HISTORY OF THE DONATISTS
By David Benedict
Various Matters Concerning the Above Named Convocation, its Origin
and Chief Manager, With Comments by Different Parties
As Marcellinus was appointed by Honorius, the emperor, not only to collect the men of the conference and preside in it, but to act as judge, in its close we should naturally expect that before he performed this important service he would have recounted the arguments or the parties in their long debates, on both sides. But nothing of the kind was done in this case, and all the complaints of the Donatists of their many and cruel persecutions by their adversaries were passed over in silence, as were also their various and able arguments in defense of their scriptural doctrine of church purity. No reference was made to any of the debates of the conference, but the whole argument for his decision by which the Donatists were condemned was grounded on a very obscure account of the decision of a proconsular tribunal about one hundred years before, when Donatus was condemned and Caecilian was absolved.
The Form of His Judgment
The language of this document was rather that of advice and admonition than of judicial authority. It was addressed not so much to the Donatists themselves as to those who were supposed to be their abettors in their reputed heresy by favoring their measures, or, at least, in permitting them to occupy their premises. The original language of the judge may be given in English in the following terms: All men of rank, likewise the managers of farming estates, the agents and tenants of houses of divine worship, as also of private possessions, and the chief men of all the country, by the authority of the edict of the emperor, I admonish, that so far as they are mindful of the merit and value of the imperial laws, and of their own welfare and reputation, that they strive together to prohibit the conventicles of the Donatists in the cities and all other places. The term "conventicle," in the time of the Donatists, as in later times, according to Webster, was contemptuously applied to the meetings of dissenters from the established church, for religious worship. With all dissenters from established churches, they are quite common in their more early operations. But this people had church edifices all over the land, which had often been taken from them and converted to Catholic use. This was formerly done by violence, which the contriver of this legal process evidently sought to avoid. The president, after his decision against the Donatists, for maturing his main business with them, addressed them in the following manner: "As the case now stands, the churches which, by my clemency and the command of the emperor, you have been permitted to occupy to the day of this sentence, it behooves you now to hasten without any delay to surrender to the Catholics, unless you choose rather to perish in the snares of so many imperial decrees, which you may certainly shun by consenting to the Catholic union."
The Close of the Judgment
The conference being finished, said Marcellinus, it becomes the bishops of the Donatists, each one, to return to their homes without disgust or dissatisfaction, since it is determined by the legal power that they must either return to the one true church, or give satisfaction to the laws.
Threatening of the Judge
Those, said he, who mingle in their prohibited assemblies again, or return to their profane conventicles, must understand that they cannot escape the judgment of the imperial will. Finally, the judge cautioned the people whom he addressed, against placing any dependence for protection on the Circumcellians. On this subject he evidently spoke under the direction of a clerical adviser. Such was the display of authority towards the Donatists, as rebels against the established church, of the man who soon after was beheaded by the command of the emperor, under the charge of treason against the state.
Remarks on the Doings of Marcellinus as the President of the Conference
We have seen that he did not define the punishment of those he condemned; this was not his province, but to make them liable to the punishments enjoined in the existing laws; and a principal complaint of the Donatists against him consisted in his urging upon the authorities the more rigorous execution of these laws. His first and most important object was to gain possession of the Donatist churches for the Catholics, or, in other words, for his own party; and in the next place, to hold up before the bishops who refused to give up their churches, their liability to punishments of the following kinds: for each bishop a fine of ten pounds weight of gold, twelve ounces to the pound, or exile to the neighboring islands in the Mediterranean. Marcellinus must have been a new hand at presiding, according to more modern custom, since it is said he spoke almost six hundred times during the three days of the conference, that is, on an average about two hundred times per diem. He often spoke but a few words, which might pass for explanations, but quite a number of his speeches were of considerable length. He was compelled, say his advocates, thus often to speak to counteract the deceptive arguments of the Donatists in defending their errors, and to recall them to the subjects of the debate. The partisan character of these speeches all will well understand. In the main, this exparte president treated with due civility the people who were evidently prejudged, and who were as sure of being condemned at the beginning of the conference as at its close.
Gloomy and Perilous Condition of Almost Three Hundred Bishops,
and With Them, Doubtless, Many of Their Brethren of the Lay Order
They had been drawn from their homes against their wills, from the whole region of North Africa, where are now the Barbary States. Here they were in the night season suddenly dismissed, in the midst of their efforts to defend their cause. The judgment was rendered June 26, 411. The tiresome journeys which these much injured men had so lately performed were now to be retraced, generally on foot, the then common mode of travel; and that these men travelled in this way may be inferred from the fact that in many cases they were hindered on the way by sore feet. But amidst all their painful labors in traveling, there was this to console them: although the distances to and from Carthage varied from a small number to a thousand or more miles, they could often find stopping places among their own people, so thickly were they settled all over the country. Why did they go to the conference at all? may be asked. They had no choice, since by the edict they must go, or forfeit their churches to the Catholics.
