Augustine and the Donatists (2): Baptism and the Church in North Africa
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.
Like the Donatists, Augustine claimed to be the true heir of Cyprian. This is both accurate and inaccurate. It is inaccurate insofar as Augustine was not as rigorous as Cyprian, both in terms of enforcing general morality and in terms of sacramental recognition. For instance, while Cyprian was willing to grant weakness in the congregation but not the clergy, Augustine was prepared to recognize weakness in the clergy as well.
On Augustine’s view, such weakness did not undermine the sacraments precisely because the sacrament’s power comes from Christ, with whom the church is united through the bond of love established by the Holy Spirit. It is Christ and the church as a whole, in that order of importance, who are the true ministers of the sacraments, not the individual celebrants. The union of love established by the Holy Spirit between the church and Christ is the mechanism from which the sacraments receive their saving power. What matters is not the purity of the clergy, but their establishment in this loving union.
The concrete way of enacting this unity is, for Augustine, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. He writes that “The supper of the Lord is the unity of the body of Christ, not only in the sacrament of the altar, but also in the bond of peace” (§24). The Donatists, by setting up rival bishops and communities, excluded themselves from this sacrament of the altar wherein the unity of Christ’s body is enacted – union between the church and Christ, and union within the church. They are therefore outside the Holy Spirit’s bond of love, since “he is not a partaker of the divine love who is the enemy of unity” (§50).
Being thus cut off from the bond of love, the Donatists are not able to administer effective sacraments: being within the bond of love, clergy tainted by weakness are able to administer effective sacraments. This emphasis on the church’s bond of love with Christ as the basis of the sacraments’ saving ministry is where Augustine is indeed Cyprian’s heir, although creatively so. But, Augustine goes on to disagree with Cyprian on another point. Cyprian would not recognize that the schismatics had baptism, re-baptizing them – or baptizing them in truth for the first time, as he claimed – on their return to the church. Instead, Augustine made a distinction between a valid sacrament and an effective one, arguing that the Donatists had the former but not the later.
In other words, the Donatists did the ceremony correctly, thus removing the need for re-baptism, but this ceremony was unable to communicate saving grace because the Donatists were outside the church’s bond of love. Consequently, schismatics returning to the church did not need to receive baptism again; rather, the bond of love into which they entered through union with the church activates or makes retrospectively effective their valid schismatic baptism. Here is Augustine again, speaking in the voice of a schismatic pondering reconciliation with the church: “What, then, he says, do we receive with you, when we come to your side? I answer, You do not indeed receive baptism, which was able to exist in you outside the framework of the body of Christ, although it could not profit you; but you receive the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, without which no one can see God” (§43).
In the course of his discussion of these matters, Augustine establishes that a sacrament’s validity consists of the proper word joined to the proper material sign. So, for baptism to be valid, one needs the triune name and some water. Effectiveness, on the other hand, required communion with the church. Some treat this as an unfortunate descent into a minimalist sacramentalism insofar as liturgics are concerned. But Augustine’s treatment of baptism is far from minimalist, theologically speaking. While he establishes a rather low bar for what counts as the valid performance of a sacrament, he establishes a rather full-bodied account of what makes a sacrament an effective and saving event. He tackles in a rather compelling way the complex interaction of christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, and – of course – sacramentology, uniting them within a coherent big-picture.
The End. Remember to cf. the series introduction for the polemical horizon of this study. But if you enjoyed it simply as a foray into the history of doctrine, I won't complain. ;-)