The Donatist controversy, we noticed in our preceding article, was, according to the eminent church historian, Philip Schaff, a conflict between complete separation and Catholicism. The Donatists started from an ideal and spiritualistic conception of the visible church in the midst of the world. The church must be a fellowship of perfect saints. This also determined their conception of the sacraments. Unholy priests cannot administer the sacraments. That which is holy cannot be imparted by unholy men. And this applied especially the traditors, who had been unfaithful during the times of persecution and had delivered the sacred writings to government officials. Augustine, on the other hand, although maintaining discipline, maintained the catholicity of the church and that “apostolic connections” constitutes another true distinguishing mark of the Church of God in the midst of the world. The parables of the tares among the wheat and of the net constituted the chief exegetical battleground in the conflict between these two contending parties. 

As stated in our previous article, we wish to quote from another recognized authority in connection with this Donatist controversy: The History of Doctrine, by Reinhold Seeberg. What he writes is partly a repetition of what we have already written. It can do no harm, however, to quote from this authority as he describes this controversy and states the doctrinal differences between the two parties.


The greatest schism in the ancient church arose from personal and local conditions in the congregation at Carthage. As in the case of the Novatian schism, a persecution furnished the occasion. Various courses of action were advocated in North Africa in response to the demand for the surrender of the Scriptures during the Diocletian persecution. Bishop MENSURIUS OF CARTHAGE represented the milder view (surrender of other writings of indifferent character permitted). He and his archdeacon C.AECILIAN also opposed the exaggerated veneration of confessors and martyrs. SECUNDUS OF TIGISIS advocated a rigoristic view. After the death of MENSURIUS, Caecilian, who was hated by the strict party in Carthage, was chosen bishop and consecrated to the office by FELIX OF APTUNGA, whom the strict party regarded as a “traditor.” This election awakened great indignation among the “pious” (Lucilla), which was encouraged by the foreign rigotists. The Numidian bishops had sent Docetus from Casae Nigrae to Carthage as vicar of the bishopric. An assemblage of 70 bishops in Carthage (A.D. 312) declared the ordination invalid. MAJORINUS was then elected Bishop of Carthage. His successor was DONATUS THE GREAT. Through a combination of many influences, this conflict led to the formation of two warring churches sharply opposing one another, the Catholic and the Donatistic. The pride of the martyrs, the spirit of piety quickened anew under the stress of persecution, the idea of the holiness of the church, archaistic religious reminiscences, the pressure soon brought to bear by the civil authorities, the league of the Catholic church with the state, social distress, perhaps also national motives, all united to expand the personal dispute into the great schism which distracted the church of Africa for a century. The African church was really split in two (in A.D. 330 there were 270 Donatistic bishops at a council, and in A.D. 311, at Carthage, 266). Outside of Africa, Donatism secured no following worthy of mention (a bishop in Spain and another in Rome are spoken of, gesta collationis I. 157), only Caecilian and his followers being recognized. The emperor, Constantine, after being drawn into the matter by the Donatists, assumed a similar attitude. He ordered an investigation of the subject; then examined it himself, deciding that Caecilian and Felix were innocent, but that their assailants were contemptible slanderers. Stringent laws were enacted against the latter, but, proving ineffectual, they were soon revoked. But the most important measure was that adopted, under the influence of Constantine, at the council of Arles (A.D. 316, according to Seeck, I. c., p. 508 f.; cf. Eus. v. C. 44, 45), i. e., the establishment of the milder view on the ground of principle. It was here decreed that even the ordination administered by a “traditor” is valid, provided only that the persons so ordained “remain reasonable” (can 13); also, that persons who had been baptized by heretics should be questioned only upon the Creed, and that, if it be found that they have been baptized in the name of the Triune God, only the laying on of hands shall be further administered to them (can. 8). According to this, ordination and baptism are not dependent upon the worthiness of the administrant. Thus a doctrinal difference runs parallel with the personal and historical conflict. The agitation spread with great rapidity, especially among the lower ranks of society. Socialistic ideas as to property and a reckless fanaticism, leading to a complete outward separation, to frightful deeds of violence, and to wanton and contemptuous surrender of life, became distinguishing marks of the church of the saints (Circumcelliones, Agonistici, vid. Opt. II. 18 f. 21; VI. 1 f.; III 4. Aug. unit. cccl. 19. 50; c. ep. Parm. II. 3. 6; c. Crescon. III. 42. 46; brev. III. 11). Against this, church and state were alike powerless. Restrictive. measures under CONSTANS and CONSTANTIUS, a$ under JOVIAN, VALENTINIAN, GRATIAN, and HONORIUS, were unable to suppress the movement. The most serious obstacle encountered by the party was its division into mutually antagonistic groups (Pogatus, Tyconius, Maximian, and Primian)—the fate of all separatists. Augustine, soon after entering upon the episcopacy, addressed all his energy to the work of reconciling the opposing factions. This resulted in the three-day conference at Carthage in June, 411 (vid. gesta collationis in M. IV, and Aug. brevic coll.). Both the historical and the doctrinal questions were here discussed. No reader of the proceedings of this assembly can escape the impression that the Donatists here appear in the light of embittered fanatics, incompetent but vain, adepts in the most trifling legal quibbles, in questions of formality and in intrigue, always seeking to impede the progress of the proceedings. The imperial presiding officer (Marcellin) accorded the victory to the Catholics upon both points of dispute. His decision was a just one. Augustine continued to labor in the same spirit. Strict imperial edicts forbade assemblages of the Donatists upon penalty of death and their churches and church property were given over to the Catholics. The power of Donatism was broken, and it soon after disappears from church history. 

