Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Vincentian Canon and Holy Tradition

Recent discussions on our weblog have led me to realise that some clarifications regarding what the Church's understanding of the authority of Tradition does and does not entail, and regarding church history, might be helpful.

Appeal to the Vincentian Canon, to what has been believed “everywhere, always and by all” within the Church, is a more subtle idea than commonly understood. The appeal to the whole Church's consensus across time does not mean an appeal to any theological opinion enjoying what we might call a simple majority, for example. Nor does it require acceptance of beliefs outside the area of Faith and Morals, no matter how common they have been. It does not even involve acceptance of very common opinions which intersect doctrinal concerns but which are or were held as normal assumptions rather than posited as truths necessary to be held. The apparent consensus of only a brief period is likewise excluded.

So what is included in Holy Tradition (HT henceforth) and considered to satisfy the Vincentian Canon (VC henceforth)? Doctrines defined as dogma by recognised Ecumenical Councils or their equivalent (e.g., local conciliar decisions which are ratified by an Ecumenical Council or otherwise universally treated as correct and authoritative) are the obvious component. However, also included are doctrines held and taught as part of the Faith by an overwhelming majority or virtually universal consensus of Catholic bishops (and accepted by the laity faithful to them) over a long period of time, even if not defined as dogma at a universal level.

It does not matter too much whether certain doctrines are more implicit than verbally explicit for a time, as long as the substance is there throughout. Nor does it matter if a regionalised or temporarily widespread defection from HT can be found. A regional schism based on rejection of an otherwise virtually universal teaching simply characterises that schism as heretical. Too, if something satisfies the VC at one point, it cannot fail to do so later just because a significant number of Christians start to reject it. A very small sample of patristic teaching inconsistent with the consensus does not overthrow it.

It is important to note at this point that this is not an idiosyncratic classification of my own. It is the standard approach. It may be found in Anglican works such as Hall's Dogmatic Theology (e.g., Vol. II, Ch. viii) or Palmer's On the Church (Pt IV, Ch. vi), as well as in Roman Catholic sources (where scholastic terminology differentiates between what is de fide and what is sententia communis theologorum, for example). Eastern Orthodox thinking is very similar.

Now, the standard Catholic position, whether Anglican, Roman or Orthodox, is that Holy Tradition (note the capitals: merely human, ecclesiastical customs are excluded) is infallible. That is, the Church's genuine doctrinal consensus cannot be erroneous or lead Christ's flock astray. However, even here it is accepted that verbalisations may need improvement to give a more complete or balanced view over time.

Three challenges to this thesis have been put by respected contributors to this weblog recently, although none involves outright rejection of the VC or the infallibility of dogma, it should be said. First, there is the claim that counterfactuals exist to this infallibility, that is, truly consensual doctrines of the past now known to be false. Second, there is the claim that the consensus of Holy Tradition (HT henceforth) is infallible only insofar as it can be shown to rest on Scriptural evidence, with the corollary inference by many that HT must be used in a filtered form, with what is considered by the person making the act of faith to be unscriptural being rejected. Third, there is the claim that the VC can often become a useless or simply tautological criterion (especially once the aforementioned filter is taken into account) and that therefore the HT it supposedly identifies is an overly vague concept without definite content that just forces us back to Scripture.

Taking the first challenge, the purported counterfactuals, we find that the following have been proposed: Ptolemaic Cosmology as theologically significant, 24 hr/6 day literalism in the interpretation of Genesis, and support for the moral probity of torturing heretics, Jews and witches for the sake of the defence of the Faith, so to speak. The last two are most easily dealt with, because the supposed universal ancient consensus does not exist.

Most of the earliest Church Fathers condemned the use of force by Christians outright, and even most of the later Fathers who accepted some use of force by Christians rejected the idea that it should be used to compel or kill unbelievers or heretics (e.g., St Ambrose), and we can even find outright papal condemnation of the use of torture (in 866 by St Nicholas I). Early Canon Law forbade clergy even to strike unbelievers or heretics, and threatened them with deposition for this. When the teaching changed, it did so in the West in mediaeval times, due partly to some unfortunate statements of St Augustine extrapolated beyond their original context and partly to the desire of Popes for Ceasar-like powers. While it is true that Church officials often fell short of their ancient teaching as they were compromised by alliances with the civil powers, there was never a universal, East-West consensus as to the legitimacy of the kind of violence seen in the various Western Inquisitions. While the alliance between the Empire and Church produced legislation that subjected certain heretics to severe financial and legal disadvantages, these did not include violent suppression, and the freedom of assembly for heretics and Jews was backed up by the threat of capital punishment for those who disturbed such voluntary assemblies. The Western Church's Law regarding how those opposed in some way to the Catholic Faith were to be treated had to be changed to allow the abuses of the Inquisitions. (On the Eastern side we have instead the mediaeval example of a godly king, St Vladimir, who after his conversion abolished both the use of torture and execution even by the state! And we have just had his feast: July 5th.)

It is also interesting to note that early teaching on witches warned against superstitious acceptance of the supposed powers of witches and showed no paranoid desire to persecute them by burning or execution. In fact, Canon Law threatened excommunication for believing in the reality of the powers of witchcraft! The Council of Frankfurt in 794 prescribed the death penalty for those burning supposed witches. This early tradition was more mocking than fearful. That changed in the later middle ages, and the fatal detour accelerated with the mediaeval publication of the text Malleus maleficarum, which gave credence to the powers of witchcraft and identified witches as a mortal danger needing a violent response.

As for the literal, “24/6” interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis, dissent from this is found in men like Origen, St Augustine and St Aquinas. In other words, the three most influential minds in the history of the Church! Here again, we have a non-existent consensus.

