I’m giving a talk in Wales!

For reasons I still do not comprehend, I have been invited to give a talk in Wales at the November Theotokos Institute Conference. God knows I have no qualifications, but I have to trust the conference organizers to know what they are doing. I of course had to accept. While I will not be doing any touring of Wales, it will still be great to visit Cardiff, imbibe one or two (or three) pints of famous Welsh beer, and to share my eclectic thoughts with the brethren.

My talk is entitled “St Isaac the Syrian, Apocatastasis, and the Renewal of Orthodox Preaching.” I’m neither theologian nor scholar, but I do have some thoughts on how preachers should proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. Hopefully the address will be of interest to all who attend. I’m fairly confident that no one will be bored by it.

If you live in the U.K., do consider attending the conference, not particularly to hear me; but you sure don’t want to miss out on the lecture given by the esteemed theologian Fr Andrew Louth!

Over the next two months you may find that my blog is a tad less active than it has been for the past two years. I now need to devote my time to preparing for and writing my lecture. EO is not going dark, but you probably won’t be seeing long series of articles (the angels rejoice!). One or two articles a week, plus the occasional citation from the Fathers, is probably all I’ll be able to manage. I ask for your prayers.

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Orthodox Readings of Vincent of Lerins

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St Vincent of Lérins: The Consentient Council of the Doctors of the Church

When one is involved in a knock-down, drag-out doctrinal debate, a dogmatic definition is awfully handy to have at hand. It always puts one’s opponent on the defensive. Occasionally it even wins the argument. But what if the Church has not yet formally determined the orthodoxy of the respective theological positions? Not to fear! St Vincent of Lérins has a work-around:

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 various 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. (Comm. 3.8)

If some new question should arise on which no such decision has been given, they should then have recourse to the opinions of the holy Fathers, of those at least, who, each in his own time and place, remaining in the unity of communion and of the faith, were accepted as approved masters; and whatsoever these may be found to have held, with one mind and with one consent, this ought to be accounted the true and Catholic doctrine of the Church, without any doubt or scruple. (29.77)

Please remember: Holy Scripture serves as Vincent’s primary doctrinal authority; but here we are addressing a situation when the interpretation of Scripture is in dispute. When this happens, it is necessary to turn to Tradition and the teachings of respected theological masters. If we then discover that on the question at hand a consentient teaching exists (remember Vincent’s first rule), then that teaching is always to be preferred over against the now exposed novelty. These masters form, as it were, “a consentient council of doctors, all receiving, holding, handing on the same doctrine” (28.72). This consensus may not (yet) possess the irreformable authority of a dogmatic definition, yet it certainly has the odds of probability on its side. The consensus is to be believed and affirmed without hesitation. Vincent distrusts minority reports. Individual theologians, no matter how brilliant and erudite (he cites Origen and Tertullian), can easily go astray.

Vincent proffers a curious opinion on how one should respond to new heresies and old heresies. When one is confronted by a fresh heresy that has not yet taken root in the life of the Church, then that is the time to collate the teachings of the Church Fathers and invoke their consentient authority. This collation of testimony will reveal to all the novelty of the false teaching.  “But heresies already widely diffused and of old standing,” he goes on to say, “are by no means to be thus dealt with, seeing that through lapse of time they have long had opportunity of corrupting the truth. And therefore, as to the more ancient schisms or heresies, we ought either to confute them, if need be, by the sole authority of the Scriptures, or at any rate, to shun them as having been already of old convicted and condemned by universal councils of the Catholic Priesthood” (28.71). Given that we already possess, by dogmatic definition, the correct and authoritative interpretation of Holy Scripture, Holy Scripture becomes polemically sufficient. Thomas Guarino explains:

