Appendix 4 Augustine's Concern with Donatism in the Years Immediately Preceding and Following the Commentary on Galatians - Oxford Scholarship Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Augustine's Commentary on GalatiansIntroduction, Text, Translation, and Notes$

Eric Plumer

Print publication date: 2003

Print ISBN-13: 9780199244393

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2004

DOI: 10.1093/0199244391.001.0001

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(p.249) Appendix 4 Augustine's Concern with Donatism in the Years Immediately Preceding and Following the Commentary on Galatians

(p.249) Appendix 4 Augustine's Concern with Donatism in the Years Immediately Preceding and Following the Commentary on Galatians

Augustine's Commentary on Galatians

Eric Plumer

Oxford University Press

The documentary evidence of Augustine's concern with Donatism in the years immediately preceding and following the composition of the Commentary on Galatians, that is, during his presbyterate and shortly thereafter,1 is considerable, even though it is not nearly so well known as the evidence of his concern with Manicheism. In 392 he wrote a long, earnest letter (ep. 23) in his most diplomatic style to Maximinus, Donatist bishop of Sinitum in the diocese of Hippo, on the subject of rebaptism. The seriousness of his concern with the schism is evident from the way he speaks of what it would mean for Maximinus to help heal it:

If by your moderation, and prudence, and the love which we owe to Him who shed His blood for us, this great scandal, this great triumph of the Devil, this great destruction of souls were removed from our midst in these regions, who could describe in words the palm prepared for you by the Lord, because you originated a remedy worthy of imitation for the healing of all the members which lie wretchedly wasted with disease throughout all Africa?2

In the year following we find Augustine's concern over the schism shown in another way in his address on Faith and the Creed to the Catholic bishops assembled at the Council of Hippo.3 In his discussion of the credal article on the Holy Church he did not fail to attack the schismatics.4 A similar attack appears in (p.250) his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount (s. dom. m. 1. 5. 13), which he was in the process of writing at this time. Towards the end of 393 or the beginning of 394 he composed his first anti‐Donatist work, the Psalm against the Donatists. He used the form of an alphabetical psalm5 in order ‘to familiarize the most lowly people, and especially the ignorant and uneducated, with the cause of the Donatists and to impress it on their memory’,6 in other words, to counter Donatist propaganda.7 Although it deals with substantive issues, principally the unity, catholicity, and authority of the Church, the work has suffered comparative neglect from scholars, perhaps because they are embarrassed to see ‘the delicate‐minded author of the Soliloquies . . . descend to the doggerel of a music‐hall ditty’.8

At about the same time, Augustine wrote a polemical treatise Against a Letter of the Heretic Donatus to refute the claim of Donatus the Great that true baptism was to be found only in the Donatist Church.9 Meanwhile, his letter‐writing campaign continued. In 395 or 396 he wrote to Proculeianus, the Donatist bishop of Hippo, again earnestly seeking the reconciliation of the two churches. The pastoral difficulties the schism was creating are vividly portrayed: ‘Husbands and wives agree about their bed and disagree about the altar of Christ. . . . Sons share on home with their parents, but they do not share the same house of God.’10 As in Letter 23 to Maximinus, Augustine desires above all dialogue, whether by personal conversation, a more formal conference, or any other means.11 Unable to obtain satisfaction from Proculeianus, however, he proceeded to write to that man's superior, the Donatist bishop Eusebius, reiterating his desire to confer and iron out differences (ep. 34). That too seems to have been unavailing, and later in 396 he wrote again to Eusebius, complaining now in tones of growing exasperation (ep.35). It would appear that the Donatists wanted to avoid having to deal with Augustine.

Also about 396 he composed On the Christian Struggle, an explanation of the rule of faith and of the Christian life written in a plain style for the unlearned.12 In explaining the catholicity of the Church, Augustine contrasts the false teaching of the Donatists, which is already condemned in Scripture.13

Finally, throughout this period Augustine spoke out against the Donatists in his (p.251) sermons14 and his Expositions of the Psalms.15 It is clear that Augustine regarded himself as being in the midst of a campaign to bring the Donatist schism to an end. He thought continually of the account he would have to give on the Day of Judgement.16 Despite the fact that his first major work against the Donatists, Against the Letter of Parmenianus, was not written until 400, Augustine's personal engagement in the Donatist controversy should be regarded as beginning not then but much earlier, with his ordination to the priesthood in 391 and his acceptance of the pastoral responsibilities that went with it.

