The Donatist Dilemma & How This Church History Applies to Church Leaders’ Cowardice During COVID

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Wednesday, November 10, 2021

The Donatist Dilemma & How This Church History Applies to Church Leaders’ Cowardice During COVID

In the early centuries of Christian history the orthodox had to contend with hundreds of heretical and schismatic movements.   Except among apologists and ecclesiastical historians, only a handful of these are remembered by name today.   Gnosticism, the first proponents of which challenged the authority and teachings of the Apostles themselves, was not the name of a specific heretical movement but the collective term for a large class of heretical movements.     Valentinianism, after Valentinus of Alexandria, was one such movement that was widespread in the second century and was the main heresy against which St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote.   The ideas that the term Gnosticism usually brings to mind today more properly belong to Marcionism, named after Marcion of Sinope.    Historians are divided as to whether Marcionism is properly classified as Gnostic or whether it is best regarded as a heresy that deviated from both Gnosticism and orthodox Christianity.

The heresies that are still widely known by name are the major heresies that were addressed by the four earliest ecumenical Councils, the two that put together the most basic and fundamental of Christian Creeds (1) in the fourth century, i.e., the First Council of Nicaea (325 AD) and the First Council of Constantinople (381 AD), and the two that resulted in the Christological clarification of the Definition of Chalcedon in the fifth century, i.e., the Council of Ephesus (431 AD) and the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD).   In one way or another the heresies addressed by these Councils deviated from orthodoxy as to the Person and Nature of Jesus Christ.   Arianism, which takes its name from Arius of Alexandria and which was the principal heresy addressed by the Creed-forming Councils of the fourth century, denied the full deity of Jesus Christ and taught that He was a created being possessed of a lesser divinity than the Father.   Nestorianism, named after Nestorius of Constantinople, the principal heresy addressed by the fifth century Councils, stressed the distinction between the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ to the point where the unity of His Person was compromised.   This latter is a good illustration of the general nature of heresy which is not, as is often supposed, merely “wrong doctrine”.   Heresy is a truth taken out of the context of other equal or more important, balancing truths, and so twisted by exaggeration into an error that is far more dangerous than something that it is merely and entirely false.   G. K. Chesterton in his biography of William Blake (1910)said that “A fad or heresy is the exaltation of something which, even if true, is secondary or temporary in its nature against those things which are essential and eternal, those things which always prove themselves true in the long run”.   T. S. Eliot in After Strange Gods (1933) wrote that “the essential of any important heresy is not simply that it is wrong: it is that it is partly right.”

If we were to poll Christians, asking them to name and rank a few of the early heresies, it is unlikely that we would find many for whom Donatism would be at the top of their list.   Indeed, while I hope I am too cynical and am completely wrong in this, I suspect that if we were to instead provide that name and ask people to identify it, many would associate it with Donatello, the fifteenth century Florentine Renaissance sculptor – or the Ninja Turtle who bears his name. 

Donatism has nothing to do with either sculptor or Ninja Turtle, of course.   It takes its name from the fourth century figure Donatus Magnus, a priest from the Berber settlement of Casae Nigrae in Numidia, which is now the town of Negrine in Algeria.   With Donatus and his followers, it was not a dispute over doctrine that separated them from the orthodox Church as it was with the aforementioned heresiarchs Valentius, Marcion, Arius and Nestorius and their sects, but rather a dispute over practice.   It would be more accurate therefore to describe Donatism as schismatic rather than heretical, although the schism, as we shall see, eventually corrupted the doctrine of the schismatics.   It deviated from orthopraxis (sound practice), however, in much the same way that heresy deviates from orthodoxy (sound doctrine) – by taking a part of sound practice and emphasizing it to the point that other parts fell by the wayside.    The part of sound practice they so over-emphasized was holiness or separation from the world. (2)

The Donatist schism had its origins in the persecution of Christians in the reign of Diocletian.   This was the largest and harshest persecution of Christians in the history of the Roman Empire.   Previous persecutions had usually been local affairs, conducted with the authority or at least toleration of a regional governor.   This one came down from the very top and in theory covered the entire Empire, although in actuality certain regions were far more severely affected than others.   The severity of this persecution made it unpopular which contributed to the Roman Empire’s reversing course ten years after it began and issuing the Edict of Milan which legalized Christianity throughout the Roman Empire and granted it protection against persecution.

