Augustine, First a Mystic, then a Catholic, then an Allegorist, Part II Catholic

“unity in necessary things; liberty in doubtful things; charity in all things”

The common misconception attributes these words to Augustine.  Augustine wrote over a million words, but he never said these words in this order.  The real Augustine would accept no compromise.  He would relentlessly persecute the Donatists; imprisonment, confiscation of  property  and coercion into Catholicism.  Why?  The Donatists agreed on virtually every theological position the Catholics held.  The minor differences of theology (i.e. rebaptism) were truly insignificant in the struggle between Christianity and paganism.  Peter Brown, a well known biographer, of Augustine will explain the Donatists and quote from one of Augustine’s works:

The Donatist bishops expounded the same Bible as himself, they professed the same creed, they celebrated an identical liturgy; yet they refused to see obvious truth about the Catholic Church – “They go down with eyes into Hell.”(C.Ep. Fund. 4)[1]

If God should fail to punish the Donatists, Augustine will take up the slack in God’s program and try to make their earthly existence as close to hell as possible.  If Augustine hated religious parties that shared the same creeds, same liturgy and same Scripture, what would he have thought of the Protestants who did not share the same creeds or liturgy and denied the efficacy of the sacraments?

If I have satisfied you about the falseness of your objections, and in my view you ought to be manifestly content, I advise and beseech you to charge us no longer with contradicting the ancient doctors in this matter with whom we are in fact in such accord;[2]


Calvin could not have been more wrong.  From observations of his treatment of the Donatists, it would not be amiss to conclude that Augustine would have persecuted and hated the Protestants.  He was willing to jail, exile, flog,  and impoverish the Donatists who believed and practiced a close, almost identical theology to the Catholic religion.  He hated literalists and fundamentalists who disagreed with his Platonic conclusions and Scriptural allegories, persons who would have a close affiliation with the Protestant cause.  He would have detested John Calvin and the other Protestant clergy who had no claim to apostolic succession.  In the Edict of Unity in 405, the emperor accuses the Donatists with theological error in regard to baptism.  This slight difference was not a reason but an excuse for persecution.   A careful examination of the Donatist controversy will clarify this contention.  The Donatists were much closer to Catholicism than the Reformers, and the Donatists shared many theological ideas of the Reformation.

Augustine was the “father” of many things.  The father of Western Theology, Catholicism, and Christian Mysticism.  Perhaps, his most hidden trait is the father of the Inqusition.  How does Augustine move from Christian mystic above the cares of the world to the father of the Inquisition?  From the time of his appointment as bishop in 395 up to his death 430 he did not cease in persecuting and attacking the Donatists.  In the years before his death, when  the Vandals were approaching Hippo, and every priest and citizen was in danger of being tortured and/or raped, it would have been prudent for opponents to make common cause to fight a common enemy.  Augustine, nevertheless, was relentless  in his persecution and would not let up in his attacks on the Donatists.  Who were the Donatists and what made them enemies of  Augustine?

The Donatists

Tertullian (160 – 225 AD), is regarded as a church father by Protestants because of his high regard for Scripture.  He became a Montanist later in life and as a result was considered outside of mainstream Catholicism.  He believed Scripture was the source of authority over doctrinal issues.  Consequently when he argues against the Gnostics in his writing “on the Flesh” he cites Scriptures as authoritative evidence against their teachings

If you had not purposely rejected in some instances, and corrupted in others, the Scriptures which are opposed to your opinion, you would have been confuted in this matter by the Gospel of John, …

We have, however, challenged these opinions to the test, both of the arguments which sustain them, and of the Scriptures which are appealed to, and this we have done ex abundanti; so that we have, by showing what the flesh of Christ was, and whence it was derived, also predetermined the question, against all objectors, of what that flesh was not. [3]

Tertullian. On the Flesh of Christ

Tertullian would consider the Scriptures as the primary authority of the Church and he despised Greek philosophy.  He considered Plato, Aristotle and other Greek philosophers  the forefathers of the heretics (De anima, iii.)  He would use argument and scripture in an attempt to free Christian thought from philosophy.  He was not free from Greek philosophical ideas of his day but he made a valiant effort.  He is considered a Church Father of the Donatist and made  important contributions to their  theology.  In his later life he become a follower of Montanism; a cult stressing contemporary prophecy as revelation from God.  This act would discredit him in the eyes of Catholicism and he is not considered a Church Father of Catholicism.

