The Commonitory of St. Vincent of LérinsMay 25th, 2011 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Featured Articles
Yesterday (May 24) was the feast day of St. Vincent of Lérins, a soldier who became a monk at the monastery in Lérins, and wrote his famous Commonitory in AD 434, three years after the third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus, and seventeen years before the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon. Because Protestants generally accept both those councils, St. Vincent’s Commonitory provides a window into Catholic thought during a period treated by Protestants as still orthodox, prior to any ‘great apostasy.’
Because St. Vincent writes in the time period between the two councils, one cannot non-arbitrarily accept those two councils while dismissing St. Vincent’s work as a product of some great apostasy. St. Vincent is a strong advocate of the indefectibility of the Church, and of the importance of interpreting Scripture under the authority of the Church and her universal tradition. Here I present an overview of his Commonitory, and examine the fundamental truths he communicates in it, particularly with a view to their contribution toward the reconciliation of Protestants and the Catholic Church.
St. Honorat: The island of Lérins on which St. Vincent wrote his Commonitory in AD 434.
I. Purpose of his Commonitory
A. A Response to the Subtle Craftiness of the New Heretics
B. St. Vincent’s Prescription against Heresies and Schisms: Scripture and Tradition
II. An Objection: What about the Sufficiency of Scripture?
III. The Identity and Authority of the Tradition and Magisterium
A. The Tradition
B. The Magisterium
1. General Councils
2. The Apostolic See
3. The Authority of the Church
IV. The Indefectibility of the Church
V. Schisms, Heresies, and their Antidote
A. In the Event of Schism and Heresy
B. The Cause of Heresies and Schisms
1. Cause: Wicked Novelty Subverting Well-Established Antiquity
2. Why does God permit them?
C. The Antidote: Interpret Scripture within and according to the Church
VI. The Development of Doctrine
VII. The Implications for Protestant-Catholic Reconciliation
At the beginning of his work, St. Vincent explains his purpose for writing it. Having attained time for studying and writing after entering the monastery, and having discerned the need of the time in which he lived, he set out to record what his forefathers in the faith had handed down to him and his fellow Catholics, and committed to their keeping. (p. 1, 3)1 “It is most necessary,” he writes, “that I should put down in writing the things which I have truthfully received from the holy Fathers.” (p. 1) Hence the title of his work is the Commonitory, or Remembrancer. (p. 3) He does not lay out all the doctrines he had been taught. Rather, he provides the rule he had received, by which the truth of the Catholic faith can be distinguished from the falsehood of heresy. (p. 4) In this way, he addresses the second-order question (“By what rule do we rightly distinguish orthodoxy from heresy?”) that underlies the first-order questions (“Which doctrines are orthodox and which are heretical?”). He does this because of the prevalence of heresies and schism in his time: “the subtle craftiness of new heretics calls for no ordinary care and attention.” (p. 2)
B. St. Vincent’s Prescription against Heresies and Schism: Scripture and Tradition
According to St. Vincent, “to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, … fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church.” (p. 4) In other words, the rule by which we can distinguish between orthodoxy and heresy, is found in the authority of Scripture and Tradition. But this immediately raises two questions: Scripture as interpreted by whom? And which tradition? St. Vincent recognizes those questions, and the purpose of the rest of his Commonitory is to answer them. But first he considers and responds to an objection.
St. Vincent anticipates an objection in the form of a question:
Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? (p. 5)
This question is a very important question with respect to Protestant-Catholic reconciliation, because the answer to the question bears directly on whether we must submit our interpretation to that of the Magisterium, or whether we can and must hold the Magisterium to our interpretation of Scripture. If we can and must hold the Magisterium to our own interpretation of Scripture, then Protestants can be justified in separating from the Catholic Church in protest until the Magisterium conforms to their interpretation of Scripture. But if we must submit our interpretation of Scripture to that of the Magisterium, then Protestants were not justified in placing their own interpretation of Scripture above that of the Magisterium, and are obliged before God in humility and repentance to be reconciled to the Catholic Church and submit to her teaching authority.
