Augustine and the Donatists (2): Baptism and the Church in North Africa

Cf. the series introduction, Cyprian and the Novatians (1), Cyprian and the Novatians (2), Augustine and the Donatists (1).

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 and the Donatists (cont.)

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. ;-)



Matthew Frost said…
Definitely enjoyed. This last piece reminds me quite a bit of Melanchthon's minimalistic framing of the requirements for church unity (i.e. valid participation in the church). AC7's satis est of the gospel rightly proclaimed and sacrament rightly administered in accordance with the gospel owes much to Augustine's sacramental minimalism here. And it is likewise a basis for discussing the qualitative effectiveness of participation in the thing so defined.

It seems like maximalism, if I can use that for the process of thickly-qualified (usually polemical) definition places the burden upon validity. In ecclesiastical struggles, I see the focus on human qualification tending in this direction, as with Donatus and Novatian. Validity relies on you being this way, and then we must more precisely define what this way looks like in a given circumstance. Minimalism is just as polemical, but using validity as a God-defined basis for common identity shifts the discussion to what you've called effectiveness here. It looks designed as a tactic for turning the tables on maximalist self-definition, in order to substitute another authoritative definition. What I don't see that it does is argue persuasively for one or another replacement definition of self, hence the cycle.
Interesting thoughts. Of course, Augustine (and his opponents) would point at Scripture and refer to tradition as the means for settling things, and I would as well. There is also the question of what sort of thing the church is - that's really the question under consideration in these controversies: is it a moral / spiritual gymnasium, or is it a moral / spiritual hospital?
Matthew Frost said…
Of course; no good Lutheran would dispute that particular ad fontes move! But Ali was defeated by the Qur'an on the spears of his opponents. Scripture and tradition are plurivocal, which puts us in interpretation as the means of settling things -- only interpretation is not for settling anything!

I like how you put the question: gymnasium or hospital. Here we are obviously still in the arena of conceptual imagery, and the arguments are arrayed to support one or another image. But still open is the question of *how* Cyprian and Augustine and the Cappadocian Fathers (and the list goes on) -- how their image wins. How the argumentative strategy operates, supporting the image. I see us still doing it; it's almost the one constant of theological history! The pattern of orthodoxy against heresy at the tactics and strategy level. (God, but that sounds Hegelian...)
Seriously, though - for me, all we can ever do is just keep having the argument(s), just as our forebears did. Only, I hope that we have enough circumspection by now to have them more graciously. But, the score is determined by who can advance the most beautiful picture. And I mean not mere aesthetic beauty, although that may be involved, but a fundamentally spiritual (Spirit-ual) beauty: a fundamental attractiveness and fittingness to the God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ as attested by the Holy Spirit.
Matthew Frost said…
I really like that. I'm not sure that in many quarters we have the necessary circumspection, but we don't have a choice as to continuing to argue. The times change, and we are born into eschatological horizons filled with different knowledge than our predecessors had. But I have to agree: the fitness, the elegance (if I may use that for your sense of beauty, keeping the feel of the word used in math) of the idea must remain aligned to God and not to us. And it seems to be that the elegant solutions -- the arguments from theocentric minimalism -- have been the ones that become ti orthos dokei hemin: what seems right to us.

May the Spirit so continue to lead us!

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