Augustine And The Donatist Schis
After the recall of the Donatists by the Emperor Julian, the sect rapidly
increased, though soon numerous divisions appeared in the body. The more
liberal opinions of the Donatist grammarian Tychonius about 370 were
adopted by many of the less fanatical. The connection of the party with
the Circumcellions alienated others. The contest for rigorism led by
Maximianus about 394 occasioned a schism within the Donatist body.
Augustine's activity in the Donatist troubles began as soon as he was made
bishop of Hippo, as his town was made up largely of Donatists, who
probably constituted more than a half of the population. The books written
by him after 400 have alone survived.
The turning-point in the history of Donatism was the Collatio, or
conference, held at Carthage in 411. Two hundred and seventy-nine
Donatist, and two hundred and eighty-six Catholic, bishops were present.
Augustine was one of those who represented the Catholic position. The
victory was adjudged by the imperial commissioners to the Catholic party.
After this the laws against the sect were enforced relentlessly, and
Donatism rapidly lost its importance. The Vandal invasion in 429 changed
the condition of things for a time. The last traces of Donatism disappear
only with the Moslem invasion in the seventh century.
The importance of the Donatist controversy is that in it were defined the
doctrines of the Church and of the sacraments, definitions which, with
some modifications, controlled the theology of the Church for centuries.
(a) Optatus, De Schismate Donatistarum, II, 1-3. (MSL, 11:941.)
The unity of the Catholic Church.
Ch. 1. The next thing to do is to show that there is one Church which
Christ called a dove and a bride. Therefore the Church is one, the
sanctity of which is derived from the sacraments; and it is not valued
according to the pride of persons. Therefore this one dove Christ also
calls his beloved bride. This cannot be among heretics and schismatics.
You have said, brother Parmenianus, that it is with you alone among you
in a small part of Africa, in the corner of a small region, but among us
in another part of Africa will it not be? In Spain, in Gaul, in Italy,
where you are not, will it not be? And through so many innumerable
islands and other provinces, which can scarcely be numbered, will it not
be? Wherein then will be the propriety of the Catholic name, since it is
called Catholic, because it is reasonable(172) and everywhere diffused?
Ch. 2. I have proved that that is the Catholic Church, which spread
throughout the whole world, and now are its ornaments to be recalled; and
it is to be seen where the first five gifts [i.e., notes of the Church]
are, which you say are six. Among these the first is the cathedra, and
unless a bishop, who is the angel [the second gift or note according to
the Donatists], sit in it, no other gift can be joined. It is to be seen
who first placed a see and where. You cannot deny that in the city of
Rome the episcopal cathedra was first placed by Peter, and in it sat
Peter, the head of all the Apostles, wherefore he is called Cephas, so
that in that one cathedra unity is preserved by all, that the other
Apostles might not claim each one for himself a cathedra; so that he is a
schismatic and a sinner who against that one cathedra sets up another.
Ch. 3. Therefore Peter first sat in that single cathedra, which is the
first gift of the Church, to him succeeded Linus to Damasus, Siricius,
who is our contemporary, with whom the world together with us agree in one
fellowship of communion by the interchange of letters. Recite the origin
of your cathedra, you who would claim for yourself the Holy Church [cf.
Tertullian, De Praescriptione, c. 32].
(b) Optatus, De Schismate Donatistarum, V, 4. (MSL, 11:1051.)
The validity of sacraments is not dependent on the character of
those who minister them. With this should be compared Augustine,
Contra litteras Petiliani Donatistae, II, 38-91, and the treatise
De Baptismo contra Donatistas libri septem, which is little more
than a working out in a thousand variations of this theme.
In celebrating this sacrament of baptism there are three things which you
can neither increase, diminish, nor omit. The first is the Trinity, the
second the believer, and the third the minister. The first two remain
ever immutable and unmoved. The Trinity is always the same, the faith in
each is one. But the person of him who ministers is clearly not equal to
the first two points, in that it alone is mutable. For it is not one man
who always and everywhere baptizes. In this work there were formerly
others, and now others still, and again there will be others; those who
minister may be changed, the sacraments cannot be changed. Since therefore
you see that they who baptize are ministers and are not lords, and the
sacraments are holy in themselves, not on account of men, why is it that
you claim so much for yourselves? Why is it that you endeavor to exclude
God from His gifts? Permit God to be over the things which are His. For
that gift cannot be performed by a man because it is divine. If you think
it can be so bestowed, you render void the words of the prophets and the
promises of God, by which it is proved that God washes, not man.
