Church History: What was Donatism?


Suppose you came to Christ and were baptized as a teenager. Suppose years later, while at another church, you found out the pastor who baptized you was having an illicit affair with the church organist the whole time you’d been at his church, including during the time you were baptized. Was your baptism valid? Should you be re-baptized now by a ‘real’ pastor? Most of us would not think twice about answering those questions ‘yes’ and ‘no’ respectively but the answers were not always so obvious to believers.

There were two great persecutions of the church in the pre-Christian Roman Empire. One under the emperor Nero who ruled from 54 A.D. to 68 A.D. and the other under Diocletian who ruled from 284 A.D. to 305 A.D.

However, things changed dramatically for the church after Diocletian. By 312 A.D. Constantine, a professed Christian, had unified the eastern and western empire under his rule and Christianity was on it’s way to becoming the majority religion of the Roman world.

As the church found rest from external enemies, internal tensions began to surface. During the Diocletian persecution, church officials were often ordered to turn over copies of the scriptures to the imperial authorities for destruction. Some were jailed or even killed for refusing to do so. Others, however, turned over the scriptures or, in some cases, lesser church documents, knowing the government authorities would not know the difference between those and true scripture documents. After the persecution ended, those in this second category became known as traditors , Latin for “those who handed over.”

In the important North African city of Carthage, a dispute arose over whether traditors could ever again hold church office. Some felt they should be forgiven and allowed to again be priests or bishops. Others felt, though they may be forgiven and welcomed into the church as members, they should be forever banned from holding office in the church. This second group went so far as to say that baptisms and ordinations performed by repentant traditors were invalid.

This dispute came to a head in 311 A.D. when Caecilian became Bishop of Carthage. It was reported that one of the men who’d ordained him (three were required) had been a traditor. This, according to many in North Africa invalidated Caecilian’s ordination, making him ineligible to be a bishop. Those in opposition to Caecilian elected Majorinus calling him the ‘true’ Bishop of Carthage. Before the controversy could be settled, however, Majorinus died and was replaced by Donatus, from whom the movement gained its name.

Eventually (in 314) the emperor Constantine called a council at Arles to settle the matter. The council decided the Donatists were in error and validated Caecilian as the bishop of Carthage. The Donatists, however, refused to acknowledge this and continued to worship separately under their own bishops for hundreds of years, sometimes facing persecution for their beliefs. They were still a force during Augustine’s tenure as Bishop of Hippo (also in North Africa) and he often disputed with them. Donatism finally faded away only after the Muslim conquest of North Africa in the 7th Century.

Why is this controversy important? There are certainly some things that would disqualify a man from the pastorate and refusing to stand for Christ during persecution could reasonably be one of them. However, there was more at issue here than who could or could not be a bishop. The underlying issue was where the power and authority came from to admit someone to the fellowship of the church (or remove them for that matter). Donatists said that power came from the purity of the individual and only baptisms performed by worthy priests or bishops were valid. Their opponents argued that the keys to the kingdom had been given to the church and baptisms done by the church were valid baptisms, even if the person administering the baptism had been a traditor.

Most protestant churches today also see the Ministry of the Keys (from Matthew 16:19, 18:18) as belonging to the church, not to specific individuals, meaning, for example, the moral condition of a pastor has no bearing on the legitimacy of baptisms he performs. That’s not to say the pastor’s moral condition is unimportant, just that it’s the Holy Spirit, not the pastor’s personal righteousness that empowers the means of grace.

What Would Athanasius Say to Richard Dawkins?

What Would Athanasius Say to Richard Dawkins?

In regard to the making of the universe and the creation of all things there have been various opinions, and each person has propounded the theory that suited his own taste. For instance, some say that all things are self-originated and, so to speak, haphazard. The Epicureans are among these; they deny that there is any Mind behind the universe at all. This view is contrary to all the facts of experience, their own existence included. For if all things had come into being in this automatic fashion, instead of being the outcome of Mind, though they existed, they would all be uniform and without distinction. In the universe everything would be sun or moon or whatever it was, and in the human body the whole would be hand or eye or foot. But in point of fact the sun and moon and the earth are all different things, even within the human body there are different members, such as foot and hand and head. This distinctness of things argues not a spontaneous generation but a prevenient Cause; and from that Cause we can apprehend God, the Designer and Maker of all.

Athanasius of Alexandria – On the Incarnation

A Lesson from History

A Lesson from History by Larry Farlow

We use Netflix to rent movies at our house. One of the things that’s great about Netflix is the huge selection of movies they offer – from the most recent and popular to the most obscure.

