Monday, September 14, 2015

Introduction to Donatism

Jesus' ecclesiology is deceptively simple. Jesus uses the word "ἐκκλησία" twice in the Gospel of Matthew. With the exception of the visions in the Book of Revelation, Jesus was never recorded to speak of the church other than in these two places. Matthew 16:18 says "But I also say that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build a church of my own and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.[1]" Matthew 18:17 says, "Now if he should ignore them this time, tell the church. But if he should ignore the church this time, he is to be to you like a gentile or a tax collector." From these passages, it appears that Jesus believed he would establish a single church made up of holy people.

Every group of Christians wants in some way to be part of the church Jesus built. No Christian will admit to wanting meaningless division between Christians. Few Christians would claim that Christians can and should be immoral. Unity of the church implies historical continuity if the church was established by Jesus during this life or after the resurrection.  J. M. Carroll said, "I was converted unto God when I was just a boy. I saw many denominations and wondered which was the church the Lord Jesus founded." Carroll traced Baptists through history using persecution to the Donatists in North Africa.
Carroll brings a good question about the legitimacy of the church. He said that two fundamental doctrines of the church are "Its members. Believers only, they saved by grace, not works through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit… [and] Absolute Religious liberty for all. Though the need to connect any group of Christians with the early church is an important endeavor for Christian identity, and anti-Donatist interpretations of Scripture seem harsh, to see Donatist as North African proto-Baptists does not do justice to the historical context of the Donatists. The Donatist Controversy may be seen as four intersecting conflicts revolving around early Western Christianity.

Donatism was a North African religious movement.[2] Donatism was a conflict revolving around the acceptance of those who gave up the Scriptures or sacrificed to the emperor. These were called traditors or betrayers.[3] Specifically, Donatus of Casae Nigrae opposed the ordination of Caecilian of Carthage by Felix of Aptunga. Felix of Aptunga was a traditor. Thomas Oden said "Africa was the scene of the worst excesses of the Valerian persecution that beheaded Cyprian in Carthage in A.D. 257, and the Diocletian persecution of A.D. 303-305 that beheaded Peter of Alexandria."[4] The persecution under Diocletian was done by Roman edicts and officials, therefore Donatism had its primary conflict with Christians connected with the Church of Rome. The conflict began after a council was convened to determine the legitimacy of Caecilian's ordination. This session included fifteen men:
"Miltiades the Bishop of the city of Rome; Maternus,  Reticius and Marinus, the Gaulish Bishops; Merocles from Milan; Florianus from Siena, Zoticus from Quintianum, Stennius from Rimini, Felix from Tuscan Florence, Gaudentius from Pisa, Constantius from Faventia, Proterius from Capua, Theophilus from Beneventum, Sabinus from Tarracina, Secundus from Praeneste, Felix from Tres Tabernae, Maximus from Ostia, Evandrus from Ursinum and Donatianus from Forum Claudii."[5]
According to Edwards, none of these bishops are Africans but are all European.[6] Since "Donatus thought it proper to appeal [to the Emperor],"[7] it appears that Donatus was not merely upset that the council ruled against his position.  I believe that Donatus thought that the council was prejudiced against his position. This requires some examination of the political context.
Rome encountered Carthage, a Phoenician colony which had achieved prominence in North Africa. From 264 to 146 B.C., Rome fought a series of three wars with Carthage taking control over the eastern Mediterranean region.[8] Rome established colonies in North Africa to protect the interests of the empire. W. H. C. Frend points out one city, "Hippo Regius … is blocked by rapids. The coastal settlements… were sited for defense and not for the purpose of trading with the interior."[9] These military stations did not seem to be in the interest of the people of northern Africa.
Because of the perceived imperialism and regulation of worship, a certain group called Circumcellions with affinity to the Donatists had a series of uprisings against the Roman government. The Circumcellions were called such because "they lived 'around the shrines' whence they got their food."[10] Maureen Tilley describes them as "religiously conservative migrant agricultural laborers who were usually, though not always Donatist supporters."[11] It seems to be that one of the commonalities between the Circumcellions and the Donatist is the martyr cult.
St. Monica, Augustine's mother and an African, is generally received in a positive light in the Confessions. Yet, at one point she seems to be presented in a less than favorable light.
"And so, when she brought gruel, bread, and wine to the shrines of the saints, as she had been accustomed to do in Africa, she was stopped by the doorkeeper. When she learned that the bishop had forbidden this, she accepted it so reverently and obediently that I myself was amazed at how easily she became an incriminator of her own custom, rather than an adjudicator of this prohibition."[12]
The bishop here is Ambrose, as seen at the end of chapter 1, who is a Roman. This statement in the Confessions is clearly a condemnation of North African worship and a call to submission to the Catholic Church and her bishops. In light of this, the Donatist controversy includes a geopolitical and racial controversy.

