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The Catholic Discipline Compared With That of the Donatists


        As one of the principal differences between Augustine and the Donatists had respect to this subject, as readers may have observed in the foregoing narratives, especially in the close of Chapter VII, that all may judge whether this people had valid reasons for their leaving the Catholics, I will describe their discipline according to their own writings in Bingham's Antiquities: "As to the practice of the Catholic church in Africa," says Bingham, "Augustine freely owns he was forced many times to tolerate the tares among the wheat, when they were grown numerous, and it was dangerous to eradicate them by the rough measures of severe discipline, for fear of overturning and destroying the church unity by dangerous schisms, and of scandalizing more weak souls in that way than they could hope to gain by the other." It was so in Cyprian's time, he says, and it was so in his own. He often repeats that famous passage of Cyprian, in his book De Lapsis, concerning the fallen, where, speaking of the reason of God's visiting the church with the terrible persecution under Decius, he plainly intimates that members, both of the clergy and the laity, had so corrupted their morals that good men could do nothing more than mourn and keep themselves as well as they could from partaking of their sins.

The Famous Passage of Cyprian

        All men's minds were set upon augmenting their estates, and forgetting what the first Christians did in the times of the apostles, and what they ought always to do, they, by an insatiable ardor of covetousness, only studied to increase their fortunes. There was no true religion or devotion in the priests; no sincere faith in the ministers; no mercy in their works; no discipline in their morals. Many bishops who ought to have been both monitors and examples to the rest, forsook their divine calling and rambled about other provinces, seeking such business as would bring them gain and advantage. In the meantime they suffered the poor of the church to starve, whilst they minded nothing but the heaping up of riches and the getting of estates by fraud and violence, by usury and extortion. Cyprian, says Bingham, here plainly intimates that in such a corrupt state of affairs the discipline of the church could not be maintained or be rightly put in execution. But he was forced to endure those colleagues of his who were covetous, rapacious, extortioners, deserters, fraudulent and cruel. This mode of reasoning, says Bingham, was very often employed by Augustine in his disputes with the Donatists when he maintained that the church in his day followed the example of Cyprian in this matter. When, said he, we are not permitted to excommunicate offenders for the sake of the peace and tranquillity of the church, we do not therefore neglect said church, but only tolerate what we would not, to obtain what we would, have. In his book against Parmenian, Augustine treats this subject at large. Who can blame the Donatists for separating from such a church?

The Rebaptizing System of Cyprian, and the Use
Made of It by the Donatists for Rebaptizing

        We come now to a strange event in Catholic history, which for some time produced no little disturbance in a large portion of the Catholic church. In the business now to be briefly described, the Donatists took no part, only in their comments on the new practice of rebaptizing by their opponents, who, by Cyprian's rule, baptized heretics anew for the same reason that they rebaptized Catholics, to wit, the reputed invalidity of the first baptism.

Cyprian's Council for rebaptizing Heretics

        By this distinguished bishop of the metropolitan church of Carthage, the council under consideration was collected near the close of his life. As rebaptizing was contrary to Catholic custom both then and now,1 a violent dispute arose on the subject between Cyprian of Carthage, and Stephen, then bishop of Rome. Each in that age was of equal episcopal power, in the respective locations. The council under consideration was held at Carthage in 256. It consisted of upwards of eighty bishops. The only business of this convocation appears to have been to decide the question of the rebaptizing of the heretics who came into the church, on the principle that their first baptism was null and void; or whether it should be held as valid, if administered in due form, in the name of the Trinity. As immersion was then the practice of all parties, whether heretic or orthodox, there was no dispute on the mode of baptism, nor the subjects of the rite, especially in the controversy now under review. The whole council was evidently pledged to sustain their leader in his anabaptistical enterprise. They all spoke more or less on the subject, but in most cases their speeches were quite brief. The following may serve as specimens. The reader may notice that the speakers were all careful to make of no account the former baptism of heretics: "I," said one, "believe that every man who comes into the church from the heretics is to be baptized. "They who approve of the baptism of heretics make the baptism of the church void. "The baptism of heretics and schismatics is false. "If the blind lead the blind, they both fall into the ditch together; and so if a heretic baptizes a heretic, they together fall into death. He who is baptized for the dead, what doth his washing profit him? The same question may be asked respecting those who are "ab haereticis tinguuntur," baptized by heretics. "If the church omits the baptism of heretics because they are said to be already baptized, then the heretics stand first with the orthodox." "Christ instituted the church, the devil heresy. Can a synagogue of Satan have the baptism of Christ? "Since a true baptism can be administered only in the Catholic church, it is manifest that none can be truly baptized outside of the boundaries of that church; therefore all who have been "tinctos", baptized, in heresy or schism, when they come into the church, in my judgment, ought to be baptized. "There is but one baptism, which is by the church; where there is no true church there can be no valid baptism. "It is written, there is one God, one Christ, one church, and one baptism. How can any one be baptized in a place where God, and Christ, and a church are not? "A man who is a heretic cannot give what he has not; much more may this be said of a schismatic, who has lost what he had. "Without cause, indeed falsely and invidiously, they impugn the truth, that may presume to say we rebaptize heretics, when the church does not rebaptize, but she baptizes them." I have endeavored to give a literal version of what was said by the above speakers. The sameness of their remarks in some cases may be accounted for from their appearing to speak without much preparation. The speech of Cyprian to his council, of about two folio pages, I shall wholly omit. I have thus given to the reader more or less of the speeches or remarks of about one-eighth of the members of Cyprian's council, on what, in the language in which they spoke, was termed "rebaptizationes", in English re-baptisms. Of these fourscore speakers, not one but the last referred to, ever used the term "re" in connection with baptism; and it is somewhat amusing to see how carefully they all avoided it. This practice, it is said, prevailed somewhat extensively, and caused much trouble among the Catholics in Africa and the east, after Cyprian's death by martyrdom, two years after this council, that is in 258.

