views updated Jun 08 2018


DONATISM is the name given to the schism that divided the North African church from around at least 311 until the end of the sixth century. The immediate cause was the refusal of part of the clergy and congregations of Carthage, supported by bishops from Numidia, to accept the election of the archdeacon Caecilian as bishop of Carthage in succession to Mensurius. It was claimed that one of Caecilian's consecrators, Felix of Apthungi, had been a traditor (i.e., one who had handed the scriptures to the authorities during the Great Persecution of 303305) and was therefore unworthy. It was also claimed that Caecilian had maltreated confessors in prison at Carthage by preventing food supplied by well-wishers from reaching them.

In the background of the schism, however, were important theological and nontheological issues. Since its emergence into history in 180, the North African church had been a church of martyrs. Its members believed themselves to be under the continuous guidance of the Holy Spirit. For many, the ideals of purity, integrity, and zeal for martyrdom took precedence over that of universality. Under Cyprian's guidance, the church had decided that a valid sacrament could not be administered by a cleric in a state of sin or to one who was outside the church. Congregations should separate themselves from a priest who was a sinner. In addition, in the latter part of the third century, the less romanized province of Numidia had become a separate province of the church, and its primate had acquired the right of consecrating each new bishop of Carthage. Now the bishops of Numidia were eager to assert the claim of their province in the government of the North African church.

These factors helped to consolidate opposition to Caecilian, and in 312 he was condemned to deposition by a council presided over by the primate of Numidia. The emperor Constantine, however, supported Caecilian, put a considerable sum of money at his disposal, and exempted from municipal levies clergy loyal to him. In April 313, the opposition appealed to Constantine, outlining their complaints against Caecilian and requesting arbitration from bishops in Gaul, as Gaul, they claimed, had not suffered in the persecution.

Long-drawn-out legal processes ensued. Constantine first delegated the opposition's complaint to Pope Miltiades, himself an African, but on the rejection of the pope's decision in favor of Caecilian (October 5, 313) by the opposition, summoned a full council of Western bishops at Arles on August 1, 314, to decide the issue. The opposition, now led by Donatus of Casae Nigrae in southern Numidia, rejected this decision also. Only after the acquittal of Felix of Apthungi in February 315, another appeal, and the dispatch of a commission of bishops to Carthage did Constantine conclude that Caecilian was innocent; he pronounced judgment in that sense on November 10, 316.

Persecution (317321) failed to destroy the Donatists, as they were now known. Under Donatus's leadership they became the majority party among North African Christians, and this predominance was only threatened temporarily by the exiling of Donatus by the emperor Constans in 347/8. Under the emperor Julian the Donatist leaders returned in strength. Their leader was now a cleric named Parmenian who was not a North African but described as a "Gaul or Spaniard." As bishop of Carthage, until his death in 391/2, he witnessed Donatism at the height of its power in North Africa. His death, however, was followed by schism between his followers. The new bishop of Carthage, Primian, was supported by the Numidians but opposed by Maximian, a descendant of Donatus who represented more moderate tendencies within the church.

The Maximianist schism was contained and unity within the Donatist church restored at the Council of Bagai on April 24, 394. Four years later, however, one of the principal Donatist leaders was implicated in the revolt against Emperor Honorius by the native chieftain, Count Gildo. On its failure, the Donatist church faced attack by the North African catholics, now ably led by Aurelius, bishop of Carthage, and Augustine of Hippo. Augustine took advantage of the fact that nearly all Christendom had remained loyal to Caecilian and hence regarded his Catholic successors as the true bishops of Carthage. In addition, by their practice of rebaptizing converts the Donatists rendered themselves liable to the antiheretical laws of the emperor Theodosius. Moreover, the extremist Donatists and social revolutionaries known as Circumcellions, who since 340 had been terrorizing the landowners of the day and the Catholic population in general, were considered a menace to civil authority. Augustine persuaded the government of the emperor Honorius to promulgate edicts banning the Donatists in February and March 405 and finally in May 411 maneuvered them into a conference with the Catholics under an imperial commissioner, Marcellinus, to decide what party was the "catholic church" in North Africa.

