Tag Archives: The Donatist Controversy

The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part VI

 

[On Thursdays, beginning March 8, 2018, I will publish a series of posts on The Historical Development of the Universal Church.  I began addressing this at an introductory level last year (see index tab) and with nearly a full year of thoughtful reflection, I’ve prepared a series that will overview this important, yet oft-misunderstood doctrine.  It will not appeal to everyone and may not interest anyone, but for the sake of clarifying my own thoughts, at least, I want to publish them here.  Hopefully they will be instructive and thought-provoking.  The majority of them have already been written, so as not to interfere with regular posts.]

The post below is a a little longer than the others in this series.

In our last post from this series we looked at the development of “Christian sacralism” through the influence of Emperor Constantine.  We also saw its effects upon the growth and expansion of the so-called universal church and how it’s evolution, essentially its institutional unity and episcopal leadership, were instrumental for the arrival of Constantinianism, or the marriage of Church with State.  A marriage that resulted formally in Christendom, or nominal Christianity.  This was a union that would not be easily broken and continues to bear bad fruit to this day.

One particular area of rottenness was the influx of immorality into the universal or catholic church, a byproduct of Christian sacralism.  This increasing lack of discipline, which existed in the centuries prior, as we’ve seen, increased exponentially with the merger with the State, but interestingly its influence occurred in two opposite directions.  Historian Phillip Schaff points out that the first influence “increased the stringency of discipline and led to a penal code for spiritual offences.”  Essentially this resulted in an enactment of civil punishment on all those who would oppose Christendom, which would lead to the death penalty for heretics and wars against infidels.  Second, “with an increasing stringency against heretics, firmness against practical errors diminished.  Hatred of heresy and laxity of morals, zeal for purity of doctrine and indifference to purity of life, which ought to exclude each other, do really often stand in union.”  Basically the 4th Century suffered from the same errors of Jehu (2 Kings 9-10), that of zeal against the idolatrous all the while harboring golden calves within their own hearts.  This is the height of hypocrisy, but its to be expected when the emphasis shifts towards an institutional, external, now state-sponsored church, if we can even use that term anymore and still retain the biblical meaning of ekklesia. (as an aside, all of this is not to take away from the genuine believers, and there were many, who loved the Lord and sought personal holiness)

Turning to Schaff again, he eloquently states the primary issue, “In that mighty revolution under Constantine the church lost her virginity, and allied herself with the mass of heathendom, which had not yet experienced an inward change.” (pg. 357)  Again, as we’ve asked in previous posts from this series, can this usage of “church” with the adjective universal rightly describe and define the “church”, or more accurately the ekklesia, that Christ died for?

No.

In this post, we want to look again at a schism, or movement in opposition from the catholic church.  Recall that in Part III of this series we introduced two of these prominent movements, Montanism and Novatianism, that opposed the universal or catholic church and her episcopacy.  Once again, we’ll turn to Berkhof for a review on the climate of schisms

The early Church Fathers, in combating these sectaries, emphasized ever increasingly the episcopal institution of the Church.  Cyprian has the distinction of being the first to develop fully the doctrine of the episcopal Church.  He regarded the bishops as the real successors of the apostles and ascribed to them a priestly character in virtue of their sacrificial work.  They together formed a college, called the episcopate, which as such constituted the unity of the Church.  The unity of the Church was thus based on the unity of the bishops.  They who do not subject themselves to the bishop forfeit the fellowship of the Church and also their salvation, since there is no salvation outside of the Church.

To reiterate, the universality or catholicity of the church was rooted in the episcopate, or office of bishops.  As we’ve seen with various movements opposed to the universal church they sometimes occurred because of doctrine, but most often because of practice, i.e. a laxity in morality.  Any movement of opposition or dissidence against the catholic church and especially her bishops was a forfeiture of salvation, because, “outside the church there is no salvation.”

