St. Optatus on Schism and the Bishop of RomeJun 1st, 2011 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
June 4 is the feast of St. Optatus, a fourth-century bishop of Milevis, in Numidia, about ten miles from the Mediterranean Sea on the coast of northern Africa in what is now Algeria. He was a convert to the Catholic faith, and an African by birth, according to St. Jerome. He died around AD 385, near the time St. Augustine converted to Christianity. St. Optatus’ major work is titled Against the Donatists. He wrote the first edition between AD 372 and 375, and then some time around 384 he made some minor revisions to include events that had occurred since the publication of the first edition. In this book he teaches that Christ made St. Peter the head of all the Apostles, and established the line of his episcopal successors as the authority by which unity should be preserved in the Catholic Church, such that schism from the Church is defined in relation to the episcopal successor of St. Peter in Rome, either by breaking communion with him or by perpetuating such a break.
While other early African bishops such as St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Cyprian of Carthage, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, and St. Augustine of Hippo are better known to Christians of our day, St. Optatus is another important African bishop and theologian in the early Church. He was influenced deeply by St. Cyprian, and in turn he influenced the thought of St. Augustine, who drew substantially from St. Optatus’s writings in his own efforts to reconcile the Donatists to the Catholic Church. St. Optatus remains theologically important in our day, by providing an early testimony to the nature of Catholic ecclesiology, especially regarding the unique ecclesial authority and role of the episcopal successor of St. Peter in Rome.
Milevus (El Milia, Algeria), where St. Optatus was Bishop
I. A Brief History of the Donatist Schism
II. How We Know Which Side Went Out from the Catholic Church
III. The Donatist Claim to be the Catholic Church
IV. The Catholic Rejoinder: The Successor of St. Peter holds the Keys
A. The Donatist Bishop in Rome does not hold the Keys
B. St. Peter and his Successors in Rome hold the Keys
On May 24 we celebrated the feast day of St. Vincent of Lérins, who wrote his Commonitory in AD 434. St. Optatus wrote his work, Against the Donatists, approximately sixty years earlier. For this reason, Protestants willing to believe that St. Vincent and St. Augustine wrote before some ‘great apostasy’ have even more reason to accept the testimony of St. Optatus concerning the apostolic faith.
St. Optatus opens Against the Donatists by explaining that Christ gave one faith to His Church.1 Moreover, before He ascended, writes St. Optatus, Christ gave His divine peace to His Apostles, willing it to be with His Church always. (John 14:27) This peace is a peace that the world does not have; it is to be exemplified in the Church Christ founded, for all the world to see. But, claims St. Optatus, the authors of the Donatist schism disturbed this peace.2
St. Optatus is writing in reply to a person name Parmenian. Parmenian was the third in the line of succession of the Donatist bishops of Carthage. The first Donatist bishop was Marjorinus, who was succeeded by Donatus, who was succeeded by Parmenian. Parmenian had just written a book against the Catholic Church; he wrote, according to St. Optatus, to “strike an undeserved blow at the Catholic Church.”3 This book prompted St. Optatus to write Against the Donatists in reply.
Before addressing the criticisms of Parmenian, St. Optatus first presents a brief history of the Donatist schism. The Donatist schism from the Catholic Church began in the year 311. In that year, Caecilian the deacon was chosen by the people of Carthage to take the chair of the previous bishop (Mensurius), and was ordained by Felix, bishop of Aptonga. Secundus, a bishop of a nearby city, subsequently came with other bishops, and declared the ordination of Caecilian to be invalid because, according to Secundus and company, Felix was a traditor.4 According to St. Optatus, however, the bishops accompanying Secundus had themselves “impiously betrayed the records of the law of God.” Among these were Donatus of Macula, Victor of Rusicca, Merinus of Tibilis, Donatus of Calama, Pupurius of Limata, and Menalius.5 St. Optatus describes the way by which these bishops started the Donatist schism, writing:
It was not long after this, that these very persons whom I have mentioned, … proceeded to Carthage, and there, although Caecilian was already the Bishop, made the Schism by consecrating Majorinus on whose Chair, Parmenian, you sit.6
Secundus and the bishops with him ordained a new bishop of Carthage, a man named Majorinus, who had been a lector under Caecelian’s deaconry. At that point there were (seemingly) simultaneously two [canonical] bishops of Carthage: Caecelian, and Majorinus. As the bishops associated with Majorinus continued to ordain other bishops not in communion with Caecelian, the Donatist schism spread. The matter was then brought before nineteen bishops at a council at Rome, headed by Pope Miltiades (pope from 311-314). St. Optatus describes the events of this council as follows:
Donatus brought forth his witnesses; they admitted that they had nothing of which they could accuse Caecilian. Caecilian was pronounced innocent by the sentence of all the above named Bishops; also by the sentence of Miltiades, by which the matter was closed, and judgement pronounced in these words:
Since it is certain that those who came with Donatus have failed to accuse Caecilian in accordance with their undertaking, and since it is also certain that Donatus has not proved him guilty on any count, I judge that, according to his deserts, he be maintained in the communion of the Church, continuing to hold his position unimpaired.
