Several weeks ago, a commenter on one of my columns mentioned his affection for the works of Bp. John Henry Hobart (1775-1830), the third Episcopal bishop of New York (1816–1830). Bp. Hobart vigorously promoted the extension of the Episcopal Church in Central and Western New York, founded General Theological Seminary in New York City and established Geneva College, later renamed after him. Some historians consider Hobart an example of the American proto-Oxford Movement. Beginning with the good bishop and extending throughout the denomination by way of the General Theological Seminary back in the day, there was a renewed emphasis on Catholic essentials which predated the Oxford Movement by more than a decade. Bp. Hobart “preached Apostolic Succession, the sacramental life, prayers for the dead, and daily offices.”
Having read only a few bits of Bp. Hobart’s work, I set about remedying an obvious chink in my own Anglican armory in my customary way: I ordered everything I could find on Amazon immediately and began to watch the post for that too-familiar box. Happily, the last mail before our blizzards in D.C. brought my newly acquired Hobart collection, and the snow afforded the opportunity for quiet reading and reflection on another ignored and underrated Anglican giant. Among Hobart’s works are episcopal charges to the clergy of Connecticut and New York entitled The Churchman (1819) and The High Churchman Vindicated (1826), in which he accepted the name high churchman, and stated and explained his principles in distinction from The Corruptions of the Church of Rome and from the Errors of Certain Protestant Sects (1817). It is this latter work that is the subject of this reflection. I would add one cautionary note at this point: most of the Hobart corpus is available only in reprint or facsimile editions. Some of these are of quite poor quality, and the buyer will want to review some sample pages before making a purchase.
Beware Popular Opinion and Private Judgment
In Corruptions, Bp. Hobart cuts right to the chase, warning against “going with the flow” of popular opinion. In civil life, such a course is merely dangerous, “in matters of religion, not only dangerous and unwise, but criminal.” To borrow from the Apostles, no strangers to assaults from prejudice and from passion, “Believe not every spirit,” but “try the spirits, whether they be of God”; “Prove all things: hold fast that which is good.” In this regard, Hobart noted that it is
[m]uch more pleasant is it to swim with, than to stem, the current; to be carried along by the popular gale, than with incessant and wearying exertion to struggle against it; to be hailed by the applauses of the hosts, in whose ranks, or as whose leaders, men bear to a triumph the opinions or the measures of the day, than to meet their odium by refusing to enlist with them, or by opposition, somewhat to perplex their progress, if not to diminish their success.(It is a bit like writing an article on the Apostolic Constitution for The Continuum!)
The problem before us today is the same as that in Bp. Hobart’s: sailing that difficult course between the Scylla and Charybdis of private judgment and claims of infallibility. In the first case, a faith grounded in purely private judgment will lead to the renunciation of that wisdom the ages have sanctioned-wisdom that all regard to the voice of the Church catholic, not in the restricted sense in which the Church of Rome claims that title, but in its extension, semper, ubique, apud omnes, always, every where, among all. This rule of receiving what has been believed in the Church, known as the Vincentian Canon, is a yardstick of orthodoxy. Bp. Hobart cautioned against, those “claiming the right to interpret the word of God, and to deduce from it the unerring articles of doctrine, without any regard to the faith of the universal Church.”
This is not to say that there is no right of private judgment in matters of religion, but that the right should be properly exercised. Hobart notes that
the doctrine that every man being individually responsible to his Maker and Judge, must, in all those concerns that affect his spiritual and eternal welfare, act according to the dictates of his conscience, is that cardinal principle of the Protestant faith which should be most strenuously guarded.
