The Donatist Church in an Apocalyptic Age

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Jesse A. Hoover
Oxford Early Christian Studies
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this work, Jesse A. Hoover begins with an excellent overview of Donatist scholarship past and present. One area of neglect in this scholarship, however, is that many have not taken Donatist apocalyptic literature seriously, nor have they heretofore appreciated the adaptive and dynamic nature of Donatist eschatology. The Donatist Church in an Apocalyptic Age offers a corrective lens on these two points. In addition, Hoover challenges the view that Donatists were archaic and that there appeal to apocalyptic exegesis cooled as the movement declined. In chapters 3-6, Hoover argues quite convincingly that Donatist apocalyptic literature continued throughout their literary existence and that this teaching was in keeping with the spirit of the age (98).

Before presenting arguments to support his thesis, Hoover offers the reader a thorough review of North African eschatology in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. By examining the context in which Donatist apocalyptic literature evolved, Hoover invites the reader to identify areas of continuity and innovation as the Donatist church progressed and declined. This is particularly true as it relates to the influence Cyprian had on later Donatist writers. For example, “Cyprian had a tendency to interpret persecution of his own era through the lens of apocalyptic prophecy” (80). Various Donatist writers also did this as they spoke of the present age as an “Age of Sorrows” and the future age as an “Age of Glory.” Additionally, Hoover maintains that Cyprian influenced later Donatist writers with his teaching that the world had grown old (senectus mundi). This theory was also useful to the Donatists in that it allowed them to “introduce a new level of instability into the system. The present age of persecution is not static: it is getting worse, inexorably heading toward a final confrontation between the righteous and the wicked, between Christ and Antichrist” (82). For both groups, such a theory helped to explain the current challenges surrounding them. 

In chapter 3, Hoover examines Donatist literature from 317-361 CE to demonstrate their adaptive and polemical nature. In the sermon entitled, Sermondepassione sanctorum Donati et Advocati, written sometime after the repression by Constantine (317-321 CE), is an example of the literature’ss ability to adapt. While the preacher criticizes the Caecilianist as liars, servants of the Antichrist, wolves in sheep’s clothing, and dragons, he does not persuade the Donatist communion to remain strong under persecution, but to stay loyal in the face of deception (101). This new challenge (deception) is now placed in apocalyptic language, where believers are encouraged to avoid false prophets and apostasy (Matthew 24:24), the ravenous wolves that devour (Matthew 7:15), and, lastly, the beast that speaks like a dragon (Rev. 13.11). After the Macarian persecution (347-61 CE), many Donatists begin viewing transmarine churches that consented to their persecution as traditores, and the Caecilianist as pars Macarii. Given that many of their bishops were sent into exile, including their founder “Donatus the Great,” Donatists developed yet another view of themselves as the “chosen remnant.” According to Hoover, this view allowed Donatist to counter Augustine’s claim of the universality of the church. Specifically, Donatists would insist that before the rise of the Antichrist and the outbreak of the final persecution, there would be a mass apostasy. According to Donatist exegetes of the period, this apostasy had already taken place and the Donatists were the ones that remained faithful. Hoover argues, “remnant ecclesiology, then, describes the exegetical tendency among Donatist theologians to identify their communion as being in continuity with the few rather than the many, the faithful minority whose heroic resistance in the face of persecution was constantly replayed in the scriptures” (138). Biblical figures such as Noah, Enoch, Lot, and Abraham were used by Donatists to support this claim. 

In chapter 5, Hoover examines the eschatological vision of the Donatist theologian Tyconius as revealed in his two surviving texts: Liber regularum and Exposition Apocalypseos. Tyconius did not teach a “chosen remnant ecclesiology,” nor did he castigate the transmarine churches as traditores. To the contrary, Tyconius postulated a view that Hoover calls “an apocalyptic prequel.” That is, before the end, there would be a separation between the true Christians and the false brothers. Hoover insists that this does not mean that the Caecilianist schism is insignificant to Tyconius, but rather, he gives it a reinterpretation. For example, “in the Expositio Apocalypseos, the Donatist struggle with the apostate Caecilianists is viewed as a typological prequel event, mirroring in miniature what will soon break out throughout the world” (174). Thus, the division between Caecilianist and Donatist is the last apocalyptic signpost before the out break of the final persecution. Hoover concludes that “the Donatist communion is not the true church in toto, and it is Caecilianist adversaries are not the unveiled ‘abomination of desolation’ in all its horror, they still do share in its likeness. They are, in fact, the immediate precursors to the end: a dress rehearsal and a warning to the world wide church to the role it will soon be called to play in opposition to Antichrist and his apostate communion” (178). 

In Hoover’s closing chapter he examines the surviving texts of the Donatist movement from 411 to 429 CE. Writers like Gaudentius, Fulgentius, and the anonymous writer of the Vienna Homilies spurred “new efforts to contextualize their experience within an apocalyptic framework” (182). Moreover, during these years of repression (411-429 CE) we have 60 sermons from an anonymous Donatist preacher. Most of the sermons address the usual Donatist themes, but sermon 39, entitled Cavete apseudoprophetis, is singled out for its apocalyptic theme. The anonymous preacher states,“[y]ou call yourselves by the name of ‘Christian’ in vein, you who persecute Christ in his servants! You lay claim to a title which is built on lies! Your name is said to be ‘Christian,’ but your works are those of Antichrist … what you once hid has now appeared openly” (184). Again, this Donatists writer/preacher is found encouraging his church before the event of Anitchrist. 

Hoover has written an excellent book that treats Donatist apocalyptic themes from the beginning of their influence (Tertullian, Cyprian, Lactantius) up through the end of their literary existence in 427 CE. By doing this, Hoover has demonstrated that Donatist exegetes were adaptive and more sophisticated than scholars have previously noted. Hoover has also shown that Donatism was not an archaic movement, nor did its appeal to apocalyptic exegesis cool as the movement declined. Lastly, as Hoover’s title implies, the teachings of The Donatist Church in an Apocalyptic Age  was in keeping with the spirit of the age.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ronald Burris is Associate Professor at the American Baptist Seminary of the West and a member of the core doctoral faculty at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.

Date of Review: 
February 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jesse A. Hoover is Lecturer at Baylor University. He specializes in the development of early Latin Christianity with a particular emphasis on minority religious traditions.


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