It is, therefore, sufficient, that Donatus was condemned by the verdict of so many Bishops, and that Caecilian was cleared by the judgement of so great an authority [i.e. the Pope].7
It is not insignificant that the dispute between Caecilian and the Donatists was brought to a council of bishops assembled at Rome, and that the verdict was pronounced by Pope Miltiades. This was the authoritative decision of the Catholic Church concerning the Donatist schism. But, as St. Optatus explains, a short time later Donatus returned to Carthage and in disobedience to the decision of the Holy See, refused to relinquish his claim to the episcopal Chair at Carthage.
St. Optatus recounts the history of the Donatist schism to show that the Catholic Church did not go out from the Donatists, but rather, that the Donatists went out from the Catholic Church. He writes:
The question is about a Division. Now in Africa, as in other parts of the world, the Church was One, before it was divided by those who consecrated Majorinus whose Chair you have inherited, and now occupy. We shall have to see who has remained in the root, with the whole world; who went forth; who sits on a second chair, which had no existence before the Schism; who has raised altar against altar; who has consecrated a Bishop when another was in undisturbed possession; who it is that lies under the judgement of John, the Apostle, when he declared that many Anti-Christs should go forth without, because they were not of us, for if they had been of us they would have remained with us. Therefore, he who was unwilling to remain with his brethren in unity has followed the heretics, and gone forth without, as an Anti-Christ.8
St. Optatus explains that prior to the Donatist schism, the Church was visibly one. So he proposes to determine which side came to be in schism from the Church by setting up a second episcopal chair (i.e. cathedra) where there was none before, by setting up a second altar [for the Eucharistic sacrifice] where there was none before, and by consecrating a Bishop when another Bishop was already in undisturbed possession of the episcopal office in that See. In this investigation St. Optatus seeks to show likewise which side has “remained in the root, with the whole [Christian] world.”9 According to St. Optatus, the party in schism from the Church lies under the judgment of the Apostle John, who wrote, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.” (1 John 2:19) St. Optatus explains that according to the Apostle John, to separate from the Church through schism is to act as an Anti-Christ. St. Optatus knows that Parmenian cannot deny that schism is the supreme evil. St. Optatus writes:
Even you will not be by any means be able to deny that schism is the supreme evil [scisma summum malum esse].10
St. Optatus is not speaking of the sort of schism in which two Christian parties break fellowship with each other, but each party remains in communion with the rest of the Catholic Church. That sort of schism can only be short-lived, for reasons explained below. He is speaking about schism from the Church, the sort the Apostle John is referring to when he writes of persons that “went out from us.” (1 John 2:19) Concerning that sort of schism, St. Optatus writes:
But schism, after the bond of peace has been broken, is brought into existence through passion, is nourished by hatred, is strengthened by envy and dissensions, so that the Catholic Mother is abandoned, whilst her unfilial children go forth outside and separate themselves (as you have done) from the root of Mother Church — cut off by the shears of their hatred — and wickedly depart in rebellion.11
In this sort of schism, the schismatic party does not remain in the Catholic Church, but abandons its Catholic Mother, separating itself from “the root of Mother Church.” Thus, this kind of schism is necessarily a form of “rebellion,” because it separates from that magisterial authority by which it was established and to which it therefore owes obedience and fealty.
St. Optatus’s Against the Donatists is composed of seven books (see the table of contents). After laying out the history of the schism in Book One, he turns in Book Two to the question: “Which is the One True Catholic Church and Where is it to be Found?” In what may be the most important and revealing statement in the whole of his work, he writes:
For it was not Caecilian who went forth from Majorinus, your father’s father,12 but it was Majorinus who deserted Caecilian; nor was it Caecilian who separated himself from the Chair of Peter, or from the Chair of Cyprian — but Majorinus, on whose Chair you sit — a Chair which had no existence before Majorinus himself.13
How does St. Optatus show that the Catholic Church did not go out from the Donatists, but that the Donatists went out from the Catholic Church? He does so by way of the Chair of St. Peter. The bishop that remains in communion with the Chair of St. Peter in Rome is the bishop who has remained with the Catholic Church. In this particular case, the bishop of Carthage who had remained in communion with the bishop of Rome, was Caecilian and his episcopal successors in Carthage. The bishop who has broken communion with the Chair of St. Peter is the bishop who is in schism from the Catholic Church. Therefore the bishop in Carthage who had broken fellowship with the Chair of St. Peter in Rome, was the bishop in schism from the Catholic Church. In this way St. Optatus shows that because Majorinus and his episcopal successors (and all the laypeople who followed them) had broken fellowship with the Chair of St. Peter, therefore they were the ones who had gone out from the Catholic Church, and were presently in schism from the Church.