The theologian of Lérins knows that some heresies, such as Arianism, have persisted for decades (indeed, for over a century) and continue to trouble the church, even though they have been condemned by both Scripture and by a general council. Vincent certainly realizes that his rule remains true: the Arian heresy has been condemned by the church in antiquity, ubiquity, and universalisty; a council has witnessed definitively against it. But despite this authoritative condemnation, the heresy persists, and its poison remains in the body of Christ, serving to mislead the faithful and to destroy the unity of the church. For Vincent, then, it is not a matter that his rule (as actualized in councils) has not protected the truth. This it has clearly accomplished: Nicaea has spoken with the highest authority. However, the fact remains that some entrenched heretics audaciously ignore even the clear mandates of Scripture and of ecumenical councils, thereby opposing consensual antiquity. Vincent’s point, therefore, is that the “consentient opinion of esteem masters” is virtually useless against older heresies, which have already been condemned by the very highest authorities, the Sacred Scriptures and an ecumenical council. (Vincent of Lérins, p. 35)

The consensual teaching of the Church Fathers is thus most effective, thinks Vincent, when addressing a false teaching that has yet to capture the imagination of believers.

Please remember: in Vincent’s opinion, a heretic is always an innovator and therefore, by definition, someone who has stepped outside “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Instead of passing on to the people of God the divine revelation once given, he gives them his own self-created religion, putting himself at odds with Church and God. The heretical teacher thus exhibits a profound hubris. Vincent traces heresy to sin and fault of character. The heretic is more concerned about himself than with the truth and the good of the ecclesia, seductively whispering, “Come, O ignorant ones, who are normally called Catholics, and listen to the true faith which no one besides us understands, which for many centuries has remained hidden but has recently been revealed” (21.52). And so Vincent counsels: “Unless a man be a prophet or a spiritual person, that is, a master in spiritual matters, let him be as observant as possible of impartiality and unity, so as neither to prefer his own opinions to those of every one besides, nor to recede from the belief of the whole body” (28.74). Orthodoxy requires a spirit of humility and a willingness to learn from those fluent in the language of faith. Beware of anyone who tells you to listen to them instead of the common teaching of the Church. In chapter 24 the Lérinian shares his powerful vision of the dangers of preferring the novelties of heretics over the ancient teaching of the Church. He once again quotes the Apostle Paul (“O Timothy, guard the deposit, shunning profane novelties of words”) and comments:

“Profane novelties of words.” What words are these? Such as have nothing sacred, nothing religious, words utterly remote from the inmost sanctuary of the Church which is the temple of God. Profane novelties of words, that is, of doctrines, subjects, opinions, such as are contrary to antiquity and the faith of the olden time. Which if they be received, it follows necessarily that the faith of the blessed fathers is violated either in whole, or at all events in great part; it follows necessarily that all the faithful of all ages, all the saints, the chaste, the continent, the virgins, all the clergy, Deacons and Priests, so many thousands of Confessors, so vast an army of martyrs, such multitudes of cities and of peoples, so many islands, provinces, kings, tribes, kingdoms, nations, in a word, almost the whole earth, incorporated in Christ the Head, through the Catholic faith, have been ignorant for so long a tract of time, have been mistaken, have blasphemed, have not known what to believe, what to confess. (24.61)

Were the Church to embrace novelty she would undermine her witness and mission. Her divinely-ordained task is to protect the deposit of revelation and faithfully teach it to the world: “You have received gold; give gold in turn” (22.53).

As I conclude this series on the Commonitorium I would like to register two reservations:

First, is the distinguishment of orthodoxy and heresy always so easy, so manifest? Even after the Council of Nicaea and its dogmatic assertion of the homoousion, was it really so obvious that St Athanasius’s interpretation of the term was correct? Eusebius of Caesarea, one of the finest scholars of the day, was present at Nicaea, and he interpreted it differently, as presumably did a goodly number of the council fathers. It took St Basil of Caesarea a fair amount of time to come around to Athanasius’s viewpoint. But were not Arius & Company at least guilty of defying the infallible decree of an ecumenical council? Recent scholarship, however, suggests that Nicaea was initially viewed as just one of many councils convened in the first half of the fourth century. Even Athanasius didn’t start appealing to it until thirty years later.  A case can even be made that Arius did not see himself as an innovator but as continuing the theological tradition he had inherited. Lewis Ayres comments that because of pre-existing theological tensions within the Church, the task of identifying continuities of belief in the fourth century Church is “extremely complex” (Nicaea and its Legacy, p. 79). Writing over a hundred years after the Council of Nicaea, it may have seemed clear to Vincent who was orthodox and who was heretical, yet for those immersed in the controversy it was anything but clear. In reality it took decades of substantive theological reflection and hard political work for the Church to achieve consensual clarity on the complete divinity of Christ Jesus. The fourth century, declares R. P. C. Hanson, is “not the story of a defense of orthodoxy, but of a search for orthodoxy, a search conducted by the method of trial and error” (The Search for the Christian God, pp. xix-xx). This “search for orthodoxy” can be readily applied to many of the dogmas of the Church. Temporal existence can be quite messy, and the history of the Church Catholic is no exception.

