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 Lerinian 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 in the fifth century, 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.


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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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St Vincent of Lérins: Doctrine Grows to Remain the Same

“One only understands the Vincentian canon,” Thomas Guarino writes, “if one sees that the truth of semper, ubique, et ab omnibus is known and preserved in actu ecclesiae, in the living and dynamic life of the church in all of its constitutive facets” (Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Doctrine, p. 92). When St Vincent’s rule is simply lifted from his Commonitory and employed willy-nilly as a doctrinal criterion, theology becomes mere ahistorical humming of magisterial pronouncements and the top 40 tunes of the ancient Church. Fifty years ago Karl Rahner complained that Roman Catholic reflection had degenerated into a “vicious circle of a Denzinger theology”: Denzinger provides the proof-texts, and the systematic theologians connect the dots. Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism—each can point to times when such deadly mummification has occurred in the history of their respective communities. Yet the monk from Lérin would have protested such abuse of his canon. Doctrine develops and must develop:

But someone will perhaps say: is there no progress of religion in the church of Christ? Certainly there is progress, even exceedingly great progress [plane et maximus]! For who is so envious of others and so hateful toward God as to try to prohibit it? Yet it must be an advance [profectus] in the proper sense of the word and not an alteration [permutatio] in faith. For progress means that each thing is enlarged within itself, while alteration implies one thing is transformed into something else. It is necessary, therefore, that understanding, knowledge, and wisdom should grow and advance vigorously in individuals as well as in the community, in a single person as well as in the whole church, and this gradually in the course of ages and centuries. But the progress made must be according to its own type, that is, in accord with the same doctrine, the same meaning, and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia]. (23.54; trans. Guarino)

Vincent’s statement is remarkable for its time. Guarino comments that “the Lérinian is the only early Christian writer to treat historicity ex professo (p. 15). Somewhat surprisingly, though, he does not compare the respective understandings of St Gregory Nazianzen and St Vincent. Gregory saw that the explicit assertion of the consubstantiality of the Spirit represented something new in the life of the Church, all the while insisting that this truth had been bequeathed to the Church in her apostolic foundation. Gregory invokes the words of Christ in the Gospel of John—“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (14:26)—and suggests that the revelation of the Godhead of the Spirit is one of the truths that could only become clear at a later time, “when the knowledge is timely and capable of being taken in” (Or. 31.27). Why was the Church unprepared to affirm the deity of the Spirit until the second-half of the fourth century? Because the affirmation, I propose, required the conceptual clarity that only the Nicene homoousion and the Cappadocian revisioning of trinitarian divinity could provide. Arianism thus functioned as a catalyst for a paradigm-shift in the Church’s understanding of God. That which the Church could not quite say finally became sayable. It’s all quite Vincentian.

Vincent compares the growth of doctrinal understanding with the bodily growth of a human being. The human being develops in size and stature, growing from infancy to adulthood; yet he remains the same person. “In like manner,” he writes, “it behoves Christian doctrine to follow the same laws of progress, as as to be consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age, and yet, withal, to continue uncorrupt and unadulterate, complete and perfect in all the measurements of its parts” (23.56). John Henry Newman would later employ the embryonic metaphor to great effect in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.

Guarino astutely observes that Vincent does not see time as an enemy of the Church. Ancient wisdom well understood that “time devours all things” (Ovid); but Vincent urges the Church to “snatch from it something which may profit us to eternal life” (1.2). Because the Church lives in history by the Spirit, she enjoys the privilege of caring for, smoothing, refining, and polishing the truths of divine revelation, thus allowing them to mature and ripen. Crescere (to grow), proficiere (to advance), evolvere (to unroll), florere (to flourish), maturescere (to ripen), enucleare (to unfold)—these verbs reveal the Lérinian’s dynamic vision of dogmatic development (Guarino, pp. 90-91). He does not retreat to a utopian era of theological perfection. He understands that doctrine must grow if it is to remain faithful to the apostolic deposit of faith. If for no other reason, such growth must occur if the Church is to creatively respond to heretical teachings. Innovative departures from orthodoxy often compel the Church to employ new language and conceptuality in the articulation of the Catholic faith:

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. (23.59)

Vincent is no doubt thinking here of the decision of the Council of Nicaea to use the word homoousios, which a synod in Antioch had condemned only fifty years earlier and which perhaps would have made no sense to believers in the first century. The council fathers may not have understood the full significance of what they had done, yet during the course of the fourth century the homoousion initiated a necessary theological revolution, necessary because the Church needed to reconstruct the Hellenistic apprehension of divinity in order to faithfully preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Like St Vincent of Lérins, Orthodox theologian Dumitru Staniloae also affirms the continuing development of churchly doctrine. The incarnation and glorification of Jesus Christ, he writes, reveal “what man has become, and actually will become. It is the revelation of the highest possibilities of man” (“The Orthodox Conception of Tradition and the Development of Doctrine,” Sobornost 5 [1969]: 655). The risen Christ is not just the exemplar of humanity’s eschatological fulfillment. By the Spirit, Christ is actively present in history working to accomplish his work of transformation: “The risen Christ is our future because he is the vault which spreads itself over us and within us, in an activity which leads from his resurrection to ours” (p. 656). The Romanian theologian does not restrict the work of spiritualization to the domain of the Church.  All of humanity is mysteriously involved. By his providential activity God is secretly leading history toward its fulfillment, “like that which the revelation in Christ calls the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Kingdom of perfect love” (p. 657). This is not just a chronological movement but also a spiritual movement, as God prepares mankind to receive its final transfiguration in the risen Son of Man.

Staniloae grounds the development of doctrine, therefore, not only in an ever-deepening experience of the divine mysteries within the Church but also within corporate humanity:

The fullness of the mystery of redemption, that is to say the divinity in its nearness and most perfect redemptive activity in the course of our earthly life, lived continuously in the Church, is a reality which cannot be fully expressed by words, metaphors or formulas. For this reason new expressions are justified. But it is not only on account of the mysterious character of this action, but also because Christ, in guiding the world towards the general resurrection and the Kingdom of perfect love, by his Spirit which is found in the Church and by his activity in history, draws closer to us, not only by reducing the number of years which separate us from these events, but also by making men more ready to receive them.  … Thus Tradition not only means ‘a living memory’ constantly relived by the Church, but also a tension and a constant self-transcendence towards the eschatological goal, a progress in the knowledge of the divine activity, lived without break by the Church in herself and grasped in history.

This is inevitably reflected in an enrichment of language, which constantly becomes diversified and more delicate, and thus capable of expressing always more subtly the mystery of the redemptive and spiritualising activity of the Spirit of Christ in human nature and in his activity of history. Hence comes the justification and the necessity for employing new words, metaphors and formulas in order to express the mystery. The mystery of Christ’s action, where it is preserved and lived in its wholeness, is the same. But mankind is no longer the same, or rather it no longer finds itself at the same stage of spiritual development. It remains in continuity with itself, but it is advancing towards ever higher degrees of realisation of what it is to be human. And it is no less true that these higher degrees of realisation give to man the possibility of grasping and expressing more subtly the mystery of salvation which is worked out in her, and the action of Christ in history. These new expressions by which certain aspects insufficiently realised before are grasped, these more articulate experiences and more complex effects of the activity of Christ, which are more adequate to the richness which is in him and to the more profound problematic of a humanity which is spiritually more advanced—all these represent what Vincent of Lerins calls a progressus in idem. By this idem we understand both the mystery of redemption, always the same because always whole even if undefined, and the human factor, which is always the same, but in different degrees and in different situations is confronted with new moral and intellectual problems. (658-659)

I should confess right away that the notion of humanity’s spiritual progress conflicts with my own intuitions.  Perhaps I have been too long immersed in The Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings.  Echoing the words of Galadriel to Frodo, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote to one of his correspondents:

Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory. (Letter 195)

Hence I’m not sure how comfortable I am with the way Staniloae connects doctrinal development with growth in spiritual experience.  I do not see how we can speak of “stages” of humanity’s spiritual growth after the resurrection of Christ: we now live in the final stage of human development; the kingdom is here but not yet. While I’m comfortable with saying that modern Christians perhaps possess a superior intellectual or cognitive grasp of, say, the trinitarian and christological doctrines than did the Christians of the first and second centuries, I am certainly not prepared to say that we are holier or more deified than believers in the 1st and 2nd centuries or that humanity, either as a whole or as represented by the Church, now lives at a higher level of spiritual development. Yes, God is guiding cosmic history to its fulfillment in the parousia of the risen Christ; but does this allow us to infer stages in mankind’s religious growth since Pentecost? As the Apostle Paul reminds us, we have died and our life is hid with Christ in God. But no matter how we parse and finally evaluate Staniloae’s justification for doctrinal development, clearly he and the Lérinian are on the same page.

I prefer Vincent’s commonsense practicality. He does not divorce learning and holiness, but neither does he directly correlate orthodox exposition and sanctification. While enthusiastically affirming theological progress, Vincent maintains a measure of distance between theological progress and mystical advancement. His concern is public tradition and the verbal formulation of orthodox teaching. At one point he exclaims:

O Timothy! O Priest! O Expositor! O Doctor! If the divine gift has qualified you by wit, by skill, by learning, be a Bazaleel of the spiritual tabernacle, engrave the precious gems of divine doctrine, fit them in accurately, adorn them skilfully, add splendor, grace, beauty. Let that which formerly was believed, though imperfectly apprehended, as expounded by you be clearly understood. Let posterity welcome, understood through your exposition, what antiquity venerated without understanding. Yet teach still the same truths which you have learned, so that though you speak after a new fashion, what you speak may not be new. (22.53)

Doctrinal development is just something that happens by the Spirit as the Church evangelizes new cultures, translates the gospel into new languages, confronts false teaching, and wrestles with difficult theological questions. If growth in theological understanding did not happen, something drastic would be wrong. It would suggest the death of the Church. Or as Newman puts it: “a power of development is a proof of life.”

St Vincent poses the doctrinal challenge before us: “The same things that you were taught, teach, so that when you speak newly, you do not say new things” (22.53; trans. Guarino).

(Go to “St Vincent of Lerins and John Henry Newman”)

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“Roast fish cooked on the cross upon the fire of love”

Be so attentive in continuing your affections and fervent in the spirit of devotion that when the cry is raised, ‘the Bridegroom is coming,’ you will be able to meet him with faithfulness and with the lamps of your souls filled with the oil of charity and joy. While the foolish virgins are left outside, you will go in with him to the wedding of eternal happiness. Christ will have his spouses sit down there with his angels and chosen ones, will minister to them, and offer them the bread of life and the meat of the Lamb that was slain, roast fish cooked on the cross upon the fire of love, that burning love with which loved you. Then he will give you a cup of spiced wine, that is, of his humanity and divinity, from which his friends drink and his dearly beloved, while miraculously maintaining their sobriety, drink deeply. While enjoying that abundance of sweetness reserved for those who fear him, you will gaze upon him who is not only the most beautiful of all children but also of all the thousands of angels. It is upon him, moreover, that the angels desire to look, for he is the brightness of eternal light, the unspotted mirror of God’s majesty and the radiance of the glory of paradise.

Therefore, dearly beloved daughters, as you continue to cling to him who is our everlasting good and when he had done good things for you, commend such a sinful person as me to his indescribable kindness. Keep up your prayers that, for the glory and honour of his wonderful name, he will be good enough to guide my steps mercifully in caring for the poor little flock of Christ entrusted to me.

Letter of St Bonaventure to the Abbess and Sisters of the Monastery of St Clare

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History or Theology?