Concerning this passage, the translator, Fr. Vassall-Phillips, writes:
The manner in which St. Optatus goes first to the See of Peter and only in the second place to the local See of Carthage in order to prove that the Donatists were in schism, is a fact of the greatest significance. It is quite clear that, in the eyes of Optatus, any bishop out of communion with the See of Rome was ipso facto schismatic. Otherwise, the reference to the Chair of Peter in this connection is utterly meaningless and unintelligble.”14
Of course, in the invisible church ecclesiology of contemporary Protestantism (where no Protestant denomination claims to be the Church Christ founded), there can be no such thing as schism from the Church, because every splitting of Christian communions is a mere ‘branching’ in which each party remains within “the small-c catholic Church.” (See “Branches or Schisms?“.) Thus from within the perspective of the invisible-church paradigm, every splitting of Christian communions, though perhaps temporarily lamentable, shortly becomes a cause of celebration, as God providentially transforms it into an increase in diversity in “the catholic Church.” In this invisible church ecclesiology of contemporary Protestantism, there is not even any conceptual space for the notion of schism from the Church Christ founded. St. Optatus’ speaking of schism from the universal Church, as an action distinct from apostasy from the Christian faith, does not even fit into the Protestant ecclesial paradigm.15
The translator notes that the Protestant ecclesiology according to which there is one [small-c] catholic Church in which many different religious bodies each holding a different set of doctrinal beliefs and not visibly unified are nevertheless assumed to be invisibly united, is an ecclesial ‘option’ of which St. Optatus is entirely unaware. The translator writes:
Evidently the idea of Comprehensiveness — that the One Church could be Catholic (Universal) in the sense of comprehending various kinds of religious bodies, varying in belief and without any external bond of union (cf . ii, 3) — never occurred to St. Optatus even as a possibility. Any branch theory in which the branches were separated from the trunk or from one another (cf. ii, 9 etc.) would have seemed to him unthinkable. He agrees with Parmenian in ruling it out ab initio.16
Both the Donatists and the Catholics would have entirely rejected an invisible-church ecclesiology. But their silence concerning that sort of ecclesiology shows that it was not even on their conceptual horizon. If “visible Catholic Church” ecclesiology had been a human innovation, as a result of ecclesial deism, it had so wiped out the ‘original’ apostolic “invisible Church” ecclesiology that by the fourth century, neither the Donatists nor the Catholics even conceived of it.17 To posit such a phenomenon by bumping up the alleged ‘great apostasy’ from the fifth century to the second century, is to take on all the implications described in “Ecclesial Deism.” And of course if “invisible Church” ecclesiology had been even a remote memory or a conceptual possibility, the Donatists would have seized on it, because in this way they could have avoided the charge of schism from the Church, by claiming to be a branch within the larger ‘small-c’ invisible catholic Church. And Sts. Optatus and Augustine would not have needed to concern themselves with the Donatist schism, laboring to bring them back into the Church, because they could have simply treated Donatism as a “branch within” the invisible, small-c catholic Church. But, invisible, “small-c catholic” ecclesiology would not be conceived for another twelve centuries, not entering the discussion until the sixteenth century.
We learn from St. Optatus that the Donatists claimed to have the keys of Peter, to be the one Church of Christ, and thus to deny that those outside of themselves could baptize or celebrate the Eucharist. Parmenian recognized that the one Church of Christ cannot be among all the heretics and schismatics, so he claimed that the Church of Christ was made up of the Donatists alone.18 St. Optatus writes to Parmenian:
Rightly hast thou closed the Garden to heretics; rightly hast thou claimed the Keys for Peter; rightly hast thou denied the right of cultivating the young trees to those who are certainly shut out from the garden and paradise of God; rightly hast thou withdrawn the Ring from those to whom it is not allowed to open the Fountain. But to you schismatics, although you are not in the Catholic Church, these things cannot be denied, since you have shared true Sacraments with us.19
Parmenian had claimed that the Keys of Peter belonged to the Donatists, and that they (i.e. the Donatists) were the Garden outside of which there were no sacraments and no means of eternal life. In order to claim that the Donatists were the Church, Parmenian had to claim that the Keys of St. Peter belonged to them. St. Optatus agrees with Parmenian that having the Keys of St. Peter is necessary in order to be the Church, but St. Optatus proceeds below to show that the Donatists do not have the Keys of St. Peter, and therefore are not the Church in which are found the sacraments of eternal life.