Second, is it always the case, should it always be the case, that at any given point of a doctrinal controversy the majority witness of the Fathers wins hands-down?  Vincent’s appeal to the Fathers might be construed simply as a matter of counting noses. Theology is reduced to catenation. But surely the resolution of a doctrinal dispute requires more than the pulling together of patristic opinions ripped from their historical contexts into a catena of texts. In the fourth century the Church needed not just to reject Arianism; it needed to understand why Arianism was incompatible with the gospel. That process of discernment required the creative exegetical and theological contributions of Athanasius the Apostolic, Gregory the Theologian, and many others. The reception of the dogmatic definition of the Council of Nicaea, in other words, was made possible by the post-conciliar reflections of the pro-Nicene Fathers. If the Church’s apprehension of the apostolic deposit of faith is partially tacit, embodied in liturgy and praxis, then we should not be surprised that false teaching always generates new searches for orthodoxy. Consider this passage from John Henry Newman:

Again, if Christianity be an universal religion, suited not simply to one locality or period, but to all times and places, it cannot but vary in its relations and dealings towards the world around it, that is, it will develope. Principles require a very various application according as persons and circumstances vary, and must be thrown into new shapes according to the form of society which they are to influence. Hence all bodies of Christians, orthodox or not, develope the doctrines of Scripture. Few but will grant that Luther’s view of justification had never been stated in words before his time: that his phraseology and his positions were novel, whether called for by circumstances or not. It is equally certain that the doctrine of justification defined at Trent was, in some sense, new also. The refutation and remedy of errors cannot precede their rise; and thus the fact of false developments or corruptions involves the correspondent manifestation of true ones. Moreover, all parties appeal to Scripture, that is, argue from Scripture; but argument implies deduction, that is, development. Here there is no difference between early times and late, between a Pope ex cathedrâ and an individual Protestant, except that their authority is not on a par. On either side the claim of authority is the same, and the process of development. (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine 2.1.3; my emphasis)

Whereas Vincent suggests that God permits false teachers to afflict the Church with their poison in order to test the Church, Newman, I think, sees matters more deeply. The Church lives in history, proclaims the gospel in history, theologizes in history. At that moment when the fallible preacher, whose grasp of the apostolic revelation is always partial and possibly defective, stands before his congregation and exposits the appointed Scriptural readings, he takes a risk. It is never sufficient for the preacher to simply quote the biblical text or quote how others before him interpreted it. If Scripture is to become living reality in the Spirit, then the preacher must dare to speak the Scripture into the lives of his parishioners and interpret their lives within the Scripture. At that moment the preacher takes a risk for the sake of the Church … and the result may be a new doctrinal crisis!

“The life of the Church,” Sergius Bulgakov writes, “is a continuous revelation of the full truth that the Church bears in itself. This revelation, which expresses the human-historical side of the divine-human process, is understood not through a passive mechanical action, but through the creative unfolding of the truth, in response to the calls of life and the quests of thought” (“Dogma and Dogmatic Theology,” in Tradition Alive, p. 79). Here St Vincent’s analysis of the living warrants of doctrinal development, as instantiated in the performative life of the ecclesial community, becomes crucial in the ongoing task of distinguishing orthodoxy and heresy.

May God have mercy on all preachers and theologians. There but for the grace of God …

(Return to first article)


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Collect for Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne

O loving God, who called your servant Aidan from the peace of a cloister to re-establish the Christian mission in northern England, and endowed him with gentleness, simplicity and strength: Grant, we ask you, that we, following his example, may use what you have given us for the relief of human need, and may persevere in commending the saving Gospel of our Redeemer Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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St Vincent of Lérins: Are Ecumenical Councils Infallible?

