Theologies of Penance during the Donatist Controversy

Maureen A. Tilley, University of Dayton, Ohio, U.S.A.

Oxford Patristic Conference

August 25, 1999

In the Donatist-Catholic schism, scholars tend to highlight the differences between the two churches. However, their penitential practices show that they had much in common. This paper will examine the reception of repentant bishops into the North African churches. The thesis of this paper that both churches chose to contravene received traditions, admitting clergy and allowing them to continue as such, not based on doctrine but on similar pastoral exigencies.

The Imposition of Hands

In considering the reception of clergy, it is essential to bear in mind that several rituals used the laying on of hands: acceptance into the Church at baptism, reception into and the completion of penance, the non-penitential reception of schismatics and heretics, healing the sick, and ordination. The imposition of hands was not accompanied by any words. Thus, the meaning of the gesture was determined by the situation in which it was performed.(1)

Methods of Reentry before Donatism

The North African churches of the fourth century, inherited a variety of options for re-entry into the Church. The early precedents ranged from rebaptism with the imposition of hands to a protracted period of penance with hands laid on at the end. For those who were not guilty of deliberate schism but who were baptized by heretics or schismatics, there was a non-penitential imposition of hands. Rarely did clergy continue in office. As long as there were only a small number of returnees or converts, these early practices sufficed.

However, after the Decian persecution, many clergy were seeking readmittance, including some born and/or ordained in schism.(2) Given their numbers, geographic spread and leadership positions, the old methods were inadequate and the practices of the Novatianists, 'no reentry' or 'reentry by rebaptism', were being marginalized. The common answer for the laity was admission after a protracted penance.(3) In general, readmitted clergy were reduced to the lay state.(4)

The problem was not the readmission of clergy per se, but the anomalous state of the bishop during and after penance. There are two ways to understand this situation. One is a focus on form and the other on function. In terms of form, the member of the clergy had already received a ritual gesture of the presence of the Spirit in ordination. Would the repetition of the gesture in penance give the lie to the first administration and somehow retroactively proclaim it invalid?(5) With regard to function, the bishop was supposed to be the minister of reconciliation. However, as a penitent, he was himself in a liminal state, and therefore unable to minister to others. In fact, a bishop who was doing penance would have been able to exercise very few episcopal duties, certainly not liturgical ones.(6) An occasional alternative was the exclusion of the bishop from penance, leaving his judgment to God, but the usual practice was degradation.The degraded cleric would not do penance; degradation was considered penance enough.(7)

The examples on Chart I show the complexity of the issue.

Trophimus is a good example of the principles involved. He was readmitted because he was repentent and because he led his congregation back. Yet he was degraded to the lay state. This decision was an Italian consensus which Africans accepted as a worthy precedent. But it did not become an inflexible rule. Methods of reintegrating clergy were not systematized.(8) This should not be a surprise, because the cases were immensely varied. Fortunatianus of Assuras and Maximus of Rome are examples. Not only did Fortunatianus lapse, but he was a thief and scoundrel. He was degraded. On the other hand, Maximus the presbyter compounded his sin by becoming a bishop on the outside. But because of his otherwise upright character--and because he was a charismatic confessor who brought back a congregation--he received more lenient treatment. Basilides and Martialis illustrate another significant problem for the reintegration of bishops. Bishops were the usual arbiters of penance, but here they themeselves were the subjects of penance. Stephen of Rome was willing to receive them back, apparently without penance, and to restore them to their sees, but their own presbyters had already become their successors. The unity of their churches would have been compromised and, as Cyprian wrote, their congregations should have rejected these lapsi because their Eucharists would be ineffective and they would contaminate the entire congregation.(9) This was not just an argument about the contagion of evil. It was about continuing pastoral leadership: these sinner-bishops, if restored, would select the next generation of bishops.(10)

On the basis of this rationale, repentant bishops should never have been reintegrated as leaders. But during the third century, regional practices varied. Bishops generally tolerated the practices of other regions because they believed that each bishop was responsible before God for doing what he though best in his situation.(11) In every case, unity and peace were paramount.

Donatists and Catholics: Reinventing the Traditions(12)

So Donatists and Catholics had a heritage of various traditions. Responding to their own changing situations, they crafted and recrafted their policies . Chart II illustrates the development of their positions.

In the first case, the Council of Cirta, church custom (having twelve consecrators) and pastoral necessity (filling vacant sees) overruled the revered Cyprianic doctrine that serious sinners might not celebrate the sacraments. Ironically, men soon to be Donatists pioneered the articulation of the principle for which Augustine would later be famous: the character of the minister of the sacrament was less important than the performance of the ritual, unity and peace.

