St Vincent of Lérins: Guard the Deposit of Faith!

“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.

(Go to “Antiquity and the Determination of Dogma”)

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6 Responses to St Vincent of Lérins: Guard the Deposit of Faith!

  1. Alvin says:

    I love this post! Lately, I’ve been noting that the difference between Christian traditions is not necessarily ‘Scripture vs. Tradition’, but rather the relationship between ‘Scripture and Tradition’, and the role of interpretation (hermeneutics). St. Vincent really brings this to light: many people can appeal to the same text, but will come out with different interpretations. It’s necessarily a matter of whether one ‘appeals to Scripture’, but how one interprets it, which is guided by outside presuppositions. This is definitely a dimension that has been overlooked and often badly represented in Orthodox-Catholic-Protestant dialogue.

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  2. John M says:

    … IMHO, the Orthodox Church has for many become a religion rife with bogus “doctrines” and false “fathers” not to mention blatant superstition and half truths. The skeptical respect so much a part of Orthodox tradition has too often been usurped by the fetishization of anything monastic or acetic a pietism for a neo-patristic tradition that has replaced the Word to such an extant that one would think the church was about the Fathers and not about XC a pernicious gnostic idolatry has crept into the soul of Orthodoxy …

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      John, within the context of this series on Vincent and the spirit of this blog, perhaps you’d like to cite specific beliefs and practices that you believe cannot be justified by a catholic reading of Scripture.

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      • John M says:

        “For the Orthodox the notion of a novel dogma is an oxymoron, an absurdity. ” Fr.Aidan+, this is from another article I came across and I include it just because it is so pure and simple . My acerbic comment was prompted more by a sensibility; my owne not deep theological knowledge. I feel the problem to be one of a lack of education concerning very basic Orthodox beliefs as was Paul’s concern to T.
        I have to preface any comments by saying I was in the OCA and have been around many Slavic and Russian Orthodox whom I feel are probably the worst example of all the criticisms I have made. Sorry if that seems offensive to some; I will amend it by saying I have a friend at St Sergius Lavra who went through an awe inspiringly rigorous education and is now a monastic in Rus and simply put he said to me, The Russian Orthodox wants an educated clergy.
        Anyhow, my pet peeve and the person and the litmus test for a penchant towards false doctrine in Orthodoxy is of course Seraphim Rose brilliant and really kind of nutty but let me say also that I feel there is a tendency towards his kind of “Gnosticism” in almost all American religion these days these thoughts are not prompted by certain Canadian Orthodox. David B. Hart writes brilliantly about Gnosticism then and now. The things I mentioned about monasticism and asceticism seems to have ultimately given this brilliant man a total free pass as it does many who expound false doctrines and interpretations. For Example the whole Toll House ( sorry to mention it and not a doctrine of the church)) ideology pretty much denies everything having to do with what we believe, it is a denial of the totality of the Incarnation on so many levels it boggles the mind. How can we believe in a merciful God one that Bulgakov writes about in such a jaw dropping revelatory way not to mention Incarnation as “game changer: if clergy are expounding such occult nonsense.This also illustrates a penchant to treat all ascetics’ as de facto fathers and all Fathers as de facto latter day popes; infallible and oft totally decontextualized oft serving mostly personal agendas at worst or just plane misguided interpretations! This does the Church Fathers a disservice and denies the living Word.
        Well as you can see I am no Theologian and what I am saying may only obliquely if at all have anything to do with the article so my apology. I feel the complexities of doctrine are above most so people oft opt for the “emotional” side of our faith and ” the stuff of orthodoxy” a well defined basic understanding of beliefs stated in the Creed would be a salvic balm against wrong belief.

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  3. tgbelt says:

    I’m very interested in these questions. I totally appreciate the chaos latent in sola scriptura as it’s insisted upon in its individual sense by Protestants. I think the phrase itself could be used to express the sense in which it is in fact ‘Scripture’ which embodies the deposit of faith, even if one goes on to argue that it’s Scripture ‘ecclesially understood’. But the phrase isn’t used that way, so maybe there’s no point to it. I’m just a ‘conciliar’ kind a guy!

    Having agreed to the dangers inherent in a sola scriptura individualism, I think it’s worth pointing out that there also exist dangers on the other end of the spectrum. It seems right to entrust the interpreting of Scripture (at least where it’s taken normatively) to the ‘Church’ and not individually to every believer; thus Madoz’s “ecclesial understanding” of Scripture. But let it be ‘ecclesial’ in a truly New Testament sense. All the Body, as the pneumatic community/family of God, all gifted by the One Spirit, all its voices heard. The denial of sola scriptura in favor of an ‘ecclesial understanding’ of Scripture can (not must or will, just ‘can’) become a top-down hegemony when the ‘ecclessia’ that does this ‘ecclessial understanding’ in question is defined just a select group of men). I’m showing my hand a bit, but there you are. I’m not advocating for a leaderless Church. I’m just saying great effort has to be exercised to LISTEN to God speak in/through the deposit of faith (Scripture) as it’s lived and experienced by all God’s people.

    But perhaps it’s all moot now, since the fundamental normative doctrines were in place long ago. How likely is an ecumenical council (a) going to occur at this point, or (b) produce addition ‘doctrinal’ positions? Aren’t we really just talking about the authority of the ecumenical creeds? And since there’s disagreement over which creeds are in fact ecumenical, where’s that leave ‘ecclesial understanding’ of Scripture? Hasn’t it been fragmented as well? It’s not the circus that Protestantism is. But is there really only a single ‘ecclesial’ authority or voice for all Christianity outside Protestantism? Don’t think so. So if sola scriptura threatens (demonstrates!) chaos and fragmentation on a grand scale, what’s the state of the ecclesial alternative?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Excellent points and questions, Tom. Our Roman Catholic friends would probably remind like to remind you that an ecumenical council was in fact convened only fifty years ago. As Orthodox I do not accept Vatican II as enjoying such a status, but there you go. The Orthodox are trying to put together a Pan-Orthodox council in 2016. The Russian Patriarchate has bluntly stated that such a council (if it occurs) will not enjoy the authority of an ecumenical council. We Orthodox cannot even agree if there has ever been an ecumenical council after II Nicaea.

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