St. Vincent then provides the answer to his question:
For this reason—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, 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. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation. (p. 5)
His point is that because of the depth of Scripture due to its divine quality, not all persons interpret it in the same sense. In fact, there are, according to St. Vincent, almost as many interpretations as there are interpreters. When these interpretations are contrary to those decreed by general councils or taught by the consent of the Church Fathers, they are invariably heretical, and St. Vincent provides a number of examples.
A bit later in his work he provides another example. He refers to Agripinnus, bishop of Carthage, who was the first to hold the belief that baptism ought to be repeated. (p. 16) This was “contrary to the divine canon, contrary to the rule of the universal Church, contrary to the customs and institutions of our ancestors.” (p. 16) Regarding this belief that baptism ought to be repeated, St. Vincent asks whether this novelty had Scriptural support. Yes, according to St. Vincent it had “weighty support in Scripture,” but with this qualification: “only interpreted in a novel and perverse sense.” (p. 17) Of course Agripinnus and those who followed him in this belief did not think they were giving Scripture a perverse or distorted sense. They were interpreting it, presumably, according to what they believed that it truly taught. But they were deceived, claims St. Vincent, because they did not interpret it according to the tradition of the Church.
In other words, we shouldn’t expect heretics to avoid Scripture; we should expect heretics to make vigorous and copious use of Scripture. If Scripture could reasonably be read in only one sense, we would expect heretics to avoid Scripture. But because Scripture can be read in many senses, then we should expect heretics to appeal to Scripture to defend their heretical beliefs, and to presuppose (or state explicitly) that Magisterial authority is not necessary in order to interpret Scripture rightly.
St. Vincent writes:
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. Whether among their own people, or among strangers, in private or in public, in speaking or in writing, at convivial meetings, or in the streets, hardly ever do they bring forward anything of their own which they do not endeavour to shelter under words of Scripture. Read the works of Paul of Samosata, of Priscillian, of Eunomius, of Jovinian, and the rest of those pests, and you will see an infinite heap of instances, hardly a single page, which does not bristle with plausible quotations from the New Testament or the Old. (p. 64)
The plentiful use of Scripture by heretics to support their heretical claims demonstrates the need for interpretive authority in the Church. What the faithful must look for is not a mere appeal to Scripture, since any heretic can do that. The faithful must look to those whom Christ authorized to provide the authentic interpretation of Scripture for the members of His Body. St. Vincent points to Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew: “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves.” (Mt. 7:15) What is the sheep’s clothing that the false prophets use to disguise themselves? According to St. Vincent, the sheep’s clothing is the words of Scripture that the heretics wrap themselves in, to steal upon the unsuspecting sheep. He writes,
What is meant by sheep’s clothing? What but the words which prophets and apostles with the guilelessness of sheep wove beforehand as fleeces, for that immaculate Lamb which takes away the sin of the world? What are the ravening wolves? What but the savage and rabid glosses of heretics, who continually infest the Church’s folds, and tear in pieces the flock of Christ wherever they are able? But that they may with more successful guile steal upon the unsuspecting sheep, retaining the ferocity of the wolf, they put off his appearance, and wrap themselves, so to say, in the language of the Divine Law, as in a fleece, so that one, having felt the softness of wool, may have no dread of the wolf’s fangs. (p. 66)
St. Vincent explains that St. Paul also refers to such persons in his second letter to the Corinthians, where he writes, “For of this sort are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ.” (2 Cor. 11:12) They transform themselves into apostles of Christ [i.e. make themselves out to appear as though they are apostles of Christ, when in fact they are not] by arrogating to themselves the right to interpret Scripture as they see fit, rather than under the authority of the Church in accordance with the Tradition that has been handed down from the Apostles. (p. 67) St. Vincent writes:
Therefore, according to the authority of the Apostle Paul, as often as either false apostles or false teachers cite passages from the Divine Law, by means of which, misinterpreted, they seek to prop up their own errors, there is no doubt that they are following the cunning devices of their father, which assuredly he would never have devised, but that he knew that where he could fraudulently and by stealth introduce error, there is no easier way of effecting his impious purpose than by pretending the authority of Holy Scripture. (p. 67)
Here St. Vincent shows from Scripture that the Devil quoted Scripture, and because the sons do what their father does, so the Devil’s followers likewise will quote Scripture. Hence St. Vincent writes:
[W]e may be assured beyond doubt, when we find people alleging passages from the Apostles or Prophets against the Catholic Faith, that the Devil speaks through their mouths. For as then the Head spoke to the Head, so now also the members speak to the members, the members of the Devil to the members of Christ, misbelievers to believers, sacrilegious to religious, in one word, Heretics to Catholics. (p. 68)
Just as the head of the “sons of the evil one” (Mt. 13:38) spoke to the Head of the “sons of the Kingdom” (Mt. 13:38), so the sons of the evil one will speak in the same way to the sons of the Kingdom. Thus, just as the Devil appealed to Scripture to tempt Jesus, so the heretics appeal to Scripture in their attempt to lead Catholics away from the true faith of the Church. St. Vincent sees this implied in the very nature of the narrative of Satan’s attempt to get Jesus to cast Himself down from the Temple. This, he says, characterizes the attempt by heretics to get Catholics to cast themselves down from “the doctrine and tradition of that sublime Church, which is imagined to be nothing less than the very temple of God.” (p. 69) If we ask the heretics what grounds they have for their belief, they respond, like Satan himself, by appealing to the Scriptures, interpreted according to their own novel interpretation, not interpreted according to the doctrine and teaching of the Church.
In a rather well-known passage, he writes:
And if one should ask one of the heretics who gives this advice, How do you prove? What ground have you, for saying, that I ought to cast away the universal and ancient faith of the Catholic Church? He has the answer ready, 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. Then, with the accompanying promises, the heretics are wont marvellously to beguile the incautious. For they dare to teach and promise, that in their church, that is, in the conventicle of their communion, there is a certain great and special and altogether personal grace of God, so that whosoever pertain to their number, without any labour, without any effort, without any industry, even though they neither ask, nor seek, nor knock, have such a dispensation from God, that, borne up by angel hands, that is, preserved by the protection of angels, it is impossible they should ever dash their feet against a stone, that is, that they should ever be offended. (p. 69)
The heretics cast away the universal and ancient faith of the Catholic Church because of their preference for their own interpretation of Scripture, by which, wrongly interpreted, they fall from Catholic truth into the darkness of heresy, and shipwreck their faith. To make their sect more attractive, they use Scripture to teach that in their sect, there is some greater benefit than what is available in the Catholic Church. The greater benefit can be something such as the impossibility of sinning or losing salvation.
In his summary toward the end of his Commonitory, St. Vincent writes in more detail about the two ways in which it has always been the custom of Catholics to prove the true faith:
We said above, that it has always been the custom of Catholics, and still is, to prove the true faith in these two ways; first by the authority of the Divine Canon, and next by the tradition of the Catholic Church. 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 Scripture 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. (p. 76)
When he includes the tradition of the Church, he wants to make sure his reader understands that he is not saying that Scripture is not sufficient to answer such questions. However, the nature of the sufficiency he is affirming is about Scripture itself. The reason why, according to St. Vincent, we need the tradition of the Catholic Church in addition to Scripture, is because of human weakness, namely, that apart from a divinely established interpretive authority guarding and preserving a divinely given tradition, people interpret Scripture according to their own persuasion. Therefore, the rule for the interpretation of Scripture must be the tradition of the Church, by which and in which Scripture is authentically interpreted. In other words, the standard for the right interpretation of Scripture is the Church’s doctrine, not one’s own opinion. To use one’s own interpretation as the standard by which to judge the doctrine of the Church is to fall into the underlying error of the heretics, who approach Scripture apart from the teaching and tradition of the Church, and so arrive at novel interpretations by which they criticize the Church and deceive some of her sheep.
