Fighting Isms and Schisms
With his natural brilliance, his training in rhetoric, and his position of church leadership, Augustine found himself the polemical leader in the church of his day. From his conversion to the time of his death, Augustine battled a succession of “isms” or schisms: first Manichacism, then Donatism, then Pelagiariism.
Manichaeism took its name from its founder, Mani, a Persian born around 216 A.D. The Manichees taught a basic dualism in nature: light and darkness were co-eternal, hostile systems in conflict with each other. Good was passive, darkness and evil were active.
As a gnostic religion, Manichacism appealed to the reason. For nine years Augustine followed the Manichees, but he gradually began to see their errors. When Faustus, reputedly the most brilliant of the Manichees, failed to answer his questions, Augustine’s faith in the Manichees was irrevocably shaken.
Because he had been one of them and then was disillusioned, his opposition to the Manichees was that much stronger after his conversion. Much of his writing and speaking was directed against the Manichees. In Hippo, when he publicly debated the Manichee Fortunatus, Augustine so humiliated the man that he left the city and never returned.
Donatism was more a localized and political threat. Early in Constantine’s reign, the Donatists had withdrawn from the Catholic church for both political and doctrinal reasons. They said that during the recent persecution by emperor Diocletian, many of the Catholic leaders had betrayed the church. Such traitors did not deserve to remain as church leaders, they said.
The main disputing was in Carthage, where the Donatists claimed that the Catholic bishop had been ordained by a traitor, and thus his priesthood was ...