In order to prop up their claim to be the Catholic Church, the Donatists had an anti-pope, as it were, in the City of Rome, as a way of justifying their claim to possess the keys of St. Peter. At the time Parmenian wrote, the Catholic bishop in Rome was Pope St. Damasus (366-383), and the Donatist bishop in Rome was a man named Macrobius. St. Optatus writes, “But you allege that you too have some sort of a party in the City of Rome.”20 So the task St. Optatus takes up in Book Two of Against the Donatists is showing that the Donatists are not the Catholic Church, but are in fact a schism from the Catholic Church, and that their anti-pope in Rome is in fact not the bearer of the Keys of St. Peter, but a kind of anti-pope.
St. Optatus writes to Parmenian:
But you allege that you too have some sort of a party in the City of Rome. It is a branch of your error growing out of a lie, not from the root of truth. In a word, were Macrobius to be asked where he sits in the City, will he be able to say on Peter’s Cathedra? I doubt whether he has even set eyes upon it, and schismatic that he is, he has not drawn nigh to Peter’s Shrine…. Behold, in Rome are the Shrines of the two Apostles [i.e. Sts. Peter and Paul]. Will you tell me whether he [i.e. Macrobius] has been able to approach them, or has offered Sacrifice in those places, where as is certain are these Shrines of the Saints.21
Though Macrobius is in Rome, he does not sit on St. Peter’s Chair, held by Pope St. Damasus. Nor, claims St. Optatus, has Macrobius ever offered the Sacrifice of the mass at the altars of the shrines of the Apostles Peter and Paul. The tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul had been Christian shrines since the first century, but Constantine had built structures over them in the early fourth century, and the Catholics of Rome celebrated mass at the altars over these tombs. St. Optatus supposes justifiably that Macrobius has never offered mass at these shrines, because they belong to the Catholics, with whom Macrobius has not been in communion. This subverts the Donatist claim to possess the Keys of Peter, since they do not even have possession or ritual access to the shrines of Sts. Peter and Paul. They cannot have the Keys of St. Peter if they are not even in communion with those who have succeeded from St. Peter in unbroken continuity.
Then St. Optatus shows that the line of Donatist bishops in Rome does not extend back to St. Peter, but began with Victor of Garba:
So it follows that your colleague Macrobius must confess that he sits where once sat Encolpius; and if Encolpius himself could be questioned, he would say that he sat where before him sat Bonifacius of Balla; and if Bonifacius could be asked, he would in his turn reply that he sat where Victor of Garba sat, whom some time ago your people sent from Africa to a few wanderers. How do you explain that your party has not been able to possess a Roman citizen as Bishop in Rome? How is it that in that City they were all Africans and strangers who are known to have succeeded one another? Is not craft here manifest? Is this not the spirit of faction the mother of schism?22
St. Optatus explains that Victor of Garba, from whom Macrobius’ episcopal line takes its origin, was not a successor of St. Peter in Rome, but came to Rome in the fourth century, at the request of some African Christians living in Rome. Further evidence for this is found in the fact that no Roman citizens had occupied this Donatist line in Rome, but only Africans. St. Optatus then continues his explanation of the history of the Donatist party at Rome:
This Victor of Garba was sent first, I will not say as a stone into a fountain (for he could not ruffle the pure waters of the Catholic people), but because some Africans who belonged to your party, having gone to Rome, and wishing to live there, begged that someone should be sent from Africa to preside over their public worship. So Victor was sent to them. He was there as a son without a father, as a beginner without a master, as a disciple without a teacher, as a follower without a predecessor, as a lodger without a home, as a guest without a guest-house, as a shepherd without a flock, as a Bishop without a people. For neither flock nor people can that handful be termed, who amongst the forty and more Basilicas in Rome, had not one place in which to assemble.
Accordingly they closed up a cave outside the City with trellis-work, where they might have a meeting-house at once, and on account of this were called Mountaineers.
Since then, Claudian has succeeded to Lucian, Lucian to Macrobius, Macrobius to Encolpius, Encolpius to Boniface, Boniface to Victor. Victor would not have been able, had he been asked where he sat, to show that anyone had been there before him, nor could he have pointed out that he possessed any Cathedra save the Cathedra of pestilence [Ps. 1:1]; for pestilence sends down its victims, destroyed by diseases, to the regions of Hell which are known to have their gates gates against which we read that Peter received the saving Keys Peter, that is to say, the first of our line, to whom it was said by Christ :
To thee will I give the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven,
and these keys
the gates of Hell shall not overcome.
How is it, then, that you strive to usurp for yourselves the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, you who, with your arguments, and audacious sacrilege, war against the Chair of Peter?23
As evidence that Victor of Garba was not the bishop of Rome, St. Optatus explains that in Rome, Victor had no place to worship. Of the forty or so Basilicas available in Rome in which to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice, none of them was available to Victor of Garba, because he was not in communion with the Apostolic See. Hence he made use of a cave outside Rome.
