St Vincent of Lérins and John Henry Newman—and the Immaculate Conception too!

Doctrine develops—that much is patent. All one needs to do is to read a volume or two of Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition to resolve any doubts. The only question is whether a given development faithfully expresses, elucidates, and unfolds the apostolic deposit of divine revelation. St Vincent of Lérins firmly rejected the possibility of new revelations. God has spoken once and for all in Jesus Christ. Thus to the question “What is the deposit?” he replies: “It is that which you believed, not that which you invented” (Comm. 22.53). But he just as strongly affirms the reality of theological growth. To the question “Shall there then be no progress in Christ’s Church?” he answers: “Certainly there is progress, even exceedingly great progress. For who is so envious and so hateful toward God as to try to prohibit it?” (23.54; my emphasis).  God comprehends time and is providentially guiding it to eschatological consummation. Hence to resist or deny divinely inspired growth in theological understanding is to deny that “God uses time well,” as Thomas Guarino nicely phrases it (Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Doctrine, p. 20).

Vincent understands proper theological development as a movement from the implicit to the explicit, an advance from the inchoate and latent to the clearly defined: “By your explanations, let that which was believed obscurely now be understood clearly. What antiquity venerated without comprehension, let posterity now understand” (22.53). This suggests that he does not envision an absolute identity between the deposit of faith and the biblical witness. Scripture sufficiently records the Creator’s revelation to Israel and Jesus Christ, yet the divine revelation exceeds the propositions of Scripture. The divine revelation, we might say, is dynamically realized by the Spirit in the witness, life, mind, and structures of the Church. Perhaps Vincent would have agreed with these words from Dumitru Staniloae:

For the Orthodox Church, Tradition does not consist only of the Scriptures and of the unwritten teaching of Apostles in the form of external formulae, but also of the content of these things, made their own by the faithful of the Church and received in an uninterrupted way, above all received in the holy sacraments, by the aid of divine grace. Tradition in the Orthodox Church is not a sum of propositions learnt by heart, but a lived experience of one and the same relationship with Christ, experienced by the Church in the time of the Apostles, a continuous experience of the whole mystery revealed in Christ. In this way Tradition is a living reality, it is the uninterrupted life of the Church, and as such it can neither be reduced nor increased, not changed in its essence. (“The Orthodox Conception of Tradition,” Sobornost 5 [1969]: 653-654)

I do not wish to anachronistically project upon Vincent later construals of the deposit of faith, but Vincent’s understanding of Tradition and doctrinal development would seem to presuppose something along these lines.  Only on this basis can we explain his confidence in the competence of Holy Church to authoritatively interpret Holy Scripture.  “One must therefore conclude,” writes Guarino, “that for Vincent tradition is a living and active process” (p. 42).

John Henry Newman wrestled with the nature of doctrinal development throughout his career as an Anglican churchman, and this wrestling continued in his days as a Roman Catholic. What does it mean to confess that the fullness of revelation was given once and for all to the Apostles, when clearly they did not know the Nicene formulation of the Trinity or the medieval doctrine of the Immaculate Conception? In 1868 an Irish theologian, John Stanislaus Flanagan, sent a lengthy critique of Newman’s views to one of Newman’s friends, Ignatius Ryder. Flanagan argued “that our Lord taught the Apostles explicitly all the truths of faith” and that “these truths exclusively form or make up the ‘depositum’, which the Apostles delivered to the Church” (quoted in J. Derek Holmes, Theological Papers of John Henry Newman, p. 153). Flanagan’s letter induced Newman to compose a short essay, which Ryder forwarded to Flanagan. In this essay Newman once again explores the nature of the apostolic deposit of revelation:

The Apostles did not merely know the Apostles Creed; what knowledge could be more jejune, unless the meaning of each separate word of it was known in fullness? They must know all and more than all about the word ‘Son of God,’ which the Church has enunciated since their time. And so of every article, & portion of an article. What then is meant by the Depositum? is it a list of articles that can be numbered? no, it is a large philosophy; all parts of which are connected together, & in a certain sense correlative together, so that he who really knows one part, may be said to know all, as ex pede Herculem. Thus the Apostles had the fullness of revealed knowledge, a fullness which they could as little realize to themselves, as the human mind, as such, can have all its thoughts present before it at once. They are elicited according to the occasion. A man of genius cannot go about with his genius in his hand: in an Apostle’s mind great part of his knowledge is from the nature of the case latent or implicit; and taking two Apostles, St Paul & St John, according to their respective circumstances, they either may teach the same thing in common, or again what is explicit in St Paul might be latent in St John and what is explicit in St John may be latent in St Paul.

