An Early Church Father Worth Knowing: Optatus of Milevis

I. Who Optatus of Milevis Was

Prior to last week, I’d never heard of St. Optatus, the bishop of Milevis in the middle-300s.  I’m not alone: the  preface to the 1917 translation of Against the Donatists, the only work of his we still have, calls him “perhaps the least known of all the Fathers of the Church.”  As it turns out, he was an important figure in the early Church, in part through his lasting influence on more famous Fathers like St. Augustine of Hippo.  His see, Milevus, was located near Hippo in what was then the province of Numidia, and the two were of one accord, theologically.  Along with neighboring Carthage, these three North African sees were some of the strongest defenders of orthodoxy against a whole slew of heresies, and every North African Council of the early Church took place in one these three sees, including the Council of Carthage which officially set the canon of Scripture.  In doing so, it was reaffirming what had already been determined at the Synod of Hippo, and what would be again reaffirmed at the Council of Milevis a few decades after Optatus’ death.  Augustine, who would battle Optatus’ Donatist opponents a generation later, commemorated St. Optatus on a list of North African converts who brought “gold and silver” to the Faith in Book II, Chapter 40 of On Christian Doctrine:

And what else have many good and faithful men among our brethren done? Do we not see with what a quantity of gold and silver and garments Cyprian, that most persuasive teacher and most blessed martyr, was loaded when he came out of Egypt? How much Lactantius brought with him? And Victorious, and Optatus, and Hilary, not to speak of living men!

Now, while Optatus was one of the jewels in the North African crown when it was a thriving heart of Christianity, we shouldn’t ignore his flaws.  Optatus’ major flaw is a willingness to believe almost anything negative about his opponents.  Because of this, while Optatus is a great source of what 4th century Catholics believed, he’s sometimes an unreliable source for what the Donatists did and believed.  The other note of caution I should sound is that Optatus is writing to shame his opponents in their heresy.  In this, he is very much following the example of St. Paul, but to modern Christian ears, he at times seems excessively harsh.

II. What Optatus of Milevis Taught

A. The Sacraments Work Ex Opere Operato

If you’re familiar with the Donatist heresy, here it is in a nutshell: they declared that the True Church consisted only of the saved. The Donatists were scandalized by the fact that some of the Catholic priests (the so-called “traditors”) had denied Christ under torture.  As a result, they claimed that these traitorous priests were unable to confer the Sacraments, including Baptism.  Optatus repeatedly attacks this view, and one of the arguments he raises is that it’s the Trinity, not the priest, who is responsible for the working of the Sacrament.  Thus, he notes in Chapter 1 of Book V that what’s important isn’t the faith of the priest, but the faithfulness of God:

With reason, therefore, have you praised Baptism, for who amongst the Faithful is unaware that the one Baptism is life for virtues, death to evil deeds, birth to immortality, the attainment of the heavenly kingdom, the harbour of innocence, and (as you too have said) the shipwreck of sins? These are the blessings conferred upon every believer, not by the minister of this Sacrament, but by the Faith of him who believes and by the Trinity.

While he’s speaking specifically of Baptism here, he elsewhere deals with the other Sacraments. I just liked how concisely he handled the question there.
B. The Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ, Laid Upon the Altar in the Liturgy

Book VI is intense.  The Donatists apparently destroyed the altars which had been used by the traditor priests, and Optatus is justly furious:

Your wicked actions with regard to the Divine Sacraments have—-so it seems to me—-been clearly shown up. I now have to describe things done by you, as you yourselves will not be able to deny, with cruelty and folly. For what so sacrilegious as to break, to scrape, to take away altars of God, upon which you too once offered sacrifice, upon which were laid both the prayers of the people, and the Members of Christ, where Almighty God was called upon, where the Holy Spirit descended in answer to prayer, from which many have received the pledge of everlasting salvation, and the safeguard of faith, and the hope of resurrection?

Destroying the altar is an attack on Christ Himself, since “what is an altar excepting the seat of both the Body and the Blood of Christ?”  He supports this by quoting 1 Kings 19:10 in which Elijah refers to the altars as “Thine altars” in talking to God.  Likewise, he accuses the Donatists of breaking “the very Chalices, which carry the Blood of Christ.” The Donatists had apparently melted the golden Chalices which traditor priests had touched, and then sold the gold.  In this, Optatus says, “you committed two horrible sins,” greed and the “unheard-of crime” of indiscriminately selling what belonged to God to idolaters. 

