Donatism CoverThe Donatist controversy is an often neglected part of church history, albeit an important part. It called into question not only the authority of the church, but the validity of the sacraments and the ministers who would carry them out. Because of the discourse among the Augustine, the Donatist leaders, and others, the direction of the Catholic church would be defined for many years to come. The goal of this paper is to provide an outline of the foundations of the Donatist schism, the points of argument between both parties, and how the Donatist church was ultimately disassembled. The history is vast and well-debated, but the goal of this paper is to rest in the middle ground, restraining comment, while giving a clear view of the Donatist polemic and proposing a conclusion for the 21st century church.

The Foundation of Donatism

In order to properly understand the Donatist controversy, one must first grasp the social framework that was its catalyst. The Donatist controversy has its origins in the North African church, a church that was well-acquainted with suffering and martyrdom.1

North Africa

North Africa

Oxford theologian Henry Chadwick focuses on the persecution that occurred under Emperor Diocletian between 303 and 305, beginning with his purging the army of Christians in 302, later equating loyalty to Christ with high treason, and finally lapsing into “the irrational ferocity [of] liquidating anyone who failed to conform.”2 The violence during the Diocletian persecution can not be understated, and by many accounts his attempt was a total extermination of Christianity.3

The North African church was a recipient of the Diocletian persecution, and it lost many believers. Martyrdom was commonplace, and some scholars believe that some “deliberately courted martyrdom, consciously provoking arrest and execution.”4



The church was horrified by stories of their fellow believers being handed over, along with many of their holiest scriptures, to be destroyed, often not by their enemies, but by traitorous Christian leaders within their own church.5 The church in North Africa was then faced with the decision “between the Church of traditores (traitors) and persecutors, or the unsullied Church of the martyrs.”6 A vast majority of North African Christians began seeing themselves as “a church of martyrs.” Even more than that, they assumed a growing self-awareness of being a “holy assembly of Israel in the midst of her unclean enemies.”7

PersecutionIn May of 305, Diocletian retired, and his throne was given to his son Constantine the next year. The persecution subsided quickly, and by 313, Constantine had signed the Edict of Milan, resolving certain legal provisions in favor of the Christians. The edict “prescrib[ed] that everyone, including Christians, should be given freedom to follow the religion that suited him.” The Church property that had been confiscated was to be restored, and Christians were once more given the right to form a legal, corporate body.8

The ending of the Diocletian persecution left the church to pick up the pieces. The church was no longer being slaughtered, and so turned their focus to rebuilding the structures of the church. Many returned, both the lapsi, those who had fallen away from the church, and the traditores, those who had actively betrayed it. The time came to elect a new bishop of Carthage, and the current bishop, Mensurius, chose Caecilian. Caecilian was consecrated in 311 after the death of Mensurius, and presiding over Caecilian’s consecration as the new bishop of Carthage, was Felix of Aptonga.9 The problem with the new leadership was Mensurius had been branded a traditores, blamed for handing over sacred scriptures for destruction, in order to save his own life. “His action was considered immoral by the zealots who claimed that the tradition of the African Church demanded that true Christians should have offered themselves for martyrdom in the spirit of their predecessors during the Decian persecutions.”



((D. Faul. “Donatism” New Catholic Encyclopedia Vol 4 2nd Ed. (Farmington Hills, MI: Gail, 2003), 862)) A group under the leadership of a man named Donatus (known as the Numidian bishops)10 met in Carthage and declared that because they believed Felix to have been a traditor, his consecration of Caecilian was rendered invalid. They elected Majorinus instead.11 Now there were two bishops vying for the same seat, and the rumblings of schism could be heard.

By Majorinus’ death in 315, and subsequent election of Donatus to take his place, the church (which would soon be known as Donatist) was growing rapidly in North Africa. Remarkably, the schism was not seen to be very important to other western provinces.12 In an attempt to snuff the schism, Constantine signed an edict in 317 that effectively ordered the confiscation of Donatist churches and the exile of their leaders,13 sending Donatus into exile. This marked the first instance of Christians martyring other Christians.14 In reaction to this new persecution, groups of peasants called “Circumcelliones” roamed the countryside enacting a campaign of terror, and were answered with a strong governmental response. The movement developed expansively after Julian the Apostate brought the Donatist bishops back from exile between 361 and 363. Only a year later, the Donatists had almost total control of the Council of Bagai, electing Donatus’ successor, Primian, as bishop of Carthage.15 The Roman church had lost control of the situation, and Donatism quickly became the dominant church in North Africa. It is at this point in history that Augustine weighed in.