North Africa was a region that was particularly severely affected by the Great Persecution, as it had been during the lesser persecutions of the previous century.   It was almost, in a sense, the epicentre of the Persecution.   In 302 AD, Diocletian had issued an edict outlawing the Manichaeans, ordering that their leaders be burned along with their books and any of their followers who didn’t recant.   The Manichaeans were the followers of Mani, a third century Persian religious teacher who blended ideas from Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Gnosticism, and whose teachings were noted for their dualism.   Their teachings had spread from the Persian Empire westward and had become particularly influential in the academic centres of Egypt and North Africa. (3)   Diocletian had been persuaded that they were a subversive movement acting on behalf of the Persian Empire to infiltrate and weaken Rome.   Later that year, Diocletian’s ire would fall upon orthodox Christians when St. Romanus, a deacon of the Caesarean Church, denounced the pagan sacrifices that took place in his court at Antioch.   He was already ill-disposed towards Christianity because he blamed Christian members of his court for the failure of his attempts at divination after the Roman victory against the Persians in the Battle of Satala and the renewal of peace with the Sassanid dynasty.   Diocletian was, therefore, already half persuaded when his co-emperor Galerius (4) began to talk him into extending towards orthodox Christianity the same policy he had taken towards Manichaeism – persecution with the end of total extirpation.   While he initially proposed a more moderate persecution, his resistance to Galerius’ proposal was overcome when the two sent away to the oracle at the Temple to Apollo in Didyma and were told that Apollo was silent because of the presence of Christianity in the Empire.   In February of 303 AD, he and his co-emperors began issuing a series of edicts that forbade Christians from assembling to worship and ordered the Christian Scriptures and other Christian literature to be burned, Christian Church buildings to be destroyed, and Christian clergy to be imprisoned and stripped Christians of all the legal rights of Roman citizens.

Although all Christians were targeted by this persecution, the clergy – the bishops and priests who led, taught, and officiated in the Churches – were particularly hit hard.   While many of these remained faithful to the point of martyrdom, many others did not.   These handed over their copies of the Bible to the Roman soldiers to be burned.    Often they handed over the names of other Christians as well.   This earned them the label traditores, meaning “those who handed over” which is the root of our word traitor.  (5)

Mensurius, who was Bishop of Carthage at the time, removed the Scriptures from the Church building and hid them in his own home, substituting heretical writings in their place for the soldiers to seize.    While he thus cleverly avoided becoming a traditor himself, this act was not exactly impressive to those who contrasted his example unfavourably with that of those who submitted to arrest, torture, and death.   It did not help his image any that the contrast was particularly great with his own predecessor in the See of Carthage, St. Cyprian, who had been martyred in the earlier persecution under Valerian, less than half a century prior to this.   Mensurius then forbade the Carthaginian Church from honouring as martyrs any who initiated their own martyrdom by defiantly turning themselves in to the Roman authorities.    Needless to say, he was far from being the most admired bishop in the Christian Church at the time.  

Mensurius died in 311 AD, about six years after the Great Persecution had begun to wane.   The Edict of Milan was still two years away, but North Africa was governed by Maxentius (6) who had already liberated the Christians.   Caecilian, who had served as archdeacon under Mensurius, was chosen as his successor, and among those participating in his consecration was Felix, Bishop of Aptunga.   Immediately this succession met with protest.   Caecilian had been an even more zealous advocate of Mensurius’ position vis-à-vis the voluntary martyrs than Mensurius had been himself and so was most objectionable to those who found that position odious.   These then claimed that his consecration was invalid because of the participation of Felix.   Felix had been absent from his See during the Persecution and so had avoided arrest.   The opponents of Caecilian accused Felix of being a traditor, and maintained that this invalidated the consecration.

The matter was appealed to Secundus, Bishop of Tigisis who was the closest Primate (7), and Secundus with the support of 70 other bishops ruled against Caecilian.    These then chose and consecrated Majorinus, who had been a lector in the Carthaginian Church, as bishop.   With two different groups claiming two different individuals to be the validly consecrated holder of the same bishopric, a schism was born.   Each side excommunicated the other, albeit on different grounds.   Those who supported Majorinus as the validly consecrated Bishop of Carthage maintained that those in fellowship with Caecilian were tainted by association with the sins of the traditor alleged against Caecilian himself and against Felix who consecrated him.   Those who supported Caecilian excommunicated those in fellowship with Majorinus on the grounds that their actions were schismatic.   This schism was very much a local affair as outside of North Africa the supporters of Caecilian were a clear supermajority.   The Patriarch of Rome was asked to look into the matter and with the backing of the Roman Synod he ruled in favour of Caecilian in 313 AD, as did the Council of Arles of 314 AD to which the decision was appealed.   These rulings were upheld in the ecumenical Councils later in that century.   Majorinus died two years after his consecration and was succeeded in the schismatic line by Donatus Magnus and so the schism came to take the name of Donatism.

