“O Timothy, guard what has been deposited with you, avoiding the voice of profane novelties and of opposing ideas, which are falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim 6:20 [Vulgate]).
St Vincent of Lérins invokes this verse several times in his Commonitorium. The Church has been given a great gift, which she is tasked to preserve and protect. The Apostle’s exhortation was not restricted to Timothy himself, says Vincent; it is addressed to the Catholic Church of all ages:
Who is the Timothy of today, but either generally the Universal Church, or in particular, the whole body of The Prelacy, whom it behooves either themselves to possess or to communicate to others a complete knowledge of religion? What is “Keep the deposit?” “Keep it,” because of thieves, because of adversaries, lest, while men sleep, they sow tares over that good wheat which the Son of Man had sown in his field. “Keep the deposit.” What is “The deposit”? That which has been entrusted to you, not that which you have yourself devised: a matter not of wit, but of learning; not of private adoption, but of public tradition; a matter brought to you, not put forth by you, wherein you are bound to be not an author but a keeper, not a teacher but a disciple, not a leader but a follower. Keep the deposit. Preserve the talent of Catholic Faith inviolate, unadulterate. That which has been entrusted to you, let it continue in your possession, let it be handed on by you. You have received gold; give gold in turn. Do not substitute one thing for another. Do not for gold impudently substitute lead or brass. Give real gold, not counterfeit. (22.53)
Hence we can understand Vincent’s revulsion against all novelty and claims to private gnosis: that which I or someone else has invented is a novelty and cannot be that which God has given to us in the apostolic revelation. Every heresy has a history that can be traced back to an original thinker; but that which is divine revelation may and must be traced back to the apostolic deposit of faith. God has deposited the divine teachings in the bank of the Catholic Church and charged her to carefully guard them, never changing anything in them, never subtracting that which is necessary, never adding that which is superfluous (23.59). Thomas Guarino elaborates:
Who is the Timothy of today who is faithfully guarding the deposit? For the moment, it is clear that “deposit” indicates all the elements of revelation that have come through the history of Israel and Jesus of Nazareth, now preserved in the Christian church. With the word “deposit” Vincent has in mind the entire patrimony of revelation that has been bestowed on Christians. Because this endowment must be handed on in its fullness, Vincent again and again invokes some form of the word idem, “the same.” There is a unity and continuity in the Christian faith that cannot be betrayed. The same faith once transmitted must now be handed on in its complete integrity. (Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Christian Doctrine, pp. 9)
Another important Pauline text for Vincent is Galatians 1:8: “But if anyone, even we ourselves or an Angel from Heaven, were to preach to you a gospel other than the one that we have preached to you, let him be anathema.” Just as the Apostle admonished his Galatian converts not to believe any teaching that differs from the one that he himself originally delivered to them, even if an angel should be the messenger, so Catholic Christian must flee from all teaching that differs from that which the Catholic Church teaches. “Is there anyone so audacious,” he asks, “as to preach any other doctrine than that which the Church preaches, or so inconstant as to receive any other doctrine than that which he has received from the Church?” (9.26). But Vincent is well aware of the presence in the Church of such audacious heretics. The Church cannot remain silent before their false teaching: “To preach any doctrine therefore to Catholic Christians other than what they have received never was lawful, never is lawful, never will be lawful: and to anathematize those who preach anything other than what has once been received, always was a duty, always is a duty, always will be a duty” (9.25).
Guarino, however, makes this important qualification: “We should not, however, think of the deposit as a lifeless, static element, as the word might suggest. For the Lérinian, the deposit must be guarded yet also nurtured. Christians must defend the deposit in its purity and integrity, even while acknowledging that they are able to receive more light and precision” (pp. 9-10).