The Argument Between the Catholics and the Donatists

It is important to know just what the Donatists were calling into question, before considering Augustine’s response. There was a broad schism of belief between the Donatists and the Catholics, and little in church practice was left untouched. This paper will focus on the two areas of church life that the Donatists had questioned the validity. The first was the validity of the reconciled ministers who were ex-traditores and the ministers consecrated by those “tainted” ex-traditores. The second was the validity of any sacraments those ministers performed.

As stated earlier, the Donatist church viewed themselves as a “pure remnant” of the church, surrounded (and afflicted by) the unfaithful Catholic church. Therefore, the Donatists rejected ministers who had been consecrated by men they believed to be “stained” by traditores in their chain of consecration. Peter Iver Kaufman described the Donatist belief well:

“[They believed that] corruption and evil infected only one church, while the other, the Donatist church, was without spot or wrinkle. …anyone in communion with a traditor was “a (spiritually) dead man,” notwithstanding the legitimacy of his baptism or ordination… and [a minister’s] association with traditores and their heirs and defenders made him an accomplice in their fraud. Consequently he was equally culpable and equally incapable of administering effective sacraments. Whoever receives baptism and remission from a traditor or an accomplice receives nothing.”16

By joining the Donatist church, a Christian could know that their priests and church were of the moral standing to successfully administer the sacraments. This belief is known as ex opere operantis, Latin for “from the work of the one doing the working.” In stark contrast, Augustine and the Catholic church argued for ex opere operato, “from the work having been worked.” This polemic had broad implications. It called into question the validity of the sacraments (and thusly the salvation) of an entire generation of post-persecution believers.

The Donatists also believed that anyone outside the Donatist church lacked grace, so they insisted on re-baptizing all who returned from “heretical” or “schismatic” sects. Complete holiness was required in the minister who did the baptizing, and sanctity for the catechumen could only by obtained in the True (Donatist) Church.17  This belief was based on an understanding of Cyprian and Tertullian’s writing, stating the requirement of re-baptism for individuals who joined the church after having received their first baptism among impious or heretical Christians.18 Augustine clearly recoiled against this, writing;

“…Donatists themselves [ do not deny] that even apostates retain the grace of baptism; for when they return within the pale of [the Donatist] church, and are converted through repentance, it is never given to them a second time, and so it is ruled that it never could have been lost. So those, too, who in the sacrilege of schism depart from the communion of the [Catholic church], certainly retain the grace of baptism, which they received before their departure, seeing that, in case of their return, it is not again conferred on them…if it can be retained outside, why may it not also be given there?”19

The Donatists believed that if a catechumen stayed with the Catholic church, “the pollution could be transmitted by the fault in the succession of ordinations.”20 In 411 another conference in Carthage was formed to resolve this issue. It was attended by 286 Catholic bishops and 285 Donatist bishops. “In the debate, Augustine made short work of his opponents, using arguments that he had been developing against them for more than a decade.”21

Augustine arguing with the Donatists

Augustine arguing with the Donatists

Augustine exploited inconsistencies in his rivals’ record, “which purportedly exposed as a contemptible conceit the Donatists’ expert ability to distinguish the pure from the impure, the sinless from the sinful. His theological argument explained why such distinctions could not and should not be made.”22 Many of the arguments were ad hominem. Speaking of the violence of the Circumcillions, Augustine writes, “Defend yourselves from the charge of the persecution which those men suffered at the hands of your party who separated themselves from you… let the chaff which flew away outside accuse the chaff which yet remained within.”23

Augustine answered that the Donatist claims of superior sanctity were unhinged by their known associations with the violent Circumcellions. “He alleged that these criminals mugged, blinded, and murdered clergy of the opposition. They demonstrated that Donatists could make martyrs of their enemies as well as of their eulogized ancestors.”24