Speaking of Augustine, it was he who advised biblical exegetes not to over-dogmatise on the interpretation of Scripture when this intersected with questions of the physical nature of the universe. He recommended they use some humility and pay attention to the scientific consensus, though that exact term was not yet invented. Now, it was the scientific consensus of the era of the Fathers that Ptolemaic (geocentric) theories were correct and the theories of Aristarchus (which were heliocentric) implausible. This was not the result of mere ignorance. For example, if Aristarchus was right, pre-Copernican astronomers understood that there should be a parallax “movement” of the nearer stars compared to the background stars as the Earth moved around the Sun. No such parallax was observed. The reason for this, we now know, was that the parallax was real but too small to be observed with the naked eye, requiring a telescope. Yes, exegesis of certain biblical passages also had an influence for many, but this was a post facto “demonstration” of the harmony of the Bible with accepted science, not imposing the Bible on the natural philosophers. More importantly, the Ptolemaic cosmology was not generally or normally part of catechesis or doctrinal teaching properly speaking, it was simply assumed and, at certain points, appropriated. In these circumstances, if one can not find a widespread ancient tradition in the Fathers of condemning the views of Aristarchus as objectively heretical, it is false to claim that the Church had a consensus of dogmatic geocentricism.

The second challenge to the definitive authority of HT is to accept it but with a significant qualification: whatever the VC and HT direct Christians to believe must be accepted as long as it is also founded on the Divine Revelation of Scripture. The difficulty with this challenge is that it is true but potentially misleading as it stands. This qualification is not what it appears, since it is the teaching of Scripture as interpreted by the Fathers that the Church Universal will never impose anything as “of Faith” on its members that is contrary to or not founded in the Divine Revelation. Therefore, the qualification is true, but “trivially” so, as mathematicians would put it. Consider, as an analogy, the following theological statement. "The Church only remains the Body of Christ so long as Jesus retains his human nature, since it is in his incarnate state that he is the Bridegroom who unites with himself the Church as his Body." It is strictly true, but not worth saying, since we know that Jesus' humanity is unending. Similarly, this qualification is not practically helpful, as the set of teachings which would satisfy the VC and HT, but is not Scriptural, is a null set necessarily. This means that the qualification, though trivially true, must never be used by any Catholic Christian to reject any part of HT on the grounds that he or she does not see that that part is Scriptural. To deny this statement is to deny the essence of Catholic epistemology and to open up the door to every heresy, since many heresies have made exactly such a claim sincerely, that is, claimed that a particular doctrine is un- or anti-Scriptural, no matter the consistency of consensus. We cannot coherently make the Church Universal the final judge of what is the correct interpretation of Scripture, but reserve to individuals or isolated particular churches the right to judge whether or not the Church was being Scriptural in this determination.

Now for the third challenge. Does the VC, understood correctly, succeed in identifying the HT in practice? That is, does it reveal the HT in such a way as, not merely to repeat Scripture, but to elucidate it in ways not accessible to superficial reading or private judgement and to provide a clear set of Catholic teachings which either must be affirmed or, in some cases, at least may not be denied? The following doctrines may all be found as satisfying the VC properly understood. The doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement contained in the Creeds and defined by Ecumenical Councils; the divine inspiration of Scripture and the necessity to follow HT in interpreting it; the necessity to the Catholic Church of the threefold ministry of Bishop, Priest and Deacon; the benefit of prayers for the dead in Christ; the benefit and reality of prayers by the dead in Christ for those living and the legitimacy of asking for those prayers; the validity of Christian art and cautious reverence for icons; the immaculacy and heavenly repose of Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary; the teaching that the Bread and Wine become (and do not merely signify or contain) respectively the true Body and Blood of Our Lord in an ineffable, spiritual but real manner; the teaching that the Eucharist is a Sacrifice for quick and dead, drawing upon the One Propitiation of the Cross; and the nature of all of the commonly identified “seven sacraments” as divinely appointed means of grace. Given that one can find solid support for them in official Roman Catholic sources, anti-Pelagian Conciliar decrees and in the Eastern Fathers, I would add the soteriological truths 1 to 12 I identified here as well. This is very much a non-trivial list, and is not exhaustive. It is this HT which the Affirmation of St Louis and the Constitution and Canons of the ACC commit members of that Church to unreservedly. Were we to fall back at all as a corporate body from this affirmation, we would thus cease to be a Catholic jurisdiction. I trust that will never happen.

While we must always be cautious to avoid overdogmatising and must carefully distinguish between traditions and the Tradition, let us never lose our trust in God's promises to his One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church or pit ourselves against her manifest mind and heart. Let us never neglect to listen to the Church (Matthew 18:17). She is, without doubt, the “pillar and ground of the truth”, against whom “the gates of Hell shall not prevail”, “the fulness of Him who fills all in all” and the Body to whom Christ has corporately given the anointing of the Holy Spirit, who guides us into all truth (1 Timothy 3:15, Matthew 16:18, Ephesians 1:23, 1 John 2:27, John 16:13). Thanks be to God.


Steve said...

If I'm not mistaken, the 39 Articles teach sola Scriptura, which necessarily means that HT is infra Scriptura.

As to the grammatical-historical reading of the first 11 chapters of Genesis, that is only intellectual honesty. The whole substance of Judaism and Christianity stand on there being a real, pristine creation by God without sin, death or suffering, before the Fall, and then a real "space-time" Fall. Anyone rejecting that is like a cartoon character who has sawn off the branch he is sitting on. Those who reject the natural grammatical-historical reading are the ones who are placing the contemporary paradigm (science does not operate on consensus!), in a dogmatic position over and above Scripture, including statements by Jesus Christ incarnate.

Luther and Melancton were not wrong in considering themselves faithful Catholics opposing error in the local situations in Saxony.

charles said...