But it’s one thing to exhort the Church to guard the deposit of divine revelation; it’s another thing to locate and specify that revelation. Vincent makes clear that the deposit may be found in the Holy Scriptures, which he sometimes calls “the Divine Law” and “Divine Canon”: “The canon of Scripture is complete and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient” (II.5)—not only sufficient but maximally sufficient! Holy Scripture functions for the theologian from Lérins as the primary doctrinal authority in the Church. Vincent does not explain the precise relationship between Scripture and divine revelation: does the Scripture contain revelation, witness to revelation, or is it revelation itself? The Lérinian does not address these questions; but he strongly affirms that the Bible enjoys a unique and final authority in the life of the Church.
But there is a problem here: the Scripture is so profound and possesses such depth of meaning that it engenders multiple and contradictory interpretations. “All do not accept it in one and the same sense,” writes Vincent, “but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters” (2.5). Little has changed, it appears, almost 1,600 years and 30,000 denominations later.
To make matters worse, the false teachers enjoy great facility in the quotation of the Bible to support their views:
Here, possibly, some one may ask, Do heretics also appeal to Scripture? They do indeed, and with a vengeance; for you may see them scamper through every single book of Holy Scripture—through the books of Moses, the books of Kings, the Psalms, the Epistles, the Gospels, the Prophets. (25.64)
When a heretic is asked to justify his doctrinal innovations, he inevitably replies, “‘For it is written’; and immediately he produces a thousand testimonies, a thousand examples, a thousand authorities from the Law, from the Psalms, from the apostles, from the Prophets, by means of which, interpreted on a new and wrong principle, the unhappy soul may be precipitated from the height of Catholic truth to the lowest abyss of heresy” (26.69).
Vincent’s solution to this cacophony of contradictory voices in the Church is Holy Tradition and the rule of faith, “not that the Canon alone does not of itself suffice for every question, but seeing that the more part, interpreting the divine words according to their own persuasion, take up various erroneous opinions, it is therefore necessary that the interpretation of divine Scriptures should be ruled according to the one standard of the Church’s belief, especially in those articles on which the foundations of all Catholic doctrine rest” (29.76).
We will discuss in future postings how the Lérinian understands the Tradition of the Church and how it should be applied to resolve doctrinal disputes; but for the moment I simply wish to note his rejection of solo scriptura. To put the matter in contemporary terms, Vincent affirms the material sufficiency of Holy Scripture but denies its formal sufficiency. If we wish to interpret rightly the “Divine Canon,” then we must allow the Catholic Church to teach us how to do so. We must, in other words, abide within the Church and with the Church read her Holy Books according to the grammatical rules she herself provides. Guarino summarizes Vincent’s understanding of the authority and sufficiency of the Scripture:
In Vincent’s work, then, an epistemic primacy is always accorded to Scripture. The Bible is the rule and rock on which all church practices and teachings are based. Even the proscription of the rebaptism of former apostates, classically adduced as an element known only through tradition, is defended by Vincent on the grounds that rebaptism is prohibited not only by the rule of the universal church but also by “the divine canon” (6.4). And even a cursory examination of the Commonitorium will demonstrate that the monk of Lérins, like all the early Christian writers, was deeply imbued with both the Old and New Testaments. At the same time, Scripture displays its full meaning in the universal and ancient tradition of the church. … Scripture provides God’s plan of salvation for the church and instructs us in a life of Christian discipleship. At the same time, rampant misinterpretations of the Bible have given rise to a rogues’ gallery of heretics, whose errors continually plague the church and disrupt its unity. It is precisely because of these continual misinterpretations of Scripture that tradition—a multivalent complex of warrants offers reliable guidance. (p. 93)
Tradition functions, therefore, not as a second source of divine revelation alongside the Bible but rather as the divinely-inspired guide for the right reading and application of the Bible. Guarino quotes a Spanish scholar of St Vincent, José Madoz: “Tradition is always the ecclesial understanding of Scripture” (p. 27). Hence if the Church wishes to faithfully discharge its duty to guard the deposit of faith, then she must patiently attend to her Tradition and eschew doctrinal novelties.