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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5 Responses to St Vincent of Lérins: Antiquity and the Determination of Dogma

  1. StephenUSA says:

    On one hand, I can’t seem to get more worked up, emotionally at any rate, about responding to the excellent intellectual query of Dom Dix. Perhaps that speaks to my own spiritual sloth or blindness; I perceive no threat within the life of the Church – as I know it – other than from myself, and even then I’m rather dull. Or perhaps, quite naturally, I should expect to perceive my own threats dimly, and know that I must work within my life in the Church to improve that perception.

    On the other hand, taking it up the level of discourse to which you invite your readers, I would have to say that dealing with heresies must by definition somehow be commensurate with one’s relation to the Church. To an outsider, it must seem nonsensical, fussing about an “iota” or what have you. The closer you get into the life of the Church, however, the more clear a threat may be. If the threat is not yet in the Church, it could be expected that one would react differently to it than if arises within the bosom of the life of the Church.

    So it must have been for St. Vincent, with all the Semi-Pelagian fights and discussions in his neck of the woods. And his emphasis on the authority of an Ecumenical Council is, of course, commendable. But does it answer Dix? I would say yes, inasmuch as St. Vincent looks at Councils as markers in time that the Church is, by virtue of guarding the deposit of faith once revealed and delivered, the Bride of Christ incarnate in the world. But you can’t “know” this until you enter into the life of the Church. You can posit it intellectually; but the markers of the Councils are derivative of and dependent on the ongoing experience of all the members of the Church through time.

    How did the Fathers of the Councils come up with such a consensus through time? Yes, they could consult previous council canons; but more important was their shared context in their local liturgical communities and activities. Think of likely scenarios: to me, it is more likely that they first said to one another, “Timothy taught us this in our town”, and “Paul taught us this in ours”. “Look, see how they are similar.”, and then said, “And what Timothy taught us is what Paul taught you, and is also what the fathers reaffirmed in each of the councils.”

    Message alignment and consensus building is hard enough in corporate and other organizational contexts in our modern world; liturgy is the pontifex that links generations through time with message alignment and consensus. The liturgical life of the Church is the foundation of the Lérinian formula, and the key for responding to Dix that yes, St. Vincent was right.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Stephen, for two helpful comments (I mean the one above and the one below). I agree that Vincent’s insistence upon the irreformability of conciliar definitions would satisfy Dix. Being the Papalist that he was, he would probably ask us how we know any given council enjoys ecumenical authority.

      I also agree with you upon the importance of liturgy: lex orandi, lex credendi. Vincent does not mention liturgy in his Commonitory, which I deem to be a weakness.


      • StephenUSA says:

        I would think Dix, and perhaps any Papalist, NEEDS that formal stamp of authoritative approval in a way that easterners simply do not. I would posit that this need is due to the existence more dogmatic and doctrinal requirements for Roman Catholics which are extra-liturgical, ie not found in the ongoing communal prayer life of the Church, that for easterners.

        When you attend a Divine Liturgy, even the casual first time observer will come away with a pretty clear understanding of what is believed and promoted. We pretty much bang away at it, again and again, three times minimum for good measure. Trinity, Incarnation, Jesus as our Savior, His Mother is important somehow, other people long dead remembered, it doesn’t take much to come away with a “Ok, I kinda get the gist of what you people believe.” And, there’s not a whole lot more to be found in the canons of the Councils.

        For a westerner, you have to work a little harder to understand the gist, because the liturgical life is thinner for the average yeoman, and, even before the Pauline reforms of Vatican II, there are more things you had to believe that simply are not to be found in their prayers. (and interestingly, if all that was required of westerners was what they prayed, the only thing markedly different from the east is just the filioque, it seems).

        So this heavier reliance on extra-liturgical formulations of belief takes ownership of belief out of the yeoman class, and shifts it to the authoritative, legislative class, which drives the impetus for a heavier reliance on a Magisterium, ultimately centralizing the decision making process in what has become the modern Papacy. This process is what transformed the Papacy from a bulwark of tradition to an engine of innovation, and with the 1000 year shift in ownership, leaves no impediment to further change as the yeoman have facility to counteract the progressive innovation – other than liturgy, which is why you see the rise in interest in the pre-Pauline liturgical life in the west.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I also agree that Dix’s critique of the Vincentian Canon does not pose a “threat” to my faith nor should it pose a threat to anyone who lives and prays in the Orthodox Church or the Roman Catholic Church. But it does pose a threat, I think, to those in the evangelical churches, given their radical emphasis on sola scriptura (which always seems to reduce to solo scriptura). For evangelicals, of course, the testimony of the Church Fathers is only of relative, limited value. The only voice of antiquity they are concerned about is the voice of Scripture. Increasingly, they want to know: prove to me that the catholic doctrine of the Holy Trinity is found in Holy Scripture, and if you can’t prove this to us, then it can’t be necessary to believe for salvation.


  2. StephenUSA says:

    ps. The science of data accuracy follows the same path, btw. At some point, you reach critical mass of attributed data to know with a 99.999% degree of accuracy that something is so (that this Rob Smith is the same Robert Smith is the same Bob Smith with this birth date and this social security number at this address now who lived at these addresses before…yadda yadda). Thus, the marginal piece of data, or the newest piece of data, about Bob Smith must align with all the previous, or it will be rejected and not attributed to Bob. If enough new pieces of data come in about a Bob Smith, then you go through various exception criteria to validate the newer AND the older, ultimately arriving at a decision point – in the Church’s case, an Ecumenical Council.

    But notice, in all this, Bob Smith – the actual person – never changes. Bob knows who he is, as do all the people close to him, with descending levels of “knowing Bob” the more removed they are from him. The six degrees of Bob.


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