According to St. Vincent, to avoid heresy and schism we should hold firmly to the following two authoritative lights: the decisions of authoritative councils, and the opinions of the holy Fathers. (p. 77) So in what sense is the “Tradition of the Catholic Church” (p. 4) authoritative, and how do we identify it? St. Vincent provides us with his famous rule, also known as the “Vincentian canon:”
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. (p. 6)
The Vincentian canon is summarized as quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est (that which has been believed everywhere, always, by all). This is the very nature of catholicity, and catholicity is one of the four marks of the Church (i.e. “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”). The utility of the Vincentian canon depends on the Church being visible, such that there is a clear distinction between those in the Church and those not. Otherwise, we would not know who to include in the ‘everywhere, always, and all.’ The Vincentian canon also carries with it an implicit affirmation of the indefectibility of the visible Church (and thus a denial of ecclesial deism). In order for the Tradition held everywhere in the Church, in all times of the Church’s history, and by all in the Church, to have divine authority, it must be the case not only that this Tradition is divine revelation, but also that this Tradition is divinely protected and preserved in the Church.
St. Vincent draws this from the letters of St. Paul. Speaking of Galatians 1.8, he writes, “But what he [i.e. St. Paul] means is: Even if that were to happen which cannot happen — if any one, be he who he may, attempt to alter the faith once for all delivered, let him be accursed.” (p. 22) It means that “it is unlawful for all to receive any other gospel than that which the Catholic Church preaches everywhere.” (p. 24) According to St. Vincent, Galatians 1:8 entails that we have to trace the gospel down through the generations, from the Apostles to the present. The two possible methodological errors related to this verse are: (1) assuming blindly that the [heretical] sect one is presently in is the bearer of the Apostolic tradition, and thereby following what is, in actuality, a novel interpretation that arose in a previous generation, and in which one was raised, and (2) failing to trace the Apostolic Tradition down through the generations, but instead assuming that one’s own interpretation of Scripture is what the Apostles handed down, and thereby introducing what is in fact a novel interpretation.
Toward the end of his Commonitory, St. Vincent summarizes his point concerning the authority of Tradition:
We said likewise, that in the Church itself regard must be had to the consentient voice of universality equally with that of antiquity, lest we either be torn from the integrity of unity and carried away to schism, or be precipitated from the religion of antiquity into heretical novelties. We said, further, that in this same ecclesiastical antiquity two points are very carefully and earnestly to be held in view by those who would keep clear of heresy: first, they should ascertain whether any decision has been given in ancient times as to the matter in question by the whole priesthood of the Catholic Church, with the authority of a General Council: and, secondly, 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. (p. 77)
We find the true and Catholic doctrine of the Church in the Church, either by what has been decided by the authority of the Church in a General Council, or, if no decision has been made in a General Council concerning the question, in what has been held universally in the Church, especially in the Church Fathers. This is how we avoid being carried away into schism or heretical novelties.
B. The Magisterium
1. General Councils
Throughout the Commonitory we see St. Vincent refer to the authority of General Councils:
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. (p. 8)
A bit later he writes:
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. (p. 59)
Here St. Vincent shows us what a General Council does. It does not fabricate novel teaching. Rather, typically in response to challenges from heretics, it clarifies and makes explicit what had always been believed, even if previously held in a simple or inchoate fashion. In other words, a General Council serves as an instrument in the authentic development of doctrine. Moreover, a General Council puts to writing what had previously been handed down only by [oral] tradition. So, the decisions and decrees of a General Council are a way to know what is the oral Tradition that has been passed down from the Apostles.2
Toward the end of the Commonitory he repeatedly refers to the authority of General Councils:
[I]n antiquity itself in like manner, to the temerity of one or of a very few they must prefer, first of all, the general decrees, if such there be, of a Universal Council, or if there be no such, then, what is next best, they must follow the consentient belief of many and great masters. Which rule having been faithfully, soberly, and scrupulously observed, we shall with little difficulty detect the noxious errors of heretics as they arise. (p. 70)
But it is now time to bring forward the exemplification which we promised, where and how the sentences of the holy Fathers have been collected together, so that in accordance with them, by the decree and authority of a council, the rule of the Church’s faith may be settled. (p. 75)
[F]irst, they should ascertain whether any decision has been given in ancient times as to the matter in question by the whole priesthood of the Catholic Church, with the authority of a General Council. (p. 77)
According to St. Vincent, a General Council settles questions or disputes concerning what does and does not belong to the rule of the Church’s faith. If the Church has spoken on a question through a General Council, there is no need to search the Fathers; the question is no longer uncertain or up in the air, because the Church’s decision is authoritative and binding. If a heresy has already been condemned by a General Council, then we should treat such heresies “as having been already of old convicted and condemned by universal councils of the Catholic Priesthood.” (p. 71) That could be the case only if General Councils are authoritative and binding.
