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HISTORY OF THE DONATISTS

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CHAPTER 7

Closing Scenes of the Conference mostly By the Donatists

 

        In my first arrangement, the contents of this chapter were all embraced in Chapter VI, but on a second thought, as these contents are almost wholly occupied with the sayings and doings of the Donatists, I judged it suitable that they should be in a chapter by themselves, in which the reader may find a pretty full exposition of the scriptural and evangelical principles of this people, and also of their ability in defending them.


The Letter of the Donatists to the Conference

        We are now approaching the close of this singular meeting. On the presentation of this letter, the following incidents occurred: The officiating scribe had hardly begun to read the document when Emeritus exclaimed, He does not read, he does not distinguish the sense. Let them read it themselves, said Augustine; we can concede to them what they were unwilling to concede to us. It is immaterial by whom the paper is read, said Marcellinus, the president. We do not doubt the fidelity of the reader, but we object to his pronunciation, said Petilian. I will read the letter, said Habetdeum, a Donatist bishop. Read it, said the president. The letter was addressed to the president, with his full name and title thus: "To the well beloved and distinguished man, Flavius Marcellinus, Tribune and Notary." The signature of the letter was in the following peculiar style: "Januarianus and other bishops of the Catholic truth, which suffers persecution, but which does not persecute." By this description the Donatists uniformly represented their community. They bespoke the fair dealing of the president by saying it was an evident sign of a just moderator when he would not deny to one party what he conceded to the other; and since, said they, he had heard the voluminous papers of their traitors and persecutors, they besought him to kindly receive their epistle; and that he would order it to be placed among the records; and after that, that he would deign to hear their cause. They began their arguments against their opponents with their favorite topic,


The Doctrine of Church Purity

        Our adversaries, said they, by discursive testimonies, strongly urge against us the doctrine that it was predicted that the church which was to come was to consist of a mixture of good and bad members to the end of the world. We, on the other hand, said the Donatists, by more valid testimonies, show that the church of the Lord everywhere announced in the divine writings should be holy and pure.


Scripture Quotations on Church Purity

        The version in use with the Donatist was probably that of Jerome. This may account for some variations from the English version. I shall endeavor to give a correct version of the Latin text of the Donatist quotations: "Arise, O Zion, says Isaiah, put on thy strength, O Jerusalem, the holy city; there shall not pass through thee the uncircumcised nor the unclean. "Say ye to the daughter of Zion, behold thy Saviour will come to thee, having his work and his reward before his face, and he will name thee a holy people, the redeemed of the Lord; and thou shalt be called a desired city, not forsaken. "Then the eyes of the blind will be opened; the ears of the deaf will hear; the tongue of the dumb will be plain, and the lame will leap as a hart, since water hath broken forth in the desert, and a fountain in a thirsty land. "And the prophet hath added, A highway will be there, and a holy way it will be called. The unclean will not pass over this way, nor be found in it. No lion will be there. No evil beast will ascend this way, nor dwell there; but the chosen and the redeemed will walk therein. "In the Song of Songs the Lord hath said of his church, Thou art all fair, my sister; there is nothing reprehensible in thee." What the apostle also said of the glorious church, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, and of his having espoused said church to one husband, that he might present it as a chaste virgin to Christ, this people repeated as in full agreement with the church model which they aimed to imitate. So many and so great, said they, are the testimonies which were announced through the Spirit, concerning the church, in disdain and contempt of the teaching of their opponents, namely, that bad men were to remain among the good in the church. This, said they, their adversaries improperly maintain from the parable of the tares, when the Lord, by his apostles, has interpreted this very parable to be of a very different import, in the following terms: "He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is this world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the tares are the children of the evil one; the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; the reapers are the angels," etceteras. "The field, the Lord says, is the world, therefore not the church, but this world, in which the good and the bad dwell together till the harvest; that is, they are reserved till the divine judgment."


The Donatists' Comments On the Teaching of the Parable

        This interpretation by the Lord, they asserted, could not be truly gainsaid; since, said they, if the apostles, the companions of the Lord himself, should have learned that the tares, that is, the children of the devil, springing up in the church by the neglect of discipline, were to be left in the communion of the saints, they never would have expelled from the thresholds of their churches, Simon, Erastus, Philetus, Alexander, Demas, Hermogenes, and others like them. Who they meant by the apostate named Erastus I cannot learn. Yes, indeed, said the reforming Donatists, the mixed policy of the Catholics would make void the whole of the public instructions throughout the divine writings pertaining to the separation of the wounded from the sound, the polluted from the clean. On this subject, in all its various forms, and by the numerous persons named, these assiduous men, in more than a folio page of their epistle, very earnestly expatiated. At length they came to what Moses said to the Israelites of Korah and his rebellious company, namely, "Depart ye from the tabernacles of these most obdurate men, and touch nothing of all that pertains to them, lest you perish with them in all their sins." From Isaiah they quote on the same subject, "Depart ye, depart ye; go ye out from those men, be unwilling to touch an unclean thing; depart ye from the midst of them who bear the vessels of the Lord." "Ye are the temple of the living God, saith the apostle, who of himself saith I will dwell in them, and I will walk among them, and I will be their God, and they also shall be my people. "Therefore, saith the apostle, depart ye from the midst of them, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and I will be your father and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Omnipotent." Of their persecutions this people said they could accuse their adversaries of the savage cruelties with which they themselves, and their ancestors, without ceasing, had pursued with violence, and vexed both them and their fathers, for one hundred years or more. They furthermore asserted that their adversaries were not ashamed to shelter themselves under false arguments against them. Who, said these much injured men, does not know that these, our traitors and persecutors, from the very beginning of their condemned treachery, by all sorts of supplications and devices, have sought our deaths; and contrary to the divine command, by threats and proscriptions, have coerced us to their communion?


