The new search for historical roots
Nowadays, Christians are becoming increasingly interested in the history of their churches and in the search for giants of the faith in the past who might be used as models for their future. Perhaps never before has this longing to know more about the past so motivated the churches. Of course, there are great spiritual treasures to be found in church history and much to be learnt through past triumphs and failures. However, there is also a danger in this preoccupation with the past against which we must be warned. As our churches grow sadly less and less dependent on Scripture, we tend to look for historical roots for our support. So many once Bible-believing churches who scorned tradition are now looking to the past to prove their validity as churches via historical succession and inherited authority. This is not only true of Rome but of an increasing number of former nonconformist denominations. My recent reading has shown Christians looking back to the Albigensians, to the Waldensians, to the Lollards, to the Celtic Christians, to the Novatianists and to the Donatists for new inspiration. All these movements certainly had their ‘sunny sides’ but they also practised elements which, if not downright ‘shadowy’ were contrary to a balanced study of Scripture. Thus none of these movements as a whole can be recommended as a sure base on which to build sound church principles and a Biblical understanding of faith and conduct.
An objective study of Donatism is a most difficult task
Particularly the Donatists have been praised in many recent works for a positive Christian testimony which, to be frank, is scarcely preserved in their records. True, most of these records have been left us by those who either gently, as in the case of Augustine, or fanatically as in the case of Macarius, disagreed with them. This, however, should not cause us to believe that negative criticism cannot be objective or that so much opposition proves that the Donatists were in the right as is claimed by some writers of note, including David Benedict. The latter historian writes as a Baptist and appears to believe that the name of Donatist, because of its positive connotations, would be a feather in the cap of any Baptist. However, during the Reformation, the appellation of ‘Donatist’ was widely given to the Church of England, by her Roman critics, who, of course, thought of all the negative connotations attached to the term. However, the Ultramontanists have seen positive Donatist roots in their own arch-papist growth and development. Unbiased assessment is thus not easy. The following essay is an attempt to view the Donatists objectively, taking into account that their criticism of their opponents was, at times, as unbalanced as was criticism levelled against them.
From the start, thinking of Benedict and a bevy of Baptist writers, I must say that the Donatists likened Baptists in the sense they likened any sound Christian body. They honoured the Word of God. Otherwise, they were identical in their church order to those from whom they separated. What is of great importance in this discussion is that they shared the same views of the sacraments. This statement must be modified. There was this difference only – the Donatists outdid the other side in their sacramentalism. Today, we would call them High Church. That a High Church piety can go hand in hand with a great respect for God’s Word is shown by the story of the Swedish Reformation.
The next point I would make is that the Donatists were not ‘anti-catholic’ in any way. Those who object to the term ‘Catholic’ often misuse the name of Donatists to ‘prove their case’. That the Donatists did not agree with certain ‘catholics’, it is true; but it was because they felt that they had watered down the universal, i.e. catholic, faith through having ministers who did not conform to their (the Donatists’) standards. Thus, the Donatists claimed to be the true universal church according to faith, order and history, or, in other words, according to tradition.
A further point of note is that I cannot share the criticism against Augustine which some raise on the grounds that he treats the Donatists as damnable heretics. What he says of them is thoroughly in keeping with what I have pointed out above and in all Augustine’s writings against the Donatists, he constantly affirms ‘we are brethren’ and treats them as the schism they were, but not as heretics. The blood of many Baptists boils on reading Augustine’s mild criticisms of the Donatists, because they wrongly identify themselves with a wrong picture of them. Other contemporary critics, however, were numerous and far harsher than Augustine who made a genuine attempt at reconciliation.
The problems of martyrdom
It all began with the Roman State’s persecution of the young Church under such emperors as Diocletian (245-313). There were those who were not only martyred, but who chose martyrdom voluntarily as a higher form of Christian witness. They went out of their way to be martyred. Indeed, at times they forced others to kill them by provocation. Though most Christians accepted martyrdom as the seed of the church, others went further and looked on a martyr’s death as a baptism of blood and a better substitute for water-baptism, leading to a higher form of holiness. The church thus became divided amongst those who felt death by martyrdom was essential to the life of the church and those who maintained that martyrdom, as a last display of good works, was of no avail. The followers of a man called Donatus emphasised the duty of all Christians to be willingly martyred and taught that those who somehow managed to dodge martyrdom but yet held church offices must be regarded as lapsed Christians. The idea never seemed to have hit the Donatists that they also must have been dodgers as they were still alive. A direct parallel is seen in the 16th and 17th century English persecutions under Wolsey, More, Mary and Cromwell when thousands fled to the Continent to save their lives and those of their families, and were thus called traitors to the Church because others remained in Britain, were persecuted and many killed. If, however, by God’s grace, those exiles had not lived to return, there would have been little or no reformation in England.