2. The Apostolic See
In St. Vincent’s Commonitory we see an awareness of the authoritative primacy of the Apostolic See. In the early part of his work, in seeking to provide an example of resisting heresy by holding fast to what had been received from the Apostles, St. Vincent makes use of the example of Pope St. Stephen (254 – 257) in resisting the heretical doctrine concerning the iteration of baptism (see Section II, above):
Examples there are without number: but to be brief, we will take one, and that, in preference to others, from the Apostolic See, so that it may be clearer than day to every one with how great energy, with how great zeal, with how great earnestness, the blessed successors of the blessed apostles have constantly defended the integrity of the religion which they have once received. (p. 15)
… When then all men protested against the novelty [introduced by Agripinnus], and the priesthood everywhere, each as his zeal prompted him, opposed it, Pope Stephen of blessed memory, Prelate of the Apostolic See, in conjunction indeed with his colleagues but yet himself the foremost, withstood it, thinking it right, I doubt not, that as he exceeded all others in the authority of his place, so he should also in the devotion of his faith. In fine, in an epistle sent at the time to Africa, he laid down this rule: Let there be no innovation— nothing but what has been handed down. For that holy and prudent man well knew that true piety admits no other rule than that whatsoever things have been faithfully received from our fathers the same are to be faithfully consigned to our children; and that it is our duty, not to lead religion whither we would, but rather to follow religion whither it leads; and that it is the part of Christian modesty and gravity not to hand down our own beliefs or observances to those who come after us, but to preserve and keep what we have received from those who went before us. (p. 16)
St. Vincent notes that Pope St. Stephen was himself “the foremost” of his colleagues in the priesthood (i.e. the college of bishops). He excelled all the other bishops in “the authority of his place.” St. Vincent is speaking not of political authority or charismatic authority, but of the ecclesial authority of the Apostolic See, the place where saints Peter and Paul laid down their lives and handed down their apostolic authority. This See has greater authority than any of the others, and according to St. Vincent, Pope St. Stephen was aware that he, in virtue of being the bishop of the Apostolic See and a “successor of the blessed apostles,” excelled all the other bishops in ecclesial authority.
Later in his Commonitory St. Vincent again refers to the authoritative primacy of the bishop of Rome. In speaking of the authorities gathered at the Council of Ephesus, he writes:
And lest Greece or the East should seem to stand alone, to prove that the Western and Latin world also have always held the same belief, there were read in the Council certain Epistles of St. Felix, martyr, and St. Julius, both bishops of Rome. And that not only the Head, but the other parts, of the world also might bear witness to the judgment of the council, there was added from the South the most blessed Cyprian, bishop of Carthage and martyr, and from the North St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan.” (p. 79)
Notice what St. Vincent says about Popes St. Felix (269-274) and St. Julius (337-352); they are the “the Head,” in contrast to the bishops of the East and of Africa and of northern Italy.
In the closing paragraphs of his Commonitory, St. Vincent again refers to the authority of the Apostolic See. He writes:
The foregoing would be enough and very much more than enough, to crush and annihilate every profane novelty. But yet that nothing might be wanting to such completeness of proof, we added, at the close, the twofold authority of the Apostolic See, first, that of holy Pope Sixtus, the venerable prelate who now adorns the Roman Church; and secondly that of his predecessor, Pope Celestine of blessed memory, which same we think it necessary to insert here also. (p. 84)
St. Vincent then explains that Pope St. Sixtus III (432-440) wrote a letter to the bishop of Antioch regarding the doctrine taught by Nestorius (bishop of Constantinople). In the letter Pope St. Sixtus enjoined the bishop of Antioch to “Let no license be allowed to novelty, because it is not fit that any addition should be made to antiquity. Let not the clear faith and belief of our forefathers be fouled by any muddy admixture.” (p. 84) Likewise, St. Vincent shows the authority of Pope St. Celestine (422-430) by recounting how Pope St. Celestine wrote an epistle to the priests of France “charging them with connivance with error, in that by their silence they failed in their duty to the ancient faith, and allowed profane novelties to spring up.” (p. 85) He exhorted them to rebuke those introducing such novelties. This, according to St. Vincent, was the “sentence” [i.e. authoritative decision] of Pope St. Celestine, (p. 85).
