As part of a challenge from James White during his October 22, 2015 of the Dividing Line (starting about 32:20) to read Verduin’s “Reformers and Their Stepchildren,” I started studying the history of the Catholic Priesthood. I was very disappointed to find that Verduin’s book was historically pure trash. It lacked citations and made up things about the Donatists which I as a layman even knew were wrong without having done more than an afternoon’s research.

Note: This article was written before the author’s conversion to Orthodoxy.

So, in order to give Verduin the benefit of the doubt I went to the library and took our the one book on Donatism that he cites: “The Donatist Church” by William Hugh Clifford Frend. Unlike Verduin’s book, this one was thoroughly well researched and accurately cited original sources, which these days is a Google search away thanks to resources such as

Here are a few short reflections that I have from reading this book which might not find their way into articles in themselves, but I found enlightening nonetheless:

  • The early church was very corrupt and messed up.

It is natural to look back and think that “they had it right” in simpler, more pristine times. However, the Scripture says, “Do not say, ‘Why is it that the former days were better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this” (Ecc 7:10).

I love reading up on and writing about Church History. However, I am coming to realize they had some serious stuff messed up very quickly. Namely, the issue of Ecclesiology comes to mind.

While reading “The Donatist Church” what I came to realize is that the early Church seems to me what I’ve heard Game of Thrones is all about sans sex. They were politicking left and right, both the Donatists (who called themselves “Catholics”) and the Catholics.

How so? This was 4th and 5th century ancient Rome, so they (as in both of them) would bribe Roman officials for trials, use threats and literal acts of physical violence to get their way, and sell Church positions in order to enrich themselves. No, this is not the 14th and 15th centuries, this is 4th and 5th century Rome!

And it hardly started with the Donatists. Cyprian, writing in the mid 200s, wrote about the exact same thing in his treatise On the Lapsed.

The Lord has desired His family to be proved; and because a long peace had corrupted the discipline that had been divinely delivered to us, the heavenly rebuke has aroused our faith, which was giving way, and I had almost said slumbering… (On the Lapsed, 5).

Exactly what does he mean by “the discipline…was giving away?”

Each one was desirous of increasing his estate; and forgetful of what believers had either done before in the times of the apostles, or always ought to do, they, with the insatiable ardour of covetousness, devoted themselves to the increase of their property. Among the priests there was no devotedness of religion; among the ministers there was no sound faith: in their works there was no mercy; in their manners there was no discipline. In men, their beards were defaced; in women, their complexion was dyed: the eyes were falsified from what God’s hand had made them; their hair was stained with a falsehood. Crafty frauds were used to deceive the hearts of the simple, subtle meanings for circumventing the brethren. They united in the bond of marriage with unbelievers; they prostituted the members of Christ to the Gentiles. They would swear not only rashly, but even more, would swear falsely; would despise those set over them with haughty swelling, would speak evil of one another with envenomed tongue, would quarrel with one another with obstinate hatred. Not a few bishops who ought to furnish both exhortation and example to others, despising their divine charge, became agents in secular business, forsook their throne, deserted their people, wandered about over foreign provinces, hunted the markets for gainful merchandise, while brethren were starving in the Church. They sought to possess money in hoards, they seized estates by crafty deceits, they increased their gains by multiplying usuries (On the Lapsed 6).

Essentially, Bishops were acting like wealthy, politically connected landlords with skin in the game. Sadly, as soon as those in the Church rose above meeting in people’s homes and in catacombs, they appear to have become typical Roman religious institutions–complete with tax breaks, public subsidies, landed estates, and all the things which encourage centralization and power grabs.

So, while reading up on Donatism I got to know more about Augustine. Augustine was a notable theologian for sure, but what we often don’t know is that he was also an astute politician. He knowingly installed substandard Bishops for political reasons, held yearly conferences of all the Bishops to hone policy, and even used the might of the Roman military and economic power to coerce the conversion of Libyanized Africans who were essentially tenant farmers of the Latinized, Romanized class.

Now, he did all these things for reasons he felt were very important–he believed the Scripture taught to compel the conversion of unbelievers.

  • The Protestant view that the Church was not necessarily institutional, but invisible, is unfounded in the 4th century and on.

Whenever we speak of early heresies in the Church which were not made up of nutty Gnostics, but rather relatively theologically orthodox folks (namely the Novatians and Donatists), we find two things.

First, they differed with the Catholic Church by being even more extreme sacramentalists and martyr “reverentalisits.” So, it pains me when writers like Verduin paint these heretics as proto-Protestants, because they represent the very worse excesses of Catholicism. They were too Catholic for the Catholics!

Second, like the Catholic Church they held to the idea that there is no salvation outside of the aforesaid Church. So, these weren’t open-minded, the Church is an invisible sorta-thing, folks. They claimed to be true Catholics AND even installed antipopes in Rome because they felt it increased their legitimacy as supposed Catholics.

For this reason, they just like the Catholics looked for Roman patronage and excommunicated people they did not agree with. They viewed themselves as Earthly institutions that contained the saved, akin to Noah’s Ark. There wasn’t an invisible ark. It was real and you were either in it or you weren’t.

Interestingly enough, two North African writers who wrote about the invisible Church both soon themselves out of the physical Church. In the early 3rd century, there was Tertullian. He began as an orthodox Catholic, arguing for their traditions and against the Gnostics. He wrote in On Exhortation to Chastity, “Where three people are gathered together, there is a church, even if all three are laypersons. For each individual lives by his own faith” (quoted in p. 30 of Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Volume VI).

Soon, Tertullian found himself leaving the Catholic Church for the Montanists, because he thought the Catholics were not disciplined enough. Then, he left even the Montanists and just did his own thing, presumably because they were not good enough for him. It is not hard to see that once one sees salvation as outside the visible institution of a church, the fruits are schism. This is why there are so many Protestant denominations.

In the late 4th century a layman named Tychonius happened upon the same conclusion when trying to defend the Donatists as the true Catholic Church. In his writings…

[h]e showed the distinction of the resurrection really to be that we must believe that there is a revelation of the righteous now in this world, when those justified by faith rise by baptism from the death of sin to the reward of the eternal life, and the second [resurrection] to be the general one of all flesh (quoted in Gennadius).

This was interpreted by the Donatists to mean that one did not really need to be a Donatist to be saved. They believed this to be heresy, because they held firmly that there was no salvation to be found outside the institution of the Catholic Church, which was of course the Donatist church. Outside the ark you drown. And so, Tychonius was thrown overboard and excommunicated, even though his thought was considered so useful it was widely quoted and used by Catholics into medieval times. Tychonius never rejoined either the Catholic or Donatist church.

  • Why did the Church universally teach the need for a physical, unified institution?

In short? I don’t know. I would have to read more up on the 2nd century Fathers, but I am yet to see anyone pass comment on the issue until Cyprian.

And, by Cyprian’s time, the Catholic Church was a visible institution, with landed estates and the trappings of ancient Roman religions. He was writing during a time which was experiencing schism. It appears that he ended up taking a moderate form of the theology of the Novatianists by endorsing rebaptism and acts of penance even in opposition to the Bishop of Rome, while maintaining the institutional unity of the Church. In retrospect, it appears to be a shrewd political move that did not fully appease Rome nor the Novatianists, but held everything together by a thread…a thread that survived his martyrdom.

Of course, an orthodox Roman Catholic would simply say, “Cyprian taught there was no salvation outside of the Catholic Church simply because it is true and has always been taught.” Such a view would not require the nuanced view speculated above.

I appreciate any historical comments and book recommendations.