Jesse A. Hoover. The Donatist Church in an Apocalyptic Age. Oxford University Press, 2018.
This title is currently under consideration for the 2019 Book Prize awarded by the Ecclesiastical History Society (Cambridge, UK).
Anxiety over the end of time was deeply felt in Late Antiquity. In The Donatist Church in an Apocalyptic Age, Jesse Hoover turns our attention to the role of apocalypse for the Donatists, a currently neglected aspect of their theological and ecclesial vision. Arising in fourth-century North Africa, the Donatist movement sparked a pivotal debate among Christians about the nature of the church. However, our narrative of the period, which is primarily based on sources produced by adversaries of the Donatists, rarely attends to their perspectives. Hoover seeks to help us understand the Donatists on their own terms by examining their apocalyptic self-perception, and what it reveals about the group’s inner structure, driving concerns, and values. Following scholars like Maureen Tilley, Hoover observes that the Donatists were ‘highly adaptive ... every bit the match of its Catholic opponents’ and argues that this community’s apocalyptic interpretations should be understood as an example of such resilience (5).
Chapter One surveys ‘outside’ perceptions of Donatist apocalypticism from the perspective of its contemporary opponents as well as modern scholarly approaches. Hoover labels the Donatists’ opponents ‘Caecilianist’ (after supporters of Caecilian as rightful bishop of Carthage, similarly to the ‘Donatists’ as supporters of Donatus) on the basis that both sides competed for rights to the name ‘Catholic’. Early Caecilianist charges of Donatist ‘madness’ or fanaticism stuck until the early twentieth century when scholars began to acknowledge the importance of apocalyptic thinking to the Donatist churches. This view gave way to the position that Donatist emphasis on the end of time represented an anachronistic tendency to hang onto the eschatological hopes of early generations, largely abandoned by the time of Constantine. Scholars such as W.H.C. Frend and Jean-Paul Brisson refined this interpretation in the mid-twentieth century, and instead saw the Donatists as social revolutionaries reacting against the Constantinian era. De-centering the Caecilianist perspective, these scholars revised previous historiography of the period by presenting the Donatist movement on its own terms and reading ‘against the grain’ of our source materials. Hoover favors this latter approach, asking ‘how apocalypticism functioned within the Donatist movement’ itself (64).
Toward that end, Chapter Two discusses context: how did strands of apocalyptic thought within North African Christianity form the basis for Donatist eschatology? Hoover turns to the writings of Tertullian of Carthage, the martyrological narrative of Perpetua, Cyprian of Carthage, and Lactantius. These sources help Hoover demonstrate that Donatist apocalypticism did not arise in a ‘vacuum’ but ‘reflected the natural evolution of a trajectory inherited from their pre-Constantinian predecessors’ (97). The chapter reveals substantial adaptability and development within North African Christianity in general as well as long-standing continuity in the apocalyptic concerns originating in these provinces of the Roman Empire.
Hoover then proceeds to the heart of his project in Chapters Three through Six. In these chapters, he argues that ‘Donatist apocalyptic exegesis ... functioned as an adaptive, polemical phenomenon fully in line with the spirit of the age’ (98). In other words, Donatist apocalyptic readings of Scripture both reflected the mentality of the age in which it appeared and helped dissident Christians survive within it. For Hoover, the apocalyptic themes to which the Donatists appealed ‘are fundamentally dependent upon biblical exegesis’ while ‘Donatist exegetes sought to situate their present situation within the boundaries of a corpus of widely agreed-upon canonical writings’ (15).
Chapter Three examines apocalyptic themes in early Donatist writings, dating from the end of violent repression during Constantine’s reign (c. 321 C.E.) to the so-called ‘Macarian’ persecution (347-361 C.E.). These texts describe the Caecilianists as forerunners of Antichrist and even as direct contributors to his coming. They provide clear evidence against the common narrative that apocalyptic hopes and rhetoric had largely faded by the fourth century. This insight constitutes one of the more significant broader contributions of Hoover’s study.
Chapters Four and Five expand the scope of Hoover’s analysis from the end of the Macarian repression in 361 to the Council of Carthage in 411 when the Donatists were decisively marginalized. These chapters describe two main trajectories within Donatist apocalypticism, recalling Hoover’s reminder that ‘we are not studying “Donatism” as a unified, homogeneous phenomenon, but rather “Donatisms”’, building on the insights of Maureen Tilley (10-11). Experiences of violent opposition caused the Donatists to harbor suspicions about the legitimacy of the Christian world outside North Africa, and to see themselves as the embattled but faithful remnant of believers.