Whoever then gainsays these Apostolic and Catholic determinations, first of all necessarily insults the memory of holy Celestine, who decreed that novelty should cease to assail antiquity; and in the next place sets at naught the decision of holy Sixtus, whose sentence was, Let no license be allowed to novelty, since it is not fit that any addition be made to antiquity. (p. 86)
According to St. Vincent, popes St. Celestine and St. Sixtus did not merely give opinions; they “decreed” and provided “decisions.” To go against them is to go against “Apostolic and Catholic determinations.” In these excerpts we see in St. Vincent’s writing a clear awareness of the authoritative primacy of the Apostolic See and its bishop, having succession from the blessed apostles.
3. Authority of the Church
More generally throughout the Commonitory we find St. Vincent referring to the authority of the Church:
An important fact truly, useful to be learned, and necessary to be remembered, and to be illustrated and enforced again and again, by example upon example, in order that all true Catholics may understand that it behooves them with the Church to receive Teachers, not with Teachers to desert the faith of the Church.” (p. 42)
Which teachers should we receive? Only those teachers who are “with the Church.” We must never follow teachers to desert the faith of the Church. Such a prescription would be worthless if “the Church” were defined only by way of teachers, and without a visible principle of unity, since every teacher would, by simply redefining ‘Church,’ claim to be part of the Church. Any heresy or schism throughout the history of the Church could have claimed to be part of the universal Church, and some did. The Arians could have done so. So could the Nestorians or the Donatists or the Marcionites or the Monophysites. But, in each case, it would have been a false claim, because by their rejection of the Church’s decision concerning their specific heresy (or in the Donatist case by their visible separation from communion with the Catholic Church) they were no longer in communion with the successor of St. Peter and with all those in communion with the Apostolic See. The standard of orthodoxy and unity was not their own interpretation of Scripture, but was instead the faith of and full communion with the one holding the keys of the Kingdom.
For St. Vincent, the Church is a “placid and good mother,” (p. 50) and we are to hold “the entire doctrine of the Church.” (p. 50) Whoever gainsays the decisions of the Church and her councils:
despises as vile and worthless the whole Church of Christ, and its doctors, apostles, and prophets, and especially the blessed Apostle Paul: he despises the Church, in that she has never failed in loyalty to the duty of cherishing and preserving the faith once for all delivered to her; he despises St. Paul, who wrote, O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you, shunning profane novelties of words; (1 Timothy 6:20) and again, if any man preach unto you other than you have received, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:9) (p. 86)
For St. Vincent, the authority of the Church and her Magisterium is testified to in St. Paul’s words, when he urges St. Timothy to shun profane novelties, and when he exhorts the Galatian Christians not to accept or receive anything other than what they had already received. The Church keeps these Pauline admonitions, and therefore to despise the teaching of the Church is to despise even St. Paul. He writes,”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?” (p. 53) Here again, is an implicit rejection of the possibility of ecclesial deism, as I explain in the following section.
