We noted toward the end of our preceding article that Augustine surely advocated church discipline but was not in sympathy with the Donatist movement. He lamented the fact that the Donatists had separated themselves, not only from those who had been justly accused of being traitors to their faith during the persecutions, but also from those who had been unjustly accused and that they had therefore separated themselves from the good and faithful in all the nations of the world. Continuing with our discussion of the Donatist controversy and the conception of the church visible is entertained by Augustine over against the Donatists controversy and the conception of the church visible as entertained by Augustine over against the Donatists we wish to quote at length from two recognized authorities. We do well to bear in mind that, according to this great Church Father of the fourth and fifth centuries, the true distinguishing marks of the Church are: Catholicity (the true, Church is spread through all lands) and apostolic connections (connections with churches founded by the apostles).
Internal History of the Donatist Schism by Philip Schaff.
The Donatist controversy was a conflict. between complete separatism and catholicism; between ecclesiastical purism and ecclesiastical eclecticism; between the idea of the church as an exclusive community of regenerate saints and the idea of the church as the general Christendom of state and people. It revolved around the doctrine of the essence of the Christian church, and, in particular, of the predicate of holiness. It resulted in the completion by Augustine of the catholic dogma of the church, which had been partly developed by Cyprian in his conflict with a similar schism.
The Donatists, like Tertullian in his Montanistic writings, started from an ideal and spiritualistic conception of the church as a fellowship of saints, which in a sinful world could only be imperfectly realized. They laid chief stress on the predicate of the subjective holiness or personal worthiness of the several members, and made the catholicity of the church and the efficacy of the sacraments dependent upon that. The true church, therefore, is not so much a school of holiness, as a society of those who are already holy; or at least of those who appear so; for that there are hypocrites not even the Donatists could deny, and as little could they in earnest claim infallibility in their own discernment of men. By the toleration of those who are openly sinful, the church loses her holiness, and ceases to be church. Unholy priests are incapable of administering sacraments; for how can regeneration proceed from the unregenerate, holiness from the unholy? No one can give what he does not himself possess. He who would receive faith from a faithless man, receives not faith, but guilt. It was on this ground, in fact, that they rejected the election of Caecilian: that he had been ordained bishop by an unworthy person. On this ground they refused to recognize the Catholic baptism as baptism at all. On this point they had some support in Cyprian, who likewise rejected the validity of heretical baptism, though not from the separatist, but from the catholic point of view, and who came into collision, upon this question, with a man like Stephen of Rome.
Hence, like the Montanists and Novatians (they insisted on vigorous church discipline, and demanded the excommunication of all unworthy members, especially as such as had denied their faith or given up the Holy Scriptures under persecution. They resisted, moreover, all interference of the civil power in church affairs; though they themselves at first had solicited the help of Constantine. In the great imperial church, embracing the people in a mass, they saw a secularized Babylon, against which they set themselves off, in separatistic arrogance, as the only true and pure church. In support their views, they appealed to the passages of the Old Testament, which speak of the external holiness of the people of God, and to the procedure of Paul with respect to the fornicator at Corinth.
In opposition to this subjective and spiritualistic theory of the church, Augustine, as champion of the Catholics, developed the objective, realistic theory, which has since been repeatedly asserted, though with various modifications, not only in the Roman church, but also in the Protestant against separatistic and schismatic sects. He lays chief stress on the catholicity of the church, and derives the holiness of individual members and the validity of ecclesiastical functions from it. He finds the essence of the church, not in the personal characteristics of several Christians, but in the union of the whole church with Christ. Taking the historical point of view, he goes back to the founding of the church, which may be seen in the New Testament, which has spread over all the world, and which is connected through the unbroken succession of bishops with the apostles and with Christ. This alone can be the true church. It is impossible that she should all at once disappear from the earth, or should exist only in the African sect of the Donatists. What is all that they may say of their little heap, in comparison with the great catholic Christendom of all lands (reading this particular statement of the great Church Father it is not difficult to understand why the Roman Catholic Church of today would seize upon a passage of this nature in support of themselves as the true church in distinction from all the Protestant churches which lie as so many broken remnants throughout the world. We know that the Romish church of today proudly points to its oneness, which we know to exist merely in the outward and external sense of the world, but to which that church points with pride as a mark of the true church. And it is surely not difficult to understand why that church should point to a passage such as this from the- eminent Church Father in support of their claim—H.V.)? Thus even numeral preponderance here enters as an argument; though under other circumstances it may prove too much, and would place the primitive church at a clear disadvantage in comparison with the prevailing Jewish and heathen masses, and the Evangelical church in its controversy with the Roman Catholic (how true this is!—H.V.).
