Monday, April 4, 2022

Donatism Aftermath

Although Donatus Magnus' appeal at the Council of Arles failed, and he was exiled to Gaul until his death, Donatism did not die out. After all, it had become the dominant church in parts of North Africa. Rome and a succession of popes would have liked to bring the Donarists of North Africa back "into the fold," but there was opposition.

Donatism also had its own internal problems, some of which came from the Circumcellions. The name was derived from Latin circum cellas euntes ("those going around larders") The larder in this case referred to a cool place for food storage, from which we get the word "cellar." The meaning behind the label was because the Circumcellions lived off of food from others whom they tried to convert to their cause. The called themselves Agonistici ("fighters" [for Christ]). They first appeared in 317 from the lower strata of society, fiercely anti-Roman and desiring social reform.

A bishop in Numidia, Optatus, remembered for his writing against Donatism, said that in 340 they started attacking officials such as creditors and landlords. Those killed during the violence were considered martyrs. In fact, martyrdom became the primary Christian virtue, as opposed to chastity, charity, humility, etc. In fact, they would sometimes attack Roman legionnaires with wooden clubs, knowing they were outmatched, so that they could be martyred. 

Augustine of Hippo (pictured here) spoke out against them, writing:
And those men also belong to this same heresy [i.e.of the Donatists] in Africa who are called circumcelliones, a rough and primitive type of men most notorious for their outrages—not just for the savage crimes that they perpetrate against others, but also because in their insane fury they do not spare even themselves. For they are accustomed to killing themselves by various kinds of deaths, but especially by throwing themselves off heights, by drowning, or byself-immolation. And they seduce others whom they can, of either sex, to join them in this same mad behavior.
They would also disrupt courts of law to produce the same outcome. The punishment for contempt of court was, in fact, execution. The Donatists did not necessarily want the alliance mentioned by Augustine.

Right up through the 15th and 16th centuries, attempts at church reform that declared priests in the wrong were slammed with accusation of the heresy of Donatism, including John Wycliffe and Jan Hus.

I want to get back to the Council of Arles in which Donatism was rejected a second time. It was the first of many at Arles, and dealt with much more than Donatism. Stay tuned.

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