Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

Optatus of Milevis, Against the Donatists (1917) Translator's introduction.  pp. i-xxxv.







'Legant qui volunt quae narret et quibus documentis quam 
multa persuadeat Venerabilis Memoriae Milevitanus Episcopus 
Catholicae Communionis Optatus.'----S. Augustinus.



All rights reserved



Th. Bergh, O.S.B.,

Censor Deputatus.


E. Can. Surmont,

Vic. Gen.


die 15 Feb., 1915.



St. Optatus, Bishop of Milevis in Africa, is perhaps the least known of all the Fathers of the Church. His treatise against the Donatists----the one work that he left to posterity, was translated into French in 1564.1 It is extremely improbable that, but for this exception, it has, until now, ever appeared in any language save Latin. It is quite certain that it has never yet been clothed in an English dress. There is indeed an advertisement still to be seen in The Oxford Library of the Fathers, in which it was announced (in 1848) that a translation of St. Optatus into English would 'soon' appear. Sixty-eight years have elapsed; but this intention has not yet been carried into execution.

Until recently St. Optatus could hardly be found, even in the original Latin, anywhere but in the edition published by Du Pin at Antwerp in 1702, and subsequently incorporated by Migne. His work was until 1870 out of the reach of all persons who had not access to the largest libraries. In 1870----it is true-----Fr. Hurter, S.J., published Du Pin's text in convenient form with short notes,2 and in 1893 a new critical |vi edition was brought out (edited by the late Professor Ziwsa) in the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum, which has now for many years been in course of publication at Vienna. Comparatively few people, however, have heard of this excellent edition of the Latin Fathers; still fewer are aware that its volumes may be purchased separately, and that for the sum of a few shillings they may possess themselves of 'the Seven Books of St. Optatus concerning the Schism of the Donatists, against Parmenian.'

Indeed it is not too much to say that the very name of Optatus is barely known even to many students of theology and ecclesiastical history. Yet his is no mean name, and he cannot be ignored with safety, for he has bequeathed to the Church material of no small value, both to the theologian and the ecclesiastical historian. Optatus was held in high repute by the great Augustine, upon whom his influence was undoubtedly considerable. To this Harnack bears witness: 'Even when he entered into the Donatist controversy, Augustine did so as a man of the second or indeed the third generation. He therefore enjoyed the great advantage of having at his disposal a fund of conceptions and ideas already collected. In this sphere Optatus especially had worked before him.'3

The work of St. Optatus is, therefore, of consequence not only from the point of view of history----he is the historian of Donatism in its origins----but also from that of doctrine----of 'conceptions and ideas.' It derives special importance from the fact that here we find the |vii first sustained argument from the Catholic side not merely against heresy (false doctrine) but also against schism (separation from the Church).

Heresies come and go. They are essentially ephemeral, according to some transitory fashion of mental speculation. And in fact history proves that the limit of their duration is hardly known to last four centuries. Often indeed they pass into all but complete oblivion. Thus it comes about that a long and sometimes weary discussion concerning a heresy which has perhaps long since vanished from the midst of men is apt to lose much of its actuality.4 But the Church dies not, and in every age excuses are found by the rebellious for their rebellion against her supreme authority. The argument against heresy is necessarily specialised and multiform; the argument against schism is very simple and admits of no substantial variation in its presentment.

Consequently, it never ceases to be of deep interest to follow the reasoning that has been employed by the champions of the Catholic Church, at any period of her history, on behalf of her exclusive and peremptory claim upon the spiritual allegiance of mankind. Whenever this is in discussion, there is no drowsy stirring of dead bones, but an issue which is ever-living and therefore in a certain sense ever-new. Now, upon this subject Optatus is perfectly explicit. Again and again he lays it down that there is but one true Church of Christ,5 that she is not merely local, but is scattered |viii all over the world,6 her chief rulers bound together by formal bonds and proofs of union, each with his fellow,7 and above all with the Bishop of Rome, Peter's successor.8

In other words for Optatus the one question of paramount importance is: 'Which and where is the One Church?'9 And to this question his answer is clear-cut and unmistakable in its import. The Church of Christ may be easily recognised by all those who will look for her marks. She and she alone is One; she and she alone is truly Catholic. In fact this is her name----Catholica.10 She alone is Apostolic----Apostolic for this reason, that all over the world ('ubique') her children are in communion with the Cathedra Petri,11 the See of that Apostle to whom alone the Lord promised the keys of the kingdom of Heaven 12 ----the See 'against which to contend is sacrilege.' 13

And because Parmenian, his Donatist adversary, had failed to recognise 'where is the Church?' he is said by Optatus to have 'made confusion of everything.' 14

The clearness and decisiveness of the teaching of St. Optatus on the Church have caused Harnack to write thus: 'In this thought (of the Church as an institution) Catholicism was first complete . . . But Augustine was not the first to declare it; he rather |ix received it from tradition. The first representative of the new conception known to us, and Augustine also knew him, was Optatus.' 15

