Despite his desire for republics ruled by Christians seeking after true justice—Christ's justice—Augustine realized that members of the city of God sometimes live in the earthly city without political power (as had been the pattern for the faith for the majority of its existence) and that cities where they do reign are surrounded by cities with different allegiances. Christians can live obediently in cities that seek mere earthly peace as long as those cities do not impede worship. 25 When in power, they are not to seek war with an adversary unless visited by iniquity.26 The differences between the city of God and the city of man get sorted out in the last judgment. God holds the responsibility for sorting wheat from tares.27

Though Augustine's work seemed to point in the direction of something like religious toleration, he, like so many other great theorists, found himself compelled to make hard choices based on events. His community in Africa was one of the most contentious spots for Catholic-Donatist strife. While all involved were Christians, there was little forgiveness and occasional violence.28

Ironically, the subject of the long-running dispute was the persecution the church had been through in the past. Those Christians who appeared to have lapsed under coercive pressure wished to rejoin the church or regain their clerical positions. In the main, the Catholic Church was willing to forgive with appropriate penance, but there were others (the Donatists) who held the stricter position that apostasy could not be forgiven, and they clashed with the rest of the church. They cherished the memory of martyrs for the faith and argued that forgiving the offense of the lapsed demeaned the martyrs' sacrifice.29

Dissatisfied with the existence of a nearly century-long dispute within the church, Augustine moved to conclude the issue with a council. Though he was in principle opposed to coercion as a method of resolving the controversy and tended to think it would merely result in fake conversions to his side, Augustine eventually came to embrace the opposite point of view. The government began putting pressure upon the Donatists and met with some success in changing hearts and minds. Augustine began to believe that a mind changed by coercion might eventually find itself in true agreement and thus be really reconciled. Slowly, he embraced a policy of moderate coercion and thus put his own imprimatur on "paternal correction" of dissidents.30

The council in Carthage (411), which addressed the situation, finally settled on fines, exile of Donatist clergy, and confiscation of Donatist property. Even with official policy against them, the Donatists continued on in Africa for nearly three more centuries. Perhaps the only reason we are not talking about them today is that they were eventually wiped off the map by expansionist Islam in the seventh century.31

The decision to suppress through the vehicle of law was one the church (in various manifestations) and Christian states would make at several points in history. Examples include the Medieval Inquisition directed against heretics such as the Cathars, who were clearly non-Christian, and the Waldensians, whose heresy looked a lot like mere Protestantism before its time; witch trials; and the suppression of both Catholics and Protestants by each other in Reformation and post-Reformation Europe. The idea behind the suppression was that of loving constraint. Love toward the community and toward the heretic himself required coercion and hopefully persuasion toward repentance so that the offender might save his soul. The "struggle for deathlessness" was no longer free. Rather, it was guided by church and state for better or worse.

The End of Secularism
Copyright 2009 by Hunter Baker 
Published by Crossway Books, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers 
1300 Crescent Street Wheaton, Illinois 60187

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