The Novatian and Donatist divisions

More serious were two schisms, one which began in the third century and which is usually given the name of Novatian, and the other which had its origin in the fourth century and is called Donatist. For both the primary source was dissatisfaction with what they regarded as the lax moral practices of the majority and both came into being as protests against the lenient treatment of those who had denied the faith in time of persecution.

In its earlier days the Church maintained rigorous standards for its membership. As we have seen, baptism was believed to wash away all sins committed before it was administered. After baptism, the Christian was supposed not to sin, and some sins, if indulged in after that rite had been administered, were regarded as unforgivable. Tertullian listed the "seven deadly sins" as "idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery, fornication, false-witness, and fraud." Both Hermas and Tertullian conceded that forgiveness might be had for one such sin committed after baptism, but allowed only one.

Modifications began to be made in this rigour. The guilty might obtain remission even for apostasy and sex offenses if they were truly repentant — although assurance of forgiveness and readmission into the full fellowship of the Church might be deferred until the penitent had demonstrated his sincerity by prolonged demonstration of sorrow for his sin. Pardon might be had through the officers of the Church. Those about to suffer death or who had endured imprisonment and torture for the faith were often looked upon as competent to assure forgiveness to the repentant, especially to those who had lapsed. The exercise of this function sometimes proved annoying to the bishops, among them to the Cyprian whom we have met as Bishop of Carthage. Again and again there were Christians who protested against this laxity. Part of the appeal of the Montanists was their insistence upon strict moral standards.

In the first quarter of the third century Callistus, Bishop of Rome, seems to have declared that no sin is unforgivable if the sinner is genuinely contrite. He is said to have appealed to Scripture for authority for his practice, finding as he did so ample precedent in the parables of the lost sheep and the prodigal son and in Paul's letters. He is also reported to have declared that the Church is like the field which has both wheat and tares and like Noah's ark, in which were many kinds of animals. In the next quarter of a century the principles of Callistus won wide although by no means universal acceptance in the Church.

In the middle of the third century the Decian persecution brought the issue starkly before the Church, for thousands yielded to pressure and compromised their faith. Many of them, terrified or deeply grieved by what they had done, sought readmission to the Church. In Rome the bishop, Cornelius by name, was prepared to permit the restoration of the lapsed. However, there was opposition led by Novatian, a presbyter of the Roman Church, no mean theologian, and of impeccable orthodoxy. Chosen bishop by critics of Cornelius, he gathered about him many who shared his convictions about exacting ethical requirements for church membership and rebaptized those who came to him from the Catholic Church. The movement spread and in part coalesced with the Montanists. Nova-tian appointed bishops for the emerging communities, and churches in sympathy with him arose in North Africa, the West, and especially the East. They persisted for several generations. In the fifth century there were three Novatian churches in Constantinople and even more in Rome. In the first half of the fifth century the Bishop of Rome took possession of their churches in that city and they could henceforth meet only secretly and in private homes. Yet their churches were still permitted in Constantinople.

The Donatist schism appeared after the persecution which began with Diocletian in the first quarter of the fourth century and had its main centre in North Africa. A Bishop of Carthage was consecrated in 311 by one whom the strict elements in the Church declared to have been a traitor during the persecution. These elements chose a counter bishop who in 316 was succeeded by a Donatus, from whom the movement took its name. A number of factors combined to give the Donatists an extensive following in North Africa. It may have been that they were drawn largely from the non-Latin and the Catholics from the Latin elements in the population, and that the cleavage was in part racial and cultural. It is said that at one time they had 270 bishops. Synods called by Con-stantine at the request of the Donatists decided against the latter and for a time the Emperor sought to suppress them by force. Augustine endeavoured, without avail, to bring about a reconciliation. They regarded themselves as the true Catholic Church and continued at least until the Vandal invasion of the fifth century and possibly until the Moslem Arab invasion late in the seventh century.

Out of the controversy came the enunciation of the principle, formulated by one of the councils called to deal with the issues raised by the Donatists, that, contrary to the latters' contention, ordination and baptism are not dependent for their validity upon the moral character of the one through whose hands they are administered. This continued to be upheld by the Catholic Church.

A schism in Egypt about the same time as that of the Donatists and for a similar reason was that of the Meletians, named for the bishop who was their first leader. They, too, stood for a rigorous attitude towards those who had denied the faith.

As we have suggested, the majority in the Catholic Church took the attitude that no sin is beyond forgiveness if it is followed by true penitence. It may be I that it was this conviction which led to the addition to the Roman Symbol of the phrase [I believe in] "the forgiveness of sins," now so familiar a part of the Apostles' Creed.

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