Are we all Donatists now?

My favorite class in my church history curriculum is the one dealing with Donatists. For those of you who have never attended (shame, shame), the Donatists arose as a result of Diocletian’s severe persecution of the church. After it was all over, the church had to figure out what to do with those who had fallen away when the going got tough.

This included members of the clergy. In North Africa, where the Donatist controversy flared up, persecution had actually been relatively light; Christians were mainly “asked” to hand over the scriptures to be burned. Many did so, and in doing so earned themselves the moniker of “traditores” (literally “those who handed over,” and the origin of our word “traitor”). Many of them returned to their priestly duties once the danger was past.

Donatus found this unconscionable, and many people agreed with him, leading to one of the earliest schisms. I like to pose the same issues to my students, and force them to hash out how they would handle the problems the early church faced. It makes for a great class; the class before is all about early Christians dying in lots of horrible ways, so the surrounding context is still fresh in their minds, there are no easy answers to the problems posed, so they have to think hard, and it ties in easily to problems that we still face in church today. Plus, it comes near the beginning of the course, hopefully hooking them in to stay around for the rest.

Anyway, I recently spent some time teaching the youth in our church, and all of them came down on the side of the Donatists. Everybody agreed; if our pastor had turned traitor, they would all leave and find a different church. We even had a group of Novatianists. When I taught the adults, they also tended to side with the Donatists.

But then again, we’re all Protestants. Would Catholics respond differently?

2 thoughts on “Are we all Donatists now?”

  1. Well, you know how Catholics DID respond–the Donatian heresy was condemned and defeated.

    I think Catholics are more likely to have been taught that the works of the Church, especially the sacraments, work “ex opere operato”–meaning by the works themselves, not by the faith of the one who performs them.

    That being said, if I could be a bit trolly, what your post has put to mind is that Protestantism really is a bit of Donatism. Whenever a Protestant discusses the Reformation, he or she always, always, always, always, cites the crimes and the corruption of the Church in the years leading up to the nailing of the Theses, even when they claim to base their belief in the Reformation in something else, and when they understand that the Roman Catholic Church did and does condemn those abuses. The idea that the Church becomes illegitimate if it is sinful is Donatism.

  2. I agree that there is a very Donatist core to Protestantism (which is probably why all my students sympathize with them). I don’t think most Protestants view Catholicism primarily through its crimes, though.

    It’s more a matter of doctrine. The church becomes illegitimate if it teaches bad doctrine. The church is legitimate if its doctrine is good. Having a relatively non-corrupt pastor is important primarily because we wouldn’t trust the other kind to teach us well. And (this part is important), there are lots of churches that are legitimate; we can still get good doctrine elsewhere, which is why most of my students wouldn’t feel much need to hang around under a Bible-burning pastor.

    The debate over sacramental validity looks mostly like an anachronism to most Evangelical Protestants. We don’t have that high a view of sacraments, which actually means that we wouldn’t have much difficulty at all with the idea that a pastor’s sinfulness doesn’t invalidate any Communions he presides over or baptisms he performs. But that still doesn’t mean we think it’s a good idea to remain under his authority, especially with better options available.

    I would sum this up as: “A church gains legitimacy through preaching the gospel. Sacraments are legitimate/effectual based on what’s in the hearts of the recipients.”

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