To the evidence of Augustine's own writings we may add that of two contemporaries. Possidius, who shared the monastic life with Augustine at this time, records that as a priest Augustine opposed Donatism in books and sermons and as a newly ordained bishop he was so concerned with Donatism that he laboured continually to bring the schism to an end.17 Augustine's reputation grew rapidly, even spreading overseas.18 Thus Paulinus of Nola, writing in 396 to Romanianus in Rome, extols Augustine as the man destined by God to crush both Donatists and Manichees.19 Donatist bishops were reluctant to debate with him or even to answer his letters.20 So even at this point Augustine was regarded as a formidable adversary.21

When we add to the foregoing evidence an examination of the historical context from which it emerged, our view is corroborated. Frend has remarked that ‘it was in [the] ten years between 388 and 398 that Donatism came nearest to achieving complete mastery in Africa’.22 At Hippo itself and in the surrounding countryside the Donatists predominated,23 reducing the Catholics to the status of a ‘harassed minority’.24 In this same period, however, the possibility of effecting real change was presented to the Catholics with the death c.391 of Parmenianus, Donatist bishop of Carthage since 363 and a powerful opponent of the Catholic Church. When he was succeeded by the tyrannical Primianus, crisis and division ensued within the Donatist Church. At almost exactly the same time, the Catholics had a momentous change for the better in their leadership, when the ineffectual Genethlius was succeeded in the see of Carthage by Aurelius, who was to prove a (p.252) gifted Church leader and organizer. The possibility of winning Donatists back into the Catholic fold appeared better than ever. It is not surprising therefore to find in the ecclesiastical legislation emerging from the Council of Hippo clear evidence that the Donatists were in mind, as Willis notes:

Some of the abridged canons of this council, contained in the Codex Canonum Ecclesiae Africanae, appear to have reference to Donatism. Thus Canon 12 of these prohibits the marriage of sons of bishops and clergy with heathens, heretics and schismatics; Canon 14 says that bishops and clergy shall not choose for their heirs those who are not Catholic Christians, even though they may be relatives; Canon 17 that no man may be ordained bishop, priest or deacon who has not first made all his household Catholic Christians; and by Canon 29 bishops and clergy are forbidden to have meals in church, except when necessary for the refreshment of guests, and then none of the laity shall be admitted. The last canon seems to have in mind the possible imitation of the riotous feasts of the Donatists. . . . Canon 37 reaffirms the old rule of the Councils, that no Donatist clerics shall be received into the Church except into lay communion, unless they can show that they have never practised rebaptism, or that they wish to come over with their whole congregation. Men baptized in infancy by the Donatists are not thereby to be deprived of the privilege of Catholic ordination.25

This Council is of great historical importance in itself and as the first in a long series of councils26 under the presidency of Aurelius, bishop of Carthage and primate of Africa, who together with Augustine would play a leading role in the struggle against the Donatists.

Thus Donatism was very much on Augustine's mind during this period, even though he appears not to have written any major treatise on the subject at the time. Yet the pastoral mission Augustine undertook with regard to the Donatists—to heal the schism for the sake of Mother Church—was never merely a matter of theological treatises, but embraced and permeated the whole of his life as an ordained minister.27


(1) His priesthood extended from 391 to 395/6. I have included writings from 396 in assessing the extent to which Donatism was a preoccupation for Augustine at the time exp. Gal. was composed. What Frend (The Donatist Church, 237 n. 1) has called ‘the first sure reference to Donatism’ in Augustine's writings occurs in ep. 20, written c.390 before he became a priest. See esp. ep. 20. 3: ‘Certainly, no one who is properly concerned over the state of his own soul, and humbly desirous of seeking the will of the Lord, will fail to distinguish the one Catholic faith from any kind of schism, especially if he has the help of a good teacher’ (Parsons, trans., 47 (CSEL 34. 1: 49. 1–5: ‘nemo enim fere sollicitus de statu animae suae atque ob hoc sine pertinacia inquirendae uoluntatis domini intentus est, qui bono demonstratore usus non dinoscat, quid inter schisma quodlibet atque unam catholicam intersit’).