It is now time to get down to cases. How does St Vincent of Lérins envision the practical resolution of doctrinal disputes? How does the Church go about distinguishing between profectus and permutationes?

In the beginning of the Commonitorium, Vincent tells us that when a believer is confronted with two conflicting theological positions, he should “cleave to antiquity, which at this day cannot possibly be seduced by any fraud of novelty” (3.7). But immediately he acknowledges that the appeal to history may be insufficient and nonprobative, as both positions may be deeply embedded in the Church’s history. If this is the base, then the believer should “prefer the decrees, if such there be, of an ancient General Council to the rashness and ignorance of a few” (3.8). Writing in A.D. 434 Vincent could point to two such councils—Nicaea and Ephesus. Nicaea had taken place over a hundred years earlier and thus could be reasonably described as ancient; but Ephesus was only three years past, yet apparently it too qualified as an ancient council. That it does should alert us that antiquity does not necessarily exist in the distant past. Something more than chronology is going on here.

So what makes a council ecumenical? Unfortunately the Lérinian does not directly address this question. At the time of the composition of this work, the authority and ecumenicity of the Council of Nicaea was a given, overwhelmingly acknowledged by bishops and emperors. The history of its ecclesial reception was more complex than Vincent knew, but none of that really matters—the Nicene Creed had been incorporated into the dogmatic consciousness of the Church. Arianism may still have been alive and kicking in some quarters but its defeat was already a fait accompli.

The Council of Nicaea is felt on every page of the Commonitorium, even though Vincent discusses it only briefly. We see the presence of Nicene consubstantiality in his exposition of the Trinity in chapter 13. But Vincent’s principal concern is not Arianism but Nestorianism. Only three years earlier the worldwide Church had gathered in Ephesus, affirmed the legitimacy of the Marian title Theotokos, anathematized the Patriarch of Constantinople and expelled him from his see. Vincent appears to be well acquainted with the Ephesine council. The Commonitorium might even be considered as an apologia written on its behalf. If asked the question “What makes a council ecumenical?” Vincent might well have replied, “Look at the Council of Ephesus!” Attended by 200 bishops from the worldwide Church, invoking the testimonies of revered Fathers and doctors, including two bishops of Rome, the council confirmed the ancient teaching and definitively settled the christological rule of faith (28.75). Unlike the bishops who met at the blasphemous synod of Ariminum in 359 and approved an Arian creed, the Ephesine Fathers “decreed, under divine guidance, that nothing ought to be believed by posterity save what the sacred antiquity of the holy Fathers, consentient in Christ, had held” (33.86).

I stated above that Vincent does not discuss how we are to determine whether a given council qualifies as an ecumenical council, yet perhaps that is not quite accurate. His discussion of the Council of Ephesus reveals a critical characteristic that, in Vincent’s mind, distinguishes an ecumenical council from a less authoritative local or regional synod—universality. Ephesus was attended by bishops representing both the Western and Eastern parts of the one Church. Under the presidency of the blessed Cyril, these bishops faithfully invoked the testimony of the Fathers, ranging from Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzus, and Basil of Caesarea in the East to Felix, Julius, Ambrose, and Cyprian in the West. The Ephesine Fathers believed their witness and subjected themselves to their judgment (30.79-80). This note of universality demonstrates, says Vincent, that a council is teaching the ancient faith: “In the Church itself regard must be had to the consentient voice of universality equally with that of antiquity, lest we either be born from the integrity of unity and carried away to schism, or be precipitated from the religion of antiquity into heretical novelties” (29.77). When the Church speaks and acts as one body, in consensual unity and testimony, there is the faith of the Apostles, there is the Church of antiquity. Ephesus may have only adjourned yesterday, yet it is as ancient as Nicaea, ancient as the Apostles John and Paul.