Another aspect of the Donatist controversy is the reality of economic conflict between poor, predominantly rural, African Donatists and middle-class to rich, predominantly urban, Roman Catholics. Whenever a country is colonized, the country colonizing tends to get more wealth from the colonies than is spent maintaining the colonies. The wealthy tend to avoid financial sacrifice, if it can be passed on to those who are poorer. Though the Catholic Church did not seek to financially oppress the poor, the economic aspect of the Donatist controversy may not be ignored.
As previously stated, the Donatists had an alliance with the Circumcellions who were rural poor. Part of what inflamed the Circumcellions was excessive taxation.[13] Because of the connection between the church and the state, Rome was inclined to assist the Catholic Church. This enflamed Circumcellion rebellion to take Roman property for the Donatists. John Corcoran said, "In 321 at Cerita a power center for Donatist interests the Emperor Constantine built a basilica for the Catholics the Donatists simply took possession of it when it was completed."[14] Buildings and land are a significant investment of funds.
Though the Donatists became known for their connection with violent groups, which may have led to the decline of Donatism, Rogatists separated from the Donatists because of the abuses of the Circumcellions. The Rogatists, led by Rogatus Bishop of Cartenna, opposed the use of force and the excesses of the Circumcellions. The Rogatists lasted until 420 CE.[15] Economic and racial issues magnified the conflict, and can be legitimate ways of understanding the Donatist controversy. These two practical and social controversies increased the division between Donatists and Catholics in matters of doctrine.

The central figure leading to the ecclesiastical crisis between Donatist and Catholic churches in North Africa was not Caecilian. If Caecilian had not been opposed by Donatus, someone would have asked the same questions over the nature of the church. Both Donatists and Catholics claim St. Cyprian as an intellectual and spiritual father. Cyprian wrote, "This unity we ought to hold and preserve, especially we who preside in the church as bishops, that we may prove the episcopate itself to be one and undivided."[16] Yet in the same work Cyprian argued, "To this one Church the Holy Spirit points in the Song of Songs, in the person of our Lord, saying, 'My dove, my spotless one, is but one; she is the only one of her mother, elect of her that bare her.' (Cant. vi.9)".[17]
Cyprian loved the Church and the idea of the church. To him the Church was a unified, righteous, universal body that could not be divided. This body finds unity through the fellowship and mutual recognition of bishops. Therefore, a bishop is no longer to be recognized as legitimate if he betrays the faith. Tilley said, "He even advised Spanish Christians in 254 that it was right for them to separate themselves from their bishops who had apostatized: 'The people should not flatter themselves… reject the unworthy."[18] On the other hand Eric Rebillard showed that Tertullian believed that catechumens and deniers may be part of the church.[19]
Donatus did not support Caecilian because Donatus believed Felix was a traditore. There were six bishops who either yielded to persecution or lied to escape the punishment of persecution.[20] This is a problem for the holiness of church, leading to a question of the legitimacy of the church.

When Cyprian was alive, persecution was common. Traditores and others who apostatized, lapsi, would still be subject to future persecution. Hans Lietzmann said, "Any man who urged that he should be received back (into church fellowship) had the opportunity every day of appearing before the rulers of the state and becoming a martyr; in this way he could reverse his backsliding."[21] After the persecution the church had to deal with lapsi who could not redeem themselves through persecution. In addition to the lapsi, traditores were performing the sacraments.
Cyprian said, "…He that leaves the church of Christ attains not to Christ's rewards. He is an alien, an outcast and an enemy. He cannot have God for his father who has not the church for his mother."[22] The reason for wanting to know if the church is legitimate was tied to the legitimacy of the sacraments. Legitimate sacraments were seen as part of how God saved. Therefore, the lapsi issue is not merely an issue of who belongs in the church, but it has eternal consequences.
Donatists, as seen in Parmenian, taught that God gave dotes to the church. The dotes are spiritual gifts that empower church leaders. These dotes are legitimate because they were from the true church. Augustine represented the Catholic position. Neither the sacrament, the dotes, the minister nor the church grant the grace. Instead God is the source of all grace.[23]

Thomas Oden has helped the church by trying to bring the wisdom of the early church to current contexts. His paleo-orthodoxy brings the church to listen to the historical witness. The problem with history for theology is that history is not clean. Though historians may want to make one side in a conflict appear to be the hero and the other the villain, or try to make the reader identify with a particular religious tradition in history, this will not do.
The Donatists were not, as a whole, great defenders of religious liberty and justification by faith alone. The Donatist stance on re-admittance of laity and clergy does not reflect Carroll's vision of a church which believes in the Baptist doctrine of perseverance of the saints. Carroll was correct in seeing the need to link the modern church to the church Jesus founded.
The Donatist controversies therefore should lead to reflection within the modern church. Racism and economic injustice may impact the way the church tries to reach those who are lost. Non-Catholics need to examine the meaning of unity of the church. The early church seemed to view institutional unity as a vital component of the true church. The church also needs to examine how salvation works in the lives of the individuals. If nothing else, the Donatist controversy clearly shows that the doctrine of salvation is corporate and individual and that the history of the church is messy.