In the previous twelve years Augustine had written a series of tracts designed to show that there was no historical justification for the schism and that rejection of universality as the standard of catholicism as well as erroneous teaching on the church and sacraments made the Donatists heretics. In addition, Bishop Aurelius's yearly conferences of Catholic bishops of Carthage had revitalized the organization and sense of purpose of the catholics. When the conference met, all the advantages lay with them, although the Donatists still managed to match the Catholics in number of bishops, namely 284. After three session of debate Marcellinus gave his decision against the Donatists. This was followed on January 30, 412, by an edict that effectively banned Donatism, confiscated Donatist property, and ordered the exile of Donatist leaders.

This time the repressive measures succeeded. Augustine provides evidence for the conversion of Donatist congregations and surrender of Donatist church property. The Circumcellions, however, remained active and eventually contributed to the downfall of Roman Africa when the Vandals invaded from Spain in 429. In the Vandal occupation (429534) little is heard of the Donatists, but at the end of the sixth century, after the Byzantine reconquest, Donatism emerged again in southern Numidia. Descriptions of the progressive advance of the movement are found in a series of letters from Pope Gregory to his representatives in North Africa, to imperial officials, and to the emperor Maurice. After 601 nothing more is heard of the movement. Only further archaeological investigation of Numidian rural sites is likely to add to our information about the final phase of the sect.

Donatism demonstrates the continuance in the West of the biblical rigorist and individualist pattern of early Christianity that placed individual holiness under the guidance of the spirit as its highest ideal. The Donatists were the true successors of Tertullian and Cyprian in the African church, and they were protesters. Church and state must always be separate. Martyrdom must be accepted as a Christian duty. As far as the Donatist was concerned, the conversion of Constantine might never have taken place. In addition, Donatism, unlike any other Christian movement in the Roman Empire, gave scope for revolutionary stirrings among the peasantry, for it expressed the peasants' hopes for the great reversal of material fortunes that would presage the millennium. Its forceful repression by church and secular authorities also provided precedents for the persecution of heresy in the Middle Ages and in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation periods.

Material remains of Donatism are still to be seen in North Africa, especially in Numidia, where the great church of Bishop Optatus of Timgad (388398) is an outstanding monument to Donatism at the height of its power. Many Donatist chapels have been found in rural sites of Roman and Byzantine date in Numidia. Some Donatist literature has survived, notably the circular letter written by Bishop Petilian of Constantine to his clergy about 400; it is preserved in Augustine's Contra litteras Petiliani. Tyconius was a Donatist biblical exegete of first caliber whose work was used extensively in the early Middle Ages by orthodox writers such as Bede. Finally, Donatism found expression in peasant art forms, especially in woodcarving. These art forms often incorporated a biblical text or the watchword used by the Circumcellions, "Deo laudes."

See Also

Augustine of Hippo; Christianity, article on Christianity in North Africa; Constantine; Cyprian.


Bonner, Gerald. St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies. London, 1963.

Brisson, Jean-Paul. Autonomisme et christianisme dans l'Afrique romaine. Paris, 1958.

Brown, Peter. Religion and Society in the Age of Saint Augustine. London, 1972.

Diesner, Hans-Joachim. "Die Circumcellionen von Hippo Regius." Theologische Literaturzeitung 85 (1960): 497508.

Frend, W. H. C. The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa (1952). Reprint, Oxford, 1971. Includes bibliography and a list of Donatist writers.

Frend, W. H. C. Town and Countryside in the Early Christian Centuries. London, 1980.

Lancel, Serge, trans. and ed. Actes de la conférence de Carthage en 411. Sources chrétiennes, vols. 194, 195, and 224. Paris, 19721975.

Mandouze, André. "Encore le Donatisme." L'antiquité classique 29 (1960): 61107.

Monceaux, Paul. Histoire littéraire de l'Afrique chrétienne, vols. 46 (19011923). Reprint, Brussels, 1966.

Saumagne, Charles. "Ouvriers agricoles ou rôdeurs de celliers? Les Circoncellions d'Afrique." Annales d'histoire économique et sociale 6 (1934): 351364.

Simpson, W. J. Sparrow. St. Augustine and African Church Divisions. London, 1910.

Tengström, Emin. Donatisten und Katholiken. Göteborg, 1964. Includes a bibliography.

