While talking with a co-worker in our used department one night I happen to see a copy of The Cambridge Companion to Augustine. So, naturally I bought it. Anyone familiar with Augustine is likely to know about his problems and debates with the Pelagians but how many know about his debates with the Donatists? And did you know that the latter took up far more of his time and energy than did the former? The following excerpts are from the first chapter, “Augustine: his time and lives” by James J. O’Donnell.
“Augustine the anti-Pelagian has been made current to many following generations by the timelessness of the debates over grace and free will that he instigated and guided. . . . But Augustine the anti-Donatist is a figure who has spoken directly only to a few moderns and, I venture to suggest, to none of our contemporaries. . . . Augustine found the widest (if not always receptive) public for his writing and speaking as an opponent of Donatism. He surely spent more of his energies as bishop of Hippo on this one issue than on all other controversies of his career combined. After the last wave of official persecutions of Christianity in the early 300s had ebbed, Christians in North Africa fell into two camps. To name them is to take sides, but perhaps one may characterize them as rigorist and latitudinarian. The rigorist camp held that those who had in any way compromised the ferocity of their Christian allegiance in time of persecution had thereby exiled themselves from the Christian community and required sacramental initiation in order to re-enter. Particular hostility was directed towards clergy who had handed over the books of scripture to the Roman authorities to be burnt. Traditores (‘traitors,’ lit. handers-over) they were called, and they were thought to have disqualified themselves as clergy by that act. Ordinary faithful who had fallen in similar ways were to be rebaptized, and clergy, if such there were, who had fallen and sought clerical status again would have to be reordained.
The latitudinarian camp took no less harsh a view on the betrayals of the time, but took a higher view of the sacraments of the Church. Baptism could only be administered once for all. If you lapsed from grace after baptism, then only by a tedious ritual of repentance could you, in principle, be readmitted to communion. This may not sound latitudinarian, indeed is in some ways even more rigorous in theory than the other position, but in practice this community pursued lapses with less fervor and was more inclined to let bygones be bygones. . . . Augustine made it his business as bishop of Hippo to fight for the latitudinarians against the rigorists—hence for the ‘catholic’ Church (he uses the adjective in its root meaning of ‘universal’, and he made much of the fact that his church was in communion with churches all over the Roman world) against the ‘Donatists’ (so-called after a charismatic founding figure). . . . In all this period, Augustine often spent half his year in Carthage, preaching, writing, and debating against the Donatists.” (13-15)