The Vincentian Canon and Doctrinal Development
Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est: "
The Canon of St. Vincent of Lerins is self-evident and needs no formal status as dogma from an Ecumenical Council. In modern times this Canon has been criticized by a particular school of thought within Roman Catholicism most closely associated with the theory of Doctrinal Development that was held by John Henry Cardinal Newman. This theory is not the official position of the Magisterium in Rome, which is a point that seems to be lost on quite a large number of its proponents. Newman’s theory was set forth with his customary brilliance in expressing himself cleverly, and with his unique sort of historical scholarship. It was filled with examples meant to prove that doctrines that had been revealed in nothing more than what we may call embryonic form, were developed over time into the teaching of the Church.
We must agree with some of his ideas in that regard. In this day and age the problems that Newman faced have increased. False scholarship is rewriting history, whether in the popular fiction of The Da Vinci Code for unthinking minds, or the open and plainly stated distortions and dishonest academic work of Elaine Pagels and her imitators. Fraudulent scholarship sells. Against this, Newman identified a genuine Christianity of history, an idea that is right in itself. The problem for us is that he states his thesis with a bold conclusion right up front: “And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this.” And, before we nod and agree, as the good Catholic Anglicans we are, we must understand that by “Protestantism,” he means Anglicanism.
Furthermore, we can paraphrase what he said, as follows, and be every bit as certain that, just as what he said was accurate in a sense and to a limited degree, so would it be to say, “And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Roman Catholicism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this.”
Both his statement, and my rewriting of it, are true only to a limited degree, first academically, because "the Christianity of history" is a poor way of saying what he really meant; "authentic Christianity." Both statements are only to a degree true, also, because wherever we find the truth of the Bible and the Creeds, we find authentic Christianity, even if not perfect and full. Again, I am drawn to quote Fr. Louis Tarsitano: "The reason to be Anglican is to avoid innovations, whether innovations of Rome or of Protestantism."
In his work on the subject, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, the argument Newman made was intended to lead the reader to the conclusion that the only true Church is the Church that is in communion with the pope, and that the development of doctrine within that Church has been the guiding work of the Holy Spirit. To find a portion of scripture upon which such a theory must be based we turn to John 16:13: “Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come.” To come fully to the conclusion that Newman seeks to lead the reader, we must first identify the Church to whom the promise was made in the exclusive sense that Rome believes.
Against this conclusion stands the simple but forceful phrase of St. Vincent of Lerins, Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est. Critics of the Vincentian Canon have used historical examples in an attempt to explain that the Church has received ongoing progressive revelation. Some of these critics have exceeded Newman, who insisted on finding the revelation upon which developments are based. It has been argued that the ancient Church, before the Fourth century, had no doctrine of the Trinity. I was debating a man once, who insisted that the Council of Nicea introduced a new understanding of the Trinity that could not be proved simply by using the Bible, and that for this reason the new word homoosious was introduced. Certainly, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the fans of Dan Brown would agree with him. However, anyone who cannot prove the doctrine of the Trinity with just the Bible, and who cannot show that what the word homoosious actually means is the only logical conclusion of scripture, is inept and incompetent for the intelligent discussion of theology. And, reliance on Scripture is the Patristic method. It is the method used by St. Athanasius and the defenders of orthodoxy at the Council of Nicea. It is not a Protestant innovation; it is the ancient Catholic position known to the Fathers, and expressed in Anglicanism thus: “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. (Article VI).”
What was the actual development accomplished at Nicea by the introduction of the word homoosious? This is the phrase that we say in the Nicene/ Constantinopolitan Creed: “Being of one substance with the Father…” It clarifies what the Church had always believed, and it was necessary to make this clarification due to the heresy of Arius, who introduced the hitherto unknown doctrine that the Son was a creature. Stemming from Arius’ heresy was the consequential and dependent heresy of the Pneumatamachi, or “fighters against the Spirit.” This heresy denied that the Holy Spirit is God, and even denied that he is Person (hypostasis). The best known Patristic work that answered this heresy was On the Holy Spirit by St. Basil the Great.
Enthusiastic supporters of Newman's Development of Doctrine theory have argued that the Church was not aware of the Holy Spirit until the Fourth Century. The evidence has been the apologetic writings against the Pneumatamachi, weighed against carefully selected earlier passages that make less than a full expression of the doctrine of the Trinity regarding the Holy Spirit. Sometimes a sentence is used from the scripture itself: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent (John 17:3).” Supposedly this proves that the revelation that the Holy Spirit is God, equal to the Father and the Son, was not known by the earliest Christians, and cannot be proved by the Bible. The idea they put forth is that the ancient Christians only understood the Father as God, had a shadowy glimpse of the divinity of the Son, and had no idea just who the Holy Spirit is. Never mind the fact that this verse of scripture is in a long passage that constantly affirms the unique relationship of the Son and the Father, and that includes in this relationship the Holy Spirit, the Other Comforter “Who proceedeth from the Father (John 15:26, cp to John 8:42).” Never mind that the whole book, the Gospel according to St. John, from its opening chapter on sets forth two central doctrines, with absolute clarity, as its entire premise: the Trinity and the Incarnation (1:1,2,14).*
The answer they would give to my argument is that I can see the Trinity, the truth of homoosious, and the truth about the full divinity of the Holy Spirit only thanks to the lenses provided by the Church. By looking back through those Councils I know what I could not know from the pages of scripture. The answer is simple: The Church resisted this heresy because they already knew about the Holy Spirit and about the Trinity.
Yes, the Bible cannot be understood apart from the Church through which God gave it. However, the reason for this is two fold: 1) the truth of scripture is spiritual, and therefore hidden to those who remain dead in trespasses and sins, and 2) without the teaching of the Church in its Tradition the force of demonic and worldly thought would have a victory through confusion. The Bible was not given to stand apart from the Church: we know that. However, the doctrines we believe were not gradually revealed. The promise that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church into all truth was as real for the Apostles as for us- which means that the promise is as real for us as it was to the Church when the Apostles themselves were its living teachers. Doctrine has developed only because it has been clarified and often defended to meet the ongoing emergencies created by heresies. But, what we believe has not developed as new revelation and new dogma. The Ecumenical Councils did not create new dogmas, but rather defended the beliefs held from earliest times by clarifying dogma. To know the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of the Incarnation and the truth that leads to eternal life does not require adherence to innovations, whether Roman or Protestant. It requires instead, Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est.
*In a future post I will demonstrate how this kind of development is popularly misunderstood within scripture itself, about the popularly misinterpreted Jerusalem Council in the Book of Acts, and the inclusion of gentiles.