Once the schism was underway, the reincorporation of clergy was a grave issue. Miltiades' council condemned Donatus for rebaptizing laity and for imposing hands on bishops who were lapsi, "quod ab ecclesia alienum est".(13) This charge has two implications. First, it implies that Donatus forced or allowed clergy to undergo a ritual with the imposition of hands. No one disputed this. What this gesture meant was another question. It was not until half a century later that it was retroactively interpreted as reordination, when some Donatists, but not all, actually were 'reordaining'. Second, it suggests that the clergy were not permanently degraded but functioned thereafter as clergy.(14) The Council was correct in charging that this was not the general rule. So it seems that Donatus' party innovated by imposiing hands on the clergy in such a way as to allow them to be reconciled and still continue as clergy. This, indeed, was the meaning of quod ab ecclesia alienum est. So it was that in the early years of the schism, Catholic clergy passed into the Donatist camp with minimal but ambiguous formality.

Even the policy of Donatus did not stand for long. Rebaptism for the laity seemed too severe and out of line with the larger Church, so for the peace and unity of the whole Church, Donatists ceased rebaptizing--at least for a while. If Catholics need not undergo rebaptism, on the same principle, their ordination would still exist, so reordination was not necessary and was not widely practiced. Again a theology considered quintessentially Augustinian appears first in practice among the Donatists.

This rule seems to have lasted for quite a while.(15) However, after Julian's death, the situation changed. Christians turned on each other. Donatists rescinded the earlier lenient policy and required rebaptism for all Catholics.(16) Only now does reordination seem to have become an issue.(17) But even after 370 neither practice, rebaptism nor reordination, was universally observed among the Donatists.(18)

On the Catholic side between 370 and 390, Donatist bishops entered the Catholic church freely, with neither rebaptism nor reordination. They were reduced to the lay state (as they were at Rome). The only persons who had to do penance were bishops who had rebaptized. Thereafter, they were barred from seeking clerical office since in promotion to a new grade in the clergy since a second imposition of hands would have to be done--and that for Catholics was quod ab ecclesia alienum est.

By the 390s both Donatists and Catholics had good reason not to be harsh; both sides had a clergy shortage. The situation promoted further developments on the readmission of clergy.

Large scale expansion, especially in Numidia, required more Donatist bishops, but schisms within Donatism reduced the number of clergy in the main party. In response, the main party readmitted schismatic clergy without degradation and without laying hands upon them.(19) These clergy brought with them their congregations, removing them from the malign influences of schismatics and Catholics. Donatists differentiated these returning Donatist schismatics from the traditores coming to them from the Catholics.

Some Catholic clergy did enter Donatist ranks. Donatists found a way to keep them from penance with its attendant disqualification from church office.(20) Donatists treated them as non-baptized persons. They were admitted to the catechumenate, as if they were converting from paganism. They received baptism. Then they could be ordained as Donatist clergy.(21) There was no bar to the (re)imposition of hands as Donatists had come to believe that with the dearth of validly ordained bishops within the Catholic church, this new generation of Catholic clergy had not undergone any real baptism or ordination.(22)

On the other side, among the Catholics, both theology and pastoral problems promoted the easy admission of Donatist clergy. Their sacramental theology required this. If Donatists had not lost their baptism on the outside, they had not lost their ability to baptize or ordain on the outside. Hence, their schismatic sacramental acts were still valid, but not yet effective.(23) In addition, if a Donatist had been born into and ordained in the sect, he was not guilty of defection. So laying hands on him was the completion of a process of initiation, not a disqualifying sign of penance. Thus Catholic practice was a variant on Donatist rebaptism.

In addition, Catholics too had a clergy shortage. In 393 the Council of Hippo proposed what it understood as a precedent-breaking solution.(24) The bishops decided to admit Donatist bishops as bishops provided that they had not rebaptized anyone and that they brought over their congregations with them.(25)There was the imposition of hands, a gesture of reconciliation, distinct from penance in purpose, but visually similar. To avoid confusion, Augustine maintained that it should not be done in public.(26) In essence, now the Catholics proposed to treat Donatists the very same way Donatists earlier treated their own repentant schismatics.



North African Christians inherited from their history a variety of ways of dealing with the reintegration of sinful or schismatic clergy. But during the Donatist-Catholic schism, these older traditions proved inadequate. While there were experiments with more and less stringent policies in both Catholic and Donatist communities, on the whole, reintegration was made progressively easier to promote the growth of the Church, peace and unity. Catholics followed the lead of Donatists in promoting reconciliation and eventually built an alternative sacramental theology around it.

