Augustine on the Manicheans and the Donatists

Augustine on the Manicheans and the Donatists September 18, 2018

Volume four of the First Series of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (got all that?) includes Augustine’s major writings against the Manichaeans and the Donatists. If you want to familiarize yourself with Augustine and the church fathers, this volume is not the place to start. Don’t get me wrong, as with a lot of Augustine’s writings, there is much solid gold, much that merits more thought, and some that is outright wrong. And yet, although the topics are relevant ones to the state of the modern American church, many of these writings are both dense and obscure. The introductory essays and footnotes help a bit, but by and large someone who isn’t familiar with the Manichaeans and the Donatists going into the book will struggle.

So, if you’re going to read this, I recommend focusing on: “Against the Epistle of Manichaeus Called Fundamental”; Books XI, XIX, XXII, and XXVI of Reply to Faustus the Manichaean; Books I and V of “On Baptism, Against the Donatists”, and “The Correction of the Donatists.” The rest can be safely skimmed.

So what can Augustine have to say to the modern world? In his responses to the Manichaeans, there are two primary points of application. First, and most prominent, is Augustine’s use and interpretation of Scripture. The Manichaeans, at least the ones Augustine was responding to, claimed to believe in Scripture as well. Yet their approach to the Old Testament was… less than orthodox. Augustine responded by arguing that 1) the whole of Scripture, including the Old Testament, is inspired and authoritative; 2) the church is the legitimate church because it has always held to this truth; 3) Scripture must be read as Scripture, but in ways that are appropriate to genre, setting, etc.

The second point of application from Augustine’s responses to the Manichaeans was his articulation of the relationship between body and soul. The Manichaeans argued that body is inherently wicked (after all, look how “unclean” it is in the OT), while the soul is inherently good. Salvation through Christ disconnects the soul from the body. Augustine argues against this in detail, including with a doctrine of sin (which affects soul and body), creation (which is done by God and of soul and body), and salvation (which is for soul and body). In our Gnostic age, all of this is desperately needed.

Image result for baptism by immersion
Image: Wikimedia

In his responses to the Donatists, Augustine tackles a different objection. The Donatists themselves (unlike the Manichaeans) were orthodox in their doctrine. Their problem was that they had separated from the catholic church over questions of holiness and purity. Briefly: roughly a century earlier some pastors in North Africa had given in to the demands of the government and turned over Scriptures to be burned. Others had chosen to go to prison instead, or even to be executed. The question after the persecution had ended was what to do with pastors who had given in to the government, and now were repentant and wanted back into positions of authority in the church. A century later, the descendants of those in the church who were persecuted (the Donatists) held that they were the only true church and that all baptism outside of their institution was illegitimate, while the descendants of those who had turned over books to be burned (the catholics) argued that they were the only true church, but that baptism performed by the Donatists could still be legitimate.

Augustine is of course on the side of the catholics. In our modern post-Reformation era, we are perhaps less sympathetic to Augustine’s perspective and are more willing to allow for a diversity of churches. Yet Augustine nevertheless raises some interesting questions. For example, just what does make an individual’s or a church’s baptism legitimate? Even as a Baptist who believes that what is essential is the faith of the individual undergoing the sacrament, there are still questions that need to be addressed. What about the person who performs the baptism, does that matter? If the individual is not a Christian, or is currently participating in hidden sin while the baptism happens, and that sin is revealed later does it affect the validity of the baptism?

I have my instinctive answers to these questions, but they’re not necessarily well-thought-out ones. I fully intend to spend some time thinking about this, and Augustine has provided some grist for that particular mill.

Anyway, if you want to dig into Augustine, this isn’t the place to start. If you are familiar with Augustine, then this is a place to dig deeper into his more mature writings.

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