Interestingly, Bp. Hobart anticipates the Second Vatican Council by 150 years. As noted in the first paragraph of the Decree on Religious Liberty Dignitatis Humanae:
… the council professes its belief that God Himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness. We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men. Thus He spoke to the Apostles: ‘Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have enjoined upon you’ (Matt. 28: 19-20). On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it….This Vatican Council likewise professes its belief that it is upon the human conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding force. The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power….Or, more succinctly, Canon 748 ß1 of the 1983 Code of Law of the Roman Catholic Church confirms that, “All are bound to seek the truth in the matters which concern God and his Church; when they have found it, then by divine law they are bound, and they have the right, to embrace and keep it.” Quite clearly, then, according to Vatican II, the role of conscience is to seek God's Truth, embrace it, and then hold on to it once found.
However, Bp. Hobart cautions that there is a wide difference between the unlimited and the restricted right of private judgment;
“between each individual forming his code of religious doctrine, without employing as lights amidst the innumerable and jarring opinions that perplex his researches, the faith of the universal Church, as far as he can ascertain it; and the same individual, while he claims the right, which no intelligent creature can surrender, of judging for himself, seeking with humility and with deference, that guidance which is to be found in the faith of the Church universal.
We may, indeed, fail in our efforts, liability to error is inseparable from our present fallen state. But there is much less danger of error, when we follow the light, as far as it is disclosed to us, which has shone on the Church universal. To borrow from Article XX of the Thirty-Nine Articles, it is on this sound principle of human nature, as well as on those declarations of Scripture, which pronounce the Church to be ‘the pillar and ground of the truth,’ and which commands us to ‘hear the Church,’ that our Church declares in her articles, that ‘the Church is a witness and keeper of holy writ,’ and has ‘authority in controversies of faith.’“By the Church we mean, ‘a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure word of God is preached, and the sacraments duly administered according to Christ's ordinance.’ This presupposes Apostolicity, as those authorized to minister the sacraments, ‘are chosen and sent by men who have public authority given to them for this purpose.’ We can be in no doubt whom she considers as having this public authority to call and send to the ministry, when we hear her declaring that Bishops, to whom she assigns this power as distinct from Presbyters and Deacons, ‘have been from the Apostles’ times,’ and ‘instituted by God's Providence, and by his Holy Spirit.’ [Preface to offices of ordination, and prayers in those offices.]
“Certainly, the authority which the Church possesses in matters of faith, ‘is exercised by all orders of men constituting her communion, her Bishops, Clergy, and Laity.’ ‘But those who are especially commissioned to minister in sacred things, and to whom, as the stewards of the mysteries of God, it peculiarly appertains to dispense his sacred word, are particularly entrusted with the office of preserving Christian verity, and of guarding the fold of their Master from the assaults of heresy and schism.’ Thus, there is a high calling and duty placed upon those in Holy Orders ‘to search for the old paths, and to continue therein,’ rather than withhold truth, because it may be difficult; or to give in to a love of popularity which would rather bow to some modern idol, than worship the God of our fathers in the faith and unity even when ‘modern liberality may style [it] bigotry and uncharitableness.’”
Connected with the extreme exercise of private judgment in matters of religion, and arising indeed from it, is the little regard which is paid to the Church as a divinely constituted society. Bp. Hobart critiques “hard Protestantism” for failing to “bring into view the divine institution of the Christian Church, and the divine origin of its powers.” They reduce the sacred institution, founded by a divine hand and governed by Him, to whom “all power is given in heaven and on earth,” to a level with those “associations which have no higher origin than human power, and no other object but human policy.”
There is an eerie prescience to that statement, which would play out in full in General Conventions and similar gatherings of the “mainstream” denominations of our time. Indeed, these are places where
…discipline is not regarded as a duty demanded by the authority of its divine Head, and the purity of its sacred character, but as dictated merely by those considerations of policy which influence secular associations, and as left entirely to human discretion. Its discipline is thus relaxed; or, when exercised agreeably to established provisions, is secretly assailed, or openly opposed and disregarded.There are also erroneous opinions prevalent with respect to the constitution of the Christian ministry, arising from the tendency to extremes to which Bp. Hobart refers.
