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§ 71. Internal History of the Donatist Schism. Dogma of the Church.


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. It resulted in the completion by Augustine of the catholic dogma of the church, which had been partly developed by Cyprian in his conflict with a similar schism.665665   Comp. vol. i § 111, 115, and 131.

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.666666   Aug. Contra literas Petil. l. i. cap. 5 (tom. ix. p. 208): “Qui fidem a perfido sumserit, non fidem percipit, sed reatum; omnis enim res origine et radice consistit, et si caput non habet aliquid, nihil est.” 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.667667   Comp. vol. i. § 104, p. 404 sqq.

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.

In opposition to this subjective and spiritualistic theory of the church, Augustine, as champion of the Catholics, developed the objective, realistic theory, which has since been repeatedly reasserted, though with various modifications, not only in the Roman church, but also in the Protestant, against separatistic and schismatic sects. He lays chief stress on the catholicity of the church, and derives the holiness of individual members and the validity of ecclesiastical functions from it. He finds the essence of the church, not in the personal character of the several Christians, but in the union of the whole church with Christ. Taking the historical point of view, he goes back to the founding of the church, which may be seen in the New Testament, which has spread over all the world, and which is connected through the unbroken succession of bishops with the apostles and with Christ. This alone can be the true church. It is impossible that she should all at once disappear from the earth, or should exist only in the African sect of the Donatists.668668   Augustine, ad Catholicos Epistola contra Donatistas, usually quoted under the shorter title, De unitate Ecclesiae, c. 12 (Bened. ed. tom. ix. p. 360): “Quomodo coeptum sit ab Jerusalem, et deinde processum in Judaeam et Samariam, et inde in totam terram, ubi adhuc crescit ecclesia, donec usque in finem etiam reliquas gentes, ubi adhuc non est, obtineat, scripturis sanctis testibus consequenter ostenditur; quisquis aliud evangelizaverit, anathema sit. Aliud autem evangelizat, qui periisse dicit de caetero mundo ecclesiam et in parte Donati in sola Africa remansisse dicit. Ergo anathema sit. Aut legat mihi hoc in scripturis sanctis, et non sit anathema.” What is all that they may say of their little heap, in comparison with the great catholic Christendom of all lands? Thus even numerical preponderance here enters as an argument; though under other circumstances it may prove too much, and would place the primitive church at a clear disadvantage in comparison with the prevailing Jewish and heathen masses, and the Evangelical church in its controversy with the Roman Catholic.

From the objective character of the church as a divine institution flows, according to the catholic view, the efficacy of all her functions, the Sacraments in particular. When Petilian, at the Collatio cum Donatistis, said: “He who receives the faith from a faithless priest, receives not faith, but guilt,” Augustine answered: “But Christ is not unfaithful (perfidus), from whom I receive faith (fidem), not guilt (reatum). Christ, therefore, is properly the functionary, and the priest is simply his organ.” “My origin,” said Augustine on the same occasion, “is Christ, my root is Christ, my head is Christ. The seed, of which I was born, is the word of God, which I must obey even though the preacher himself practise not what he preaches. I believe not in the minister by whom I am baptized, but in Christ, who alone justifies the sinner and can forgive guilt.”669669   Contra literas Petiliani, l. i. c. 7 (Opera, tom. ix. p. 209): “Origo mea Christus est, radix mea Christus est, caput meum Christus est.” ... In the same place: “Me innocentem non facit, nisi qui mortuus est propter delicta nostra et resurrexit propter justificationem nostram. Non enim in ministrum, per quem baptizor, credo; sed in cum qui justificat impium, ut deputetur mihi fides in justitiam.”

Lastly, in regard to church discipline, the opponents of the Donatists agreed with them in considering it wholesome and necessary, but would keep it within the limits fixed for it by the circumstances of the time and the fallibility of men. A perfect separation of sinners from saints is impracticable before the final judgment. Many things must be patiently borne, that greater evil may be averted, and that those still capable of improvement may be improved, especially where the offender has too many adherents.” Man,” says Augustine, “should punish in the spirit of love, until either the discipline and correction come from above, or the tares are pulled up in the universal harvest.”670670   Aug. Contra Epistolam Parmeniani, l. iii. c. 2, § 10-15 (Opera, tom. ix. p. 62-66). In support of this view appeal was made to the Lord’s parables of the tares among the wheat, and of the net which gathered together of every kind (Matt. xiii.). These two parables were the chief exegetical battle ground of the two parties. The Donatists understood by the field, not the church, but the world, according to the Saviour’s own exposition of the parable of the tares;671671   Breviculus Collat. c. Don. Dies tert. c. 8, § 10 (Opera, ix. p. 559): “Zizania inter triticum non in ecclesia, sed in ipso mundo permixta dixerunt, quoniam Dominus ait, Ager est mundus“ (Matt. xiii. 38). As to the exegetical merits of the controversy see Trench’s “Notes on the Parables,” p. 83 sqq. (9th Lond. edition, 1863), and Lange’s Commentary on Matt. xiii. (Amer. ed. by Schaff, p. 244 sqq.). the Catholics replied that it was the kingdom of heaven or the church to which the parable referred as a whole, and pressed especially the warning of the Saviour not to gather up the tares before the final harvest, lest they root up also the wheat with them. The Donatists, moreover, made a distinction between unknown offenders, to whom alone the parable of the net referred, and notorious sinners. But this did not gain them much; for if the church compromises her character for holiness by contact with unworthy persons at all, it matters not whether they be openly unworthy before men or not, and no church whatever would be left on earth.

