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

Augustine and Chrysostom on Manichaeism (2)

Against these main tenets of Manichaeism, both John Chrysostom and Augustine spent much of their time writing. Augustine, a former Manichean, wrote with a special sort of passion.[1] Some of this passion became evident in the discourse that Augustine recorded between himself and Faustus, a Manichaean leader.[2] Faustus was highly regarded by other Manicheans and his arguments can rightly be viewed as representative of Manichaeism as a whole.[3] Augustine laid out the words of Faustus that he wished to contend with as “Again, I say, the Christian Church, which consists more of Gentiles than of Jews, can owe nothing to Hebrew witnesses.”[4] The Manicheans argued that since the Christian church consisted of far more Gentiles than Jews and was essentially a Gentile institution, the Jewish prophets and Old Testament were useless.[5] Faustus did still claim to be a Christian and confess Christ, but he denied that the Old Testament even prophesied of Christ. Augustine made clear to Faustus that the orthodox view of Scripture included both the Old and New Testaments and that both the Old and New Testaments spoke of Christ. Augustine turned to Paul in Romans 15:4 for his support of the Old Testament and the prophets and accused Faustus of preaching a gospel contrary to Scripture: “If Faustus denies this [The Old Testament and Prophets], we can only say with Paul, “If any one shall preach to you another doctrine than that ye have received, let him be accursed.”[6]

Augustine in other anti-Manichaean writings exposed the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of Manichaeaism. In Against the Epistle of Manichaeus Augustine displayed Mani’s claim to be the comforter promised by Christ and his denial of the incarnation to be preposterous:

“Besides, you should explain how it is that, while the Father, Son and, Holy Spirit are united in equality of nature, as you also acknowledge, you are not ashamed to speak of Manichaeus [Mani], a man taken into union with Holy Spirit as born of ordinary generation; and yet you shrink from believing that the man taken into union with the only-begotten Wisdom of God was born of a Virgin.  If human flesh, if generation [concubitus viri], if the womb of a woman could not contaminate the Holy Spirit, how could the Virgin’s womb contaminate the Wisdom of God?”[7]

Augustine would go on to point out that clearly Mani could not have been the promised Paraclete as the New Testament told of the history of the promise and pouring out of the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete/Comforter.[8]

Augustine and Chrysostom both attacked Manichaeism on the strict dualism and the low regard for physical matter. John Chrysostom especially attacked the Manicheans for their denial of the Biblical creation and view of physical mater. In his sermon on Genesis 1, Chrysostom said, “Even if Mani accosts you saying matter preexisted, or Marcion, or Valentinus, or pagans, tell them directly: ‘In the beginning God made heaven and earth.”[9] In a homily on Matthew 14 (feeding of the five thousand) Chrysostom wrote:

And why doth He not make it of things that are not? Stopping the mouth of Marcion, and of Manichaeans, who alienate His creation from Him, and teaching by His very works, that even all the things that are seen are His works and creatures, and signifying that it is Himself who gives the fruits, who said at the beginning, ‘Let the earth put forth the herb of grass,’ and ‘Let the waters bring forth things moving with living souls.’”[10]And why doth He not make it of things that are not? Stopping the mouth of Marcion, and of Manichaeans, who alienate His creation from Him, and teaching by His very works, that even all the things that are seen are His works and creatures, and signifying that it is Himself who gives the fruits, who said at the beginning, ‘Let the earth put forth the herb of grass,’ and ‘Let the waters bring forth things moving with living souls.’”[10]

Chrysostom in this passage accused the Manichaeans of alienating God from the creation. In their strict dualism and insistence on the evil of physical matter they forced the good God to be absolutely removed from His creation. Chrysostom here conjectured that if Jesus had called the food for the five thousand out of nothing, he could have not only definitively proved that he is God, but also Creator. Chrysostom goes on to show that even though Christ did not create the loaves and fish ex nihilo, He still in this miracle showed himself to be Creator and God—thus removing any idea of a God who is separate.[11]

Chrysostom also wrote against specifically Manichaeism for its despising of the physical body: “For the latter [Manichaeans] call the body a treacherous thing, and from the evil principle.”[12] John Chrysostom accused them as “those who assert that the workmanship of God is evil.”[13] Augustine joined Chrysostom in this condemnation. Augustine said concerning evil “sin is not the striving after an evil nature, but the desertion of a better, and so the deed itself is evil, not the nature which the sinner uses amiss.”[14] Here he criticized the Manichaeans as ones who did not understand sin and evil. Corruption caused everything in this world to commit sin and act in an evil way, yet it was not the physical nature that was responsible for sin and everything physical should not be thought of as evil.