In addition, Victor could not have shown that he had an episcopal predecessor at Rome, or that he had any genuine Cathedra. Hence, claims St. Optatus, Victor had only the Cathedra of pestilence [Ps. 1:1], which leads to hell (Ps. 1:6). But for St. Optatus, St. Peter is the “first of our line,” i.e. the first in the line of Catholic bishops. And Christ promised to St. Peter that the gates of hell would not prevail over the Keys He gave to him, and hence over the one holding the keys. So St. Optatus makes an argument here to the effect that hell would never prevail over the authentic line from St. Peter, and that by setting up a second Chair in opposition to the Chair established by Christ through St. Peter, the Donatist not only “war against the Chair of Peter,” but set themselves on the very path to hell, dooming themselves to destruction by the indefectibility of the Keys held by St. Peter in the Catholic Church. To set up a second Chair in opposition to the Chair of St. Peter is to attempt to “usurp” an authority they do not have. Just as Satan arrogated to himself an authority he did not have, and so chose for himself the way to hell, so by arrogating to themselves the authority of the Keys Christ gave to St. Peter, the Donatists align themselves with the forces of hell and the end assigned to those forces. The conflict between Christ and Satan is expressed visibly in this age in the conflict between the one to whom Christ entrusted the Keys of the Kingdom, and the forces of hell that shall not prevail against the one bearing those Keys. By setting themselves up against the true holder of the Keys, and warring against the Chair of St. Peter, the Donatists thereby align themselves with the forces of hell, which Christ has assured us can never prevail over the Church, and are thus doomed to defeat and destruction.
B. St. Peter and his Successors in Rome hold the Keys
Who then, in St. Optatus’ time, holds the Keys of the Kingdom? Repeatedly St. Optatus declares that the one holding the Keys must receive them from St. Peter. First, he points out that among all the Apostles, only St. Peter received the Keys. He writes:
When He [i.e. Christ] praises One, He condemns the others because, besides the one which is the true Catholc Church, the others amongst the heretics are thought to be churches, but are not such. Thus He declares in the Canticle of Canticles (as we have already pointed out) that His Dove is One, and that she is also the chosen Spouse, and again a garden enclosed, and a fountain sealed up. Therefore none of the heretics possess either the Keys, which Peter alone received, or the Ring, with which we read that the Fountain has been sealed.24
Later in the work he shows that St. Peter, the Head of the Apostles, was the first to occupy the Episcopal Cathedra in Rome, and that the purpose of this Cathedra was to preserve unity among all Christians, including even the other Apostles. He writes:
You cannot then deny that you do know that upon Peter first in the City of Rome was bestowed the Episcopal Cathedra, on which sat Peter, the Head of all the Apostles … that, in this one Cathedra, unity should be preserved by all [in qua unica Cathedra unitas ab omnibus servaretur], lest the other Apostles might claim each for himself separate Cathedras, so that he who should set up a second Cathedra against the unique Cathedra would already be a schismatic and a sinner. Well then, on the one Cathedra, which is the first of the Endowments, Peter was the first to sit.25
According to St. Optatus, anyone who sets up a second Cathedra against the unique Cathedra of St. Peter in Rome, is by that very fact “a schismatic and a sinner.” Of course in addition to the bishops ordained by the other Apostles, there were many lines of bishops extending down from St. Peter. And though all bishops receive equally the sacramental office of bishop, only one line of bishops succeeding from St. Peter receives, in addition, the charism Christ bestowed uniquely on St. Peter, namely, stewardship of the Keys of the Kingdom. Only that line of bishops occupying the unique Cathedra established in Rome by St. Peter possesses this charism. And hence to set up another Cathedra in opposition to this unique Cathedra, is ipso facto to become a schismatic, because such an act takes to oneself an authority that none except the rightful occupant of that unique Cathedra possesses.
Having established the unique authority of the Chair of St. Peter in Rome, and its divinely established role as the visible principle of unity of the Catholic Church, St. Optatus then lays out the succession from St. Peter to the present pope in Rome (Pope St. Damasus [366-383] in the first edition, but Pope St. Siricius [384-399] in the second edition). He writes:
To Peter succeeded Linus, to Linus succeeded Clement, to Clement Anacletus, to Anacletus Evaristus, to Evaristus Sixtus, to Sixtus Telesphorus, to Telesphorus Hyginus, to Hyginus Anacetus, to Anacetus Pius, to Pius Soter, to Soter Alexander, to Alexander Victor, to Victor Zephyrinus, to Zephyrinus Calixtus, to Calixtus Urban, to Urban Pontianus, to Pontianus Anterus, to Anterus Fabian, to Fabian Cornelius, to Cornelius Lucius, to Lucius Stephen, to Stephen Sixtus; to Sixtus Dionysius, to Dionysius Felix, to Felix Marcellinus, to Marcellinus Eusebius, to Eusebius Miltiades, to Miltiades Silvester, to Silvester Marcus, to Marcus Julius, to Julius Liberius, to Liberius Damasus, to Damasus Siricius, who today is our colleague, with whom the whole world, through the intercourse of letters of peace, agrees with us in one bond of communion.
