Category Archives: Donatism

Aug 28 – St Augustine & the heretics


-St Augustine icon, by Joseph Brown, Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY, ~2009

Rev Dwight Longenecker, Fr. Dwight Longenecker is an American who has spent most of his life living and working in England.
Fr Longenecker was brought up in an Evangelical Protestant home in Pennsylvania. After graduating from the Fundamentalist Protestant Bob Jones University with a degree in Speech and English, he went to study theology at Oxford University. He was eventually ordained as an Anglican priest and served as a curate, a school chaplain in Cambridge and a country parson on the Isle of Wight. Realizing that he and the Anglican Church were on divergent paths, in 1995 Fr. Dwight and his family were received into the Catholic Church. In December 2006 he was ordained as a Catholic priest under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy. He now serves as parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, SC.

“A heresy is never totally wrong. Its just that it is never totally right. A heresy is a half truth or a truth twisted. The reason a heresy is attractive is that it always seems to make perfect sense. A heresy is a religious truth you would make up if you were making up a religion. However, Catholic truth is stranger and subtler than that, and it takes sound teaching to expose and battle the heresy.

Heresies are persistent because they are attractive, and they are persistent because they usually console the heretic in some way. In other words, it is easier to believe the heresy than the fullness of the Catholic truth. The fullness of the Catholic truth is either difficult to believe or difficult to obey or both. The heresy always offers an easy way out–either an easier way of believing or an easier way of behaving.

The first heresy Augustine battled was Donatism. The Donatists were a schism in the North African Church that were sort of like Puritanical Protestant or Jansenists. They thought the church should be pure, and should be a church of saints, not sinners. They were unwilling to accept back those Christians who, out of weakness, compromised their faith during the persecutions and they insisted that for sacraments to be valid the priest had to be faultless.

While this sort of rigorism is understandable, it doesn’t take much to see where it leads. It leads to unbearable self righteousness. “We few, we holy few. We are the remnant, the true church, the only real Christians…” Nonsense. If you think the core error of Donatism does not exist today, look a little harder. Although the name “Donatism” is now a footnote of church history there are plenty of rigorist schisms and sects and plenty of the attitude within individuals and groups in many different churches.

The fact is, most heresies, while seeming attractive, can be countered very easily with a passage from the gospel. Donatists should read the parable of the wheat and tares. The sinners and the saints grow together and God will sort it out.

The second heresy Augustine battled was Manicheanism. This false religion was started by a Persian prophet named Mani (274 AD). He blended elements of occult Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity and came up with a complicated New Age kind of religion. His core heresy was dualism. He taught that the physical world was evil and the spiritual world was good. Manicheanism had a huge influence in the 3-4 centuries. We can see it in the harsh asceticism of the early monks for example.

Augustine’s teachings on the nature of evil countered this. He taught that the created world is good because God does not make evil. Instead evil is good twisted, distorted or destroyed.

While Manicheanism is also a footnote in church history, the idea that the physical world is bad and the spiritual world is good continues today. It is present in some New Age teachings and in Eastern religions and philosophies. It also lingers like an echo in elements of Christianity. It is tempting to look down on physical pleasures, and the right embrace of holy poverty can be twisted into a hatred or disgust or guilt about the goodness of the physical world.

The third heresy is Pelagianism. This is named for the British monk Pelagius (d. 420) His teaching was probably misunderstood, but if so, the misunderstanding was that he taught that the human will was not so tainted by original sin that it lost its power to do good. In other words, you can do good without God’s help. This led to the conclusion that you can get into heaven through good works.

Augustine corrected this heresy with his teachings on grace. It is God’s grace, continually working in and through creation and in and through our own lives that empowers our faith, empowers our good works and empowers the supernatural transformation of our lives.

These three heresies do us the service of bringing to light the true Catholic teaching. The created world is beautiful, good and true. If this is true, then we also, created in God’s image are good. However, that goodness is wounded by original sin. While we don’t have to be perfect at once, that is our destiny, our calling and the hard adventure on which we must embark. God’s good grace gives us the power to do this. Without his grace we are paralyzed by sin and locked in darkness. With his grace we can be free.”

Love, & His grace,
Matthew

The New Donatism

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-by David Brooks

“The Catholic Church in North Africa was in crisis at the beginning of the fourth century. The Roman emperor Diocletian had persecuted the Christians, and many bishops and priests had collaborated with the regime. Priests had turned over Christian believers to the pagan magistrates. Bishops had surrendered Holy Scriptures to be burned in the public square. An air of corruption and lewdness hung over the church.

Two rival reform movements arose to restore the integrity of Catholicism. Those in the first movement, the Donatists, believed the church needed to purify itself and return to its core identity.

The mission of the church, in the Donatist view, was to provide a holy alternative to a unclean world. The Donatists wanted to purge the traitors from the priesthood.

After they pruned their membership, the Donatists wanted to close ranks to create a community of committed believers. They would separate themselves from impurity, re-establish their core principles and defend them against the hostile forces.