Chart I: Precedents Significant for the Development of the Reconciliation of Clergy in North Africa

Name and rank








ca. 250



Consecrator of Novatian. Brought back his congregation; African bishops recognize his case as precedent

Cyprian, Ep. 55; Eusebius, H.E. 6.43

Fortunatianus, bishop

late 251



Lapsed. Degraded and accused of financial misdeeds 

Cyprian: His Eucharist would be contaminated


Ep. 65


presbyter confessor,

Novatianist bishop

July 251


Returned at orthodox rank, does penance, "degraded" from Novatianist rank

Popular among the clergy and laity of Rome, not theologically astute, perhaps deceived by the Novatianists to capitalize on his popularity

Cornelius to Cyprian, 

Ep. 49

Basilides &



ca. 255


Accepted by Rome, rejected by No. Africans 

Remain degraded

Successors already installed and later recognized by Africans and apparently by Rome

Cyprian: Their Eucharist would be contaminated

Cyprian, Ep.67

Maureen A. Tilley, Oxford, August 18, 1999

Chart II: North African Reconciliation Practices in the Fourth Century










Lapsi and a murderer are readmitted without penance or any imposition of hand. Their judgment is left to God.

12 bishops are needed to ordain; no quorum is possible without readmitting sinners as clergy. *All present are later Donatists.

Augustine, Contr. Cresc. 3.27.30



Catholics & Donatists

Italian bishops under Miltiades condemn Donatus for imposing hands on bishops (and retaining them as bishops), "quod ab eccelesia aliena est."

Laity are readmitted with rebaptism. Bishops are subjected to penance, not reordination.

Optatus 1.24




Donatist council

Catholics (including bishops) are admitted to the Donatist church without rebaptism.

Augustine claims this is in deference to Mauretanian bishops who did not rebaptize in the 3rd cent. and apparently still did not in the 4th cent.

Augustine, Ep. 93.43




Some Donatists only impose hands in penance. Others treat Catholics as if not baptized. They baptize and then ordain them. In effect, they are allowed continue as clergy.

Same period as first imperial legislation against reordination (Cod. Theod. 16.6.1-2 and 16.5.5). 

Optatus, 2.26 and 3.11, 3.23; Augustine, Epp 23.3-5, 44.5. 




Donatists bishops are admitted without penance, but reduced to lay state.

Clergy who rebaptized are degraded and do penance.

Siricus, Ep. 1.14 & Ep. 5

390s Numidia


Rogatists and Maximianists (Donatist schismatics) are admitted without imposition of hands. They remain bishops.

These bishops bring over whole congregations.

Augustine, De bapt. 1.6-8; Epp.43.1, 93.20 & 185.17; Contr. Cresc. 4.14.De unit. eccl. 73.



Catholics are treated as unbaptized. They may continue as clergy once rebaptized and reordained.

Since they do not do penance, they may be (re)ordained.

Augustine, Ep. 23.2



Donatists bishops are admitted as bishops, with no penance, but hands imposed privately (reconciliation, not reordination). 

Response to a clergy shortage: the practice is approved by overseas churches for Africa only. Application left to local Catholic bishops.

Brev. Hippon. 37, Reg. Eccl. Carth. Exc. 68, Aug. De bapt. 1.12, Contr. Cresc. 2.13-14., Ep. 61.1-2

1. On the possibility of the confusion of rites with similar gestures, see James Dallen, "The Imposition of Hands in Penance: A Study in Liturgical History," Worship 15 (May 1977), pp. 224-247; Victor Saxer, Vie liturgique et quotidienne à Carthage vers le milieu de la IIIesiècle: Le témoignage de Saint Cyprien et de ses contemporains d'Afrique (Rome: Pontificio Instituto di Archeologia Cristiana, 1969), p. 172; Wunibald Roetzer, Des heiligen Augustinus Schriften als liturgie-geschichtliche Quelle: Eine liturgie-geschichtliche Studie (Munich: Max Hueber, 1930), p. 194 regarding Augustine, De bapt. 2.7.11, 3.16.21, and 5.23.33.

2. Cyprian, De lapsis 7 and 22. For a thorough treatment of praxis and theology in Cyprian's time, see Saxer, pp. 145-188.

3. On a period of penance being too short and not acceptable to the congregation, see Cyprian, Ep. 64.1.1.

4. For evidence from the Council of Elvira (306) to Toledo (400) and Ireland (450), see Patrick Saint-Roch, La pénitence dans les conciles et les lettres des papes des origines à la mort de Gregoire le grand, Studi de antichità cristiana 46 (Rome: Pontificio Instituto di archeologia cristiana, 1991), pp. 19 and 99-100.

