HISTORY OF THE DONATISTS
By David Benedict
Optatus Against the Donatists--
The Origin of This Work
This work is described by Friar Baldwin. Although he was a firm Catholic of the legal profession, yet he was an unusually candid historian, and well acquainted with the history, both of his own people and of the Donatists. In his annotations on Optatus, which will be noticed hereafter, he gives brief descriptions of the early writings of both parties, according to which, Donatus himself wrote many works concerning his own sect, of which one Vitellius was a sharp defender, as was Parmenian, the successor of Donatus. In the meantime, says the Friar, the Catholics were almost dumb, as they certainly did not publish any works in their own defense; but at length Optatus, the Catholic bishop of Mileve, in Numidia, appeared against the Donatists in reply to the work of Parmenian against the Catholics. The production now to be examined was in Latin, in which language it still remains. By itself it is a small concern in the amount of matter; but with the notes and comments of various Catholic writers, it occupies about one-half of the folio volume which bears the name of the "Works of Optatus." But although small in size, yet as it is wholly devoted to matters of controversy between him and his opponent Parmenian, I have found more facts in it pertaining to the complaints of the ordinary transactions of the Donatists, and of their inroads on the Catholics, than in Augustine or any other opponent of this ancient community. But these complaints were similar to those which are always made concerning a new party which arises in an old and lukewarm church. This earliest writer against the Donatists was severe and mild by turns; but his concessions to his opponents were quite unusual, as will hereafter be seen. In the midst of his Catholic zeal he claimed a brotherhood with the Donatists, and never branded them with the odious name of heretics. Optatus, says Du Pin, begins his first book with words full of charity. He complained that the peace which Jesus Christ left to his church was disturbed by the schism and the actions of the Donatists, yet he gives them the name and the title of brethren. Though they renounce us, says he, though all the world knows that they hate us and detest us, though they would not have us call them brethren, yet we will follow the command of the prophet in saying, nevertheless ye are our brethren, although ye are not good and kind to us. We have one spiritual nativity, but are different in our ways; therefore let no one wonder that I call them brethren since they cannot be otherwise, whether they will or not. Now, said Optatus to Parmenian, so often as I have shown that we are the children of the same mother, which you cannot deny, yet you continue your scandals against us. Finally, with you and with us there is the same form of discipline, we read the same scriptures, we have the same faith, the same rule of faith, and the same sacraments. These complaints by Optatus, which are scattered in different places in this work, I shall notice under appropriate heads. Against the rebaptizing of the Donatists. As both the Catholics and the Donatists practiced immersion in baptism, there could be no dispute between them on the mode of baptism. Optatus was in union with the Donatists in maintaining the requirement of faith before baptism. The repetition of the rite was the principal matter of dispute between the parties, except that Optatus, with his party, held to the salutary influence of baptism. Baptism, said he, makes a man a Christian, and how can he be made a Christian the second time? Baptism in the name of the Trinity confers grace, which is destroyed by a second baptism. The apostle Paul hath said there is one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. If, said Optatus to Parmenian, you still contend for the liberty of giving another baptism, then give another faith; if another faith, then another Christ; if another Christ, then another God; but, said, he, you cannot deny the unity of God without falling into the pit of the heretic Marcion. We, said Optatus, instead of rebaptizing Donatists, after the example of the Master, receive them with all humility; far be it from us, that we should recall them for a second washing. There are three things in baptism, said Optatus to his opponent Parmenian, which you can neither increase, nor diminish, nor omit. The first is the Trinity, without which no baptism was valid. The second is the believer. The third is the baptizer. But, says this author, they are not of equal weight. The first two he pronounced necessary; for the faith of the baptizer, he said there was only a quasi or sort of necessity. "Yes," says the Catholic bishop Albaspin, in his notes on Optatus, "the person baptized ought to believe, he ought to have faith, which is not required of the administrator of baptism." Because the Donatists required faith not only of the person baptized, but also of the baptizer, Optatus accused them of esteeming themselves more holy than the Catholics. Du Pin, in his closing remarks on this passage, said: Optatus endeavored to prove that the faith of him who receives baptism is necessary for the validity of the sacrament. This, he said, must be understood of adult persons only. Du Pin, in this case, spoke as a pedobaptist would have it, and in favor of his own practice, since there is nothing in the original to warrant the assertion.
On the Lawfulness or Unlawfulness Of rebaptizing
You, said Optatus to Parmenian, say it is lawful, while we say it is unlawful; and between your lawful and our unlawful, the minds of the people are wafted to and fro; none will believe you, and none will believe us, but they all regard us as a contentious kind of men. Trine immersion is supposed to have been referred to by Optatus when he said to the Donatists, we defend the union of baptism administered in the name of the Trinity. Not without reason, says an editor of Optatus, some may suspect those trine immersions are here referred to which were required in the 50th Canon of the Apostolic Constitutions, which reads thus: "If any bishop or presbyter do not perform three immersions in one baptism, which is given into the death of Christ, let him be deposed."