But how could such a knowledge, partly explicit partly implicit, and varying day by day as to what was the one and what the other, be transmitted to the Church after them? Thus: I believe the Creed (i.e. the Deposit, I say Creed as more intelligible, since it consists of Articles) was delivered to the Church with the gift of knowing its true and full meaning. A Divine philosophy is committed to her keeping: not a number of formulas such as a modern pedantic theologian may make theology to consist in, but a system of thought, sui generis in such sense that a mind that was possessed of it, that is, the Church’s mind, could definitely & unequivocally say whether this part of it, as traditionally expressed, meant this or that, and whether this or that was agreeable to, or inconsistent with it in whole or in part. I wish to hold that there is nothing which the Church has defined or shall define but what an Apostle, if asked, would have been fully able to answer and would have answered, as the Church has answered, the one answering by inspiration, the other from its gift of infallibility; and that the Church never will be able to answer, or has been able to answer, what the Apostle could not answer, e.g. whether the earth is stationary or not, or whether a republic is or is not better than a monarchy. The differences between them being that an Apostle could answer questions at once, but the Church answers them intermittently, in times & seasons, often delaying and postponing, according as she is guided by her Divine Instructor; and secondly and on the other hand, that the Church does in fact make answers which the Apostles did not make, and in one sense did not know, though they would have known them, i.e. made present to their consciousness, and made those answers, had the questions been asked. (“Letter to Flanagan,” in Theological Papers, p. 158)

Newman is struggling to explain how the Apostles might have known what they did not consciously know.  He finds too narrow the scholastic idea that doctrinal development consists in logically deducing new truths from accepted premises. Philosopher Michael Polanyi would later speak of tacit knowledge: “We can know more than we can tell.”  As Martin Moleski has observed, Newman assumes that much of what we know is tacit. In his Grammar of Assent, published only two years after his letter to Fr Flanagan, Newman would expound his notion of the illative sense as a way to express the mysterious movement from tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge. (Someone should write a dissertation comparing the illative sense with the noetic knowing of the hesychastic fathers.)  If divine revelation is more than just the communication of supernatural truths but rather more profoundly the personal gifting of the trinitarian God himself, then we will not be surprised to discover that much of the deposit of faith enjoys a tacit, implicit dimension.

In 1854 Pope Pius IX promulgated his famous (or infamous) papal bull Ineffabilis Deus, defining the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God as “a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.” Protestants were quick to challenge the definition. If the dogma is a truth of revelation explicitly included in the deposit of faith, prove it from the Bible! Cite chapter and verse. The Orthodox also strongly condemned the papal definition as unwarranted innovation. In 1895 the Patriarch of Constantinople declared:

The one holy, catholic and apostolic Church of the seven Ecumenical Councils teaches that the supernatural incarnation of the only-begotten Son and Word of God, of the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary, is alone pure and immaculate; but the Papal Church scarcely forty years ago again made an innovation by laying down a novel dogma concerning the immaculate conception of the Mother of God and ever-Virgin Mary, which was unknown to the ancient Church (and strongly opposed at different times even by the more distinguished among the papal theologians).

The accusation of novelty would appear to be well-founded, especially if assessed by the Vincentian Canon. Newman’s response, though, is illuminating: if the Apostle Paul had been asked “whether or not our Lady had the grace of the Spirit anticipating all sin whatever, including Adam’s imputed sin, I think he would have answered in the affirmative. If he never was asked the question, I should say he had in his mind the decision in 1854 in confusio or implicité” (“Letter to Flanagan,” p. 159). What other answer could a faithful Roman Catholic give, yet the answer helpfully raises for us the critical question, How do we distinguish between authentic and illegitimate developments?