Remarks on the Details of the Foregoing Narratives

        In this baptismal controversy immersionists may derive a valid argument from the fact that the numerous speakers in Cyprian's council almost uniformly, in their references to baptism, employed the verb "baptiso", and the nouns "baptisma" and "baptismus", when it is certain that immersion was the ordinary mode of baptism with all parties, whether Catholics or dissenters. The other terms, which were seldom used by these speakers, were "tingo" and "lavo". Augustine complained of the Donatists for so often reminding him of Cyprian's rebaptizing policy. Why, said he, do you assume Cyprian's authority for your schism? No longer, said he, quote Cyprian's writings and council for the repetition of baptism, but rather follow Cyprian's example for the preservation of Christian union, by remaining in the church.

Divisions Among the Donatists

        This numerous and widespread community, in its progress, divided into parties, like the English Puritans, which appellation, as a term of reproach, was often applied to them. The Maximianists was the first of these divisions. This party, according to Augustine and Du Pin, arose in the following manner: A deacon of the Donatist church of Carthage in some way offended Primian, then the pastor of said church, and in the end was excommunicated; and under his management the new party was formed, which took its name from that of the deacon, its founder, which was Maximianus. But whatever names the new parties took, they all bore the general name of Donatists. This was the only party which went out from the original company, which, according to both Augustine and Du Pin, through their whole history, was the main body of this people. This first division began with twelve bishops, but it soon increased to one hundred; but it is doubtful if it held its own, as we read of some coming back to the main body. Of the cause of the first division I can only learn by Du Pin, that it was something about baptism. More is said on this subject by Du Pin in his historical sketches of the Donatists. As I shall refer with emphasis on the important position and services of the main body of this people in the chapter on their denominational character, compared with the minor parties, I will now only refer to the small division from the Maximianists. The Rogatians were so called from Rogatus of the province of Mauritania. As in the time of the Donatists there were two provinces in North Africa of this name, which together constituted a large part of the country, and in them the Donatists appear to have been numerous, why the bishop whose name indicates a Roman pedigree was specially referred to as a native of the province, I do not understand. On what point Rogatus differed from the party from which he separated I am not informed.

Augustine's Letters to Different Donatists and to
Catholic Statesmen Concerning this People

        Macrobius was a Donatist bishop in the city of Hippo, in which this people were quite numerous, and in which Augustine had very lately been ordained a Catholic bishop, and being full of zeal for his party, as Macrobius was about to baptize a Catholic sub-deacon for the purpose of making him a deacon with the Donatists, Augustine, in two epistles, entreated his beloved brother in the Lord, not to take from his people one of their sub-deacons. One of these epistles occupies five folio pages.

