“God never commands either schism or heresy” or Donat Hole (Part Five)

(With apologies to the Gershwins and DuBose Heyward)

It just ain’t patristic’ly so,
It just ain’t patristic’ly so,
The things that yo’ bustin’
To read in Aw-gustin’,
They just ain’t patristic’ly so . . .

“History” (note the scare quotes) is replete with things that never happened and words that were never said or written, at least by the people to whom they have been attributed. Thus Caligula never actually made his favorite race horse, Incitatus, a senator (he just tossed off the suggestion as a witticism), and Marie Antoinette never really said “Let them eat cake.”

These sorts of everyone-knows-that-but-in-fact-it’s-not-so’s are found just as often in ecclesial history as well. Thus Tertullian never wrote credo quia absurdum est, “I believe because it is absurd,” although he may be the source. Of late, we have witnessed a great chase for a supposed quotation from Richard Hooker, often used to exploit Hooker’s authority by defenders of the revisionist agenda, that led exactly nowhere.

Another favorite source of pseudo-quotation is none other than St. Augustine. He is often given credit for the phrase, in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas, “in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity,” but in truth he never wrote it.

The reputation of St. Augustine is so great that it is hardly surprising that he should be invoked in the current controversy facing the Anglican Communion in general and the Episcopal Church in particular. His is perhaps the most popular name associated by revisionists with the idea that schism is worse than heresy and it is to his authority they appeal when labeling opponents of the consecration of Gene Robinson “Donatists.” I have been unable to trace the source of this idea, but from what little I can tell, it appears that over time the assertion that Augustine believed schism was as bad as heresy seems to have morphed first into “as bad if not worse than heresy,” and from there to just “worse than heresy.” Thus the Catholic Encyclopedia, first published in 1913, under its entry on Donatism, declares that “in Africa Cyprian and Augustine both taught that schism is as bad as heresy, if not worse.” Ninety-two years later, + Gordon P. Scruton, Bishop of Western Massachusetts, could declare to his 2005 diocesan convention that “Anglicans have traditionally followed Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Richard Hooker in believing that schism or separation is worse than heresy.”

I have already written on the question of St. Cyprian, heresy and schism; I will only note (again) here that Cyprian did not teach that schism was either as bad as, or worse than, heresy, but that schism was heresy, which meant something rather different and famously rendered (in Cyprian’s mind) schismatic sacraments invalid. As for Augustine, whose ecclesiology departed significantly from Cyprian’s, he was forced to declare that, in the particular case of the Donatists (an important qualification), Donatists were not merely schismatics, but heretics, and it was their heresy that made them so awful. Unlike Cyprian, Augustine believed that the distinction between schism and heresy was not purely notional, but that what entitled the church to condemn Donatism, and just as importantly what entitled the church to use the force of the state against the Donatists, was not merely Donatism’s schismatic, but also its heretical, character.

There is reputed to have been a monastic library where, on the shelf for the works of St. Augustine, someone had scratched “He who says he has read all this is a liar.” I would certainly be very less than truthful if I claimed to have crawled through anything like the entire Augustinian corpus in a search for something resembling schisma peior quam haeresis est or sentiments to that effect. However, after hunting through dictionaries and databases, I have to date been unable to locate any such idea. That’s not to say that it could not be there somewhere, and that is certainly not to say that St. Augustine did not have quite a lot to say about both heresy and schism. Quite the contrary. However, from what I have been able to determine, Augustine’s actual thoughts on the relation between heresy and schism do not lend comfort to those who are pressing for unity at any price.

