Books of a Fether

The Reformers and their Stepchildren ©2010 | free PDF

1. Donatisten

(the neo-Donatists, or "new followers of Donatus")

This derogatory term has its roots in the fourth century. In all of history, both before and after the advent of Christianity, the "regional church" has been the overwhelming norm; one's nationality and religion were not to be separated. We see this today in the difficulty Muslims have of separating America from Christianity. So the New Testament concept of a faith held without regard for one's society was, and still is, a radical idea and a difficult concept to grasp.

But its success depends upon the two entities keeping out of each other's spheres, and it is this separation which Paul exhorted believers to help ensure by praying for secular leaders, that they would stay in their own bounds so Christians could practice their faith unhindered. While the society and faith of the Israelites were designed by God to be one, this does not carry over to the Body of Christ, as Jesus Himself explained with the illustration of the wineskins. Failure to recognize this sharp division was what would eventually lead to the exodus of the Stepchildren from the Reformation.

Just as salt is not a food in itself but something that enhances the food it is mixed with, so also the Christian faith is not a society of its own but an influence, such that the resulting "flavor" may differ depending on the society. We were never meant to withdraw from society, as for example various monasteries or groups such as the Amish have done, but to infiltrate it and change its character from within. And the resulting "flavor" is personal choice or individual freedom of conscience. It has been demonstrated in America that this influence can work; widely divergent groups have worked together toward common goals for generations. This is the evidence for Christian influence in our government and society, and as this influence is removed, we are seeing increasing micromanagement and homogenization of society as well as in "Christendom". That the "regional church" is now flexing its muscles bodes ill for authentic Christianity.

In contrast to modern trends, we read this account of the Christian faith in practice from The Epistle to Diognetus near the end of the second century:

"Christians are not distinct from the rest of men in country or language or customs. For neither do they dwell anywhere in special cities of their own nor do they use a different language, nor practice a conspicuous manner of life… But dwelling as they do in Hellenic and in barbaric cities, as each man's lot is, and following the customs of the country in dress and food and the rest of life, the manner of conduct which they display is wonderful and confessedly beyond belief. They inhabit their own fatherland, but as sojourners; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is to them a fatherland and every fatherland a foreign country… They live on the earth but their citizenship is in heaven."

Christianity is truly a paradox between peace (togetherness) and holiness (separateness), and all its excesses and downfalls through history can be explained by the failure of scholars and leaders to grasp this fact, even as common believers recognized it and lived it. This principle holds as well in the larger sphere of the work of Jesus on the cross: he is the savior of all, but in a unique way of those who believe.1 This verse could very well refer to the way our "salt" lifts up whatever society in which we find ourselves. Yet at the same time, it holds in the smaller sphere of the family, dividing even between parents and children,2 the "double-edged sword".3

So ironically, and quite the opposite of what has been taught, the mark of the "salty" Christian is not to try and impose a "Christian culture" from the top down, or to make Christianity any kind of official or all-encompassing law, but just the opposite; the mark of the Christian is this paradox of peace through holiness, togetherness through separation. This is why movements such as Dominionism are doomed to failure as far as the gospel is concerned, because they can only achieve unity through homogenization by means of the abandonment of doctrinal essentials; they want peace without holiness. Conversely, groups such as the Amish fail to "salt" the earth because they want holiness without peace.

Donatism, then, appeared when Constantine made Christianity the "regional church", rendering all who rejected it not merely unbelievers but criminals. The Donatists rebelled against this unnatural and fatal homogenization, recognizing it as far more dangerous than any other state religion, since it would eat away at the faith from the inside.4 That the Reformers would later use this term as an epithet against any who opposed them is a testament to their wholesale ignorance (which is very hard to accept) or denial of the very substance of the faith. They were, after all, only "reforming" the state/church, not rejecting it, and only had the support of the neo-Donatists by virtue of the terminology they used at first. But this is not to say that the Reformers undoubtedly intended such homogenization at the outset; rather, they renounced their original convictions as an over-reaction to dissent, in an ironic repeat of Augustine's own Retractions.

In the accounts of the Roman Catholic church, their rationale for using the arm of the state to execute heretics was that they were innocent of bloodshed since they themselves did not wield the sword, even though that sword was only used at their "request". But this same "doublethink" is also at the heart of what is called "reformed theology", which maintains that God is innocent of sin even though he makes people sinners or reprobates "for his good pleasure". This is "separation" gone rancid, a madness of convenience.

But the primary point of the chapter is that the Reformers literally could not imagine any separation between church and state; to them these were two sides of the same coin. So anyone who advocated separation was presumed to really be advocating social chaos, the absence of civil government. Then can we absolve the Reformers of culpability under the "product of their time" defense? Hardly, since the very existence of the neo-Donatists proved that others of "their time" were not under this delusion. These people without influence or prestige had no trouble seeing what scripture so clearly taught, while the learned and influential were blinded by political ambition, having no excuse since they had better access to historical record and education. The chapter goes on to cite Luther with making an elementary logical blunder in this matter, a shortcoming that does not fill one with confidence regarding his status as a theologian.

The next Reformer to be examined is of course John Calvin, and though the Foundation bearing his name funded the research for this book, he is nonetheless shown to be even more in the state/church camp as Luther had been. In spite of his admirers' attempts to whitewash his motives, the author notes that Calvin clearly orchestrated the execution of his detractor Servetus, then whined about being mistreated when the inevitable backlash for his deed arrived. One such letter, though somewhat restrained out of the weakness of the position, typified the reliance on the Old Testament for justification. But as with Luther's poor logic, Calvin's supporters used even poorer hermeneutics to try and extract some kind of New Testament proof-text.5 Again, such things do not fill the Christian with confidence in these theologians, whether logically, scripturally, or spiritually.

Others following in the footsteps of the Reformers have not renounced this view of the "regional church", and in fact have continued to uphold it, even praising Constantine for ushering in a golden age. One might give some sympathy to the idea as a misguided zeal for the promised time when Jesus will rule the world "with a rod of iron"6 and there will no longer be a need for separation. But this is not that time, and we are to be separate from the state.7

  1. 1 1 Tim. 4:10
  2. 2 Mt. 10:35–37, Luke 12:53
  3. 3 Heb. 4:12
  4. 4 Reminiscent of Jesus' parable of the wheat and tares in Mt. 13:24—30
  5. 5 p. 54
  6. 6 Ps. 2:9, Rev. 2:27, 12:5, 19:15
  7. 7 1 Cor. 5:9–13