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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Augustine 2020: The One Augustine Couldn't Figure Out

Updated: Sep 26, 2022

In today’s post, we arrive at an intriguing, puzzling, and frustrating element of Augustine’s thought, the subject of using persecution against heretics. A long-standing dilemma for Augustine was the Donatist controversy. The Donatists were a splinter group who had left the church over the treatment of individuals returning to the church after they had denied the faith during persecution. The Donatists were opposed to readmitting church leaders who had denied the faith or compromised with the persecutors. They split from the church, which they saw as too lenient towards repentant traitors. They remained active in Augustine’s North Africa. In fact, the city of Hippo where Augustine was the bishop, had formerly been a Donatist city before returning to the Catholic Church [1]. The controversy became especially heated as the Donatists turned to acts of violence and rioting. The government, which favored the Catholic Church, began to confiscate Donatist property and restrict their civic rights. As bishop, Augustine spent much time debating with the Donatists on theological grounds, but he also commented on the government’s response to the controversy [2]. While Augustine maintained his theological position against the Donatists, he changed his mind on several occasions regarding what policy the government should pursue towards them.


In On True Religion, written shortly before his ordination to the priesthood, Augustine argued, “Christ did nothing by force, but did everything by persuading and warning” through his miracles, teaching, and sufferings [3]. Not only did Jesus not use force, but he also accepted suffering, poverty, and death. He endured every violent act of resistance against Him [4]. Jesus did not persecute but endured persecution. He established a pattern for Christians to follow: instead of imposing themselves violently, they suffer patiently on behalf of the faith. The use of persecution, then, is out of step with following Christ.


Yet as bishop, deep into the controversy, Augustine favored using a form of imperial power to punish the Donatists. In a letter written in 408 to Vincentius, a former student of his who had become a bishop among the Donatists [5], Augustine outlined his support for the imperial policy. He believed that the Donatists would not reconsider their position on their own. They needed to be “struck with terror” to redirect “their thoughts to the consideration of the truth” [6]. He urged that this discipline be imposed, not out of hatred, but out of love and a desire for them to repent and return to the church [7]. Augustine argued that God uses a similar method. He quotes Jesus: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them” [8], “but that happens in the hearts of all who turn to him through fear of divine wrath” [9]. Augustine also argued that persecution is unjust when it is used to defend evil and suppress the truth, but it is just when it is used as a discipline to punish evil and correct error [10].


Now we must remember that Augustine does not argue for violent persecution or execution of the Donatists. In this same letter, he also tempers his position. “While waiting, [the church] corrects those whom it is able to correct and endures those whom it cannot correct. Nevertheless, it does not abandon the unity of the good on account of the iniquity of those whom it does not correct” [11]. “Anyone who uses this law, which the kings of the earth, serving Christ, have promulgated for the correction of your impiety, as an opportunity for covetously seeking your property, displeases us…anyone who holds the goods for the poor of the basilicas of the assemblies, which you have been holding in the name of the church but which are certainly owed only to that church which is the true church of Christ, and does so not through justice but through avarice, displeases us. Anyone who receives someone expelled by you for some shameful deed or crime in the same way as they receive those who have lived among you without crime, except for the error by which you are separated from us, displeases us” [12]. Augustine believed that the law could only justly be used to correct the Donatist error. He opposed using it as a pretense for obtaining property and he recognized that not all the Donatists would be corrected. Where the law failed, the church was to endure patiently with the Donatists.


In a third selection, Augustine wrote to a Roman official in Carthage, Marcellinus, himself a Christian and the intended recipient of The City of God, urging him to show mercy to “a group of Donatists who had attacked two members of the Catholic clergy” [13]. One of the clerics was killed while the other was brutally beaten, losing an eye and a finger in the process [14]. Augustine argued that the church cannot prevent the government from pursuing justice, especially since the government had brought the charges, not the church. However, Augustine urges not “to be avenged by retaliatory punishments of an equal degree, as though the punishment and the deed were interchangeable. We are not opposed to wicked human beings being denied the license to commit crimes, but we want that to be the end of it, so that, alive and with their body parts unmutilated, they might either be directed away from diseased disturbances to the calm of health by the coercion of the laws or cut off from malicious deeds and turned to some useful deed” [15]. Augustine argued that, as a Christian, Marcellinus reflects God and urged Marcellinus to reflect God’s mercy [16]. He concludes, “Do not tarnish the sufferings of the Catholic servants of God, which ought to be useful for the spiritual building up of the weak, by reciprocating in kind against the enemies at whose hands they suffered. Instead, hold judicial severity in check” [17].

In the second and third selections, Augustine has changed his mind from his original position. It is more difficult to say, though, if he has changed his mind between the second and third selections. In both, he recognizes the possibility of government authorities to punish the Donatists and also argues for limits on their punishments. However, in the second reflection, he argues that the government can punish them for their errors in doctrine whereas, in the last reflection, he argues for clemency in a judgment concerning violence committed by several Donatists. At the very least, Augustine’s position has softened considerably.


It is tempting to evaluate Augustine’s three positions against his overall theology and see which one was correct. A danger of doing so would be to assume that, if we were in his position, we would have gotten it right when, most likely, we would have struggled, changed our minds, and ourselves come to wrong conclusions on the matter. Instead, we need to take a step back. Here is Augustine who had the richest, most thoughtful, and nuanced political theology of all Christians throughout history. And he changes his mind several times and finds it difficult to know exactly how to handle a particular political situation. If even Augustine struggled, got it wrong, changed his mind, we should expect to as well. If anything, this episode in Augustine’s life should teach us humility. Having a robust political theology is no guarantee we will always apply it correctly. There are still complexities we have to prayerfully navigate. Augustine affirmed the government’s right to maintain justice and peace, the value of mercy, the self-sacrificial life of Christ, and he remained uncertain how to apply them all to a particular situation, changing his mind several times. He, even with boundaries, was tempted to use his powerful position to defend his own group’s interest, but soon used his power to extend love and mercy to his enemies. We too will have to go back to the drawing board, review our political positions and Scriptures, reevaluate the positions we hold in light of them, and be humble enough to admit we are wrong and change our minds. One of the themes I have come back to throughout this series is the necessity to engage with politics humbly and prayerfully. This week we have an example as to why: even Augustine made mistakes and even Augustine had to change his mind. Our faith and our theology is no guarantee we will arrive at the “correct” policy answer. We have to continually go back to our theology, and go back to the King our theology is about, allowing him to correct and transform our political failings.

[1] Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. 239.

[2] Ibid. pp. 230-231.

[3] Ibid. p. 231.

[4] Ibid. pp. 231-232.

[5] Ibid. p. 231.

[6] Ibid. p. 232.

[7] Ibid. p. 233.

[8] John 6:44 NRSV.

[9] Augustine, p. 234.

[10] Ibid. p. 235.

[11] Ibid. p. 243.

[12] Ibid. p. 244.

[13] Ibid. p. 231.

[14] Ibid. p. 245.

[15] Ibid. p. 246

[16] Ibid. pp. 246-247.

[17] Ibid. p. 247.

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