The Censures of Optatus of the Donatists
"Thou sittest and speakest evil of thy brother, and thou slanderest thy mother's son. "Thou sawest the thief and didst run with him. "Thou hast thy portion with adulterers." In justice to Optatus in the above censures, I will explain his meaning in the following terms: In Patristic writing, the term mother means the Catholic church; and she being accounted the spouse of Christ, all who left her for other lovers were termed adulterers. Running with a thief instead of stopping him was intended as a reproach on the Donatists, for what Optatus called their stealing the Catholic members. "God says seek peace and pursue it; and in the gospel we read of peace on earth and good will to men; but with you there is no peace nor good will with us. "Behold, says the Psalmist, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity. But nothing of this, will you have with us, your brethren. "Peter was informed by Christ that he who had been well washed once, had no need of being washed again; but you, in your rebaptizing our members, give them another washing." This finding baptism in feetwashing was often referred to by Optatus. In this case he was wise above what was written by his own confession, namely, in adding bene, well, to make it read well washed. This, with him, was Catholic baptism. "God says, touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm, yet how many of the anointed priests of God with us, have been spoiled of their priestly honors, with you. "Christ knows his disciples by their loving each other; but you will not imitate the apostles, by whom even Peter, the betrayer of his Master, was beloved."
The Penitentiary System Among the Catholics
As much will soon be said by Optatus from a Catholic standpoint on the supposed degradation of the bishops and other officers of the dominant church who went to the Donatists, at this point I will give a brief account of the ancient penitentiary system. Penance is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic church, and penitents, instead of being candidates for church membership, are church members, and sometimes officers, in disgrace. Such, in the time of Optatus, was the punishment of bad bishops with the Catholics, and with men of this class he associated all who united with the Donatists, hence the sympathy he professed for his former brethren of the episcopal order, and of the other classes of converts by the Donatists, among whom Optatus seemed to suppose the penitentiary system was in vogue; whereas nothing of it appears in their history in all that is said of their church polity by Augustine and others. They turned out of their churches at once those whom the Catholics placed under penance. "The church," said Optatus, "is divided into four classes, namely, bishops, presbyters, deacons, and the faithful, or the laity; not one of these classes, said this complaining writer to the Donatist bishop Parmenian, have you been willing to spare. God mourns over those sacrilegious acts of yours. You have found young men whom you have put under penance lest they should be ordained." Those who were put under penance were disqualified from officiating in any office. "You have found faithful old men whom you have made penitents; acknowledge you have perverted their souls. You have found deacons, presbyters and bishops, whom you have made laymen; acknowledge you have perverted their souls. You have sharpened your tongues into swords for the death of our clergy, not of their bodies, but of their honors; you have slaughtered, not their members, but their names. The men still live in their members, but of what avail are they, but to bear about the funereal badges of their slaughtered dignity? Oh, the unheard of impiety, that the priests of God should be thus slaughtered among your penitents. You have committed a living homicide. God says, touch not my anointed, and do my prophets no harm." The large accessions to the Donatists from the Catholic clergy are clearly indicated by the above complaints. All who continued in office in their new connection were of course rebaptized and reordained.
Optatus Complains of the Donatists for the
Divisions they Caused Among the Catholics
"You can remember," said he, to his antagonist Parmenian, "how, not long since, by your proselyting measures, the members of the mother church were scattered. For you could not seduce a whole household at once. But either the wife went away, leaving her husband behind her, or else both parents were seduced, and the children were unwilling to follow them; or, it may be, the sister wandered away, and the brother remained at home." Such, said Optatus, are the divisions of the persons and the families of piety by your unlawful persuasions. The censorious bishop reproached his opponents who made such inroads among his people with entering dwellings with the familiar salutation, "Peace to this house, peace be with you;" while, said he, like those of old, you cry, "Peace, peace, where there is no peace;" and this is because you esteem yourselves to be the only holy people. If you think you suffer persecution, say, said he, what do whole provinces of Catholics suffer from you? The great success of the Donatists in gaining adherents to their cause from the Catholic ranks, may be inferred from the foregoing complaints of Optatus.
Free Remarks of Optatus on the Proselytizing
Measures of the Donatists
For the most part he addressed them in the serious manner of the foregoing details, but occasionally his language was quite humorous and sarcastic. When the Donatists reoccupied their churches which had been used by the Catholics, they of course found some renovating measures needful, which the oversensitive bishop turned to a bad account against his own people, in the following terms: You, said he, have scraped the stones of the pavements, have whitewashed the walls of the churches, and have washed the baptismal baths and garments. Go on, said he, with your cleansing process, and wash the water itself if you can; why leave anything unwashed. Optatus continued his flings against his opponents by comparing them to skillful fowlers in the hawking system, in which captured birds catch the free, and dead birds kill the living ones. Such, said he to Parmenian, is your practice in rebaptizing and in penitence.