(2) ep. 23. 5 (Parsons, trans., 63; CSEL 34. 1: 69. 21–70. 5).

(3) See retr. 1. 17 (16). The Council met on 8 October 393 (CCSL 149: 20).

(4) For his discussion of the schismatics see f. et symb. 10. 21. That Augustine is thinking principally of the Donatists is evident from a comparison of his language here and in the almost exactly contemporaneous ps. c. Don.

(5) The first letter of the first line of each strophe is in alphabetical order. For analysis of the form of ps. c. Don. see Bonner, St Augustine of Hippo, 253–7, and the references given there.

(6) retr. 1. 20 (19), Bogan, trans., 86 (CCSL 57: 61. 2–4: ‘Volens etiam causam Donatistarum ad ipsius humillimi uulgi et omnino imperitorum atque idiotarum notitiam peruenire, et eorum quantum fieri per nos posset inhaerere memoriae’).

(7) Popular psalms had already been composed by the Donatists, most notably by Parmenian, bishop of Carthage (see Frend, The Donatist Church, 193–4).

(8) Van der Meer, Augustine the Bishop, 105.

(9) retr. 1. 21 (20). 1. It would appear from Augustine's remarks that he also discussed the primacy of Peter in this treatise, which is no longer extant.

(10) ep. 33. 5 (Parsons, trans., 129 (CSEL 34. 2: 21. 23–4 and 22. 2–3)).

(11) See esp. ep. 33. 4. Cf. ep. 23. 2, 6–7.

(12) retr. 2. 3 (29) (see esp. CCSL 57: 91. 1–3).

(13) agon. 29. 31.

(14) ss. 252. 4–6, 273. 2, and those Augustine refers to in ep. 29.

(15) en. Ps. 10; 21 serm. 2; 25 serm. 2. 6; 35. 9; 54. 26. For the dates of these enarrationes see CCSL 38: p. xv.

(16) e.g. ep. 23. 6: ‘I am considering how I shall give an account to the Prince of all shepherds of the sheep entrusted to me’ (Parsons, trans., 64 (CSEL 34. 1: 70. 18–19)). Cf. ep. 43. 1. 2.

(17) Vita 7. 1 and 9. 2.

(18) Vita 7. 4.

(19) Augustine, ep. 32. 2 (= Paulinus, ep. 7. 2).

(20) Possidius, Vita 9. 4. Cf. Augustine, epp. 34. 5–6 and 35. 1. (Eventually debates were held. See Augustine, epp. 43 and 44.)

(21) Monceaux, Histoire littéraire, vii. 13.

(22) Frend, The Donatist Church, 210.

(23) Augustine himself mentions how a generation earlier the Donatists had adopted a particular policy at Hippo ‘because of the paucity of Catholics there’ (c. litt. Pet. 2. 83. 184 (CSEL 52: 114. 14: ‘quoniam catholicorum ibi paucitas erat’)).

(24) Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 139.

(25) Willis, Saint Augustine and the Donatist Controversy, 30–1. Willis's interpretation is accepted by Bonner, St Augustine of Hippo, 115 n. 5. For the Latin text of the Hippo Breviary see the edition of C. Munier in CCSL 149: 22–53.

(26) Extending from 393 to 424.

(27) Cf. Baus: ‘For an understanding of Augustine it is crucial to know that the central motive for his personal involvement in [the Donatist] question was the pastoral mission, perceived as a sublime responsibility, to guard those confided to him in the Church and to win back the others for the Church and the truth proclaimed by it’ (Jedin and Dolan (eds.), History of the Church, ii. 148).