The Donatist Controversy -- was Augustine "wrong"?

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Marrow Man

Drunk with Powder
I like to listen to James White's Dividing Line webcast whenever I can. A few weeks ago he was making comments concerning a Roman Catholic's view of "the church." In the course of the discussion, Dr. White mentioned something along the lines of "as right as Augustine was in the Pelagian controversy, he was just as wrong in the Donatist controversy" (please understand that is not an exact quote, that is just the gist of what he said; I can go back and link the broadcast and the time marker if that would be helpful). Then he mentioned a statement by B.B. Warfield that seemed to back up the claim.

This was a little surprising to me. Now, I understand that because of Augustine, the Roman Catholic church after him went too far, resulting in the Medieval view of the church and an almost magical view of the sacraments. However, I would not consider Augustine's basic points in the controversy -- that the validity of a sacrament does not depend on the virtue of the minister who administers it and that the church is always a mixture of true and false believers -- to not only be correct but also consistent with later Reformed ecclesiology. So exactly how is Augustine "wrong" here?

Dr. White did not go indepth into the comment (it was almost a comment made in passing), and I certainly do not wish to impugn him in any way, but one could easily take from the comment that the Donatists might have been on to something! I understand that one's presuppositions about ecclesiology might factor into this (i.e., White's understanding of congregational church gov't might be a partial motivator, but that would not explain Warfield obviously), but I am still scratching my head on the issue. :scratch:

Any help on this issue would be appreciated. Please understand that I do not desire this thread to become a debate about different forms of church gov't. I realize that this might need to be a part of the discussion, but the reason I placed this in the Church History forum is because that is where I would like the bulk of the discussion to take place.
 

Kevin

Puritan Board Doctor
Pastor Tim I didn't hear that comment so I don't know what James White was refering to, but I have noticed over the years a number of baptist have some degree of sympathy for the Donatists.

I have heard this most often from the "we aren't protestant" wing of baptists, but from time to time something similar to Whites comment comes from someone that is not part of the nut-job wing of evangelicalism. Hmm?

Did you try sending him an email & asking for clarification? I would love to hear what he meant.
 

Marrow Man

Drunk with Powder
Thanks for the suggestion, Kevin. No I did not. I really need to go back and listen and write down exactly what he said. I have not had much success with sending him email in the past (I honestly think his sight gets overwhelmed with email). I did consider today, however, of possibly calling into the show sometime. I do want to give him the benefit of the doubt; it just caught me kind of offguard when he said it. Plus, if anyone is knowledgeable, I would love to know the source of the Warfield comment.

I think I will at least go back and listen, post the quote, and then send an email to Aomin.org.
 

py3ak

Unshaven and anonymous
Staff member
He was probably thinking of this.
. . . Augustine was both the founder of Roman Catholicism and the author of that doctrine of grace which it has been the constantly pursued effort of Roman Catholicism to neutralize, and which in very fact either must be neutralized by, or will neutralize, Roman Catholicism. Two children were struggling in the womb of his mind. There can be no doubt which was the child of his heart. His doctrine of the Church he had received whole from his predecessors, and he gave it merely the precision and vitality which insured its persistence. His doctrine of grace was all his own:it represented the very core of his being . . . it was inevitable, had time been allowed, that his inherited doctrine of the Church, too, with all its implications, would have gone down before it, and Augustine would have bequeathed to the Church, not "problems," but a thoroughly worked out system of evangelical religion. . . . The problem which Augustine bequeathed to the Church for solution, the Church required a thousand years to solve. But even so, it is Augustine who gave us the Reformation. For the Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine's doctrine of grace over Augustine's doctrine of the Church. (Warfield, Calvin and Augustine, 321-22)
 

Kevin

Puritan Board Doctor
Ruben, can you offer an opinion as to why he might take that to be a vindication of the Donatist view?
 

Marrow Man

Drunk with Powder
Ruben, that is exactly the reference he was making, because I remember him quoting the last line: "the ... triumph of Augustine's doctrine of grace over Augustine's doctrine of the Church."

Kevin, Dr. White never once mentioned the Donatists or defended their views. It was solely the one who brought them into the discussion. In my feeble thinking, since Augustine's doctrine of the church arose out of that controversy, the Donatists and their view of the church would seem to work its way into the conversation. At this point, I'm more interested in reading Warfield's take on it, but since I have that work I'll confine myself to that.
 

PuritanCovenanter

The Joyful Curmudgeon
Staff member
Here are some interesting quotes Pastor David King referrenced for me.

Were the Donatist wayward in doctrinal issues? If I remember correctly they believed in a Confessing fellowship and repudiated those who abandoned the faith supposedly and came back. It has been a long time since I thought about them.

Randy, they were wayward in practices that had doctrinal implications. The way Augustine describes them, one would think that they resemble some of the tenets of modern day Romanism. Examples that come to mind are such descriptions Augustine offered...