Donatist bishop Petilian argued that “He who receives faith from the faithless receives not faith, but guilt, [and] everything consists of an origin and a root; and if it has not something for a head, it is nothing”25 to which Augustine replied,

“Wherefore, whether a man receive the sacrament of baptism from a faithful or a faithless minister, his whole hope is in Christ, that he fall not under the condemnation that ‘cursed is he that placeth his hope in man.’ Otherwise if each man is born again in spiritual grace of the same sort as he by whom he is baptized, and if when he who baptizes him is manifestly a good man, then he himself gives faith, he is himself the origin and root and head of him who is being born… when the baptizer is faithless without its being known, then the baptized person receives faith from Christ. …in that case all who are baptized should wish that they might have faithless baptizers.”26

Augustine understood that the Donatists’ beliefs would ultimately undermine the day-by-day administration of the church by encouraging laypeople to shop for priests who made the best impressions, i.e. priests with the best reputations. That would turn the church into a marketplace and make peddlers of priests. It would induce laity to trust their priests’ salesmanship rather than God’s promises.27 The Donatists understood the sacramental act of baptism, but did not grasp the grace involved in it. “They neglected to observe the tension that exists between the present state of the Church and its eschatological state. For Augustine, the Church is still the Church of sinners on Earth.”28

The End of Donatism, and the Persecuted Become the Persecutors

Ultimately, it would seem that Donatism did not come to an end because of external pressures, but because of schism and strife from within.29 The Donatists were weakened by internal conflict and schism, as well as the imperial decree in 405 trying for unity between the two churches (under threat of churches confiscated.) At the council in Carthage in 411, “the outcome was a shockingly substantial move by Donatist laity toward the Catholic body”. ((Chadwick, 391))

Donatist is Executed

A Donatist is Executed

The move toward the Catholic church was much slower for most of the rural areas. Later, Augustine wrote in City of God,“…how good and pleasant to dwell in unity- all grant that unity is good, [but] not all agree that it is pleasant…but Mother Church presses food on her sickly children.”30 As stated before, the rural areas were slower to move toward the Catholic church, mainly due to their intransigent leadership, “…[because] it was hard for them to act in a way that in effect conceded that the entire protest for a century past had been a huge error.”31 At this point, the larger movement of Donatism had been effectively put to rest. Any remaining Donatist churches were essentially wiped out during the Arab invasion in the mid-seventh century.

Donatism’s Affect on Today’s World

The impact of Augustinian theology on the church today can hardly be understated. Much of that theology was formed and expounded upon during the Donatist controversy. Because of the Donatist controversy, the modern church has a better understanding of the “influential abstractions which mark the theological anthropology in Augustine’s later polemic.”32 Emphasizing each aspect of this theology would fill volumes of work. Augustine’s explanations would form much of the church’s understanding of soteriology,33 and its understandings of grace, forgiveness, and penance.


The issue of the personal holiness of ministers and their ability to properly serve in their ministerial roles is a consistent question both in Augustine’s day and the modern era. It is important to see both sides of the Donatist-Augustine argument, and to not just merely discount what the Donatists were claiming, simply because history has all but forgotten their movement. Both parties would agree that personal holiness does indeed play a role in the effectiveness of a minister. Every Christian church should have an understanding of the balance between individual holiness and grace. In the internet age, little can be hidden and even less can be forgotten. As a new breed of ministers arises in the church, with digital records of every picture and every stroke of the keyboard, there must be in place not only a standard of holiness but also a level of grace for those who have a past they wish could be forgotten. The church is called to extend forgiveness to such leaders, allowing them to be restored to the community they long to serve.

  1. W.H.C. Friend, Martyrdom and Persecution: A Study of a Conflict from the Maccabees to Donatus (New York: New York University, 1967), 220 []
  2. Henry Chadwick,. The Church in Ancient Society: From Galilee to Gregory the Great (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 179-180 []
  3. E.G Ryan. “Diocletian, Roman Emperor.” New Catholic Encyclopedia vol. 4 2nd Ed.(Farmington Hills, MI: Gail, 2003), 750 []
  4. Chadwick, The Church,” 220.

