by Angela Hogan
What the creeds and confessions are to a Presbyterian, a good biblical theology is to the NCT theologian. We long for a guide that will lead us to have a clear view of the forest so as to make more sense of the trees. What biblical theology does for NCT, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren did for my view of Church History. And it was by no means expected.
Written by historian Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren attempts to trace faithful believers from the time of the early church to the modern day in a way that few others have proposed. While many believers may question what happened to true, biblical faith during the many centuries dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, Verduin presents an answer. Beginning with the Donatists, he follows the line of believers through the early church, into the Middle Ages and on through to Reformation times, all connected not only by their common beliefs, but (and this was the unexpected part), by their strong conviction about personal faith in Christ that cannot be compelled from without—either by the mainstream church or by the state.
The main thrust of the book revolves around the idea known as “Constantinianism” or alternatively, as “Christian sacralism.” Verduin argues that, contrary to popular opinion, the conversion of Constantine and the tolerance shown to many in the church that followed, was not an ideal to be lauded and celebrated, but rather one of the most harmful and detrimental decisions that the true church ever faced. It was not the lessening of persecution that was at fault, but the impulse to “Christianize” an entire population that was so destructive. Roman pagan religion could only comprehend a state in which religion was its unifying force for the cooperation of the people. Therefore, when Constantine converted to Christianity (likely because someone convinced him that this God of the Christians might bring him more success than the pagan gods), it was only natural to insist that the pagan-state be replaced by the Christian-state. Though the change was not immediate, the theory behind the change had a dramatic effect on the weakening of the church.
This is because if Christianity is morphed from a personal belief of the individual into the designation of an entire geographical area, the name “Christian” loses all meaning, or at least radically changes it. “Christian” is no longer a set of propositions to which the individual subscribes and trusts, but merely an appellation taken for granted by virtue of one’s birth. One is thus “christened” through baptism and (presto!), a Christian is born, as well as a member of the state that is expected to comply with the state in terms of what beliefs they eventually adopt. The church and the society were now monolithic, with no distinctions made between the secular and the religious. Christian sacralism was the new expectation for all, but not all Christians saw this as a move forward.
Verduin masterfully draws distinctions between the two opposing positions. On the one hand you have the composite versus the monolithic society, that is, a society where the true believers live in the midst of a secular culture versus the idea that the society is made of one monolithically “Christian” people. As well, he presents to us the contrasting ideas of “voluntaryism” and “coercionism,” in which Christian faith is either the individual’s uncompelled choice, or it is forced on a populace by any means necessary. Verduin traces these realities from the time of the Novationists and Donatists on through to the Reformation, at which time these ideas continue to battle one another.
Though the book is a severely underrated and under-read history, it has had its share of controversy. Understandably, some Presbyterian and Reformed critics have questioned Verduin’s disapproving tone, maintaining that the Reformers were merely products of their own day and the ingrained understanding of sacralism that had been maintained for centuries. However, we must balance this sympathy with the reality that the Anabaptists had written to the Reformers extensively and attempted to make a biblical case for toleration and a composite society in which the church is not one with the state, yet the magisterial Reformers had maintained their obstinacy against them, even becoming more strident over time.
Men like Zwingli, Luther, Calvin, Beza, and their followers, often began with some degree of compassion and agreement with the Anabaptists, but as the former realized that cooperation with the state was more beneficial for them and the latter rejected this option outright, the theological ties that would have bound them together were quickly torn asunder. In fact, as tensions ratchet up over time, we can see the movement from agreement, to frustration, to approval of persecution, to recommendation of the death penalty for all those who do not submit to the idea of one, unified marriage of church and state. Heresy, as defined by the mainstream church in a given area, whether Catholic or Reformed, was defended as punishable even to the point of death.
Despite the illegitimate critiques from the Reformed camp, there is one criticism of the book which is not as easy to dismiss. Though the majority of the book which deals with the magisterial Reformers is well documented and undeniable in its conclusions, the author’s contentions about the Donatists is perhaps a bit more tenuous. An Orthodox man on Youtube, Craig Trulia, angrily lists his frustrations with the book, questioning the historicity of this section and its claims, which are mainly in the first chapter. Among his complaints are that the book is not well-documented and that the Donatists were not at all as Verduin describes them, but were rather heretics, and violent ones at that.
But are Trulia’s concerns justified? Well, partially. It is true that certain aspects of the first chapter are not well documented. This can possibly be explained by the fact that the book was actually developed from a series of lectures that Verduin had given and therefore it may have been difficult to go back and notate all original sources for his material. There are even a few direct quotations that are not cited. This is a legitimate criticism of the work and one wishes that these had been noted before publication.
