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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. XI:
The Commonitory of Vincent of Lérins, For the Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith Against the Profane Novelties of All Heresies.: Chapter IV. The evil resulting from the bringing in of Novel Doctrine shown in the instances of the Donatists and Arians.

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Chapter IV.

The evil resulting from the bringing in of Novel Doctrine shown in the instances of the Donatists and Arians.

[9.] But that we may make what we say more intelligible, we must illustrate it by individual examples, and enlarge upon it somewhat more fully, lest by aiming at too great brevity important matters be hurried over and lost sight of.

In the time of Donatus, 430 from whom his followers were called Donatists, when great numbers in Africa were rushing headlong into their own mad error, and unmindful of their name, their religion, their profession, were preferring the sacrilegious temerity of one man before the Church of Christ, then they alone throughout Africa were safe within the sacred precincts of the Catholic faith, who, detesting the profane schism, continued in communion with the universal Church, leaving to posterity an illustrious example, how, and how well in future the soundness of the whole body should be preferred before the madness of one, or at most of a few.

[10.] So also when the Arian poison had infected not an insignificant portion of the Church but almost the whole world, 431 so that a sort of blindness had fallen upon almost all the bishops 432 of the Latin tongue, circumvented partly by force partly by fraud, and was preventing them from seeing what was most expedient to be done in the midst of so much confusion, then whoever was a true lover and worshipper of Christ, preferring the ancient belief to the novel misbelief, escaped the pestilent infection.

[11.] By the peril of which time was abundantly shown how great a calamity the introduction of a novel doctrine causes. For then truly not only interests of small account, but others of the very gravest importance, were subverted. For not only affinities, relationships, friendships, families, but moreover, cities, peoples, provinces, nations, at last the whole Roman Empire, were shaken to their foundation and ruined. For when this same profane Arian novelty, like a Bellona or a Fury, had first taken captive the Emperor, 433 and had then subjected all the principal persons of the palace to new laws, from that time it never ceased to involve everything in confusion, disturbing all things, public and private, sacred and profane, paying no regard to what was good and true, but, as though holding a position of authority, smiting whomsoever it pleased. Then wives were violated, widows ravished, virgins profaned, monasteries demolished, clergymen ejected, the inferior clergy scourged, priests driven into exile, jails, prisons, mines, filled with saints, of whom the greater part, forbidden to enter into cities, thrust forth from their homes to wander in deserts and caves, among rocks and the haunts of wild beasts, exposed to nakedness, hunger, thirst, were worn out and consumed. Of all of which was there any other cause than that, while p. 134 human superstitions are being brought in to supplant heavenly doctrine, while well established antiquity is being subverted by wicked novelty, while the institutions of former ages are being set at naught, while the decrees of our fathers are being rescinded, while the determinations of our ancestors are being torn in pieces, the lust of profane and novel curiosity refuses to restrict itself within the most chaste limits of hallowed and uncorrupt antiquity? 434



There were two persons of this name, both intimately connected with the schism,—the earlier one, bishop of Casa Nigra in Numidia, the other the successor of Majorinus, whom in the year 311 the party had elected to be bishop of Carthage in opposition to Cecilian, the Catholic bishop, the ground of the opposition being that the principal among Cecilian’s consecrators lay under the charge of having delivered up the sacred books to the heathen magistrates in the Dioclesian persecution, and of having thereby rendered his ministerial acts invalid. It was from the last-mentioned probably that the sect was called.

The Donatists affected great strictness of life, and ignoring the plain declarations of Scripture, and notably the prophetic representations contained in our Lord’s parables of the Tares, the Draw-net, and others, they held that no church could be a true church which endured the presence of evil men in its society. Accordingly they broke off communion with the rest of the African Church and with all who held communion with it, which was in effect the rest of Christendom, denying the validity of their sacraments, rebaptizing those who came over to them from other Christian bodies, and reordaining their clergy.

The sect became so powerful that for some time it formed the stronger party in the church of North Western Africa, its bishops exceeding four hundred in number; but partly checked through the exertions of Augustine in the first years of the fifth century, and of Pope Gregory the Great at the close of the sixth, and partly weakened by divisions among themselves, they dwindled away and become extinct.


The rise of Arianism was nearly contemporaneous with that of Donatism. It originated with Arius, a presbyter of Alexandria, a man of a subtle wit and a fluent tongue. He began by calling in question the teaching of his bishop, when discoursing on a certain occasion on the subject of the Trinity. For himself he denied our blessed Lord’s coeternity and consubstantiality with the Father, which was in effect to deny that He is God in any true sense, though he made no scruple of giving Him the name. His doctrine may be best inferred from the anathema directed against it, appended to the original Nicene Creed: “Those who say, that once the Son of God did not exist, and that before He was begotten He did not exist, or who affirm that He is of a different substance or essence (from that of the Father), or that His nature is mutable or alterable, those the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematises.”

Arianism spread with great rapidity, and though condemned by the Council of Nicæa in 325, it gained fresh strength on the death of Constantine and the accession of Constantius, so that for many years thenceforward the history of the Church is occupied with nothing so much as with accounts of its struggle for supremacy.

“Arians and Donatists began both about one time, which heresies, according to the different strength of their own sinews, wrought, as the hope of success led them, the one with the choicest wits, the other with the multitude, so far, that after long and troublesome experience, the perfectest view that men could take of both was hardly able to induce any certain determinate resolution, whether error may do more by the curious subtlety of sharp discourse, or else by the mere appearance of zeal and devout affection.”—Hooker, Eccles. Pol. v. 62. § 8.


The Catholic bishops, in number more than four hundred, who at Ariminum, in 359, after having subscribed the Creed of Nicæa, were induced, partly by fraud, partly by threats, to repudiate its crucial terms and sign an Arian Formulary. It was in reference to this that St. Jerome wrote, “Ingemuit orbis, et Arium se esse miratus est.” “The world groaned and marvelled to find itself Arian.” He continues, “The vessel of the apostles was in extreme danger. The storm raged, the waves beat upon the ship, all hope was gone. The Lord awakes, rebukes the tempest, the monster (Constantius) dies, tranquillity is restored. The bishops who had been thrust out from their sees return, through the clemency of the new emperor. Then did Egypt receive Athanasius in triumph, then did the Church of Gaul receive Hilary returning from battle, then did Italy put off her mourning garments at the return of Eusebius (of Vercellæ).”—Advers. Luciferianos, § 10.


Constantius, the Emperor of the West.


Though Vincentius’ account of the Arian persecutions refers to those under Arian emperors, Constantius and Valens, the former especially, yet he could not but have had in mind the atrocious cruelties which were being perpetrated, at the time when he was writing, by the Arian Vandals in Africa. Possidius, in his life of St. Augustine, who lay on his death-bed in Hippo while the fierce Vandal host was encamped round the city (c. xxviii.), gives a detailed account of them belonging to a date some four years earlier, entirely of a piece with Vincentius’ description in the text. Victor, bishop of Vite, himself a sufferer, has left a still ampler relation, De Persecutione Vandalorum.

Next: Chapter V. The Example set us by the Martyrs, whom no force could hinder from defending the Faith of their Predecessors.

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