Wednesday, September 03, 2008

St. Vincent of Lerins

The "Vincentian Canon"

From Chapter 4 of the Commonitorium A.D. 434
(1) I have continually given the greatest pains and diligence to inquiring, from the greatest possible number of men outstanding in holiness and in doctrine, how I can secure a kind of fixed and, as it were, general and guiding principle for distinguishing the true Catholic Faith from the degraded falsehoods of heresy. And the answer that I receive is always to this effect; that if I wish, or indeed if anyone wishes, to detect the deceits of heretics that arise and to avoid their snares and to keep healthy and sound in a healthy faith, we ought, with the Lord's help, to fortify our faith in a twofold manner, firstly, that is, by the authority of God's Law, then by the tradition of the Catholic Church.

(2) Here, it may be, someone will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and is in itself abundantly sufficient, what need is there to join to it the interpretation of the Church? The answer is that because of the very depth of Scripture all men do not place one identical interpretation upon it. The statements of the same writer are explained by different men in different ways, so much so that it seems almost possible to extract from it as many opinions as there are men. Novatian expounds in one way, Sabellius in another, Donatus in another, Arius, Eunomius and Macedonius in another, Photinus, Apollinaris and Priscillian in another, Jovinian, Pelagius and Caelestius in another, and latterly Nestorius in another. Therefore, because of the intricacies of error, which is so multiform, there is great need for the laying down of a rule for the exposition of Prophets and Apostles in accordance with the standard of the interpretation of the Church Catholic.

(3) Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. That is truly and properly 'Catholic,' as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally. We shall hold to this rule if we follow universality [i.e. oecumenicity], antiquity, and consent. We shall follow universality if we acknowledge that one Faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is clear that our ancestors and fathers proclaimed; consent, if in antiquity itself we keep following the definitions and opinions of all, or certainly nearly all, bishops and doctors alike.

(4) What then will the Catholic Christian do, if a small part of the Church has cut itself off from the communion of the universal Faith? The answer is sure. He will prefer the healthiness of the whole body to the morbid and corrupt limb. But what if some novel contagion try to infect the whole Church, and not merely a tiny part of it? Then he will take care to cleave to antiquity, which cannot now be led astray by any deceit of novelty. What if in antiquity itself two or three men, or it may be a city, or even a whole province be detected in error? Then he will take the greatest care to prefer the decrees of the ancient General Councils, if there are such, to the irresponsible ignorance of a few men. But what if some error arises regarding which nothing of this sort is to be found? Then he must do his best to compare the opinions of the Fathers and inquire their meaning, provided always that, though they belonged to diverse times and places, they yet continued in the faith and communion of the one Catholic Church; and let them be teachers approved and outstanding. And whatever he shall find to have been held, approved and taught, not by one or two only but by all equally and with one consent, openly, frequently, and persistently, let him take this as to be held by him without the slightest hesitation.
[ed. Moxon, Cambridge Patristic Texts]
On this blog I have criticized the theory put forth by Cardinal Newman about Development of Doctrine, inasmuch as it runs contrary to the Vincentian Canon. Notice here the weight that St. Vincent gives to "antiquity," and think of that in relation to the Anglican emphasis on the early centuries of the Church, including the first millennium in which the Church was mostly unified; consider also the One Faith in Two Testaments, in Three Creeds, in Four [formulative] Councils,* and Five Centuries (Anglican 1,2,3,4,5-attributed to the writings of Lancelot Andrewes). To St. Vincent, the later ideas must be weighed by the earlier teaching that was universally accepted; not the other way around.

For more clarity on this, look at what he wrote in chapter 25 of the same work:

"But the Church of Christ, the careful and watchful guardian of the doctrines deposited in her charge, never changes anything in them, never diminishes, never adds, does not cut off what is necessary, does not add what is superfluous, does not lose her own, does not appropriate what is another's, but while dealing faithfully and judiciously with ancient doctrine, keeps this one object carefully in view,--if there be anything which antiquity has left shapeless and rudimentary, to fashion and polish it, if anything already reduced to shape and developed, to consolidate and strengthen it, if any already ratified and defined to keep and guard it. Finally, what other object have Councils ever aimed at in their decrees, than to provide that what was before believed in simplicity should in future be believed intelligently, that what was before preached coldly should in future be preached earnestly, that what was before practised negligently should thenceforward be practised with double solicitude? This, I say, is what the Catholic Church, roused by the novelties of heretics, has accomplished by the decrees of her Councils,--this, and nothing else,--she has thenceforward consigned to posterity in writing what she had received from those of olden times only by tradition, comprising a great amount of matter in a few words, and often, for the better understanding, designating an old article of the faith by the characteristic of a new name."