C. The One True Church is Headed by the Bishop of Rome, Successor of Peter.
In Chapter 1 of Book II, Optatus explains that the Church “is One, and her holiness is not measured by the pride of individuals, but is derived from the Sacraments. It is for this reason that she alone is called by Christ His Dove and His own beloved Bride.”  This Church, he explains, is worldwide, from the rising to the setting of the sun, as prophesied in Scripture.  In the next chapter, he explains that the easiest way to know the true Church is looking to the Cathedra, the seat of the Bishop of Rome:

So we have proved that the Catholic Church is the Church which is spread throughout the world.

 We must now mention its Adornments, and see where are its five Endowments (which you have said to be six), amongst which the CATHEDRA is the first; and, since the second Endowment, which is the ‘Angelus,’ cannot be added unless a Bishop has sat on the Cathedra, we must see who was the first to sit on the Cathedra, and where he sat. If you do not know this, learn. If you do know, blush. Ignorance cannot be attributed to you—-it follows that you know. For one who knows, to err is sin. Those who do not know may sometimes be pardoned.

You cannot then deny that you do know that upon Peter first in the City of Rome was bestowed the Episcopal Cathedra, on which sat Peter, the Head of all the Apostles (for which reason he was called Cephas), that, in this one Cathedra, unity should be preserved by all, lest the other Apostles might claim—-each for himself—-separate Cathedras, so that he who should set up a second Cathedra against the unique Cathedra would already be a schismatic and a sinner.

 Well then, on the one Cathedra, which is the first of the Endowments, Peter was the first to sit.

Remember, now, that Optatus is a bishop in North Africa.  By making this argument, he’s conceding that he’s not the head of the Church, or an equal partner in Church governance.  He then proceeds to give a list of popes from Peter until the time of his writing (in the middle 360s — see the second comment below).  When he updated his book in the 380s, he updated the list of popes as well.  What makes this more remarkable is that this is the exact same thing that St. Irenaeus of Lyons did in Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3, back in about 180 A.D. It’s  hard to avoid the conclusion that Irenaeus didn’t choose Rome randomly – that there was a reason that a Bishop of Lyons, France knew the lineage of the Bishops of Rome.  This conclusion is obviously strengthened significantly by the fact that a Bishop of Milevis, Numidia, also knew the lineage of the Bishops of Rome, and insisted it was “this one Cathedra” that all the churches on Earth should be united to.  His explanation why  — “lest the other Apostles might claim—-each for himself—-separate Cathedras, so that he who should set up a second Cathedra against the unique Cathedra would already be a schismatic and a sinner — is almost prophetic. After all, the Eastern Orthodox would do this exact thing with the See of Constantinople, which they call “New Rome.”
But Optatus isn’t done yet.  He knows that the Donatists have been claiming that “you allege that you too have some sort of a party in the City of Rome.” He then says: “Behold, in Rome are the ‘Shrines’ of the two Apostles. Will you tell me whether he has been able to approach them, or has offered Sacrifice in those places, where—-as is certain—-are these ‘Shrines’ of the Saints?”  So the “party” in Rome that matters for purposes of Christian unity is the one who offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at St. Peter and St. Paul.  That is, of course, the pope.  He concludes his argument simply: “How is it, then, that you strive to usurp for yourselves the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, you who, with your arguments, and audacious sacrilege, war against the Chair of Peter?”  You’ll note that this is the fourth century, and Optatus has raised Petrine primacy, papal primacy, Apostolic Succession, and in support, the Keys from Matthew 16:17-19 (by the time he mentions them here, it’s literally the sixth time he’s mentioned the Keys to defend the Oneness of the Church). All of these are things that Protestant apologists have claimed weren’t beliefs of the early Church. Keith Mathison, for example, advances the incredible argument on page 58 of The Shape of Sola Scriptura, that  “In the century between 1150 and 1250, a study of the writings of the canon lawyers and theologians reveals that ‘they did not know of any magisterium conferred on Peter with the power of the keys.’” Optatus’ writings clearly put this fake-history to shame, since he’s writing hundreds of years earlier, and clearly is aware of the implication of the Keys for the Apostolic See.