On the other hand, however, Augustine, who, no more than the Donatists, could relinquish the predicate of holiness for the church, found himself compelled to distinguish between a true and a mixed, or merely apparent body of Christ; forasmuch as hypocrites, even in this world, are not in and with Christ, but only appear to be.672672   Corpus Christi verum atque permixtum, or verum atque simulatum. Comp. De doctr. Christ. iii. 32, as quoted below in full. And yet he repelled the Donatist charge of making two churches. In his view it is one and the same church, which is now mixed with the ungodly, and will hereafter be pure, as it is the same Christ who once died, and now lives forever, and the same believers, who are now mortal and will one day put on immortality’.673673   Breviculus Collationis cum Donatistis, Dies tertius, cap. 10, § 19 and 20 (Opera, ix. 564): “Deinde calumniantes, quod duas ecclesias Catholici dixerint, unam quae nunc habet permixtos malos, aliam quae post resurrectionem eos non esset habitura: veluti non iidem futuri essent sancti cum Christo regnaturi, qui nunc pro ejus nomine cum juste vivunt tolerant malos .... De duabus etiam ecclesiis calumniam eorum Catholici refutarunt, identidem expressius ostendentes, quid dixerint, id est, non eam ecclesiam, quos nunc habet permixtos malos, alienam se dixisse a regno Dei, ubi non erunt mali commixti, sed eandem ipsam unam et sanctam ecclesiam nunc esse aliter tunc autem aliter futuram, nunc habere malos mixtos, tunc non habituram ... sicut non ideo duo Christi, quia prior mortuus postea non moriturus.”

With some modification we may find here the germ of the subsequent Protestant distinction of the visible and invisible church; which regards the invisible, not as another church, but as the ecclesiola in ecclesia (or ecclesiis), as the smaller communion of true believers among professors, and thus as the true substance of the visible church, and as contained within its limits, like the soul in the body, or the kernel in the shell. Here the moderate Donatist and scholarly theologian, Tychoius,674674   Or Tichonius, as Augustinespells the name. Although himself a Donatist, he wrote against them, “qui contra Donatistas invictissime scripsit, cum fuerit Donatista” (says Aug. De doctr. Christ. l. iii. c. 30, § 42). He was opposed to rebaptism and acknowledged the validity of the Catholic sacraments; but he was equally opposed to the secularism of the Catholic church and its mixture with the state, and adhered to the strict discipline of the Donatists. Of his works only one remains, viz., Liber regularum, or de septem regulis, a sort of Biblical hermeneutics, or a guide for the proper understanding of the mysteries of the Bible. It was edited by Gallandi, in his Bibliotheca Veterum Patrum, tom. viii. p. 107-129. Augustinenotices these rules at length in his work De doctrina Christiana, lib. iii. c. 30 sqq. (Opera, ed. Bened. tom. iii. p. 57 sqq.). Tychonius seems to have died before the close of the fourth century. Comp. on him Tillemont, Memoires, tom. vi. p. 81 sq., and an article of A. Vogel, in Herzog’s Real-Encyclopaedie, vol. xvi. p. 534-536. approached Augustine; calling the church a twofold body of Christ,675675   “Corpus Domini bipartitum.” This was the second of his rules for the true understanding of the Scriptures. of which the one part embraces the true Christians, the other the apparent.676676   Augustineobjects only to his mode of expression, De doctr. Christ. iii. 32 (tom. iii. 58): “Secunda [regula Tichonii] est de Domini corpore bipartito; non enim revera Domini corpus est, quod cum illo non erit in aeternum; sed dicendum fuit de Domini corpore vero atque permixto, aut vero atque simulato, vel quid aliud; quia non solum in aeternum, verum etiam nunc hypocrites non cum illo esse dicendi sunt, quamvis in ejus esse videantur ecclesia, unde poterat ista regula et sic appellari, ut diceretur de permixta ecclesia.” Comp. also Dr. Baur, K. G. vom 4-6 Jahrh., p. 224. In this, as also in acknowledging the validity of the Catholic baptism, Tychonius departed from the Donatists; while he adhered to their views on discipline and opposed the Catholic mixture of the church and the world. But neither he nor Augustine pursued this distinction to any clearer development. Both were involved, at bottom, in the confusion of Christianity with the church, and of the church with a particular outward organization.



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