1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Donatists

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DONATISTS, a powerful sect which arose in the Christian church of northern Africa at the beginning of the 4th century.[1] In its doctrine it sprang from the same roots, and in its history it had in many things the same character, as the earlier Novatians. The predisposing causes of the Donatist schism were the belief, early introduced into the African church, that the validity of all sacerdotal acts depended upon the personal character of the agent, and the question, arising out of that belief, as to the eligibility for sacerdotal office of the traditores, or those who had delivered up their copies of the Scriptures under the compulsion of the Diocletian persecution; the exciting cause was the election of a successor to Mensurius, bishop of Carthage, who died in 311. Mensurius had held moderate views as to the treatment of the traditores, and accordingly a strong fanatical party had formed itself in Carthage in opposition to him, headed by a wealthy and influential widow named Lucilla, and countenanced by Secundus of Tigisis, episcopus primae sedis in Numidia. There were thus two parties, each anxious to secure the succession to the vacant see. The friends of the late bishop fixed their choice on Caecilian, the archdeacon, and secured his election and his consecration by Felix, the bishop of Aptunga, before the other party were ready for action. It had been customary for the Numidian bishops to be present at the election and consecration of the bishop of Carthage, who as metropolitan of proconsular Africa occupied a position of primacy towards all the African provinces. Caecilian’s party, however, had not waited for them, knowing them to be in sympathy with their opponents. Soon after Caecilian’s consecration, Secundus sent a commission to Carthage, which appointed an interventor temporarily to administer the bishopric which they regarded as vacant. Then Secundus himself with seventy of the Numidian bishops arrived at Carthage. A synod of Africa was formed, before which Caecilian was summoned; his consecration was declared invalid, on the ground that Felix had been a traditor; and finally, having refused to obey the summons to appear, he was excommunicated, and the lector Majorinus, a dependant of Lucilla’s, consecrated in his stead. This synod forbade the African churches to hold communion with Caecilian, the schism became overt, and in a very short time there were rival bishops and rival churches throughout the whole province.

It was soon clear, by the exclusion of the “Pars Majorini” from certain privileges conferred on the African church, that the sympathies of Constantine were with the other party (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. x. 6, 7). To investigate the dispute an imperial commission was issued to five Gallic bishops, under the presidency of Melchiades, bishop of Rome. The number of referees was afterwards increased to twenty, and the case was tried at Rome in 313.[2] Ten bishops appeared on each side, the leading representative of the Donatists being Donatus of Casae Nigrae. The decision was entirely in favour of Caecilian, and Donatus was found guilty of various ecclesiastical offences. An appeal was taken and allowed; but the decision of the synod of Arles in 314 not only confirmed the position of Caecilian, but greatly strengthened it by passing a canon that ordination was not invalid because performed by a traditor, if otherwise regular. Felix had previously been declared innocent after an examination of records and witnesses at Carthage. A further appeal to the emperor in person was heard at Milan in 316, when all points were finally decided in favour of Caecilian, probably on the advice of Hosius, bishop of Cordova. Henceforward the power of the state was directed to the suppression of the defeated party. Persistent Donatists were no longer merely heretics; they were rebels and incurred the confiscation of their church property and the forfeiture of their civil rights.

The attempt to destroy the sect by force had the result of intensifying its fanaticism. Majorinus, the Donatist bishop of Carthage, died in 315, and was succeeded by Donatus, surnamed Magnus, a man of great force of character, under whose influence the schism gained fresh strength from the opposition it encountered. Force was met with force; the Circumcelliones, bands of fugitive slaves and vagrant (circum cellas) peasants, attached themselves to the Donatists, and their violence reached such a height as to threaten civil war. In 321 Constantine, seeing probably that he had been wrong in abandoning his usual policy of toleration, sought to retrace his steps by granting the Donatists liberty to act according to their consciences, and declaring that the points in dispute between them and the orthodox should be left to the judgment of God. This wise policy, to which he consistently adhered to the close of his reign, was not followed by his son and successor Constans, who, after repeated attempts to win over the sect by bribes, resorted to persecution. The renewed excesses of the Circumcelliones, among whom were ranged fugitive slaves, debtors and political malcontents of all kinds, had given to the Donatist schism a revolutionary aspect; and its forcible suppression may therefore have seemed to Constans even more necessary for the preservation of the empire than for the vindication of orthodoxy. The power which they had been the first to invoke having thus declared so emphatically and persistently against them, the Donatists revived the old world-alien Christianity of the days of persecution, and repeated Tertullian’s question, “What has the emperor to do with the church?” (Quid est imperatori cum ecclesia?) Such an attitude aggravated the lawlessness of the Circumcellion adherents of the sect, and their outrages were in turn made the justification for the most rigorous measures against the whole Donatist party indiscriminately. Many of their bishops fell victims to the persecution, and Donatus (Magnus) and several others were banished from their sees.