The Donatists believed that, in those hard times, the first job was to defend Christian law so it wouldn’t be diluted by compromise. With this defensive posture, the Donatists would at least build a sturdy ark for all those who wanted to be Christian.

This Donatist tendency — to close ranks and return defensively to first principles — can be seen today whenever a movement faces a crisis. Modern-day Donatists emerge after every Republican defeat: conservatives who think the main task is to purge and purify. There are modern-day Donatists in humanities departments, who pull in as they lose relevance on campus.

You can see them in the waning union movement: people who double down on history and their self-conscious traditions. You can see them in the current Roman Catholic Church, which feels besieged in a hostile world. You can identify the modern-day Donatists because they feel history is flowing away from them, and when they gossip it’s always about intra-community rivalries that nobody outside their world could possibly care about.

In the fourth century, another revival movement arose, embraced by Augustine, who was Bishop of Hippo. The problem with the Donatists, Augustine argued, is that they are too static. They try to seal off an ark to ride out the storm, but they end up sealing themselves in. They cut themselves off from new circumstances and growth.

Augustine, as his magisterial biographer Peter Brown puts it, “was deeply preoccupied by the idea of the basic unity of the human race.” He reacted against any effort to divide people between those within the church and those permanently outside.

He wanted the church to go on offense and swallow the world. This would involve swallowing impurities as well as purities. It would mean putting to use those who are imperfect. This was the price to be paid if you wanted an active church coexisting with sinners, disciplining and rebuking them.

This second tendency is also found in movements that are in crisis, but it is rare because it requires a lack of defensiveness, and a confidence that your identity is secure even amid crisis.

Like most of the world, I don’t know much about Pope Francis, but it’s hard not to be impressed by someone who says he prefers a church that suffers “accidents on the streets” to a church that is sick because it self-referentially closes in on itself.

It’s hard not to be impressed by someone who stands by traditional Catholic teaching, but then goes out and visits Jeronimo Podesta, a former bishop who had married in defiance of the church and who was dying poor and forgotten. It’s hard not to be impressed by someone who ferociously rebukes those priests who refuse to baptize the children of single mothers.

It’s hard not to be impressed by someone who seems to feel a compulsive need to be riding the buses, who refuses to live in the official residences, who sends his priests out to the frontiers and who once said he would die if locked away in the Vatican.

I’ll leave it to Catholics to decide if Francis is good for the church. The subject here is how do you revive a movement in crisis. The natural instinct is to turn Donatist, to build an ark and defend what’s precious. The counterintuitive but more successful strategy is to follow Augustine, to exploit a moment of weakness by making yourself even more vulnerable, by striking outward into complexity, swallowing the pure and impure, counterattacking crisis with an evangelical assault.”

Love,
Matthew

The Heresy of Donatism

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-by Matt Slick

“Donatism was the error taught by Donatus, bishop of Casae Nigrae, that the effectiveness of the sacraments depends on the moral character of the minister. In other words, if a minister who was involved in a serious enough sin were to baptize a person, that baptism would be considered invalid.

Donatism developed as a result of the persecution of Christians ordered by Diocletian in 303 in which all churches and sacred Scriptures of the Christians were to be destroyed. In 304 another edict was issued ordering the burning of incense to the idol gods of the Roman empire. Of course, Christians refused, but it did not curtail the increased persecution. Many Christians gave up the sacred texts to the persecutors and even betrayed other Christians to the Romans. These people became known as “traditors,” Christians who betrayed other Christians. (Note: traditor, not traitor).

At the consecration of bishop Caecilian of Carthage in 311, one of the three bishops, Felix, bishop of Aptunga, who consecrated Caecilian, had given copies of the Bible to the Roman persecutors. A group of about 70 bishops formed a synod and declared the consecration of the bishop to be invalid. Great debate arose concerning the validity of the sacraments (baptism, the Lord’s Supper, etc.,) by one who had sinned so greatly against other Christians.

After the death of Caecilian, Aelius Donatus the Great became bishop of Carthage, and it is from his name that the movement is called. The Donatists were gaining “converts” to their cause, and a division was arising in the Catholic church. They began to practice rebaptism which was particularly troublesome to the church at the time and was condemned at the Synod of Arles in 314 since it basically said the authority in the Catholic church was lost.

The Donatist issue was raised at several ecumenical councils and finally submitted to Emperor Constantine in 316. In each case the consecration of bishop Caecilian was upheld. However, persecution fuels emotions, and by 350 the Donatists had gained many converts and outnumbered the Orthodox in Africa. But it was the apologetic by Augustine that turned the tide against the Donatist movement which eventually died out in the next century.

The problem with Donatism is that no person is morally pure. The effectiveness of the baptism or administration of the Lord’s supper does not cease to be effective if the moral character of the minister is in question or even demonstrated to be faulty. Rather, the sacraments are powerful because of what they are–visible representations of spiritual realities. God is the one who works in and through them, and He is not restricted by the moral state of the administrant.”

Love,
Matthew