On the question of primacy, the “Church from which Protestants separated” claims for its visible Head “prerogatives as unfounded in Scripture as they are dangerous in the exercise.” Bp. Hobart acknowledges the confession of St. Peter-“Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God”-by the distinguishing declaration “On this rock I will build my Church —and unto thee will I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven.” However, without entering into the discussion, whether the rock meant was the confession or the personal authority of St. Peter, Bp. Hobart poses the “Eastern Question”: “what evidence is there that the Church was not established on the other Apostles, and that the power of the keys, or of remission of sins in the administration of the sacraments and ordinances, and of discipline, was not conferred on them?” He goes on to ask twin rhetorical questions:
Are we not told that the Church is founded on all the Apostles? Were not all the Apostles equally with St. Peter, and with no marks of distinction, commissioned to establish the Church, constituted its governors, vested with all its spiritual powers, and commanded to provide for the continued exercise of those powers in the persons of their successors ‘alway, even unto the end of the world?’Finally, there is the “remarkable fact so subversive of the alleged supremacy of St. Peter”, St. James, Bishop of Jerusalem, in the first council that settled the disputes of the church, even in the presence of St. Peter, enjoyed that precedence, and exercised that power, which are claimed as of divine origin for St. Peter.
Upon Which Rock?
Even if one admits that St. Peter was distinguished by Christ with some marks of superiority over the rest of the Apostles, Bp. Hobart goes on to question whether that distinction was unique to the person, and demands proof that the distinctions descended to the Bishop of Rome. He finds no warrant for the titles “vicar of Jesus Christ” and “universal Bishop” which involve the “lofty prerogatives” assumed by the papal pontiff.
Hobart appeals to both Scripture and tradition noting that there is no record set forth in the apostolic history recorded in the Acts to support the papal claim. As well, Clement, Bishop of Rome, the next in succession to that see from the Apostles advanced no similar claims in his epistle. Moreover, the martyr St. Ignatius, disciple of St. John, delineated with the greatest minuteness the Christian hierarchy and the duty of submission to it, yet said nothing about the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome. Indeed, in the Ravenna Document of 13 October 2007, theologians chosen by the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches stated:
41. Both sides agree ... that Rome, as the Church that 'presides in love' according to the phrase of St Ignatius of Antioch (To the Romans, Prologue), occupied the first place in the taxis, and that the bishop of Rome was therefore the protos among the patriarchs. They disagree, however, on the interpretation of the historical evidence from this era regarding the prerogatives of the Bishop of Rome as protos, a matter that was already understood in different ways in the first millennium.On the other hand, if every doctrine and institution was thoroughly corrupted by “passing through a Papal channel,” how does it happen that those who appear to act upon this principle retain any doctrine or institution which is taught or practiced by this church they deem anti-Christian Church? For example, is the divinity of Christ to be rejected because, in the midst of other corruptions, this truth shone conspicuously as an article of the faith of the Church of Rome? Further, is Christ’s atonement diminished in its redeeming efficacy, because of its connection to the intercession and merits of created beings? Does the Bible cease to be the charter of salvation, because its sacred books must be traced through the Roman Church to the age of inspiration? And does Episcopacy lose its claims to a divine origin, because on its simple and apostolic foundation has been reared the structure of the Papal hierarchy?
Bp. Hobart asks that
if one extreme approves its opposite, if the abuse of an institution renders necessary the rejection of it, if usurped prerogative justifies resistance to legitimate power—what is there in religion—what is there in civil polity—what is there in the departments of science—what is there in social life, that would remain sacred?Keeping One’s Confidence
The crux of Bp. Hobart’s exhortation is to avoid loss of confidence in the primitive institutions of our Church, and to not be intimidated from avowing and defending the scriptural and primitive claims of the Anglican Episcopacy. “The Episcopacy which it is the privilege of our Church to enjoy, was the glory of martyrs and confessors, centuries before Papal domination established itself on the depression of Episcopal prerogatives.” When we appeal to the Epistles of Timothy and Titus as proof of the succession of an order of men to the Apostles, in their powers of ordination and supremacy in government, we do not have to accede to claims of the supremacy of the supposed successor of St. Peter. When we appeal to a succession of Fathers, in proof of a fact which appears prominent in every Ecclesiastical record, that, as is expressed by the “judicious Hooker” (the “outward being of a Church consisted in the having of a Bishop”) must we adhere to a very different dogma of which the ancient Fathers knew nothing-that the Pope is the visible head of the Church on earth, and that subjection to his supremacy is a necessary evidence of membership in the Catholic or Universal Church?
