Midweek Blog: Augustine Was Mean to the Donatists


So last week, I started a new blog series on Augustine. We covered the Augustine’s relationship with his concubine. This week, I wanted to look at his response to the Donatist schism in the Church. Just some background information for you. The Donatists were a North African group that were branded heretics. The group started in the early 300’s CE after a period of intense persecution. During that persecution, some Christians had handed over copies of scripture to authorities in order to save their own lives. These people were called traditores for betraying their Christian faith. After the persecution ended, many of them repented and resumed their posts in churches. Some even ordained other bishops. There was a growing dissent that such ordinations should not count, and those who were so ordained should renounce their positions. A particular group of dissenters were named after Donatus, a bishop of Carthage. They claimed that the Catholic Church was so filled with the stain of traditores that it was corrupted. They considered themselves the true, pure church since they did not have a link to traditores. There was eventually an “Edict of Unity” issued in 405 which levied penalties against groups like the Donatists and tried to stop the schism.

Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (2000), 229-239 discusses how Augustine came around to viewing “coercion” or “disciplina” as the proper way of getting the Donatists to come back to the faith. Many people have made Augustine out to be a forerunner of the Spanish Inquisition, but Brown is quick to dismiss that notion in his book (p. 236). However, Augustine’s treatment of the Donatists still is something which we must examine. He advocated using violence and other coercive means, excepting death from his wheel of punishments. What do we do with such violence “in the name of bringing people to Christ?”

Augustine writes in a letter to Donatus: “You are angry because you are being drawn to salvation, although you have drawn so many of our fellow Christians to destruction. For what did we order beyond this, that you should be arrested, brought before the authorities, and guarded, in order to prevent you from perishing… You think, however, that even what we have done to you should not have been done, because, in your opinion, no one should be compelled to that which is good… How much more then, is it fitting that you should be drawn forcibly away from a pernicious error?” (Augustine, “Epistle 173: To Donatus,” in NPNF, Vol. 1: The Confessions and Letters of Augustin, ed. Schaff).

Here we should unpack a few items. First, the idea that one deserves to be arrested forcibly for preaching that the Church is corrupt seems rather harsh. Well, we must remember that the early fifth century was a very different time than the era in which we live. The Church’s authority was still relatively new, coming out of the fourth century, which was filled with orthodox and heterodox positions jockeying for power and for imperial sponsorship. That said, the Donatists actually do have a group within their ranks called the Circumcellions, who sought martyrdom as a virtue and would attack soldiers with blunt clubs to provoke a response, i.e. the soldiers “martyring” the Circumcellions. Therefore, an arrest could possibly be warranted, though to what degree Donatus was responsible for their actions, we may never know.

The second idea to unpack is the idea of coercion, or “compelling someone to that which is good.” Here is where some see a strong link to the Inquisition in Augustine’s thought. Compelling often entailed violence toward those being compelled. Here is where one ought to pause. While it’s no shock to most that Christians have a violent past (Crusades, anyone?), most Christians in evangelical circles today will frequently refer to Augustine as an amazing Church Father and Theological figure. I don’t mean to discount that at all, because I too often view him that way. However, there are many other aspects from his time as bishop that people often do not realize or even know. His treatment of the Donatists, I would argue, is rather unfortunate. I would have preferred him to remain opposed to violence in convincing others to come back.

Perhaps it’s a twenty-first century mindset, perhaps it’s a specifically American mindset, but I feel that if a group will not join your ranks and “refuses to see the truth,” you need to just let them be. I know, I know, some of you will say, but people were leaving his church and joining their ranks, he had to do something. While that might be true, there is an awful lot of bureaucratic details around the Edict of Unity; i.e. Donatists started to be unable to leave their land to their heirs, etc. Is this really a fair way to treat an opposing group?

I want to close by asking what Christians today can take away from the battle between Augustine and the Donatists. Should Christians continuously fight (nonviolently, mind you) other groups in order to “convince them of the truth?” Or should they just let them be? I think there have been many moments over the last few years where evangelical Christians have faced such opposition. Many churches have fought the legalization of gay marriage. Many have fought against the Islamic faith. Currently churches are battling planned parenthood. I don’t want to get into these debates here; suffice it to say that there are many groups whom churches oppose and even condemn. While I don’t think it’s wrong to disagree with people (often some of the best discussions stem from such disagreements), I do think we need to be careful to avoid being too passionate about a cause that it blinds us to those around us.

The Donatists were also actual people, and people who claimed to worship Christ. Did Augustine lose sight of that?

4 thoughts on “Midweek Blog: Augustine Was Mean to the Donatists

  1. Pingback: Midweek Blog: Peace and Justice in Augustine’s City of God | The Historical Christian

  2. I think Augustine’s reply to your concerns over Intra doctrinal debates would be that seeking and supplying the truth is serving the City of God as opposed to more temporal concerns of the City of Man. In this manner, why wouldn’t one be passionate about the moral decay of the soul? Perhaps, one can be more reflective with love; however, be careful not to lack the passion that serves God.

    • You raise an interesting aspect of this whole thing. The “passion that serves God” is a good way to look at it. I wonder though if that too can be a slippery slope. I would guess that that is where the combination with love should come in. Otherwise, our passion for God could carry us away to a zealous, heartless place.

      • Augustine was a man and that respect one can certainly disagree with his philosophy though in disagreeing we should still understand his philosophy.

        Augustine is the foundational philosophy (after Paul) of the Catholic Church and still many protestant denominations today. One has to understand that both Augustine, Catholic Church, and European Protestantism operated prior to the Enlightenment and Classical liberalism.

        One could make the argument that your nature and concern for the passion for God to carry you to a heartless place is a result of you being raised in a post-Classical liberal society that focuses on the individual and human reason.

        In our society, the focus is on “rights” but not in any of the above societies where the focus would be 0n “Duties.” So the passion that serves God that condemns heretics and heresies which in our society seems to be against the “rational” city of man is a reflection of love within the philosophy of Augustine all the way to the Enlightenment and within the Catholic tradition all the way up to Vatican II.

        The Orthodox Church to this day still stressed the idea that Classical Liberalism is the decay of moral society. I had one Orthodox friend tell me that it’s a philosophy that operates like Acid, no matter how many “checks or balances” are created the Acid will eat through every institution.

        Again, I’m just explaining Augustine’s as I believe​ he would have answered your question. I’m beginning to believe he has a point in that regard, but again, the decision is up to each individual soul who decided to let the truth come to them.

        A book that I believe explains the mindset fairly well was written by a Spanish priest, the book is called “Liberalism is Sin” which of course he’s discussing “Classical Liberalism” Dr. Don Felix Sarda y Salvany

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