Friday, May 25, 2018

St. Vincents Rule

The Commonitorium
By Fr. Matthew Mirabile

As I have stood back and surveyed the broken landscape that is the Anglican Communion  I have observed the dialogue in play over the meaning of Scripture.  The crisis in the Anglican Communion is a thoroughly postmodern one.  It is about more than the place of gay people in the leadership of the church or about the correct meaning of scripture.  It is about which “sect” best represents the authoritative community and where this authority derives from.  I have often watched with alarm as evangelical and orthodox Anglicans have failed to properly understand the fight they are in.  As they defend the traditional meaning of scripture they have often done so as people with no memory, as a church with no leverage.  The argument about the meaning of scripture is an argument about the truth about truth, and who owns it!  It is a war over the ownership of the Christian narrative and it has been hijacked by those who wish to “turn the historical patriarchal hegemony on its ear”.  These postmodern concerns have less to do with the gospel of Jesus and much more to do with the anti-gospel of Nietzsche, Derrida, and Spong.
In this context it will not do to stand up and quote scripture in typical evangelical fashion.  Those “hijackers of meaning” merely see the evangelical and orthodox wing of the church as a community that is passé, old, and ignorant – maybe even naive.  When evangelicals (the community I originally hail from) have attempted to defend the faith through the use of scripture they seem to have done so without any real authority.  They are right, and they know they are right, yet it comes off as private interpretation – their read of scripture against the errant read of  their counterparts.  It seems to be much like a conversation in front a mirror – a relativist speaking with his individualist reflection.  It seems that both sides have failed to really see that the starting point is not some personal and subjective understanding of the text.  Nor is it sufficient to say that it is the textual understanding of one “faithful” community against the other “corrupt/outmoded” community.  After all, who is to say who has the authority to interpret The Faith? Such arguments must have teeth.  And as long as the argument takes place in the realm of present opinion it lacks teeth because the argument is ultimately over whose is the authoritative community.  And that is the question. 
This crisis is one of authority first, and not merely meaning.  In order to answer the question of authority the conversation has to turn to discussions of what it means to have a catholic understanding of the church.  For it is where The Church is in consensus that the truth abides.  It is the entire catholic community that is authoritative and that has the right to interpret the meaning of scripture and thereby define the faith.  When the Truth is being hijacked you need more than words, you need the rod of authority.
St. Vincent of Lerins faced a similar set of circumstances in his day.  An ecclesiastical writer of the 5th century, he entered the monastery of Lerins, where in 434 under the pseudonym of Peregrinus he wrote the "Commonitorium”, also called the Vincentian Canon. He lived in a region that was heavily Semipelagian and during his time there were many Christian sects and schismatic groups, not unlike today.    He wrote the Commonitorium in answer to the problem that all these schismatic groups presented.  Which one represented the apostolic and catholic faith?  In so doing he left the church a rule for determining heresy from true doctrine that has been referenced repeatedly through the ages and provided lively discussion during the Second Vatican Council.
 Theological innovation and controversy is not new to the church and Vincent was surrounded by controversy and bishops claiming to have authority to interpret the faith differently than the way it had been received.  This left him with a problem like the one we have today.  Which brand of the faith was credible?  Which bishop was right?  Which community was authoritative?  In answer to this he found this rod of authority.  He fashioned an apologetic based upon a few simple rules, an apologetic that placed the argument outside of the opinion of any single community or person.  By doing so he re-centered the authoritative community across time and space rather than localizing it with any single bishop, or schismatic group, no matter how earnest they may have been.  The familiar phrase, “That which has been believed always, everywhere and by all” (qUOD UBIQUE, QUOD SEMPER, QUOD AB OMNIBUS CREDITUM EST) became a rule for determining the catholicity of the Church’s teaching.  Taking into account the depth of the meanings contained in the Word of God and the “multiform” opinions that may arise out of it he tells us that it is possible to derive “as many opinions as there are men.  “Novation”, he says, “expounds one way, Sebellius another, Donatus in another, Arius, Apollinarius, Pelagius and latterly Nestorius in another.  Therefore because of the intricacies of error there is great need for laying down a rule for the standard of interpretation of the church catholic.”(1)  He contended that there had to be a rule for determining which community could speak authoritatively.  The principles of universality (ecumenicity), antiquity, and consent became standards for determining what is truly catholic teaching form erroneous opinion. His work came to be called the “Commonitorium”.