It is hardly necessary to observe that this 'conception' was never really 'new' in Christendom. Optatus did not invent it. He had 'received it' (in the same way that before him in Africa Cyprian had already 'received it,' and, as Harnack admits, Augustine 'received it) from tradition.' He 'received it' also from the express words of Christ and from the prophecies of the Old Testament.16 It is, however, perfectly true to say that St. Optatus is the first writer known to us who sets out in detail the Catholic conception of the one true Church of Christ. The opportunity came to him only with the Donatist schism. It will always be the great merit of Optatus to have seized that opportunity and to have availed himself of it to such an extent, that Augustine had but to broaden it out and illustrate it with his matchless genius. St. Augustine had only to fill in the picture which St. Optatus had already drawn in clear outline. To the end of time the Catholic theologian, preacher or controversialist, desirous of showing the true nature of the Church, and the obligation (binding everywhere, always, upon all persons, and under all conceivable circumstances) of living within her visible unity, will find everything that he needs ready to Ms hand, in the writings of St. Optatus. Moreover, Optatus will remind us that from this obligation---- |x strict though it be in itself----ignorance (that ignorance which we now call 'invincible') will excuse its victims.17 Ignorance could not be pleaded by Parmenian; it was therefore impossible to hold him guiltless. But Optatus was evidently aware that in his day in Africa (as in our day in England) there were Christians who, through no fault of their own, knew nothing of the claims of the Chair of Peter.

Apart from the constitution and marks of the Church, there is only one specific doctrine----that Baptism may not lawfully be repeated after it has once been validly administered (the Credo unum Baptisma of the Creed)----with which St. Optatus was directly concerned in his controversy with his Donatist adversaries. His statements as to other Truths of Faith (denied in later ages) are only by the way, and are generally incidental to the course of his historical narrative. This, it seems important to observe, gives them an even greater polemical value than would have been theirs had Optatus written controversially on these subjects, and been contradicted by Donatists or any other Christians then living. But this is far from being the case. For example, St. Optatus is able to write to his opponent: 'Bene revocasti Claves ad Petrum.' 18 Similarly, with regard to all the other Catholic doctrines to which he makes reference throughout his work, it is quite clear that he and Parmenian are standing on common ground, and were perfectly agreed.

When then we reflect that St. Optatus wrote in |xi the century preceding the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, in the very heart of what are sometimes known as 'Primitive Times,' when we remember that he was anterior to Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome and Leo the Great, when we recall the fact that the Reformation in Germany and England does not yet go back four hundred years, but that Optatus wrote six centuries before the Norman set foot on our English soil, and that some thousand years and then two hundred more were to elapse between the writings of Optatus and the breach with Rome over King Henry's divorce, it is a most striking and moving fact that this old Father of the Church bears his express and unequivocal witness not only to the necessity of union with the Cathedra Petri, but also to most of those Catholic Doctrines so violently assailed in the days of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Cranmer, Knox and their associates, and still denied on all sides around us.

For example, St. Optatus affirms explicitly the truth of Baptismal Regeneration 19; again and again makes reference to the Sacrifice of the Altar 20; states the doctrine of the Real Presence in words that are incapable of any misunderstanding 21; insists on the sacredness of the Holy Chrism 22; writes of the adornment of altars for the offering of the Sacrifice 23; refers to the ceremony of Exorcism before Baptism 24; appeals to deutero-canonical Books as to authentic Scripture 25; |xii takes the continuance of Miracles in the Church for granted 26; and is quite express in his references to cloistered Virginity and the difference between the Commandments of God and Counsels of Perfection. 27 Sometimes indeed he is so modern in his expressions (or at least his words are so directly applicable to our modern circumstances) that when we first read them we rub our eyes and ask ourselves 'Can it be a Catholic writer of the fourth century, whom we are reading, not one of the twentieth?' Instances of this may be found in the famous description of the origin of the Donatist schism,28 which, as Cardinal Wiseman has pointed out,29 can be paralleled with startling exactness by the schism under Henry; or again in such isolated expressions as 'Cathedra ducit ad se Angelum,' which is all that we need should it be urged that it is safe to remain in Anglicanism, because of the (supposed) validity of Anglican Orders. If these Orders were ever so valid, they could not be more valid than were those of the Donatists; but St. Optatus teaches us that, by themselves, valid Orders are of no avail. It is useless to have a Bishop (Angelus) who is out of communion with that One Chair of Peter, of which Optatus is at the time writing. Orders he may have, still he remains visibly in schism. Cathedra ducit ad se Angelum.30 Or, similarly, 'Per Cathedram Petri, quae nostra est, per ipsam et ceteras dotes |xiii apud nos esse probatum est.' 31 It is through the Chair of Peter----through our Union with that Chair which itself 'is ours,' that we derive and can prove our security as to the other Endowments of the Church, amongst which is reckoned lawful Episcopacy. Or, again, in discussion with any Protestant, what need we say more than those three words of St. Optatus----'Catholica prior est' 32? Before any Protestant body had its birth, before Luther's turbulent spirit began to trouble the peace of Christendom, before the ecclesiastical Provinces of Canterbury and York were torn away by the State from their union with the Apostolic See, before the ambition of Photius separated Byzantium from the elder Rome, before Donatism arose, there was the Catholic Church and the Chair of Peter. Catholica prior est.

