Augustine, Ambrose, and Imperial Power in Church Politics: with Garry Wills

Years ago I posted a mini-series on the Novatian and Donatist controversies in North African Christianity during the 3rd–5th centuries. (You can find it on the Serials Index.) There’s definitely things that I would change and nuance in there if I went back to it today. But I’m not Augustine and don’t foresee ever writing up “retractions” to all my blog posts . . .

In any case, I want to dive in and flesh out part of the Donatist controversy with the help of Garry Wills’s book, Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, & the Mystery of Baptism. Specifically, I want to talk about Augustine’s attitude toward the use of imperial power in church politics as it pertained to this controversy. Augustine’s theorizing of this use of power in the midst of this controversy is generally represented as an important step in the establishment of the unity of political and religious identity that we now call Christendom. But as it turns out, Augustine’s attitude to all this is deeply ambiguous, or perhaps conflicted.

So here are some passages from Wills (he’s drawing on Peter Brown’s Religion and Society in the Age of St. Augustine), along with some of my customary commentary (as always, bold is mine). To begin, the story often gets told that the imperial government sided with the Catholic party against the Donatists, and that the latter party was forced at the point of a sword to join the former. But Wills tells us:

Marcellinus [the imperial official tasked with deciding the legal case between the Catholic and Donatist parties] found for the Catholics and ordered the Donatists to give up their churches and join the Catholics. This was easier to declare than to enforce. . . . Frend claims: “In the countryside, archaeologists have yet to find clear evidence for the transformation of a Donatist church into a Catholic one.” But, insofar as it was justified, Augustine had to come up with a rationale for this suppression of religious freedom. He offered to share his own basilica with the Donatist bishop of Hippo. He told the Catholics not to crow over vanquished Donatists. . . . When Donatists murdered two of his priests, he asked the authorities not to execute, maim, or flog the men—they should live on, to repent. (p. 165–66)

Hardly the actions of a man hell-bent on suppressing religious deviants. Still, Augustine had to justify the court ruling, and so he drew on the parable of the wedding banquet to argue that it was within the responsible use of power to “compel them [the Donatists, in this case] to come in.” Thus he provided theological warrant for the use of state violence in enforcing religious conformity. But again, Wills highlights the ambiguity in Augustine’s position:

Augustine was never entirely comfortable with this line. For one thing, he worried about ficti, false converts going along to escape the law without really learning the truth. . . . He also feared vindictiveness in the Catholic enforcers. (p. 166)

So Augustine anticipated unhappy consequences of this use of imperial power to uphold the status quo. Indeed, the danger Augustine anticipated was that this use of imperial power in service of the church would compromise the church in multiple different ways. Quoting from Brown, Wills continues his discussion:

Paradoxically, [Augustine] had lost his enthusiasm for the alliance between the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church at just the time when it had become effectively cemented. The alliance remained as a practical necessity, a sine qua non of the organized life of his church; it would be invoked against other heretics, the Pelagians; but there is little trace, now, of the heady confidence of the 400’s. For now that he no longer needed to convince others, Augustine seems to have lost conviction himself; he fell back on more somber views. (p. 167)

Now speaking in his own voice, rather than with Brown’s:

So, even though he had been brought to an Ambrosian view of the usefulness of church coercion, he had none of the scourge-wielding swagger of the Milanese strong man. (p. 167)

As Wills notes, “Ambrose and Augustine were temperamentally very different.” Those who crossed Ambrose soon found themselves “up against a street fighter” (p. 66). On the other hand, “Augustine [was] the verbal technician of his age, impassioned, wary, discriminating, and deadly” (p. 165, quoting Monceaux). But this deadliness was of the argumentative sort, and not Ambrose’s supremely adept acquisition and deployment of political power.


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