Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Optatus, bp. of Milevis
Optatus (6), bp. of Milevis, or Mileum (Milah), in Numidia, 25 m. N.W. of Cirta (Shaw, Trav. p. 63), a vigorous opponent of the Donatists. He himself says that he wrote about 60 years, or rather more, after the persecution under Diocletian. St. Jerome speaks of him as having written during the reigns of Valentinian and Valens, a.d.
365–378. But in bk. ii. of his treatise Siricius is mentioned as bp. of Rome, "qui est noster socius." As Siricius did not succeed Damasus until 384, he may have outlived the period mentioned by St. Jerome and himself inserted these words later. The date of his death, however, is unknown. St. Augustine mentions him once in the same sentence as St. Ambrose, and elsewhere as a church-writer of high authority, even among Donatists. (Opt. c. Don. i. 13, ii. 3; Hieron. Vir. Illustr. c. 110, vol. ii. p. 706 ; Aug. c. Don. ep. (de Unit. Eccl.) 19, 50; c. Parm. i. 3, 5; Brevic. Coll. 20, 38; Doctr. Christ. ii. 40, 61; Baronius, Ann. vol. iv. p. 243; Morcelli, Afr. Chr. ii. 275; Dupin, Optatus Praef. 1.)
His treatise against the Donatists is in the form of a letter to Parmenian, Donatist bp. of Carthage, in six books, with a seventh of doubtful authenticity.
Bk. i. opens with a eulogy of peace, which he complains that the Donatists set at nought by reviling the Catholics. He adds some compliments to Parmenian, as the only one of his party with whom he can communicate freely, and regrets being compelled to do so by letter because they refuse to meet for conference. Five points put forward by Parmenian call for discussion, to which Optatus adds a sixth. (1) In accusing Catholics of "tradition," particulars ought to be specified of time and place. (2) The true church ought to be defined. (3) Which side was really responsible for calling in the aid of the soldiers. (4) What Parmenian means by "sinners" whose "oil and sacrifice" God rejects. (5) The question of baptism. (6) The riotous and rash acts of the Donatists. Optatus finds fault with Parmenian for his inconsiderate language about our Lord's baptism, to the effect that His flesh required to be "drowned in the flood" of Jordan to remove its impurity. If the baptism of Christ's body were intended to suffice for the baptism of each single person, there might be some truth in this, but we are baptized, in virtue not of the flesh of Christ, but of His name, and moreover we cannot believe that even His flesh contracted sin, for it was more pure than Jordan itself. The purpose of Optatus is to shew that it was not the church which cast off the Donatists, but they who separated from the church, following the example of Korah and his company. When they disclaim the right of princes to interfere in the affairs of the church they contradict their forefathers, who, in the matter of Caecilian, petitioned Constantine to grant them judges from Gaul instead of from Africa.
In bk. ii. Optatus discusses what the church, the dove and bride of Christ, is (Cant. vi. 9). Its holiness consists in the sacraments and is not to be measured by the pride of men. It is universal, not limited, as Parmenian would have it, to a corner of Africa, for if so where would be the promises of Pss. ii. 8, lxxii. 8? And the merits of the Saviour would be restricted, Pss. cxiii. 3, xcvi. 7. The church has five gifts: (1) The chair of Peter. (2) The angel inseparably attached to that chair, apparently the power of conferring spiritual gifts, which resides in the centre of episcopal unity. Parmenian must be aware that the episcopal chair was conferred from the beginning on Peter, the chief of the apostles, that unity might be preserved among the rest and no one apostle set up a rival. This chair, with whose exclusive claim for respect the little Donatist community can in no way compete, carries with it necessarily the "angel" ("ducit ad se angelum"), unless the Donatists have this gift enclosed for their own use in a narrow space, and excluding the seven angels of St. John (Rev. i.), with whom they have no communion; or if they possess one of these, let them send him to other churches: otherwise their case falls to the ground. (3) The holy spirit of adoption, which Donatists claim exclusively for themselves, applying to Catholics unjustly the words of our Lord about proselytism (Matt. xxiii. 15) (4) The fountain (probably faith) of which heretics cannot partake, and (5) its seal, "annulus" (probably baptism) (Cant. iv. 12). A want of clearness in the language of Optatus renders his meaning here somewhat doubtful. The Donatists add a sixth gift, the "umbilicus" of Cant. vii. 2, which they regard as the altar; but this, being an essential part of the body, cannot be a separate gift. These gifts belong to the church in Africa, from which the Donatists have cut themselves off, as also from the priesthood, which they seek by rebaptism to annul, though they do not rebaptize their own returned seceders. But these gifts belong to the bride, not the bride to them. They regard them as the generating power of the church instead of the essentials (viscera), viz. the sacraments, which derive their virtue from the Trinity. Parmenian truly compares the church to a garden, but it is God Who plants the trees therein, some of which Donatists seek to exclude. In offering the
sacrifice to God in the Eucharist, they profess to offer for the one church, but by their rebaptism they really make two churches. Thanking Parmenian for his language about the church, which, however, he claims as applicable to the Catholic church alone, he challenges him to point out any act of persecution on its part. Constantine took pains to restore peace and suppress idolatry, but another emperor, who declared himself an apostate, when he restored idolatry allowed the Donatists to return, a permission for the acceptance of which they ought to blush. It was about this time that the outrages broke out in Africa [FELIX (185); URBANUS], of which when Primosus complained, the Donatist council at Theneste took no notice. They compelled women under vows to disregard them and perform a period of penance, and deposed from his office Donatus bp. of Tysedis. Yet they speak of holiness as if Christ gave it without conditions, and take every opportunity of casting reproach on church ordinances, fulfiling the words of Ezek. xiii. 20.