It is beyond doubt that, as Vincent of Lerins taught in the fifth century, and as Catholic theologians have since taught in every age, there must be a certain development of doctrine in the Church----that is to say, an 'explication' or unfolding, more and more explicit as the years pass on, of that which has always been implicit in the Deposit of the Faith delivered in the beginning to the Saints; for, where there is life, there must also be growth. Yet, whilst studying St. Optatus I have asked myself whether since his day there has been room for any real development. Whatever development of doctrine may have been necessary, at least with regard to the doctrines concerning the Holy See and the Eucharist, seems to me, as I read |xiv Optatus, to have already taken place and to be generally well known and accepted throughout the Church.

The work, then, of St. Optatus derives its great doctrinal importance from its unambiguous teaching, principally indeed as to the marks of the Church, but also concerning other revealed truths, unhappily denied in modern times by great bodies of Christians separated from the Catholic Unity.

There are two subjects, the treatment of which by St. Optatus will probably jar upon the sensibilities of most, if not all, modern readers: the first is religious persecution, and the second the application of certain passages in the Old Testament, in minute and even verbal detail, to the controversies of his day.

With regard to persecution, the Donatists continually upbraided the Catholics with the punishments inflicted upon their fathers by Macarius and Leontius and other officers sent by the Emperors to secure religious unity. Now, the reply of St. Optatus up to a point is curiously similar to that which we make to-day when we are reminded of what happened in England under Mary Tudor. St. Optatus urged in the first place that these punishments had been greatly exaggerated (just as we say when confronted with Foxe's 'Book of Martyrs'). In the second place he pointed out (as we do) that those who were punished were for the most part turbulent conspirators against the public security, and that their treatment of Catholics had been infinitely worse than any reprisals to which it may have led. Thirdly he laid stress |xv upon the fact (and here again we take precisely the same ground) that whatever happened came to pass by the authority of the State, and not by that of the Church, and that the Church was in no way responsible. If he had stopped here, all would have been well, but unfortunately St. Optatus went further, and argued that 'perchance' the sufferings of the Donatists were 'by the will of God,' and endeavoured to justify them by several parallels from the Old Testament. This is, it seems to us, exceedingly regrettable, but we must remember that to Optatus, it was an axiom, and as such seemed a truism which no man would or could dispute, that it was the duty of a Christian State to secure the observance of the true religion, and to punish not only offences against society, but also those against Almighty God. The modern distinction, so clear to us, between 'crime' and 'sin' was utterly unknown to him, and no doubt, if it had been stated in his hearing, would have seemed to him----at least in the case of a Christian State----utterly immoral and involving the gravest dereliction of duty on the part of a Christian ruler. We know from his own letters that it so appeared to Constantine.33 When this fact is grasped, it will be more easy to understand a point of view, which is inapplicable to any set of circumstances that can be imagined as arising in modern times. All that can be said fairly on this subject, even by those who think St. Optatus most mistaken and wrong, is that unfortunately he was not ahead of his age. |xvi 

But it is not only with reference to the punishment of schismatics that the appeal of St. Optatus to the Old Testament will strike us as strange and sometimes even perverse. Again and again, when arguing against some Donatist custom or personage, he quotes a passage from Ezekiel, or Daniel, or Isaiah, as though Donatus the Great or the sacrileges of his followers had been before the mind of the Hebrew Prophet. This to us (at least to me)----however ingenious it may sometimes be----is tiresome and irritating in the extreme. But we must remember that of course St. Optatus did not think or mean anything of the kind. What he did mean was that Almighty God, when inspiring His Prophet, intended that Prophet's words to be applied (amongst other ways) to the case of the Donatists. All the Fathers of the time (indeed all Christians) held a theory of verbal dictation of the inspired writings, which has never been taught officially by the Church and has long been practically unknown amongst Catholics. Moreover, in the fourth and fifth centuries it was generally believed that Holy Scripture had many senses in addition to the literal or first sense. Consequently all ecclesiastical writers during those centuries used the text of Scripture from time to time in a way that will inevitably seem to us to be most far-fetched and unreal. But if this treatment of the Bible so appears to us, it would not have thus appeared to the contemporaries of Optatus. Indeed it is highly probable that many Donatists were much impressed and even converted by his appeal against them couched in the very words of some great |xvii Hebrew Prophet. And if St. Optatus is sometimes insulting to the Donatists in his application of Holy Scripture, it is clear that often----this is certainly true of the muscae moriturae in Book VII and of all the passages dealt with in Book IV----he is merely retorting arguments that had been used against Catholics by Parmenian or other Donatists. Evidently, it did not seem to him safe to leave those arguments, so far as they consisted of quotations from Scripture, to answer themselves, and St. Optatus knew, as we cannot possibly know, the mentality of those men of his own day, for whose sake he was writing his work.