As Anglicans, our Church (and note, please, that I have begun to capitalize Church) holds a most important station in the Christian world. Amidst the various forms which modern innovators have given to the Christian ministry; some relinquishing entirely its divine origin; others confounding its distinct orders, and altering their original powers; some denying the transmission of its commission from the Head of the Church; others changing the channel of conveyance; some seeming to think it necessary to retreat as far as possible from the precincts of the Roman Catholic Church; our Church, not awed by Papal claims and unmoved by the unjust reproaches of some of her Protestant kindred, takes her stand where Apostles and Martyrs stood. Her Apostolic Episcopacy shines forth to the wandering members of the Christian family, as that city “set on an hill,” where they may find repose from the tumults of schism and the wreckage of modernism and materialism, and enter communion with their Redeemer, in those ministrations and ordinances which he has established as the channels of his grace, and the pledges of his love.
And, now comes the same rebuke that Bp. Charles Grafton would repeat nearly a hundred years on. We must be weak in our attachment to our Church, and indifferent must we be to the vows which we made when we received her ministry, and insensible to the promises of succor and support from that Master whose commission we sustain, and whose cause we advocate-and little must we have of that undaunted spirit of the Fathers if, awed by popular reproaches, or seduced by the promise of resources and prominent place, we should fail in the high calling to bear the faith which we have received from the Apostles, Martyrs, and Saints and transmitting it in its original purity and beauty.
Unity in Christ’s Mystical Body
The Roman Catholic opinion of Church unity, that it consists solely in communion with the Bishop of Rome as the visible head of the Catholic Church, has so little foundation in Scripture and in primitive practice that it could not stand the test of that spirit of free inquiry which the Reformation excited. But, here’s the rub: many bodies of reformed Christians who renounced the Church of Rome, were not so happy as to carry with them that primitive Episcopacy which subsisted in the Church from which they separated. We “moderns” can agree that the natural course of the human mind, through gradations of error, could justify a departure from Episcopacy at first exercised on the plea of necessity and, later, justified on the ground of right.
The difference of English Church reformers with a Church which imposed and continues to impose extraordinary terms of communion teased out into the claim of individual ministers and individual Christians, to establish communions as their judgment may dictate. Thus, Bp. Hobart noted that the Protestant world would increasingly divide into sects, “the numbers or the tenets of which it is almost impossible to enumerate.”
And so, there is the introduction of the vagueness that those who seek the “safety” of Rome want to escape. Yet, the unity of the Church is an obvious and fundamental doctrine of Scripture; and visible unity is entirely incompatible with distinct communions. Hence, the tenet of an invisible Church, of which all are covenanted members who exercise faith, threatens to subvert the doctrine, professed in the ancient creeds, of a visible Church, “one, Catholic, and Apostolic.”