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St Vincent of Lérins: Antiquity and the Determination of Dogma

How does the Church Catholic properly distinguish between orthodox doctrine and heretical teaching?  The question will always be with the Church, for she has been charged by her Lord to guard the deposit of divine revelation and to tradition it faithfully to every new generation. It is this question that drives the Commonitorium of St Vincent of Lérins.

Vincent would prefer to simply direct us to the written Word of God to resolve doctrinal controversy; but he cannot. False teachers are as adept at quoting the Bible to support their views as Catholics. Hence we must also refer to Holy Tradition and “the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation” (2.5). The same Spirit who inspired the composition of the biblical writings provides the hermeneutical rules by which the canon may be rightly read. Vincent then states his three famous notes of orthodoxy—universality, antiquity, and consent:

Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense Catholic, which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess 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 manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors. (2.6)

We may reasonably question the practicality of the threefold Vincentian Canon. Since the rise of critical-historical scholarship, many believe that the appeal to history to justify the panoply of Catholic beliefs has become problematic. In 1933 Anglican monk Dom Gregory Dix noted the difficulties of demonstrating by historical evidence alone an ante-Nicene Church belief in the divine consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit:

The doctrine of the full Deity of the Holy Ghost offers an even clearer illustration. It was defined in 381 against the teaching of Macedonius that the Holy Ghost is not God as the Father and Son are God, but is in some way subordinate and intermediate between God and creatures. There is nothing in the N.T. which clearly indicates that the Orthodox doctrine is certainly right, or which is irreconcilable with Macedonianism in some form … St. Athanasius and St. Basil both raised the question of the Third Person, but their controversy was waged with those who had followed them against the Arians. They appealed, naturally, to scripture and tradition, and it is notorious how defective in substance their appeal is found to be when it is closely examined. It is also remarkable that in the works which they wrote to vindicate this doctrine both carefully avoid even once applying the decisive word “God” to the Holy Ghost, even though in this they are but following earlier writers, even professed trinitarians like Novatian, and the N.T. itself. St. Gregory Nazianzen, “the theologian” par excellence for the East, under whose presidency the Œcumenical Council of 381 actually defined the doctrine, is explicit that there were but “few” who accepted it in his day and that Athanasius was the first and almost the only doctor to whom God had vouchsafed light on this subject. Elsewhere he is even more devastatingly honest with the admission that while the N.T. plainly revealed the Godhead of the Son it no more than “hinted at” (hupedeixen) that of the Holy Ghost, which was now being plainly revealed in his own day. This is some distance from talk of “most certain warrants of holy Scripture.” It was neither Scripture nor Tradition which imposed the dogma of 381, defined by the most thinly attended and least unanimous of all the assemblies which rank as General Councils, but the living magisterium of the Church of that age. And upon that basis only it is accepted today.

That the full doctrine of the Spirit’s Godhead was then believed in some sense “everywhere” we may hope, though the evidence is not reassuring. That it had “always” been believed by some we may suppose, though the evidence is at least defective. That it had previously been believed “by all” is demonstrably untrue. (“Northern Catholicism,” Laudate [December 1933]: 220-221)

Dix concludes that, at least with regards to the consubstantiality of the Spirit, the scientific investigation of the dogmatic tradition “damages beyond repair the Vincentian Canon” (p. 221). Is Dix correct that Vincent’s appeal to universality, antiquity, and consent is dogmatically useless? Is the Vincentian Canon beyond reclamation? Thomas Guarino does not think so:

