Optatus of Milevis, Against the Donatists 3.3

“The Church is in the State”

Name of the author: 
Optatus of Milevis
384 CE
Milevis, Numidia
Literary genre: 
Rhetorical treatise
Title of work: 
Against the Donatists

We know very little about Optatus, other than what we can glean of his theological position through his anti-Donatist treatise, which is untitled originally, and written as a response to Donatus’s successor as bishop in the see of Carthage, Parmenianus. This is why Donatus is referred to in our extract as “your (i.e. Parmenianus’s) father.” Optatus was born in the small town of Milevis, Numidia, in North Africa, but when he died is unknown. The dating of the present document has caused difficulty. The author states in 1.13 that over sixty years have passed since the persecution under Diocletian (303-305 CE), and Jerome, in his On Illustrious Men CX tells us that the work comprised of six books, and was written during the reigns of the emperors Valentinian and Valens (365-378 CE), perhaps indicating two editions. The second book, however, claims that Siricius, who succeeded Damasus in 384 CE is currently bishop of Rome, making Optatus’s claim of the persecution being sixty years ago inaccurate. Perhaps, however, he is simply clumsy with his estimate, as it would be strange for a later redactor to insert the name of Siricius – there is no obvious reason for this to be done. We have seven books in our possession now, and it has been suggested that the seventh is not authentic. Mark Edwards points out that no manuscript with six books only is extant, and that Jerome was likely ignorant of the seventh (on these arguments, see Mark Edwards, Optatus: Against the Donatists, p. xvi-xviii).

In order to understand the context of Optatus’s work, and the present passage, a brief explanation of the Donatist schism is necessary. The conflict between the Donatist and Catholic Christians had initially arisen during the Diocletianic persecution, and escalated afterwards. During the persecution, the governor in North Africa, where Donatism flourished, had been relatively lenient towards the large swathes of Christians in his population, and had allowed them simply to hand over their scriptures to demonstrate their denial of their faith. The Christians who took this option were labelled as traditores (“ones who handed over”) by their critics. After the persecution ceased these critics were unhappy when such an individual, Felix of Aptungi, consecrated Caecilian as bishop of Carthage in 311 CE. They consecrated their own rival, Majorinus, who was succeeded by Donatus, after whom the schism in the Church was named. The Donatists argued that the clergy should be entirely sinless in order for their sacraments and prayers to be valid, and those who had shown weakness and denied Christ by handing over their scriptures ought not to be functioning as bishops.

In what Maureen Tilley describes as a “revolution in Christian history,” the Roman state sided with the Catholic Christians against the Donatists, who responded by reviving the image of the Roman empire as the Antichrist, an image which had dissipated following the acceptance of Christianity by the emperor Constantine, and the subsequent Christianisation of the empire. The Donatists took inspiration from Cyprian, who had also not tolerated so-called “lapsed” Christians who chose to renounce their faith in the face of persecution in his day, even circulating their own Passion of Saint Cyprian (see the commentaries on Cyprian’s On the Lapsed VIII.148-158 and On the Lapsed XXVII, as well as the slightly more lenient attitude of Peter of Alexandria, Canonical Epistle V-VII; Tilley, Donatist Martyr Stories, p. xii). Under Constantine, several traditores were given positions of authority in the Church, and despite various appeals from the Donatists, Constantine favoured the Catholics. In 313 CE he mediated a council on the schism in Rome under Pope Miltiades, followed by a council in Arles in 314 CE. In that year he sent a letter to a vicarius named Aelafius, which is preserved in Appendix 3 of Optatus’s work, stating that he wished for the whole Church to follow the Catholic religion so as not to risk angering God through a schism and the empire losing its divine providence (for obvious reasons, the authenticity has been debated, with Edwards viewing it as most likely spurious, Optatus: Against the Donatists, p. xviii. Other modern scholars appear to accept the letter as coming from Constantine; see, for example, Simon Corcoran, The Empire of the Tetrarchs, p. 168, and H. Drake, Constantine and the Bishops, p. 228). The property of the Donatists was confiscated, and they were even threatened with death should they disturb the peace after a further edict of Constantine in 317 CE (for an overview of the Donatist schism, see Maureen Tilley, Donatist Martyr Stories, p. xi-xviii; Mark Edwards, Optatus: Against the Donatists, p. xi-xvi).

