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January 14, 2010

Donatism: A Definition and Response

It is popular amongst revisionists in the Church to describe those of us who are more conservative as “Donatists”. By doing this they imply that we are simply unwilling to accept sinners in the Church, much along the lines of the Pharisees.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Theopedia helpfully defines Donatism:

Named for its leader, the theologian Donatus the Great (d. 355), Donatism included a group of extremist sects, mostly in North Africa, that emphasized Asceticism. They valued martyrdom and found lapses of faith (even under torture or threat of death) inexcusable. The heresy involved their contention that the sacraments required a priest of pure moral character to be effective and only the pure (who had not lapsed under persecution) should be allowed in the church.

In particular, the Donatist rejected those who had denied Christ under the persecution of Diocletian.

It is easy to see why the charge arises. We oppose as unacceptable the ministry of those who live in a state of unrepentant sin.

So are we Donatists? Not at all, for the key protest of the Donatists was that such “sinners” could not be restored to ministry even if they were repentant.

That is hardly the position of the modern-day Anglican conservative. We join with Augustine in his opposition as set out in his Letters to Petilian the Donatist.

Augustine argues that just because a minister is a sinner (and who is not?) it does not render his ministry ineffectual. Nevertheless, he also defends himself from the Donatist charge that he is lax with regard to disciplining open and unrepentant sin.

The Anglican Reformers held to these 2 truths that Augustine had defended. They held them together in the one Article:

Article XXVI

Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament

Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in the receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

Nevertheless it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed.

The Church, swayed by Augustine’s arguments (amongst many) resolved to accept back into fellowship all those who had previously denied Christ as long as they were repentant. We maintain the same position today. If those like Jack Spong, Gene Robinson, Katherine Jefferts-Schori and so many others would repent of their apostasy they would be welcomed with open arms. Until then we join with Augustine:

Nor would I therefore be understood to urge that ecclesiastical discipline should be set at naught, and that every one should be allowed to do exactly as he pleased, without any check, without a kind of healing chastisement, a lenity which shouldinspire fear, the severity of love. For then what will become of the precept of the apostle, “Warn them that are unruly, comfort the feeble-minded, support the weak, be patient toward all men; see that none render evil for evil unto any man?” 1 Thessalonians 5:14-15 At any rate, when he added these last words, “See that none render evil for evil unto any man,” he showed with sufficient clearness that there is no rendering of evil for evil when one chastises those that are unruly, even though for the fault of unruliness be administered the punishment of chastising. The punishment of chastising therefore is not an evil, though the fault be an evil. For indeed it is the steel, not of an enemy inflicting a wound, but of a surgeon performing an operation. Things like this are done within the Church, and that spirit of gentleness within its pale burns with zeal towards God, lest the chaste virgin which is espoused to one husband, even Christ, should in any of her members be corrupted from the simplicity which is in Christ, as Eve was beguiled by the subtlety of the serpent.

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Liberals deny that true doctrine can truly be known.  As a result, they try to construct unity on the externals of the church.  First and foremost among the externals would be the Sacraments.  These sacraments must be emptied of doctrinal content in order to serve as unifying devices.  Sacraments thus become empty vessels into which any man may pour whatever he desires so long as he keeps the proper form.  And so we arrive at the source of the conflict.  In modern parlance, a ‘Donatist’ is someone who refuses to empty the Sacraments of doctrinal content. 

Conservative:  “The Sacraments were given to the Church, must be performed under the authority of the Church, and guarded by the authority of the Church.” 

Liberal: “Yes, the sacraments were given to the church, and we can perform them under the authority of the church because we are a church.  And isn’t that ‘guarded’ crack a bit militaristic?” 

Conservative: “No, you are a church, but you can’t administer the Sacraments because you aren’t part of the Church.  You don’t believe the Gospel.  And it is from the likes of you that the Church is supposed to guard the Sacraments.”

Liberal: “Donatist!”


[1] Posted by carl on 1-15-2010 at 12:29 AM · [top]

Thanks David.

Good to read Article XXVI again - once again the profound wording of the Articles of Religion speak to us afresh across the ages.

I’m impressed that some liberals have even heard the word Donatist, even if they don’t know what it means…!

