Are the Objections of the Old Calendarists Just Modern Day Donatism?

by Bishop Irineos of Illyricum


Even among the New Calendarists, there remain many traditionalists who will condemn, or at least voice uneasiness over, the Calendar innovation of Meletios Metaxakis (sometimes referred to as Meletios Metaxis) or the continuing ecumenism of Bartholomew of Constantinople, and generally will agree with the Genuine Orthodox position on ecumenism, modernism, and syncretism.  Yet, they hold firmly to their communion with those who support it and when pressed will defend their positions by objecting that the Old Calendarists have gone into schism or they will trot out lines like “schism is worse than heresy”.  Because the discussion of the reasons for the separation of the Old Calendarists necessitates a discussion of unorthodox actions by patriarchs, bishops and sometimes priests, a common objection is leveled against the Old Calendar critique, that we are engaged in modern day Donatism for suggesting that these actions of the church leaders may affect the transmission of Grace in the Church’s Holy Mysteries.  This accusation is wrong.  Let’s examine why.

First, we must define what the heresy of Donatism is.  Donatism arose and flourished in Northern Africa, following the refusal of the church in Carthage to accept their new bishop on the ground that his consecrator had been a traditor during the Diocletian persecution.  A traditor does not presume the preaching of heresy.  It is closer to apostasy.  Traditores were accused of having handed over the Holy Scriptures or sacred vessels to be burned.  It was undeniably a sin, but there was no dogmatic component to it.  Traditores did not necessarily preach false dogma; they abandoned the Church.  Tragically, it was not unheard of for a church official to cooperate with the government in times of persecution, and later repent of those actions and serve in the Church.  “Theologically the Donatists were rigorists, holding that the Church of the saints must remain ‘holy’ (cf. *Novatianism), and that sacraments conferred by traditores were invalid.”[i]  Donatists held that the sins of the traditors deprived their Holy Mysteries of grace.

Donatism was condemned at the Council of Arles in 314 A.D.   In the canons of the Council it was specifically held “Concerning those who are said to have handed over the Holy Scriptures or sacred vessels or the names of their brothers, be it resolved by us that any of those who from the public records, not from words alone, are discovered to have done so be removed from the office of the clergy. But if that same person who was exposed has ordained others, and the affairs of those ordained are all in order, let their ordination not be revoked.”[ii] Understand precisely what this means: the grace in the Holy Mysteries performed by the traditor validly conveys the fullness of the priesthood/episcopacy to those he has ordained, even if his personal sin requires his deposition from the clergy.  This is often held in short-hand to be “the validity of the sacrament is not affected by the worthiness of the priest.”  All this is true and a correct statement of the Orthodox faith.  But note what is missing: heresy.

Compare this to another canon from that same council.

Concerning the Africans who use their own special law in that they practice rebaptism, it is resolved that if any come to the church from heresy, they question him on the creed (used at his baptism), and if they consider him to have been baptized into the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, let him only receive the laying on of hands so that he receive the Holy Spirit; but if when questioned he does not solemnly confess this Trinity, let him be baptized.[iii]

Here we reference how heresy impacts grace imparted in the sacraments and how this Council believes it is best handled.  This is an early example of economia in that baptism is not required for those entering the Church from heretical sects if they affirm the Creed and have previous “baptism” in Trinitarian form.  Does this follow then that, like the traditores the heresy has no impact on the grace of the Mysteries?  To the contrary, consider the manner of reception that follows a heretical “baptism” of Trinitarian form. “Let him … receive the laying on of hands so that he receive the Holy Spirit.”  Here we see that the “mysteries” of heretics are unable to impart the grace of the Holy Spirit.  The “baptism” in form requires completion and correction so that the Holy Spirit may dwell in the recipient.  We see this expressed as well by St. Basil the Great, who wrote “I will never count one a true priest of Christ that has been ordained and has received patronage of laity from the profane hands of heretics to subversion of the Orthodox faith.”[iv]

In this we find the answer as to why the “modern day Donatist” accusation against Old Calendarists fails.  The complaint is not to the moral fitness of the new calendar bishops.  The complaint is not to their apostasy or non-apostasy.  The complaint is simply one of heresy – the heresy of ecumenism.[v]  Heresy does deform our reception of grace – both in the corruption of our spiritual state and in the driving out of grace in the acts of the heretics.  The Donatists were wrong because they tied grace to the purity of the person, not to the purity of the faith of the Church.  Old Calendarist objectors are simply not in the same position.

[i] Cross, F. L., & Livingstone, E. A. (Eds.). (2005). In The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev., p. 503). Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press.

[ii] (citing C. Munier, Concilia Galliae a.314-a.506, (Turnhout: Brepols 1963), pp. 9-13

[iii] Id.

[iv] Cited in the Sacred Pedalion, Concord of Canon 68 of the Canons of the Holy Apostles.

[v] For a deeper discussion of Ecumenism, see The ROCOR’s Anathema Against Ecumenism  by Met. Vitaly, accessed online at

2 thoughts on “Are the Objections of the Old Calendarists Just Modern Day Donatism?

  • where is ecumenism a official doctrine of the ‘mainstream’ Orthodox Church? Until it does then they’re indeed donatists. All ive seen them point to are the change in calendar, encyclicals and agreed statements which arn’t binding and actions of clergy such as praying with non-christians or heretics.

    • Ecumenism is a heresy. The practice of ecumenism is heretical whether it is “officially” adopted or not. The tolerance of that heresy is precisely the problem. Donatism focuses on sin, not heresy. It’s not a matter of official or not – it is the nature of the action. If a bishop and his clergy began communing Arians, whether they issued a conciliar determination or not, they are in heresy.

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