  • The Donatist schism in North Africa had its roots in the Great Persecution of Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth century, various local personality conflicts in and around Carthage, a certain sense of North African provincialism, and a deep sense of loyalty to the theology of North Africa’s martyr hero, Cyprian. Here is not the place to rehearse the people and events that resulted in one of the most famous schisms of the early church. Readers, if they wish to consult accounts online, can go here or here. Any good survey of the early church will give the particulars. The great modern work on the subject remains W. H. C. Frend’s The Donatist Church (1952). Essentially, Donatists believed that consecrations of bishops in Latin North Africa (i.e., Numidia) in the aftermath of the persecution—in particular of Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage—by those who (the Donatists alleged) had cooperated with the authorities in the persecution rendered them invalid, and only they (the Donatists) had maintained a valid line of succession and sacrament. Arguments before arbitrators and panels of bishops outside of North Africa appointed by the emperor Constantine only produced decisions in favor of Caecilian and against the Donatists. When process and argument failed to persuade the Donatists to surrendur, Constantine tried coercion, issuing an edict confiscating Donatist property and exiling Donatist leaders. However, within a few years, Constantine abandoned the effort, choosing to concentrate on his bid for sole power. Two separate churches with little apparent difference came to co-exist in North Africa in a state of perpetual mutual hostility, Donatist and Catholic.

    One outstanding difference in particular, however, would rankle Catholics both within and without North Africa. Following their hero Cyprian, Donatists insisted that schismatic baptism was no baptism at all. Since the Donatists claimed to be the true church, they would therefore rebaptize anyone who had already received a Catholic baptism. This practice really got under the skin of Catholics, who did not similarly rebaptize Donatists who joined the Catholic church, and Augustine spent a great deal of ink on the matter, insisting that baptism was not a possession of this or that priest or church but of Christ, and that thus any baptism properly performed was valid, needing only the communion of the true Catholic church and its faith to become effective. From such roots Augustine developed his sacramental theology of ex opere operato, a concept that has characterized western Christian theology ever since and is reflected in Article XXVI of the Thirty-nine Articles.

  • By the time St. Augustine became the bishop of Hippo in Numidia in 395, the Donatist schism had lasted two generations, and Donatists made up the majority of Christians in Latin North Africa. Augustine was faced with a challenge that would preoccupy him from that point down first to 405, when the emperor Honorius issued anti-Donatist decrees, and then to the decisive judgement of 411. In that year, Augustine finally persuaded Donatists leaders to commit to a great public debate with almost three hundred bishops from each side in attendance. In the judgement of the imperial tribune who presided, the argument was won by Augustine and the Catholic side (though it must be admitted that the fix was in for the Catholic side before a word was said). Donatism would live on for awhile, but the force of the Roman state would drive it underground.

    During his episcopate, Augustine slowly moved towards the view that intervention by Christian state authorities against opponents of the Catholic faith was right and necessary, a (or, some would say, yet another) sad legacy of Augustine’s thought. Augustine’s main point in the years from 395 to 411 was also his main tactic, centered on the Donatist practice of rebaptising Catholics. Augustine, trained as a teacher and rhetorician facing a career in government before his conversion, well understood the legal circumstances: under the laws of the emperor Theodosius (379-395) and his son Honorius (384-423), schimatics might be punished by fines, but the main the force of the state would be brought to bear on heretics. Simply put, Roman law assumed that heresy was worse than schism, reflecting the development of canon law within the church in the fourth century. Thus whatever he himself thought about which was worse in the eyes of God, right from the start Augustine consistently argued that, by their insistence on rebaptism, Donatists were not merely schismatics but heretics. Augustine’s first substantial work against Donatism, written in 393 or 394 and now lost, was, in fact, entitled Against the Letter of the Heretic Donatus.

    Of course, during all these debates, there continued to be argument over the original cause of the schism, namely the validity of the election and consecration of Caecilian and the complicated history that followed. One of the most effective arguments against the Donatists was that, in the years since Caecilian, the Donatists themselves had been less than pure and that their attitude towards rebaptism was, in truth, inconsistent. However, the conflict between Donatist and Catholic was, in the end, inescapably theological. Donatism, based on a doctrine of sacramental purity that was both historically and ecclesially impossible to sustain, was judged not merely a schism but an ecclesiological heresy.

