St Vincent of Lérins: The Consentient Council of the Doctors of the Church

When one is involved in a knock-down, drag-out doctrinal debate, a dogmatic definition is awfully handy to have at hand. It always puts one’s opponent on the defensive. Occasionally it even wins the argument. But what if the Church has not yet formally determined the orthodoxy of the respective theological positions? Not to fear! St Vincent of Lérins has a work-around:

But what, if in antiquity itself there be found error on the part of two or three men, or at any rate of a city or even of a province? Then it will be his care by all means, to prefer the decrees, if such there be, of an ancient General Council to the rashness and ignorance of a few. But what, if some error should spring up on which no such decree is found to bear? Then he must collate and consult and interrogate the opinions of the ancients, of those, namely, who, though living in various times and places, yet continuing in the communion and faith of the one Catholic Church, stand forth acknowledged and approved authorities: and whatsoever he shall ascertain to have been held, written, taught, not by one or two of these only, but by all, equally, with one consent, openly, frequently, persistently, that he must understand that he himself also is to believe without any doubt or hesitation. (Comm. 3.8)

If some new question should arise on which no such decision has been given, they should then have recourse to the opinions of the holy Fathers, of those at least, who, each in his own time and place, remaining in the unity of communion and of the faith, were accepted as approved masters; and whatsoever these may be found to have held, with one mind and with one consent, this ought to be accounted the true and Catholic doctrine of the Church, without any doubt or scruple. (29.77)

Please remember: Holy Scripture serves as Vincent’s primary doctrinal authority; but here we are addressing a situation when the interpretation of Scripture is in dispute. When this happens, it is necessary to turn to Tradition and the teachings of respected theological masters. If we then discover that on the question at hand a consentient teaching exists (remember Vincent’s first rule), then that teaching is always to be preferred over against the now exposed novelty. These masters form, as it were, “a consentient council of doctors, all receiving, holding, handing on the same doctrine” (28.72). This consensus may not (yet) possess the irreformable authority of a dogmatic definition, yet it certainly has the odds of probability on its side. The consensus is to be believed and affirmed without hesitation. Vincent distrusts minority reports. Individual theologians, no matter how brilliant and erudite (he cites Origen and Tertullian), can easily go astray.

Vincent proffers a curious opinion on how one should respond to new heresies and old heresies. When one is confronted by a fresh heresy that has not yet taken root in the life of the Church, then that is the time to collate the teachings of the Church Fathers and invoke their consentient authority. This collation of testimony will reveal to all the novelty of the false teaching.  “But heresies already widely diffused and of old standing,” he goes on to say, “are by no means to be thus dealt with, seeing that through lapse of time they have long had opportunity of corrupting the truth. And therefore, as to the more ancient schisms or heresies, we ought either to confute them, if need be, by the sole authority of the Scriptures, or at any rate, to shun them as having been already of old convicted and condemned by universal councils of the Catholic Priesthood” (28.71). Given that we already possess, by dogmatic definition, the correct and authoritative interpretation of Holy Scripture, Holy Scripture becomes polemically sufficient. Thomas Guarino explains:

The theologian of Lérins knows that some heresies, such as Arianism, have persisted for decades (indeed, for over a century) and continue to trouble the church, even though they have been condemned by both Scripture and by a general council. Vincent certainly realizes that his rule remains true: the Arian heresy has been condemned by the church in antiquity, ubiquity, and universalisty; a council has witnessed definitively against it. But despite this authoritative condemnation, the heresy persists, and its poison remains in the body of Christ, serving to mislead the faithful and to destroy the unity of the church. For Vincent, then, it is not a matter that his rule (as actualized in councils) has not protected the truth. This it has clearly accomplished: Nicaea has spoken with the highest authority. However, the fact remains that some entrenched heretics audaciously ignore even the clear mandates of Scripture and of ecumenical councils, thereby opposing consensual antiquity. Vincent’s point, therefore, is that the “consentient opinion of esteemed masters” is virtually useless against older heresies, which have already been condemned by the very highest authorities, the Sacred Scriptures and an ecumenical council. (Vincent of Lérins, p. 35)

The consensual teaching of the Church Fathers is thus most effective, thinks Vincent, when addressing a false teaching that has yet to capture the imagination of believers.

