HISTORY OF THE DONATISTS
By David Benedict
The Second and Third Days of the Conference
The same company of state officers entered the hall with the president, and soon after came in the parties to manage the debates, all of whom Marcellinus invited to take their seats as he took his own. This was done by the Catholics. But, said Petilian, we do not sit in the absence of our fathers, meaning those who were excluded from the conference, since, said he, it is prohibited by the divine law. Neither, again said he, can we be willing to sit with such adversaries. Neander supposes the divine law referred to in this case was the saying of the Psalmist, in Psalm xxvi. 4,9: "I have not sat with vain persons. Gather not my soul with sinners, nor my life with bloody men." Since, said Marcellinus to the outspoken Petilian, your holiness has slighted my request for you to be seated, respect for so many bishops forbids me to be seated myself, and I will officiate standing; thereupon he caused his chair to be removed. The Catholic bishops at the same time arose from their seats, and thus for some time the bishops of both parties appeared in a standing posture. You do me much honor, said Petilian to the president. Nothing is said of the course of the large company of official statesmen; they probably remained in their seats, and viewed with amazement such a singular transaction by bishops in the opening scenes of a professedly religious conference. Petilian continued his remarks in the following terms: This whole business, said he to the president, is of your seeking, not of ours. We claim to be bishops of the truth of Christ our Lord, as it has often been announced in our public acts. We justly venerate the memory of our predecessor Donatus, a man of a martyr's fame, and an ornament of the church over which he presided in this city. In reply to the assertion of Petilian that the Donatists claimed to be bishops of the truth of Christ their Lord, a Catholic said that this was a thing for them to prove, rather than to boast of it. In the free exchange of impeachments by the parties, when the Catholics accused the Donatists of causing delays in the business of the conference, they renewed an old complaint against them; of delaying to give up many of their churches, which they had been ordered to by an edict a long time ago. Most of this short session was occupied in hearing the reports of the notaries respecting the records of the first day. On this subject the main question was, how much time would be needful to put said records in order; and in the end the conference was again adjourned for six days.
The Third Day of the Conference
The same company of state officers as usual entered the hall with the president, who were followed by the debating companies of both sides. The records of this day would make a pamphlet of no inconsiderable size. Some portions of the arguments I shall refer to, while for the most part page after page is occupied with debates which would be of no sort of interest to readers at the present time. In the first place, the emperor's edict for the conference was now again read by the request of the Catholics the third time, at the close of which the Donatists made comments in the following style: so it seems, said Petilian, according to the tenor of the edict, the name of the Donatists is to be erased and blotted out. This was a literal version of the document. Since, said Emeritus, the imperial rescript for this conference has been read, let the prayer of the petition for it also be read. To this very reasonable request the president replied: Your holiness, I think, must know that in pragmatic rescripts it is not customary to insert the prayers of the petitioners. In many of the following pages the main question of discussion between the parties was,
Who Petitioned for the Conference?
The measure had evidently become so unpopular that the Catholics labored hard to associate the Donatists with them in it, while they on their part most resolutely denied the charge of their adversaries, and in repelling it they charged them with downright lying to the emperor respecting them; and thus obtained the edict which they sought. The Donatists, in their familiar addresses to their opponents, said: "Now tell us when you sent your petition, by whom you sent it, and what you petitioned for." "That in it you lied to the most clement emperor about us," said Petilian, "Is sufficiently plain, since you now hesitate and refuse to make a full disclosure of the nature of your petition for this conference, and the names of the men by whom you sent it. But," continued Petilian, "all people may have known, and all Africa may now know, that all your communications to the emperor respecting us were against us." Petilian still further, in censorious terms, said to his opponents that all people might understand that being unwilling openly to expose their falsehood to the emperor respecting the Donatists about the conference, they devised delays, lest at length the truth might appear in spite of their juggling tricks and misty arguments. The burden of the complaint of the Donatists relative to the petition under consideration consisted in their full conviction that in it they were represented to the emperor as being desirous for the conference, which they most strenuously opposed from the first of the projected measure. All the accusations of falsehood on the part of the Catholics by the Donatists, in this complicated business, were made before all the members of the conference. But in no case did the accused party stand up in their own defense, nor were the Donatists called to order as false accusers. As the president, of course, favored the Catholics, they, in the end, proved their absurdity and injustice by pretending the Donatists joined them in petitioning for the conference, and refused them anything about their own petition.
