AskDefine | Define Donatist

Dictionary Definition

Donatist adj : of or relating to Donatism n : an adherent of Donatism

Extensive Definition

The Donatists (named for the Berber Christian Donatus Magnus) were followers of a belief considered a schism by the broader churches of the Catholic tradition, and most particularly within the context of the religious milieu of the provinces of Roman North Africa in Late Antiquity. They lived in the Roman province of Africa and flourished in the fourth and fifth centuries.


The primary disagreement between Donatists and the rest of the early Christian church was over the treatment of those who renounced their faith during the persecution of Roman emperor Diocletian (303305), a disagreement that had implications both for the Church's understanding of the Sacrament of Penance and of the other sacraments in general.
The rest of the Church was far more forgiving of these people than the Donatists were. The Donatists refused to accept the sacraments and spiritual authority of the priests and bishops who had fallen away from the faith during the persecution. Many church leaders had gone so far as to turn Christians over to Roman authorities and had handed over sacred religious texts to authorities to be publicly burned. These people were called traditors ("people who had handed over"). These traditors had returned to positions of authority under Constantine I, and the Donatists proclaimed that any sacraments celebrated by these priests and bishops were invalid.
The first question, therefore, was whether the Sacrament of Penance can effect a reconciliation whereby the apostate, or in some cases specifically the traditor, may be returned to full communion. The orthodox Catholic position was that the sacrament was for precisely such cases, though at the time the Church still followed the discipline of public penance whereby a penitent for such a grievous offense would spend years, even decades, first outside the doors of the church begging for the prayers of those entering, then kneeling inside the church building during services, then standing with the congregation, and finally receiving the Eucharist again in a long progress toward full reconciliation. The Donatists held that such a crime, after the forgiveness of Baptism, rendered one unfit for further membership in the Church, a position of extreme rigorism.
The second question was the validity of sacraments confected by priests and bishops who had been apostates under the persecution. The Donatists held that all such sacraments were invalid: by their sinful act, such clerics had rendered themselves incapable of celebrating valid sacraments. This is known as: ex opere operantis — Latin for from the work of the one doing the working, that is, that the validity of the sacrament depends upon the worthiness and holiness of the minister confecting it. The Catholic position was (and is): ex opere operato — from the work having been worked, in other words, that the validity of the sacrament depends upon the holiness of God, the minister being a mere instrument of God's work, so that any priest or bishop, even one in a state of mortal sin, who speaks the formula of the sacrament with valid matter and the intent of causing the sacrament to occur acts validly. Hence, to the Donatists, a priest who had been an apostate but who repented could speak the words of consecration forever, but he could no longer confect the Eucharist. To the Catholics, a person who received the Eucharist from the hands of even an unrepentant sinning priest still received Christ's Body and Blood, their own sacramental life being undamaged by the priest's faults.
As a result, many towns were divided between Donatist and non-Donatist congregations. The sect had particularly developed and grown in northern Africa. Constantine, as emperor, began to get involved in the dispute, and in 314 he called a Council at Arles; the issue was debated and the decision went against the Donatists. The Donatists refused to accept the decision of the council, their distaste for bishops who had collaborated with Rome came out of their broader view of the Roman Empire.
After the Constantinian shift, when other Christians accepted the emperor as a leader in the church, the Donatists continued to see the emperor as the devil. In particular, the birth of the Donatist movement came out of opposition to the appointment of Caecilianus as bishop of Carthage in 312, because of his pro-government stance. In 317 Constantine sent troops to deal with the Donatists in Carthage, for the first time Christian persecuting Christian. It resulted in banishments. It failed completely and Constantine had to withdraw and cancel the persecutions in 321.
More laws against the Donatists were issued by Valentinian I, after the defeat of the Donatist usurper Firmus in Northern Africa.
The Donatists also drew their beliefs from the writings of Tertullian and Cyprian.
St. Augustine of Hippo campaigned against this heterodox belief throughout his tenure as bishop of Hippo, and through his efforts the Orthodox Catholic Church gained the upper hand. His view, which was also the majority view within the Church, was that it was the office of priest, not the personal character of the incumbent, that gave validity to the celebration of the sacraments.
In 409, Marcellinus of Carthage, Emperor Honorius's secretary of state, decreed the group heretical and demanded that they give up their churches. They were harshly persecuted by the Roman authorities, and even Augustine protested at their treatment.
Nevertheless, his successes were reversed when the Vandals conquered North Africa. Donatism survived the Vandal occupation and the Byzantine reconquest under Justinian I. It is unknown how long this belief persisted into the Muslim period, but some Christian historians believe the Donatist schism and the discord it caused in the Christian community made the military takeover of the region by Islam easier.

Carthaginian bishops

  • Majorinus (311-315)
  • Donatus II Magnus (315-355; exiled 347)
  • Parmenianus (355-391)
  • Primian (391-393), 1st time
  • Maximianus (393-394)
  • Primian (394-c. 400), 2nd time


During and after the Reformation, the word "Donatist" (sometimes "neo-Donatist") was commonly used by the magisterial reformers as an incriminating label to refer to the more radical reformers such as the Anabaptists. Confessional Lutherans are sometimes labeled Donatist by liberal Lutherans, as a reference to their doctrine of church-fellowship and position that churches that deny that Jesus' true body and true blood are eaten do not celebrate a valid Lord's Supper.

See also



  • The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa, W. H. C. Frend (Oxford University Press, 1952) ISBN 0-19-826408-9.
  • The Bible in Christian North Africa: The Donatist World, Maureen A. Tilley (Fortress Press, 1997) ISBN 0-8006-2880-2.
  • Donatist martyr stories: the Church in conflict in Roman North Africa. Translated with notes and introduction by Maureen A. Tilley (Liverpool University Press, 1996) ISBN 0-85323-931-2.
  • This Holy Seed: Faith, Hope and Love in the Early Churches of North Africa, Robin Daniel (Harpenden: Tamarisk Publications, 1993) ISBN 0-9520435-0-5.

External links

Donatist in Catalan: Donatisme
Donatist in Czech: Donatisté
Donatist in Danish: Donatisme
Donatist in German: Donatismus
Donatist in Estonian: Donatism
Donatist in Modern Greek (1453-): Δονατισμός
Donatist in Spanish: Donatismo
Donatist in French: Donatisme
Donatist in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Donatismo
Donatist in Italian: Donatismo
Donatist in Hebrew: דונאטיזם
Donatist in Dutch: Donatisme
Donatist in Norwegian: Donatister
Donatist in Occitan (post 1500): Donatisme
Donatist in Polish: Donatyzm
Donatist in Portuguese: Donatismo
Donatist in Russian: Донатизм
Donatist in Serbian: Донатизам
Donatist in Finnish: Donatolaisuus
Donatist in Swedish: Donatism
Donatist in Chinese: 多納徒主義
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