Again, Bp. Hobart is quick with a barrage of questions to challenge us. Was it an “invisible Church” which our Saviour designated as “a city,” “a kingdom,” “a body?” Was it an invisible society, over which he set his Apostles as the instructors, the priests, and rulers, and of which they were to constitute officers, with similar powers, to the end of the world? Was it an invisible society, of which the Apostle declares, “Ye were all baptised by one spirit into one body?” Was it to an invisible Church that they were united, of whom it is said in the Acts of the Apostles, “the Lord added to the Church daily such as should be saved?” Was it a union only of faith and charity which distinguished those of whom, in the same inspired book, it is said, “they continued steadfastly in the Apostles; doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers?” Was it an internal and invisible unity which the Apostle enjoined, when he said, “there should be no schism in the body?” Was it to the officers of an invisible Church that he commanded obedience-“Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account?” Was it an infraction only of an invisible unity which he reproved, when he said, "mark them which cause divisions"-“because there are divisions among you, ye are carnal—one saying, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos?” Were mutual love and soundness in the faith the only bond of unity in those ages, when the Church universal was indeed one fold, under the government of Bishops? Was this the unity of Ignatius, of Cyprian, of a host of Fathers, who, in almost every page of their writings, enforce a visible unity, maintained by the communion of Christians with the authorized orders of the ministry, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons? Was it for an invisible unity, that Jerome, the reputed champion of this modern error, contended, when, in the celebrated passage which is adduced in proof of it, he asserts, that at the very time when it was said, I am of Paul, and I am of Apollos, which was, undoubtedly, in the time of the Apostles, Bishops were constituted as superior to Presbyters, in order to be the bond of the visible order and unity of Christ's Church? When, indeed, was there any other bond, until, centuries after the first age of Christianity, the usurped precedence of the Bishop of Rome was constituted the principle of Church unity; and until the divisions of Protestants made this unity to consist solely in mutual affection and soundness in the faith, and, of course, compatible with any, and, indeed, with no form of the Christian ministry?
Under great and, perhaps, increasing rancor and hysteria, these prevalent errors have induced the writers of The Continuum to reiterate the positions of Bp. Hobart and other giants of the Anglican patrimony in an effort to expose and refute; and in maintaining an authentically Anglican view of the constitution of the Christian Church, and of the principles of Church unity. Like Hobart and those to whom we owe an immeasurable debt, we must be sustained by the consideration that we are maintaining the principles of the saints of the primitive ages, and for which, sooner than relinquish them, they would have shed their blood. And what of claims that we are but a small bit of Christendom-the supposed tail attempting to wag the dogs of the Protestant denominations and the Roman Church? What though it may be said, that these principles would limit the communion of the Church to a small portion of professing Christians, and place in a state of schism a large number of the Christian family?
Dear readers, if these principles that men such as Bp. Hobart articulated are true, their obligation cannot be diluted, nor their importance diminished by the number, the claimed piety, or the overblown zeal of their opponents. The general prevalence of error into which man is capable of falling is a trial of our faith, but ought not to weaken or subvert it.
Again in the rhetorical style of Bp. Hobart,
Was not the revelation of God’s will confined from the beginning to a small number of the human race, in the plains of Shinar, and in the fields of Jordan? Are not large portions of the globe still under the dominion of the prince and powers of darkness? It is not for man to arraign the dominion of the Most High. For purposes wise and good, but inscrutable by us, did he not permit heresies early to stain the purity of the faith? Was there not a period when the divinity of his blessed Son was doubted and denied by a large portion of the Christian world; and when a venerable defender of this fundamental truth was hunted by his persecutors throughout the earth? …And need we wonder then, that for purposes equally wise and good, but equally inscrutable, the Sovereign of the universe still permits heresies to corrupt, and schisms to distract the Christian family?“We are assured that God will set His Church and His creation to right. He searches out, knows and mercifully judges the purposes of the heart; and, it is certain that honest purity of intention, and zealous endeavour to know and to do his will, will not fail of a reward from him, who is no respecter of persons, but is the equal and kind Parent of all the human race.” Still charity, though it should always soften the rigid features of truth, cannot change her divine character, nor dispense with her sacred obligations.
And here is a particular cautionary note for this Lent and for the years to come. Never “let us be guilty of worse than folly in separating the means from the end—in placing the Church, which is to preserve and to spread the truth, superior to the truth itself—in advocating the ministry, which was constituted for the salvation of the sheep of Christ, whom he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood, solely for the sake of the powers with which it vests us, and not for the infinitely important objects which are the end of all its functions and its duties.” Let us then, avoid those party names by which the enemy disguised in sheep’s clothing, indulges his malicious purpose of sowing division in the fold of Christ.