From the earliest days of Anglicanism, the goal has been fidelity to what the Church has believed from the beginning, rejecting nothing that custom has added to this by the wisdom of past generations concerning polity, but rejecting all doctrines and practices that cannot stand the two-fold test of antiquity and universal consent.

*In the first four Ecumenical Councils we see formulations of clarity and expression for dogmatic theology that were not restated in the final three, but only defended.


Anonymous said...

Personally, I find interesting that St. Vincent's espoused his non-innovation rule, at least in part, to combat the Augustine's express teaching of unconditional predestination (which IMHO necessarily implies TULIP Calvinism) as well as his other innovative, speculative theories regarding the Trinity (the Holy Ghost is the "love" between the Father and the Son and also eternally originates from them both) and Theology proper (God is "ipse esse" or "being itself"). Hence, to this day, Roman Catholic sources typically either suspect St. Vincent of, or directly charge him with, the so-called Semi-Pelagian heresy (i.e., man has real free will, salvation involves divine-human synergism and predestination is conditioned by man's response to free and unmerited grace).

In sum, not only do I find it (1) difficult to see how Rome expressly endorses St. Vincent's Canon in its Catechism as well as the theory of Doctrinal Development; but (2) I also find it hard to see how anyone can adhere to St. Vincent's Canon and also consider Augustine one of the Great Dogmatic Fathers and use his writings as the foundation of their theological edifices, as so many Anglicans do. Indeed, so much of Augustine's theology is materially divergent in content and substance from that of the consensus patrum before him that, to accept his teachings as orthodox and dogmatically foundational (as most Western Theology does), one simply MUST appeal to Newmanesque Doctrine of Development to retain any sort of coherence or rational integrity.

Fortunately, for Anglican's, the Caroline Divines and their intellectual progeny -- the Old High Churchmen (Van Mildert, Horsely, and Wesley), the Moderate Tractarians (Keeble and Palmer), and the modern Prayer-Book Catholics (C. B. Moss) -- rediscovered the Greek-Thinking Fathers (which includes the so-called Latin Fathers up to, but not including, Augustine (who did not like to read Greek and therefore did not understand the full nuances and subtleties of the Universal Greek-Thinking theology of First Four Councils -- a fact that is obvious from his writings). Thus, the central tradition of Anglican Divinity comprises a coherent systematic theology that does not RELY on Augustine, unlike the Calvinistic (Evangelical) or Thomistic (Anglo-Tridentine) Anglican parties, but rather appeals to the consensus patrum of the undivided an ancient Church, in accord with St. Vincent's Canon, and reading and interpreting Augustine in subordination thereto.

Anonymous said...

The answer to those who invoke Newman against St Vincent is simple: go read St Vincent and find out what he meant by 'always and everywhere and by all', and forget what Newman thought he meant.

Canon Tallis said...

It seems to be that Newman had to create his theory of doctrinal development to cover his departure for the Roman Church since it then and now failed to meet the Canon of St Vincent as it fails to meet that of Bishop Andrewes.

The whole of this post should be written large and committed to memory by any already ordained as an Anglican and any who seeks such ordination. This work of St Vincent we should all know and accept, but the few words of explanation which you have added to it, greatly clarify why a general and particular assent to it is so absolutely necessary to all of the Continuum at this moment and probably forever in the future as well.

The real shame of the Continuum and of all who call themselves Christians is that any of us should ever need to be reminded of this. But the evidence of the world is that we do now and probably will again and again in the future. Would that it were not so!

Anonymous said...

Nota bene:

"the canon of Scripture is complete, and is in itself abundantly sufficient...."

To grasp Vincent's conclusions, we must take careful note of his presuppositions. The impression I get is that for him tradition is necessary but subordinate. His argument here is not unlike that of a classical Protestant explaining the need for Church Confessions and Catechisms.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Schism and innovation have eroded so much in the Church. People today think that the Church is all about love and doing good. Even many priests don't understand what they are called to, the heritage in which they stand. So sad.

I have no problem with St. Vincent's Canon as a matter of church discipline, but it does shift focus from the Priesthood to the Episcopacy and I think that isn't necessarily a good thing. Here's why:

Fr. Robert Hart said...

I am not sure that the Canon shifts focus in that way. Councils focus on bishops, because bishops are the ones who sit on councils; but the "everywhere, always and by all" is more about the whole Church, and includes,in Chesterton's phrase, the democracy of the dead.