Fathers of the Church
by Augustine of Hippo in 406 | translated by J. G. Cunningham
TO FESTUS, MY LORD WELL BELOVED, MY SON HONOURABLE AND WORTHY OF ESTEEM, AUGUSTIN SENDS GREETING IN THE LORD.
1. If, on behalf of error and inexcusable dissension, and falsehoods which have been in every way possible disproved, men are so presumptuous as to persevere in boldly assailing and threatening the Catholic Church, which seeks their salvation, how much more is it reasonable and right for those who maintain the truth of Christian peace and unity,—truth which commends itself even to those who profess to deny it or attempt to resist it, — to labour constantly and with energy, not only in the defence of those who are already Catholics, but also for the correction of those who are not yet within the Church! For if obstinacy aims at the possession and exercise of indomitable strength, how great should be the strength of constancy which devotes persevering and unwearied labours to a cause which it knows to be both pleasing to God, and beyond all question necessarily approved by the judgment of wise men!
2. Could there, moreover, be anything more lamentable as an instance of perversity, than for men not only to refuse to be humbled by the correction of their wickedness, but even to claim commendation for their conduct, as is done by the Donatists, when they boast that they are the victims of persecution; either through incredible blindness not knowing, or through inexcusable passion pretending not to know, that men are made martyrs not by the amount of their suffering, but by the cause in which they suffer? This I would say even were I opposing men who were only involved in the darkness of error, and suffering penalties on that account most truly merited, and who had not dared to assault any one with insane violence. But what shall I say against those whose fatal obstinacy is such that it is checked only by fear of losses, and is taught only by exile how universal (as had been foretold) is the diffusion of the Church, which they prefer to attack rather then to acknowledge? And if the things which they suffer under this most gentle discipline be compared with those things which they in reckless fury perpetrate, who does not see to which party the name of persecutors more truly belongs? Nay, even though wicked sons abstain from violence, they do, by their abandoned way of life, inflict upon their affectionate parents a much more serious wrong than their father and mother inflict upon them, when, with a sternness proportioned to the strength of their love, they endeavour without dissimulation to compel them to live uprightly.
3. There exist the strongest evidences in public documents, which you can read if you please, or rather, which I beseech and exhort you to read, by which it is proved that their predecessors, who originally separated themselves from the peace of the Church, did of their own accord dare to bring accusation against Caecilianus before the Emperor by means of Anulinus, who was proconsul at that time. Had they gained the day in that trial, what else would Caecilianus have suffered at the hands of the Emperor than that which, when they were defeated, he awarded to them? But truly, if they having accused him had prevailed, and Caecilianus and his colleagues had been expelled from their sees, or, through persisting in their conspiracy, had exposed themselves to severer punishments (for the imperial censure could not pass unpunished the resistance of persons who had been defeated in the civil courts), they would then have published as worthy of all praise the Emperor's wise measures and anxious care for the good of the Church. But now, because they have themselves lost their case, being wholly unable to prove the charges which they advanced, if they suffer anything for their iniquity, they call it persecution; and not only set no bounds to their wicked violence, but also claim to be honoured as martyrs: as if the Catholic Christian emperors were following in their measures against their most obstinate wickedness any other precedent than the decision of Constantine, to whom they of their own accord appealed as the accusers of Caecilianus, and whose authority they so esteemed above that of all the bishops beyond the sea, that to him rather than to them they referred this ecclesiastical dispute. To him, again, they protested against the first judgment given against them by the bishops whom he had appointed to examine the case in Rome, and to him also they appealed against the second judgment given by the bishops at Arles: yet when at last they were defeated by his own decision, they remained unchanged in their perversity. I think that even the devil himself would not have had the assurance to persist in such a cause, if he had been so often overthrown by the authority of the judge to whom he had of his own will chosen to appeal.
4. It may be said, however, that these are human tribunals, and that they might have been cajoled, misguided, or bribed. Why, then, is the Christian world libelled and branded with the crime laid to the charge of some who are said to have surrendered to persecutors the sacred books? For surely it was neither possible for the Christian world, nor incumbent upon it, to do otherwise than believe the judges whom the plaintiffs had chosen, rather than the plaintiffs against whom these judges pronounced judgments. These judges are responsible to God for their opinion, whether just or unjust; but what has the Church, diffused throughout the world, done that it should be deemed necessary for her to be rebaptized by the Donatists upon no other ground than because, in a case in which she was not able to decide as to the truth, she has thought herself called upon to believe those who were in a position to judge it rightly, rather than those who, though defeated in the civil courts, refused to yield? O weighty indictment against all the nations to which God promised that they should be blessed in the seed of Abraham, and has now made His promise good! When they with one voice demand, Why do you wish to rebaptize us? the answer given is, Because you do not know what men in Africa were guilty of surrendering the sacred books; and being thus ignorant, accepted the testimony of the judges who decided the case as more worthy of credit than that of those by whom the accusation was brought. No man deserves to be blamed for the crime of another; what, then, has the whole world to do with the sin which some one in Africa may have committed? No man deserves to be blamed for a crime about which he knows nothing; and how could the whole world possibly know the crime in this case, whether the judges or the party condemned were guilty? Ye who have understanding, judge what I say. Here is the justice of heretics: the party of Donatus condemns the whole world unheard, because the whole world does not condemn a crime unknown. But for the world, truly, it suffices to have the promises of God, and to see fulfilled in itself what prophets predicted so long ago, and to recognise the Church by means of the same Scriptures by which Christ her King is recognised. For as in them are foretold concerning Christ the things which we read in gospel history to have been fulfilled in Him, so also in them have been foretold concerning the Church the things which we now behold fulfilled in the world.