        To Maximinus, also a Donatist bishop, Augustine sent an epistle of considerable length to hinder him from rebaptizing a Catholic deacon. He had previously sent him an epistle of more limited contents, on the same subject. It was to this Donatist bishop, Maximinus, and in one of these epistles, that Augustine proposed a compromise with the Donatists by which they and the Catholics should cease reproaching each other of their reputed bad men on each side. This account will be given in remarks on the Circumcellions. By Augustine, Crispin was warned of his danger of the fine of ten pounds of gold, according to the Theodosian code, for rebaptizing about forty Catholics. This baptism, like all others of those times, according to the Latin note, was by immersion. Crispin's case will be more fully noticed in connection with Du Pin's History of the Donatists. Severus, a kinsman of Augustine, was importuned by him to desert the wicked and impudent Donatists. To Donatus, a Donatist presbyter, Augustine sent an epistle of a peculiar character, in which he said if he could witness his solicitude for his salvation he would, perhaps, have pity on his soul. You, said he, maintain that no one ought to be coerced, even to that which is good, because God has given a free will to man. Donatus was a very common name with the Roman descendants in Africa. Du Pin has a list of almost thirty on both sides, in the conference at Carthage, in his Monumenta. To Donatus, a proconsul, and Festus, a magistrate in Africa, Augustine gave instructions respecting the amount of punishment they should inflict on the Donatists. Marcellinus, who became the president and judge in the Carthaginian conference, was a very frequent and confidential correspondent of Augustine, to whom he gave instructions how to arrange the manner of conducting that iniquitous meeting. But to the old warrior, Boniface, Augustine sent his largest treatise about punishing the Donatists, not so much for heresy, as he admitted to the count that they had nothing in common with the Arians, but for their impious dissension from the Catholic church. This epistle was of fifteen folio pages. The count was cautioned to spare the lives of the offenders. In the latter part of the ninth volume of Augustine's works we find a list of small works by him, consisting of letters, sermons and tracts, to the number of about one hundred, addressed directly to the Donatists or to Catholics of almost all classes of the clergy and the laity, respecting them. From such a variety of efforts to oppose the prevalence of this enterprising people, the reader may form an opinion of their number and their influence. In the celebrated council of Nice we do not find any of the Donatists. One of the Novatian bishops was invited to attend it by Constantine, but neither he, nor any dissenter, met with the Nicene Fathers.

Comparison of the Novatians and the Donatists

        The Novatians arose about half a century earlier than the Donatists. The first party had its origin in Rome; the other in Carthage. While the Donatist party had their principal seat in Africa, the Novatians spread extensively in almost all parts of the Roman empire into which Christianity had spread. Each of these communities became quite numerous, and were distinguished for their evangelical principles; the one in their fixed location in Africa, the other as missionaries in widespread regions.

Wherein Did These People Differ?

        I cannot find any material difference between them but in that part of their church discipline which had respect to excommunicated members. While the Donatists readmitted them on evidence of repentance, under no circumstances would this be done by the Novatians. As this party arose while the Catholics had much trouble in their church with apostates in the Decian persecution, this might have had an influence in the adoption of their severe discipline. Both the Donatists and the Novatians rebaptized those who came to them from the Catholics. They were also equally reproached as Puritans, because it was said they pretended they were more religious than their neighbors. And, different from the established church, they held that the visible church of Jesus Christ does not, and ought not to, consist of any but sound members, who were not contaminated with spots and falls. In this early age the Catholics adopted the absurd custom of freeing themselves from all blame in the punishing of those they condemned by throwing it on the secular powers. This mode of reasoning was well exposed in the Spanish Cortes by the eloquent Castellar in reply to what was said on this subject by father Manterola in the same Cortes. The venerable Manterola says that he condemns all religious persecutions. We do not put the persecuted ones to death, says he; it is the civil power that executes them. Ingenious defence! It is exactly as the assassin said, It is not I who killed this victim, it was my sword. But do not all know as well as I, said Castellar, that the inquisition was the sword of the church? Optatus did not appear well pleased with the persecutions of Macarius, which he admitted were very severe on the Donatists in the Macarian war, yet, said he, in all the scenes of that bloody war, nothing was done by our desire, nothing by our counsel, nothing by our knowledge, nothing by our assistance. All this was said in the face of the well known facts, that the emperor Constans, a zealous Catholic, sent count Macarius into Africa to fight the Donatists into the Catholic union, and that the count himself was a member of the Catholic church.



1. I inquired of a Catholic pastor if this ancient custom of not requiring re=baptism still prevailed in his church. He said it did. But, said he, to avoid any mistake, we say, "If thou hast not been baptized, I baptize thee," etc.

2. Et de tinguentibus loquitur.

3. Ubi mergeret homines in profundum. Op. August., Tome 9, p. 228.

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