What Is the Heresy of Donatism?

Donatism was a major Christian heresy prevalent during the 4th and 6th centuries AD. The movement was born from the need to determine which of the Christians should be permitted to serve as officials of the church. The Donatist controversy was a major heresy within the western parts of the Roman Empire, and its nexus was centered at Roman-controlled Carthage. Carthage was located near the lake of Tunis in what is now modern Tunisia.

Donatism was an ancient heresy named after its founder, Donatus. The Donatists believed that Christian clergy must be faultless and that the presence of error among them invalidated their ministries and sacraments. The Donatists were famously quelled by St. Augustine of Hippo.

The Church of Carthage split in two during the wake of the Donatism controversy. The two factions were: the Donatists and the Traditors. Below, we cover the development of the split, its buildup, and its resolution.


The Background

The Roma Empire ruled in western Europe for roughly a thousand years. Christianity arose and spread therein, and Christians experienced persecutions for a few centuries. Persecutions took many forms ranging from the lenient punishment of a legal fine to more barbaric events, such as crucifixions.

During the times of persecution, the Roman authorities often outlawed the practice of the faith entirely. So documents and other works supporting the religion were routinely destroyed. Sometimes, Christians caught practicing their faith would be given an awful choice: They could either relinquish their religious materials, or they would be executed for their continued adherence to Christendom.

Those who chose to renounce their faith and live were the traditors.

In 305 AD, the Roman Empire ended its formal persecution of Christians, and people were allowed to resume the practice of their faith. During this time, many of the people who had formerly renounced their faith rejoined Christendom. Among these were former ministers, and these returned-apostates resumed the duties fo t heir former office. The appointment of traditors as ministers was accepted by some, but the notion was intolerable for others. The most influential of these malcontents was Donatus, and those who sided with him became the Donatists.

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The Heresy Of Donatism

Later in 311, Caecilianus was elected as the bishop of the Church of Carthage. Donatus, who soon replaced Majorinus, was the rival of the bishop. Caecilianus was the successor of a traditor, and the Donatists rejected the authority of the previous traditor to pass on church leadership. This was due to the man’s prior apostasy. Therefore, Donatus and his followers rejected the authority of Caecilianus.

The claim of the Donatists against Caecilianus was straightforward and easy to understand. First, they rejected the traditors’ claim of possessing authority in the church because they had committed an egregious sin.

Donatists did not want the traditors or their successors to have their sacraments be declared valid. Instead, the Donatists argued that the traditors who were validly elected needed to be baptized once more because they had already lost their religion once. According to Donatus, only the people who survived the martyrdom and kept their faith and scriptures had a claim on the sacraments.

Donatus had exceptional leadership skills and used them to gain support for his heresy. He was also a charismatic personality who lured the local Carthaginians towards the Donatist ideology. Several lesser schismatic sects arose as a consequence of this development. This fracturing was exacerbated by the Donatists’ persuasive debate skill.

Donatism grew in popularity, and its proponents took on the slogan Deo laudes. This meant ‘God be praised,’ which the Donatists chanted when rallying. The Donatists, more than any other sect, showed an immense amount of respect for people who embraced martyrdom during Roman Empire persecutions. This attitude often inculcated a need for unnecessary martyrdom within the Donatists. To achieve this goal, some Donatists would go so far as to provoke other Christians and Roman pagans to kill them so that they might obtain a praiseworthy death. Other Donatists, tired of not being killed, decided to fulfill the deed themselves.

While the desire to obtain martyrdom might have been harmless to Roman society at large, a group among the Donatists posed a danger. These were the Circumcellions, and they were often compared to the barbarians outside the empire due to their violent and destructive nature. These people sought to kill and despoil Christians with the hope of dying in the process. Moreover, the Circumcellions’ also engaged in extensive iconoclasm, and they would often burn churches, writings, and other religious items.

The product of such violence and excessive criminal acts was often government intervention. The bad behavior of the Donatists then brought about the anti-Donatist reactionary movement. Their property was taken away from them as well as valuable personal items. It was from among these people that St. Augustine arose and came to prominence.

A Video of St. Augustine Against the Donatists

Below is a short video reenacting a debate held between St. Augustine and his Donatist opponents.

The Eventual End Of Donatism

Augustine was renowned for being at the forefront of the counterattack against the Donatist heretics. Most anti-Donatist laws were developed and passed during his era and due to Augustine’s influence. He was resistant at first towards the re-entry of Donatists into the Catholic church initially, but he later thought better of this position. Augustine was a skilled orator and writer, so he decided to win over others to his cause against Donatus.

When Augustine went against the Donatists, these religious zealots often fell short in their arguments. Moreover, Augustine ensured made sure that inquisitions and debates were held publicly so that the supporters of the various factions could arrive to show their support.

Now, because the Donatist held the minority position, these public displays often had a destabilizing psychological effect on the Donatists; because they could easily see how many people had been set against them. So Augustine’s decision to host debates publicly served as a crucial factor in suppressing the heresy.

By 411 AD, Augustine had manged to bring most of the Donatists into the Christian fold, although a fair number of them still remained in northern Africa. These sects would eventually disappear under the Muslim rulers who came a few hundred years later.

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Donatism – Now & Then

The original Donatist sects have long since dispersed and vanished. However, the heresy is still exists as the requirement of rebaptism. Many Protestant churches profess the need for rebaptism after a lapse of faith, and this was the central tenet of Donatism. The two most famous groups of Protestants to take up this aspect of Donatism have been the Calvinists and the Anglicans. Of course, neither group has taken up the barbaric aspects of the original Donatists.


Gene Botkin

Gene is the director of the Theosis Christian Project. He studied physics and military science before founding the Project. Gene is currently pursuing his doctorate in systems engineering at an engineering college in the Ozarks. The Theosis Christian Project is his attempt to expand Holy Orthodoxy in America.

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