Dear Fr. Kirby,

This is a tough order for more Protestant leaning Anglicans. I imagine, though not a knee-jerk rejection, for Anglicans each deserve its own set of qualifications:

"1. the necessity to the Catholic Church of the threefold ministry of Bishop, Priest and Deacon;
2. the benefit of prayers for the dead in Christ; the benefit and reality of prayers by the dead in Christ for those living and the legitimacy of asking for those prayers;
3. the validity of Christian art and cautious reverence for icons;
4. the immaculacy and heavenly repose of Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary;
5. the teaching that the Eucharist is a Sacrifice for quick and dead, drawing upon the One Propitiation of the Cross;
6.and the nature of all of the commonly identified “seven sacraments” as divinely appointed means of grace."

I find #4 and 6 the most difficult to swallow. Though, with respect to the rest, there must be a peculiarity on how Anglicans know the above vs. Rome and the East? While I am favorable to smoothing over differences, I think we should also acknowledge how Anglicans uniquely understand what is primitive. Some of this pushes the envelope. But again, I am probably knee-jerking.

I also understand the above list as being 'dogmatic'? I will read C.B. Moss's intro for a definition of "dogma", but is "dogmatic" the same as necessary faith?

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Stephen wrote:

If I'm not mistaken, the 39 Articles teach sola Scriptura, which necessarily means that HT is infra Scriptura.

As I have pointed out many times, the term sola scriptura is an old Catholic term that was first stated by St. Thomas Aquinas. For Anglicans it refers to the fact that "all things necessary to salvation" can be demonstrated from Holy Scripture, and nothing else may be required of anyone. Furthermore, it limits the Lectionary to the canonical Scriptures, which was the main point Thomas Aquinas made when coining the phrase sola scriptura.

Fr. Kirby:

You wrote: the teaching that the Eucharist is a Sacrifice for quick and dead, drawing upon the One Propitiation of the Cross.

Unless we maintain the correct distinction between "sacrifices of masses," and "Re-presentation," we can lose the powerful truth of our own words: "All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world."

With that one word of clarification, I wonder why you appear to believe that the "givens"-or fairly obvious points- which constitute your essay stand in any sort of contradiction to what else has appeared here.

Perhaps it is because I found it necessary to assert the distinction between a theoretical notion of consensus as mere accidental convergence of opinions, on various matters, and doctrinal consensus. Doctrinal consensus, in the VC sense, is based on revelation, and therefore all of its necessary support can be drawn from what had been recorded in Scriptures before St. Vincent was born.

The VC is challenged quite often, but it has not been challenged in any posted essay on this blog.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Charles and Fr. Kirby:

Somehow I missed these two items the first time trhough. If "the immaculacy and heavenly repose of Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary" means the Immaculate Conception and Assumption, then Fr. Kirby has erred. These pious beliefs are not dogma, are not the Holy Tradition, and can be rejected on the basis of the Vincentian Canon. Thomas Aquinas did not believe the first of them. Certainly, they are debatable.

Anonymous said...

The few comments thus far illustrate my problem with the notion of the "Vincentian canon." For those who agree that the thing exists, they quickly begin to argue as to what it consists of. The VC begins to be like the eight blind men examining an elephant. It turns into something of a mirage.

Oddly, most attempts to spell out the HT have a way of sounding like the Baltimore Catechism with the Pope removed. And it is a fact, inconvenient for this theory, that the vast majority of Christians since AD 1054 have believed that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ and head of the Church on earth. I wonder how many Patristic writers gave any thought to the "immaculacy" of trhe BVM? How many citations does it take to establish a "consensus"? How does "immaculacy" differ from "sinlessness"? I fail to see the value of this awkward term.

Let's look at the Christian map around AD 650. We see a large Arian Christian community in northern Europe. In the East, large Monophysite and Nestorian churches. (We agree that these Arians, etc, were heretics, but we cannot deny they were really there.) In between, Chalcedonian Christianity, but with an incipient division already underway, with some who taught the Filioque and others who did not. No particular doctrine of the Atonement had been set forth as official, but several "theories" co-existed. The serious issue of predestination and freewill still simmered in an unresolved state, in spite of one or more local Councils.

The idea of "the ancient undivided church of the first millenium" as some tidy monolith turns out on inspection to be wishful thinking. After all, if such unity existed for 1000 years, it would be hard to explain why it suddenly (like the Wonderful One Hoss Shay) broke down in 1054.

But thank you, Fr Kirby, for explaining the Vincentian canon. I had always thought it was something like "semper, ubique, et ab omnibus." But you have helped us all to grasp that it really means, "nonnunquam, in aliquibus locis, et a multis." Now I can accept the Vincentian canon without further cavil.

William Tighe said...

VC: "quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus" -- putting "semper" in the central position gives it, according to the conventions of Latin rhetoric, the priority of place.

I would express the opposite as "nusque ... nusquam ... ab nullis" etc.

RSC+ said...


As has been noted before, many thoroughly orthodox theologians, to include Thomas Aquinas, who coined the phrase sola scriptura, did not, particularly, insist on a "grammatical historical reading" of Genesis.

Indeed, the very idea of that kind of reading is mostly ahistorical. Ancient History, as every careful reader of Herodotus or Thucydides or (ahem) Acts knows, is not a literal, direct chronological series of events. Rather, it seeks to report what has been said about a given event or person and to detail the essence of the event or saying.

You must be very careful not to say of, for example, a speech of Sallust, "Well, if Caesar did not actually say those things, Sallust must be lying!" Likewise, we need not insist on a strictly grammatical reading of Genesis. Are we to believe that Jesus, when telling parables, had an actual, historical prodigal son in mind, or an actual woman who lost her coin, or actual bridesmaids who forgot their candles? No, indeed, for to do so misses the point of the parable entirely.

In fact, Jesus himself, in one very pointed case, takes our attention away from a grammatical-historical interpretation. When he teaches Nicodemus about the rebirth of water and spirit, Nicodemus asks about literal rebirth. It's quite clear, and actually punny and amusing in the Greek. We know well and good that the literal sense is not correct here.

But let's press the issue. Christ also says something about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and insists rather explicitly that this issue directly concerns salvation. He does not do so with the case of Genesis. A grammatical-historical rendering of eating flesh and drinking blood leads one, rather quickly, to Lanfranc's insistence on carnal, material transubstantiation.