The error of the Donatists, as we noted at the outset of this discussion, grew out of a matter of practice rather than a matter of doctrine.   When it comes to the actions of the traditores, orthodox Christians and Donatists were in agreement that it was reprehensible to collaborate with the persecutors of the faith by handing over Scriptures, sacred items, and the names of the brethren.   The Donatists, however, in their zeal for the holiness and purity of the Church, good things in themselves, insisted that the betrayal of the traditores forever disqualified them from being restored to their positions of leadership in the Church and thus invalidated their every ministry from administering baptisms to celebrating the Eucharist to, in the case of bishops, ordinations and consecrations of other bishops.   As easy as it is to see where the Donatists were coming from in this, had the Lord Jesus Christ thought the same way, St. Peter would never have been restored to his position as Apostle after he denied Christ three times on the evening of His betrayal and arrest, would never have been empowered to preach the sermon on the first Whitsunday through which  three thousand souls were converted, would never have opened the door to the evangelism of the Gentiles by bringing  the Gospel to Cornelius, and would not have written the two epistles under his name that are part of the Sacred Canon.   Yet even before the denial had taken place, indeed, just before the Lord predicted it, He said unto St. Peter “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Lk. 22:31-32).   After St. Peter had denied Him, and after He had risen from the dead, He called him to feed His sheep three times – one for each denial – and then, prophesying his eventual martyrdom, repeated to him the call to “Follow Me” (Jn. 21:15-19).   The difference between the Lord’s response to St. Peter and the Donatists’ response to the traditores shows us how their emphasis on holiness was at the expense of other elements of orthopraxis such as forgiveness and restoration and thus the equivalent of heresy in practice.   Ultimately, this error in practice translated itself into an error in doctrine, the error that the efficacy of the Church’s Ministries of Word and Sacrament as conduits of the grace of God is dependent upon the spotless purity of the ministers.   The controversy over this was still raging almost a century later when St. Augustine of Hippo, than whom there was no clearer and stronger expositor of the grace of God between St. Clement of Rome and the Reformation, answered the Donatists in his De Baptismo.

What message is there in this historical episode for our own day?

There are a number of parallels between the Diocletian Persecution and the bat flu madness of the last two years.   There are huge differences too, of course.   Whereas Diocletian and Galerius saw their persecution of Christianity for what it was – a deliberate attempt to extirpate the Christian faith and religion – the governments of the present day deny to themselves that they are doing anything of the sort.  Since they allow Christians and people of other religions to “worship” online, they have convinced themselves that their having forbidden Christians and those of other faiths to meet and assemble in person for much of the last two years is not the same thing as Diocletian’s outlawing of all Christian assembly.   Having convinced themselves of this, they have also persuaded themselves that in having Christian ministers arrested for holding services where their congregations could, well, congregate is not the same thing as when Galerius ordered bishops and priests to be arrested.   They obviously see no similarities between their attempts to prevent the spread of any information that disagrees with their narrow, official, narrative about the bat flu and, indeed, to stomp it out as “misinformation” and the Roman Empire’s efforts to burn all copies of the Christian Scriptures and other sacred literature.   Some would say that because with regards to each of these parallels the difference is that what the Roman Empire did was that much more severe the comparison is therefore inappropriate.   Others will, more astutely, note that this difference is what allows today’s governments to convince themselves that they are not engaged in persecution which self-deception makes what they are doing that much more dangerous than the open persecution of the Roman Empire or in more recent times of the Communist countries.