W. H. C. Frend (1987)


views updated Jun 08 2018


A schismatic movement that affected the Church in North Africa during the 4th and 5th centuries. Donatism was primarily religious in origin and stemmed from an exaggerated insistence on the holiness of the minister in the confection of sacramental rites; it gradually became an ethnic and social problem that emphasized the enmity between the native Berber population and the Romans by origin or culture and the hatred of the laboring classes for the landowners.

History. It began with a dispute over the reconciliation of the traditores, or clerics and bishops who had handed over the sacred books to the imperial officials during the diocletian persecution (303305). When peace was restored to the Church, questions were raised regarding the validity of the ordinations conferred by bishops who had conformed with the imperial demands and later had been reconciled with the Church. In particular, the action of Bp. Mensurius of Carthage was challenged. He had satisfied the persecuting authorities by handing over heretical books. His action was considered immoral by the zealots who claimed that the tradition of the African Church demanded that true Christians should have offered themselves for martyrdom in the spirit of their predecessors during the Decian persecutions. These zealots received the support of donatus and of Bp. Secundus of Tigisi, the metropolitan of Numidia.

When Mensurius died in 311, the faithful and clergy of Carthage elected the archdeacon Caecilian, whose action in handing over the sacred books was also contested. Since one of his three consecrators was Bp. Felix of Aptonga, who likewise was accused as a traditor, 70 Numidian bishops under the influence of Donatus held a synod at Carthage and elected Majorinus in place of Caecilian.

Constantinian Intervention. Supported by the affluent widow Lucilla, who had been rebuked by Caecilian for her excessive zeal in the cult of the martyrs, the dissident faction addressed a letter to Emperor constantine i demanding that judges be sent to settle the dispute between Caecilian and Majorinus for the See of Carthage. The emperor instructed Pope Miltiades to hold a synod in Rome (Oct. 2, 313), and the bishops of Gaul and Italy present at this assembly supported the claims of Caecilian. This judgment was rejected by the partisans of Majorinus in a second appeal to the emperor; and a new synod was convoked at Arles (Aug. 1, 314), which confirmed the Roman decision. To give the dissidents full satisfaction, Constantine allowed a third appeal, which was heard in a synod at Milan (Nov. 10, 316); but the results were the same. Caecilian's election and consecration were judged valid, and his possession of the See of Carthage was sustained.

Majorinus had died meanwhile, and Donatus had been elected in his place. He had energetically organized the Donatist church, spreading its teachings throughout North Africa and consecrating bishops for the sees. Appealing to the native Berber population, he stressed the need of sanctity in clerics and ministers of the Sacraments and employed the imperial repression of the Donatists to insist on their continuance of the North African tradition of martyrdom.

Circumcellions. In opposition to a Constantinian edict of 317 that had ordered the confiscation of Donatist churches and the exile of their leaders, a widespread revolt broke out; but in 321 the emperor granted the Donatists full liberty. The revolt, however, had produced a fanatical group of armed zealots called Circumcellions, who terrorized the countryside in favor of the Donatists in Carthage. Despite their stringent demands regarding the validity of baptism, an attempt at reconciliation was made by the Catholic bishop, Gratus of Carthage (c. 341), and in 347 the emperor Constantius II sent two legates, Macarius and Paul, to restore religious unity. They were accused of favoring the Catholic position, and their mission ended in repressive measures against the Donatists. Donatus died c. 355 and was replaced by Parmenian, an intelligent and active organizer. He was opposed by weak Catholic bishops, such as Restitutus of Carthage, who had signed the Arian formulary of Rimini, and Genethlius.

A new lease on life was given to Donatism under ju lian the apostate (361363), who recalled the Donatist bishops from exile. In 371 the Donatists joined in the anti-Roman revolt of Firmus; in 388 a fanatical Donatist bishop, Optatus of Thamugadi, and bands of Circumcellions under Gildon staged a revolt that lasted until 398 and ended in the death of the two leaders. These revolts strengthened the ethnic and social motives of the Donatists and added to their list of martyrs. A serious split occurred in their ranks, however, when a relative of Donatus the Great, the deacon Maximianus, with 43 bishops objected to a policy of leniency toward dissidents; they were excommunicated by the Donatist primate. An attempt was made to heal the schism in 394 at the Council of Bagai, where the Donatists agreed to recognize the validity of Sacraments conferred by the Maximianists.