(c) Augustine, De Baptismo contra Donatistas, IV, 17 (§ 24). (MSL,
Baptism without the Church valid but unprofitable.
Augustine, as opposing the Donatists and agreeing with the
Catholic Church, asserted the validity of baptism when conferred
by one outside the communion of the Church. It was notorious that
Cyprian and the Council of Carthage, A. D. 258 [see ANF, vol. V.,
pp. 565 ff.; cf. Hefele, § 6], had held an opposite opinion.
As Cyprian was the great teacher of North Africa, and in the
highest place in the esteem of all, Augustine was forced to make
"distinctions." This he did in his theory as to the validity of
baptism as in the following passage. The Sixth Book of the same
treatise is composed of a statement of the bishops at the Council
of Carthage, and Augustine's answer to each statement.
"Can the power of baptism," says Cyprian, "be greater than confession,
than martyrdom, that a man should confess Christ before men, and be
baptized in his own blood, and yet," he says, "neither does this baptism
profit the heretic, even though for confessing Christ he be put to death
outside the Church." This is most true; for by being put to death outside
the Church, he is proved not to have had that charity of which the Apostle
says: "Though I give my body to be burned and have not charity, it
profiteth me nothing" [I Cor. 13:3]. But if martyrdom is of no avail for
the reason that charity is lacking, neither does it profit those who, as
Paul says, and Cyprian further sets forth, are living within the Church
without charity, in envy and malice; and yet they can both receive and
transmit true baptism. "Salvation," he says, "is not without the Church."
Who denies this? And therefore whatever men have that belongs to the
Church, outside the Church it profits them nothing toward salvation. But
it is one thing not to have, another to have it but to no use. He who has
it not must be baptized that he may have it; he who has to no use must be
corrected, that what he has he may have to some use. Nor is the water in
baptism "adulterous," because neither is the creature itself, which God
made, evil, nor is the fault to be found in the words of the Gospel in the
mouths of any who are astray; but the fault is theirs in whom there is an
adulterous spirit, even though it may receive the adornment of the
sacrament from a lawful spouse. It therefore can be true that baptism is
"common to us and to the heretics," since the Gospel can be common to us,
although their error differs from our faith; whether they think otherwise
than the truth about the Father or Son or the Holy Spirit; or, being cut
away from unity, do not gather with Christ, but scatter abroad, because it
is possible that the sacrament of baptism can be common to us if we are
the wheat of the Lord with the covetous within the Church and with robbers
and drunkards and other pestilent persons, of whom it is said, "They shall
not inherit the kingdom of God," and yet the vices by which they are
separated from the kingdom of God are not shared by us.
(d) Augustine, Ep. 98, ad Bonifatium. (MSL, 33:363.)
Relation of the sacrament to that of which it is the sign.
Sacraments are effective if no hinderance is placed to their
On Easter Sunday we say, "This day the Lord rose from the dead," although
so many years have passed since His resurrection. The event itself being
said to take place on that day, because, although it really took place
long before, it is on that day sacramentally celebrated. Was not Christ
once for all offered up in His own person as a sacrifice? And yet, is He
not likewise offered up in the sacrament as a sacrifice, not only in the
special solemnities of Easter, but also daily among our congregations; so
that when a man is questioned and answers that He is offered as a
sacrifice in that ordinance, does he not declare what is strictly true?
For if sacraments had not some points of real resemblance to the things of
which they are the sacraments, they would not be sacraments at all.
[Augustine's general definition of a sacrament is that it is a sign of a
sacred thing.] In most cases, moreover, they do, in virtue of this
likeness, bear the names of the realities which they resemble. As
therefore in a certain manner the sacrament of the body of Christ is the
body of Christ, the sacrament of the blood of Christ is the blood of
Christ, so the sacrament of faith is faith. Now, believing is nothing
else than having faith; and accordingly, when on behalf of an infant as
yet incapable of exercising faith, the answer is given that he believes,
this answer means that he has faith because of the sacrament of faith, and
in like manner the answer is made that he turns himself toward God because
of the sacrament of conversion, since the answer itself belongs to the
celebration of the sacrament. Thus the Apostle says, in regard to this
sacrament of baptism: "We are buried with Christ by baptism into death."