A similar comparison could be made between the response of the Churches to the almost universal medical technocratic tyranny of the bat flu scare and the actions of the traditores.   Again, there are huge differences, but not such as necessarily mean that the Churches of the present day come out favourably in the comparison.   Complying with an order from the state that the Church not assemble is, in one sense, not as extreme a betrayal of the faith as handing over the Scriptures to be burned and handing over the names of other Christians to those seeking to arrest them, but it is a betrayal in that the teachings of the Scriptures, as interpreted by the faithful in all places and all times from the Apostles to the present  (8) is that a state ban on Church assembly is a clear and obvious exception to the Scriptural injunction of civil obedience. (9)    If it is less extreme in this sense, it is greater in that it is far more widespread than that of the traditores was.    The compliance of the Churches with these tyrannical public health orders was almost universal.   The leaders of the Churches have undoubtedly persuaded themselves that they are not guilty of the same thing as the traditores and even that their compliance with this medical totalitarianism is virtuous, an act of sacrifice for the safety and wellbeing of others, especially the most vulnerable among us.    However, just as governments are capable of more and greater oppression and persecution when they have deceived themselves into thinking that they are acting for the public good instead of oppressing and persecuting people, so this self-deception on the part of the Churches compounds rather than mitigates the problem.    Those who regard their sinful betrayal of the faith not as a sinful betrayal of the faith but as a virtuous act of self-sacrifice are incapable of the repentance and confession that the orthodox Churches of the fourth century required from the traditores before their restoration.                                                                                                                                           

This leaves anyone who is trying to follow Christ in accordance with what historically and traditionally have been regarded as orthodox faith and orthopraxis and who has not bought into the Great Deception of the bat flu madness caught on the horns of a terrible dilemma.   To anyone trying to follow Christ in this manner, Church is essential not optional.   For almost two years, however, the leadership of the Churches have acted as if the opposite is true.   They have closed their doors, tried to get us to live a lie by pretending that watching a tiny Church service broadcast online and saying the words along with them is a form of assembling together as a Church (it is not), and allowed attendance on occasions that the public health tyrants permitted provided that a stringent list of requirements all arising out of a worldly spirit of fear that would drive the sanctity out of the Church were adhered to.   The Christian leaders who have most conspicuously and admirably resisted the public health tyranny have for the most part come from sects that are either extremely schismatic, enthusiastic (in the theological sense of the word which is not a good thing), heretical – sometimes grossly so – or all of the above.  

Should the public health scare ever end, what ought we to do?

If we wait for the leaders of our Churches to acknowledge and repent of the sins of betraying the faith and leaving us without the ministry of the Church in any real sense for the duration of the public health scare before resuming fellowship with them we will be waiting a very long time and run the risk of becoming Donatists in spirit, if not in letter.

If, on the other hand, we just try to pick up where we had left off in March 2020, forgetting the entire horrible interlude, and pretending that there was no betrayal or apostasy to forgive (since offering forgiveness in the absence of acknowledgement of wrongdoing cheapens forgiveness), we will have traded the Scylla of Donatism for the Charbydis that is its opposite.

There is no obvious solution to this dilemma short of the public health scare being brought to an end with the Second Coming of Christ in Glory to judge both the quick and the dead.   Whatever we end up doing, we should devote much prayer and contemplation to the matter.

 (1)   The Nicene-Constantinopolitan, the Creed that was put together by and in the first two ecumenical Councils of the early Church, is the most basic and fundamental Christian Creed in that it is the only Creed universally accepted among all the Churches that can claim organic lineage from the Apostolic Church.   This is further attested to by the fact that the addition of a single word – filioque – to the Latin text of this Creed, was the most important doctrinal issue that separated the Eastern Greek-speaking Church from the Western Latin-speaking Church in the eleventh century.   The Apostles’ Creed is shorter and simpler than the Nicene-Constantinopolitan, but it does not seem to have ever been as universally accepted and used as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan.     The traditional account of its origin – that it was composed on the first Whitsunday by the Apostles themselves, with each of the Apostles, St. Matthias having been chosen as Judas Iscariot’s replacement already, contributing one of the twelve lines – is very old.   St. Ambrose of Milan and Rufinus of Aquileia both spoke of it as a well-established account less than a century after the Council of Nicaea.     If true, this would be an incontrovertible argument for the priority of the Apostles’ Creed over the Nicene-Constantinopolitan as the basic Creed of Christianity (not that the two, which are very similar, and could almost be taken for the longer and shorter forms of a singular Creed, contradict each other), but if true, it would be difficult to explain how it fell so quickly out of use in the Greek-speaking Churches of the East.     In its earliest form, the old Roman Symbol used in the baptismal rite of the Church of Rome – in the sense of the Church particular to that city, not in the sense of the “Roman Catholic Church”, i.e., all Churches that remained in communion with the Roman Patriarch after the Great Schism and the Reformation – it predates the Nicene-Constantinopolitan and goes back to at least the early part of the second century.   Nevertheless, although a strong case can be made that it was originally written in Greek – see Rev. John Baron The Greek Origins of the Apostles’ Creed Illustrated by Ancient Documents and Recent Research (1885) for the case that the Greek text of the Creed that Marcellus of Ancyra brought with him to Rome during his exile was the original form – the history of its usage is almost entirely Latin and Western.