Please remember: in Vincent’s opinion, a heretic is always an innovator and therefore, by definition, someone who has stepped outside “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Instead of passing on to the people of God the divine revelation once given, he gives them his own self-created religion, putting himself at odds with Church and God. The heretical teacher thus exhibits a profound hubris. Vincent traces heresy to sin and fault of character. The heretic is more concerned about himself than with the truth and the good of the ecclesia, seductively whispering, “Come, O ignorant ones, who are normally called Catholics, and listen to the true faith which no one besides us understands, which for many centuries has remained hidden but has recently been revealed” (21.52). And so Vincent counsels: “Unless a man be a prophet or a spiritual person, that is, a master in spiritual matters, let him be as observant as possible of impartiality and unity, so as neither to prefer his own opinions to those of every one besides, nor to recede from the belief of the whole body” (28.74). Orthodoxy requires a spirit of humility and a willingness to learn from those fluent in the language of faith. Beware of anyone who tells you to listen to them instead of the common teaching of the Church. In chapter 24 the Lérinian shares his powerful vision of the dangers of preferring the novelties of heretics over the ancient teaching of the Church. He once again quotes the Apostle Paul (“O Timothy, guard the deposit, shunning profane novelties of words”) and comments:

“Profane novelties of words.” What words are these? Such as have nothing sacred, nothing religious, words utterly remote from the inmost sanctuary of the Church which is the temple of God. Profane novelties of words, that is, of doctrines, subjects, opinions, such as are contrary to antiquity and the faith of the olden time. Which if they be received, it follows necessarily that the faith of the blessed fathers is violated either in whole, or at all events in great part; it follows necessarily that all the faithful of all ages, all the saints, the chaste, the continent, the virgins, all the clergy, Deacons and Priests, so many thousands of Confessors, so vast an army of martyrs, such multitudes of cities and of peoples, so many islands, provinces, kings, tribes, kingdoms, nations, in a word, almost the whole earth, incorporated in Christ the Head, through the Catholic faith, have been ignorant for so long a tract of time, have been mistaken, have blasphemed, have not known what to believe, what to confess. (24.61)

Were the Church to embrace novelty she would undermine her witness and mission. Her divinely-ordained task is to protect the deposit of revelation and faithfully teach it to the world: “You have received gold; give gold in turn” (22.53).

As I conclude this series on the Commonitorium I would like to register two reservations:

First, is the distinguishment of orthodoxy and heresy always so easy, so manifest? Even after the Council of Nicaea and its dogmatic assertion of the homoousion, was it really so obvious that St Athanasius’s interpretation of the term was correct? Eusebius of Caesarea, one of the finest scholars of the day, was present at Nicaea, and he interpreted it differently, as presumably did a goodly number of the council fathers. It took St Basil of Caesarea a fair amount of time to come around to Athanasius’s viewpoint. But were not Arius & Company at least guilty of defying the infallible decree of an ecumenical council? Recent scholarship, however, suggests that Nicaea was initially viewed as just one of many councils convened in the first half of the fourth century. Even Athanasius didn’t start appealing to it until thirty years later.  A case can even be made that Arius did not see himself as an innovator but as continuing the theological tradition he had inherited. Lewis Ayres comments that because of pre-existing theological tensions within the Church, the task of identifying continuities of belief in the fourth century Church is “extremely complex” (Nicaea and its Legacy, p. 79). Writing over a hundred years after the Council of Nicaea, it may have seemed clear to Vincent who was orthodox and who was heretical, yet for those immersed in the controversy it was anything but clear. In reality it took decades of substantive theological reflection and hard political work for the Church to achieve consensual clarity on the complete divinity of Christ Jesus. The fourth century, declares R. P. C. Hanson, is “not the story of a defense of orthodoxy, but of a search for orthodoxy, a search conducted by the method of trial and error” (The Search for the Christian God, pp. xix-xx). This “search for orthodoxy” can be readily applied to many of the dogmas of the Church. Temporal existence can be quite messy, and the history of the Church Catholic is no exception.

Second, is it always the case, should it always be the case, that at any given point of a doctrinal controversy the majority witness of the Fathers wins hands-down?  Vincent’s appeal to the Fathers might be construed simply as a matter of counting noses. Theology is reduced to catenation. But surely the resolution of a doctrinal dispute requires more than the pulling together of patristic opinions ripped from their historical contexts into a catena of texts. In the fourth century the Church needed not just to reject Arianism; it needed to understand why Arianism was incompatible with the gospel. That process of discernment required the creative exegetical and theological contributions of Athanasius the Apostolic, Gregory the Theologian, and many others. The reception of the dogmatic definition of the Council of Nicaea, in other words, was made possible by the post-conciliar reflections of the pro-Nicene Fathers. If the Church’s apprehension of the apostolic deposit of faith is partially tacit, embodied in liturgy and praxis, then we should not be surprised that false teaching always generates new searches for orthodoxy. Consider this passage from John Henry Newman:

