The Schismatic Reaction: Donatism (Part 1)

The History of Christianity #106

Our History of Christianity Scripture passage today is 1 Corinthians 12:27 which reads: “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from Augustine of Hippo. He said: “What is debated between the Donatists and us is, where is to be found this body of Christ which is the church. Are we to seek the answer in our own words, or in those of the Head of the body, our Lord Jesus Christ?”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Schismatic Reaction: Donatism (Part 1)” from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

While those who followed the monastic way of life expressed their dissatisfaction with the new order by withdrawing to the desert, others simply declared that the church at large had been corrupted, and that they were the true church. Of several splinter groups with similar views, the most numerous were the Donatists.

The Donatist controversy was one more instance in which the church was divided over the question of the lapsed and how they ought to be restored. After each period of violent persecution, the church had to face the issue of what to do with those who had yielded their faith, but who now sought to be restored to the communion of Christians. Although there were similar issues and schisms in the East, it was mostly in the Latin-speaking West, with its emphasis on law and order, that such schisms were most common and lasting. In the third century, this had resulted in the schism of Novatian in Rome; and in North Africa, Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, had to defend his episcopal authority against those who held that the confessors were the ones who should determine how the lapsed were to be restored. Now, in the fourth century, the debate over the restoration of the lapsed became particularly virulent in North Africa.

The persecution had been very violent in that region, and the number of those who had yielded was great. As in other cases, those who had yielded had not done so to the same degree. Some bishops avoided further persecution by handing over to the authorities heretical books, and leading them to believe that these were Christian scriptures. Others turned in the genuine scriptures, claiming that in so doing they were avoiding bloodshed, and that this was their responsibility as pastors. Many, both clergy and lay, succumbed to imperial pressure and worshiped the pagan dogs – indeed, the number of the latter was such that some chroniclers state that there were days when the pagan temples were full to overflowing.

Next time, we will continue looking at The Schismatic Reaction: Donatism.

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