However, such an exegesis of Scripture is so alien to our habits of thought that it may draw the attention of the reader away from the real and great excellences of Optatus to a sense of mere annoyance at what will seem to be now and again his perversity of interpretation. (In fairness it should be said that, so far as this is true of Optatus, it is true also often of St. Ambrose and sometimes even of St. Augustine.) In my anxiety that there should be nothing to hinder the study of the really important and interesting parts of the work of St. Optatus, I thought for a moment of excluding his applications of the Old Testament to the circumstances of the Donatist schism. But a very little consideration made me see that such a course was out of the question, and that if I translated St. Optatus at all I must translate every word, so that it would be impossible for anyone to think that Optatus had been bowdlerised or mutilated at my hands. He is great enough to be read in his entirety and reckoned with as |xviii a whole. The reader may be certain that I have translated----for him to read, if he likes----everything without exception as it stands in the Seven Books of Optatus, as he submitted them to the judgement of his own time.

St. Optatus can often be usefully illustrated from St. Cyprian and St. Augustine; occasionally from St. Jerome and Tertullian. I am aware that I have laid myself open to criticism by sometimes supplying references to the writings of these Fathers in their original; sometimes in a translation. I can but explain that considerations of space made it impossible to give them both in Latin and English. It only remained to do what seemed to me the more useful in each case. Sometimes I thought it safer to sacrifice the vernacular for the sake of giving the exact words of my authority (after all my footnotes are hardly likely to be read by many persons without a knowledge of Latin); sometimes, however, I felt it important to give the quotation in a form which all can understand. I can only plead that I have exercised my judgement to the best of my ability, and have always translated with faithfulness.

I much wished to present the Latin text. But that could not have been done without doubling the size and expense of my book. I have, however, always given the Latin in a note in three cases: (1) when any controversial point was involved, (2) when there was any doubt lingering in my mind as to the exact meaning of my author, (3) when I thought that my English version was somewhat free.

St. Optatus is by no means easy to translate. His |xix sentences are often very long and involved. Not seldom he loses his thread and anacolutha are frequent. Often too he is very crabbed and obscure. I have been most anxious, and I hope careful, to observe the two golden rules of faithful translation: firstly, to put no idea in the rendering which is not clearly in the text, and secondly to express every thought and phrase of the author in words that are as nearly as one can make them the equivalent of his own. To secure these two points I have never hesitated, when necessary, to sacrifice idiomatic English to literalness in translation. Few things are more exasperating than is a French paraphrase, which so often is as misleading with regard to the exact sense of its supposed original, as it is charming in its own beauty and delicacy of expression. The style of Optatus is often majestic, always full of force and vigour, and sometimes rises to heights of real eloquence. There is one peculiarity of the African Latin of the time which, until we are accustomed to it, creates a difficulty and therefore perhaps here requires a word of notice. It is not too much to say that Optatus had no idea of the sequence of tenses observed by the classical authors, or even of any distinction in meaning between the imperfect and pluperfect subjunctive. This is often noticeable in St. Augustine, but even more so in St. Optatus. Optatus uses these tenses quite indifferently and often linked together in the same sentence, without any reference to the question of time. On the other hand, his Latin is often most musical; he had a very sensitive ear for rhythm and euphony (it is often a delight to |xx read aloud his sonorous sentences for the very joy of listening to their sound), and accordingly he will use the pluperfect subjunctive where we should expect the imperfect, merely because of the cadence. If proposuisset will finish a sentence more imposingly and rhythmically than proponeret, proposuisset will inevitably fall from his pen. Our only guide, as to whether it should be translated 'he would propose' or 'he would have proposed,' is the sense of the context. As soon as we have become at all conversant with the writings of St. Optatus we shall be accustomed to this peculiarity, and it ceases to trouble us. It might well be otherwise with anyone who has never read the original. He would naturally be much surprised to see a Latin imperfect given in a note, but translated in the text by an English verb in the pluperfect, or vice versa. For this reason I have thought it well to give this explanation in advance.

It remains to say a few words about the occasion of this treatise and its date; we must also state what is known of Optatus and of Parmenian, the Donatist, to whom these Books are addressed.