To satisfy my curiosity, do you insist, on the one hand, on a literal interpretation of Genesis, which Jesus did not consider to be a salvific issue (apparently), and yet not insist on the same for the Eucharist, about which he quite clearly emphasized salvation? If you are consistant, I say to you, bravo! If not, you may wish to rethink such a prioritization of Biblical interpretation.

(For my part, I find the necessity of the Dominical sacraments to be a wee bit more important than whether creepy crawlies came before or after flying things.)

Sean W. Reed said...


Father Hart wrote:

"...Thomas Aquinas did not believe the first of them..."

Father, you are repeating a common error of taking what St. Thomas wrote out of his EXACT context and attempting to apply it to the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and imply he disagreed.

The issue is the difference between the term moment and instant.

Most printed english editions of Summa have a commentary from the editors which clarify this distinction.


Anonymous said...

Bill, I was not attempting to express the opposite, but to state the heavily qualified version which generally gets floated. My Latin was intended to say "sometimes, in some places, and by many."

You are right about the word order, however. For that I stand corrected.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Father, you are repeating a common error of taking what St. Thomas wrote out of his EXACT...

An error made by every scholar who knows what St. Thomas Aquinas wrote. I am in very good company.

Steve said...

Shaugn, without an infinite series of interpreters to tell me what your post means, I am unable to divine its meaning since you reject the grammatical-historical reading of texts.

RSC+ said...


Due to lack of evidence to the contrary, I must only conclude either a) that you do, in fact, prioritize the literal minutiae of creation over our very real dependence on the Eucharist, or b) you do not see anything inconsistent or innovative with insisting on a literal, grammatical view of creation while likewise denying the literal, grammatical sense of Christ's insistence on the Eucharist.

The difference is, of course, hugely consequential. I can easily believe that God, from nothing, made light, stars, and humans who fell into sin and are in dire need of a savior without insisting on a strictly literal view of Genesis. (Again, such inconsequential people as St. Augustine, St. Athanasius, and St. Thomas Aquinas did as much). I can also believe that the ousia of bread and wine, once consecrated, has become the ousia of Christ's Body and Blood.

These two are both consistent and in accordance with scripture and tradition. To insist, lopsidedly, on a literal interpretation of Genesis and not a literal interpretation of Christ's dominical sacraments is mostly irrational. This could, I suppose, explain your mostly unhelpful response to a coherent argument.

Anonymous said...

"If I'm not mistaken, the 39 Articles teach sola Scriptura, which necessarily means that HT is infra Scriptura."

Whenever I hear the phrase "sola Scriptura" I have to ask "What does that mean to you?" The expression is an incomplete sentence; Scripture is "alone" or unique in what sense? It is an historical fact that the phrase (like fide sola) goes back far beyond the 16th century. Briefly, I would state that for the magisterial Reformers, Scripture was unique in its infallibility. That did not make it the exclusive element of their theological method, or the only authority they appealed to.

"As to the grammatical-historical reading of the first 11 chapters of Genesis, that is only intellectual honesty."

I am at a loss to understand how you are using the expression "grammatical-historical reading." For most people, that means reading the text accordng to the human author's intention. If you thnk that means 6/24 creation, you are
extrapolating wildly. In fact, that is subjecting Scripture to tradition (fundamentalist Protestant tradition) in a very arbitrary manner. Did Moses intend a chronology of how the universe originated? Or did he set forth a literary framework for a theology of creation? The latter approach leads to a far more profound exegesis of Gen 1. For example, light being created on Day 1, before the sun and moon were created on Day 4 should give us a polemic against sun and moon worship. When one discovers the theology embedded in every "and God said," the simplistic "literal" approach becomes irrelevant baggage.

"The whole substance of Judaism and Christianity stand on there being a real, pristine creation by God without sin, death or suffering, before the Fall, and then a real "space-time" Fall."

And here you are absolutely right. But a space/time creation and fall (two distinct events, could happen a very long time ago and have the same significance as 4004 BC.


Fr Matthew Kirby said...

Dear Stephen,

Fr Wells makes an excellent point. "Grammatical-historical" is not necessarily the same as wooden "literalism". Given that the early Genesis story has the following features, I think we can see the reason why some Fathers did not interpret it that way, long before modern geology and evolution. I refer to these features:

1. Two main characters whose names in English idiom would be reasonably translated as "Mankind" (Adam) and "Life" (Eve).

2. Another main character who all sensible exegetes, including fundamentalists, agree is a powerful spiritual being and the first fallen evil one in Creation, Satan. Yet, within that story (taken literally), he is presented as a uniquely clever talking snake, whose punishment is to lose his legs and eat dust, and to bite and be trampled by people. He is cursed more than any other animal. Does this sound like Satan, if interpreted literally? Or are all species of present snakes necessarily legless as punishment because one of their ancestors was possessed by Satan? Maybe, but I think one could doubt such "literal" interpretations without disrespecting Scripture.

3. Temporal order presents difficulties if the account is taken literally. Quite apart from the light and source of light issue, we have verse 1 proclaiming the heavens created ab intitio, but their formation described on the second day (v. 8).

As for "Scripture alone", Fr Wells again makes the important point that we need to specify in precisely what its sole sufficiency consists. Its sufficiency is in the area of Divine Revelation, that is, it is the the radical source material for all doctrine. However, the extraction of this doctrine correctly (in all essentials) requires submission to the Church's consensual understanding and teaching. Correct individual interpretation is, of course, possible and necessary (even to the consensus!), but an individual's interpretation is not guaranteed by God to remain orthodox, whereas the Church Universal is guaranteed a correct understanding of the Faith, of the general sense of Scripture. (It should be noted that the Church very seldom pronounces definitively on the precise interpretation of specific verses.)