Comments on the Emperor's Edict
This edict, like others of the kind, was doubtless formed under clerical dictation, since we may say of it as Neander said in another case, it was too theological for an emperor. After expatiating quite freely on the reputed faults of the men of depraved minds, and saying that formerly he had commanded that their superstition should be abolished now, by the same authority, he decreed that the surreptitious system should be destroyed. As the emperor, but about a year before, had, by an edict, secured entire freedom to the Donatists for their religion, now, he said, for a worthy cause, the said edict, by the same authority, was annulled. The circumstances under which the edict for the conference was granted, the emperor himself has thus described; it confirms what was lately said by the Donatists: A legation of venerable bishops, who, he says, he freely admitted, earnestly desired that the Donatist bishops should be collected with those of the Catholics for the manifest intention of refuting their superstition by disputations. Then a long list of directions is given for collecting the bishops and for the management of the conference. Friar Baldwin was one of the few Catholics who could see both sides of a controversy, and occasionally he noticed mistakes of his own party; he was against dragging religious disputes before secular tribunals; and he said it was more becoming Christian bishops to take the prophets and apostles for their guides. The Friar had little faith in the benefit to the Catholics in the Carthaginian conference which was so often on the lips of Augustine; and he criticized with his usual freedom the argument of his favorite bishop for compelling the Donatists to attend that conference, and then refusing to attend a similar meeting of a general character of the Pelagian, not long after. The argument to which the Friar objected was stated by Augustine himself, namely: "To crush the immodesty and to curb the audacity of the men whose madness had so overrun all Africa that the Catholic truth could not be preached in many places." The Friar compared the dispute of Augustine with the Donatists, with the more subtle and important one of Basil with the heretic Photinus. In this case, said the Friar, Photinus denied the head of the church, that is, Christ himself; whereas the Donatists only denied the church. Again, said the Friar, the dispute in question with Augustine was mixed with the ordination of Caecilian by Felix. Again, said the same author, I believe that the emperor Honorius was willing his friend Marcellinus should be protected with an armed force in the conference. The reason for such an unusual measure for a professedly religious meeting, composed altogether of Christian bishops, was devised from the slanderous reports of the bad character of the Donatists. The Friar, in the course of his comments on the positions of the Donatists, observed that they claimed to be Catholics themselves, and that they were bishops of a Catholic church, and defenders of the truth. Here, said the Friar, came up a question of fact rather than of law, which was the more difficult to solve, because the Donatists appeared to retain the Catholic Doctrine of faith, neither had they been accused of apostasy of any kind.
The Friar Sides with the Donatists Against Augustine in History
The Donatists, said he, were right in saying that Elijah and Elisha never communicated with the altars of Samaria; and I wonder, said he, at the answer of Augustine to the contrary of their assertion. Again, said the Friar, Augustine was wrong and the Donatists were right in what they said of the prophets Hosea and Amos, respecting their not communing with the Israelites. The Friar made special mention of their defense of church purity against the lax system of the Catholics. While on this subject he repeated the famous passage in Isaiah, so often refereed to by the Donatists: "Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from the midst of them; be ye clean who bear the vessels of the Lord." Interspersed in what was said by the Friar on the controversies between the Catholics and the Donatists we often find a repetition of the following pertinent questions of the reformers: What has the emperor to do with the church? What have bishops to do at the palace? What has Christianity to do with the kings of this world? I confess, said the Friar, that Augustine was more nervous and explicit in his writings against Petilian than in his speaking in the conference; because, said he, in writing, no one interrupted him, as they did when speaking. Rather a lame apology for such a controversialist as was the bishop of Hippo. Augustine's Abridgment of the Conference at Carthage The author of this professedly friendly and religious, but in part political and sectarian measure, published two articles of considerable length respecting it; the first was an abridgment of the original records; the second an address to the Donatists after the conference. Both articles are found in Augustine's works. The abridgment was designed for those readers who would not be inclined to examine the multitudinous details of the original records. It is also a paraphrase of those records, of a decidedly sectarian character, in which facts are often distorted to favor his own side.
The Address After the Conference
Why, O ye Donatists, said this unwearied adversary, are you still seduced by your bishops, whose dark fallacies have been dispelled by the clearness of the light, whose error has been made apparent, and whose obstinacy has been overcome? Why do you give credit to your conquered bishops, when they say the judge was corrupted with a bribe? In continuing his address to his opponents, Augustine crossed his path by representing them as shut up in a prison by the judgment against them; but soon after he addressed them in the following terms: Behold, the conference has been held and the disputations of the parties have been had. Behold, your falsehood has been proved. Why now do you shun the Catholic union? Why is our charity still despised? Why are we still in different parties and under different names? One God hath created us. One Christ hath redeemed us, and one Holy Spirit ought to unite us. In reply to the comments of the Donatists of being judged in the night, cannot, said he, the truth be spoken in the night? Paul once preached till midnight. The Psalmist hath said the Lord hath commanded his loving kindness by day and declared it by night. Now, said he, let the name of the Lord be honored; and now let your brethren see how good and how pleasant it will be to rejoice with you in Christian union. Now at length let the devil be conquered in your hearts.
1. Recte Donatistae aiunt Eliam et Elisaeum, etc. Recte rursus ** Osea et Amos, etc. Col. Cartha. Opta., p. 131.