Is Augustine the enemy of Protestant schismatics?

Augustine believes schism separates one from the grace of God, because schismatics are full of hate and as Paul wrote, “If I have faith that can move mountains, but not love, then I have nothing.” So, such faith cannot save.

We can see this logic from Augustine in On Baptism, Against the Donatists Book I:

Can it be that schism does not involve hatred of one’s brethren? Who will maintain this, when both the origin of, and perseverance in schism consists in nothing else save hatred of the brethren (Chapter 11, Paragraph 16)?

Catholics who use Augustine’s writings against the Donatists are correct in seeing him as historical opposition against schism. They are confident that the Catholic Church being the only true church of God and there is no other. For this reason, when Augustine signs onto a letter that says, “Whoever, then, separates himself from this Catholic Church, no matter how praiseworthy he believes his life to be, will not have life because of this sin alone of being separated from the unity of Christ,” they immediately presume that Augustine is an ally.

Now, an ally Augustine may be, but it is worth discussing the historical context of the Donatist heresy. There are all sorts of websites that go into gruesome details about what the Donatists believed and did, so I will just sum it up quickly.

Donatism: Principled Theological Stand or a Social Peril?

The Donatists were located just in North Africa back in the fourth and fifth centuries. They popped up after Constantine became emperor and stopped the persecution of the one, true Catholic Church. The theological reason they popped up was that they were opposed to Bishops and Priests who were traitors during the previous persecution, because such men proved to be faithless and thereby according to their heresy could not perform the sacrament of baptism.

It is interesting that baptism seems to be the big battleground and not other sacraments, namely the Eucharist. One possible reason for this is while the ancient Church since the second century universally subscribed to the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, the Real Presence in the Eucharist was likewise understood but paled in importance. Baptism, it was thought, is God’s means of washing all of our sins away.

So, baptism had real power. There was not a formulated doctrine around the Eucharist at the time in which the ancients would ascribe any forgiveness of sins to it, unlike modern Catholics. Therefore, Donatists were not primarily concerned with this, confession, or other “sacraments” that developed during the middle ages. Baptism was the big one, because baptism did something concrete. The rest were important as much as they were even known to exist, but they were not defined and thereby not part of the dispute.

While these all seem like interesting theological ideas, in retrospect the schism really was not theological. It was political and ethnic.

Almost all the Donatists just so happened to be Punic or Berber. If you vaguely remember “the Punic Wars,” Hannibal and the elephants, and the city of Carthage, it all may begin making sense. These people were subjugated by Rome for centuries. They still spoke their native languages. Apparently, when the latest wave of persecution hit right before Constantine was emperor, the Romans were tougher on these Berbers and Punics then they were on their own people (or highly assimilated North Africans that were Roman citizens.) This caused obvious ethnic resentment.

At first, they apparently went to Constantine looking for help (Augustine, Letter 185, Chap 2, Par. 6), hoping that his new found Christian faith would lead him to punish the lapsed Catholics (who just so happened to be Donatist rivals). When this didn’t work, the Donatists started to riot, and like a good Roman Emperor Constantine punished ruffians by the sword.

What resulted was verifiable death-worship amongst the Donatists. They are famous for looking for martyrdom wherever they could when it appeared they were on the losing side by getting arrested and picking losing fights (Augustine, Letter 185, Chap 3, Par. 12). In extreme situations, they jumped off cliffs to their deaths to prove their devotion (Ibid., Chapter 4, Par. 15).

However, these were probably the exception rather than the rule otherwise the sect would have literally died out. The majority of the violence was not self-inflicted, but against their social and political enemies…all who happened to be aligned with Rome and her church.

So, they were simply criminals. They murdered preachers. Donatists rioted and looted. Augustine writes, “Then indeed they blazed forth with such fury, and were so excited by the goadings of hatred, that scarcely any churches of our communion could be safe against their treachery and violence and most undisguised robberies” (Ibid., Chapter 4, Par. 18).

So, the split between Donatists and Catholics was really a race/class war clothed in theological terms. They apparently were not so principled when it came to laying down the law with the traitors of their own number. “For that there were traditors of your number is proved by the clearest testimony of history,” says Augustine (On Baptism, Against the Donatists, Book II, Chapter 6, Par. 9). Apparently, the Donatists didn’t care.

They also did not care about other essential matters of doctrine. Proof of this can be seen in that Donatists made overtures to the Arians. This may seem strange for a group whose doctrines supposedly revolve around rigorism and  keeping the Church pure. However, this was not the real motivation of this movement of rioters and thieves anymore than the looting in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was a principled stand against racial inequality. According to Augustine, the Donatists did not even really believe in Arianism, “But sometimes, as we have heard, some of them, wishing to conciliate the Goths, since they see that they are not without a certain amount of power, profess to entertain the same belief as they” (Ibid. Chapter 1, Par. 1). Quite simply, the Goths and other Arian Germanic tribes were beating the tar out of Rome at this point, and by virtue of racially not being Roman, would be for them allies against Roman subjugation.

Hence, a Catholic Church, spiritually centered in Rome and now very much are part in Roman politics was opposed to Berber and Punic ethnic identity. The Catholic Church to them became just another means of economic, political, and social subjugation. Donatism was not a principled, heretical stand that perhaps some other heresies, despite their errors, were.

Conclusion.

While Augustine, if he lived today, might very well oppose Protestantism on the same interpretive ground he held then. However, we have reason to have our doubts. Not only for obvious theological reasons in which Protestants and Catholics argue over Augustine as being the forefather of their beliefs, but for a simple historical one. Augustine wrote so harshly against the Donatists because, well, they deserved it.

They were a scourge and a social disease. You wouldn’t want them in your neighborhood, simply because the crime spikes, your car insurance rates go up, and the schools go down the toilet. To compare Protestants, who can debate with Catholics and live amongst them civilly, to Donatists is a bit disingenuous. And, if you can in fact see the profound differences between one schismatic group and the other, it is all the more likely that Augustine’s vitriol really does not apply to Protestants. Not only would it be anachronistic, but Protestantism is a principled theological stand. Donatism was not.

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