Thomas G. Guarino summarizes the Lérinian’s understanding of the magisterial authority of ecumenical councils:

Vincent always exalts the preeminent authority of Scripture and certainly makes no claims for the authority of the church over or against the Word of God. Yet at least on major questions, he does see a circumincession (perikhōrēsis, reciprocal existence) between the Bible and ecumenical councils. Such councils, in their consentient agreement on the meaning of Scripture, are the living embodiment of Vincent’s criteria of always, everywhere, and by everyone. Indeed, the agreement evidenced by such councils—modeled on the apostle Paul’s call for unity in 1 Cor. 1:10—prevents idiosyncratic and maverick interpretations of Scripture, interpretations all too prevalent in the early church and still today. Consequently, when Vincent claims, on biblical grounds, that one must not “transgress the landmarks” or “break through the hedge,” he is actually arguing that definitive doctrinal markers authoritatively established by the universal church cannot be reversed. The solemn decreta of plenary councils—taught at Nicaea and Ephesus—are binding and cannot be contravened (Common. 3.6; 27.4; 33.6). In their definitive teachings, then, ecumenical councils represent the universal and ancient faith of the church and thus ensure the faithful interpretation of God’s Word. (Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Doctrine, p. 99)

In the teaching of Vincent we have the first sustained patristic discussion of the infallibility of conciliar dogmas. Vincent does not use this word, of course; but it seems clear that he envisions the dogmatic definitions of an ecumenical councils to be definitive and irreformable:

Authoritative conciliar teachings and creeds are, for Vincent, binding, irrevocable truths, unimpeachable interpretations of Scripture, sanctioned semper, ubique, et ab omnibus. Such solemn decrees cannot be understood, then, as prudential, pragmatic judgments that can later be erased or overturned, as if they offered only the provisional and reversible truth of a particular age or epoch. Understanding solemn doctrinal formulations as merely contingently true is precisely the position that the Lérinian rejects as betraying the depositum. Fundamental “landmarks” are irreversible and cannot be transgressed. One abandons the gospel if one seeks to contravene the solemn determinations of the church universal. (p. 118)

Reformation Christians will probably find Vincent’s reasoning unconvincing. The revisability of conciliar dogma appears to be built into the Protestant DNA. Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson is an exception, however:

Some but not all doctrines are dogmas. The distinction is perhaps most clearly marked by the notion of irreversibility. Every theological proposition states a historic choice: “To be speaking the gospel, let us henceforeward say ‘F’ rather than that other possibility ‘G.'” A dogmatic choice is one by which the church so decisively determines her own future that if the choice is wrongly made, the community determined by that choice is no longer in fact the community of the gospel; thus no church thereafter exists to reverse the decision.

Therefore, to believe that the entity which now calls itself the Christian church is the church of the apostles and to believe that the church’s past dogmatic decisions were adequate to their purposes—not necessarily in every way appropriate to them—comes to the same thing. If, for example, the decision of Nicea that Christ is “of one being with the Father” was false to the gospel, the gospel was thereby so perverted that there has been no church extant to undo the error. (Systematic Theology, I:17)

Protestantism has historically denied the infallibility of dogmatic decisions. Theoretically, the Church might at some point revisit the dogmas of Nicaea and Chalcedon and determine that they were incorrect interpretations of Holy Scripture. But the Catholic Church—and most certainly St Vincent of Lérins—has wanted to say more about her dogmas. Not only do the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches believe that the ecumenical dogmas are true and faithful expressions of the orthodox faith, but they also recognize in them a dimension of dogmatic definitiveness. Since the end of the fourth century, the Church has known and confessed with doctrinal clarity that Jesus Christ is “of one being” with the Father.  This insight now functions as an interpretive key to the reading of the Scriptures and the entire Tradition. If the Church is wrong about the Nicene dogma, then no Church of the Apostles now exists to correct the blunder. Given its dogmatic irreversibilty, the Church trusts that the Holy Spirit protected the Nicene Fathers from defining a dogma that would lead the people of God into irretrievable error. In this sense, a dogma is infallible and therefore trustworthy and irreformable. Once defined and received by the Church, dogmas are recognized as belonging to the deposit of revelation.

