Augustine on State Coercion Against Church Schismatics and Heretics

The early period of Augustine’s bishopric in Hippo was largely spent embroiled in dealing with the Donatists – a schism from the Catholic Church that dominated many cities throughout North Africa (for a short summary, see CARM’s post on Donatism).  Augustine initially sought to deal with the Donatists and to bring them back into the fold of the Church through the use of argument and persuasion and the “attraction of the majestic Catholic Church,” for one cannot be a Christian against his will via coercion.[1] (It should be noted here that the use of “Catholic” is not as we understand the term today in reference to the Roman Catholic Church; rather, the term as used by Augustine and the Patristic Fathers stands for the church universal – the body of believers who has been redeemed unto God by faith in Christ Jesus.)

For instance, in a letter dated around 396 (Letter 34), Augustine says of Proculeian, the Donatist bishop of Hippo,

Or if he agrees that we peacefully deal with this whole question of our division, in order that the error, which is already evident, may become more evidently known, I gladly agree. For I heard what he proposed, namely, that without turmoil among the people ten serious and honest men from each side be present with us and that we investigate in accord with the scriptures where the truth is to be found.[2]

Despite the best intentions of Augustine and fellow Catholic bishops/priests, reasoning and dialoguing with the Donatists did nothing in bringing the Donatists closer to the fold of the Church; instead, persecution of the Catholics by the Donatists, particularly by the Circumcellions, continued at various levels of intensity across North Africa.

But, at some point between 396 and 407/8, Augustine’s view on the issue of state coercion in Church matters, particularly in the dealing with heretics and schismatics, significantly changed.  In Letter 93 (dated around 407/8) addressed to Vincent, a Rogatist bishop (Rogatists were a schism from the Donatist church), Augustine states that “this opinion of mine [of being against coercion] was defeated not by the words of its opponents, but by examples of those who offered proof.”[3]  Augustine explains,

the first argument against me was my own city [Thagaste]. Though it was entirely in the Donatist sect, it was converted to the Catholic unity out of fear of the imperial laws, and we now see that it [the Donatist sect in Thagaste] detests the destructiveness of this stubbornness of yours so that no one would believe that it was ever a part of it. And it was the same with many other cities, which were reported to me by name, so that I might recognize by the very facts that one could correctly understand the words of scripture as also applying to this case.[4]

Though it was at one time his understanding of scripture (i.e. the example of Christ) that kept him from appealing to coercion against the Donatists, it was not scripture that convinced him of the rightness of state coercion; rather, it was the result of coercion itself. From the point at which Augustine saw the validity of appealing to state coercion, he did not fail to point out to Donatists that not only was the imperial law set against them,[5] but he also argued from scripture why the Catholics sought to coerce the Donatists back to the Church.

On the surface, it seems that Augustine bases his support for state coercion solely upon the results of examples presented to him by fellow bishops—the end justifies the means.   And by making this switch, Augustine set a precedence that has had regrettable consequences throughout the history of Christianity.  Upon a deeper look, however, Augustine’s switch may have been a long time coming.  In subsequent posts, I’ll present some potential reasons that may underlie Augustine’s move to support state coercion in church matters, followed by how this lesson in history can be of great value for Christians today.

[1] Geoffrey Willis, Saint Augustine and the Donatist Controversy (London: SPCK, 1950), 127-128.

[2] Augustine, Letter 34 in The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century Letters 1-99, Part II/1, trans. Roland Teske (New York: New York City Press, 2001), 120.

[3] Augustine, Letter 93 in The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century Letters 1-99, Part II/1, trans. Roland Teske (New York: New York City Press, 2001), 387.

[4] Ibid, 387.

[5] According to the translator’s note 27 in Letter 93, imperial laws against the Donatists were passed in February  405, which was followed by a mass conversion of Donatists to the Catholic church.


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