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Optatus of Milevis, Against the Donatists (1917). Preface to the online edition

Optatus of Milevis wrote his sole surviving work around 370 AD.  The work was directed against those called by their opponents 'Donatists', who comprised nearly the entire church of Roman Africa and were orthodox in belief and practice.  The polemic of Optatus is one of our primary sources for the origins of Donatism, and was written in response to a book by the Donatist bishop Parmenian.

There may be more than one opinion on the statements of Optatus.  This writer has witnessed various church splits down the years.  Two examples may be adduced here.

In 1982, the Anglican church of St. Aldates had as its rector the writer and evangelist Michael Green.  A group of people under the influence of the charismatic movement felt that God wanted the church to move in a particular direction.  The church leadership did not agree, and in the end this group split off and formed their own independent congregation.  After the split, which involved a good many hurt feelings, Aldates nevertheless offered help to the new church, recognised them, assisted them to find a place in Oxford and retained links with those involved.

In 1999, the Anglican bishop of Worcester, Peter Selby, made it clear through various press interviews that he was strongly in favour of promoting unnatural vice in the clergy, despite an agreement among the bishops of the Church of England not to do this.  The parochial church council of St. John's, Kidderminster, then voted that they could no longer accept the authority of Dr Selby as their bishop. In retaliation Mr Selby then sacked the clergyman, Charles Raven, demanded he and his congregation get out of the church, and threatened to have the priest arrested; and Mr Raven was apparently indeed interviewed by the police.  The church emptied, and a new free church, Christ Church Kidderminster, was formed in 2002. 

"Do as you would be done by" is the first principle of morality.  We should ask which of these two instances shows the Spirit of Christ at work.  The church is centred on Christ and his teaching, or it is nothing.  But unless we seek the will of God, unless we act in love, we achieve nothing.  

It seems inappropriate for this amateur writer to venture to criticise Optatus or the translator who has very generously made this text available to us all in English.  However splits are occurring all the time, and there are lessons to be learned in how we deal with them. The instances just quoted may inform our attitude to what Optatus tells us.

A split had occurred in the church in Africa some 60 years earlier.  During the persecution of the Christians carried out by the emperor Diocletian, attempts were made by the state to seize church property and books of scripture.  Those who cooperated in 'handing over' these were known as traditores -- from which we get the English word 'traitor'.  Soon after the end of the persecution in 305, a certain Caecilian was consecrated Bishop of Carthage by someone who was widely believed to be a traditor. The accusation was believed by the overwhelming majority of Christians in the province, and it was likewise believed that such a consecration must be invalid.

The African bishops voted that Caecilian should be removed from his office; yet he did not vacate the see.  A small number of people remained with him; everyone else consecrated another man as bishop.  (In every split of principle, a certain number of people tend to remain with the buildings, often because they wish to ignore the split, have relatives buried around those buildings, or other reasons).

The African bishops then appealed for help to the new Christian emperor, Constantine.  With hindsight we can see that this was a dreadful mistake; but probably it was less obvious at the time.  Constantine very properly refused to become involved, but arranged for a council of Gallic bishops to examine the matter.

This Council of Arles pronounced Caecilian innocent.  The account given by Optatus -- how Caecilian boldly, or cynically, demanded that 'proof' be produced of what a whole province knew -- may remind some who have argued with atheists of the tactics commonly employed to advance that creed.  Its apologists routinely resort to argument by assertion; when the assertion is contradicted, they demand 'proof' from their opponent.  The naive Christian tries to prove his case, knowing that he has evidence aplenty; the atheist simply picks holes in any evidence produced, so as to create the impression that the matter is open, and so 'wins' by default without ever offering any evidence for his case.  Was it so with Caecilian?

Caecilian then gave further proof of the manner of man he was.  He arranged for the persecution of the other Christians by the state.  The same soldiers that had looted and murdered at the command of Diocletian were ordered into action at the behest of the Bishop of Carthage.  

What statements, agreed by all sides, do we have about Caecilian?

Is it really possible to say that Caecilian knew Jesus; or that he was not just a self-serving timeserver, of the kind that has become drearily familiar in subsequent centuries?  Or are our sources too tangled by accusation and counter-accusation for us to certainly know?

But what if the Donatists were right?  What does a believer do, when this situation arises?  When a wicked bishop is enthroned, the laity and junior clergy are placed in a very difficult position.  In a sense, they have nowhere to go.  The laity can silently desert the churches.  After the restoration of Charles II, when the bishops were of this kind, the diarist Samuel Pepys reports the steady emptying of the churches.  He also reports the venom of the bishops and their rage against the non-conformist congregations.  Like Caecilian, the wicked bishop is eager to unsheath the sword.  The junior clergy can only resign or endure victimisation.  Another Anglican bishop demanded a personal oath of obedience from a clergyman.  

It is a curious characteristic of these situations, that other bishops do not come to the aid of the sheep.  Episcopacy, it seems, is thicker than the body and blood of Christ.  What are the laity and junior clergy to do?

These questions confronted the African Christians in the early 4th century.  They rallied around a new bishop, Majorinus, and after his death around his successor, Donatus.  The bishops elsewhere had failed them.  Those who have seen how church politics operate in the 21st century may reasonably question whether Caecilian had nobbled the Council of Arles, and likewise claimed the right to run his diocese by himself.  At all events, he remained unchallenged, and the schism was soon reinforced by persecution.  This in turn produced resentment, and then retaliation.  The hand of the devil in all this is easy to see!