St. Optatus himself tells us the origin of his work.34 As the Donatists at the time refused a conference or public discussion with Catholics, it seemed desirable to answer them in writing. Accordingly Optatus determined to reply to a book which had recently appeared, written by a certain Parmenian. This Parmenian, about the year 350, had become the Donatist |xxi Bishop of Carthage, in succession to Donatus, the successor of Majorinus, who had commenced all the trouble by allowing himself to be intruded into the See already occupied by Caecilian, the lawful Catholic Bishop. So we find Optatus writing to Parmenian of Majorinus as his avus, and reproaching him with sitting in the 'Cathedra Pestilentiae' on which Majorinus was the first to sit.35 Optatus tells us that Parmenian was not an African, but a stranger to Carthage.36 Besides the book against the Catholic Church which St. Optatus here answers, Parmenian wrote another against a fellow-Donatist named Tichorinus, which was, in its turn, answered by St. Augustine. Of these two works of Parmenian, Du Pin writes in his Preface: 'Diversa utriusque operis divisio, diversus methodus, diversum argumentum, quamquam eadem utrobique in Ecclesiam Catholicam convitia legerentur.'

We are able to gather the date of the work of St. Optatus from internal evidence. St. Optatus himself tells us 37 that when he wrote his book more than sixty years had elapsed since the storms of persecution burst over all Africa. Now, the persecution of Diocletian (which without doubt is here referred to) began early in 303 and ceased in the East in 305. Again, whilst St. Optatus terms Photinus 'a heretic of this present time,' 38 St. Jerome tells us that Photinus died in the year 376. Putting these two dates----that of the cessation of the Diocletian persecution and the death of Photinus----together, and bearing the words of Optatus concerning them in mind, we gather that he wrote |xxii after 365 and before 376. But we can narrow it still further, for St. Jerome also tells us that Optatus wrote when Valentinian and Valens were Emperors. Valentinian was elected Emperor in 372, and died in 375. Between these years therefore St. Optatus published the first edition of his work. I say the first edition, for the following considerations seem to make it certain that he subsequently brought out his work anew with considerable additions, directed against the cavils with which the Donatists had met its publication.39 In the list of Popes 40 we now find the name of Siricius given after that of Damasus. But Siricius was not raised to the Supreme Pontificate until 384, some years after the death of both Valentinian and Valens. It is, therefore, quite certain that Optatus could not possibly have written in the lifetime of these Emperors, that 'together with the whole Catholic world' he was then 'united with Siricius in the bonds of communion.' 41 Moreover, Optatus gives us not only a list of the Popes from St. Peter, but also a list of the Donatist anti-Popes from Victor Garbensis (the first of the series) to Macrobius.42 Of this Macrobius he writes as of one still living, and calls him the socius of Parmenian. Later on, however, in the same chapter Optatus gives the names of two obscure anti-Popes, Lucianus and Claudianus (otherwise unknown to history), who had succeeded Macrobius in the Donatist line. These names, like that of Pope Siricius, must necessarily have been added after the work had |xxiii been finished and first given to the world. We may, therefore, safely conclude that Optatus wrote his Six Books against Parmenian about the year 373, when Valentinian and Valens were Emperors, during the Pontificate of Damasus. But he lived on until the time when Siricius was Pope and Theodosius Emperor, and then brought out a new edition of his work up to date, and no doubt added in some shape or other the chapters which now constitute his Seventh Book.43

Concerning the life of St. Optatus hardly anything is known, but he has always been held in honour in the Church by reason of the tradition concerning the sanctity of his life, as well as the vigour and learning with which he defended the Faith. Thus St. Fulgentius joins his name with those of Augustine and Ambrose, and writes as follows: 'Sive quod Sanctus Ambrosius, sive quod Sanctus Augustinus, sive quod Sanctus Optatus senserunt a nobis quoque salva veritate fidei sentiatur.' 44 St. Augustine too joins together St. Ambrose and St. Optatus as authorities, writing, 'doctrinam quam commendavit Milevitanus Optatus vel Mediolanensis Ambrosius.' 45 In another place St. Augustine appeals to St. Optatus as the great authority for the history of the Donatist schism, and describes him as 'Venerabilis memoriae Milevitanus Episcopus Catholicae Communionis Optatus.' 46 Concerning the accuracy of St. Optatus as an historian there has never been any more doubt than as to his orthodoxy and learning as a theologian. His work was, |xxiv as he himself tells us and St. Augustine bears witness,47 richly documented and was never controverted on any side. Indeed there is an amusing story given by St. Augustine and still to be found in the Gesta Collationis Carthaginensis as to how the Donatist Bishops appealed to his authority concerning Constantine's refusal to allow Caecilian to return immediately to his See, and the way in which the laugh was turned against them when the whole passage was read aloud.48

We know from St. Jerome that Optatus was an African by birth,49 and from St. Augustine that he was a convert to the Faith. Augustine's beautiful words on this subject may well be quoted; they seem to lose the fragrant delicacy of their aroma if any attempt be made to translate them: 'Nonne aspicimus quanto auro et argento et veste sussarcinatus exierit de Aegypto Cyprianus Doctor suavissimus et Martyr beatissimus; quanto Lactantius, quanto Victorinus, Optatus, Hilarius, ut de vivis taceam!' 50

Here the names of Optatus, Lactantius and Cyprian are brought together----three great African converts----by a fourth, Augustine, the greatest of them all. And if, as is undoubted, Augustine, himself 'rich with the spoils of the Egyptians,' owed much also to Optatus, Optatus owed even more to Cyprian. We see the influence of St. Cyprian throughout the writings of Optatus, though, like Augustine after him, Optatus |xxv did not fear to desert Cyprian, where (as in the question of the re-baptism of heretics) Cyprian was wrong.