In response to these experiences, Hoover traces two emerging directions in Donatist thought: a ‘mainstream’ approach and a ‘radical alternative’. The ‘mainstream’ approach is the subject of Chapter Four. These Donatists presented themselves as a church that endured the increase of lawlessness in which they were opposed by ‘false’ Christians (their Caecilianist enemies) as well as worldly opponents (emperors and officials aligned with the Caecilianists). The Donatists were at the center of events marking the end of the age.
The ‘radical alternative’ stream of Donatist apocalypticism, represented by the theological writings of Tyconius, is described in Chapter Five. This second interpretation, by contrast with the first, foreshadows the end times. According to Tyconius, the Donatists were a faithful remnant whose afflictions symbolically anticipated the great tribulation that they believed was shortly to break loose upon the world. These two approaches serve Hoover as models that help contextualize the Donatists and Caecilianists ‘within the shadow of the end’, while explaining the dominant position of the latter at this time (181).
Chapter Six examines the last surviving examples of Donatist literature, dating from the Council of Carthage until the Vandal conquest of North Africa (c. 429-439). Even at this late stage, apocalypticism did not appear to be fading away; indeed, according to Hoover, ‘apocalyptic exegesis appears to have blossomed’ after the Council of Carthage (11). Further repression by the Caecilianists as well as the pressure of the Vandal invasions contributed to an ongoing sense that the end was near. The Donatists in this period castigated the Caecilianists as offspring of the ‘whore of Babylon’ (Rev. 17-18) and feared the leader of the Vandals as Antichrist himself, demonstrating that apocalyptic anxieties did not fade but retained a powerful hold on the Christian imagination in Late Antiquity.
Hoover reflects in his conclusion on the most crucial historiographical shifts for a revisionist interpretation of Donatist eschatology. Two inter-related points are critical to his narrative: ‘apocalypticism played a significant role in Donatist thought’ and ‘Donatism flourished during an apocalyptic age’. Hoover also concludes that Donatist apocalypticism was a ‘diverse phenomenon’ that ‘functioned as an adaptive mechanism’ (212-219). Donatist apocalyptic exegesis, articulated in theodicy and polemic, demonstrates the movement’s adaptability. The various, even contradictory, theological claims found among the array of extant Donatist literature illustrate its diversity. If the whole of human history is an ‘Age of Sorrows’ in which the faithful remnant continue to be persecuted, then the Donatists’ position in this age is at the very edge of the end of time, evidenced by the preaching of the gospel to all the known world and the great apostasy characterized by Caecilianist rejection and persecution.
Two accompanying appendices cover a pair of issues that Hoover deemed important, but ultimately peripheral, to his study. In Appendix A, Hoover argues against Brisson’s earlier assertion that the Latin poet Commodian was a Donatist, and therefore represented a vital link between the Donatist and Circumcellion movements (221-227; cf. 51-53). Thus, according to Hoover, Commodian cannot serve as a primary source for Donatist apocalyptic thought. Hoover attempts to justify his relative exclusion of the Circumcellions (or ‘Agonists’, as he prefers to label them for reasons explained in this appendix) from his discussion in earlier chapters.
Hoover’s rich study condenses a considerable amount of argument and analysis into a relatively small space; even so, his prose is highly readable and his arguments easy to follow. The book expands on previous scholarship, emphasizing diversity within the Donatist movement, even while focusing on Donatist apocalyptic thought itself. His sympathetic treatment is a challenge to confront and lay aside any negative presumptions about the Donatists, or about apocalyptic as a theological category.
 Macarius was an imperial official charged by the emperor Constans to end the schism in North Africa, but who found himself caught up in a violent revolt when attempting to enact his mission. The force with which he suppressed the Donatists permanently hardened their rift with Caecilianist rivals. The Caecilianist writer Optatus, bishop of Milevis, blamed the Donatists for initiating the violence and justified Macarius’ use of force. See Optatus, Against the Donatists, Book III; cf. W.H.C. Frend, The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), 177-178.
Andrew J. Pottenger completed his Ph.D. in Church History at the University of Manchester in 2018. His thesis analysed various rhetorical aspects in the letters of Constantine concerning ecclesiastical conflicts in order to better understand why and how this emperor became involved in the churches’ internal affairs. He currently lives with his wife in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he is working n a book and continues to research aspects of religion and power related to early Christianity and Late Antiquity.