D. Schismatics Remain Brothers in Christ

In Book IV, Chapter 2, Optatus explains that since they share God as a Father, and Christ as a Brother, he will continue to call the Donatists “brothers,” even though they refuse to return the favor.  He challenges the Donatists to either change the Lord’s Prayer from “Our Father” to “My Father,” or start acknowledging the Catholics as brethren in Christ, since in praying the Lord’s Prayer, the Donatists are unwillingly praying for the Catholics, just as the Catholics willingly pray for the Donatists in the same prayer.  It’s always nice to see this sort of acknowledgement, particularly in writings as fierce as Optatus’, both because it’s charitable, and because it proves that this acknowledgement of schismatics as Christians isn’t some Vatican II development. 
III. Conclusion
Optatus of Milevis is clearly and unambiguously Roman Catholic, believing in papal primacy, the Sacraments, the ex opere operato nature of the Sacraments, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the Mass as a Sacrifice, and so on.  And he’s just as clearly held in high regard from his contemporaries and successors, like St. Augustine of Hippo, who Calvinists try to claim was a proto-Calvinist.  This is telling, since if Augustine were really the way he’s often presented by Protestant scholars, it strikes me as incredibly unlikely he’d have considered Optatus’ contributions to the Faith to be “a quantity of gold and silver and garments.”  It’s also telling, since Optatus is clearly one of the major leaders of the Catholic party in North Africa, contra the Dontatists.  Augustine takes up this mantle after Optatus’ death, leading the Catholics against the Donatists as well, and Augustine’s On Baptism, Against the Donatists makes many of the same arguments that Optatus first makes in Against the Donatists (such as the ability of the Sacraments to be validly conferred even by heretics, and the absolute necessity of not breaking communion with the Church).  Protestants have long claimed that when Augustine called himself “Catholic,” it didn’t mean then what it means today. Optatus’ writings show that this is just not true.  Finally, Optatus is important just to demonstrate the simple fact that these distinctly Catholic beliefs aren’t some later novelty, invented at the time of the Great Schism or the Council of Trent or Vatican II. This is the once and for all Faith of the Church.


  1. Hey, Joe.

    Sorry to dredge your archives here. Optatus isn’t a name a Protestant would want to bestow upon his son, certainly, but one thing I found interesting in reading a bit of his work is that his list of papal succession doesn’t match that of Irenaeus exactly. The Pope in Irenaeus’ day, Eleutherius, wasn’t in Optatus’ list, for example, and some ordering is swapped around.

    Can you comment on this? Where do you think these guys were getting their lists of succession?

    Thanks for the help and the time-tithing idea today, too. Applying that to my studies would be wise.

    Peace and hope.


  2. Drew,

    The editor’s footnote here says:

    “St. Augustine copied this list of Popes given by St. Optatus. Yet it is incomplete and in one case inaccurate. The name Alexander should come after Evaristus, Eutychian and Gaius should come after Felix, Marcellus (probably) after Marcellinus, and where Optatus places Alexander (after Soter), he should have placed Eleutherius. It may also be mentioned that in the list given by Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. iii, 3) Pius precedes Anacetus.”

    I’ll reword the post to account for that.

    This is actually an interesting point, since Protestants often claim that Augustine would be Protestant if he were alive today.

    That Augustine was aware of Optatus’ beliefs on the papacy and still (a) considering him worth “a quantity of gold and silver and garments” to the Church, and (b) relying on Optatus for Augustine’s own list of popes suggests pretty strongly that this isn’t true.

    I’d also add that Augustine talks frequently of the necessity of being part of the Catholic Church — if his view is the same as Optatus, which it seems to be, that closes the case: St. Augustine was a Catholic (a Catholic bishop, even!), not a Protestant. God bless,


  3. I have a problem about papacy. Maybe it needs no resolution, since it is personal and more theoretic than practic.

    St Peter was head of all Church, whereever he was and whenever he was referred to. No problem.

    St Peter had successors in Rome. They head the Church whenever they are referred to. No problem.

    But is Papacy identic to St Peter’s supremacy or is Episcopacy identic to it and Papacy derived from Local to Global proportions de jure humano?

    Gregory Palamas (saint according to the Orthodox and my personal favourite among the three “defendors of orthodoxy”) thought that the essential successor of St Peter is each bishop in his own diocese. He agreed with Pope Innocent III on every account about St Peter – except Pope Innocent III saw him essentially as first Pope and incendentally if at all as first bishop, and Gregory Palamas essentially as first bishop and incidentally as Pope.

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