The present passage describes a scenario in which Donatus has been approached by two commissioners, Paulus and Macarius, from the emperor Constans (the son of Constantine the Great, and ruler of the west between 337 and 350 CE. He was known as an upholder of orthodoxy due to his support of Athananius, the staunch advocate of the Nicene creed of 325 CE). Anxious for peace in Africa, in 347 CE, Constans had sent the two ambassadors to distribute an imperial donation to Catholics and Donatists alike. However, as Optatus tells it, Dontaus had reacted badly, seeing it as an act of imperial scheming to bribe his followers to the Catholic side and suppress Donatism. Paulus and Macarius were therefore met with violent resistance, and Donatus was subsequently exiled until his death in 355 CE (see Leslie Dossey, Peasant and Empire, p. 20, 175, 185). Optatus narrates here that Donatus responded to Paulus and Macarius by exclaiming “What has the Emperor to do with the Church?” As Mark Edwards notes, this rhetorical question is prefaced earlier in 1.22, where Optatus writes that the Donatists say to the Catholics, “what have Christians to do with kings?” and “what have bishops to do with the palace?” The phrasing of these questions is reminiscent of John 2:4 and Mark 1:24 (Respectively, “And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?”; “and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”) (Optatus: Against the Donatists, p. 62 n. 24, and p. 22 n. 88). Essentially, the Donatists are questioning the relationship between Church and State, which was perceived as unfairly weighted in favour of the Catholic Christians.

Optatus proceeds to describe how Donatus then reproached the commissioners in the same manner that he had once insulted Gregory, prefect of Africa between 336 and 337 CE, in a letter, wherein he goes so far as to brand him a “stain (macula) upon the Senate,” and the “disgrace (dedecus) of Prefects” (see Timothy Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, p. 318; John Louis Maier, Le Dossier du Donatisme, p. 253-254). While Donatus’s fiery temper and sharp tongue are emphasised by Optatus as illustrating his flawed character, the Roman prefect, on the other hand, is described as having the “patience (patentia) of a bishop.” Connecting this figure of Roman authority with an ecclesiastical office, while denouncing the behaviour of Donatus, makes a clear statement about the relationship between the Roman empire and the Church, whereby “orthodox” Catholicism unites with the State against schismatics. For upholders of Catholicism like Optatus, it was not as simple as the emperor being the patron of and defender of the Church – he needed to be in the corner of the “true” Church.

The schismatic Donatus, Optatus claims, defies biblical commands by going against Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2:2 to pray for “kings (βασιλεύς, basileus in the biblical Greek) and powers (ὑπεροχή, huperochē)” in order that Christians might enjoy a quiet life. The New Testament and other early Christian sources emphasised the importance of respecting and praying for the earthly authorities which God had put in place (see, for example, 1 Clement 60.4-61.3; 1 Peter 2:12-17; Romans 13:1-7). We then read the most striking statement of the passage, which is among Optatus’s most cited phrases: “the [Roman] State is not in the Church, but the Church is in the State.” Indeed, this seems only logical given the conditions of Optatus’s time, in which despite Constantine’s so-called “conversion” to Christianity, much of the empire was still pagan – the Roman empire was still the larger entity, at least in a purely earthly sense, which encompassed the Church within its physical boundaries. Citing Song of Songs 4:8, Optatus interprets the Roman Empire as Lebanon, from where it is claimed holy priesthoods, modesty, and virginity, come. These are attributes not found among barbarian (barbarus) peoples, who would not be capable of safeguarding such virtues and sacred institutions. The Roman empire’s ability to foster a nurturing and complementary environment for Christianity to flourish is therefore asserted; this is an argument which is made by others in various ways. For example, the Pax Romana and/or Roman hegemony are understood by several Christian authors as having created the perfect conditions for Christianity to spread (see, for example, Commentary on Daniel IV.9; Paulus Orosius, Seven Books of History Against the Pagans III.8). In Ezekiel 31:3, Lebanon is identified with Assyria, and Tertullian in his Against Marcion IV.11 sees it as symbolising idolatry, something that was frequently used to characterise the Roman empire prior to its Christianisation. Optatus, however, views the empire as quite the opposite, utilising Song of Songs to argue that the bride of Christ (i.e. the Church, which had supplanted Israel, described in the Hebrew Bible as God’s bride) is born of the empire. In this sense, the church truly is “in the State” – the two are “coterminous” (Edwards, Optatus: Against the Donatists, p. 63 n. 28). Therefore, given that Paul instructed Christians to pray for the emperor even before he was a Christian, a God-fearing princeps deserves this even more.

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