From the objective character of the church as a divine institution flows, according to the catholic view, the efficacy of all her functions, the sacraments in particular. When Petilian once said: “He who receives the faith from a faithless priest, receives not faith, but guilt,” Augustine answered. “But Christ is not unfaithful, from Whom I receive faith, not guilt. Christ, therefore, is properly the functionary and the priest is simply His organ.” “My origin,” said Augustine on the same occasion, “is Christ, my root is Christ, my head is Christ. The seed, of which I was born, is the Word of God, which I must obey even though the preacher himself practice not what he preaches. I believe not in the minister by whom I am baptized, but in Christ, Who alone justifies the sinner and can forgives guilt.”
Lastly, in regard to church discipline, the opponents of the Donatists agreed with them in considering it wholesome and necessary, but would keep it within the limits fixed for it by the circumstances of the time and the fallibility of men (the reader will recall that, in our preceding article, we quoted from Augustine to show that the Church Father certainly advocated church discipline—H.V.). A perfect separation of sinners from saints is impracticable before the final judgment (however, it should be impracticable only from the viewpoint that we cannot make separation between the wheat and the chaff, and not from the viewpoint that we do not exercise Christian discipline—H.V.). Many things must be patiently borne, that greater evil may be averted, and that those still capable of improvement may be improved, especially where the offender has too many adherents. “Man,” says Augustine, “should punish in the spirit of love, until either the discipline and correction come from above, or the tares are pulled up in the universal harvest.” In support of this view appeal was made to the Lord’s parables of the tares among the wheat, and of the net which gathered together of every kind (Matt. 13). These two parables were the chief exegetical battle ground of the two parties. The Donatists understood by the field, not the church, but the world, according to the Savior’s own exposition of the parable of the tares; the Catholics replied that it was the kingdom of heaven or the church to which the parable referred as a whole, and pressed especially the warning of the Savior not to gather up the tares before the final harvest, lest they root up also the wheat with them. The Donatists, moreover, made a distinction between unknown offenders, to whom alone the parable of the net referred, and notorious sinners. But this did not gain them much; for if the church compromises her character, her holiness by contact with unworthy persons at all, it matters not whether they be openly unworthy before men or not, and no church whatever would be left on earth.
On the other hand, however, Augustine, who, no more than the Donatists, could relinquish the predicate of holiness for the church, found himself compelled to distinguish between a true and a mixed, or merely apparent body of Christ; forasmuch as hypocrites, even in this world, are not in and with Christ, but only appear to be. And yet he repelled the Donatist charge of making two churches. In his view it is one and the same church, which is now mixed with the ungodly, and will hereafter be pure, as it is the same Christ who once died, and now lives forever, and the same believers, who are now mortal and will one day put on immortality.
With some modification we may find here the germ of the subsequent Protestant distinction of the visible and. invisible church; which regards the invisible, not as another church, but as the smaller communion of true believers among professors, and thus as the true substance bf the visible church, and as contained within its limits, like the soul in the body, or the kernel in the shell. Here the moderate Donatist and scholarly theologian, Tychonius, approached Augustine, calling the church a twofold body of Christ, of which the one part embraces the true Christians, and the other the apparent. In this, as also in acknowledgment of the validity of the Catholic baptism, Tychonius departed from the Donatists, while he adhered to their views on discipline and opposed the Catholic mixture of the church and the world. But neither he nor Augustine pursued this distinction to any clearer development. Both were involved, at bottom, in the confusion of Christianity with the church, and of the church with a particular outward organization. This concludes our quotation from the History of the Christian Church by Philip Schaff.