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

Also, the first Fall was Satan's, which all agree predates our human parents' Fall. Given that Scripture and Tradition suggest a connection between angelic activity and natural forces, can you be sure the first Fall did not affect Nature. Is not the symbol of the serpent suggestive? Was death really absent, even in literal interpretations, before humans fell? The vegetarian mandate of chapter 1 only extends to land animals and plants. What about the creatures of the water? Any evidence of herbivores there? Were all animals immortal as well as herbivores before human sin? Does Genesis say this?

Fr Matthew Kirby said...


You said:

"there must be a peculiarity on how Anglicans know the above vs. Rome and the East ... I think we should also acknowledge how Anglicans uniquely understand what is primitive."

Why must there be? Anglicans have never claimed to possess a unique doctrinal epistemology nor peculiar doctrine. We claim to be the native Catholic jurisdiction for the British people and her colonies and mission fields, and to have the right to establish churches to minister to any of our people outside those bounds who will not be accepted by other jurisdictions native there, due to divisions we did not start and do not willfully maintain. We consider ourselves fellow Catholics with the RCC an EOC, answerable like them to Holy Tradition.

Your reference to "what is primitive" suggests Tradition is about restorationist ecclesiology or doctrinal archaeology. This is not the Anglican Catholic position, any more than it is the position of the RCC and EOC. Holy Tradition is not a lost pearl that must be unearthed, but the perpetual expression of the preservation of the Church Universal in the true Faith.

Is everything on my list dogma, strictly speaking? No, as normally "dogmas" are church doctrines that have been explicitly and officially defined and made binding at the highest level. Anglicans would tend to prefer to restrict the term "dogma" to truths directly related to saving faith, as the early Church tended to do. Think of the list as a partial inventory of Holy Tradition, which includes truths dogmatised, truths of similar authority but not made dogma in the strict sense, and truths the Church commends to its children, telling them not to reject or despise them, but refraining from asking for the assent demanded of Creedal/Dogmatic truths.

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

Fr Hart,

I think we agree on the Sacrifice of the Mass, as I do not see my statement as inconsistent with yours.

Perhaps I should not have referred to your qualifications as a challenge to the VC, but it did seem to me that they cold easily be taken in a sense you do not intend.

E.g., 'Theoretically, even if some idea may have been "believed everywhere, always and by all," if the Church has not received the same by so ancient and authoritative a source that it was recorded in Holy Scripture, it is without authority.'

This would lead to exactly the kind of thing I was talking about unless it were immediately qualified with the statement: "But this could not happen in practice, as the Catholic Church will not do this, due to God's effectual guidance guaranteed to it."

Re: Marian teaching, I used the words I did very deliberately. While I accept the Immaculate Conception and (Bodily) Assumption, I did not list them as of dogmatic or para-dogmatic status. The immaculacy of Mary is accepted by both the RCC and EOC and is mentioned more than once in the Ecumenical Councils, long before the more precise formulation and causal explanation of 1850. The phrase "heavenly repose" is consistent with both "soul in heaven" and body and soul in heaven". Though the latter is accepted by both the RCC and EOC, the East refuses to dogmatise on the matter, while it frowns on outright denial of the bodily Assumption.

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

Fr Wells,

I wanted to answer your longer comment, but it has mysteriously disappeared. Did you delete it, as the author is allowed to do I believe? If so, would you consider re-instating it so I can address it properly?

I will answer what I can remember.

Last point first: While your dig at my interpretation of the VC is amusing, it ignores the fact the St Vincent himself made a number of qualifications around the clause commonly identified as his "Canon". And some were identical to mine! He notes that the consensus does not need to be literally universal and that regional or temporary divergences do not destroy the main consensus. He says the understanding and clarity of expression of certain doctrines can grow too, if I remember correctly. Why is it OK for him to make the qualifications in the original statement but not for me to make them now? And the rest of my qualifications are consistent with the patristic understanding of Tradition, which matters, since we do not base the VC solely on one Saint's opinion.

As for the lack of consensus in the First Millenium, your examples don't really hurt the Canon much at all. The Arians were known as heretics by the easily identifiable Catholic Church for centuries, so could never be included in the consensus anyway. The Nestorian and Monophysite schisms and heresies were regionalised, and it would also appear that many or most of the Monophysites at least were in fact orthodox in substance, rejecting Eutychianism, despite different use of language. Also, it is interesting to note that apart from one serious issue each, both the Eastern schisms would be very comfortable with virtually everything in the list I gave. So, even these largish "non-consenting" groups, so to speak, do not hurt the consensus.

Yes, by the way, a significant number of Fathers affirmed the immaculacy or sinlessness of Our Lady in the First Millenium, which is why the adjective "immaculate" ends up being used more than once of her at the Seven Ecumenical Councils in official decrees. While an example of "obiter dicta" rather than the subject itself of definition, its repeated presence shows that it was happily accepted by the Catholic Church.

If VC-based lists look like the Baltimore Catechism without the Pope, this probably just reflects how much all Catholics have in common. Do you really think my list would worry the Eastern Orthodox? I think we both know it would not. In fact, I can't think of anything, except the immaculacy of Our Lady, you would reject in it either, based on things you have said before.

Finally, I think you began by referring to previous comments proving a lack of consensus on the consensus. But the first 2 comments appear to come from people who do not accept the VC and HT unreservedly anyway. Fr Hart's disagreement seems to have been based on an incorrect extrapolation of my words.

If I have forgotten something important, I am sorry.

Anonymous said...

Fr Kirby:

My point was that a rule which must be so heavily qualified is hardly a rule. This is all the more true if the author of the rule himself (St Vincent Lerinum) was rhe first to make qualifications. It is somewhat like saying that 2 + 2 = 4, except when it = 3.

