Note on sources: My discussion makes use of the following resources: With reference to the history, I’ll largely be following the first volume of Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, and for the theology I’ll be following the discussion in Everett Fergusson’s Baptism in the Early Church. Quotes from Augustine are from his 185th epistle, which can be found in St. Augustin the Writings Against the Manicheans and Against the Donatists: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Part 4.
Augustine’s debate with the Donatists was in many ways simply the continuation of Cyprian’s battle concerning rebaptism and the Novatians. Once more, North Africa was faced with a schismatic crisis. This one, however, would – despite imperial attempts to suppress the schismatics – persist until the Muslim conquest of North Africa.
Once again, there was a period of persecution. The particulars of this case are less interesting. However, whereas Decius’ persecution created a new category of faithful Christian, the confessor, this persecution created a new category of lapsed Christian, the “traditor” – one who had surrendered the church’s sacred books to the authorities. Again there were disputes about how rigorous the church should be with reference to accepting the lapsed back into communion. The trouble really began, however, when Carthage needed a new bishop. Caecelian was elected, but the rigorists didn’t think him stringent enough, and they elected a rival bishop, Majorinus. Majorinus died shortly thereafter, and the rigorists elevated Donatus to replace him. The consequence of all this was, of course, schism.
Theologically, the Donatists claimed to be Cyprian’s heirs. One of the three bishops involved in consecrating Caecelian as bishop of Carthage, they argued, was a traditor. Because this bishop was lapsed, the Donatists rejected the validity of Caecelian’s consecration. On Cyprian’s principles, the purity of the clergy had been compromised, and thus the power of the sacraments administered by the compromised clergy was also compromised. What was needed, said the Donatists, was a pure bishop of Carthage. Also like Cyprian, the Donatists re-baptized anyone baptized by those whose ordination they questioned, maintaining that their first baptism was no baptism at all.
The Donatists appealed to the emperor over Caecelian’s consecration, thus involving the secular authorities. They were unable to prove their charges, however, and the emperor declared against them. Thus, they invited upon themselves the secular measures used against them. A fanatic fringe group made things worse by attacking secular authorities and knifing bishops in an attempt to earn what they thought of as “martyrdom.” However, their opponents claimed that even if their charges against this particular bishop had stuck, this would not render Caecelian’s consecration invalid. It is here that Augustine made his contribution.