Tertullian would emphasize the separation of Church and state.  As he is often quoted ‘what is more foreign to us than the State?”  The Donatist Church of  the fourth and fifth centuries would stress this independence from the State, the primacy of Scripture, and the discrediting of Greek philosophy.   The Catholic Church would act as an arm of the State, become an active participant in formulating the laws of the State and rely on the State to enforce Catholic control of the citizens of the State.

In contrast to Protestant theology Tertullian would believe there is only one true Church, the sole source of baptismal regeneration, outside the church sacraments such as communion had no real efficacy.  Tertullian believed the sanctity of the of priest enabled the effectiveness of the sacraments.  Tertullian would argue that without baptism salvation was impossible.  The heretics had to be rebaptized as  their baptism was ineffective.

In contrast to Tertullian, Augustine would weave Platonism into the very core of Christian theology.  He would claim the Christians were despoiling the riches of the Pagans in the same manner Israel despoiled the Egyptian at the time of the Exodus.  Naturally he led the fight against the rebaptism proposed by the Donatists.

Colossians 2:8

Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.

In the next generation Cyprian (200-258 AD) would become the spiritual heir of Tertullian.  The persecution affected both Catholic and Donatist alike.  Of course the Donatists considered themselves Catholics at the time.

In the first persecution, the Decian Persecution of 250-251, there were many martyrs.  Most Christians, both of the laity and members of the clergy, apostatized rather than face torture or death.  Their refusal to offer incense to the emperor or to the heathen gods, was a sign of treason to the State.  After the Decian persecution,  Cyprian developed a plan for those who had lapsed “lapsi” to return to the Church.

Naturally, some hardliners, those who suffered persecution, who had not turned over the Scripture to the State, were opposed to reconciliation.  The compromise would allow the lapsi to return under a graded policy of offense.  Those who had not sacrificed but deceived the authorities with false certificates of sacrifice were prescribed penance.  The real offenders who had offered sacrifices were required to do penance and admitted to the Church only as a last rite before death.

Emperor Valerian I, in what is called the Valerian Persecution in 256 AD would martyr Pope Stephen I and his successor Pope Sixtus II.  In Africa, Cyprian was brought before the Roman proconsul and commanded to sacrifice to the pagan deities.  Upon his refusal on September 13, 258, Galerius Maximus, the new proconsul sentenced him to death by the sword. He said “Thanks be to God!” , removed his clothes, knelt down to pray, and was beheaded.

Cyprian championed rebaptism to those Christians baptized by a heretic, or a lapsi.  Such baptisms performed by apostate priests would be invalid.  St Stephen, Bishop of Rome, in 256 where apostasy had been more common was against rebaptism.

Both Rome and Africa considered Cyprian a respectable martyr.  The Donatists used Cyprian’s position on rebaptism and extended this to the other sacraments.  The only effective sacraments were effective if administered by true priests: not lapsi.  Cyprian did emphasize the one true of Catholicism.  Rome would selectively cite his support for the Catholic Church.

The Diocletianic Persecution called the Great Persecution, because of the number of people who suffered, started in 303.  The four Roman emperors before Constantine; Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius and Constantius renewed the command for Christians to sacrifice to the Roman gods.

In addition to imprisonment, death and fines to the clergy, the most conspicuous demand was for the confiscation of Scriptures.  Due to the widespread resistance the punishments were extended to all clergy and laymen.  Eventually the persecution fell out of favor among the authorities and by 305 the persecutions had ended.

Due to the severity of the persecution the division between the lapsi and the faithful Christians was even more intense.  The lapsi were considered more than heretics, they were traitors (traditores).  The most infamous traitor was  Caecilian, an Archdeacon to Mensurius, the bishop of Carthage.  He went beyond offering sacrifice to false gods by actively assisting the Romans and persecuting Christians who did not submit. One instance in particular forty Christians; men, women and children, from Abitina, who were arrested, tortured and imprisoned.  While being tortured, the Romans slowly starved them to death.  Caecilian and his gang guarded the door of the prison whipping and clubbing any Christians attempting to feed the prisoners.  The Christians became martyrs.

Of course, the Catholics in Rome support Caecilian.  As a reward for his faithful service he was elected archdeacon.  As may be expected the Donatists objected. The Church of North Africa convened a council of seventy bishops who unanimously deposed Caecilian.  They elected  Majorinus as bishop but he soon died.  His replacement was  Donatus.  This was the beginning of the recognition of Donatism as a schism with the Church.