[2] Posted by MichaelA on 1-15-2010 at 12:56 AM · [top]

I’m impressed that some liberals have even heard the word Donatist

It’s quite a favourite amongst many. That and “gnostic” which we will turn to next…

[3] Posted by David Ould on 1-15-2010 at 01:14 AM · [top]

Yeah, I’ve noticed that they like to throw that word around.  Perhaps they think, “These guys don’t want to hang around us because they think that the sacraments we dispense are invalid.” 

I can’t speak for every traditionalist, but I do not have a huge problem (as a true Donatist would) receiving a sacrament from a heretic (indeed, it’s likely that the pastor who baptized me was an unbeliever, at the time of my baptism).  I do however have problems with:
a)  tainted pulpit-supply
b)  tainted pulpits
c)  the enormous temptation there is to resign oneself to (a) and (b)
d)  the financial support that goes to (a) & (b), in light of its dishonor to Christ, its negative effects on His Kingdom, and how the money could be used for the Kingdom (and no, I’m not referring to alms for the poor).  wink

(a) and (b) are bound up in communication ... So, if heretics would only stop talking, or laypeople would listen to their ipods while the heretics were talking, AND if heretics would stop receiving financial support for their heresy, I could be quite happy in TEC

See?  I’m not immune to compromise.  wink

In all seriousness… we need a system of disciple, which includes the miracle necessary to grant that authority, and another set of miracles to give the good guys some backbones.

[4] Posted by J Eppinga on 1-15-2010 at 07:06 AM · [top]

From day 1, it has struck me as more than ironic that those who charge us with donatism are the same ones deposing or de-licensing so many clergy.  You would have thought it would be the other way around, if we were donatists.

[5] Posted by tjmcmahon on 1-15-2010 at 08:37 AM · [top]

Gnostic??? That’s a new one coming from them and its pretty funny as well. Isnt that like the pot calling the kettle black???

If anyone is Gnostic it is liberals of every stripe. They may not perfectly fit the definition, but their insistance that the spirit trumps the physical is a pretty huge point of agreement. Well, that and a certain sissyfication of the Christian religion.

So make that two major points of aggreement.

We conservatives would be the last people to say that the physical does not matter.

[6] Posted by StayinAnglican on 1-15-2010 at 11:12 AM · [top]

What liberals label “Donatism” is how conservatives apply 2 John 1:9-10: “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ,does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.” Conservatives are not claiming that the unworthiness of the minister hinders the effectiveness of the sacrament but rather an orthodox Christian cannot have table fellowship with a heretical one without showing acceptance of his heretical beliefs and in that way participating in his heresy. They also have in mind Amos 3:3: “Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?” Liberals seek to redefine the conservative position as “Donatism” so that they can assert that the conservatives and not they are the heretics. What we have here is an attempt by liberals to define conservative efforts to exercise Biblical church discipline as heresy. It is a form of revisionism.

[7] Posted by AnglicansAblaze on 1-15-2010 at 11:28 AM · [top]

Prof. Bill Witt of TSM has a very helpful article on Donatism in his blog: What About Them Donatists?.  Most interesting (though not surprising to the commenters above) is which foot the shoe best fits!

[8] Posted by Rich Gabrielson on 1-15-2010 at 12:29 PM · [top]

I don’t believe the Episcopalian Left knew any more about Donatism prior to 2003 than they did the Anglican Communion, and know no more what it means than they do the Nicene Creed.  It’s just a convenient charge to call “heresy” to deflect attention from their own.

[9] Posted by Phil on 1-15-2010 at 12:30 PM · [top]

I concur with Rich in #8 that the shoe may be on the other foot. Recall the Donatist problem was with the “lapsi” or traditores:

“In the Diocletian persecution appeared a new category of lapsi called the traditores: these were the Christians (mostly clerics) who, in obedience to an edict, gave up the sacred books to the authorities. The term traditores was given both to those who actually gave up the sacred books, and to those who merely delivered secular works in their stead.” Catholic Encyclopedia

There is a parallel with modern revisionists giving up the Holy Word for the New Thang and the traditores.

[10] Posted by Undergroundpewster on 1-15-2010 at 04:41 PM · [top]

Nice article, David+.

[11] Posted by Hosea6:6 on 1-16-2010 at 08:23 PM · [top]

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