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.