I will come clean and lay my cards on the table. I dislike the Vincentian Canon (you may have already suspected this) because it was first used to defend Semi-Pelagianism. Even if you maintain that this position was ultimately the Church's consensus, it was never really universal. His blast (which he had to qualify) of ubique, semper, et ab omnibus, was hardly more than a rhetorical salvo, an exercise in hyperbole. Vincent himself might be surprised at the manner in which it is used as a mantra, to be intoned with a straight face.

I do not grasp your point that some special exception must be made for the Monophysite and Nestorian heresies because they were and are "regional." If that creates an escape clause, what is left of "ubique?"

Your argument regarding Arianism is circular. It amounts to saying Ariaism is heretical because it had already been defined that way. But were the Arians non-Christians? How hard was it to reincorporate them into the mainstream of the Church? So even the sacrosanct homo-ousion cannot meet Vincent's test, as Athanasius opponents pointed out.

I do believe there is a mainstream of Christan faith and doctrine rolling down the centuries. The Councils and great theologians are its primary markers. But no one has perfected an iodine dye test to define its boundaries with absolute precision. There is not even absolute agreement about the Canon of Scripture: what is your view of I and II Esdras and the Prayer of Manasses?

It occurs to me that VC is somewhat like the Q document in Synoptic criticism. That is a theoretical explanation for passages common to Matthew and Luke. But the experts cannot agree as to exactly which verses belonged to it, what order they fell, whether it was written or oral, whether it was in Greek or Aramaic. I am among the growing number who are suspicious that it never really existed. Same with VC.

You did not explain the advantanges of the artificial word "immaculacy" (which seems to be a ruse to smuggle in IC). But does just finding a bunch of patristic quotations really prove that a doctrine meats the VC? Thomas Oden, who strongly favors the VC, has published a sizeable book of patristic citations defending Jusfification fide sola. I suspect he has more citations than you do for "immaculacy."

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Vincent himself might be surprised at the manner in which it is used as a mantra, to be intoned with a straight face.

That is true, because the portion we quote so often is taken without its context. The context is about the truth revealed in Holy Scripture.

So even the sacrosanct homo-ousion cannot meet Vincent's test, as Athanasius opponents pointed out.

There we have a very complicated issue. The word itself, homoousios, is not the issue, but rather the teaching it represents. Nonetheless, Arius was not inventing a new idea in his time, but was forcing a question that existed in Alexandria for a couple of generations. Arius and his followers believed their interpretation to be the conservative one, in fact, the traditional one. Like it or not, Rowan Williams (yes, that Rowan Williams) analyzed the history of Alexandrian vagueness quite accurately. The triumph of Nicene orthodoxy was based, finally, on Athanasius presenting the doctrine of salvation from Scripture, especially the One baptismal Name, as singular rather than plural, that our Lord revealed, as written in Matt. 28:19 ("...baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."). Arianism simply could not withstand the Scriptural test.

Now, Athanasius did have liturgical Tradition on his side. But, he won his debate using a sola scriptura method. However, he used it as it truly is-the Catholic Tradition, the Patristic method of proving one's case.

Fr. Kirby:

Again you have spoken of disagreement. As long as your intended meaning of "immaculacy" and "heavenly respose" do not require of any man that he believe the Roman 19th and 20th century Marian dogmas, of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, as articles of faith, and necessary to salvation, we have no disagreement.

Sean W. Reed said...

Father Hart wrote:

"...An error made by every scholar who knows what St. Thomas Aquinas wrote. I am in very good company..."

Please defend your statement. Please evidence that "every" scholar who knows what St. Thomas wrote, has the same position you do.

What St. Thomas wrote is not difficult to follow, and the following scholars would not agree with you.

1) The Dominican editors of Summa in the English 1911 edition make this quite clear in their note from the editors inserted into the text in Part III, Question 27 and in conclusion they state:

"Hence it is that St. Thomas insists on two things (1) the the Mother of God was redeemed, and (2) that the grace of her sanctification was a grace of preservation. And, be it remarked in conclusion these two points, so much insisted on by St. Thomas, are at the very basis of the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception."

2) Walter Ferrell, OP, acclaimed for his four volume work "Companion to Summa," says:

"...St. Thomas, in his treatment of the original sanctity of Our Lady, insisted on three things: her purity from sin; her redemption by Christ; and the fact that the grace of her sanctification was also a grace of preservation. On these same principles, Pope Pius IX declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception to be of faith. But there is a serious dispute among theologians as to whether Thomas taught or denied the Immaculate Conception itself. The argument hinges fundamentally on a distinction Or priority of time and of nature; in other words, the question at issue is whether Thomas was arguing that we must think of Mary as conceived before being sanctified, or whether he maintained that Mary was, in time, conceived and later sanctified. The defined doctrine of the Immaculate Conception makes it clear that Mary was preserved from original sin in the very instant of her conception; so that never, even for the shortest period of time, was there a stain of sin on her soul.

The argument as to the stand of Thomas is sharp, sometimes even bitter. Really it does not merit sharpness or bitterness. In the light of the humanity of Thomas, it seems small to begrudge him a single mistake or to gloat over his having made one. In the light of the incredible accuracy of his far-reaching mind, he might well have foreseen and taught this truth of faith as he did so many others. Certainly it would be a contradiction of evident facts for any man to challenge Thomas's love for and appreciation of the sanctity of the mother of God.

Freedom from actual sin and the inclinations to it

He insists, for instance, that never in all the course of her life did Mary commit any actual sin, either venial or mortal. She was the mother of God. As the honor of parents reflects on their children, much more does the shame of a mother reflect on her child; Mary would not have been worthy to be God's mother had she been guilty of sin. Then, too, she above all others was so close to Christ, the Holy One; He took flesh from her and dwelt so intimately in her, not only in her womb but in her heart...."


Sean W. Reed said...


(3) R.P. Thomas Pegues, OP in his "Catechism of the Summa Theologica," acclaimed by Pope Benedict XV.

While I respect you may have your own interpretation about the Immaculation Conception of our Blessed Mother, to say that "every" scholar suports your idea that "Thomas Aquinas did not believe the first of them," is not accurate.