To overestimate the influence of Cyprian on the Church in Africa in the fourth century is hardly possible. By his sanctity, by his learning, above all by his heroic martyrdom, Cyprian had won for himself a position which was unique in the veneration and affection of the Faithful. For this reason the works of St. Cyprian were continually appealed to by the Donatists. Petilian quoted them against St. Augustine, as in the days of Optatus they had already been quoted by Parmenian.

The Canon of Scripture was fixed by Pope St. Damasus whilst St. Optatus was very likely still alive, and (whatever we may think of the use that Optatus sometimes made of the sacred text) there is no doubt of the veneration in which he held the inspired writings. On occasion, we must admit, he quoted them with inaccuracy; from which it follows that he must have quoted by heart. But he (or rather a writer who lived not many years later) tells us that the MSS. were numerous in his time and 'in the hands of all.' 51 Optatus probably knew neither Greek nor Hebrew. He employed a pre-Hieronymian version (African in form, but less typically so than that used by St. Cyprian), to the very words of which (even in the |xxvi translation) he seems to have ascribed inspiration. But surely it is far better to honour the text of the Written Word of God too much than too little, and in this, as in so many other things, St. Optatus may, if we will, be to us, in these days of Modernism, both an example and an inspiration.

Nothing is known as to the exact date or place of his death. Throughout Christendom there are magnificent temples raised to the honour of Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine; in memory of Cyprian there is a famous Chapel in the Catacombs; in no land----so far as I have been able to discover----is there even an altar raised to Heaven under the invocation of Optatus of Mile vis. For him there is no public cultus anywhere amongst the Faithful in the Church of God. But he lives in his work----a monument of his zeal for the Catholic Faith and for Catholic Unity. No Catholic, having once read this book, and having therein entered into the loyal, upright, devoted, strenuous, somewhat impetuous spirit of its author----a Bishop who threw himself whole-heartedly into the fight that he knew to be necessary; a formidable and on occasion hard-hitting champion of Religion; a good shepherd who knew not guile and hated schism, but loved the Peace which, as he tells us, Christ bequeathed as a keepsake to His children; who loved the Unity of the Church which alone can secure that Peace for those who will seek and ensue it; who loved the Chair of Peter and the safety of his flock better far than he loved aught on earth beside----but will recognise to the full the justice of the simple words of the Roman Martyrology which |xxvii on the fourth of each recurring June  commemorate this single-minded servant of God,

Milevi in Numidia Sancti Optati Episcopi doctrina et sanctitate conspicui. 

'He being dead yet speaketh.'


At least six manuscripts of St. Optatus are in existence (all of them in a more or less incomplete state), and were consulted by Ziwsa. We shall refer to them as A, B, C, G, P, R, respectively.

A = Orléans, Bibliothèque de la ville, 169 (seventh century----only a fragment). 

B = Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, 1712, formerly in the Library of Baluze, 290 (fourteenth century). 

C = Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, 1711, formerly in Colbert's Library (eleventh century). 

G = Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, 13335, once in the Library of St. Germain-des-Prés, 609 (1248), (fifteenth century). 

P = Petrograd, Imperial Public Library, Lat. 25 Q.v. omd. I. 2 (fifth or sixth century). 

R = Reims, Bibliothèque de la ville, 221 (olim 138) (beginning of ninth century). 

Of these manuscripts, P is the most ancient and undoubtedly the most valuable. Unfortunately it is extant for the first two Books only. For the other Books R is the best authority. Ziwsa, however, seems to think that some of the various readings in G may represent changes made by St. Optatus himself in his second edition; from this point of view (late though |xxviii it is) G becomes very important. A is too fragmentary to be of much service; it is extant for the first two chapters of the Seventh Book only. To C we owe all that remains of the Appendix; unhappily it commences in its present state only about the middle of the Sixth Book. Ziwsa holds B in small account, and Du Pin tells us that it is valde mendosus.

The Editio Princeps of Optatus was printed at Metz in 1549 by Cochlaeus, a Canon of Warsaw. He dedicated his book to the Abbot of Tongerloo, in the hope that in the splendid library of that renowned Abbey some manuscript might be discovered, whereby his text might be corrected, since he had at his disposal only a MS. of the fifteenth century, full of faults, which is known as Codex Cusanus. Ziwsa was unable to examine it. Cochlaeus himself says of this Codex that it was 'ex antiquo codice quopiam mendose ab indocto librario scriptum et ab alio deinceps multo adhuc mendosius rescriptum.' Poor material indeed upon which to work! The Editio Princeps of Optatus is referred to as v.