Because of their view on physical matter, the Manichaean system had no room for the Incarnation. Augustine and Chrysostom both attacked this aspect of the Manichaean heresy vigorously. Chrysostom wrote in Against the Marcionites and Manichaeans:

The wicked mouth of the devil speaking through Marcion of Pontus, and Valentinus, and Manichaeus of Persia and many more heretics, has attempted to overthrow the doctrine of the Incarnation and has vented a diabolical utterance declaring that He did not become flesh. . . although the sufferings, the death, the burial, the thirst, cry aloud against this teaching.”[15]

Chrysostom appealed here to the clear testimony of scripture concerning Jesus physical feelings. One who is not incarnate cannot feel thirst, cannot suffer, and most importantly cannot die. Chrysostom saw the importance of denying the Manichaean heresy at this vital point.

Augustine attacked Manichaeanism in a similar fashion in his polemics against Faustus. Faustus confessed that “it is hardly consistent to believe that God, the God of Christians, was born from the womb.”[16] In doing so, Faustus displayed the true Manichaean view of Scripture as uninspired. To validate this denial of the Incarnation Faustus argued that the “Jesus of Matthew is a different person from the Jesus of Mark.”[17] In response to these statements Augustine showed that the incarnate Christ did not lose his Godhead, but the Incarnation was Christs taking on the flesh of men “For in the unchangeable possession of that nature by which in the form of God He is equal to the Father, He took our changeable nature, by which He might be born of a virgin.”[18] In regards to the importance of the Incarnation for salvation, Augustine responded to Faustus with:

The second man from heaven, heavenly, is the Lord Jesus Christ; for, being the Son of God, He became flesh that He might be a man outwardly, while He remained God within; that He might be both the true Son of God, by whom we were made, and the true Son of man, by whom we are made anew.” [19]

Augustine and John Chrysostom both took up the defense of the orthodox faith over against the heresy of Manichaean philosophy. Even if Manichaeism presented itself as an alternative form of Christianity and confessed to believe in Jesus Christ, these church fathers recognized it for the heresy that it was. In their defense against Manichaeism they rightly defended the Old Testament scripture, the truth of God as the Creator and the absolutely vital truth of the Incarnation.


[1] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 77.

[2] Augustine, Confessions, 77.

[3] “In the nine years or so during which my vagabond mind listened to the Manichees, I waited with intense yearning for the coming of Faustus.” Augustine’s first encounters with Faustus were during the time of his life when he confessed to be a Manichean. He had his doubts and questions about Manichaeanism but his comrades ensured him that Faustus would be able to answer any question he had. Augustine, Confessions, 77

[4]Augustine, “Reply to Faustus the Manichaean,” in The Writings Against the Manichaeans and Against the Donatists, trans. Richard Stothert. Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers Series 1 ed. Philip Schaff vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 161, 199.

[5] Augustine, “Reply to Faustus the Manichaean,” 199.

[6] Augustine, “Reply to Faustus the Manichaean,” 207.

[7] Augustine, “Against the Epistle of Manichaeus,” in The Writings Against the Manichaeans and Against the Donatists, trans. Richard Stothert, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers Series 1 ed. Philip Schaff vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 132.

[8] Augustine, “Against the Epistle of Manichaeus,” 133.

[9] John Chrysostom, “Homily 2,” in St. John Chrysostom: Homilies on Genesis 1-17, trans. Robert C. Hill, The Fathers of the Church vol. 74 (Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1986), 34.

[10] John Chrysostom, “Homily XLIX,” in St. Chrysostom: Homilies on The Gospel of Saint Matthew, trans. George Prevost, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers Series 1 ed. Philip Schaff vol. 10 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 295.

[11] De Wet, “John Chrysostom on Manichaeism,” 2.

[12] John Chrysostom, “Commentary on Galatians,” in St. Chrysostom: Homilies on the Epistles to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, trans. Gross Alexander, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers Series 1 ed. Philip Schaff vol. 13 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 39.

[13] John Chrysostom, “Commentary on Galatians,” 39.

[14] Augustine, “Concerning the Nature of Good, Against the Manichaeans,” in The Writings Against the Manichaeans and Against the Donatists, trans. Albert H. Newman, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers Series 1 ed. Philip Schaff vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 359.

[15] John Chrysostom, “Against Marcionists and Manichaeans,” in St. Chrysostom: On The Priesthood; Ascetic Treatises; Select Homilies and Letters; Homilies on the Statues, trans. W.R.W. Stephens, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers Series 1 ed. Philip Schaff vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 205.

[16] Augustine, “Reply to Faustus the Manichaean,” 159.

[17] Augustine, “Reply to Faustus the Manichaean,” 159.

[18] Augustine, “Reply to Faustus the Manichaean,” 161.

[19] Augustine, “Reply to Faustus the Manichaean,” 157.


By Arend Haveman

Augustine and Chrysostom on Manichaeism (1)

For the next month or two, we will be posting different essays concerning aspects of ancient church history. We start with several heresies, the first of which is Manichaeism.