Sean W. Reed

"...The Definition

Wherefore, in humility and fasting, we unceasingly offered our private prayers as well as the public prayers of the Church to God the Father through his Son, that he would deign to direct and strengthen our mind by the power of the Holy Spirit. In like manner did we implore the help of the entire heavenly host as we ardently invoked the Paraclete. Accordingly, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for the honor of the Holy and undivided Trinity, for the glory and adornment of the Virgin Mother of God, for the exaltation of the Catholic Faith, and for the furtherance of the Catholic religion, by the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own: "We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful."[29]

Hence, if anyone shall dare -- which God forbid! -- to think otherwise than as has been defined by us, let him know and understand that he is condemned by his own judgment; that he has suffered shipwreck in the faith; that he has separated from the unity of the Church; and that, furthermore, by his own action he incurs the penalties established by law if he should are to express in words or writing or by any other outward means the errors he think in his heart..." - Ineffabilis Deus

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Sean Reed:

Obviously, some RC scholars cannot accept the standard, and fairly obvious, reading of Thomas Aquinas. Nonetheless, almost everyone considers it more than clear that he did not believe in the Immaculate Conception, and the scholars you quote have not proved their case.

Nonetheless, the theory that Mary had to be free from the stain of original sin in order for Christ to be free of it, is itself an absurdity. Such a notion makes no sense whatsoever, inasmuch as it limits the power of God Almighty to act as He will.

Whatever it means, exactly, that she was "highly favored" or "full of grace," it is enough to see that grace is the operative word in Gabriel's greeting ("highly favoured," is χαριτόω, a form of χάρις-in Luke 1:28).

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception goes beyond what we can see in the words of Gabriel, insisting on a specific interpretation. That interpretation is not based on revelation, but on logic that rests on a specific premise. That premise is that if Mary was not without Original Sin, her Son would have been born a sinner. The problem is with the premise itself, which cannot be proved. To say that the premise is not a fact is sufficient, but it is true also that the premise is absurd in itself.

Furthermore, the weight of Biblical revelation indicates that Original Sin comes from our fathers, Psalm 51:5 ("in sin did my mother conceive me") constituting the one exception. Even so, if Mary had been born subject to Original Sin, like the rest of us, the miracle of the Incarnation would not, therefore, have suffered any defect. For, the miracle was God's direct work, and was not consistent with the normal manner of human conception anyway.

And, the heavy handed manner in which Rome requires belief in their recently defined dogma, is just one more evidence that they presume far too much. They require adherence to doctrine that goes beyond what God has revealed, to say the least.

Sean W. Reed said...

Father Hart wrote:

"...Obviously, some RC scholars cannot accept the standard, and fairly obvious, reading of Thomas Aquinas. Nonetheless, almost everyone considers it more than clear that he did not believe in the Immaculate Conception, and the scholars you quote have not proved their case. ..."

Once again, please substantiate your allegation.

I have listed three of the foremost authorities on St. Thomas and Summa. You have listed no sources yet still allege that a "standard, and fairly obvious reading of Thomas Aquinas" supports your position.

Please provide sources, or refrain from making unsubstantiated blanket statements.

I wonder if this allegation is part of deposit of Faith that has been given to the Anglican Catholic Church.

"...We call upon all the communicants of this church to believe without reservation that deposit of Faith that has been given to the Anglican Catholic Church..." - from Father Hart's parish website.


Fr. Robert Hart said...

I have listed three of the foremost authorities on St. Thomas and Summa.

But, the collected quotations don't amount to much. So, I remain more persuaded by the standard reading.

Jack Miller said...

Regarding many of the Anglican distinctives expressed in this discussion, I find it hard to come to any other conclusion than that the Reformational understanding of the 39 Articles by the likes of Cranmer and the other 16th century English reformers is to be avoided as a central part of Anglo-Catholic doctrine.

I may not be expressing myself well, as I type this from work, but any list of central doctrines that define true Anglicanism (even from a V.C. POV) that leaves out justification by faith only... [not by any works of man lest anyone should boast - Eph 2:9] - is leaving out the heart of the Good News. Fr. Kirby's list and linked article miss that. Yes, the blessings of salvation are by grace only... yes, the blessings are connected to faith on our part. But 'justification' is unique in that it is acquired or reckoned by faith "alone"... and as Cranmer would say "a true and lively faith." And Article XI says as much while also referencing the Homily on Salvation (#3) which explicitly teaches that it is Faith only [that] justifies, [and] is the doctrine of old Doctors... whereby our ransom might be fully paid, the law fulfilled, and his justice fully satisfied. So that Christ is now the righteousness of all them that truly do believe in him. He for them paid their ransom by his death. He for them fulfilled the Law in his life. So that now in him, and by him, every true Christian man may be called a fulfiller of the Law, forasmuch as that which their infirmity lacked, Christ's justice hath supplied.

I only highlight this because it was the central doctrinal issue of the Reformation upon which Cranmer, Luther, and Calvin were of one mind with Scripture and the early Doctors. And it is still the central doctrinal issue of the Gospel today. By what instrument are men deemed or imputed or declared righteous before God? I fear that in order to distinguish Anglicanism from the religion of the Continental reformers too many have walked away their own heritage. Cranmer and others were not martyred for the V.C. (and I know no one is saying so, but I'm saying - just to make my point). So isn't Article XI worth contending for as central today? Justification by faith alone should not be assumed or relegated to a doctrinal dust bin, but boldly owned and declared by all who claim the name Anglican.

Forgive my getting off topic and sermonizing, but I find myself a bit troubled at the concept of understanding true Anglicanism as if the 16th century English reformation is merely a historical footnote.


Jack Miller said...
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Jack Miller said...
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Fr. Robert Hart said...