(2)   “World” is the word we use in English where the Greek-speaking Church used κόσμος.   In Scriptural and ecclesiastical usage these terms have a positive sense in which they are basically synonyms of “Creation”, i.e., everything God made.   The Latinized transliteration of κόσμος as “cosmos”, a synonym for “universe”, is a secularized equivalent of this.   This positive sense of these words can be narrowed to focus on one aspect of Creation if the context requires it.   For example, the world in “For God so loved the world” in John 3:16 is Creation but with a focus on the people who live in it.    There is also a negative sense in which these words are used by the Scriptures and the Church and this is obviously the sense intended when we speak of holiness as separation from the world.   In this sense, world or κόσμος means the fallen state of Creation, human sin or rebellion against God not merely as it touches each of us as individuals, in which case the word for it would be flesh as a rendition of the Greek σὰρξ in its specialized New Testament usage, but as it permeates and corrupts human organized society.

(3)   Manichaeism had a strong presence in these places both before and after the Persecution. St. Augustine, prior to his conversion to the orthodox Christian faith of his mother, had been associated with the Manichaeans for about a decade.  He had come under their influence as a student at the University of Carthage.   This was about seventy years after Diocletian had ordered Manichaeism rubbed out.

(4)   This was the period of the Roman Tetrachy.   Although Diocletian’s treatment of the Manichaeans and Christians was undoubtedly tyrannical, in one sense he behaved atypically for a despot and divided his power with others.   Two years after becoming emperor in 284 AD, he named one of his cavalry comrades Maximian his co-emperor, assigning the Western Empire to Maximian and governing the Eastern Empire himself.   Seven years later, he named two other co-emperors, Galerius and Constantius to serve as Junior Emperors under him and Maximian.    The Senior Emperors took the title Augustus, the Junior Emperors took the title Caesar. The Tetrarchy was short lived.  Constantius’ son Constantine succeeded his father in 306 and was awarded both imperial titles.    In less than two decades he had consolidated his reign over the whole Roman Empire, although the division between East and West was lasting and would re-assert itself after his reign.   A famous episode in the process of consolidating his rule was the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD in which he defeated Maximian’s successor Maxentius, leaving him the sole Western claimant to the Imperial title.  This was the battle in which in response to a vision he fought under a standard bearing the ☧, the Christian monogram formed by combining X (Chi) with P (Rho) the first two letters of the word Christ.

(5)   While the word “traitor” is derived from traditor(es), the word “tradition” comes from the same source as traditor.   The concept common to both is of something having been handed or given over.   The source is the Latin verb trado “I hand over, surrender”, tradere “to hand over, surrender”, a contraction of the compound formed by combining the preposition trans meaning “across” and the verb do, dare meaning “give”.   This verb takes the form traditus “having been handed over” in its fourth part, the passive perfect participle.   “Tradition”, which preserves the passive voice of this form of the verb, means “that which has been handed over” in the sense of that which has been handed down to us from those who have gone before us and lacks the perjorative connotations of traditor(es) which is formed from the same part of the verb, by modifying it with the suffix that indicates the agent of the action of the otherwise passive form and which is pejorative because the handing over indicated in this case was an act of cowardly betrayal.

(6)   Vide supra, note 4.

(7)   The Bishop of Carthage was also the Primate of North Africa but for obvious reasons could not adjudicate this case.   Secundus was Primate of Numidia.

(8)   This is the test of Catholicity – ecumenicity, antiquity, and consent – proposed by St. Vincent of Lerins in his famous canon – “quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est” (“whatever is believed everywhere, always, and by all”) in Commonitorium 2:6.

(9)   The examples of Daniel when forbidden by Darius to pray to the true God in the sixth chapter of Daniel, and of the Apostles when forbidden by the Sanhredrin to preach and teach in the name of Jesus in the fourth and fifth chapters of Acts, set the Scriptural precedent followed by the Churches that continued to meet during the persecutions including the Diocletian. Posted by Gerry T. Neal