He does not say, "We have signified our being buried with Him," but: "We
have been buried with Him." He has therefore given to the sacrament
pertaining to so great a transaction no other name than the word
describing the transaction itself.
10. Therefore an infant, although he is not yet a believer in the sense of
having that faith which includes the consenting will of those who exercise
it, nevertheless becomes a believer through the sacrament of that faith.
The infant, though not yet possessing a faith helped by the understanding,
is not obstructing(173) faith by an antagonism of the understanding, and
therefore receives with profit the sacrament of faith.
(e) Augustine, De Correctione Donatistarum, §§ 22 ff. (MSL, 33:802.)
The argument in favor of using force to compel the Donatists to
return to the Church.
Augustine in the early part of the Donatist controversy was not in
favor of using force. Like the others, e.g., Optatus, he denied
that force had been employed by the Church. About 404 the
situation changed, and his opinion did likewise. This work, known
also as Epistle CLXXXV, was written circa 417. Compare Augustine's
position with the statement of Jerome, "Piety for God is not
cruelty," cf. Hagenbach, History of Christian Doctrines, §
135:7. The Donatists had much injured their position by their
treatment of a party which had produced a schism in their own
body, the Maximianists.
§ 22. Who can love us more than Christ who laid down His life for the
sheep? And yet, after calling Peter and the other Apostles by His word
alone, in the case of Paul, formerly Saul, the great builder of His
Church, but previously its cruel persecutor, He not only constrained him
with His voice, but even dashed him to the earth with His power. Where is
what they [the Donatists] are accustomed to cry: "To believe or not to
believe is a matter that is free"? Toward whom did Christ use violence?
Whom did He compel? Here they have the Apostle Paul. Let them recognize in
his case Christ's first compelling and afterward teaching; first striking
and afterward consoling. For it is wonderful how he who had been compelled
by bodily punishment entered into the Gospel and afterward labored more in
the Gospel than all they who were called by word only; and the greater
fear compelled him toward love, that perfect love which casts out fear.
§ 23. Why, therefore, should not the Church compel her lost sons to return
if the lost sons compelled others to perish? Although even men whom they
have not compelled but only led astray, their loving mother embraces with
more affection if they are recalled to her bosom through the enforcement
of terrible but salutary laws, and are the objects of far more deep
congratulation than those whom she has never lost. Is it not a part of the
care of the shepherd, when any sheep have left the flock, even though not
violently forced away, but led astray by soft words and by coaxings, and
they have begun to be possessed by strangers, to bring them back to the
fold of his master when he has found them, by the terrors or even the
pains of the whip, if they wish to resist; especially since, if they
multiply abundantly among the fugitive slaves and robbers, he has the more
right in that the mark of the master is recognized on them, which is not
outraged in those whom we receive but do not baptize?(174) So indeed is
the error of the sheep to be corrected that the sign of the Redeemer shall
not be marred. For if any one is marked with the royal stamp by a
deserter, who has himself been marked with it, and they receive
forgiveness, and the one returns to his service, and the other begins to
be in the service in which he had not yet been, that mark is not effaced
in either of them, but rather it is recognized in both, and approved with
due honor because it is the king's. Since they cannot show that that is
bad to which they are compelled,(175) they maintained that they ought not
to be compelled to the good. But we have shown that Paul was compelled by
Christ; therefore the Church in compelling the Donatists is following the
example of her Lord, though in the first instance she waited in hopes of
not having to compel any, that the prediction might be fulfilled
concerning the faith of kings and peoples.
§ 24. For in this sense also we may interpret without absurdity the
apostolic declaration when the blessed Apostle Paul says: "Being ready to
revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled" [II Cor.