Aurelius Augustinus. Confessions. Fathers of the Church 21. Translated by Vernon J. Bourke. New York : Catholic University of America Press, 1953.

Bettenson, Henry Scowcroft and Chris Maunder. Documents of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Cyprian. "The Unity of the Church, " in Treatises. Fathers of the Church 36. Translated by Roy J. Deferrari. New York : Catholic University of America Press, 1953.

Optatus. Optatus, Against the Donatists.. Edited by Mark Edwards. Liverpool: Liverpool Univ. Press, 1997.

Tilley, Maureen A. Donatist Martyr Stories: The Church in Conflict in Roman North Africa. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1996.

Cancik, Hubert, Anne-Maria Wittke, Eckart Olshausen, et al. eds. Brill's New Pauly Historical Atlas of the Ancient World. Brill's New Pauly Supplement 3. Leiden : Boston : Brill, 2010.

Di Berardino, Angelo, and Gianluca Pilara. Historical Atlas of Ancient Christianity. St. Davids, PA: ICCS Press, 2013

"Donatism," edited by F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Faul, D. "Donatism." New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. Vol. 4. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 861-864.

Frend, W. H. C. "Donatism, " Edited by Angelo Di Berardino. Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. 

Landfester, Manfred, Hubert Cancik, and Helmuth Schneider. Brill's New Pauly : Encyclopaedia of the Ancient World. Brill's New Pauly Classical Tradition Boston : Brill, 2006-2011. 1:696-713, IV:472-473, IV:684.

Watson, D.F. "Roman Empire," Edited by Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter, eds. Dictionary of New Testament Background. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000. 974-978.

Corcoran, John Anthony. "Augustinus Contra Donatistas." Graduate Theological Foundation, 1997.

Frend, W. H. C. The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952.

Harris, Scott C. “The Dark Side of Suffering: Persecution as a Schismatic Source in the Early Church.” Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, 2000.

Lietzmann, Hans. The Founding of the Church Universal. London: Lutterworth, 1950.

Oden, Thomas C. Early Libyan Christianity: Uncovering a North African Tradition. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2011.

Rebillard, Éric. Christians and Their Many Identities in Late Antiquity, North Africa, 200-450 CE. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012.

Tilley, Maureen A. The Bible in Christian North Africa: The Donatist World. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

Waldrop, Jeffrey A. “St. Augustine’s Doctrine for Understanding Schismatic Heresy and His Political Position Concerning the Donatists: A Question of Ecclesiastical Discipline or an Example of Roman Imperialism in North Africa?” Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, 2006.

[1] Translation of the Bible is the author's unless otherwise noted.
[2] Jeffrey A. Waldrop, “St. Augustine’s Doctrine for Understanding Schismatic Heresy and His Political Position Concerning the Donatists: A Question of Ecclesiastical Discipline or an Example of Roman Imperialism in North Africa?” (Th.M. Thesis, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, 2006), 9
[3] Scott C. Harris, “The Dark Side of Suffering: Persecution As a Schismatic Source in the Early Church” (Th. M. Thesis, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, 2000), 87
[4] Thomas C. Oden, Early Libyan Christianity: Uncovering a North African Tradition (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2011), 87
[5] Optatus, Optatus, Against the Donatists, ed. Mark Edwards (Liverpool: Liverpool Univ. Press, 1997), 24
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., 25
[8] D. F. Watson, “Roman Empire,”  Dictionary of New Testament Background, Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter, eds. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000) 975.
[9] W. H. C. Frend, The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), 27
[10] Ibid., 173
[11] Maureen A. Tilley, The Bible in Christian North Africa: The Donatist World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 25
[12] Aurelius Augustinus, Confessions. Fathers of the Church 21, translated by Vernon J. Bourke (New York : Catholic University of America Press, 1953), 131, book 6 ch. 2
[13] Tilley, The Bible in Christian North Africa: The Donatist World, 94
[14] John Anthony Corcoran, “Augustinus Contra Donatistas” (Donaldson, Ind: Graduate Theological Foundation, 1997), 20-21
[15]Tilley, The Bible in Christian North Africa: The Donatist World, 95
[16] Henry Scowcroft Bettenson and Chris Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 79. c.f. Cyprian, "The Unity of the Church, " in Treatises. Fathers of the Church 36, translated by Roy J. Deferrari (New York : Catholic University of America Press, 1953), 99.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Tilley, The Bible in Christian North Africa: The Donatist World, 29
[19] Éric Rebillard, Christians and Their Many Identities in Late Antiquity, North Africa, 200-450 CE (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), 11
[20] Frend, The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), 5
[21] Hans Lietzmann, The Founding of the Church Universal (London: Lutterworth, 1950), 302
[22] Henry Scowcroft Bettenson and Chris Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, 80
[23] Tilley, The Bible in Christian North Africa: The Donatist World, 103