How can the Commonitorium be applied to this present Anglican crisis? or indeed the Protestant crisis in general?  Firstly, we need to fix a broken leg – I am referring to Hookers three-legged stool.  Someone has sawed off the leg of Tradition – as in The Great Tradition.  Rather than going back to the Reformation, we must go back to what the Reformers went back to, namely the Church Fathers – antiquity.  Now, antiquity is not held in high regard by those who wish to hijack the faith.  There is a modern prejudice for things ancient.  But this does not stand alone, it stands together with universality and consensus.  We are in a stronger place now than St. Vincent was, to look across the span of communities and history belonging to the Church and derive from that shared history certain sets of “constants”.  We would argue that these “constants of the faith” - practices, principles and propositions - which are most common, represent the consensual witness of the Spirit of truth in the church.   So if any one group wishes to dispute the authority of antiquity itself it becomes much harder to make that stick when it is universal to place, community and time.  Since the opinions of modern innovators are inconsistent with the witness of the catholic faith across time, community and common consent they are not merely arguing against the interpretation of one community in the present, they are arguing against the believing community in every age.  By so doing they are arguing against the work of the Holy Spirit as He has been directing the Church into all truth, preserving the Catholic Faith from error.  Anglicans can authoritatively look outside of their own community to the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Churches, and even to the various Protestant churches (Not mainline perhaps, since they are more prone to this same historical amnesia, but to all others who hold to the Trinitarian faith and the law of God) to evidence universality.  Orthodox Anglicans can authoritatively claim the consensual historical witness of the universal church, wherever it may be found, in whatever culture and whatever time, as its own.  In short those things that are most commonly held, believed and practiced by the majority at all times.  To deny the consensuality of this witness is to deny the character and power of the Holy Spirit in the Church. 
The above being said, many people have found it difficult to make the Vincentian canon a workable formula. There are certainly things that have been enjoined upon the church in councils that the church never took up. In the absence of the sort of universality that fails to be apparent the Commonitorium has been reduced to a great idea, but has been rejected as a workable model.  In order to make the it a practical and workable formula we need to tighten it up and make it more specific.  We need to further express the rule and its intent clearly so that it can be put to work more easily.   Anglicanism can adopt St. Vincents formula for the present as follows:
       Arguments from the greater unity of historical consensus are stronger than those of personal conviction or the private interpretation of a community where historical consensus can still be justified by the *plain understanding of scripture. In other words and by example; the consensual interpretation and response to scripture is stronger than the private interpretation of any single community or individual at any time.  Thus, the plain understanding of scripture is understood as authoritative as it has been received by the greatest consensus.
       Where the consensus of any sum of ages is contrary to the clear and plain witness of scripture it is non-binding tradition: where the consensus of a greater sum of ages is not in clear violation of the plain witness of scripture it is generally accepted as received tradition.
       Where the consensus of one age, or community, is contrary to the greater consensus of the greater sum of ages and is not in clear violation of the plain witness of scripture it is provisional at best, suspect at worst.  In this case, any localized consensus still represents a minority view which should not quickly be forced into practice. 
       And finally, where the consensus of one age, or community, is contrary to the greater consensus of the greater sum of ages and is in clear violation of the plain witness of scripture it is to be rejected as false and heresy. 
These principles hold scripture as the norming norm together with the consensus of the believing community.  This results in a more universal and authoritative witness against error.  When armed with this rule orthodox Anglicanism can more effectively argue against innovations, locating the power of the argument outside of the infighting of a single bracketed community in its cultural context to the wider believing and faithful church.  After all, the Anglican communion did not come into existence to be a “Reformational” church, but a catholic one reformed.  We must again reclaim this broader catholic identity so as to locate our history, and the authority of our community, within the witness of the Spirit’s activity within the universal church in all places, at all times, and among all believing men.
       Plain Understanding of Scripture is that which has been generally received, commented on, and understood in common by the entire church.
1. St. Vincent of Lerins, 117-118, Bettenson, 1947
Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, Oxford University Press, 1947
Fr. Matthew Mirabile is the Rector of Trinity Anglican Church (Anglican Church in America) in Rochester New Hampshire.


Canon Tallis said...

I was taught this from my teens and taught it from my ordination. This is simply the Catholic Faith of the fathers and earliest bishops.

Unknown said...

Thank you good Fathers for the clear writing and the timekyposting of this article.. Fr Byron,TDC.

Bcpanglican said...

Impressive exposition!

Malcolm Smith said...

Very good. However, it must be emphasized that Vincent specified that this canon can be used only for the interpretation of scripture. There is no warrant for insisting on a doctrine not referable to scripture.