Donatism (2)

This continues a short series on ancient heresies.

The Donatists controversy was characterized by a number of other issues as well. The main issue was the question of the nature of the church. The Donatists believed that the church was made up only of those who maintained themselves free from all external blemish. Those who had lapsed had no place in the church, and especially no place in church office. Petilianus the Donatist asked rhetorically, “Whom do you teach, traditor?…How do you baptize in the name of the Trinity? You cannot call God your father. Or how again can you baptize in the name of the Son, who betray that Son Himself, who do not imitate the Son of God in any of His sufferings or crosses?”[1]

In the mouth of Augustine, the Catholic responded with a rhetorical question of their own: “If their church is already of such a character as they maintain, they would not utter unto God the prayer which our Lord has taught us to employ, ‘Forgive us our debts.’ For…why does the church make this petition, if already, even in this life, it has neither spot nor wrinkle, nor any such thing?”[2]

The Donatists incorrectly attempted to justify themselves with the Scriptural principle that we call the antithesis today: “Petilianus said: ‘But there is no fellowship of darkness with light, nor any fellowship of bitterness with the sweet of honey; there is no fellowship of life with death, of innocence with guilt, of water with blood…’” Augustine answered this directly, framing the issue  between the two sides concisely:

“What is it but sheer madness to utter these taunts without proving anything? You look at the tares throughout the world, and pay no heed to the wheat, although both have been bidden to grow together throughout the whole of it. You look at the seed sown by the wicked one, which shall be separated in the time of harvest, and you pay no heed to the seed of Abraham, in which all nations of the earth shall be blessed. Just as though you were already a purged mass, and virgin honey, and refined oil, and pure gold, or rather the very similitude of a whited wall.[3]

Over against the Donatist conception of the church, the Catholic definition the church stood thus: “There is no other Catholic Church, save that which, according to the promise, is spread abroad throughout the whole world, and extends even to the uttermost limits of the earth; which, rising amid tares, and seeing rest in the future from the weariness of offenses.”[4]

Assessing this aspect of the struggle, Neander observes, “Both parties were involved in the same grand mistake with regard to the conception of the Church, by their habit of confounding the notions of the invisible and the visible church with each other.”[5] Neander’s assessment is correct. As one reads, he finds that the Catholics tended to equate the “Church” with the group that included the bishop of Rome. For them, the Donatists had no possibility of salvation, and this was less because the Donatists manifested themselves as the false church in the preaching, the administration of sacraments, and discipline, than it was because the Donatists had cut themselves off from the general body of churches. Augustine wrote, “In the same manner as if a limb be cut off from the body of a living man, it cannot any longer retain the spirit of life; so the man who is cut off from the body of Christ, who is righteous, can in no wise retain the spirit of righteousness”.[6]

Augustine did not write the above with relish; he desired the Donatists’ salvation. Nonetheless, Augustine believed that their affiliation was the primary marker of their character as the body of Christ: “But those with whom we are arguing, or about whom we are arguing, are not to be despaired of, for they are yet in the body; but they cannot seek the Holy Spirit unless they be  in the body of Christ, of which they possess the outward sign outside of the Church, but they do not possess the actual reality itself…and therefore they eat and drink damnation to themselves”.[7]

Another issue at play was the question of the power of the sacraments. As we have noted, the Donatists held that the “conscience” of the man who administrated the sacrament was decisive in the efficacy of the sacrament. Augustine used striking language to combat this notion, “Accordingly, if Marcion [Augustine’s example of a notorious heretic] consecrated the sacrament of baptism with the words of the gospel, ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,’ the sacrament was complete.”[8] According to Augustine, the Trinitarian formula, not the man, made the difference. This too hints of things to come in the Roman Catholic Church: Augustine’s good impulse was warped into ex opere operato (“from the doing of the doing,” —grace conferred by the outward action itself) in the Middle Ages.

A third issue at play was simple pigheadedness in both the Catholic and Donatist camp. In 403, a council in Carthage sent an invitation to the Donatists to assemble and engage in formal discussions. Neander relates that the invitation “contained a good deal that was calculated to irritate the minds of the Donatists. The Catholic bishops could not consent to forget that they spoke, in the secure possession of the truth, with men who were in error, and whose error it was their business to correct.” Further illustrating the spirit behind the invitation, the Catholic bishops promised to resign their bishoprics if the Donatists were found to be right. Everybody knew that this wasn’t going to happen.[9]

When the Catholics and Donatists came together for the aforementioned debate, the Donatists made a show of remaining standing in the assembly hall. This, they said, was out of respect for the bishops who wanted to be there but couldn’t, and also because “The divine law, Psalm 26:4, forbids us to sit down with such adversaries.”[10] Hardly an ecumenical spirit.

In the history of the Donatists there is a warning: those who fabricate unbiblical ideals for what the church should look like will either perpetually be discontent with the church, or worse, they will get what they want: they will get a church made up exclusively of people who meet their ideals. Such a “church” is not modeled after Christ. Such a “church” offers salvation from those who don’t meet the artificial standard, but it does not offer salvation from sin. God’s people must be careful to drive out from the church unrepentant sinners, and unrepentant sinners alone.[11]

The history of Donatism teaches us another lesson: when persecution comes, there will be different ideas about how the church ought to respond. If we are proud, these differences will lead to heated contention. Men with weak spines will call their compliance “wisdom.” Men with hard heads people will call their rebellion “faithfulness.” Our own proclivities are not trustworthy guides; in persecution, God’s church must remain united around that Word as the objective standard of faithfulness.

Finally, the struggle with the Donatist raised good questions about ecclesiology. Augustine began to answer these questions. He did not always answer them completely, or in an entirely satisfactory manner, but God used him for the good of His bride on earth.

[1] Augustine, Answer to Petilian, trans. J.R. King (NPNF 1/4:550).

[2] Augustine, Correction of the Donatists, trans. J.R. King (NPNF 1/4:647).

[3] Augustine, Answer to Petilian, trans. J.R. King (NPNF 1/4:555).

[4] Augustine, The Seven Books of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, on Baptism, Against the Donatists, trans. J.R. King (NPNF 1/4:414).

[5] Neander, General History, 3:277.

[6] Augustine, Correction of the Donatists, trans. J.R. King (NPNF 1/4:648).

[7] Augustine, Correction of the Donatists, trans. J.R. King (NPNF 1/4:651).

[8] Augustine, On Baptism, Against the Donatists, trans. J.R. King (NPNF 1/4:442).

[9] Neander, General History, 3:268.

[10] Neander, General History, 3:270.

[11] Augustine, On Baptism, Against the Donatists, trans. J.R. King (NPNF 1/4:483)

By Aaron Van Dyke

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