Others may do what they wish and go in whatever direction they wish. Such is the nature of human will. However, let us sharpen our apologetic and support one another to greater fidelity in proclaiming to corrupt and sinful men, salvation through the merits, and sanctification through the grace, of a Divine Redeemer. There is a broken world full of Christ’s sheep. So that they may hear the voice of their heavenly Shepherd, and be led by his grace beside the still waters of salvation and into the pastures of life, and, let us renew our commitment to gather them, as Christ has commanded us, into his fold. They are “the congregation of Christ”-let us unite them in His body to Him their Divine Head.
Bp. Hobart sounds a Jeremiah-like warning: in maintaining the outward defenses of the fold, the good order of the house, the apostolic constitution of Christ’s mystical body (the authentic apostolic constitution, I would add), we must be driven by the thought that, not only we are discharging a duty which Apostles and Martyrs have performed before us, but also that we are guarding the fold, the household, the body of Christ. The day of account must come-especially for those in Holy Orders. And how forcibly should we be reminded of the uncertainty of the event that may close our own stewardship.
In that spirit let us labor, worrying not over numbers or claims or mocking. Our Lord did not, even on the Cross. Let us simply be counted with Him, bearing the Cross and witnessing to the faith once-delivered to the Apostles.
Thank you, Fr. Nalls!
Hobart and anti-Hobart material is not easy to come by. Several years ago, I found a microcard collection called Early American Imprints: Series II that contained all of Hobart's published work, as well as work from his opponents. Unfortunately the only place to print them was at University of Missouri, because it's the only place with a microcard (not fiche) printer. I printed up all of his opponents' work, but graduated before I could smuggle out Hobart's work.
My goal--still unaccomplished--was to write a history of the early Episcopal Church as seen through the Hobart vs. anti-Hobart forces. God grant me the grace to live long enough to do that.
I noticed that the one or two histories of the Episcopal Church that I have read gloss over Hobart as quickly as possible. And Hobart College itself would much rather not remember its founder. What little I have found about Hobart through the college, he has been recast as a liberal, just as all of the clergy who served at or attended Hobart have be historically "rehabilitated" to suit political correctness.
I will e-mail photos of the Hobart memorial at the church in Auburn, NY if you like. Beautiful place.
What is amazing about this period, 1810-1830's, was a correction to the enthusiasms of the second great awakening. This spurred a renewed interest in sacraments, creeds, and ecclesiology. John Williamson Nevin comes to mind, and I personally attribute Nevin's life in the German Reformed Church as drawing me away from Presbyterianism into Anglicanism. We should also recall the distortions 'original protestantism' has suffered due to waves of revivalism. I imagine Hobert was dealing with similar currents in the episcopal church?
For those interested:
Google scanned a book containing both The Churchman and The High Churchman Vindicated from the NY Public Library. Doane wrote the preface, which is interesting in its own right as well.
This article raises more questions than it answers.
1. When Bishop Hobart defended the concept of "private judgment," what position was he writing AGAINST? Roman Catholic authoritarianism? 18th century skepticism? The substance of the debate eludes me, I just don't get it.
It seems to me self-evident that people have to make up their own minds; I cannot fathom any position which would disagree.
2. In his quote of Article XX, what was Bishop Hobart's view of the place and value of the Articles? (Incidentally, I am indepted to my friend Shaughn Casey for researching and proving me wrong on Bp Seabury's view of the Articles.)
3. The Vincentian Canon, which many recite as a mantra, no longer impresses me as having much value. "Semper, ubique, et ab omnibus" is a noble description of the Universal faith of Christians, but at the same time it is a question begging-phrase. Can anyone claim to have a precise list of doctrines which comply with that rubric? Roman Catholics are very sure that the "dogma" of the IC meets the Vincentian test; everyone else disagrees. Most of us would hold up the Chalcedonian formula, but the Oriental Orthodox would not agree.