Now do you show the origins of your Cathedra, you who wish to claim the Holy Church for yourselves.26
What is the significance of tracing the line of bishops in Rome from the Apostle Peter to the present pope? This tracing would have no purpose or significance if all bishops held equal stewardship of the Keys, or if St. Optatus believed that stewardship of the Keys ended with the death of St. Peter. Tracing the line of bishops in Rome from the time of St. Peter to St. Optatus’ own day has significance for his argument against the Donatists only if stewardship of the Keys belongs in a unique way to that line of bishops.27 St. Optatus traces the line of bishops occupying the Cathedra in Rome from St. Peter down to his own time to explain why Pope St. Damasus is the present steward of those Keys, and that by setting up a Chair in opposition to Pope St. Damasus, the Donatists had put themselves in schism from the Church Christ founded, that is, from the Catholic Church.28
What St. Optatus writes concerning the role of the successors of St. Peter with regard to the Keys of the Kingdom and the nature of schism from the Church, is re-affirmed by St. Augustine about twenty-seven years later, when he writes:
You know what the Catholic Church is, and what that is cut off from the Vine; if there are any among you cautious, let them come; let them find life in the Root. Come, brethren, if you wish to be engrafted in the Vine: a grief it is when we see you lying thus cut off. Number the Bishops even from the very seat of Peter: and see every succession in that line of Fathers: that is the Rock against which the proud Gates of Hell prevail not.”29
Later in Against the Donatists St. Optatus continues to make theologically significant references to St. Peter. He refers again to having shown that the Catholics possess the first Endowment of the Church, namely, the unique and authoritative Cathedra upon which St. Peter first sat, and which continues in the succession of bishops in Rome. He writes:
So, of the above-mentioned Endowments, the Cathedra is, as we have said, the first, which we have proved to be ours, through Peter, and which draws to itself the ANGEL — unless, perchance, you claim him for yourselves, and have him shut up somewhere or other.30
A few pages later he states this again:
For it has been proved that we are in the Holy Catholic Church, who have too the Creed of the Trinity; and it has been shown that, through the Chair of Peter which is ours — through it — the other Endowments also belong to us.31
To be in communion with the bishop occupying the Chair of St. Peter is to be in the Catholic Church, and thus to possess in some sense all the gifts Christ bestowed on His Church. In both quotations he shows that the answer to the question “Where is the Holy Catholic Church?” is this: All those in communion with the Chair of St. Peter constitute the Holy Catholic Church. In this way St. Optatus provides the divinely established means by which to determine where is the Church, who is in schism from the Church, and what the Church does and does not teach.
On that same page he writes:
So — to answer you — we have shown what is heresy, and what is schism, and which is the Holy Church, and that of this Holy Church there has been constituted a Representative, and that the Catholic Church is the Church which is scattered over the whole world (of which we amongst others are members) and that her Endowments are with her everywhere.32
According to St. Optatus, God has established a Representative of His Holy Church. What St. Optatus means by this is clear from everything that he has said up to this point. Because the Pope functions as the principle of unity by which we can know where is the Church, and which groups are in schism from the Church, he likewise functions as the Representative of the Church.33
Toward the end of Against the Donatists, St. Optatus mentions the role of St. Peter three more times. He writes:
[F]or the sake of unity, blessed Peter (for whom it would have been enough if after his denial he had obtained pardon only) both deserved to be placed over all the Apostles, and alone received the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, which he was to communicate to the rest.34
Here St. Optatus first teaches that St. Peter was given the Keys of the Kingdom for the sake of preserving unity in the Church. In giving St. Peter the Keys, he was in that respect placed “over all the Apostles,” for he “alone received the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.” But the other Apostles (and all other bishops) exercise the authority of the Keys through their communion with St. Peter and his successors. If they break communion with St. Peter and his successors, they forfeit their use of the authority of the Keys. This is why, according to St. Optatus, the Donatists do not have the keys of the Kingdom, because they have broken fellowship with the Catholic bishops, as shown by the fact that they have broken fellowship with the episcopal successor of St. Peter in Rome.
