Cyprian, Augustine and the Donatist Schism -- By: Darryl J. Pigeon

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 23:0 (NA 1991)
Article: Cyprian, Augustine and the Donatist Schism
Author: Darryl J. Pigeon

Cyprian, Augustine and the Donatist Schism

Darryl J. Pigeon

Mr. Pigeon is a 1990 M.A. graduate from ATS.

When Augustine became bishop of Hippo in 3951 he found himself compelled to deal with a schism which had existed in the church for some 85 years.2 The schism consisted of mutual hostility and distrust3 even though “both communions had the same episcopal constitution, the same priesthood, the same Creed and Sacraments.”4 The schism existed on two levels: the first was over the concern for purity in the Christian life and worldly separation while the second point of contention was doctrinal.

The tendency toward Donatist separation from the Catholic Church was caused by a concern for personal holiness. The only true church was fundamentally made up of the “communion of saints.” Genuine holiness in a church’s communion was the overriding characteristic which made unity possible and binding.5 It was the contention of the Donatists that, “the church was defined as ‘pure,’ for if it was the only body in the world in which the Holy Spirit resided, how could its members fail to be pure?”6 This concept of the church sought to uphold the ideal of the Gospel in which Christ commanded his people. “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”7

The rise of imperial Christianity and the subsequent influx of ‘common’ Christians laid the foundation for the impetus to schism. It was the position of the Donatist church that the Catholic community was a “puppet of the secular government, an instrument of political ends, polluted by a consistent record of compromise with worldliness.”8 Whereas imperial Christianity had led some to desert monasticism as the expression of their rejection of the new order, others, such as the Donatists, declared the church at large to be corrupt and themselves to be the only true church.9 In defense of their separation they made it a practice to quote the Divine command: “Come out from among them and be ye separate from them, and touch not the unclean thing.”10 Augustine would make it part of his task to show how the church was a mixture of both good and evil, an institution for sanctifying the masses, not merely a community o...

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