Vincent of Lerins worked out this formula in controversy with the extreme Augustinians. For that purpose, it seems to work (although Dutch Calvinists would not agree). And since Vincent himself only lived in the 5th century, does his "canon" itself meet its own test? This famous formula may turn out to be self-refuting, since it was not always around.
Article XX itself may prove to be a more consistent and reliable rule.
I believe the most useful part of the Vincentian Canon is the "always." Though it is not exact, it is a guide. Do our doctrines have the witness of Antiquity? Universal Consensus is not an exact science either, even with the Seven Ecumenical Councils. Nonetheless, with the Vincentian Canon we may see with confidence when doctrines do not have these qualities. Papal infallibility does not have them, for example.
What do Anglicans rely on so as not to let our private judgment run wild? That is the question, because everyone everywhere uses private judgment, whether the Newman fans think so or not. The answer, of course, is Scripture as interpreted by the wisdom of the Church.
"Though it is not exact, it is a guide."
If we seriously believe that doctrinal truth is a serious matter, that our eternal salvation is at stake, that theology is more than a parlor-game, this is not a satisfactory state of affairs.
To borrow Bavinck's phrase, this makes eternity hang on a cobweb.
In my view, the "semper" is the weakest part of the Vincentian canon. When did the clock start? At AD 30? When the last canonical book was written, perhaps by AD 70? When the 7th Ecumenical Counjcil adjourned? In AD 1054?
A far more solid rule, one you can sink you teeth into, is that laid down in the second part of Article XX:
"it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything contrary to God's Word written.... aalthough the Church be a witnes and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree anything agauinst the same, so besides the same
ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity for Salvation."
The Vincentian canon is too slippery to be reliable, too subjective to be of much use. How would it have worked between the 1st and 2nd when the Arians were in the majority and Athanasius was in exile?
If we took a vote of all Christians, living and dead, we would probably be stuck with the affirmation that the Bishop of Rome is Peter's successor and the only legitimate center of unity for the Church on earth. But since I do not find that doctrine in the canonical Scriptures, my private judgment tells me it is false.
At the Council of Nicea they relied on the interpretation of Scripture received from what was, to them, Antiquity. Antiquity, ultimately, is Sola Scriptura in its correct and true form; for, no essential doctrine of the Apostolic Church is missing from the contents of Scripture. It was received into the Church already having the same essential doctrines that were later defended at Nicea.
Here's more from St Vincent which seems to have anticipated some of the questions raised here:
"[7.] What then will a Catholic Christian do, if a small portion of the Church have cut itself off from the communion of the universal faith? What, surely, but prefer the soundness of the whole body to the unsoundness of a pestilent and corrupt member? What, if some novel contagion seek to infect not merely an insignificant portion of the Church, but the whole? Then it will be his care to cleave to antiquity, which at this day cannot possibly be seduced by any fraud of novelty.
[8.] But what, if in antiquity itself there be found error on the part of two or three men, or at any rate of a city or even of a province? Then it will be his care by all means, to prefer the decrees, if such there be, of an ancient General Council to the rashness and ignorance of a few. But what, if some error should spring up on which no such decree is found to bear? Then he must collate and consult and interrogate the opinions of the ancients, of those, namely, who, though living in divers times and places, yet continuing in the communion and faith of the one Catholic Church, stand forth acknowledged and approved authorities: and whatsoever he shall ascertain to have been held, written, taught, not by one or two of these only, but
by all, equally, with one consent, openly, frequently, persistently, that he must understand that he himself also is to believe without any doubt or hesitation." (Chapter III of the Commonitorium)
"Antiquity, ultimately, is Sola Scriptura in its correct and true form; for, no essential doctrine of the Apostolic Church is missing from the contents of Scripture."
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