Presbyterianism and believer’s baptism
Other scholars say that the main reason for the growth of Donatism was the love for a Presbyterian church government and believer’s baptism by immersion inherited from the Novatianists. However, evidence to show that Novatian was not an Episcopalian is more than lacking. So, too, there is no evidence whatsoever that either the Novatianists or the Donatists practised believer’s baptism by immersion. Indeed, Novatian was baptised unsolicited in his sick-bed when his friends thought he was about to die. There is no evidence that he was a believer at the time and immersion, under the circumstances is highly unlikely and totally against the practice of the time. The idea that the Donatists were anti-Episcopalian has no basis in history. Indeed, they were more sacramental in their view of the ordination of bishops than the Orthodox.
I must add here that there are so many Donatuses at the beginning of the 4th cent., most of whom were martyred, that it is impossible to say which of them was our Donatus, apart from the fact that our Donatus certainly ran away when trouble arose and died peacefully in his bed – in exile. He was certainly not made of such stuff as form martyrs, and, indeed, had long persecuted those of his own kind.
Tridentinian theology traced back to the Donatists
Because of their highly sacramental view of baptism and ordination, the Donatists insisted that the sacraments were only valid if the authority and intention of the priest was God-given. They came to the proud conclusion that all the run-of-the-mill ‘catholic’ priests, with themselves as exceptions, were unclean. Therefore, whatever the cleanliness of the baptismal candidate, his baptism must be pronounced invalid if the priest was not a Donatist. Baptism was solely centred around the spiritual qualification and status of the priest. This, of course, is exactly the view propagated in the Council of Trent and was one of the many novelties denounced at the Reformation. From time to time, we find such sacramental, intolerant views amongst modern Baptists. As I am writing these words, the Southern Baptists are campaigning for a re-baptism of members who have not gone through a Southern Baptist Baptismal ceremony. So also then, the Donatists set themselves up as a rival church with a rival priesthood who insisted that all their members must be ‘cleansed’ by re-baptism.
Constantine’s change of tactics towards the Donatists
Now Constantine, proclaimed Emperor at York in 306, came down on the side of what we might call the ‘Old School’ believers who were less High Church in their views of the sacraments and ordination and a dire persecution against the Donatists started. This was not instigated by the Old School Christians but by unbaptised and unbelieving Constantine. The Donatists mobilised troops and fought fiercely against the Emperor. Their main weapon was the dreaded Circumcelliones. These fierce fighters became the Donatists’ body-guards, Vigilantes and suicide force all in one. They were blood-thirsty warriors who called themselves the Agonistici, or the Champions of Christ. Wielding large clubs, they bashed out their enemies brains with the cry of Deo Laudes! Their mentality and commitment was that of the modern suicide-prone Islamic warrior, carrying out an imagined holy war.
Constantine decided to change his tactics. As most people, he did not like getting a bloody nose himself but did not mind bloodying other people’s noses. He thus proclaimed that the Donatists must be wooed back with patience and kindness and vengeance left to God. To show a good example, Constantine initiated the rebuilding of the Old School churches destroyed by the Donatists, of course, at the tax-payers expense, and left the Donatists (amongst whom were tax-payers) to manage their own affairs. The Donatists, however, refused to be welcomed back into the arms of the Old School and outlawed that church. A direct parallel is seen in the Presbyterian intolerance of the Reformed Church of England after the Great Rebellion. They refused all efforts at reconciliation with their former brethren. The Donatists then started on a New School church-building campaign, erecting many hundreds of buildings. By 330 they could send 270 bishops (not elders) to inter-church conferences.
A worse state of affairs under Constans
The Old and New Schools were now getting on quite well without each other and peace reigned. Now, however, Constans, Constantine’s weak son, had come to power and he wanted a united empire with a united church. He thus pronounced an edict of unity between the two churches. To appease the Donatists, Constans dug deeply into his tax-payers’ pockets and granted them a great deal of money. The Donatists refused to be bribed. “What has the Emperor to do with the Church?”, they cried. This caused Constans to swear the vengeance for himself which his wiser father had left to God. In the same way, we find Charles II offering edicts of Toleration and support in an effort to unify Britain’s Protestant churches which were rejected because of Presbyterian intolerance. Unlike Constans, Charles had not the political power to act like God.
