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Donatist Controversy

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Definition:   A fourth century schism that arose over whether sacraments are effectively administered by those who briefly apostacized under persecution. The public authorities outlawed the Bible and required that copies be handed over to be burned. Those Christians who had succumbed (Traditores) were deemed to be unfit for leadership by the Donatists. In 311, the Bishop of Carthage in North Africa was allegedly consecrated by a Traditor. The Donatists held that his consecration was invalid, and ordained their own bishop. The emperor Constantine convened a church Council that upheld that the sacraments are valid regardless of the previous spiritual condition of the minister. The sacraments were declared by the council to be effective “ex opere operato” (from the work having been worked). Thus, as long as the one administering the sacrament has proper intent the sacrament is deemed effective. The suppression of the Donatists under Constantine was the first recorded persecution of Christians by fellow Christians.

Discussion: By the fourth century, the false beliefs of baptismal regeneration, the sacrament of Penance, and the sacrament of Holy Orders had entered the Church. The rigorist Donatists erred by linking the ability to confer leadership to the purity of the consecrator. Both the Church and the Donatists erred by according the sacraments a magical power that is effective for salvation. The power of God in salvation is in the convicting power of His word applied by the Holy Spirit (Jn. 3:8) whenever and to whomever the Father wills.

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