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David Brooks and the Donatists

David Brooks talks about Donatists:

The problem with the Donatists, Augustine argued, is that they are too static. They try to seal off an ark to ride out the storm, but they end up sealing themselves in. They cut themselves off from new circumstances and growth.

I know that Brooks wants to use the Donatist case as an object lesson for modern political movements, but “too static” was not Augustine’s main objection or even one of his secondary objections to Donatism. First and foremost, Augustine’s objection to Donatism was that it was rebellion against what he believed to be legitimate church authority, and it was therefore schismatic and cut off from the fullness of the church. It happened to be the case that Donatists were schismatic because they were rigorists, but it was schism and disobedience that offended Augustine rather than their being “static.” As he saw it, Donatists were depriving themselves of the grace that could be found in the church, and their example created the danger that others might also be cut off. No less important, Augustine rejected the specific claim that Donatists made that sacraments were invalid if they were performed by a priest who had compromised during the persecution (or if they were performed by a priest ordained by a compromised bishop).

Augustine’s ecclesiology and sacramental theology compelled him to reject Donatism because it threatened church unity and authority and because it created doubt about the efficacy of the sacraments, all of which contradicted what Augustine understood the Catholic faith to be. Whether or not Donatism was static was not important to Augustine, and it would have been unimportant to contemporary Christians just as it would be to later Christian theologians in antiquity and the middle ages. It was innovation that ancient and medieval Christians regarded as inherently suspect. They would not have faulted Donatists for their rigor or their refusal to compromise. As far as other Christians then and later were concerned, the Donatist error was that they rejected their legitimate bishops and separated themselves from the rest of the church. Brooks’ use of Donatism in the column shows very well the limitations of trying to liken modern political movements to religions and churches. While there may be some overlap in the words and concepts used to describe both, the two kinds of things are sufficiently unlike one another that the analogies ultimately aren’t all that useful.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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