Jack Miller:

Just another reason why I am not in the Anglo-Catholic camp. I appreciate the contributions that the Anglo-Catholic movement made to our sacramental theology, but see it as merely part of a larger Anglican heritage. When partisan Anglo-Catholics mimic romantic Romanism, and when they feel free to reject whole portions of the Book of Common Prayer, they part company with me. They also part company with the real brains of the Oxford Movement.

Anonymous said...

Jack Miller: I agree with everything you say. I agree with you quite strongly.

And again, Justification by Faith Alone has more patristic support than the sinlessness of Mary. (And as for Our Lady's sinlessness, what is the point anyway?)

But what bothers me just as much about the Evangelical crowd is their weak and less-than-Biblical doctrine of the Church and Sacraments. The Real Presence and Real Sacrifice, the reality of objective grace in all seven sacraments, the apostolic ministry, are just as precious to me, and when provoked I defend them just as vigorously.

Jack Miller said...

Fr. Wells wrote:
But what bothers me just as much about the Evangelical crowd is their weak and less-than-Biblical doctrine of the Church and Sacraments. The Real Presence and Real Sacrifice, the reality of objective grace in all seven sacraments, the apostolic ministry, are just as precious to me, and when provoked I defend them just as vigorously.

Yes, I agree. The broad Evangelical drift away from what you mention is indeed a problem in that as one dilutes the doctrines of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the objective grace in the sacraments (received by faith), and the apostolic ministry (i.e. the faith once delivered faithfully taught and preached and the sacraments rightly administered through the 'ordained' ministers of the church) one moves away from the Apostolic faith and practice. Today's Evangelicalism delegitimizes the church itself by its informal attitude and even lack of practice in regards to the things above. And if fact, in the main, it only gives lip service to sola fide. It is basically a semi-Pelagian religion.

But I will say that the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone all by God's grace alone is, as Luther said, the article upon which the church stands or falls. Cranmer's homily affirms that. One can have a high view of the doctrines you mention above and yet move away from "the hinge on which religion turns."


Anonymous said...

There is no need to argue with Sean Reed about Aquinas's view regarding IC. It is clear and explicit in Summa Theologica, Tertia Pars, Quaestio 27. While Aquinas is emphatic that the BVM never commited any sin mortal or venial, nevertheless he wrote:

"The sanctification of the Blessed Virgin cannot be understood as having taken place before animation, for two reasons. First, because the sanctification of which we are speaking, is nothing but the cleansing from original sin: for sanctification is a "perfect cleansing," as Dionysius says (Div. Nom. xii). Now sin cannot be taken away except by grace, the subject of which is the rational creature alone. Therefore before the infusion of the rational soul, the Blessed Virgin was not sanctified."

The Summa is perfectly readable and well indexed. Anyone can go to the Angelic Doctor himmelf and not rely on Ultra-montane misrepresentations.

I wonder what My Reed would make of St Bernard of Clairvaux's even more emphatic denial of IC in his Epistle 174, from which I quote:

"“I am frightened now, seeing that certain of you have desired to change the condition of important matters, introducing a new festival unknown to the Church, unapproved by reason, unjustified by ancient tradition. Are we really more learned and more pious than our fathers? You will say, ‘One must glorify the Mother of God as much as Possible.’ This is true; but the glorification given to the Queen of Heaven demands discernment. This Royal Virgin does not have need of false glorifications, possessing as She does true crowns of glory and signs of dignity. Glorify the purity of Her flesh and the sanctity of Her life. Marvel at the abundance of the gifts of this Virgin; venerate Her Divine Son; exalt Her Who conceived without knowing concupiscence and gave birth without knowing pain. But what does one yet need to add to these dignities? People say that one must revere the conception which preceded the glorious birth-giving; for if the conception had not preceded, the birth-giving also would not have been glorious. But what would one say if anyone for the same reason should demand the same kind of veneration of the father and mother of Holy Mary? One might equally demand the same for Her grandparents and great-grandparents, to infinity......"

Bottom line: Sinlessness and IC should be carefully distinguished. IC miserably fails the VC, and should not be smuggled in with such precious neologisms as "immaculacy."



Anonymous said...

Although this thread has not been active for a few days, I have had some further thoughts about the Vincentian Canon (and I wonder who was first to call Vincent's language a "Canon).

This petty controversy might be cleared up simply by recalling the distinction between "descriptive" and "prescriptive."

As a simple description of the very real continuity in the Church's faith and tradition of teaching, "ubique, semper, et ab omnibus" is certainly true. Otherwise, the history of doctrine would be incoherent. And thanks to our friend Bill Tighe for stressing that the central term "always" is the key which unlocks the whole. "In all places" and "by all" may be hyperbolic (nothing wrong with that) but "always" we can take literally. The Church has always believed in Our Lord's Resurrection. Beginning with that bedrock truth, the list can be expanded. But only within fairly small limits.

But where we get into trouble is when we attempt to use this "canon" prescriptively. When someone tries to tell me that some doctrine or other, unrelated to the Gospel and unsupported by Inspired Scripture, MUST be believed because he has found a fistful of Patristic citations and therefore opines that it meets the "test" of Vincent, then I will respectfully tell him his theological method is quite alien to genuine Catholic tradition. By the same token, doctrines clearly set forth in the Scriptures but neglected for many centuries and misunderstood in large sectors of the Church may not be ruled out of bounds, as they have ALWAYS been set forth in the infallible deposit of revelation, the Scriptures).

As a test case for the descriptive/prescriptive distinction, let me bring up the sacrosanct "seven ecumenical councils of the ancient undivided church." Anglicans and the EO's agree on this, not so much to bash the Copts who acknowdledge only three, the Nestorians only two, and the Calvinsits and Lutherans all of six. The point of the number seven was to restrict the number from growing to the long list claimed by the RC Church (which had added an 8th council before AD 1054). The question I see is whether the magic number "Seven" (to which we are committed) meets the so-called VC.
That seems as much up for grabs as the date of Easter or use of wafer bread. So which is it: the sacred Seven or the VC?