Optatus's List of the Countries Where Christianity
was Spread in His Time, About 368
As the Catholics claimed special relation to all Christendom, the object in this case seems to have been to show their superiority over the Donatists. I will give the list as I find it in Optatus, without any chronological order. Africa, Spain, Italy, Gaul, three Pannonias, Dacia, Misia, Thrace, Achaia, Macedonia, all Greece, Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Pamphylia, Phrygia, Cilicia, three Syrias, two Armenias, all Egypt, Mesopotamia, and innumerable islands, so numerous that they can hardly be named. Britain is not named in this list, for which no reason is given, although Christianity was planted there at an early period; but it was some time after Optatus before Austin with his forty monks was sent there to convert the Saxons. In none of the above named countries, said Optatus to the Donatist, Parmenian, are your people found, except in a corner of Africa. O, ungrateful and foolish presumption, said he, that you should attempt to persuade men that you alone have the true Catholic faith. In opposition to the assertion of the Donatists being confined to a corner of Africa, Optatus at another time decidedly implicated them in what was not then customary with the Catholics, of sending out missionaries not only to Spain and Gaul, but over the seas, to remote regions of other tongues. By a change of language Optatus addressed his opponent in the following pacific terms: We, said he, pray for you willingly, while you may pray for us unwillingly; so you see, brother Parmenian, the holy bonds of brotherhood between you and us cannot be wholly broken asunder; let human suspicion cease; let the assurance of each party be silent; who may be the transgressor God alone can judge.
The Donatists Settled in Rome
According to Optatus, by the request of some of this people who were settled in Rome, a bishop was sent from their brethren in Africa, to form them into a church of their own order. Victor was the name of the bishop thus sent from Africa. None of the circumstances of this transaction, nor the number of the church, are given. Victor, of course, was the first pastor. His successors, according to Optatus, were Claudian Lucian, Macrobius, Encolapius, and Boniface. The date of the organization of the church is not given, but if the pastors were but for short periods in office, it must have been soon after the rise of the Donatists in Africa. This is the only instance I have found of so many names of pastors, in succession, in any of the churches of the Donatist. At this time, according to Optatus, about 368, the Catholics had forty churches in Rome, but Friar Baldwin thinks they had a greater number. To belittle the Donatists in comparison with his own people, Optatus thus described their early efforts: "Victor, at Rome," said he, "was a son without a father, a tyro without a principal, a disciple without a master, a follower without a leader, an inhabitant without a house, a guest without a lodging place, a pastor without a flock, a bishop without a people." To these historical sketches from Optatus, I will add brief extracts from the comments of two able Catholic writers on his work. Some remarks on the Macarian war, by Optatus, will be given in the next chapter.
Observations of Optatus by Bishop Albaspin
This is a laborious work of a learned and unusually candid Catholic bishop, whose main object was to describe the errors and faults of the Donatists from his own standpoints. He begins with baptism. The fault on this subject was, that they washed again those who had been baptized; but, says the bishop concerning this matter, there are many things to be observed. "In the first place," said he, "the Donatists, according to their institution and doctrine, did not rebaptize the Catholics, for they tenaciously held with them to only one baptism, and that Christians were to be only once baptized. "In the second place, the repetition of baptism was not the special and peculiar fault of this sect, neither did it originate with the Donatists, but it came from the divine Cyprian, who taught through all Africa, that heretics coming into the church must be rebaptized; and whatever he taught was held as a rule of faith." The account of Cyprian's council in support of his rebaptizing policy may be found in Chapter VIII. The fault of rebaptizing, says the bishop, was followed by that of reordaining. Of the abundance of errors and faults ascribed to the Donatists by bishop Albaspin, I will only refer to the following: They held that all Catholic churches of the east and west were infected and polluted by their connection with Caecilian and his successors. They held that the visible church of Jesus Christ does not, and ought not to, consist of any but the innocent and harmless, who are free from spots and falls. The Donatists made laymen of Catholic deacons, presbyters and bishops; and all who joined them of all clerical orders were immersed again in water.
Annotations on Optatus by Friar Baldwin
This is a work of about twenty folio pages; it is highly commended by bishop Albaspin, whose observations on Optatus have just been reviewed. Both of these authors concur in the opinion that Optatus had been much corrupted in former works, and Baldwin claimed to have taken much pains to ascertain the original text. In surveying this mass of historical facts, which abounds in the lore of ecclesiastical antiquities, which makes one wonder at the labor and researches of the author of the legal profession, I find but few statements except of a general character. This work will hereafter be more generally noticed, when extracts from it will be made. At present I will observe, in passing, that although Friar Baldwin was a decided Catholic, yet he criticized the positions of men of his own party with great freedom.
1. Unus Deus, unus Christus, una fides, una tinctio.
2. Duas enim video necessarias et unam quasi necessariam. Op. Opta., Liber Quintus, p. 102.
3. Tu rebaptizando iterum lavas. Op. Opta., Liber Quartus, p. 89.
4. Se Op. Opta., Lib. Tertius, p. 79
5. Omnes sive episcopi, sive presbyteri, denuo aquis immergebantur. Albaspin in Optatus, p. 172.