Christian History – Augustine, Donatists, and Public Reconciliation (NOT)


Augustine and the Donatists, by Charles-André van Loo

Last time, we talked about Augustine’s conversion experience. So what happened after that? How did we get so much theology out of him, anyway? You can imagine that he went to work right away in understanding this new faith and its Scripture from the inside of its walls, and that is exactly what happened. Conversion led Augustine into an ascetic life of study. Over time, he confronted other factions that wished to change Christianity from its Biblical, Scriptural roots, which he believed to be entirely consistent (if, in the main, seen as allegorical at points).

Donatists, for example, were rigorists holding that the church must be a church of “saints,” not “sinners,” and that sacraments, such as baptism, administered by traditores (or Christians who had, in their view, handed over their faith during persecutions) were invalid. Probably in 311 AD or so, a new bishop of Carthage was consecrated by someone who had allegedly been a traitor; his opponents consecrated a short-lived rival, who was succeeded by Donatus, after whom the schism was named. Mostly, it was an idea similar to gnosticism, because it attempted to segment the church by those who were “true” believers and those who were not.

The Church was meant to be worldwide for Augustine, and he could not stand the thought of the Donatists dividing the Church. How could they know the hearts of men and women better than God himself? Most importantly, Augustine saw them as guilty of schism, dividing and cutting themselves from the church of Jesus Christ. This is not love or edification; that means they don’t have the Holy Spirit within them if they intentionally cause such division by lambasting those within the Church under their own authority. Of course, these grievances were directed towards the public precisely to initiate some response. Attacks against the Church always go out in the open, precisely because emotion and popular opinion work much better than rational, logical argument or conciliatory gestures and forgiveness. Things remain the same.

Because the controversy was based around “traitors” to the faith, Augustine had a neat work-around to this objection: it was the Church, not the leader, that handed out baptism. Now, this is an important distinction: the Church (capital C, as in the Church Catholic, the Universal Church, etc.) remains holy because it is Christ’s church, Christ’s body. The sacrament remains valid even if the person administering it is sinful or unholy because Christ gives it through that vehicle, not the man. This is similar to the idea of divine inspiration of Scripture – the man who writes it does not need to be holy or blameless to write down God’s words. God uses sinful men and sinful women to do His work; that does not mean they might not injure other or fail due to their own human frailties. That’s a distinction we would do well to learn today – there’s plenty of schism in the Church, and we need all the unity we can get.

As well, Augustine had a second objection in their distinction between the visible, and invisible, church. Only God knows who is a true Christian and who isn’t. Many are in the Church who aren’t, but only God can know for sure who is and who isn’t because he can see the sincerity of the human part (omniscient!) As Augustine states:

For, in that unspeakable foreknowledge of God, many who seem to be without are in reality within, and many who seem to be within yet really are without. Of all those, therefore, who, if I may so say, are inwardly and secretly within, is that “enclosed garden” composed, “the fountain sealed, a well of living water, the orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits.” The divinely imparted gifts of these are partly peculiar to themselves, as in this world the charity that never faileth, and in the world to come eternal life; partly they are common with evil and perverse men, as all the other things in which consist the holy mysteries…Hence, therefore, we have now set before us an easier and more simple consideration of that ark of which Noah was the builder and pilot. For Peter says that in the ark of Noah, “few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us, (not the putting away of the fi lth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience towards God)

In fact, this problem exists even today. Everywhere, multiple denominations call themselves the “true” Church; so, too, do those who have left the Church due to their own bad experiences with the men and women who run it. While one can criticize Church leadership, there’s a time and a place. I would wager that time and place is NOT within the public sphere. Christians issues ARE Christian issues, and airing out your grievances isn’t helping, but hurting. Pointing out Church problems, open mocking, sarcasm without the express purpose of showing the particular irony of a situation – these are damaging and damnable practices, really. It’s judging and pointing in the worst way, and it certainly does NOT bridge the gap between those who injured in the first place and those who are hurting. It’s a one-sided “therapeutic” practice.

I’ve seen it enough myself to know. I suppose you could call me one of the “haters” for a time. I don’t like what the modern Church is doing, and I think that’s the case with many young people in American. People have been hurt, have been rejected from Church ministry, and have experienced horrible things in their own context. This doesn’t mean Scripture’s anything less than normative, however, or that God does not see these problems as well! Like I usually stress, your individual problem is not THE problem. Other people also share your issues, but that doesn’t mean snark and mockery need to work within it. Augustine did just fine with actual, straightforward argumentation, and he successfully refuted the Church’s opponents. Our problem, now, is that not everyone shares the same beliefs or assumptions, which makes dialogue simply impossible at times, especially if you want to emphasize one Scripture verse over another. It get confusing!

Unsurprisingly, such divisions were prefaced by the church at Corinth, which found themselves dealing with this exact same problem. The Corinthians publicly aired their grievances against each other using secular courts of law. Our modern equivalent, I suppose, is the Internet, which makes everyone feel important with their anonymity and/or free ability to prosecute whoever they feel has wronged them.

Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous and not before the saints? 2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? If the world is judged by you, are you not competent toconstitute the smallest law courts? 3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more matters of this life? 4 So if you have law courts dealing with matters of this life, do you appoint them as judges who are of no account in the church? 5 I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren, 6 but brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers? 7 Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?

Paul puts it in perspective. Bad things happen. People hurt you; emotional damage happens. No one’s perfect, not even a Church authority. But to throw that into the public square? That’s just not a proper way to go about it. Just to put it out there, I have never seen a single time when becoming angry and hurling insults has helped a situation. One party must be willing to reconcile before the other can reciprocate. Otherwise, you remain in your anger and hatred, and so does the other person. Time and bundled feelings aren’t going to help. God can work, but only if you can hand out the olive branch first.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.