It is not easy at this distance to see why the schism was not settled.  After all, the Donatists were orthodox.  They were quite willing to appoint an outsider as their bishop, so long as he was not a scumbag.  Optatus tells us that Parmenian was not an African.  If the bishop is tainted, why could not a man of undoubted holiness be appointed, if not immediately then on his death?  Was there really no candidate that would have been acceptable to Rome and the Donatists?  Was this never tried?

As time went by, the schism grew more entrenched, and parallel organisations were set up.  Yet never the Donatist case never seems to have been seriously engaged with.  The objection was one of principle; the retort one of ecclesiastical administration.  The schism was to outlast the empire, and to cease only with the destruction of the church in North Africa.  Dossiers of letters were produced in proof of one side or the other; accusations of forgery quickly accompanied them.

It is hard for this writer to address the points that Optatus makes without making comparisons. Daily there are reports of sodomising bishops persecuting believers in the Episcopal Church of the USA, seizing churches, initiating lawsuits for property, locking out worshippers, arranging for congregations in exile to be expelled from their borrowed buildings and unfrocking clergy who dare to place their trust in Christ.  Here too the supposedly orthodox bishops seem to make no provision to aid the sheep, while enjoying the salaries and social esteem.  We might ask why each congregation is left to fight its own battle, parish by parish? Here and there signs of a desire to fight back, to retaliate, of anger and frustration can be seen.  No doubt in due course some will despair, and ask why God does not defend the faithful from the wolves; and thus Satan's purpose in installing these wicked men is gratified.  A Donatist would find much to sympathise with.  But would Optatus?

Many who read Optatus will be thus somewhat unconvinced by his arguments.  Some of the arguments against the Donatists often seem to involve further atheist-type arguments.  Never is the issue of principle at the root of things addressed.  Instead another tactic is used. Many a dishonest writer has projected his own vices and misdeeds, and accused his opponent of them, not because it is true but to try to get them on the defensive and to cover up his own misdeeds.  The apologists of Caecilian blandly accuse the first Donatist leaders also of being traditores.  Well, it's a useful tactic, if you don't mind being a liar.  There's no evidence of this, other than the unsupported assertion, and it is irrelevant to Caecilian personally being the root of the schism.  The Donatist complaint of murderous persecution is met with a calculated tu quoque, vague but no doubt referring to the banditry that was carried out in the name of Donatism, once the schism had taken hold.   Of course if the Donatists can be accused of doing something wrong, then does that excuse any amount of bloodshed?  And so on.  Optatus is the heir to all this, and many of the arguments he has read and repeats seem to have been manufactured in this way.

Much of what Optatus writes grates on some minds.  The church organisation comes first; the question of right or wrong is barely discussed, and treated as unimportant.  The clergy deserve special treatment.  In short, we are firmly in the mindset of the medieval church, not the New Testament.  To any who have witnessed the abuse of episcopal power to stifle objections of principle, Optatus will be exceedingly hard to read, as he attacks people who only sought to have an upright church, and defends the involvement of the police in oppressive action.

What can be said in defence of this?  Well, it is entirely possible to misread the situation.  Optatus, after all, is defending a tiny minority against a book written to attack them. This minority is threatened by popular violence, and dependent on the aid of a not very helpful secular power to keep the knives of the circumcellion bandits, allegedly in 'defence' of Donatism, from their throats.  Much may be forgiven a man who is on the defensive; is this, perhaps, the situation in which Optatus writes?  It's hard to see that a Donatist would be impressed by this book; is it perhaps written to bolster the confidence of the anti-Donatist, rather than as a piece intended to persuade?  We may see state power oppressing a principled minority in the service of timeservers, and such things are indeed worthy of condemnation.  But we should consider the possibility that, without hindsight, the situation looked different on the ground.  Optatus could not foresee the burning of Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, a thousand years later, however straight the line may seem to some from the position he takes up to the evils of the inquisition and the persecution of the faithful by a nominally Christian episcopate.  

Every organisation is entitled to self-definition.  It is likewise entitled to expel those who do not share its values, and to remove any of its officials who should fall out of sympathy with its aims and objectives.  If a church provides a congregation with a building, and that congregation and its minister apostasise, then it is surely reasonable to expect the property to revert to the church.  Conversely if those heretics built that building themselves, common justice suggests that to expel them from it by means of legal maneuvering is theft.  The same applies in each case when a Christian congregation finds that the church has apostasised.  There is no special ecclesiastical principle involved; merely the ordinary principles of common justice and fair-dealing.

But it is hard to be neutral on these arguments today, with the sound of persecution in the air.  Let those who can obtain blessing from Optatus do so. Let us take away from the whole experience the importance of being faithful to Christ, awareness that the Devil delights in creating these situations in order to drive believers to despair.  He is the Prince of this world, and God allows him to do as he will, for a little time.  Yet in the end it is all about people.  Church buildings will crumble.  But human beings live forever.  Do unto others, as you would have them do to you.  Don't curse them if they fail to treat you so: rather love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you.  If they steal the churches you built with your own sweat and labour, let them have a donation also.  For these men, wicked as they are, are but dupes of Satan, and they too have souls to lose.

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The translation that follows appears to have been made by a Roman Catholic who wrote with Anglo-Catholics in mind.  Much of what it contains, in the very lengthy footnotes, will strike most modern Christians as curious.  Is it really the case that the translator thought that no issue of principle should override the opinion of the Pope?  Or that no Pope had ever erred?  Will modern readers really consider it a condemnation of Donatism, that the Donatists made the same protests against corrupt ecclesiastical abuse of power as the Puritans and Covenanters?  But most likely we are in danger of misunderstanding, through being in a very different situation.

15th January 2006

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This text was transcribed by Roger Pearse, Ipswich, UK, 2006. All material on this page is in the public domain - copy freely.

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