Our duty as Catholics, according to St. Vincent, is to be willing to die in the faith of the holy Fathers:
[I]t is incumbent on all Catholics who are anxious to approve themselves genuine sons of Mother Church, to adhere henceforward to the holy faith of the holy Fathers, to be wedded to it, to die in it; but as to the profane novelties of profane men— to detest them, abhor them, oppose them, give them no quarter. (p. 86)
This admonition is based not only on the promises of Christ concerning the indefectibility of the Church, but also on an understanding of the mystical union of Christ and His Church such that staying with the Church is staying with Christ, and believing what the Church teaches, because of its authority from Christ, is the way in which faith in Christ is expressed. For St. Vincent, submitting to the Church is submitting to Christ. We believe Christ through what the Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.3
In explaining St. Paul’s exhortion to St. Timothy in 1 Timothy 6:20, St. Vincent writes:
Shun profane novelties, he says. He does not say shun antiquity. But he plainly points to what ought to follow by the rule of contrary. For if novelty is to be shunned, antiquity is to be held fast; if novelty is profane, antiquity is sacred. … For you may hear some of these same doctors say, Come, O silly wretches, who go by the name of Catholics, come and learn the true faith, which no one but ourselves is acquainted with, which same has lain hid these many ages, but has recently been revealed and made manifest. But learn it by stealth and in secret, for you will be delighted with it. Moreover, when you have learned it, teach it furtively, that the world may not hear, that the Church may not know. For there are but few to whom it is granted to receive the secret of so great a mystery. Are not these the words of that harlot who, in the proverbs of Solomon, calls to the passengers who go right on their ways, Whoso is simple let him turn in hither. And as for them that are void of understanding, she exhorts them saying: Drink stolen waters, for they are sweet, and eat bread in secret for it is pleasant.” (p. 52)
What does St. Paul mean in telling St. Timothy to shun profane novelties? According to St. Vincent, one implication of St. Paul’s injunction is that we must avoid the error of ecclesial deism. St. Vincent writes:
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. (p. 61)
St. Vincent argues that what follows from St. Paul’s injunction that we shun profane novelties is that we hold fast to antiquity as sacred. But for St. Vincent this does not mean that only the writings of the Apostles are sacred or authoritative, and that we can contravene the writings of the Church Fathers. He describes a situation in which a heretic urges a Catholic to “come and learn the true faith” which no one has known for many ages, but which he and his heretical sect have rediscovered. The very notion that the truth could have departed from the visible Church is a rejection not only of the Church, but of the teaching that the Church herself has received and diligently preserved. For St. Vincent, the problem underlying the embrace of profane novelties is an embrace of ecclesial deism, which leads to abandoning the ancient faith. St. Vincent is not opposed to novelty-by-way-of-development, since he explicitly affirms that as I argue in section VI below. That would be what we might call ‘sacred novelty,’ the result of genuine organic growth in the understanding of the deposit of faith, and thus a making explicit now of what had always been present implicitly. Profane novelty, by contrast, does not have its origin in the sacred deposit, but somewhere else, words “utterly removed from the inmost sanctuary of the Church,” and contrary to the ancient faith. To embrace a profane novelty is to accuse the whole of all the saints and doctors who have proceeded oneself of ignorance at best, or of blasphemous rejection of the truth. Such a notion is preposterous for St. Vincent in its arrogance and unbelief. He writes:
Lest any one perchance should rashly think the holy and Catholic consent of these blessed fathers to be despised, the Apostle says, in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, God has placed some in the Church, first Apostles, (1 Cor. 12:27-28) of whom himself was one; secondly Prophets, such as Agabus, of whom we read in the Acts of the Apostles; (Acts 11:28) then doctors, who are now called Homilists, Expositors, whom the same apostle sometimes calls also Prophets, because by them the mysteries of the Prophets are opened to the people. Whosoever, therefore, shall despise these, who had their appointment of God in His Church in their several times and places, when they are unanimous in Christ, in the interpretation of some one point of Catholic doctrine, despises not man, but God, from whose unity in the truth, lest any one should vary, the same Apostle earnestly protests, I beseech you, brethren, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. 1 Corinthians 1:10 But if any one dissent from their unanimous decision, let him listen to the words of the same apostle, God is not the God of dissension but of peace; 1 Corinthians 14:33 that is, not of him who departs from the unity of consent, but of those who remain steadfast in the peace of consent: as, he continues, I teach in all Churches of the saints, that is, of Catholics, which churches are therefore churches of the saints, because they continue steadfast in the communion of the faith. (p.73)
St. Vincent claims from 1 Cor. 12:27-28 that whoever rejects the ecclesial authority of those persons in the Church whom God has placed in their office, whether Apostles, prophets, or doctors, despises not man, but God. To despise those who were appointed by God as teachers and preachers in His Church, when they are unanimous in Christ in the interpretation of some one point of Catholic doctrine, despises God because unity in the truth comes from God through the persons God has established in the various offices of His Church. To go against that unity and the divinely authorized persons by which it is preserved, is to go against God. That was true not only in the first generation of the Church, but in every succeeding generation, even to his own day. It is on the basis of the unity found through the divinely established Magisterium that St. Paul can exhort believers that there be no divisions among them. Such an exhortation would make no sense if the Magisterium itself could be divided, for there would be no principled way to resolve such divisions. The God who is a God of peace and order (1 Cor 14:33) has established a means by which peace and order is maintained perpetually in His Church, and divisions avoided (1 Cor. 1:10), until He returns. The means He has established, as we saw above, is not Scripture alone. Rather, God has established teaching and ruling offices in His Church, and an abiding Tradition, by which Scripture is to be understood, and questions and disputes are to be answered and resolved. Those who separate themselves from the unity, peace, and order that binds together the [particular] Churches of the saints (i.e. “of Catholics”) through the divinely appointed Magisterium of the Church, separate themselves from the God who has established this supernatural peace in His Church.
