The first three centuries of Christian history were dominated by Trinitarian (nature of God) and Christological (nature of Christ) controversies.

While those controversies were winding down, another one was brewing– Donatism.

Donatism takes its name from the Berber Christian Donatus. It all began with the Diocletian persecution of AD 303-305. During that persecution, some church leaders repudiated the faith. Others went even further and became “traditores” (Latin for “people who handed over”) by turning over sacred religious texts to authorities for public burning. Still others went so far as to betray fellow Christians to rulers.

When Constantine became ruler over Rome and Christianity became the official state religion, some of the traditores returned to their former positions as church leaders. Christian North Africa (in the spirit of Tertullian and Cyprian) refused to go along with the situation. The issue flared when a “tainted” leader was appointed bishop in Carthage. Church leaders in North Africa responded by appointing a different bishop, Majorinus. The conflict eventually got the attention of Emperor Constantine who called a council to settle the matter. Majorinus died, however, before it was convened, so the North Africans appointed Donatus to take his place– hence the name “Donatism.”

The council ruled against the Donatists, but the North Africans refused to accept the verdict– a reaction prompted by their negative view of the Roman Empire over against the Catholic view. After the “Constantinian shift,” most Christians accepted the emperor as the head of the church. Most North Africans, however, continued to see him as a servant of the beast. For them, it was a struggle between the “church of Jesus” and the “church of Judas.”

Constantine sent troops to enforce the council’s decision in Carthage– the first time ever for Christians to persecute other Christians. But Constantine’s persecution failed completely despite banishments and executions, so he eventually called it off.

Other persecutions followed, however, and the fortunes of the Donatists ebbed and flowed across almost three centuries. Their most powerful opponent was Augustine (354-430). Augustine argued forcefully against the Donatist practice of rebaptism and for the efficacy of the sacraments despite the moral failures of their administrators. In 409, the Catholics formally branded the Donatists as heretics. Nevertheless, they seemed to have survived quite well in North Africa through the Vandal invasion of the 5th century on up to the 7th century when they and their opponents were swept away by Muslim invaders.

Until then, Donatists existed as more than just an opposition movement. They had distinctive worship and viewpoints. Many scholars see them as forerunners of the Anabaptists and the Radical Reformation of the 16th century due to their opposition to the union of church and state, their emphasis on discipleship, and their commitment (albeit uneven) to non-violence and social justice.

Although the Donatist eventually died out, their concerns still exist in the church today.

  • How does the character of church leaders affect the church and its practices?
  • To what standard should church members hold each other accountable?
  • Under what circumstances should rebaptism be practiced?
  • What negative effects did the “Constantinian shift” have on the church?


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