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§ 70. Augustine and the Donatists. Their Persecution and Extinction.


At the end of the fourth century, and in the beginning of the fifth, the great Augustine, of Hippo, where there was also a strong congregation of the schismatics, made a powerful effort, by instruction and persuasion, to reconcile the Donatists with the Catholic church. He wrote several works on the subject, and set the whole African church in motion against them. They feared his superior dialectics, and avoided him wherever they could. The matter, however, was brought, by order of the emperor in 411, to a three days’ arbitration at Carthage, attended by two hundred and eighty-six Catholic bishops and two hundred and seventy-nine Donatist.663663   Augustinegives an account of the debate in his Breviculus Collationis cum Donatists (Opera, tom. ix. p. 545-580).

Augustine, who, in two beautiful sermons before the beginning of the disputation, exhorted to love, forbearance and meekness, was the chief speaker on the part of the Catholics Petilian, on the part of the schismatics. Marcellinus, the imperial tribune and notary, and a friend of Augustine, presided, and was to pass the decisive judgment. This arrangement was obviously partial, and secured the triumph of the Catholics. The discussions related to two points: (1) Whether the Catholic bishops Caecilian and Felix of Aptunga were traditors; (2) Whether the church lose her nature and attributes by fellowship with heinous sinners. The balance of skill and argument was on the side of Augustine, though the Donatists brought much that was forcible against compulsion in religion, and against the confusion of the temporal and the spiritual powers. The imperial commissioner, as might be expected, decided in favor of the Catholics. The separatists nevertheless persisted in their view, but their appeal to the emperor continued unsuccessful.

More stringent civil laws were now enacted against them, banishing the Donatist clergy from their country, imposing fines on the laity, and confiscating the churches. In 415 they were even forbidden to hold religious assemblies, upon pain of death.

Augustine himself, who had previously consented only to spiritual measures against heretics, now advocated force, to bring them into the fellowship of the church, out of which there was no salvation. He appealed to the command in the parable of the supper, Luke, xiv. 23, to “compel them to come in;” where, however, the “compel” (ἀνάγκασον) is evidently but a vivid hyperbole for the holy zeal in the conversion of the heathen, which we find, for example, in the apostle Paul.664664   On Augustine’s view Comp. § 27, toward the close.

New eruptions of fanaticism ensued. A bishop Gaudentius threatened, that if the attempt were made to deprive him of his church by force, he, would burn himself with his congregation in it, and vindicated this intended suicide by the example of Rhazis, in the second book of Maccabees (ch. xiv.).

The conquest of Africa by the Arian Vandals in 428 devastated the African church, and put an end to the controversy, as the French Revolution swept both Jesuitism and Jansenism away. Yet a remnant of the Donatists, as we learn from the letters of Gregory I., perpetuated itself into the seventh century, still proving in their ruins the power of a mistaken puritanic zeal and the responsibility and guilt of state-church persecution. In the seventh century the entire African church sank under the Saracenic conquest.



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