5. Possibly some thinking people might be disturbed by what they are accustomed to say regarding baptism, viz. that it is the true baptism of Christ only when it is administered by a righteous man, were it not that on this subject the Christian world holds what is most manifestly evangelical truth as taught in the words of John: "He that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy! Ghost." Wherefore the Church calmly declines to place her hope in man, lest she fall under the curse pronounced in Scripture, "Cursed be the man that trusteth in man," but places her hope in Christ, who so took upon Him the form of a servant as not to lose the form of God, of whom it is said, "The same is He which baptizeth." Therefore, whoever the man be, and whatever office he bear who administers the ordinance, it is not he who baptizes, w that is the work of Him upon whom the dove descended. So great is the absurdity in which the Donatists are involved in consequence of these foolish opinions, that they can find no escape from it. For when they admit the validity and reality of baptism when one of their sect baptizes who is a guilty man, but whose guilt is concealed, we ask them, Who baptizes in this case? and they can only answer, God; for they cannot affirm that a man guilty of sin (say of adultery) can sanctify any one. If, then, when baptism is administered by a man known to be righteous, he sanctifies the person baptized; but when it is administered by a wicked man, whose wickedness is hidden, it is not he, but God, who sanctifies. Those who are baptized ought to wish to be baptized rather by men who are secretly bad than by men manifestly good, for God sanctifies much more effectually than any righteous man can do. If it be palpably absurd that one about to be baptized ought to wish to be baptized by a hypocritical adulterer rather than by a man of known chastity, it follows plainly, that whoever be the minister that dispenses the rite, the baptism is valid, because He Himself baptizes upon whom the dove descended.
6. Notwithstanding the impression which truth so obvious should produce on the ears and hearts of men, such is the whirlpool of evil custom by which some have been engulfed, that rather than yield, they will resist both authority and argument of every kind. Their resistance is of two kinds, either with active rage or with passive immobility. What remedies, then, must the Church apply when seeking with a mother's anxiety the salvation of them all, and distracted by the frenzy of some and the lethargy of others? Is it right, is it possible, for her to despise or give up any means which may promote their recovery? She must necessarily be esteemed burdensome by both, just because she is the enemy of neither. For men in frenzy do not like to be bound, and men in lethargy do not like to be stirred up; nevertheless the diligence of charity perseveres in restraining the one and stimulating the other, out of love to both. Both are provoked, but both are loved; both, while they continue under their infirmity, resent the treatment as vexatious; both express their thankfulness for it when they are cured.
7. Moreover, whereas they think and boast that we receive them into the Church just as they were, it is not so. We receive them completely changed, because they do not begin to be Catholics until they have ceased to be heretics. For their sacraments, which we have in common with them, are not the objects of dislike to us, because they are not human, but Divine. That which must be taken from them is the error, which is their own, and which they have wickedly imbibed; not the sacraments, which they have received like ourselves, and which they bear and have, — to their own condemnation, indeed, because they use them so unworthily; nevertheless, they truly have them. Wherefore, when their error is forsaken, and the perversity of schism corrected in them, they pass over from heresy into the peace of the Church, which they formerly did not possess, and without which all that they did possess was only doing them harm. If, however, in thus passing over they are not sincere, this is a matter not for us, but for God, to judge. And yet, some who were suspected of insincerity because they had passed over to us through fear, have been found in some subsequent temptations so faithful as to surpass others who had been originally Catholics. Therefore let it not be said that nothing is accomplished when strong measures are employed. For when the entrenchments of stubborn custom are stormed by fear of human authority, this is not all that is done, because at the same time faith is strengthened, and the understanding convinced, by authority and arguments which are Divine.
8. These things being so, be it known to your Grace that your men in the region of Hippo are still Donatists, and that your letter has had no influence upon them. The reason why it failed to move them I need not write; but send some one, either a servant or a friend of your own, whose fidelity you can entrust with the commission, and let him come not to them in the first place, but to us without their knowledge; and when he has carefully consulted with us as to what is best to be done, let him do it with the Lord's help. For in these measures we are acting not only for their welfare, but also on behalf of our own men who have become Catholics, to whom the vicinity of these Donatists is so dangerous, that it cannot be looked upon by us as a small matter.
I could have written much more briefly; but I wished you to have a letter from me, by which you might not only be yourself informed of the reason of my solicitude, but also be provided with an answer to any one who might dissuade you from earnestly devoting your energies to the correction of the people who belong to you, and might speak against us for wishing you to do this. If in this I have done what was unnecessary, because you had yourself either learned or thought out these principles, or if I have been burdensome to you by inflicting so long a letter upon one so engrossed with public affairs, I beg you to forgive me. I only entreat you not to despise what I have brought before you and requested at your hands. May the mercy of God be your safeguard!
Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (NPNF I/I, Schaff). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.