The canon is not just about the remote past. It is true that Vincent encourages us to look to the consensus of antiquity. But when precisely is antiquity? If it begins with the apostolic age, is there a distinct terminus ad quem? No such terminus is ever invoked by Vincent. And this point is central to a proper interpretation of his theology. Vincent is thinking of antiquity—and the consensus of antiquity—in a unique way. He is not wistfully looking back to some golden age in the church, never again to be recaptured. Vincent is insisting that there already exists a way—always rooted in Scripture as the unshakable foundation—to ensure that the apostolic teaching continues unsullied. For the Lérinian, the Councils of Nicaea and Ephesus, the formal meetings of teachers gathered from the entire church, themselves represent the consentient judgment of antiquity. The first rule, then—semper, ubique, et ab omnibus—should not be understood as if it represents a utopian dream, some asymptotic (approximate) ideal, drawn from a nebulous and remote age of the church. Vincent is much more hardheaded and practical than that. He looks around at the church of his day and sees Christian truth everywhere under siege, everywhere contending with heretical interpretations, some even purveyed by notable churchmen like Nestorius. He himself resides in a monastery that has recently been a locus of heated theological controversy [the Semi-Pelagian debate]. To deal with these living issues, Vincent is seeking a rule that can be applied in his own time, indeed, a rule that has already been applied to great effect at the Councils of Nicaea and Ephesus. (Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Doctrine, p. 5)

When the Lérinian speaks of universality, antiquity, and consent, he is appealing neither to an “ill-defined golden age” nor to the assured results of historical scholarship. He is thinking, rather, of “the faith given to the apostles, the faith of the Scriptures, which is clearly found in the irreversible doctrinal formulations of Nicaea and Ephesus. These consentient judgments of the entire church are now established as specific monuments that under no circumstance be violated” (p. 8). Antiquity, in other words, is authoritatively mediated by the dogmas defined by the Church gathered in ecumenical council. Guarino describes these conciliar definitions as “consentient determinations of living tradition” (p. 14): they reveal and confirm the fulfillment of the three notes of the Vincentian Canon. We must regard “the consentient voice of universality equally with that of antiquity,” Vincent writes, “lest we either be torn from the integrity of unity and carried away into schism, or be precipitated from the religion of antiquity into heretical novelties” (29.77). In his judgment the chief instantiation of this universality is found in the dogmatic definitions of the General Councils. These definitions form doctrinal boundaries that the Church may not transgress. Vincent repeatedly cites the biblical proverb “Transgress not the landmarks that we have inherited from the fathers” (Prov 22:28).

The Council of Ephesus

The Council of Ephesus

At the time Gregory wrote his Commonitorium (approximately A.D. 434), the Council of Ephesus was only three years past, yet he considered it as already enjoying ecumenical status. Vincent is impressed both by the sanctity and erudition of the council fathers and by their invocation of patristic testimonies, Eastern and Latin, to support their affirmation of the Marian title Theotokos. “They innovated nothing,” he declares, “presumed nothing, arrogated to themselves absolutely nothing, but used all possible care to hand down nothing to posterity but what they had themselves received from their Fathers” (31.83). Guarino concludes:

In these kinds of statements, Vincent’s transparent intention is to uphold ecumenical councils as instantiating his canon of “everywhere, always, and by everyone.” Indeed, one may argue that for the Lérinian, ecumenical councils provide exemplary and paradigmatic instances of his first rule. Councils are to be trusted because they represent the opinions of all the bishops/overseers of the church in their interpretation of Scripture. Once again, Vincent would insist that Scripture is sufficient—indeed, more than sufficient. But since its meaning is contorted by heretics, disputed interpretations are best settled by conciliar decree since such statements represent the sure judgment of the universal church. (pp. 29-30).

When St Vincent wrote his Commonitorium, the full divinity of the Spirit had already entered into the dogmatic consciousness of the Church. Perhaps some continued to contest it, just as some continued to advance an Arian construals of the divinity of Christ, but the dogmatic die was cast. There could be no going back on the Catholic doctrine of the Holy Trinity. How then might Vincent have responded to the arguments advanced by Dix? If he had known about the 381 Council of Constantinople, perhaps he might have appealed to it; but it appears that he was unaware of the council or at least did not consider it to have achieved the status of a General Council. We can only speculate about Vincent’s response (which we will in fact do in subsequent postings). The important question for us is, How do we respond today to the concerns posed by Dom Gregory Dix?

(Go to “Doctrine Grows to Remain the Same“)

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