Monday, November 12, 2007
The Lesson of the Donatists
I love church history because there are lessons to be learned. Human nature has not changed in 2000 years. So I don’t try to reinvent the wheel every time a question comes up. If you have the patience to stick with me I hope the Donatist heresy of the 4th century can open your eyes to some things.
The primary disagreement between the Donatists and the rest of the early church was over the treatment of those who had renounced their faith during the great persecution under the Roman emperor Diocletian (303–305). The rest of the church was far more forgiving of these people than the Donatists were. The Donatists refused to accept the sacraments (baptism and communion) and spiritual authority of the bishops who had fallen away from the faith during the persecution. Many church leaders had gone so far as to turn Christians over to Roman authorities and had handed over scriptures to authorities to be publicly burned. These people were called traditors (“the lapsed”). These traditors had returned to positions of authority, but the Donatists proclaimed that any sacraments given by these Christians were invalid.
In 311 Caecillian was made a bishop in Carthage (North Africa) by three area bishops. However, Caecillian, as well as Felix, one of the three that elected him, was accused of handing over scriptures to the authorities during the persecution. A council of North African bishops met and elected a new bishop, Majorinus, to replace Caecillian. Majorinus soon died, and was succeeded by Donatus. Now here’s what happened: The church’s official position was that those who had lapsed during the persecution (denied Christ or handed over scriptures to the authorities) were to be forgiven and reinstated in the church – even to positions of leadership. Donatus and his followers believed that those who had denied Christ could never be forgiven. Only he and his group were the “true church,” and anyone who had lapsed during the persecution could not administer baptism or communion – and, furthermore, anyone who was baptized by one of the lapsed had received an invalid baptism. Therefore the Donatists practiced rebaptism. Donatist letters accuse the rest of Christianity of baptizing in “filthy water.”
The Donatists held that all sacraments administered by those not of their sect were invalid. So by their sinful act, such clerics had rendered themselves incapable of celebrating valid sacraments. This position is known as ex opere operatis - Latin for “from the work of the one doing the working,” that is, the validity of the sacrament depends on the worthiness of the minister conferring it. The larger Christian position was (and is): ex opere operato – “from the work having been worked,” in other words, the validity of the sacrament depends on the holiness of God, the minister being a mere instrument of God's work.
As a result, many towns were divided between Donatist and non-Donatist congregations. Constantine, as emperor, began to get involved in the dispute, and in 314 he called a council at Arles. The issue was debated and the decision went against the Donatists. The Donatists refused to accept the decision of the council, and in 317 Constantine sent troops to deal with the Donatists in Carthage. More laws against the Donatists were issued by Valentinian. In 409, Marcellinus of Carthage, Emperor Honorius's secretary of state, decreed the group heretical and demanded that they give up their churches. They were harshly persecuted by the Christian Roman authorities. It is unknown how long this belief persisted into the Muslim period, but some Christian historians believe the Donatist schism and the discord it caused in the Christian community made the military takeover of the region by Islam easier.
Okay, so what can we learn?
No sect or subgroup of Christianity has the right to declare their group to be the “true church” over an understanding of scripture, baptism, communion, or moral authority.
Such groups (and every restorationist group in Christian history has done this to some extent) have been labeled heretics and schismatics since the 4th century.
Baptism and Communion are valid because they are channels of God’s grace, and are NOT dependent on human qualifications. And yet I have seen people baptized again because the right words weren’t spoken or an arm came out of the water. What about people administering baptism or Communion? Can a woman administer it? Can an unbaptized person administer it? Do we have rules about who can administer what?
Rebaptizing someone who has already been immersed is like spitting in God’s eye. Do we insist people from other denominations are baptized again into the “Church of Christ?”
Disunity among Christians is poison!
Any other observations or lessons?