Fathers of the Church
by Augustine of Hippo in 409 | translated by J. G. Cunningham
TO DONATUS HIS NOBLE AND DESERVEDLY HONOURABLE LORD, AND EMINENTLY PRAISEWORTHY SON, AUGUSTIN SENDS GREETING IN THE LORD.
1. I would indeed that the African Church were not placed in such trying circumstances as to need the aid of any earthly power. But since, as the apostle says, there is no power but of God," it is unquestionable that, when by you the sincere sons of your Catholic Mother help is given to her, our help is in the name of the Lord, "who made heaven and earth" For oh noble and deservedly honourable lord, and eminently praiseworthy son, who does not perceive that in the midst of so great calamities no small consolation has been bestowed upon us by God, in that you, such a man, and so devoted to the name of Christ, have been raised to the dignity of proconsul, so that power allied with your goodwill may restrain the enemies of the Church from their wicked and sacrilegious attempts? In fact, there is only one thing of which we are much afraid in your administration of justice, viz., lest perchance, seeing that every injury done by impious and ungrateful men against the Christian society is a more serious and heinous crime than if it had been done against others, you should on this ground consider that it ought to be punished with a severity corresponding to the enormity of the crime, and not with the moderation which is suitable to Christian forbearance. We beseech you, in the name of Jesus Christ, not to act in this manner. For we do not seek to revenge ourselves in this world; nor ought the things which we suffer to reduce us to such distress of mind as to leave no room in our memory for the precepts in regard to this which we have received from Him for whose truth and in whose name we suffer; we "love our enemies," and we "pray for them." It is not their death, but their deliverance from error, that we seek to accomplish by the help of the terror of judges and of laws, whereby they may be preserved from falling under the penalty of eternal judgment; we do not wish either to see the exercise of discipline towards them neglected, or, on the other hand, to see them subjected to the severer punishments which they deserve. Do you, therefore, check their sins in such a way, that the sinners may be spared to repent of their sins.
2. We beg you, therefore, when you are pronouncing judgment in cases affecting the Church, how wicked soever the injuries may be which you shall ascertain to have been attempted or inflicted on the Church, to forget that you have the power of capital punishment, and not to forget our request. Nor let it appear to you an unimportant matter and beneath your notice, my most beloved and honoured son, that we ask you to spare the lives of the men on whose behalf we ask God to grant them repentance. For even granting that we ought never to deviate from a fixed purpose of overcoming evil with good, let your own wisdom take this also into consideration, that no person beyond those who belong to the Church is at pains to bring before you cases pertaining to her interests. If, therefore, your opinion be, that death must be the punishment of men convicted of these crimes, you will deter us from endeavouring to bring anything of this kind before your tribunal; and this being discovered, they will proceed with more unrestrained boldness to accomplish speedily our destruction, when upon us is imposed and enjoined the necessity of choosing rather to suffer death at their hands, than to bring them to death by accusing them at your bar. Disdain not, I beseech you, to accept this suggestion, petition, and entreaty from me. For I do not think that you are unmindful that I might have great boldness in addressing you, even were I not a bishop, and even though your rank were much above what you now hold. Meanwhile, let the Donatist heretics learn at once through the edict of your Excellency that the laws passed against their error, which they suppose and boastfully declare to be repealed, are still in force, although even when they know this they may not be able to refrain in the least degree from injuring us. You will, however, most effectively help us to secure the fruit of our labours and dangers, if you take care that the imperial laws for the restraining of their sect, which is full of conceit and of impious pride, be so used that they may not appear either to themselves or to others to be suffering hardship in any form for the sake of truth and righteousness; but suffer them, when this is requested at your hands, to be convinced and instructed by incontrovertible proofs of things which are most certain, in public proceedings in the presence of your Excellency or of inferior judges, in order that those who are arrested by your command may themselves incline their stubborn will to the better part, and may read these things profitably to others of their party. For the pains bestowed are burdensome rather than really useful, when men are only compelled, not persuaded by instruction, to forsake a great evil and lay hold upon a great benefit.
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.