With the accession of Julian (361) an entire change took place in the treatment of the Donatists. Their churches were restored and their bishops reinstated (Parmenianus succeeding the deceased Donatus at Carthage), with the natural result of greatly increasing both the numbers and the enthusiasm of the party. A return to the earlier policy of repression was made under Valentinian I. and Gratian, by whom the Donatist churches were again closed, and all their assemblies forbidden. It was not, however, until the commencement of the 5th century that the sect began to decline, owing largely to the rise among them of a group of moderate and scholarly men like the grammarian Tychonius, who vainly strove to overcome the more fanatical section. Against the house thus divided against itself both state and church directed not unsuccessful assaults. In 405 an edict was issued by the emperor Honorius commanding the Donatists, under the severest penalties, to return to the Catholic church. On the other hand, Augustine, bishop of Hippo, after several years’ negotiation, arranged a great conference between the Donatists and the orthodox, which was held under the authority of the emperor at Carthage in 411. There were present 286 Catholics and 279 Donatist bishops. Before entering on the proceedings the Catholics pledged themselves, if defeated, to give up their sees, while in the other event they promised to recognize the Donatists as bishops on their simply declaring their adherence to the Catholic church. The latter proposal, though it was received with scorn at the time, had perhaps ultimately as much influence as the logic of Augustine in breaking the strength of the schism. The discussion, which lasted for three days, Augustine and Aurelius of Carthage being the chief speakers on the one side, and Primian and Petilian on the other, turned exclusively upon the two questions that had given rise to the schism—first, the question of fact, whether Felix of Aptunga who consecrated Caecilian had been a traditor; and secondly, the question of doctrine, whether a church by tolerance of unworthy members within its pale lost the essential attributes of purity and catholicity. The Donatist position, like that of the Novatians, was that the mark of the true church is to guard the essential predicate of holiness by excluding all who have committed mortal sin; the Catholic standpoint was that such holiness is not destroyed by the presence of unworthy members in the church but rests upon the divine foundation of the church and upon the gift of the Holy Spirit and the communication of grace through the priesthood. In the words of Optatus of Milevi, sanctitas de sacramentis colligitur, non de superbia personarum pondera. And the much wider diffusion of the orthodox church was also taken as practical confirmation that it alone possessed what was regarded as the equally essential predicate of catholicity.

The decision of Marcellinus, the imperial commissioner, was in favour of the Catholic party on both questions, and it was at once confirmed on an appeal to the emperor. The severest penal measures were enforced against the schismatics; in 414 they were denied all civil rights, in 415 the holding of assemblies was forbidden on pain of death. But they lived on, suffering with their orthodox brethren in the Vandal invasions of the 5th century, and like them finally disappearing before the Saracen onslaught two centuries later.

Authorities.—1. Contemporary sources: Optatus Milevitanus De Schismate Donatistarum adversus Parmenianum, written c. 368 (Dupin’s ed., Paris, 1700), and several of the works of Augustine. 2. Modern: C. W. F. Walch, Entwurf einer vollständigen Historie der Ketzereien (Leipzig, 1768); Hauck-Herzog, Realencyk. für prot. Theol., art. “Donatismus” by N. Bonwetsch, who cites the literature very fully; W. Möller, History of the Christian Church (vol. i. pp. 331 ff., 445 ff.); D. Völter, Der Ursprung des Donatismus (Freiburg, 1883).

  1. There were three prominent men named Donatus connected with the movement—Donatus of Casae Nigrae; Donatus surnamed Magnus, who succeeded Majorinus as the Donatist bishop of Carthage; and Donatus of Bagoi, a leader of the circumcelliones, who was captured and executed c. 350. The name of the sect was derived from the second of these. The Donatists themselves repudiated the designation, which was applied to them by their opponents as a reproach. They called themselves “Pars Majorini” or “Pars Donati.”
  2. The Donatist movement affords a valuable illustration of the new importance which the changed position of the church under Constantine gave to the synodal system of ecclesiastical legislation.