In both respects the reflex action of the Novatianist and Donatist controversies upon Catholicism was disastrous to the earlier idea of church-fellowship. Formal and technical tests of membership, such as the reception of sacraments from a duly authorized clergy, came to replace Christ's own test of character.
For the later influence of the Donatist controversy upon the sacramental development see Donatists).
In the 4th century the Donatist party was in open schism; the orthodox party had the upper hand in the time of Aurelius and Augustine; the regular meeting of the councils further increased the corporate cohesion of the African Episcopal body.
An article by him on the Donatist schism appearing in the Dublin Review in July 1839 made a great impression in Oxford, Newman and others seeing the force of the analogy between Donatists and Anglicans.
The Donatist schism (see Donatists) occasioned a number of important synods.
About 348 a synod of Catholic bishops, who had met to record their gratitude for the effective official repression of the "Circumcelliones" (Donatist terrorists), declared against the rebaptism of any one who had been baptized in the name of the Trinity, and adopted twelve canons of clerical discipline.
The "Conference of Carthage" (see Donatists), held by imperial command in 411 with a view to terminating the Donatist schism, while not strictly a synod, was nevertheless one of the most important assemblies in the history of the African church, and, indeed of the whole Christian church.
The predisposing causes of the Donatist schism were the belief, early introduced into the African church, that the validity of all sacerdotal acts depended upon the personal character of the agent, and the question, arising out of that belief, as to the eligibility for sacerdotal office of the traditores, or those who had delivered up their copies of the Scriptures under the compulsion of the Diocletian persecution; the exciting cause was the election of a successor to Mensurius, bishop of Carthage, who died in 311.
The decision was entirely in favour of Caecilian, and Donatus was found guilty of various ecclesiastical offences, An appeal was taken and allowed; but the decision of the synod of Arles in 314 not only confirmed the position of Caecilian, but greatly strengthened it by passing a canon that ordination was not 1 There were three prominent men named Donatus connected with the movement - Donatus of Casae Nigrae; Donatus surnamed Magnus, who succeeded Majorinus as the Donatist bishop of Carthage; and Donatus of Bagoi, a leader of the circumcelliones, who was captured and executed c. 350.
S The Donatist movement affords a valuable illustration of the new importance which the changed position of the church under Constantine gave to the synodal system of ecclesiastical legislation.
Majorinus, the Donatist bishop of Carthage, died in 315, and was succeeded by Donatus, surnamed Magnus, a man of great force of character, under whose influence the schism gained fresh strength from the opposition it encountered.
The renewed excesses of the Circumcelliones, among whom were ranged fugitive slaves, debtors and political malcontents of all kinds, had given to the Donatist schism a revolutionary aspect; and its forcible suppression may therefore have seemed to Constans even more necessary for the preservation of the empire than for the vindication of orthodoxy.
(Quid est imperatori cum ecclesia .) Such an attitude aggravated the lawlessness of the Circumcellion adherents of the sect, and their outrages were in turn made the justification for the most rigorous measures against the whole Donatist party indiscriminately.
And Gratian, by whom the Donatist churches were again closed, and all their assemblies forbidden.
There were present 286 Catholics and 279 Donatist bishops.
The Donatist position, like that of the Novatians, was that the mark of the true church is to guard the essential predicate of holiness by excluding all who have committed mortal sin; the Catholic standpoint was that such holiness is not destroyed by the presence of unworthy members in the church but rests upon the divine foundation of the church and upon the gift of the Holy Spirit and the communication of grace through the priesthood.