  • In truth, distinguishing between heresy and schism in the early church was a tricky business in general. In his 1953 Schism in the Early Church (to which I am indebted for much of my information), S. L. Greenslade, after running through various patristic citations of this or that heresy or schism, came up with following conclusions:

    (i) The general opinion was that heresy meant false doctrine and schism an orthodox sect. Some writers were satisfied with this distinction.

    (ii) Any body which had broken from the Church could be called a schism, and

    (iii) some sects which are now commonly called schisms were classed among heresies.

    (iv) As long as most theologians believed that any sect outside the catholic communion had no spiritual life, there was no great need to distinguish carefully between heresy and schism.

    (v) When the need to do so became more obvious, whether because of the legislation against heresy or because of theological developments such as Augustine’s, the more reflective minds found it difficult to define both heresy and schism.

    In other words, the distinction between heresy and schsim was always, in fact, difficult. Yet in the early church, the distinction was made. Apart from Augustine, there were certainly those who believed that schism was as bad as heresy. Chrysostom declared that “to make a schism in the Church is no less evil than to fall into heresy.” And outside of his specifically anti-Donatist writings, Augustine could certainly make a distinction between heresy and schism that was not simply notional: “Heretics violate the faith by thinking falsely about God, while schismatics break away from fraternal love by their wicked separations although they believe as we do.” (De fide et symbolo 21). However, to date I have as yet been unable to locate any comment outside of his anti-Donatist oeuvre in which Augustine ranks schism qua schism as worse than heresy, nor can I find any other patristic source for such an idea.

    Along with numerous letters and sermons that give details both as to the course of the Donatist controversy in his lifetime and about his own thinking, Augustine wrote a number of substantial treatises against Donatism. About a dozen of these survive, written over a period of more than two decades. Of these, a surprising number have never been translated into English, at least so far as I can tell. (Interested readers can click on the highlighted text to check out the project to produce both a complete digital text of modern critical editions and an English translation, as well as the excellent website maintained by the Nuova Biblioteca Agostiniana, which has the entire Migne Patrologia Latina text online as well as an Italian translation).

    This is a substantial body of literature, and I have read only a fraction of it, so my conclusions below must be taken as tentative (and I welcome either supplementary information or correction). So yes, I’m going a little bit out on a limb here. However, with that caveat, I will hazard a few general observations along with some specific points.

    First, whether by hunting in dictionaries, databases, or secondary sources, or in reading any of the anti-Donatist works in either the original Latin or in English translation, I have been unable to locate any direct statement by Augustine that schism is worse than heresy.

    Second, Augustine regularly pairs schism and heresy in all his discussions of Donatism, something that clearly upset Donatists. In the Contra Cresconium (II.4), Augustine quotes his Donatist opponent Cresconius as complaining that Augustine calls Donatists heretics, even though Catholics and Donatists follow the same observances and have the same sacraments; to which Augustine replies, if we have the same sacraments, then why do you rebaptize Catholic converts to Donatism? You can’t have it both ways. Instead, by insisting on rebaptism, Donatists have answered the question, “Where is the Church” in such a way as to render their separation not merely schismatical, but heretical. Moreover, Donatism is a haereticorum sacrilegum errorem, a “sacrilegious error of heretics,” because the Donatists have remained in schism for so long; in schismate inveterato remansistis, “you have remained in inveterate schism” (II.8.10).

    Third, Augustine will regularly describe schism in extreme terms. In mentioning the various accusations of crimes by or against Donatists dating back to Diocletian’s persecution, Augutine will nevertheless declare that, whatever the truth or untruth of this or that charge, the Donatists cannot get off the hook by this means, since schisma tamen crimen est omnium, “schism is the crime of all crimes” (De unitate 2.3). The crimes of Korah, Dathan and Abiram show that schism is more heinous than idolatry (Epistle 51). Donatism is repeatedly described as the immanum sacrilegum, indeed the immanissimum sacrilegium, “the most enormous of sacrileges,” (Contra litteras Petiliani II.96.221).