It is further claimed that The Reformers and Their Stepchildren is mere hagiography by a fellow Anabaptist. However, Verduin was no Anabaptist! In fact, he was raised and ordained in the Christian Reformed Church and was himself not an Anabaptist at all, though he certainly sympathized with them in their commitment to a pure church made up of a fellowship of believers. So much for this criticism.
Then there is the accusation that the Donatists were violent—burning churches, looting and rampaging and otherwise causing havoc. But such a criticism is at best tenuous, and at worst, unfair. For we know that individual Donatist bishops espoused the lack of arms in matters of spiritual conviction. This was in fact the entire point of their opposition to the intrusion of the state into the affairs of the church. Such should be voluntary, not under compulsion. Yet we know that there was another group that was sometimes identified with the Donatists, called the Circumcelliones. This group is known to have incited the rebellion of the types mentioned above, but it cannot be substantiated that the Donatists approved of such behavior. To attribute the behavior of one hated group to the account of another hated group is simply not fair.
The last claim we will address is whether we can rightly say that the Donatists are the true forebears of those like the Waldensians, Valdois, and other forms of Anabaptists that led ultimately to the Protestant and Baptist churches today. Unfortunately, this claim is not as easy to substantiate. Though the event in question is today often called “The Donatist Heresy,” such a label is misleading. In truth, major doctrines in the church were not the point of contention in the 3-600’s when Donatism vied for prominence in North Africa. In matters of Biblical interpretation, the Donatists were in line with their catholic (or mainstream—not to be confused with the Roman Catholic Church) church counterparts. It was their willingness to break away from the church due to their perception that the latter’s ordination and sacramental authority were destroyed through immorality and apostasy that drew the ire of catholic leadership. Thus, it should not be termed the “Donatist Heresy” but the “Donatist Schism,” in the history books today, and a greater appreciation of this reality seems to be evident in more recent treatments of Church History.
Yet this willingness to break away was made on the basis of a proposition that few of us could support today. It is true that the Donatists fought for a pure church, a church that was voluntary and not coerced. We may well sympathize with their desire to appoint their own bishops who were not part of the mainstream church. After all, would we appoint a pastor who had denied Christ or handed over the Scriptures to authorities to be burned? Or one that we felt was not morally above reproach? Likely not. But would we then claim that we were the only church and all others were outside the church, like the Donatists did? Also, likely not. The fact is, the Donatists were in fact extreme in some respects. It is hard to know to what extent they would require “purity” in church members as we do not have their writings today and it is notoriously difficult to ascertain the beliefs of a group when our only sources are the writings of their enemies.
That said, it is likely impossible to maintain that there is a direct succession between a group such as the Donatists, and succeeding groups such as the Waldensians, whose origins are still largely unknown. Such is the frustration of piecing together ancient history. One must maintain a sense of humility and not try too hard to press an agenda, say, finding a direct and uninterrupted line of faithful believers throughout church history. Could the Donatists be the forerunners of later orthodox believers? Possibly. But such a contention should be held loosely and not proclaimed dogmatically. As tempting as it is to wrap all of these movements into a neat package and proclaim them as the ancestors of modern Baptists, such an attempt is not always wise. There is nevertheless the hope that further archaeological evidence will clarify these issues for us.
For now perhaps it is enough that we learn that our heroes in the faith—whether Augustine, who fought the Donatists, or Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Beza, were men who we must recognize in their humanity and therefore, imperfection. They offered much to the church in terms of their recovery of a Biblical soteriology. But they also made grievous mistakes in persecuting various Anabaptist groups in ways that The Reformers and Their Stepchildren make abundantly clear. For this reason, it is recommended that everyone who loves the church, whether credobaptist or paedobaptist, whether NCT or Reformed, read Verduin’s book. It is an eye-opening piece of history and literature and will give new shape to our understanding and insight into the history of the Church.
 Angela Hogan is a stay at home mother of 2 toddlers and also has one daughter in university. Happily married to Jim. Native Texan living in the frigid Northwoods of Wisconsin. BA from Moody Bible Institute in 2000 and MA in Cross Cultural Ministries in 2014 from Dallas Theological Seminary. Her reading interests include missionary biographies and Church History.
 Louis Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, The Dissent and Non-Conformity Series no.14, (Paris, AR: The Baptist Standard Bearer, Inc., 2001). The book is available online for free at https://www.gospeltruth.net/verduin/stepchildren.htm.