This, however, created a major problem.  What to do with those apostates who wanted back in, the lapsed, and what to do with those who were baptized outside of the catholic church who wanted to join, the heretics?  This debate was not new and not easily settled.  In the third century, Cyprian held the position that those who were baptized outside the catholic church were invalid and therefore not allowed in without rebaptism.  He was opposed by Stephen (who the Roman Catholic Church view as one in the successive line of popes), who took the position that a baptism outside the catholic church was valid.  These debates concerning discipline and baptism ultimately led a system of penitence, which of course becomes an issue again with the Reformation. 

Fast forward a century and we arrive at another schism from the catholic church, one that again revolved around this issue of discipline and more specifically who was in/out of the universal, catholic church.  This third group, the Donatists, were arguably the most significant and garnered the most opposition.  Historian Philipp Schaff introduces this critical schism

Donatism was by far the most important schism in the church of the period before us (311-590).  For a whole century it divided North African chuchces into two hostile camps.  Like the schisms of the former period (100-325), it arose from the conflict of the more rigid and the more indulgent theories of discipline in reference to the restoration of the lapsed.  But through the intervention of the Christianized state, it assumed at the same time an ecclesiastical-political character.  The rigoristic penitential discipline had been represented in the previous period especially by the Montanists and Novatians, who were still living; while the milder principle and practice had found its most powerful support in the Roman church, and, since the time of Constantine, had generally prevailed. (Vol. III pg. 360)

The Donatists were born out of the bloodied soil of martyrdom that arose from the persecution of Diocletian.  The Donatist Schism officially began after the 311 Edict of Toleration, but finds its roots in 305 at the height of the Diocletian Persecution. Historian N.R. Needham provides a succinct overview of the movement’s beginnings

“The last great persecution under Diocletian had left the Church in North-West Africa bitterly divided.  Large Numbers of Christians refused to recognise the new bishop of Carthage, Caecilian (appointed in 311), because one of the bishops who ordained him had allegedly handed over the Bible to be burnt during Diocletian’s persecution.  The result was a split: two rival Churches came into being, each claiming to be the true Catholic Church in North-West Africa.  One Church was led by Caecilian, the other by a rival bishop called Donatus (died 355).  The followers of Donatus were called ‘Donatists’.

Basically, during the persecution from Diocletian, bishops were specifically targeted, many were killed, but some, perhaps out of self-preservation, handed over the Scriptures or denied the faith altogether.  Those who did were called traditores, i.e. traitors.  These traditors sought restoration back to their position of bishop by means of penance once the persecution had ended.  One of these restored bishops was responsible for the ordination of another bishop, Caecilian, and it was that ordination, along with any subsequent baptisms administered by him, that was called into question.  At some point, we will need to address what baptism actually meant in the early church, but that place is probably not in this series.

The problem, from the Donatist perspective, was that an apostate should not be allowed restoration, especially to the position of bishop.  All sacraments administered downstream of this bishop would therefore be invalid.  This belief was similar to the earlier response from Cyprian mentioned above because of the emphasis on the worthiness of the one administering the baptism.

In modern terms, imagine if a pastor apostatized the faith but later repented.  Should he be restored to his position of pastor?  If so, should he then be allowed to administer baptism and the Lord’s Supper?  Would those baptisms be considered valid?

Because Donatism has often been labeled a heresy and because the summation of the movement has been about the one particular incident, then the stand they made might seem like much ado about nothing.  But at its heart was much more than whether one particular bishop who had denied the faith was qualified to ordain another bishop and subsequently whether that bishop could perform baptisms.  More than this, a debate was forming over the nature of the church, i.e. who was in and who was out, as well as whether holiness can rightly define membership.

Schaff summarizes,

“The Donatist controversy was a conflict between separatism and catholicism; between ecclesiastical purism and ecclesiastical eclecticism; between the idea of the church as an exclusive community of regenerate saints and the idea of the church as the general Christendom of state and people.  It revolved around the doctrine of the essence of the Christian church, and, in particular, of the predicate of holiness.” Vol III pg. 365

In 316, Constantine ordered the exile of all Donatists and the confiscation of their buildings, displaying the early effects of the newly installed Christian sacralism.  When these efforts at reconciling the Donatists with the catholic church failed, Constantine reversed his order in 321.