Debates on the Character of Caecilian
On this discussion the parties were led back about one hundred years, to the beginning of their controversy. Augustine, after stating his complaints of the Donatists for their censures of Caecilian and his party, made them the following proposal: If they would recede from their censures, he promised that the character of Caecilian should be examined and judged by divine testimonies, or, in other words, by scripture rules. If they would not recede, then the examination would be made with secular evidence, or the records of an old proconsular tribunal. To this proposal Augustine demanded a categorical answer. I cannot reply to your prolix oration, said Emeritus. Of course the secular mode was begun, although the proconsular records were wanting, and when a paper was presented, "Did the clerk draw it from the public desk or his own?" was the question. We shall soon see that Augustine was paid in his own coin, in his demand of a categorical answer.
Sharp Debates About Caecilian and the Ordainer of Augustine
Who is the manager of this cause, said the Donatist bishop Petilian; is it a son of Caecilian, or not? Call no man father on the earth, so we have heard, so we have read, and so we have preached to the people, said Augustine. Who are you, again said Petilian; are you a son of Caecilian, or not; and does the criminality of Caecilian adhere to you, or not? I am in the church of which Caecilian was the bishop till his death, said Augustine. At this point I would inform the reader that in Patristic language the terms father and mother are to be understood in an ecclesiastical sense. Whence was your origin and who was your father, for if you have denied your father you make yourself a heretic? said Petilian. We are in the church of which Caecilian was the bishop till the day of his death, again said Augustine. We recite his name at the altar. We commemorate his memory as the memory of a brother, not as of a father, or of a mother. Is Caecilian, in church relation, your father or mother? said Petilian. I say Caecilian was a brother; a good brother, if he was good; a bad brother, if he was bad; but if you wish for my opinion of him, I believe he was innocent, and that he was assailed with false criminations, which cannot injure the church, if, perhaps, they were true, which by no means, said Augustine, are you able to demonstrate. These are ambiguous words, said Petilian, and such as you have used through the whole day. Will you at some time at length expressly declare whether Caecilian is the father of your church, from whom its progenies have proceeded? For nothing can be born without a generator, nor begin without a head, nor grow without its own root. And, addressing himself to Marcellinus, your nobility, said Petilian, perceives that my opponent is more of a heretic than myself, since he has no father, and by his own decision he has disowned the father he once had. I have a head, said Augustine, which is Christ. Let it be more carefully demonstrated, said the president, whether Caecilian is your father or mother? I have a head, again said Augustine. Who ordained you as a bishop? said Petilian. Though you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have you not many fathers, said Montanus, a Donatist. From the above request of Petilian for his antagonist to give the name of the bishop who ordained him to the episcopal office a long and singular discussion arose, in which numbers were engaged; the Catholics against, and the Donatists for, the disclosure of the name in question; while Augustine himself, after various evasive arguments, said the demand was superfluous, and was designed to expose him to reproaches with which his ears and his heart were well acquainted. From this we may suppose the unnamed bishop was then in bad repute, which he seemed to fear would be attached to him. Omitting further details of this controversy, I will say that he who so lately demanded a categorical answer from his opponents, by their importunity and the advice of the president was induced to give such an answer himself. Megalius, the primate of the Catholic churches of Numidia, he said, ordained him, who was then qualified for that office. Behold, said he to Petilian, I have answered your question. Now follow me with your prepared reproaches. Behold, I have named my ordainer. Now bring forth your calumnies. What a change in the language of the dogmatical bishop!
1. Mentitum te igitur Clementissimo Imperatori, sat constat, etc. Optatus on the Conference, p. 72.
2. Ecce respondi. Prosequere, profer quae praeparas, etc.
3. Ecce dixi ordinatorem meum, profer jam calumnias tuas. Optatus, p. 85.