Fourteen years later, in 1563, a new edition was brought out by Francis Balduinus, who tells us that in the edition of Cochlaeus there were more mistakes than sentences, at which, under the circumstances, we can hardly be surprised. Balduinus had a hitherto unknown MS., which was lent him by a Paris theologian, at his disposal, but the text was still exceedingly corrupt, until in the year 1569 he was able to produce a much better edition, since by this time he had access to two new MSS. neither of which is available to us. |xxix The second of these MSS., known as Codex Tilianus, from the name of a Bishop of Meaux to whom it belonged, contains the passages in Book VII. which are now generally held to be spurious, and which Balduinus was the first to print. He brought out yet another edition in 1599. This third edition of Balduinus possesses some valuable notes by its author, and is quoted as b.

Three more editions were brought out in the next century: the first, full of mistakes, prepared by Albaspinaeus, Bishop of Orleans, and published after his death in 1631. This same year the Anglican scholar Casaubon published in London an edition of Optatus, but could only use b, as he was unable to consult any manuscripts. This edition, therefore, abounds in conjectural emendations, many of them highly ingenious, which, apart from any intrinsic probability that they may possess, receive importance from the critical acumen and learning of their author.

Yet another edition was published by Priorius in Paris, but it is of no value whatsoever. The text is that of the first edition of Balduinus.

We now come to the great work of Du Pin, the famous Gallican theologian. Du Pin brought out his edition of Optatus in 1700, again at Amsterdam in 1701, and in an improved form at Antwerp in 1702. He discovered the important MSS CBG, and was thus able to make the first serious attempt to restore the correct text of Optatus in the many places where it had become corrupt. He added notes of his own, and also printed anew those of Casaubon, Albaspinaeus, |xxx Barthius and Balduinus. He is the author of the concise marginal summary of the contents of each chapter, prefixed a Preface and a History of the Donatist schism to the text of Optatus, and appended many valuable documents in various ways illustrative of Donatism, as well as the Gesta Collationis Carthaginensis, so far as they exist, in full.

For nearly two hundred years nothing fresh was done for Optatus, until, as we have already stated, at the end of the nineteenth century Ziwsa published his critical edition. He had the advantage not only of the labours of his predecessors, but also for the first two Books he had access to P, which was unknown to all of them. Ziwsa gives us the various readings, but was precluded by the rule of the Vienna Academy for the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum from providing other footnotes. He has, however, contributed a long Preface, dealing exclusively with questions concerning the text, as well as two valuable Indices, the first Nominum et Rerum, the second Verborum et Locutionum S. Optati.

In my translation I have generally followed Ziwsa's text, but have not been afraid to desert it, if I thought that I saw good reason----especially when Ziwsa himself has deserted P. The different readings will always be found in a footnote, unless they are of absolutely no consequence. I have (as will be seen) freely availed myself of the notes furnished by Du Pin, especially of his own and of those of Casaubon. But it is strange how often those passages in Optatus which seem to me to present most difficulty and have |xxxi caused the greatest uncertainty in my mind as to their precise meaning have been left untouched by all the commentators, without any explanation whatever.

In conclusion I must express my deepest sense of obligation to Dom John Chapman, O.S.B. With unfailing kindness and generosity he has corrected my work throughout, whilst it was yet in manuscript. To him I owe numerous suggestions. Without his aid I should never have ventured to undertake a task which has been to me a delightful labour, full of unexpected interest on every page. My hope is that many others may, through this English work, go if possible to the Latin, or may, in any case, fall happily under that which to me it is no exaggeration to term the spell and fascination of St. Optatus of Milevis.


[Blank page]



PREFACE .............. PAGE V


Book the First

Who were the Betrayers at the time of the Persecution. The Causes of the Schism. Where and by whom the Schism was made ................. 1-56

Book the Second

Which is the One True Catholic Church and Where is it to be found? the five endowments of the Church belong to Catholicism, not to the Schism. The Donatists have been guilty of shamelessly scraping the heads of priests, and of murders, of giving the Eucharist to Dogs, and of casting away the Holy Chrism ................. 57-119

Book the Third

The Four Reasons on Account of which it was not possible to bring about unity without severity.

Book the Fourth

An Answer is made to certain Arguments of Parmenian, drawn from various passages in the Old Testament ................. 180-202

Book the Fifth

In this Fifth Book it is shown that though Men are the Ministers of Baptism, it is God Who cleanses, and that it is His Christ Who gives what is received in Baptism, and that the Rebaptised cannot possess the Kingdom of God, and that they have lost the Wedding Garment ................. 203-245

Book the Sixth

In this Book it is shown that the Donatist Bishops wickedly destroyed altars, that they sold the Holy Vessels, and without Warrant stripped Nuns of their Veils ................. 246-268

Book the Seventh

In this last Book it is shown that the Children of the Betrayers, whose Names were given in the First Book, may now, for the Sake of Unity, be received back into the Catholic Communion ................. 275-297