5. On the example of the residual hesitancy to reanoint is the instruction of the Rituale romanum, at least up to 1972, that the hands of priests were to be anointed differently from others in the administration of Extreme Unction: "Et adverte quod sacerdotibus ut dictum est, manus non inungantur, sed exterius" in Ordo ministandi Sacramentum [sic] Extremæ Unctionis §10, Rituale Romanum Pauli V Pontificis Maximi jussu editum a Benedicto XIV et a Pio X . . . (Turin: Maretti, 1917), p. 95

6. Cyprian, Orat. dom. 18.

7. See Augustine, Contra Cresconium 27.30. . This was based on the idea that a bishop could pray for a penitent lay person, but there was no higher authority to pray for and readmit a bishop. The popular saying was Sacerdos si peccaverit, quis orabit illo, a paraphrase of various parts of Lev. 5 and 1 Kgs. 2.25. See n. 40.

8. For a variety of conflicting practices, see St. Roch, pp. 95-100.

9. Cyprian, Epp. 65 and 67.3.2. For other ranks of the clergy, see 67.4.2. See the discussion in The Letters of Cyprian: Vol. 4, trans. and ed. by G. W. Clarke, Ancient Christian Writers 47 (New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1989), pp. 139-140

10. Cyprian, Ep. 67.3.2 and 4.1-2

11. Cyprian, Ep. 55.21.2.

12. For the title to this section I am indebted to Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: University Press, 1983). Their series of essays treat the passage of practices from 'innovation' to 'tradition'.

13. Optatus 1.24 (quod confessus sit se rebaptizasse et episcopis lapsis manum inposuisse. quod ab ecclesia alienum est) and 2.25. In is far from clear whether the verb baptizasse here applies to the clergy who have hands laid on them or to other persons. See Allan Fitizgerald, Conversion through Penance in the Italian Church of the Fourth and Fifth Centuries: New approaches to the experience of Conversion from Sin, Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity 15 (Lewiston, Queenston and Lampeter: Edwin Mellen, 1998) p. 23 for the interpretation of et as disjunctive. Cf. comments by Bernard Poschmann, Penance and the Anointing of the Sick, trans. and revised by Francis Courtney (New York: Herder and Herder, 1964), pp. 110-111, justifying this imposition of hands as penance and not reordination.

14. At this point the charge of reordination is not made. Optatus does make it elsewhere in his work, at 2.24, but he is writing approximately sixty years later. For a consideration of the dating of Optatus' works, see the introduction to Optatus: Against the Donatists, trans. and ed. by Mark Edwards (Liverpool: Liverpool University, 1997). pp. xvi-xviii.

15. Remi Crespin, Ministère et sainteté: Pastorale du clergé et solution de la crise donatiste dans la vie et la doctrine de saint Augustin (Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1965), p. 30; Paul Monceaux, Histoire littéraire de l'Afrique chrétiene depuis les origines jusqu'a l'invasion arabe, 7 vols. (Paris 1901-1921; repr. Brussels: Culture et civilisation, 1966), 4.336.

16. This change coincides with the dates of imperial laws proscribing the practice Codex Theodosianus 16.6.1 of February 20, 373, 16.6.2 of October 17, 377 and 16.5.5 of August 20, 379.

17. Optatus 3.23.

18. Augustine provides evidence of this when he attempted to reinforce the resolve of Donatist bishops who did not rebaptize and therefore, would not reordain. Augustine, Ep. 23.3 and 5; and 44.5.12. Cf. Crespin, p.30 and Monceaux 4.338..

19. Augustine, De baptismo 1.6.8 and 1.8.10; Epp. 93.20 and 185.17; Contr. Cresc. 4.14.16.. For an extended discussion of Augustine's treatment of this seeming inconsistency, see A. C. de Veer, "L'exploitation du schisme maximianiste par Saint Augustin dans la lutte contre le Donatisme," Recherches Augustiniennes 3 (1965), pp. 133-172.

20. Optatus, 2.23

21. Augustine, Ep. 23.2

22. This resembles the theology of ordination of sedevacantist Catholics in the late twentieth century.

23. See, inter alia, Augustine, Contr. ep. Parm. 2.13.28.

24. For the identity of the previous council ruling to the contrary, see Crespin, pp. 21-24.

25. Brevarium Hipponense §37 (CCL 149.43-44). The proviso of not baptizing indicated that even as late as 393 rebaptism was not a universal Donatist practice.

26. Augustine, Contra epistulam Parmeniani 2.13.28, De bapt. 1.12. See the discussion in Fitzgerald, p. 89, n. 264; and A. De Veer, "L'admission aux fonctions ecclesiastiques des clercs donatistes convertis," a note on Contr. Cresc. 2.11.13, in Oeuvres de Saint Augustin, 4èmeseries: Traités Anti-Donatistes, vol 4: Contra Cresconium Libri IV, De Unico Baptismo, Bibliothèque Augustinienne 31, trans. by G. Finaert (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1968), pp. 766-771.

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