  • Yet in none of these passages (or any other that I have yet found) does Augustine explicitly draw the conclusion that, since schism is worse than idolatry, or that since it is greatest sacrilege, or since it is the crime of crimes, therefore it is worse than heresy. Why?

    Part of this is no doubt due to Augustine’s background as a rhetorician and grammarian, someone trained to speak in extreme terms, whether in a panegyric to an emperor (something Augustine had done in pursuit of a government post in his pre-Christian days) or in a court of law. However, surely the main reasons lie in a) the difficulty in distinguishing heresy and schism in general, b) the reluctance to give a free pass to Donatists in particular on the charge of heresy, and most importantly, c) his belief that, whatever its origins, schism when continued over a period of time must turn to heresy to maintain itself.

    Two remarks, separated by perhaps fifteen years, suggest the key to Augustine’s thinking on schism. As noted above, in the Contra Cresconium of 405, Augustine insists that Donatists are heretics because, whatever they have in common with Catholics, they are inveterate schismatics. In 420, near the end of his life and years after his victory at the conference in 411, Augustine, in his summary of the various heresies facing the church, described the Donatists as men who had “made a schism” but had “by confirming their pertinacious dissension turned schism into heresy.” (De haerisibus 69) In other words, Augustine, despite his strong condemnation of schism, never directly weighs it against heresy not because heresy is more or less evil than schism, nor because heresy is by definition schism. Rather, since only the Catholic Church can be the source of truth, any schism, though perhaps distinct from heresy in its origins, inevitably results in heresy if it is maintained for any length of time. In other words, it is precisely because of its heretical bent, due to separation from the divinely authorized source of truth—the Catholic Church—that schism is so awful. What may begin as a sin against charity always contains the seeds of a sin against faith.

    Thus Augustine would have found the strange appeals we have heard over the last several months by bishops such as +Peter Lee, or +Neil Alexander, or +Gordon Scruton—that in the choice between heresy and schism, we should choose heresy—simply bizarre. Deus autem numquam iubet schisma vel haeresim fieri. “God however never orders that there be either schism or heresy.” (De unitate 13.33)

  • Supporters of Gene Robinson have repeatedly accused opponents of Donatism; yet, as has been pointed out in the past, the case against Gene Robinson is not one of sacramental efficacy—that would indeed raise Donatist issues—but of communion with heresy. In fact, what is (to me) most striking about the arguments in favor of “revisionism” or “reappraising” or “the Spirit doing a new thing” are their own resemblance to . . . you guessed it—Donatism, with a pinch of Montanism thrown in for good measure.

    In a sense, it will be the consecrators of Gene Robinson, the “reappraisers” who, if they should choose in the language of the Windsor Report to “walk apart,” will be the true inheritors of the Donatist spirit. Donatism was nothing if not a movement of moral and spiritual purity or integrity, an integrity which in the case of Donatists spilled over into their estimation of the sacraments. Well, as far as that goes, it is the revisionsists who claim that they alone have fully grasped the message of the Spirit, all others having failed to “listen.” They alone, guided into this “new thing” the Spirit is doing, have true moral integrity. It is their opponents, the “reasserters,” who are the morally impure for failing to see the injustice of such a stance against gay “people” and “inclusive love.” Ironically, our very insistence on the plain meaning of the Biblical text has apparently rendered us hateful, moral failures, unjust. Should the Episcopal Church “walk apart,” the revisionists will thus justify themselves when, like Donatists insisting on moral purity as a sign of the true church, they proclaim their new, true, “inclusive” church, no longer ECUSA but now the “international” TEC. Unlike the Donatists, however, theirs will not be a heresy rooted in schism, but, like the Montanists of old guided by a New Prophecy, a schism rooted in heresy.


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