I got exactly one paragraph into St. Augustine’s “Confessions” before I came across tonight’s Wikipedia entry.
The edition that I’m reading starts with a timeline outlining “the world of Augustine and the Confessions”, beginning in 313 A.D.
Emperors Constantine and Licinius agree on a policy of religious freedom for the whole Roman Empire: The Edict of Milan marks the end of the period of intermittent state persecution of Christians. In Africa, there is growing schism between Christians who continue to identify strongly with the tradition of the martyrs, and those who take a less heroic view of how the church should henceforth define itself. The hardliners, as followers of Donatus, bishop of Carthage, will be known as Donatists.
Reading this got me geeked up in the extreme and I had to run off to Wikipedia to find out more. I give you a sample:
The primary disagreement between Donatists and the rest of the early Christian church was over the treatment of those who renounced their faith during the persecution of Roman emperor Diocletian (303–305), a disagreement that had implications both for the Church’s understanding of the Sacrament of Penance and of the other sacraments in general.
The rest of the Church was far more forgiving of these people than the Donatists were. The Donatists refused to accept the sacraments and spiritual authority of the priests and bishops who had fallen away from the faith during the persecution.
On the surface of it, my sympathies lie with the Donatist. I don’t know why exactly. It may be that I have not always been fond of the theology of the Catholic church. It may be that I rebel against the hierarchical nature of the Catholic church. Maybe I just like underdogs and heretics. I dunno.
The Donatist sentiment does seem to jibe well with at least one passage in Hebrews 10, which deals specifically with apostasy.
26 For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,
27 but a terrifying expectation of judgment and THE FURY OF A FIRE WHICH WILL CONSUME THE ADVERSARIES.
28 Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.
29 How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?
30 For we know Him who said, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY.” And again, “THE LORD WILL JUDGE HIS PEOPLE.”
31 It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
32 But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings,
33 partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated.
34 For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one.
35 Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.
36 For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.
37 For yet in a very little while,
He who is coming will come, and will not delay.
38 But My righteous one shall live by faith;
And if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him.
39 But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.
Reading the above passage, it seems that it proscribes falling away due to persecution and denies the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice for those who had accepted and then denied it. I can certainly see the point of the Donatists in this light.
However, I’m a believer in big Grace. We all fall away from God time and again, through our own wilfullness and disobedience, even after we’ve accepted Christ’s sacrifice as payment.
In this light, we all trample Christ underfoot and woe to us all if his sacrifice be insufficient to cover multitudes of sin. I’m more likely to accept the Catholic position that righteousness comes from God no matter the state of man. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
Anyway, it seems that the Donatist were not of God but were of man and faded away under the onslaught of the Muslims. It’s an interesting line of inquiry though and one I’ll probably spend more time with in the coming days. Maybe I’ll share additional thoughts here.
Pop, if you’re out there, I’d love to get your input via the comment section. What do you think? Can you shed a little philosophical light on this debate?
Until then, I’m off to read the second paragraph of “Confessions”. At this rate, the blog will be full of Wikipedia commentary by the end of chapter one.