The early church was no stranger to heresies. The Devil has constantly introduced false ideas in the church and has led many astray. This was the case even during the Apostolic Era. I Corinthian ­­­11:19 Paul writes “For there must be also heresies among you.”[1] As the gospel spread throughout parts of Europe and Asia, the church gained many new converts—many who were formerly under the persuasion of various forms of philosophy. Inevitably what occurred with the influx of converts was a mixing of Christianity with philosophy, a mingling of Jerusalem and Athens. The tragic results however of this mingling were various heresies that corrupted the gospel. Manicheanism sprung out of this mixing of Christianity with eastern philosophy, especially Zoroastrianism. God in his providence though raised up men to defend the truth of the whole Bible against this heresy, men who defended orthodoxy with their pen as well as with their speech and men who themselves understood the Manichaean heresy. The error of Manichaeism then can be understood by an examination of the polemical works of two of these defenders of orthodoxy, John Chrysostom and Augustine.

Before examining the works of Chrysostom and Augustine against the Manichaean heresy, it is necessary to lay out a general background of the Manichaean system. Manichaeism bears the name of its founder Mani. He originated from Mesopotamia and claimed to have received angelic visions as a child. According to his claims, angels continued to visit him throughout his childhood and early adulthood. Eventually, from these angelic visitors, he received a divine commission. Mani was to “proclaim the glad tidings of truth.” He followed this ill-defined commission faithfully throughout much of Asia and even into the West. Mani successfully spread his heresy for nearly 40 years before Persian King Bahraim executed him in AD 276.[2] Before he was executed though, Mani’s philosophy gained many followers and his disciples spread Manichaeism throughout the Ancient world.[3] As its spread continued, Manichaeism developed into a sort of pseudo-Christianity that denied the Old Testament, confessed a rigid dualism, and therefore denied the incarnation of Christ.

Manichaeism as it came westward aligned itself in a superficial way to Christianity. Albert H. Newman described the Manichaean pseudo-Christianity: “Mani and his followers, whether from designed imposture or from less sinister motives, attempted to palm themselves off as Christians, nay, as the only true Christians.”[4] John Chrysostom echoed that same sentiment in his homily on Hebrews when he accused Manichaeans of wearing Christianity merely as a mask.[5] In their forcing of Christianity into their own philosophy, Manicheans denied the Old Testament outright as well as any Old Testament influence on the New Testament. Mani himself did at the very least hold the New Testament with some regard. He showed this most clearly by his claimed to be an apostle of Christ and the promised Paraclete.[6]

The most basic tenet of Manichaean “Christianity” though was a very rigid dualism. This dualism undoubtedly had its origin in the Zoroastrian philosophy that thrived in the Mesopotamian culture in which Mani grew up. Mani and the Manichaeans simply took Zoroastrian dualism and developed/modified it to “align” into Christianity.[7] To accomplish this blend Manichaeism echoed the Christian belief that God is good and the world is full of corruption. However, the Manichaean dualism was so rigid that they denied a good God who was creator of physical matter that was good.[8] Therefore the Manichaean system needed especially to deny the Old Testament history of Genesis 1-2. The Manichaean God would never have created the physical world out of His good pleasure, but the act of creation required the influence and rebellion of Satan.[9] Flowing out of the rigid dualism and denial of the Biblical creation came the denial of bodily resurrection. Since creation of the physical world was the result of evil and all physical matter was evil, Manichaeism logically denied the resurrection of the body. Instead of a bodily resurrection, the soul would simply be transferred into the spiritual realm.[10]

This strict dualism between good/evil and spiritual/physical necessitated that the Manichaeans denied the incarnation. In theory Manichaeism held to much of the New Testament and confessed the deity of Jesus Christ but, God could never have an actual physical body.[11] This idea flew in the face of their most defining tenet. To keep their claim to the Christian scriptures of the New Testament though, Manichaeism claimed that Christ only seemed to have a physical nature but in reality he only had a spiritual nature. The Manichaean Christ existed with one nature, purely spiritual, non-incarnate.[12]


[1] I Corinthians 11:19 (KJV).

[2] Albert H. Newman, “Introduction Essay on the Manichaean Heresy,” in St. Augustine: The Writings Against the Manichaeans and against the Donatists, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers Series 1 ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 9-10.

[3] Newman, “Introduction Essay on the Manichaean Heresy,” 10.

[4] Newman, “Introduction Essay on the Manichaean Heresy,” 24.

[5] Chris L. De Wet, “John Chrysostom on Manichaeism,” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies 75, no. 1 (September 4, 2019): 5.

[6] Newman, “Introduction Essay on the Manichaean Heresy,” 24.

[7] Newman, “Introduction Essay on the Manichaean Heresy,” 18.

[8] Newman, “Introduction Essay on the Manichaean Heresy,” 11-12, 25.

[9] Newman, “Introduction Essay on the Manichaean Heresy,” 13-14.

De Wet, “John Chrysostom on Manichaeism,” 2.

[10] De Wet, “John Chrysostom on Manichaeism,” 4.

[11] Augustine, “Moral and Religious Life,” in The Essential Augustine, ed. Vernon J. Bourke (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1981), 158.

[12] De Wet, “John Chrysostom on Manichaeism,” 2.

By Arend Haveman