10:6]. Whence also the Lord himself bids the guests to be brought first to
His great supper, and afterward compelled; for when His servants answered
Him, "Lord, it is done as thou hast commanded, and yet there is room," He
said to them: "Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come
in" [Luke 14:22, 23]. In those, therefore, who were first brought in with
gentleness the former obedience is fulfilled, but in those who were
compelled the disobedience is avenged. For what else is the meaning of
"Compel them to come in," after it had previously been said, "Bring in,"
and the answer was: "Lord, it is done as Thou commandest, and yet there is
room"? Wherefore if by the power which the Church has received by divine
appointment in its due season, through the religious character and faith
of kings, those who are found in the highways and hedges--that is, in
heresies and schisms--are compelled to come in, then let them not find
fault because they are compelled, but consider to what they are so
compelled. The supper of the Lord, the unity, is of the body of Christ,
not only in the sacrament of the altar but also in the bond of peace.
(f) Augustine, Contra epistulam Parmeniani, II, 13 (29). (MSL, 43:71.)
Indelibility of baptism.
Parmenianus was the Donatist bishop who succeeded Donatus in the
see of Carthage. The letter here answered was written to
Tychonius, a leading Donatist. In it Parmenianus calls the Church
defiled because it contained unworthy members. The answer of
Augustine was written in 400, many years later.
If any one, either a deserter or one who has never served as a soldier,
signs any private person with the military mark, would not he who has
signed be punished as a deserter, when he has been arrested, and so much
the more severely as it could be proved that he had never at all served as
a soldier, and at the same time along with him would not the most impudent
giver of the sign, be punished if he have surrendered him? Or perchance he
takes no military service, but is afraid of the military mark
[character] in his body, and he betakes himself to the clemency of the
Emperor, and when he has poured forth prayers and obtained forgiveness, he
then begins to undertake military service, when the man has been liberated
and corrected is that mark [character] ever repeated, and not rather is
he not recognized and approved? Would the Christian sacraments by chance
be less enduring than this bodily mark, since we see that apostates do not
lack baptism, and to them it is never given again when they return by
means of penitence, and therefore it is judged not possible to lose it.
(g) Augustine, Contra epistulam Manichaei, ch. 4 (5). (MSL, 42:175.)
Cf. Mirbt, n. 132.
Authority of the Catholic Church.
This work, written in 396 or 397, is important in this connection
as showing the place the Catholic Church took in the mind of
Augustine as an authority and the nature of that authority.
Not to speak of that wisdom which you [the Manichaeans] do not believe to
be in the Catholic Church, there are many other things which most justly
keep me in her bosom. The consent of people and nations keeps me in the
Church; so does her authority, inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope,
enlarged by love, established by age. The succession of priests keeps me,
beginning from the very seat of Peter the Apostle, to whom the Lord after
His resurrection gave it in charge to feed His sheep down to the present
episcopate. And so lastly does the name itself of Catholic, which not
without reason, amid so many heresies, that Church alone has so retained
that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger
asks where the Catholic Church meets no heretic will venture to point to
his own basilica or house. Since then so many and so great are the very
precious ties belonging to the Christian name which rightly keep a man who
is a believer in the Catholic Church no one shall move me from the faith
which binds my mind with ties so many and so strong to the Christian
Let us see what Manichaeus teaches us; and in particular let us examine
that treatise which you call the Fundamental Epistle in which almost all
that you believe is contained. For in that unhappy time when we read it,
we were called by you enlightened. The epistle begins: "Manichaeus, an
apostle of Jesus Christ, by the providence of God the Father. These are
wholesome words from the perennial and living fountain." Now, if you
please, patiently give heed to my inquiry. I do not believe that he is an
apostle of Christ. Do not, I beg of you, be enraged and begin to curse.
You know that it is my rule not to believe without consideration anything
offered by you. "Wherefore I ask, who is this Manichaeus?" You reply, "An
apostle of Christ." I do not believe it. Now you are at a loss what to say
or do; for you promised to give me knowledge of the truth, and you force
me to believe something I do not know. Perhaps you will read the Gospel to
me, and from it you will attempt to defend the person of Manichaeus. But
should you meet with a person not yet believing the Gospel, what could you
reply to him if he said to you: "I do not believe"? For my part I should
not believe the Gospel except the authority of the Catholic Church moved
me. So then I have assented to them when they say to me, "Believe the
Gospel"; why should I not assent to them saying to me: "Do not believe the