The Lérinian distinguishes in his Commonitorium between profectus (advance, progress) and permutatio (change, alteration). Orthodox theologian Augustine Casiday explains the Vincentian difference:

An advance, then, as opposed to a change, works out an implicit but inchoate teaching, without compromising what is already “plain and clear” and all the while retaining whatever has already been established. By implication, a change violates this norm—either by introducing something entirely new, or else by contradicting what is already manifest, or even by abandoning an established definition. According to Vincent not all variations that occur throughout time are changes (which are by definition illegitimate): some of them are advances (which are by definition legitimate). The examples that Vincent gives to illustrate an advance come from the councils of the church, when occasionally it was necessary to introduce a new word “for the better understanding, never for a new interpretation of the Faith.” On the basis of this distinction, Vincent was prepared to denounce heresy. (Remember the Days of Old, p. 66)

Healthy theological growth may be described as the organic unfolding of that which is latent within the deposit of faith; diseased growth as that which changes the substance of the deposit. Healthy growth architectonically builds upon that which is already apprehended as true; diseased growth introduces novelty and discontinuity. Guarino elaborates:

The Lérinian tells us that in a proper development, a profectus, something is enlarged according to its nature, without losing its proper substance. But an alteration of the faith, a permutatio occurs when something is transformed into something else entirely, with “an alteration of its very essence [aliquid ex alio in aliud],” such as a rose bed becoming mere thorns and thistles. The growth of a child to an adult—just as the growth of doctrine—must be natural, organic, architectonic growth. … For this reason, Vincent insists that any growth, change, and development must be in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu eademque sententia: all growth must be in accord with the same doctrine, the same meaning, and the same judgment. (pp. 18-19)

In his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Newman speaks of “preservation of type.” Like Vincent he appeals to embryonic analogies: the fledged bird differs significantly from its form in the egg; a butterfly begins as a grub, enters into its cocoon, and reemerges into the world as a beautiful winged creature (5.1.4). Yet despite the growth and changes, we do not speak of animals as becoming different creatures: “The adult animal has the same make, as it had on its birth; young birds do not grow into fishes, nor does the child degenerate into the brute, wild or domestic, of which he is by inheritance lord” (5.1.1). Newman insists that legitimate doctrinal developments maintain essential continuity with the original revelation. False developments, however, tend toward its dissolution and destruction.

Ironically, Newman envisioned his essay as a refutation of St Vincent. He could only see an incompatibility between the Vincentian first rule (antiquity, universality, and consent) and the Vincentian second rule (identity of type). Yet as we have seen in this series, Vincent himself understood his first rule as “instantiated in determinate ecclesial structures. This is simply to say that the canon only lives and breathes, only comes to life, in and through Sacred Scripture and, particularly on disputed points, Scripture as interpreted by the church” (Guarino, p. 61).

(Go to “Are Ecumenical Councils Infallible?”)

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10 Responses to St Vincent of Lérins and John Henry Newman—and the Immaculate Conception too!

  1. chalcedon451 says:

    This is excellent, and most helpful. I will be referencing it in the next post on my Newman blog; thank you Father.


  2. StephenUSA says:

    Enjoying these posts very much Fr Kimel, many thanks. They provide much by way of what happens with doctrine and dogma, looking back into time, in the bosom of the Church; and by way of why it happens; but would you not agree that how that happens is less discussed by St. Vincent? Granted, it’s probably more salient for us with 2000 years behind us, with that much more precedent to be taken into consideration than in his day. And the “how” would also take up your considerations of acceptance and authority.
    Most interesting to me is that the “how” has developed over time, for many but not for all, to be dogmatic in its own right.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “Would you not agree that how that happens is less discussed by St. Vincent?”

      I agree. I’ll be discussing Vincent’s views on ecumenical councils in the next, and concluding, post and look forward to your comments.


  3. Mina says:

    Was there any sense of “theologomenoun” in St. Vincent or other church fathers? For instance, some argue that the Immaculate Conception is not necessary for the faith, and is therefore subject to theological opinion. One can simply find Church fathers who do profess that the imputation of sin in the Theotokos was done at the moment of the incarnation and not in her very own birth, which seems to be consistent with the idea that the indwelling presence of Christ is what saves. I wonder if Cardinal Newman every thought that perhaps this would be the answer St. Paul might have said.


  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I have not properly studied the history of the discussion of the Immaculate Conception (and would welcome any reading recommendations). But in his little Documents of the Christian Church (The World’s Classics vol. 495 from the Oxford University Press in 1943), Henry Bettenson summarizes, “In 1483 Pope Sixtus IV in the bull Grave nimis censured both those who attacked the preacher of the Immaculate Conception and those who accused such attackers of heresy”. And that situation of ‘suspense’ endured 371 years: if I understand correctly, it could be taught with conviction, but only as possible, not certain, and opposed with conviction, but not as certainly impossible – and then, suddenly, it was proclaimed as certainly “revealed by God”, as known, as “to be firmly and streadfastly believed by all the faithful”. Here would seem to be a big “how that happens” in general and ‘how that happened’ in this case it particular, to be set out.


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