A while back I watched one of those obscure films. It was called Berlin: Symphony of A Great City. Made in 1927,  it is a montage of film set to classical music taking the viewer through an average day in the city of Berlin. You watch as the city awakes, as the doors to the street car barns are opened and the people begin to trickle out of their houses for work and school. You watch the shops open and see the commerce of the city move into full swing for the day. You see the rush subside as people take a break for lunch and then ramp up again for the remainder of the day. Finally you see glimpses of the night life of the city as people frequent restaurants and clubs after the work day has concluded. Being a lover of history, I found this fascinating.  I was able look back in time and see what daily life was like in another era.  It was like the films you see of the children of Nicholas II of Russia roller skating on their yacht or the photos of people on board Titanic as she sets out on her maiden voyage. You’re watching people go through their daily lives who have no idea of the enormous tragedy that is just around the corner for them.

This film was made only six years before the National Socialists, led by Adolph Hitler, came to power in Germany. Only 12 years before the German invasion of Poland which began World War II. Only 18 years later, the ‘great city’ would be reduced to rubble, occupied by the Russian army and then divided in two for the next 50 years.

As I watched I was not only seeing the overall scene but the faces of individuals. Which of these shopkeepers or factory workers or businessmen would be carted off to a concentration camp in the next few years? Which of these tow-headed school boys with their rucksacks would end up a frozen corpse on the Russian front?

It struck me that we can take no comfort in the normalcy of our lives. Just like the people in Berlin all those years ago going about their daily business – we too could be just around the corner from tragedy. Nothing in this world is sure. If we build our lives on the here and now or find our security in the things of this world, we are doing what the Bible calls building our house on the sand. Jesus says in Matthew 7:27 that houses built on sand will collapse into rubble when tragedy strikes. However, if our security is in Christ and our lives are built on His foundation, no amount of tragedy will ultimately destroy us. Jesus says of this kind of house:

“And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock” Matthew 7:25

I think there is a greater propensity here in the United States more than in some other places in the world to base our security on the trappings of civilization – on the assumed constancy of the ‘American way of life’.  We expect things to be much the same for us as they were for our parents, if not better. The truth is our world could be turned upside down in the blink of an eye just as it was for the people I saw in this film. Only the Lord knows what the future holds for us as a nation.  Whatever happens the time to cultivate a heart that trusts the Lord and finds its security in Him is now.

One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

How do you portray the horrors of a totalitarian state? One way is with statistics. Everyone is familiar with the number of people murdered by Hitler’s regime during the holocaust. And while data like that has its place, it’s sometimes difficult for people to relate to numbers. In One Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn chose to use the events of a single day in the life of an individual to expose the reality of life in Stalinist Russia. Like Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl, this up close look at the impact of totalitarianism on a single person is more powerful than a nameless list of victims because you can imagine yourself in the shoes of the victim. What if this happened to me? How would I live under circumstances like that? Could I survive such an ordeal? As I read this book I asked myself all of those questions and more.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, committed the crime of being a POW during the Second World War. Stalin was extremely suspicious of all returning prisoners, especially ones who escaped from the Germans as did Shukhov. He was sure such men were not really escapees but spies, deliberately let go in order to return to the USSR and spy on their homeland.

The book opens in Siberia in the frozen pre-dawn hours. Prisoners are awakened by a hammer sounding reveille against a metal pipe. It ends several hours later at lights out in the same freezing barracks. In between we are introduced to life in the camp through the eyes of Shukhov. Shukhov is a decent, honest man. The kind who takes pride in his work laying bricks even while falsely imprisoned in a concentration camp. He is resigned to his fate but makes the best of it, finding happiness in the few pleasures available to him such as meal times and the occasional smoke. In short, Shukhov is the kind of citizen nations need in order to build a stable and successful society. As the day goes on we learn that very few real criminals inhabit the camp. There are instead men who fought bravely in the war, men who are deeply religious and men who are skilled professionals.

Though the book is about one man and one day, Solzhenitsyn shows us that the cost of totalitarianism is not just paid by individuals like Shukhov. The culture as a whole suffers when hard working, honest people are preyed upon by the state. He reminds us there is something wrong with a society when the criminals are in power and decent citizens are locked away, where the purpose of laws is to protect the government from the people and not the other way round.

If you’ve never read Solzhenitsyn, this is a great place to begin. It’s a short read (I finished it in just a few hours over a couple of evenings) but still gives you a sense of his skill as a writer. It was one of those books where the world faded away while I was in its pages.  After finishing it, I felt as though I’d been to this camp. I could almost feel the cold and the hopelessness of the men. I was left wanting to know Shukhov more, to find out what happened to him. A writer who can do this, especially in translation, is skilled indeed.  I can only imagine how powerful the book must be for those who can read it in the original language.

If you’d like to read One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, you can order the Kindle version here:

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Rose Publishing: Complete Kit for Christian History Made Easy 12-session DVD-based study

ImageI pre-ordered this a while back and it arrived yesterday. I’m excited about using it both as a personal learning tool and a possible teaching resource for church. Once I’ve gone through it, I’ll post a review.

Rose Publishing: Complete Kit for Christian History Made Easy 12-session DVD-based study.