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.
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.
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.
The Donatist schism (see Donatists) occasioned a number of important synods.
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.
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 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.
And Gratian, by whom the Donatist churches were again closed, and all their assemblies forbidden.
For the later influence of the Donatist controversy upon the sacramental development see Donatists).
There were present 286 Catholics and 279 Donatist bishops.