who held communion with him, and wrote to emperor Constantine, explaining that that were the new true church and asking to be recognized as such.[7] Years later, Augustine commented concerning this departure,

Even if the charges had been true which were brought by them against Caecilianus, and could at length be proved to us, yet, though we might pronounce an anathema upon him even in the grave, we are still bound not for the sake of any man to leave the Church, which rests for its foundation upon divine witnesses, and is not the figment of litigious opinions, seeing that it is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man. For we cannot allow that if Caecilianus had erred, —a supposition which I make without prejudice to his integrity, —Christ should therefore have forfeited His inheritance.[8]

The new group was condemned by a number of councils, and the Donatists condemned the Catholic church in turn. They said that the presence of the lapsed in the Catholic Church corrupted her completely and rendered her sacraments void. In 411, an imperial commissioner heard both parties and sided with the Catholics. After this, and to varying degrees, the government persecuted the Donatists.[9] Bruce remarks that “Much of the persecution which the Donatists said they suffered for conscience’ sake was really police action against the fomenters of public disorder.”[10] 

For years, the Donatist faction lived as a competing entity with the Catholic church. They were more censorious, denied aspects of the Nicene faith, and in some cases tended toward mysticism, but in many ways they lived lives almost parallel to the Catholics in worship and doctrine. The group survived the invasion of the empire by the Vandals in the fifth century and maintained a distinct existence all the way up to the papacy of Gregory the Great in the sixth century.[11]

At first, Augustine took a gentle stance towards the Donatists. He preferred to win them through reason rather than force and for many years wrote about, preached against, and debated with them.[12] In time, Augustine came to support the government’s actions against them. Exasperated, he wrote, “They carry on their unhappy strife solely on the question of communion and in the perversity of their error maintain rebellion hostility against the unity of Christ,”[13] and, “They are so blinded with the desire of uttering calumnies, that they do not observe how inconsistent their statements are with one another.”[14] When challenged by the Donatist Petilianus on this: “what is your justification of the persecution?”  Augustine answered, “Since you ask what is the justification of persecution, I ask you in turn whose voice it is that says in the Psalm, ‘Whoso privily slandereth his neighbor, him will I cut off.’”[15] This interesting exegesis and approval of government action against heresy would be cited by later churchmen who wanted to wield the power of the state.[16]


[1] Frederick F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame; the Rise and Progress of Christianity from its First Beginnings to the Conversion of the English (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964), 296. (emphasis mine).

[2] Augustus Neander, General History of the Christian Religion and Church, trans. Joseph Torrey (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1848), 3:244.

[3] Bruce, Spreading Flame, 337.

[4] Neander, General History, 3:245.

[5] Neander, General History, 3:337.

[6] Neander, General History, 3:251-254.

[7] Bruce, Spreading Flame, 337.

[8] Augustine, A Treatise Concerning the Correction of the Donatists, trans. J.R.                                        King (NPNF 1/4:634).

[9] Bruce, Spreading Flame, 337.

[10] Bruce, Spreading Flame, 298.

[11] Neander, General History, 3:271.

[12] Neander, General History, 3:265.

[13] Augustine, Correction of the Donatists, trans. J.R. King (NPNF 1/4:633).

[14] Augustine, Correction of the Donatists, trans. J.R. King (NPNF 1/4:646).

[15] Augustine, The Three Books of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in Answer to the Letters of Petilian the Donatist Bishop of Cirta, trans. J.R. King (NPNF 1/4:570-71).

[16] Bruce, Spreading Flame, 338.


By Aaron Van Dyke

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s