References to Distinguished Persecutors

        At this time these oppressed people could not fail to speak of the amount of Christian blood which was shed in the wars against them by Leontius, Ursacius, Macarius, Paulus, Taurinus, Romanus, and other executioners, who had obtained favor with secular princes in the deaths of the saints, when very many venerable ministers were killed, others were sent into exile, and the sacred cause of Christianity was harassed far and wide; virgins were violated, the wealthy were proscribed, the poor were spoiled, and ministers who were fleeing from their own churches were taken in their flight. Thus far former times were referred to. In the close of their extended address to their opponents, still in the conference, such was their language: Now, in our own time, said they, our enemies have awarded exiles to our bishops, and precipices to those Christians who were fleeing from them; they have oppressed our people, they have robbed our clergy; they have invaded our churches, and beaten those who were unwilling to leave them. The great slaughter of lives in the Macarian war alone, was also referred to in the description of their persecutions, and although in this war so much blood had been shed, yet, said they, not being satiated, today they are thirsting for more. With a brief and friendly address to the president, this letter of the Donatists was closed. And not withstanding its great length, it was evidently composed during the meetings of the conference. This epistle, said the president, will be placed with the acts of the conference. Before this is done, said Emeritus, let testimonies be compared with testimonies, that your sublimity may judge of their respective merits. The discussion of the contents of this letter immediately followed, which was commenced and almost wholly managed by Augustine; but omitting all other subjects, he said: The main question in the epistle was, whether the church which was predicted by the prophets would have a mixture of good and bad members, or whether the members would be altogether good, all holy and unspotted in the world, even in that time, and till the final end of the world. This was Augustine's strong language on this subject. Both these testimonies, said he, are divine, and well agree when rightly understood. On this discussion the parties now engaged in earnest, and also on the parable of the wheat and the tares. O, said he, if you would have patience with me until I can finish my argument. On resuming his discourse, Augustine observed that what he began to say had respect to the divine testimonies of the tares and the wheat. Without repeating the argument, which he went on to finish, it is sufficient to say, it was all embraced in his oft-asserted doctrine that we are to understand that the field means the church instead of the world. In the defense of this position, from which Augustine derived his principal support of lax discipline, in opposition to the strict system of the Donatists, almost a whole folio page was employed; but his unscriptural theory was undermined by his opponents, by the following scripture quotations. I will begin with the quotations by Emeritus: In the gospel it is said, the world hath not known God; therefore, on the theory in question, the church hath not known God. Again, it is said, That the whole world, that is, the whole church, may become guilty before God. Again, if ye were of the world, it would love its own, but since ye are not of the world, therefore the world hateth you and despiseth you. Again, they who are of the world, the world heareth them. In concluding their remarks on this very plain subject, What, said Petilian, is here meant by the church and what by the world, is most explicitly defined by the author and maker of this world, by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made that was made. The Lord himself hath said the field is the world. Who, therefore, among men, dares to define the world, since the Lord himself, its framer and artificer, hath deigned to define it? At this point the president inquired what was meant by the world that God was reconciling unto himself? Man, said Petilian, is called the world in this case; for it was not beasts but men that God was thus reconciling. In the above details the reader may see the amount of labor of the Donatists in combating the novel exposition of a renowned theologian. The debates of the parties, so far as they have been preserved, were here closed. A portion of the records of this conference are said to be lost. But what was said by the notaries indicates that they expected the business would be continued. Since the dawn of day, said they to the president, we have filled two books, meaning the waxed tablets on which the records were made, and they requested that the other company of notaries might be called in, to take their places. Elsewhere we learn that this third session of this conference commenced at break of day, and now, after this long day in June, they were operating by torch-light. In this condition the debates of the parties were continued with unabated zeal, especially on the Donatist side. Soon, however, this protracted meeting, instead of being adjourned to another day, by the order of the president was abruptly closed, and on the spot his judgment was pronounced, which, says Neander, as was to be expected, was in favor of the Catholic church. The substance of this judgment will be given in the next chapter. The probable cause of this hasty proceeding of the president will be mentioned when I come to his ignoble death.


Recapitulation of the History Of the Conference of Carthage

        In no English work have I ever seen any reference to this convocation in which the Donatists were not much concerned, and which imposed upon all their bishops so much of apparently useless labor their long and painful journeys. The council of Nice was held in 325. The conference at Carthage in 411. The differences in the objects and the manner of doing business in these large collections may be represented in the following terms: The whole design at Nice was against the Arians. That of Carthage was against the Donatists. The policy of Nice was openly proclaimed. That of Carthage was studiously concealed. At Nice they had an important question for discussion. At Carthage it was point no point. At Nice they did business on Christian principles. At Carthage they went by a rule of civil law. At Nice all could speak in the council. At Carthage only a few could speak or be in the conference. At Nice they chose their own president. At Carthage he was appointed some months beforehand by an exparte emperor. In these con vocations there were differences for which neither party was in fault. At Carthage all were Latins. At Nice all were Greeks but Constantine and Arius, from Spain, who were Latins. Arius was the only western delegate to the council of Nice. At the time of the conference the whole of the three days' doings seemed useless; but at this late day its history has supplied important information of the principles of the Donatists, of the number of their churches and bishops, and other matters which can nowhere else be found.

 

NOTES

1. Col. Cartha. Opta., p. 86.

 
 
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