Now the Circumcellionists roared Deus Laudes all the louder and clubbed heads at random with their cudgels which they fondly called ‘Israelites’. Even Donatus became alarmed and protested that his Episcopal body-guard, alias a pack of thugs, were going too far. The Agonistici protested that their Lord Bishop had become a weakling and refused to withdraw. They had licked blood and liked it. They now went totally mad, forming huge suicide bands. “We can only atone for our sins by a martyr’s death,” they cried, and rushed into battle hoping that it would be the battle that sent them to heaven. A man by the name of Macarius (the blessed) was able to put the wild beasts down and enforced peace. Faced with martyrdom, Donatus backed away from his previous pro-martyrdom convictions and fled. Nobody seemed to want him back and he died in exile some years later.
The Donatists become a state Church, fondly sponsored by Julian the Apostate.
In AD 361 Julian, called the Apostate, became Emperor. As most new brooms, he wished to make a clean sweep of the past. What could he do to gain favour? He soon had an answer. Pardon the Donatists and give them religious freedom. This he did. Now the Donatist changed their motto. Instead of saying, “What have we to do with the Emperor?”, they said, “What has the Church to do without the Emperor?” “Nothing whatsoever”, now seemed the answer.
Now the established church, and although most of the Circumcellionists had been killed in their suicide warfare, the Donatist became a worse monster. Knowing the Emperor was on their side, they plundered and fought until they not only had their own buildings back, but those of the Old School, too, and they spread rapidly throughout Eastern and Central North Africa. Their war cry was no longer the much abused Deus Laudes. Their banner was now that the Emperor was their Governor and they themselves the Imperial Church. For several years the Donatists reigned triumphant until the day when Julian the Apostate, who had allowed the weak Donatists to apostatise themselves, cried out, “Gallilaean, Thou hast conquered,” and was gathered to his fathers.
A new start under Parmenian doomed to failure
The Donatists now elected another leader. This was Parmenian, a new-comer and a man of peace. The Old School who had escaped the great persecution took new hope. Parmenian, they thought, was such a new starter that he had no idea of the persecutions of the past on either side. Perhaps he would therefore be interested in making a new, united start with the Old School? They chose Optatus, a moderate, to enter into negotiations and fellowship with Parmenian. Soon the two were calling each other ‘brother’, and agreeing on the definition of church and sacraments. It look as though two generations of strife were at an end.
Then the schism broke out again. Parmenian said that theoretically he agreed wholeheartedly with Optatus but Optatus must agree that the Donatists alone fulfilled the correct practical criteria for church and sacraments. The Donatists were a holy people and the Old School were not. Optatus was willing to accept that the Old School had made mistakes but then asked Parmenian how he could think his own church so much purer when it was guilty of so much bloodshed. Like the Jesuits and the Fifth Monarchy religious rebels, the answer was that the pure church dictated what was pure. Optatus said that this would not do but both sides must confess their sins. As both had blood on their hands, both ought to start anew. Parmenian argued that those who had died in battle on his side were holy saints, whereas those who died on the Old School side were polluted by their priests who were wicked men. Again, we are reminded of the intolerant Scottish Presbyterians and Solemn League and Covenant warriors who called their own people ‘Saints’ but the Reformed Church of England ministers and the fathers of what is now called ‘Calvinism’, ‘Drunkards’ and ‘Malignants’.
The downfall of the Donatists
To cut a long and dismal story short not all the Donatists agreed with Parmenian and they began to quarrel amongst themselves. Two main factions were formed, the Parmenianites and the Maximianites. They fought tooth and claw and persecuted each other. More ‘sects’ broke off both sides. Parmenian, the former man of peace, had Maximian’s house given over to heathen priests and levelled his former ‘brother’s church to the ground. Thousands of Donatists fled back to the Old School church who received them with open arms. Those who had not rebaptised were allowed to take up their pastoral functions but those who had rebaptised were given church membership but were refused pastorates as a disciplinary measure. There were no rebaptisms as, unlike the Donatists, the Old School believed in one faith and one baptism.
Now those Donatists split-offs who had defeated and persecuted other Donatists, started a reign of persecuting terror. The Circumcellionists were reconstituted and once again commenced their bloody work. Slowly the ‘Old School’ churches were nigh squashed out of existence. Augustine was able to stem the tide a little but when the Islamic forces swept through North Africa, they found no church to contend against but numerous small churches which were scarcely different from themselves in persecuting fervour and fanaticism. The blood of the Donatists had become the seed of Islam.