Next, St. Optatus writes:
Behold (as we have said above), when the others [i.e. the other Apostles] did not recognise he [i.e. St. Peter] alone recognised, when the others made no promises he alone promised, when the others did not deny once he alone denied and that three times, but yet, for the sake of unity, he was not to be separated from the number of the Apostles. From which we understand that all things were ordered by the Providence of the Saviour, that Peter should receive the Keys. The way of malice was stopped up, that the Apostles might not conceive in their minds that they were free to judge, and condemn with severity, him who had denied Christ. So many guiltless ones are standing upright, and the sinner receives the Keys, that the work of unity might receive its pattern. It was provided that the sinner should open for the guiltless, lest the guiltless might close [the gates] against sinners, and thus the unity which is necessary could not be.35
St. Peter was uniquely chosen by God to recognize Christ as the divine Son. But St. Peter was also unique in that he denied Christ three times. Yet, for St. Optatus, this was according to God’s providence. By giving the Keys of the Kingdom to one who had denied Him three times, Christ “stopped up” the way of malice, by making it impossible for the Apostles to condemn severely a person who had denied Christ, since by divine institution they themselves were made subject to one who had denied Christ. In God’s providence, the sinner (i.e. St. Peter) “opens for the guiltless,” i.e. extends to the other Apostles who did not deny Christ the use of the Keys of the Kingdom, so that the guiltless (i.e. the Apostles who did not deny Christ) might not close the way of salvation against sinners, and thereby divide the unity of the Church.
In his final mention of St. Peter’s role, St. Optatus writes:
Now, to turn to the fact that you have thought fit to take upon yourself the character of Moses, who, as the Apostle Paul tells us, was opposed by Jamnes and
Mambres — if this be so, what is the truth, that may be found with you, which the Catholic Church opposes?
Or, what is there with us which you can prove to be a lie ? Is it that we are in one communion with the whole world ? Will you be able to prove that this is a lie? Is it that we keep and defend the true and one Creed ? Will you be able to prove that this is a lie? Will you be able to prove that the Chair of Peter is a lie and the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, which were granted him by Christ, with which we are in communion ?36
In his argument against the Donatists, St. Optatus here responds to Parmenian’s claim that to him [i.e. Parmenian] belongs the role of Moses, contending against Jamnes and Mambres [or Jambres], whom Parmenian thinks apparently represent Catholics contending against him. St. Optatus, for the sake of argument, accepts the analogy, and turns the argument back on Parmenian. His argument here to Parmenian is of the following sort:
If you really are in the character of Moses, and I am in the character of Jamnes and Mambres, then let’s see you win the contention between us. Let’s see you falsify a single Catholic doctrine, or prove that we (Catholics) are not in communion with the whole world, such that the term ‘Catholic’ does not rightly belong to us, but belongs more appropriately to you Donatists. Let’s see you convict us of not keeping and defending the one true Creed. Let’s see you prove that the Chair of St. Peter is a lie, and that the Keys of the Kingdom of heaven, with which we Catholics (but not you Donatists) are in communion, are a lie. You may claim to be in the character of Moses, but you cannot refute the Catholic Church or defend your position against the evidence I have raised against you. Since you cannot concede that Jamnes and Mambres got the best of Moses in debate, therefore, your claim to possess his role is an empty one that must be retracted, lest Moses be shamed or maligned.
In the face of such evidence, the only recourse for the Protestant who wishes to remain Protestant is to propose that on account of ecclesial deism, at some point prior to the time of St. Optatus, men had wrongfully and universally imposed a visible hierarchy on the Church, treating what Christ had established to be something invisible, as though it were something visible and essentially unified in a visible hierarchical structure. The Protestant who seeks to remain Protestant must propose that the essential unity of the hierarchy of the Church and the role of the Chair of St. Peter in that hierarchical unity, to which St. Optatus refers in his writings against the Donatists, are man-made constructs that were universally imposed on the Church at some point after the death of the Apostles and prior to the time of St. Optatus.
But as explained in the ecclesial deism article, proposing that there were universal corruptions and accretions in the early Church undermines the Protestant’s ability to appeal to the Church Fathers or to the Councils as having any authority whatsoever. And the necessary implication of that effect is solo scriptura.
That St. Optatus was a Catholic is shown not only in his understanding of the unique role of St. Peter and his episcopal successors as stewards of the Keys of the Kingdom, but in many other ways as well. The translator, Fr. Vassall-Phillips, writes:
St. Optatus affirms explicitly the truth of Baptismal Regeneration; again and again makes reference to the Sacrifice of the Altar; states the doctrine of the Real Presence in words that are incapable of any misunderstanding; insists on the sacredness of Holy Chrism; writes of the adornment of altars for the offering of the Sacrifice; refers to the ceremony of Exorcism before Baptism; appeals to deutero-canonical Books as to authentic Scripture; takes the continuance of Miracles in the Church for granted; and is quite express in his references to cloistered Virginity and the difference between the Commandments of God and Counsels of Perfection.”37
The Protestant who wishes to remain Protestant, can accommodate such evidence only by resorting to ecclesial deism and advancing the date of the [posited] ‘great apostasy’ to some time before St. Optatus. But if St. Optatus is right that the successors of St. Peter in Rome hold the Keys of the Kingdom, then by Christ’s infallible promise the gates of hell shall never prevail over that line of succession. In that case, there could not be, and has never been, an apostasy in that line. And all who cleave to that line in full communion, participate in that divine promise, for there is the Holy Catholic Church Christ founded. That is the alternative paradigm to ecclesial deism.