Augustine (354-430): Here the very painful thought occurs to me that I should remind you that Parmenian, who was once a bishop of the Donatists, had the audacity to state in one of his letters that the bishop is the mediator between the people and God. You can see that they are putting themselves forward in the place of the bridegroom; they are corrupting the souls of those others with a sacrilegious adultery. This is no mean case of presumption, one that would strike me as totally incredible had I not read it. You see, if the bishop is the mediator between the people and God, it follows that we must take it there are many mediators, since there are many bishops. So then, in order to read the letter of Parmenian, let us censor the letter of the apostle Paul where he says, For there is one God, and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tm 2:5). But between whom is he the mediator, if not between God and his people? So between God and his body, because the Church is his body. Truly monstrous, therefore, is that pride which has the audacity to set up the bishop as mediator, guilty of the adulterous fallacy of claiming for itself the marriage of Christ. John E. Rotelle, O.S.A., ed., The Works of Saint Augustine, Newly Discovered Sermons, Part 3, Vol. 11, trans. Edmund Hill, O.P., Sermon 198.52 (Hyde Park: New City Press, 1997), p. 220.

And then as Augustine went on to say a little later in the same sermon: “And that is what these people are neither afraid nor ashamed to say, that the bishop is a mediator between God and men. Sure, that man is a mediator, but in the party of Donatus, to block the way, not to lead the way, as Donatus himself did; he introduced his own name, you see, to close off the road to Christ.” John E. Rotelle, O.S.A., ed., The Works of Saint Augustine, Newly Discovered Sermons, Part 3, Vol. 11, trans. Edmund Hill, O.P., Sermon 198.55 (Hyde Park: New City Press, 1997), p. 222.

Augustine (354-430): Let not, however, things like these disturb thee, my beloved son. For it is foretold to us that there must needs be heresies and stumbling-blocks, that we may be instructed among our enemies; and that so both our faith and our love may be the more approved,--our faith, namely, that we should not be deceived by them; and our love, that we should take the utmost pains we can to correct the erring ones themselves; not only watching that they should do no injury to the weak, and that they should be delivered from their wicked error, but also praying for them, that God would open their understanding, and that they might comprehend the Scriptures. For in the sacred books, where the Lord Christ is made manifest, there is also His Church declared; but they, with wondrous blindness, while they would know nothing of Christ Himself save what is revealed in the Scriptures, yet form their notion of His Church from the vanity of human falsehood, instead of learning what it is on the authority of the sacred books. NPNF1: Vol. IV, The Correction of the Donatist, Chapter 1, §2.
 

davidsuggs

Puritan Board Freshman
I may be diverting the conversation briefly but it seemed a good opportunity to ask for a summary of what the donatist position was (I have often heard the term and probably have heard its description at some point but I cannot remember anything about it). Just a brief overview would be great. Thanks!
 

MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
For the Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine's doctrine of grace over Augustine's doctrine of the Church. (Warfield, Calvin and Augustine, 321-22)

This dichotomy may work when "inwardly considered" refers to the general spirit of his teaching but I don't think it will stand up under a scrutiny of particulars. Augustine's teaching on infused righteousness is a problem which the Reformation addressed while his teaching against schism is a conviction which the Reformation maintained.
 

Semper Fidelis

2 Timothy 2:24-25
Staff member
For the Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine's doctrine of grace over Augustine's doctrine of the Church. (Warfield, Calvin and Augustine, 321-22)

This dichotomy may work when "inwardly considered" refers to the general spirit of his teaching but I don't think it will stand up under a scrutiny of particulars. Augustine's teaching on infused righteousness is a problem which the Reformation addressed while his teaching against schism is a conviction which the Reformation maintained.

Excellent summary. I hope I one day achieve the clarity in brevity that you possess.

One can see a parallel between Baptists and Donatists insofar that the former sees the validity of baptism in the disposition of the individual at the time of baptism while the latter saw the validity of baptism in the disposition of the individual performing the baptism. Though Augustine went too far it could be noted that we agree that the validity depends on the holiness of God and the office of the person performing and not the disposition of either.
 

Marrow Man

Drunk with Powder
I may be diverting the conversation briefly but it seemed a good opportunity to ask for a summary of what the donatist position was (I have often heard the term and probably have heard its description at some point but I cannot remember anything about it). Just a brief overview would be great. Thanks!

Sure thing. This summary from About.com seems to be both helpful and painlessly short:

In A.D. 311, some Christians were upset when an apostatic archdeacon was ordained Bishop of Carthage, so they set up their own Bishop of Carthage: Majorinus in A.D. 311 and Donatus in A.D. 315. It was after this Bishop Donatus that the Donatist schism was named.
Donatists would not accept baptisms performed by people who were not members of their sect. Those who joined the Donatists had to perform penances and be re-baptized. The Council of Arles in A.D. 314 condemned the Donatists, but they flourished, anyway. The two communities in Africa -- Donatists and Orthodox Catholics -- were at each other's throats. In A.D. 393 St. Augustine codified Catholic teaching about baptism based on the controversy between Donatists and Orthodox Catholics. Since his teaching and diplomatic efforts did not stop the bickering and fighting, the powers of government were invoked. In A.D. 411, an imperial commission condemned Donatism and made its practice illegal.

What that summary does not tell you is the reason that folks were upset is that prior to 311, various clergy in the Christian church, during times of intense persecution (such as under Diocletian) would sometimes renounce the faith, turn over copies of the Scriptures, etc., in order to save their skin. When the persecutions ended (i.e., after the rise of Constantine), many of these traditores (Latin for traitors) wanted to be reinstated in the church. Controversy ensued, naturally, and in particular a sticking point was that the Donatists held that sacraments performed by one of these reinstated clergy was invalid. So, if you were baptized by a traditore, your baptism was considered to be invalid and you had to be re-baptized.

If you would like to know more, I would recommend reading this article.
 
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