    Although this is from oral history, there is great evidence for voluntary martyrdom, and I do not believe Friend to have misinterpreted. Maureen Tilley denies that the Donatists saw themselves as a Church of Martyrs, but as Church of Saints. []

  5. Alan Dearn, The Abitinian Martyrs and the Outbreak of the Donatist Schism. Journal of Ecclesiastical History, no. 1 (January 2004) 2 Dearn shares a story of the Abitinians who were handed over by the deacon Caecilian, acting under the orders of Mensurius, the bishop of Carthage, putting the Church at Carthage “in league with the devil.” W.H.C. Freind calls this story “one of the most moving testimonies of the Great Persecution, and considers the events described in the Passio Saturnini to mark the beginning of the Donatist schism. The Donatist Church (Oxford: 1952) Chadwick makes no such claim. []
  6. Ibid., 2 According to Dearn the Passio Saturnini, containing the story of the Abitinians is an “inherently Donatist work.” It does not, though, provide evidence for the causes of the schism. “The Passio Saturnini asserts what we may refer to as an ‘imagined world’, in which a stark antithesis is created between the confessores and traditores.” []
  7. Maureen A. Tilley, Sustaining Donatist Self-Identity: From the Church of the Martyrs to the Collecta of the Desert. Journal of Early Christian Studies 5, no. 1 (Spring, 1997); 23 Tilley comes strongly against Friend’s “Church of Martyrs” view, but I believe that they may have understood themselves as both. []
  8. A.W. Ziegler. “Diocletian”. New Catholic Encyclopedia Vol 9 2nd Ed. (Farmington Hills, MI: Gail, 2003), 625 []
  9. Some writings have his name listed as Abthungi. []
  10. Ibid., 862 []
  11. Alan Dearn, The Abitinian Martyrs and the Outbreak of the Donatist Schism Journal of Ecclesiastical History 55, no. 1 (Jan 2004) 1 []
  12. Chadwick, 382 []
  13. Faul, 862 []
  14. For more on this, see Henry Chadwick’s section Toleration by the government; Macarius’ suppression in The Church in Ancient Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) 384-385 []
  15. “Donatism” Encyclopedia of Christian Theology Vol 1 s.v. (New York: Rutledge, 2005) []
  16. Peter Iver Kaufman. Augustine, Evil, and Donatism: Sin and Sanctity Before the Pelagian Controversy Theological Studies, no 51 (1990) 117 []
  17. Faul, 863 []
  18. Friend, The Donatist Church:A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa. (Oxford Univesity Press: New York, 2000) 125-40. For more on this see Tertullian The Penitence of Catechumens 6.106 in Ancient Christian Writers, Translated by William P. Le Saint, Vol 28 (Newman, 1959),26-27 []
  19. Augustine On Baptism 1.2.1 in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, Vol. 4 (Peabody- Hendrickson Publishers, 1887-2004), 412 []
  20. Chadwick, 184 []
  21. Faul, 863 []
  22. Kaufman,122 []
  23. Augustine The Three Books of Augustin, In Answer to Letter of Petilian, the Donatist; Book 1 20.44.46 in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, Vol. 4 (Peabody-Hendrickson Publishers, 1887-2004), 540 []
  24. Kaufman, 122 []
  25. Petilian The Three Books of Augustin, In Answer to Letter of Petilian, the Donatist; Book 1 20.44.46 in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, Vol. 4 (Peabody-Hendrickson Publishers, 1887-2004), 521 []
  26. Augustine The Three Books of Augustin, In Answer to Letter of Petilian, the Donatist; Book 1 6.1.1. in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, Vol. 4 (Peabody-Hendrickson Publishers, 1887-2004), 521-522 []
  27. Kaufman, 122 []
  28. Faul, 864 []
  29. Ibid., see also Chadwick, 388 []
  30. Augustine, City Of God 22.8, 63.5-6 []
  31. Chadwick, 391 []
  32. Kaufman, 126 []
  33. For more on this see Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1994) 795, 2005, 2010, 2023-24 []