On Donatism

Pg. 265 – The Story of Christian Theology, by Roger E. Olson

The Donatists were more so moral purists than intellectuals. They were Xtns who were deeply rooted in The Shepherd of Hermas book, and so also Tertullian’s writings.

Roots of the Donatist movement goes back to the days of Xtn persecution under Decius and Diocletian. They believed that all bishops who cooperated with the persecuting Roman Empire were not true bishops. So they would not accept the authority of any bishop who had such associations. They would not only not accept such a bishop, they also not accept as valid any sacrament that he ministered. So if you took part in a Eucharist service where such a priest administered the sacraments, you basically did not take part in anything.

Over and against this Augustine counters, by saying that the sacraments are valid and holy even if an unholy person is administering them. It is not about the “who” but about the “what”.

Do you see the importance of this issue?

What if your pastor is a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Does that mean that all those services that you attended were invalid? Does that mean that the Eucharist service that you took part in along with the prayers for self-examination were all invalid? What if he baptized you, does that mean, you need to get baptized again?

The sacramental theology that Augustine developed, which would eventually get accepted by the Church, would be that the sacraments convey grace ex opere operato, which mean loosely “by virtue of the act itself.” I.e. “the power and validity of the sacrament rest in Christ’s holiness, and teh priest who administers it is only an instrument of Christ’s grace.”

According to Augustine, Christ is the high priest who is really the sole giver of sacramental grace.

“What these administer is the baptism of Christ, whose sanctity cannot be corrupted by unworthy ministers, any more than the light of the sun is corrupted by shining through a sewer.”

Of course it goes without saying that if you know that the person manning the pulpit is a heretic, you ought to making plans to do something about it. Either defrocking him or leaving the church.

It seems also thought that Augustine will make room for at least one criteria, viz. that of ordination. You cannot have just any one off the streets administer the sacraments.

“But a baptism performed by an immoral or heretical priest with valid ordination and in communion with the Great Church would be a true sacrament. That was the meaning of ex opere operato.”