In bk. iii., after going over some of the former ground, laying the blame of the schism on the Donatists, Optatus applies to them several passages of Scripture, esp. Pss. lxxxvii., cxlvii.; Isa. ii. 3, xxii. 1, 9.
In bk. iv., disclaiming all unfriendly feeling and appealing to the common possessions of both parties, Optatus charges them with infraction of unity by appointment of bishops, proselytism, forbidding social intercourse, and perversely applying to Catholics Scripture passages directed against obstinate heretics, as I. Cor. v. 11, II. John 10.
In bk. v. Optatus returns to the oft-repeated subject of rebaptism. The repetition of baptism, he says, is an insult to the Trinity, worse than the doctrines of Praxeas and the Patripassians. Three elements are requisite: (1) the Trinity, (2) the minister, (3) the faithful receiver; but of these the Donatists exalt the second above the other two. They use as a quotation words not found in Scripture, "How can a man give what he has not received?" (see I. Cor. iv. 7); but in baptism God alone is the giver of grace. As it is not the dyer who changes the colour of his wool, so neither does the minister of himself change the operation of baptism. Of two candidates for baptism, if one refused to renounce while the other consented, there can be no doubt which of them received baptism effectually. By rebaptizing, Donatists rob Christians of their marriage-garment, which suits all ages and conditions of life. The rebaptized will rise no doubt at the last day, but will rise naked, and the voice of the Master will be heard, "Friend, I once knew thee, and gave thee a marriage-garment. Who has despoiled thee of it? Into what trap, amongst what thieves hast thou fallen?"
In bk. vi. he repeats some previous charges, and adds others, how they destroyed altars, the "seats of Christ's Body and Blood," at which they themselves must have offered. They have broken up chalices and sold them to women and even to pagans, yet they quote Hagg. ii. 14; but even impurity of men does not profane the vessels of service (see Num. xvi. 37, 38).
Bk. vii., which is not mentioned by St. Jerome, but which may on good MS. grounds be ascribed to Optatus, is supplementary and answers a fresh Donatist complaint, that if they are the children of "traditors," as Optatus says, they ought to be let alone, and no attempt made to "reconcile" them; but, says Optatus, though their fathers deserved to be excluded, there is no reason why they should be so, for the church repels no baptized persons. Christ allows two sorts of seed to grow in His field, and no bishop has power to do what the apostles could not, viz. separate them. They might have refused to communicate with Peter because he denied his Lord, yet he retained the keys given him by Christ.
The work of Optatus is more important historically than doctrinally. As a theological treatise it is often loose and rambling, with frequent repetition; but it exposes with clearness and force the inconsistency of the Donatists, and of all who, like them, fix their attention exclusively on the ethical side of religion, estimated by an arbitrary standard of opinion, to the disregard of other conditions of the greatest importance in the constitution of a church. How perversely and inconsistently the Donatists applied this principle in the matter of rebaptism Optatus again and again demonstrates. That there was a doctrine of rebaptism in the African church, to which Cyprian had lent the weight of his authority, there can be no doubt; but with him it was directed against heretics, on the principle that the followers of Marcion, Praxeas, and the like, were in fact not truly Christians and thus their baptism was valueless. But Optatus is never weary of urging that though by their own act Donatists had incurred the charge of schism, the church did not regard them as heretics, and that they ought not to treat as heretical their brethren. Dupin's ed. (1702, fol.) is the groundwork of all subsequent editions. It has been reprinted in vol. xi. of Migne's Patr. Lat., but the map is smaller and less clear than in Dupin's folio, and all documents previous to 362 are in vol. viii. of the Patr. Lat. An account of Optatus and his writings will be found in Ceillier, vol. v. The latest ed. is by Ziwsa (1893), in Corpus Scr. Eccl. Lat. xxvi. (Vienna). See Sparrow Simpson's St. Aug. and Afr. Ch. Divisions (1910), pp. 42 ff.