Jenson’s discussion of ecumenical councils is fairly limited. He clearly sees them as an expression of the teaching office of the Church. How do the dogmatic definitions of ecumenical councils achieve ecumenicity? By the assent of the Church, he declares. Jenson approvingly quotes Met Johannes of Helsinki: “The ecumenical councils … certainly on the one hand first become ecumenical councils when their decisions are accepted by the whole church; on the other hand we know that they did their work in the consciousness that they were making final decisions” (Systematic Theology, II:246, n. 89). There is a circularity here, and I suspect it’s unavoidable. After all, there have been councils that pronounced themselves as ecumenical, whose claims were subsequently rejected by the Church:

Can a council err? Obviously it can, in the sense that it is always possible for a gathering of bishops and other dignitaries to fall into conflict with Scripture or existing dogma, even when that gathering understands itself to be and claims to be a council of the church. But then it is not one. This will be discovered, if the Spirit guides the church, and the church’s assent “cannot fail” to be refused; just this happened in the case of the famous “Robber Council” at Ephesus, which in its mere formalities differed little from the ecumenical “Council of Ephesus.” (II:246)

Vincent didn’t wait very long at all to announce the ecumenicity of the Council of Ephesus. Fifteen years later Emperor Theodosius II summoned a second Council of Ephesus (the “Robber Council”) to address the excommunication of Eutyches. I wonder how Vincent would have viewed it. Unlike the synod of Ariminum, the decrees of II Ephesus did not obviously contradict the preceding ecumenical councils. He would probably have denied claims of ecumenicity based on (1) the lack of Western participation in the council, (2) the way Pope Dioscorus excluded dissenting views and manipulated the proceedings, and (3) Pope Leo’s subsequent rejection of the council.

(Go to “Consentient Council of the Doctors of the Church”)

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Hermits of our Time

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St Vincent of Lérins and John Henry Newman—and the Immaculate Conception too!

Doctrine develops—that much is patent. All one needs to do is to read a volume or two of Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition to resolve any doubts. The only question is whether a given development faithfully expresses, elucidates, and unfolds the apostolic deposit of divine revelation. St Vincent of Lérins firmly rejected the possibility of new revelations. God has spoken once and for all in Jesus Christ. Thus to the question “What is the deposit?” he replies: “It is that which you believed, not that which you invented” (Comm. 22.53). But he just as strongly affirms the reality of theological growth. To the question “Shall there then be no progress in Christ’s Church?” he answers: “Certainly there is progress, even exceedingly great progress. For who is so envious and so hateful toward God as to try to prohibit it?” (23.54; my emphasis).  God comprehends time and is providentially guiding it to eschatological consummation. Hence to resist or deny divinely inspired growth in theological understanding is to deny that “God uses time well,” as Thomas Guarino nicely phrases it (Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Doctrine, p. 20).

Vincent understands proper theological development as a movement from the implicit to the explicit, an advance from the inchoate and latent to the clearly defined: “By your explanations, let that which was believed obscurely now be understood clearly. What antiquity venerated without comprehension, let posterity now understand” (22.53). This suggests that he does not envision an absolute identity between the deposit of faith and the biblical witness. Scripture sufficiently records the Creator’s revelation to Israel and Jesus Christ, yet the divine revelation exceeds the propositions of Scripture. The divine revelation, we might say, is dynamically realized by the Spirit in the witness, life, mind, and structures of the Church. Perhaps Vincent would have agreed with these words from Dumitru Staniloae:

For the Orthodox Church, Tradition does not consist only of the Scriptures and of the unwritten teaching of Apostles in the form of external formulae, but also of the content of these things, made their own by the faithful of the Church and received in an uninterrupted way, above all received in the holy sacraments, by the aid of divine grace. Tradition in the Orthodox Church is not a sum of propositions learnt by heart, but a lived experience of one and the same relationship with Christ, experienced by the Church in the time of the Apostles, a continuous experience of the whole mystery revealed in Christ. In this way Tradition is a living reality, it is the uninterrupted life of the Church, and as such it can neither be reduced nor increased, not changed in its essence. (“The Orthodox Conception of Tradition,” Sobornost 5 [1969]: 653-654)

I do not wish to anachronistically project upon Vincent later construals of the deposit of faith, but Vincent’s understanding of Tradition and doctrinal development would seem to presuppose something along these lines.  Only on this basis can we explain his confidence in the competence of Holy Church to authoritatively interpret Holy Scripture.  “One must therefore conclude,” writes Guarino, “that for Vincent tradition is a living and active process” (p. 42).