St. Optatus, please pray for all those Christians in schism from Christ’s Church, that they may be happily restored to full visible communion. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen..
- All pagination is from the translation by the Rev. O.R. Vassall-Phillips, (Longmans, Green, and Co.: London, 1917). That translation can be found in its entirety here. [↩]
- Against the Donatists, p. 4. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 9. [↩]
- The Catholic Encyclopedia article on the Donatists explains the meaning of this term: “This word traditor became a technical expression to designate those who had given up the Sacred Books, and also those who had committed the worse crimes of delivering up the sacred vessels and even their own brethren.” St. Optatus shows later in his work that there was never any evidence that Felix was a traditor. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 27. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 29. [↩]
- Ibid. pp. 47-49. [↩]
- Ibid. pp. 30-31. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 30. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 39. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 23. [↩]
- By the phrase “your father’s father,” St. Optatus means the bishop who ordained the bishop who ordained you. [↩]
- Ibid. pp. 20-21. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 20. [↩]
- That the Donatists had not committed apostasy is shown by the fact that the Catholics, including St. Optatus, continued to call them “brothers,” even though the Donatists refused to refer to the Catholics as brothers. (cf. Ibid. pp. 5-6.) [↩]
- Ibid. p. 58. [↩]
- And likewise, in the third century, neither the Novatians nor the Catholics thought of it during the Novatian schism. [↩]
- cf. Ibid. p. 58. [↩]
- Ibid. pp. 24-25. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 70. [↩]
- Ibid. pp. 70-71. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 71. [↩]
- Ibid. pp. 71-73. [↩]
- Ibid. pp. 18-19. [↩]
- Ibid. pp. 66-68. [↩]
- Ibid. pp. 68-69. [↩]
- St. Augustine likewise, in the year AD 400, traces only the bishops of Rome from St. Peter down to St. Anastasius (399-401) when he writes:
For if the lineal succession of bishops is to be taken into account, with how much more certainty and benefit to the Church do we reckon back till we reach Peter himself, to whom, as bearing in a figure the whole Church, the Lord said: Upon this rock will I build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it! Matthew 16:18 The successor of Peter was Linus, and his successors in unbroken continuity were these:— Clement, Anacletus, Evaristus, Alexander, Sixtus, Telesphorus, Iginus, Anicetus, Pius, Soter, Eleutherius, Victor, Zephirinus, Calixtus, Urbanus, Pontianus, Antherus, Fabianus, Cornelius, Lucius, Stephanus, Xystus, Dionysius, Felix, Eutychianus, Gaius, Marcellinus, Marcellus, Eusebius, Miltiades, Sylvester, Marcus, Julius, Liberius, Damasus, and Siricius, whose successor is the present Bishop Anastasius. In this order of succession no Donatist bishop is found. But, reversing the natural course of things, the Donatists sent to Rome from Africa an ordained bishop, who, putting himself at the head of a few Africans in the great metropolis, gave some notoriety to the name of mountain men, or Cutzupits, by which they were known. (Letter 53, chapter 1)
- In the last sentence of the quotation, he challenges the Donatists to show the origins of their Cathedra, if they wish to claim be the Holy Church. This is very like what St. Irenaeus says:
But [it is also necessary] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever . . . . But those who cleave asunder, and separate the unity of the Church, [shall] receive from God the same punishment as Jeroboam did. (Against Heresies IV.26.2)
It also corresponds to the same test of apostolic succession Tertullian provides:
But if there be any (heresies) which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men,– a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter. In exactly the same way the other churches likewise exhibit (their several worthies), whom, as having been appointed to their episcopal places by apostles, they regard as transmitters of the apostolic seed. Let the heretics contrive something of the same kind. (Prescription Against Heretics, 32)
- St. Augustine to the schismatic Donatists, A.D. 393, Patrologia Latina 43.30. [↩]
- Against the Donatists p. 78. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 86. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 86. [↩]
- Concerning this line, the translator writes,
There can be no doubt that St. Optatus is here referring to St. Peter, or his successors in the See of Rome, as the Representative of the Church. This is made clear by the fact that he is giving a summary of the arguments which he has already brought forward in his book. Now amongst these arguments the representative character of St. Peter and of his Cathedra has, as we have just seen, taken a leading place. Again, no alternative explanation of Persona in this passage has ever been suggested. Further, it is well known that St. Augustine adopted this traditional view, and in several passages has written of St. Peter as representing the whole Catholic Church in his own person. ( Ibid. pp. 86-87.)
- Ibid. p. 284. [↩]
- Ibid. pp. 288-289. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 294. [↩]
- Ibid. pp. xi-xii. [↩]