310 BCE-- Agathocles' takes Utica and Carthage
2/3 of the wheat was taken each year to Rome during the occupation.
149-146 BCE-- Third Punic War and fall of Carthage
240-275 CE-- Decline of Saturn worship
245-- Cyprian wrote to Donatus about Baptism
248-- Cyprian becomes bishop of Carthage
250-251-- Dician Persecution
253-- Mauretanian revolt of 253
295-- Martyrdom of Maximilian of Theveste
303-305 Persecution under Diocletian.
May 19 303 Diocletian's edict concerning the surrender of Christian Scriptures, registration of Church property and destruction of churches.
304- Outward sign of loyalty to the emperor.
305-- Council of Cirta
4 surrendered Bibles, one destroyed a copy of the Gospels, one pretended to be blind.
Consecration of Silvanus as bishop
293-306 Constantus Father of Constantine was peaceful toward Christians. He allowed no executions of Christians.
First as Caesar, then as Augustus while Diocletian was in the east.
310-- Constantine Became Augustus.
311-- Maxentius summons Felix
Mensurius goes on Felix the deacon's behalf and receives promises of toleration.
Felix of Aptunga consecrated Caecilian with two other bishops.
Felix is accused of being a traditor.
312-- Battle of Milvain Bridge at Rome Constantine defeats Maxentius.
Autumn-- Secundus called a council which condemned Caecilian as having an illegitimate ordination.
January 313-- Edict of Milan offering religious liberty to Christianity.
Majorinus appointed bishop instead of Caecilian.
First Roman Synod called over Caecilian with 10 bishops from each side.
Majorinus' likely death
313-- Election of Donatus of Casae Nigra
October Pope Miltiades pronounced Donatus guilty of re-baptizing clergy and forming schism.
314-- Council of Arles called by Constantine
Proposal of New bishops.
Feb. 15 Trial of Felix. Found not guilty of traditon.
315-316-- Riots in Carthage
316-- Caecilian tried for a third time and found innocent
317-- Constantine confiscates Donatist churches
Edict decreeing death penalty on anyone interrupting the peace.
March 12, 317. Constantine takes the Donatist held church building in Carthage.
May 5, 321-- Constantine grants freedom to worship to the Donatists
324-- Licinius is defeated by Crispus, Constantine's son.
Nicea prevents Constantine from sending bishops to Africa.
February 5, 330-- Constantine wrote a letter supporting Caecilian
346-- Donatus asks Constans to be sole bishop of Carthage
347-8-- Constans seized Donatist churches and exiled bishops
355-- Death of Donatus of Casae Nigra
372-- Donatists support Firmus' revolt.
393-412-- Augustine's anti-Donatist writings
393--Hippo-Regius Council
391-398-- Revolt of Optatus and Gildo governor of Africa
391-- Origin
397-- Against the Heretic Donatus
400-- Closing of the pagan shrines in Africa by the Empire
401-- Election of Innocent
Crispinus, Donatist of Calama held responsible for attack on Possidius
5th and 6th council of Carthage
402-- Goths defeated in Italy
Death of Symmachus
403-- Bishop of Bagai wounded by Donatists
404-- Bishop of Bagai petitions for assistance against the Donatists
Augustine applies to Caecilian for protection against the Donatists
405-- Edict of Unity against the Donatists
Donatism declared heretical.
10th Council of Carthage
407-- Usurpation of Constantine III
409-- Donatists enjoy toleration
Macrobius returns to Hippo
410-- Sack of Rome by Alaric.
Roman Refugees to Africa
Call fore conference in Carthage
May 25 to June 26, 411-- Conference of Carthage
Marcellinus gives his judgment against Donatists
January 30, 412-- edict banning Donatism
413-- Revolt of Heraclian
Augustine attempts to save Marcellinus
Defeat of Heraclian
Execution of Marcellinus
417-- Innocent Condemns Pelagius
Election of Zosimus and her writes to the African bishops
418-- Election of Boniface
420-- Gaudentius threatens suicide and destruction of congregation and building on Dulcitius' arrival.
Rogatists end when Vincintus Victor returns to the Catholic Church
424-- Eraculius builds memorial to St. Stephen at Hippo.
426-- Death of Severus of Milevis
427-- Revolt of Boniface
429-- Darius attempts to reconcile Boniface and the Empress
430-- Vandal invasion of Numidia
596-- Last record about the Donatists Pope Gregory's letter to Emperor Maurice about the growth of Donatism in Numidia.
698-- Muslim Conquest