A 298 | B 305 | C 310

A hundred noteworthy sayings of St. Optatus ................. 311 |xxxv 


PREFACE TO APPENDIX ................. 321

I.----The Acts of the Vindication of Felix, Bishop of Aptunga ................. 327

II.----The Proceedings before Zenophilus  ................. 346

III.----Letter of Constantine to Aelafius ................. 382

IV.----Letter of the Council of Arles to Pope Sylvester ................. 388

V.----Letter of Constantine to the Catholic Bishops ................. 393

VI.----Letter of Constantine to the Donatist Bishops ................. 399

VII.----Letter of Prefects to Celsus ................. 401

VIII.----Letter of Constantine to Celsus ................. 403

IX.----Letter of Constantine to the Bishops and People of Africa ................. 407

X,----A Rescript of Constantine ................. 410

XI.----Acts of the Council of Cirta ................. 416

XII.----Letter of the Proconsul Anulinus to Constantine ................. 420

XIII.----Letter of Constantine to Pope Miltiades ................. 422

XIV.----Letter of Constantine to Probianus ................. 425

XV.----Letter of Constantine to Anulinus (I) ................. 428

XVI.----Letter of Constantine to Anulinus (II) ................. 430

[Footnotes renumbered and moved to the end]

1. 1  Cf. Migne, P.L. xi, p. 883. I have not been able to consult this French version.

2. 2  Sanctorum Patrum Opuscula selecta. Oeniponti.

3. 1 History of Dogma, v. 38.

4. 1 Cf. Optatus, i, 9.  

5. 2 id. i, 7; i, 10; ii, 1; iv, 6 etc.

6. 1  Optatus, i, 26; ii, 1; iii, 2 etc. etc.

7. 2  id. i, 4; ii, 3; vii, 6.  

8. 3 id. ii, 2; ii, 3; vii, 5. 

9. 4 Cf. quae, vel ubi, sit Una Ecclesia (i, 7).

10. 5 id. i, 5; ii, 1 etc.    

11. 6 id. ii, 9 (cf. ii, 6 etc.).

12. 7 id. i, 10; i, 12; ii, 4; vii, 3 etc.  

13. 8 id. ii, 5.

14. 9 sic omnia miscuisti (i, 10).

15. 1  History of Dogma, vol. v. p. 42.

16. 2  Optatus, ii, 1; ii, 5; iv, 6 etc. etc.

17. 1 Optatus, ii, 2.  

18. 2 id. i, 12.

19. 1 Optatus, v, 1 etc.  

20. 2 id. i. 19; ii, 4; ii, 12; iii, 4 etc.

21. 3 id. ii, 19; vi, 1. 

22. 4 id. ii, 25; iii, 4; vii, 4 etc.

23. 5 id. iii, 12.  

24. 6 id. iv, 6.

25. 7 id. ii, 25  iv. 8. (Cf. Pseudo-Optatus B.)

26. 1 Optatus, ii, 19.  

27. 2 id. vi, 4.

28. 3 id. i, 19.

29. 4 In the Article entitled Anglican Claim for Apostolical Succession first published in the Dublin Review for August 1839, and republished by the Catholic Truth Society, with a Preface by the late Dr. Rivington.

30. 5 Optatus, ii, 6.

31. 1 Optatus, ii, 9.    

32. 2 id. vii, 5.

33. 1 Cf. Appendix, pp, 398, 400, 406.

34. 1 Optatus. i, 4.

35. 1 Optatus, i, 10.    

36. 2 i, 5.

37. 3 i, 13.

38. 4 iv, 5.

39. 1 Cf. vii, 1, and my Introduction to Book vii. 

40. 2 Optatus, ii, 3.

41. 3 ii, 4.

42. 4 ii, 4.

43. 1 See Introduction to Book vii.    

44. 2 Ad Monimum ii, 13.

45. 3 De Unitate Ecclesiae xix, 50.

46. 4 Con. Ep. Parm. i, 13.

47. 1  Con. Ep. Parm. i, 13.

48. 2  In Breviculo Collationis xx, 38 (cf. Migne Capitula Collationis Carthaginensis diet tertiae, 375, 477 et seq. usque ad 539, et Epistola Concilii Zertensis apud S. Augustinum cxli, 9).

49. 3  De Doctrina Christiana, Lib. II. xl, 6i.

50. 4 Ib.

51. 1 'Librorum milia ubique recitantur . . . bibliothecae refertae sunt libris . . . manus omnium codicibus plenae sunt.' (See B, p. 305.) Harnack (Bible Reading in the Early Church, p. 97, note 1, English translation) quotes these words as those of Optatus. I think, however, that there can be no doubt that they are really pseudo-Optatus. (See my Introduction to Book vii, p. 272.)

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

This text was transcribed by Roger Pearse, 2006. All material on this page is in the public domain - copy freely.

Greek text is rendered using unicode.

Early Church Fathers - Additional Texts