John Henry Newman wrestled with the nature of doctrinal development throughout his career as an Anglican churchman, and this wrestling continued in his days as a Roman Catholic. What does it mean to confess that the fullness of revelation was given once and for all to the Apostles, when clearly they did not know the Nicene formulation of the Trinity or the medieval doctrine of the Immaculate Conception? In 1868 an Irish theologian, John Stanislaus Flanagan, sent a lengthy critique of Newman’s views to one of Newman’s friends, Ignatius Ryder. Flanagan argued “that our Lord taught the Apostles explicitly all the truths of faith” and that “these truths exclusively form or make up the ‘depositum’, which the Apostles delivered to the Church” (quoted in J. Derek Holmes, Theological Papers of John Henry Newman, p. 153). Flanagan’s letter induced Newman to compose a short essay, which Ryder forwarded to Flanagan. In this essay Newman once again explores the nature of the apostolic deposit of revelation:

The Apostles did not merely know the Apostles Creed; what knowledge could be more jejune, unless the meaning of each separate word of it was known in fullness? They must know all and more than all about the word ‘Son of God,’ which the Church has enunciated since their time. And so of every article, & portion of an article. What then is meant by the Depositum? is it a list of articles that can be numbered? no, it is a large philosophy; all parts of which are connected together, & in a certain sense correlative together, so that he who really knows one part, may be said to know all, as ex pede Herculem. Thus the Apostles had the fullness of revealed knowledge, a fullness which they could as little realize to themselves, as the human mind, as such, can have all its thoughts present before it at once. They are elicited according to the occasion. A man of genius cannot go about with his genius in his hand: in an Apostle’s mind great part of his knowledge is from the nature of the case latent or implicit; and taking two Apostles, St Paul & St John, according to their respective circumstances, they either may teach the same thing in common, or again what is explicit in St Paul might be latent in St John and what is explicit in St John may be latent in St Paul.

But how could such a knowledge, partly explicit partly implicit, and varying day by day as to what was the one and what the other, be transmitted to the Church after them? Thus: I believe the Creed (i.e. the Deposit, I say Creed as more intelligible, since it consists of Articles) was delivered to the Church with the gift of knowing its true and full meaning. A Divine philosophy is committed to her keeping: not a number of formulas such as a modern pedantic theologian may make theology to consist in, but a system of thought, sui generis in such sense that a mind that was possessed of it, that is, the Church’s mind, could definitely & unequivocally say whether this part of it, as traditionally expressed, meant this or that, and whether this or that was agreeable to, or inconsistent with it in whole or in part. I wish to hold that there is nothing which the Church has defined or shall define but what an Apostle, if asked, would have been fully able to answer and would have answered, as the Church has answered, the one answering by inspiration, the other from its gift of infallibility; and that the Church never will be able to answer, or has been able to answer, what the Apostle could not answer, e.g. whether the earth is stationary or not, or whether a republic is or is not better than a monarchy. The differences between them being that an Apostle could answer questions at once, but the Church answers them intermittently, in times & seasons, often delaying and postponing, according as she is guided by her Divine Instructor; and secondly and on the other hand, that the Church does in fact make answers which the Apostles did not make, and in one sense did not know, though they would have known them, i.e. made present to their consciousness, and made those answers, had the questions been asked. (“Letter to Flanagan,” in Theological Papers, p. 158)

Newman is struggling to explain how the Apostles might have known what they did not consciously know.  He finds too narrow the scholastic idea that doctrinal development consists in logically deducing new truths from accepted premises. Philosopher Michael Polanyi would later speak of tacit knowledge: “We can know more than we can tell.”  As Martin Moleski has observed, Newman assumes that much of what we know is tacit. In his Grammar of Assent, published only two years after his letter to Fr Flanagan, Newman would expound his notion of the illative sense as a way to express the mysterious movement from tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge. (Someone should write a dissertation comparing the illative sense with the noetic knowing of the hesychastic fathers.)  If divine revelation is more than just the communication of supernatural truths but rather more profoundly the personal gifting of the trinitarian God himself, then we will not be surprised to discover that much of the deposit of faith enjoys a tacit, implicit dimension.

