When North African Bishops Handed Over the Scriptures and the Church Split

When North African Bishops Handed Over the Scriptures and the Church Split February 8, 2018

Some while back, a reader left a comment asking what I thought was a very interesting question in the midst of a discussion of early Christianity and state persecution:

Do other religions have rules/beliefs/not-sure-of-the-right-word about what to do if someone asks if you believe X and threatens to kill you if you say yes? Because I was raised to believe that if you ever denied being a Christian, that was like the unforgivable sin and you couldn’t be saved. I don’t think this makes sense but I’m curious how other faiths handle it.

I don’t know how other religions handle it, but reading about early Christianity has become something of a hobby of mine, and this reader’s comment brought something to mind. You wouldn’t know it now, but whether a Christian was allowed to deny the faith in a moment of persecution and then go on to serve in the church became a major area of controversy during the early fourth century. There was actually a church schism over this issue.

Some of the most intense persecution the early church ever experienced occurred under the Emperor Diocletian between 303 AD and 305 AD. Unlike most prior persecutions, this persecution was empire-wide.

The “crisis of the third century”—during which Rome came to the brink of collapse—led emperors like Diocletian to ask why Rome had fallen from its former glory. Just as many conservatives look to religious and cultural unity as key to making the United States “great again,” so to it was not uncommon for emperors of the third century to conclude that making Rome “great again” meant a return to worship of the traditional Roman gods.

During Diocletian’s persecution, many Christians went to their deaths. Others, however, including a number of church leaders in North Africa, turned over their religious texts to the authorities (or handed over fakes) rather than face death. When the Catholic Church allowed these “traditors” to retain their positions after the persecution ended, some Christians balked. They argued that sacraments performed by “traditors” were not valid.

When Caecilian was elected Bishop of Carthage in 311, many Christians in North Africa were angered. They put up and chose another candidate; as a result, Carthage had two bishops. Those who objected to accepting “traditors” into church leadership were called “Donatists”; they began rebaptizing individuals who had been baptized by “traditor” bishops. Ultimately, St. Augustine himself got involved, siding with the Catholic Church and against the dissenters.

The schism in the North African church continued for well over a century.

The issue was initially somewhat broader than the later question of whether a “traditor” bishop could administer valid sentiments. During Diocletian’s persecution, Mensurius, Caecilian’s mentor and predecessor, spoke openly against the practice of some Christians, who were turning themselves in to the authorities—stating that they possessed Christian scriptures but would not give them up—and thus handing themselves over to death.

Additionally, when asked to give up his holy books, Mensurius substituted heretical works for his orthodox texts and let the officials who confiscated them believe that he had handed over Christian scriptures. Mensurius thus preserved his life, but his critics alleged that he had acted wrongly, saving his life through a trick rather than simply refusing to give up his scriptures and accepting martyrdom.

I very much recommend reading this entry in a Baptist encyclopedia accessible online; the entry’s Baptist author condemns Mensurius and sides with the Donatists, reading a Baptist emphasis on purity and dislike for the Catholic Church onto a historical event that occurred sixteen centuries prior.

I’d also recommend reading this essay, which covers both the origins of the Donatist controversy and the acts of violence Donatists’ carried out against the Catholic Church in North Africa—let’s just say that acid attacks aren’t new (yes, really). On the flip side, St. Augustine advocated using violence and coercion to bring the Donatists back into the Catholic Church (or stamp them out); his writings against the Donatists are credited as the origin of repressive ideas and tactics within the Catholic Church that would find their fullest expression in the Spanish Inquisition.

I don’t know how other religions view cooperating with the officials during public acts of persecution, but the Christian view hasn’t always been clear-cut.

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