The doctrinal difference between Donatists and Catholics may be briefly expressed. Donatism does not question the episcopal foundation of the church. It demands only that the bishops be holy men, and maintain that only when they are such are the sacraments administered” by them effectual. In this, as at other points, it could appeal to Cyprian. It was well known that Cyprian denied the validity of heretic baptism (p. 184—we, too, have already called attention to this in preceding articles—H.V.). He taught that there was no virtue in the sacrifice or prayers of fallen priests (referring to John 9:31), and warned against the contamination of their touch (p. 181, n. 1). When Donatists appealed to the miracles performed by their bishops, to visions and dreams (Aug. unit. cccl. 19. 49), they had in this also a precedent in Cyprian (p. 181, n. 3). They maintained, further, that they were the only true and real Catholic church (gesta coll. I. 148, 202; III. 22, 91, 165), the holy, persecuted church of the martyrs (ib. 1. 45; III. 116). The Catholics are not a church, but adherents of Caecilian, traditors, and bloodthirsty oppressors (Optat. II. 14, 18; gest. I. 148; III. 14, 19, 258). The Donatist church is in reality the holy bride of Christ, without spot or wrinkle, because it requires holiness of its bishops and its members (ib. III, 75, 249, 258. Optat. II. 20; VII. 2). They apply the term Catholic, “not to provinces or races,” but: “the name Catholic is that which is filled with the sacraments” (sacramentis plenuin, gest. III. 102, cf. Aug. brev. III, 3), or, “thou shouldst interpret the name Catholic, not from the fellowship of the whole world, but from the observance of all the divine commandments and of all the sacraments” (Aug. ep. 93. 7. 23). In accordance with the holiness of this church, its members are to carefully avoid association with all who are not in its fellowship, all such being regarded as no better than heathen. Any connection whatever of the church with the civil government is regarded with abhorrence: “What have Christians to do with kings, bishops with the palace 7” (Opt. I. 22; Aug. c. litt. Petil. 92. 202). The dogmatic reason for this separateness lies in the invalidity of the Catholic sacraments. The moral unworthiness of the bishops of the traditor-church robs their sacraments of value: “How can he give who has nothing to give?” (Opt. V. 6; cf. gest. III 258). Hence the repetition of the sacraments, the second baptism, and the repetition of extreme unction are necessary (Opt. I. 5; III. 2; IV. 4; V. I. 3 f.; VII. 4). Yet it is going too far to regard rebaptism as, without any modification, a characteristic mark of Donatism. The Donatist Tyconius advocated the validity of the Catholic sacraments, and maintained that this was the genuine Donatist view—a position that is supported by historical evidences from other sources (Aug. ep. 93. 43; cf. HAHN, Tyconius-Studien, p. 102 ff.). But, since the Donatists have the full observance of the sacraments, they are the Catholic church. Hence, Christ and true baptism are to be found only among them: “For how can it be, if the church is one and Christ undivided, that anyone located without may obtain baptism (gest. III. 258)?” 

The Catholic position, on the contrary, is a follows: The orthodoxy of the Donatists is acknowledged, as well as the validity of their sacraments, and they are regarded as Christian brethren (gest. I. 16, 55, 62; II. 50. Opt. I. 4f.; IV. 2): “Both among you and among us there is one ecclesiastical life (conversatio), common texts, the same faith, the same sacraments of the faith, the same mysteries” (Opt. V. I). Even their baptism is unassailable, for baptism is baptism even though administered by thieves and robbers (gest. I. 62): for it is not a man, but the holy Trinity, which here bestows a gift (Opt. V. 7). The trinity is necessary in baptism, and also the faith of the recipient. These elements are unchangeable; but the administrant is a variable element. “Administrants may be changed, but the sacraments cannot be changed. If, therefore, you consider all who baptize, they are administrants, not lords; and the sacraments are holy in themselves and not through men” (Opt. IV. 4, I). Thus regarded, the Donatists are also a part of the church.”—end of quote from Seeberg. We will halt at this point, as far as our quotation from Reinhold Seeberg is concerned, and continue with it in our following article. The rest of this quotation will be brief, but we desire to give it in its entirety.