Again, if Christianity be an universal religion, suited not simply to one locality or period, but to all times and places, it cannot but vary in its relations and dealings towards the world around it, that is, it will develope. Principles require a very various application according as persons and circumstances vary, and must be thrown into new shapes according to the form of society which they are to influence. Hence all bodies of Christians, orthodox or not, develope the doctrines of Scripture. Few but will grant that Luther’s view of justification had never been stated in words before his time: that his phraseology and his positions were novel, whether called for by circumstances or not. It is equally certain that the doctrine of justification defined at Trent was, in some sense, new also. The refutation and remedy of errors cannot precede their rise; and thus the fact of false developments or corruptions involves the correspondent manifestation of true ones. Moreover, all parties appeal to Scripture, that is, argue from Scripture; but argument implies deduction, that is, development. Here there is no difference between early times and late, between a Pope ex cathedrâ and an individual Protestant, except that their authority is not on a par. On either side the claim of authority is the same, and the process of development. (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine 2.1.3; my emphasis)

Whereas Vincent suggests that God permits false teachers to afflict the Church with their poison in order to test the Church, Newman, I think, sees matters more deeply. The Church lives in history, proclaims the gospel in history, theologizes in history. At that moment when the fallible preacher, whose grasp of the apostolic revelation is always partial and possibly defective, stands before his congregation and exposits the appointed Scriptural readings, he takes a risk. It is never sufficient for the preacher to simply quote the biblical text or quote how others before him interpreted it. If Scripture is to become living reality in the Spirit, then the preacher must dare to speak the Scripture into the lives of his parishioners and interpret their lives within the Scripture. At that moment the preacher takes a risk for the sake of the Church … and the result may be a new doctrinal crisis!

“The life of the Church,” Sergius Bulgakov writes, “is a continuous revelation of the full truth that the Church bears in itself. This revelation, which expresses the human-historical side of the divine-human process, is understood not through a passive mechanical action, but through the creative unfolding of the truth, in response to the calls of life and the quests of thought” (“Dogma and Dogmatic Theology,” in Tradition Alive, p. 79). Here St Vincent’s analysis of the living warrants of doctrinal development, as instantiated in the performative life of the ecclesial community, becomes crucial in the ongoing task of distinguishing orthodoxy and heresy.

May God have mercy on all preachers and theologians. There but for the grace of God …

(Return to first article)


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6 Responses to St Vincent of Lérins: The Consentient Council of the Doctors of the Church

  1. StephenUSA says:

    Newman felt compelled to accept Pastor Aeternus quite reluctantly, and then only by logical deduction; God “had” to have left some mechanism by which authority would be exercised; the Pope, having made a strong claim to such authority, makes for a good fit.

    It’s truly fascinating.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I agree. Newman is looking for a Church that provides an magisterial office that can irreformably define dogma. He knows that Roman Church claims such an office. He just needs to find evidence that the Roman Church acted out such a belief in the early centuries.


  2. StephenUSA says:

    Of course, I think Newman misses the point of St. Vincent’s admonitions completely by coming to that conclusion, but there it is. It seems to be operative for most Westerners however, so it’s instructive.


    • Edward De Vita says:

      A good case could be made that, by at least the early fifth century, there was a general belief in the Churches of both east and west that no council could be considered ecumenical if it lacked the approval of the bishop of Rome. At the same time, I think this was viewed as a necessary, though not necessarily sufficient condition for ecumenicity. To the extent that St. Vincent appeals to General Councils of the Church without giving us any criteria for determining ecumenical status, it seems to me that Newman, in trying to determine these criteria, is merely filling up the gaps in Vincent’s thought.


      • Stephen says:

        Maybe, but that is barely half the loaf of Paster Aeternus; dealing with the claims of immediate, supreme and universal jurisdiction of the Papacy as expressed in PA – and that these claims are not just logical (which was all Newman really could commit to), but justifiable development of doctrine wholly consistent with the Vincentian approach, is the real issue, isn’t it?


  3. Stephen says:

    Full disclosure, for what it’s worth, but one attribute of a worthwhile worldview is the ability to both explain the present (how did this or that come to be) and give a look into the future with a reasonably good chance of high accuracy.

    I don’t see how any Roman Catholic other than an ultra-montanist can ever be intellectually honest and buy Paster Aeternus without suffering from acute cognitive dissonance, at a minimum. Now mind you, since the Pauline reforms of the western prayer life, a current ultra-montanist buys whatever the current Papal office holder is selling, period. He’s the Bishop of Earth for them. If he were to say tomorrow, “we’re dropping the Filioque”, the vast majority would go along with it without batting an eyelash.

    In contrast, even though they are loathe to admit how the reigns of the Popes from Pius IX to Pius XII paved the way for the Pauline reforms, The ultra-montanists of yesteryear are going through a very deep internal review. They can’t quite square what’s happened as being consistent with the past. I predict they will either end up enablers of ongoing progressive innovation spearheaded by the Papacy, or turn to Orthodoxy, as we have been living their pain with our brother in Rome too, and it’s not much different.

    That Orthodox take the Papacy so seriously gives me hope; it’s proof of the existence of sone connective tissue, and of the Vicentian elements still at work. Would we care what the Dalai Lama had to say about the procession of the Holy Spirit?


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