Constantine after becoming a Christian and wishing to find favor with the Roman bishop restored the churches of North Africa to the Catholics and appointed Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage. The Donatists, led by Donatus, appealed to Caesar and Constantine directed the appeal to bishop of Rome.  Pope Melchiades of Rome appointed fifteen Italian bishops as judges.  As was to be expected the judges pronounced Caecilian innocent.  Donatus lost his post as bishop of Carthage.  The nineteen bishops of Rome carried more authority than the  seventy bishops of North Africa.

Many years later in 386, the Emperor Theodosius appointed Gildo the leading military leader in Africa.  Theodosius died and the loyalty of Gildo was not extended to his son, the new emperor , Honorius.  Gildo had an important ally in Optatus,  the Donatist Bishop of Thamugadi.  After persecuting the Catholics and imposing Donatism on most of North Africa, Gildo and Optatus were defeated by Honorius.

Gildo was defeated in 398, the Catholics began a long series of edicts in opposition to Donatism until the Vandels took North Africa in 430.  In 398 Honorius repealed the Donatist privilege of assembly.  Augustine and his friend Alypius took an active role against the Donatists in the councils which were to convene from 403 to 411.

Without the advice of the African Catholic bishops, Honorius issued the Edict of Unification in 405.  This edict went much further than previous edicts by declaring the Donatists to be heretics, confiscating their churches, imposing fines on clergy and beatings of clergy and excluding their children from inheritance rights.

Augustine may not have drafted or voted for these harsh punishments but he certainly approved of them as indicated by his letters and sermons.  This also seems to a turning point in Augustine’s approach to the Donatists.  Prior to 405, Augustine tried personal persuasion to convert them.  After the edict he would heartily support the use of force.

Although in defense of Augustine, some would argue the edicts were promulgated by the State.  However, between 403 and 411 Augustine personally participated in six councils in Carthage against the Donatists.  In 408 Vincentius, a leader of the Donatist, wrote to Augustine asking him to justify his position on coercion.  If there is any doubt on Augustine’s culpability for persecutions against the Donatists, this letter should end the debate.

Augustine’s Letter 93 does not deny the coercion he is using against the Donatists.  He defends the use of force, the flogging, imprisonment, exile, seizure of property and torture of Christians as good coercion.  ( I suppose, that the thing to be considered when any one is coerced, is not the mere fact of the coercion, but the nature of that to which he is coerced, whether it be good or bad)In fact, moral persuasion is useless.  (Perhaps it would be utterly useless to assert this in words)  In the past he had used reasoned arguments to persuade people but as in his own town, it is more effective to use torture and coercion.  (For originally my opinion was, that no one should be coerced into the unity of Christ, that we must act only by words, fight only by arguments, and prevail by force of reason… the laws of emperors… should be maintained in force against you.)  Finally, he will use the last refuge of all villains and scoundrels, the end justifies the means. (But this opinion of mine was overcome not by the words of those who controverted it, but by the conclusive instances to which they could point.)[4]

Augustine.  Letter 93 (408): From Augustine to Vincentius

In 411, the emperor Honorius appointed the Catholic Marcellinus to covene a council in Carthage to settle the Donatist controversy.  Augustine would dedicate his most famous work “City of God” to Marcellinus.   Apparently the punishments prescribed by the Edict of Union were not severe enough to eliminate the Donatists.  To trick the Donatists into coming to the council the, some of the churches were restored temporally to Donatist control.  However, upon arriving Marcellinus declared to the Donatists the purpose of the council.  The emperor’s goal was to confirm the Catholic faith.  The Donatists, who “discolored Africa with vain error and superfluous dissension were given the ultimative to embrace the truth or be condemned in absentia.”  This condemnation included harsh fines, confiscation of not just church property but also the private property of the Donatists and the exiling all clergy and laymen.

After this council, Donatism was disappeared from the urban centers but survived in the rural and remote areas.  Augustine applauded the council and used the edicts to depose his Donatist rival priensts and reintegrated their congregations into the Catholic churches.  He will defend the  coercion of the Donatists by the government in Augustine’s Epistle 185, better known as the Treatise Concerning The Correction of the Donatists. Here are some excerpts from this letter:

many must first be recalled to their Lord by the stripes of temporal scourging, like evil slaves, and in some degree like good-for-nothing fugitives…Why, therefore, should not the Church use force in compelling her lost sons to return, if the lost sons compelled others to their destruction?…As to the charge that they bring against us, that we covet and plunder their possessions, I would that they would become Catholics, and possess in peace and love with us, not only what they call theirs, but also what confessedly belongs to us.