In 1854 Pope Pius IX promulgated his famous (or infamous) papal bull Ineffabilis Deus, defining the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God as “a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.” Protestants were quick to challenge the definition. If the dogma is a truth of revelation explicitly included in the deposit of faith, prove it from the Bible! Cite chapter and verse. The Orthodox also strongly condemned the papal definition as unwarranted innovation. In 1895 the Patriarch of Constantinople declared:

The one holy, catholic and apostolic Church of the seven Ecumenical Councils teaches that the supernatural incarnation of the only-begotten Son and Word of God, of the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary, is alone pure and immaculate; but the Papal Church scarcely forty years ago again made an innovation by laying down a novel dogma concerning the immaculate conception of the Mother of God and ever-Virgin Mary, which was unknown to the ancient Church (and strongly opposed at different times even by the more distinguished among the papal theologians).

The accusation of novelty would appear to be well-founded, especially if assessed by the Vincentian Canon. Newman’s response, though, is illuminating: if the Apostle Paul had been asked “whether or not our Lady had the grace of the Spirit anticipating all sin whatever, including Adam’s imputed sin, I think he would have answered in the affirmative. If he never was asked the question, I should say he had in his mind the decision in 1854 in confusio or implicité” (“Letter to Flanagan,” p. 159). What other answer could a faithful Roman Catholic give, yet the answer helpfully raises for us the critical question, How do we distinguish between authentic and illegitimate developments?

The Lérinian distinguishes in his Commonitorium between profectus (advance, progress) and permutatio (change, alteration). Orthodox theologian Augustine Casiday explains the Vincentian difference:

An advance, then, as opposed to a change, works out an implicit but inchoate teaching, without compromising what is already “plain and clear” and all the while retaining whatever has already been established. By implication, a change violates this norm—either by introducing something entirely new, or else by contradicting what is already manifest, or even by abandoning an established definition. According to Vincent not all variations that occur throughout time are changes (which are by definition illegitimate): some of them are advances (which are by definition legitimate). The examples that Vincent gives to illustrate an advance come from the councils of the church, when occasionally it was necessary to introduce a new word “for the better understanding, never for a new interpretation of the Faith.” On the basis of this distinction, Vincent was prepared to denounce heresy. (Remember the Days of Old, p. 66)

Healthy theological growth may be described as the organic unfolding of that which is latent within the deposit of faith; diseased growth as that which changes the substance of the deposit. Healthy growth architectonically builds upon that which is already apprehended as true; diseased growth introduces novelty and discontinuity. Guarino elaborates:

The Lérinian tells us that in a proper development, a profectus, something is enlarged according to its nature, without losing its proper substance. But an alteration of the faith, a permutatio occurs when something is transformed into something else entirely, with “an alteration of its very essence [aliquid ex alio in aliud],” such as a rose bed becoming mere thorns and thistles. The growth of a child to an adult—just as the growth of doctrine—must be natural, organic, architectonic growth. … For this reason, Vincent insists that any growth, change, and development must be in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu eademque sententia: all growth must be in accord with the same doctrine, the same meaning, and the same judgment. (pp. 18-19)

In his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Newman speaks of “preservation of type.” Like Vincent he appeals to embryonic analogies: the fledged bird differs significantly from its form in the egg; a butterfly begins as a grub, enters into its cocoon, and reemerges into the world as a beautiful winged creature (5.1.4). Yet despite the growth and changes, we do not speak of animals as becoming different creatures: “The adult animal has the same make, as it had on its birth; young birds do not grow into fishes, nor does the child degenerate into the brute, wild or domestic, of which he is by inheritance lord” (5.1.1). Newman insists that legitimate doctrinal developments maintain essential continuity with the original revelation. False developments, however, tend toward its dissolution and destruction.

Ironically, Newman envisioned his essay as a refutation of St Vincent. He could only see an incompatibility between the Vincentian first rule (antiquity, universality, and consent) and the Vincentian second rule (identity of type). Yet as we have seen in this series, Vincent himself understood his first rule as “instantiated in determinate ecclesial structures. This is simply to say that the canon only lives and breathes, only comes to life, in and through Sacred Scripture and, particularly on disputed points, Scripture as interpreted by the church” (Guarino, p. 61).

(Go to “Are Ecumenical Councils Infallible?”)

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