If you’ve followed along with this series up to this point, you may be asking whether this discussion of the universal church even matters.  For the Donatists, it did.  They were willing to die for the nature of the church.  This wasn’t and isn’t simply a matter of semantics, it was and is a matter of holiness.  It was and is about who can rightly be called the children of God.  It was and is about how the people of God embrace the pilgrim mindset as they live in this world.  Was the Donatist argument flawed?  Maybe, but the debate that lasted for over a century was revealing.  Simply put, the ongoing debate was due to a faulty conception of a universal/catholic church.

To get to the crux of this issue, it’s necessary to quote Phillip Schaff at length

“The Donatists, like Tertullian in his Montanistic writings, started from an ideal and spiritualistic conception of the church as a fellowship of saints, which in a sinful world could only be imperfectly realized. They laid chief stress on the predicate of the subjective holiness or personal worthiness of the several members, and made the catholicity of the church and the efficacy of the sacraments dependent upon that. The true church, therefore, is not so much a school of holiness, as a society of those who are already holy; or at least of those who appear so; for that there are hypocrites not even the Donatists could deny, and as little could they in earnest claim infallibility in their own discernment of men. By the toleration of those who are openly sinful, the church loses, her holiness, and ceases to be church. Unholy priests are incapable of administering sacraments; for how can regeneration proceed from the unregenerate, holiness from the unholy? No one can give what he does not himself possess. He who would receive faith from a faithless man, receives not faith but guilt.  It was on this ground, in fact, that they rejected the election of Caecilian: that he had been ordained bishop by an unworthy person. On this ground they refused to recognize the Catholic baptism as baptism at all. On this point they had some support in Cyprian, who likewise rejected the validity of heretical baptism, though not from the separatist, but from the catholic point of view, and who came into collision, upon this question, with Stephen of Rome.

Hence, like the Montanists and Novatians, they insisted on rigorous church discipline, and demanded the excommunication of all unworthy members, especially of such as had denied their faith or given up the Holy Scriptures under persecution. They resisted, moreover, all interference of the civil power in church affairs; though they themselves at first had solicited the help of Constantine. In the great imperial church, embracing the people in a mass, they saw a secularized Babylon, against which they set themselves off, in separatistic arrogance, as the only true and pure church. In support of their views, they appealed to the passages of the Old Testament, which speak of the external holiness of the people of God, and to the procedure of Paul with respect to the fornicator at Corinth.”

The questions that revolved around the Dontatist interpretation and application of Cyprian would remain, and the controversy would rage on for decades, until the arrival of Augustine, who would take up the banner of the catholic church and seek to silence the Donatist dissenters.  History remembers Augustine as the clear “winner” of this debate, as his works have survived and been a great influence, while the Dontatists have faded away.  But was he right?  We’ll examine his rebuttal in the next post.

The three “sects” that we’ve looked at up to this point, Novatianism, Montanism, and their culmination in Donatism, stand as sign posts for those who would challenge the authoritarian, institutional catholic church.  Additionally, they are evidence that orthodox believers, whether in sects or as separatists via schism, existed outside of what called itself the “universal church”.  Historically, all three have been referred to as heresies.  A heresy, rightly defined, is a belief that goes against Scripture.  Unfortunately, most of these early sects were called heresies because they went against the beliefs of the church while attempting to uphold Scripture.  You can almost hear the arguments forming for who holds the supreme authority, the church or the Scriptures? Sola Ecclesia or Sola Scriptura.

This isn’t to say of course that each of these movements were wholesale biblical, but neither were they wholesale heretical.  What they were, were early attempts to reform the church and conform her more to the image of the New Testament church.  They were begun by people who were not afraid to step outside of an external, institutional and eventually state-sponsored church.  Unfortunately, because of excesses in the movements, often tangential, they are largely viewed as heretical sects, but as we’ve seen and will ultimately conclude, this is a problematic and extremely slippery slope.