Your flogging is only temporal, it does not last forever, and the end result is your salvation. You deserve the beating anyway because you convince others to become Donatists which lead to their eternal damnation.  Augustine likes the old argument “what is yours is mine, and what is mine is mine.”  Why should you complain when we give your property to poor Catholics, your property is ours anyway?   It is always easier to give to the Church when it is someone else’s property you are giving away.

After two centuries of persecution under pagan emperors, the Donatists were finally defeated by their Christian brothers in a persecution that would rival any the of the pervious persecutions under the pagans.  Most of the Donatists would convert, at least outwardly, due to the Catholic persecution.  There are indications that Augustine’s mother was a practicing Donatist.  She honored martyrs by visiting gravesites until Ambrose abolished the practice.  In his youth, Augustine must have practiced Donatism with his mother.

There is no dispute that from Theodosius I (ruled 379-395) to the invasion of the Vandals in 430, the Catholics had the power over heretics to exile, imprison, confiscate property, prevent children from inheriting property and take their lives.   Augustine eventually was given judicial power over such legal proceedings and would write letters defending the practice.  How many people were actually sentenced by Augustine is not known.

As an estimated 80,000 man army of Vandals besieged Hippo in 430, Augustine was on his deathbed.  It is reported by his friends that Augustine spent his final days in prayer and repentance.  The Vandals would lift the siege of Hippo, but returned and burn the city.  The city was burned, the inhabitants were killed and tortured, but Augustine’s cathedral and library, were left untouched.

Augustine would encourage all people, men, women and children to stay in the city rather than flee the Vandal invasion.  He knew full well the crimes of the Vandals when Rome was sack, he inventoried their crimes in his work City of God.  This included the torture of priests, the rape of women, girls and boys and the plunder of all property.  Perhaps his lack of compassion for the people of his ministry and his commitment to the Platonic god he first saw in his Platonic ascent is best summed up by the recorded last words of Augustine.  Just before Hippo was to be sacked, Augustine would die and escape the brutality of the invasion.

In the midst of these evils, he was comforted by the saying of a certain wise man “He is no great man who thinks it a great thing that sticks and stones should fall and that men, who must die, should die.”[5]

The wise man was Plotinus, the writer of the Enneads.  The attraction of the Plato and the Neoplatonists were never removed from Augustine’s mind.  The effect of removing oneself from the world and becoming like the impassable One, would leave its impression on Augustine.  His lack of sympathy for the people he served and among whom he lived was evident. The sticks and stones were the city of Hippo and the men who must die were its citizens.

[1] Brown, Peter.  Augustine of Hippo, A Biography.  University of California Press, Berkeley and Los
Angeles, California. 1967. P 212

[2] [2] John C. Olin, ed.  A Reformation Debate: JOHN CALVIN AND JACOPO SADOLETO (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books), 1966.

[3] Tertullian. On the Flesh of Christ: Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3, trans. Peter Holmes (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) (

[4] You now see therefore, I suppose, that the thing to be considered when any one is coerced, is not the mere fact of the coercion, but the nature of that to which he is coerced, whether it be good or bad: not that any one can be good in spite of his own will, but that, through fear of suffering what he does not desire, he either renounces his hostile prejudices, or is compelled to examine truth of which he had been contentedly ignorant; and under the influence of this fear repudiates the error which he was wont to defend, or seeks the truth of which he formerly knew nothing, and now willingly holds what he formerly rejected….Perhaps it would be utterly useless to assert this in words, if it were not demonstrated by so many examples. We see not a few men here and there, but many cities, once Donatist, now Catholic, vehemently detesting the diabolical schism, and ardently loving the unity of the Church; and these became Catholic under the influence of that fear which is to you so offensive by the laws of emperors, from Constantine, before whom your party of their own accord impeached Cæcilianus, down to the emperors of our own time, who most justly decree that the decision of the judge whom your own party chose, and whom they preferred to a tribunal of bishops, should be maintained in force against you.

17. I have therefore yielded to the evidence afforded by these instances which my colleagues have laid before me. For originally my opinion was, that no one should be coerced into the unity of Christ, that we must act only by words, fight only by arguments, and prevail by force of reason, lest we should have those whom we knew as avowed heretics feigning themselves to be Catholics. But this opinion of mine was overcome not by the words of those who controverted it, but by the conclusive instances to which they could point. For, in the first place, there was set over against my opinion my own town, which, although it was once wholly on the side of Donatus, was brought over to the Catholic unity by fear of the imperial edicts

Augustine.  Letter 93 (408): From Augustine to Vincentius: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1, trans. by J.G. Cunningham. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.)  (

[5] Brown, Peter.  Augustine of Hippo, A Biography.  University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. 1967. P 430

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