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, Guarino 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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6 Responses to St Vincent of Lérins: Doctrine Grows to Remain the Same

  1. StephenUSA says:

    By implication then, the only reason to call a Council is to address a threat from within the Church to the deposit of faith; much like Arianism was the catalyst by which First Nicea was called, and later threats demanded that the later Councils be called.

    So what is the internal threat that would cause a Great Council of the Orthodox bishops now?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Councils have also been convened in the past to also address canonical and political matters. One matter that clearly needs to be addressed in Orthodoxy is the question of overlapping dioceses in the diaspora. Unfortunately, the bishops have decided to elide this matter. Hence I do not know why they are trying to convene a pan-Orthodox council; but I accede to those who know a lot more about contemporary Orthodoxy than I do.

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  2. Bravo, once more, for a fine and much needed reflection. The current atmosphere of alleged orthodox correctness and neotraditionalist opposition to world, culture & history is NOT where the catholic tradition comes down.

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  3. tsoigitli says:

    Fr. Kimel,

    Would you agree that a formal statement on the ecclesial status of the non-Orthodox is also a good reason, not unrelated to canonical issues in the diaspora? One of the items on the agenda is a formal statement on the relationship of Orthodoxy to the non Orthodox Christians, so that seems to be an inevitable question to me.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I cannot disagree. I will be interesting to what what matters will be on the agenda. Given the adopted rule of unanimity, the bishops have virtually guaranteed that nothing controversial will be resolved and probably not discussed. I haven’t been following this topic closely. Has anything changed since Fr Cyril wrote his article “The Fragile Promise of the Pan-Orthodox Council” and Met Hilarion was interviewed? Has an official agenda been released?

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