St. Augustine. Augustine began his campaign against the Donatists as a priest in Carthage by writing (393) an alphabetical psalm, Psalmus contra partem Donati, which gave a popular refutation of the Donatist doctrines. At the same time he wrote a controversial treatise, Contra Epistulam Donati haeretici, liber unus, which is now lost. Two letters of this period are extant: one to Maximinus, Donatist bishop of Sinitum, on the question of rebaptism (Epist. 23); another to Alipius of Tagaste (Epist. 29). In some of his sermons on the Psalms (In psalm. 25; 54) he deals with the violence of the Circumcellions.

Augustine's elevation to the episcopate made him a key figure in the anti-Donatist movement from 395 to 411. Under the Primate of Carthage, Aurelius, the third Council of Carthage met in 397 and considered the schismatic condition of the North African Church; in 398 Augustine produced his Contra Epistolam Parmeniani in three books, in which he defended the catholic, or universal, nature of the Church that contains both good and evil. Parmenian had attacked a Donatist writer, Tyconius, for bringing forward the same ideas. In approving the ideas of Tyconius, Augustine developed his teaching on the Church as the Body of Christ. He dealt with the rebaptism controversy and with the authority of cyprian and the Council of Carthage of 256 in his De Baptismo contra Donatistas (c. 400). This was followed by Contra Litteras Petiliani, against the Donatist Petilian, bishop of Cirta. Augustine continued writing against the Donatists until 412, after which he turned to combat pelagianism.

Conference at Carthage. In 411 a conference was convened at Carthage by imperial mandate to resolve the dispute. It was presided over by an imperial tribune, Marcellinus, and was attended by 286 Catholic bishops and 279 Donatist bishops. The Donatists used obstructionist tactics and wrangled over procedural problems before the true historical and theological problems could be discussed. In the debate Augustine made short work of his opponents, using arguments that he had been developing against them for more than a decade. The decision of the imperial commissioner favored the Catholic position. The Donatist churches were to be handed over to the Catholics unless they came over as whole communities. In this case, they would be welcomed as true Catholic Churches. Those who refused to obey were liable to the penalties of the civil law.

The Donatists pointed to the severe penalties of floggings, confiscations of property, and exile as evidence that they were the successors of the Church of the persecuted and that the Catholics were the successors of the tyrannical emperors. From the Retractationes it is clear that Augustine, despite the wavering support he gave to the policy of imperial coercion, felt doubts about submitting spiritual questions to secular adjudication and appealing to the civil law to support religious truth.

Decline of Donatism. In the 5th century Donatism declined as a result of internal schisms and of the Catholic pressure exerted by Augustine and the civil power. Radical elements under Optatus of Thamugadi opposed the moderate group led by such thinkers as Tyconius, Rogatus of Cartenna (Rogatists), and Claudius at Rome (Claudianists). A serious break came with the schism of the deacon Maximian against Primian, the Donatist bishop of Carthage, which resulted in warring synods: Cabarsussi in 393 for Maximian and the synod of Bagai for Primian. The events of 312 were repeated in the consecration of Maximian as a rival bishop, the holding of rival synods, and the issue of decrees of deposition. This provided Augustine with an unanswerable argument, since the Primianists had promised to recognize the Sacraments of the Maximianists if they returned to their sect. After 411 the Donatist cause declined gradually, but still had enough strength left to merit the attention of Pope grego ry i (the great) (590604). The Donatists finally disappeared in the Arab invasions.

Donatist Doctrine and Its Development. The errors of the Donatists were based on their teaching that heretics must be rebaptized. Using the teaching of Tertullian and Cyprian, they assumed that the part played by the minister in the administration of the Sacraments was substantial and not merely instrumental; therefore, they maintained that a minister without grace could not confer the Sacraments. Since they held that all outside the Donatist church lacked grace, they insisted on rebaptizing all who returned from heretical or schismatic sects. Holiness was required in the minister, and sanctity could only be obtained in the true Church.

Donatist teaching on the efficacy of the Sacraments led to a narrow idea of the Church. For them, the Church was an exclusive caste that should not be contaminated by contact with sinners, least of all with the infamous traditores who had handed over the sacred books to the persecutors and had refused martyrdom, the desired goal of true believers. The reverence of the Donatists for the word of God in the Scriptures led them to maintain that to change one syllable or letter deserved the infliction of great punishment. Hence severe punishment awaited traitors who had surrendered these sacred books to be burned.

Anyone who communicated with the traditores was cut off from the Church and lost both his sacred character and the power to confer sanctity. The holy Church, in the Donatist view, contained no sinners; it was absolutely separated from the sinful world. For them, the sinful world was epitomized in the Roman Empire that Christian tradition represented as the city of evil. Even after Constantine, they still asserted that implacable hostility between the true Church and the Roman Empire. Since, as Donatists, they were the object of official persecution, they considered themselves to be the only true Church.

The Donatists following Cyprian made no distinction in the sequence of salvific action; they proclaimed one Church, one baptism, one salvation. As their idea of the Church was corporeal or spatial, they maintained that the validity or value of a Sacrament depended on the minister's actual public membership in the Church. Augustine distinguished between baptism received simply and baptism received usefully for salvation. His chief preoccupation was to ascertain the true subject of salvific acts. For the Donatists, the value of a Sacrament depended on the ecclesial position of the minister, as either inside or outside the local church. In actual fact the conferring of grace did not depend on his personal sanctity. The minister of the Sacrament could have personal sins; but as long as they were not public, he could not be expelled from the Church and the Sacraments he conferred were valid in its eyes.

Augustine distinguished two aspects of the Church that could be described as two concentric circles. The outer ring, or the communio sacramentorum, was the union in the Sacraments through the institution of the Church, into which all those who fulfilled the condition of baptism entered. This included even the Donatists. The inner ring was the communio sanctorum, or the communion of saints, whose members are united by the Holy Spirit in charity. A Sacrament, the institution of Christ administered by men, is not dependent on the quality of the man who administers it, for this would be to attribute the creation of a spiritual gift to a man. The Donatists had the sacramental act but not the grace that caused salvation. The communio sacramentorum, to which they belonged, was described by Augustine, under the influence of his Neoplatonist formation, as the plane of exterior, corporeal appearance where one could possess Christ bodily and yet be without the Spirit that brings charity.

For the Donatists, the Church is here and now without spot or blemish. They neglected to observe the tension that exists between the present state of the Church and its eschatological state. For Augustine, the Church is still the Church of sinners on Earth; it is composed of two parts, one of which has the Sacraments without grace, the other the Sacraments with grace. The advance in sacramental theology and ecclesiology made by Augustine in response to the Donatists was of great importance for the development of theology in the Middle Ages.

Bibliography: g. bareille, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951) 4.2:170128. j. ratzinger and l. euding, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 3:504506. h. pope, St. Augustine of Hippo (London 1937) 271327. w. h. c. frend, The Donatist Church (London 1952). j. p. brisson, Autonomisme et christianisme dans l'Afrique romaine (Paris 1958). j. kelleher, St. Augustine's Notion of Schism in the Donatist Controversy (Mundelin 1961). y. m. j. congar, Introd. to Traités Anti-Donatistes, v. 28 of Oeuvres de S. Augustin (Paris 1963). r. crespin, Ministère et sainteté (Paris 1965). f. hofmann, Der Kirchenbegriff des hl. Augustinus (Munich 1933). j. ratzinger, Volk und Haus Gottes in Augustins Lehre von der Kirche (Munich 1954). g. c. willis, Saint Augustine and the Donatist Controversy (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; 1950). w. h. c. frend, Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, ed. t. klauser (Stuttgart 1941 [1950]) 4:128147. s. l. greenslade, Schism in the Early Church (New York 1953).

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views updated May 09 2018

Donatism. A schism in Christian N. Africa in the 4th cent. The Donatists refused to accept the consecration of Caecilian as bishop of Carthage in 311 because his consecrator had been a traditor (one who had given up copies of the Bible for confiscation) in the recent persecution of Diocletian. The local bishops consecrated a rival to Caecilian, and he was soon succeeded by Donatus, from whom the schism is named. Their opponents, especially Augustine, held that the unworthiness of ministers did not invalidate the sacraments, since their minister was Christ.