St. Vincent also quotes from the second epistle of St. John, in support of the indefectibility of the Church:
If anyone, says St. John, come to you and bring not this doctrine. What doctrine? What but the Catholic and universal doctrine, which has continued one and the same through the several successions of ages by the uncorrupt tradition of the truth and so will continue for ever – “Receive him not into your house, neither bid him Godspeed, for he that bids him Godspeed communicates with him in his evil deeds.” (2 John 10) (p. 60)
According to St. Vincent, apostolicity is not determined by checking the teaching in question with one’s own interpretation of Scripture. In order to apply 2 John 10, we determine what is and is not the Apostles’ doctrine by comparing the teaching in question to what the Church has believed and taught through the successions of ages “and will continue forever.” St. Vincent’s belief that the apostolic doctrine will “continue forever” to be handed down uncorrupt in the Catholic Church indicates his belief that Christ had endowed His Church with indefectibility.
Writing just three years after the Ecumenical Council that condemned Nestorius, St. Vincent uses this incident as an example, pointing to Nestorius’ denial of ecclesial indefectibility in his belief that he [i.e. Nestorius] was the first and only one who rightly understood holy Scripture in this matter:
We inveighed also against the wicked presumption of Nestorius in boasting that he was the first and the only one who understood holy Scripture, and that all those teachers were ignorant, who before him had expounded the sacred oracles, forsooth, the whole body of priests, the whole body of Confessors and martyrs, of whom some had published commentaries upon the Law of God, others had agreed with them in their comments, or had acquiesced in them. In a word, he confidently asserted that the whole Church was even now in error, and always had been in error, in that, as it seemed to him, it had followed, and was following, ignorant and misguided teachers. (p. 83. cf. p. 86.)
Those present-day exegetes who approach Scripture without any recourse to the Church Fathers, or who think of the Church Fathers as benighted infants in comparison to themselves, have fallen into the sin of wicked presumption. Catholicity is the contrary of arrogance; the two cannot go together. We see the same stance in Martin Luther, who, like Nestorius, confidently asserted that the whole Church was even now in error, and had long been in error, in that, as it seemed to him, it had followed, and was following, ignorant and misguided teachers. To be Catholic is take the stance of St. John the Baptist, who says, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (St. John 3:30) It is to take the stance of St. Mary, who said, “Be it done unto me according to Thy word,” (St. Luke 1:38) and “do whatever He tells you.” (St. John 2:5)
St. Vincent’s purpose is to put to writing the rule by which we may know how to find and retain the truth in the face of schisms and heresies. He thus raises the following question: What ought we to do in the case of schism?
What then will a Catholic Christian do, if a small portion of the Church have cut itself off from the communion of the universal faith? What, surely, but prefer the soundness of the whole body to the unsoundness of a pestilent and corrupt member? What, if some novel contagion seek to infect not merely an insignificant portion of the Church, but the whole? (p. 7)
As an example, he describes the account of the Donatist schism, which had only recently been resolve in AD 411:
In the time of Donatus, from whom his followers were called Donatists, when great numbers in Africa were rushing headlong into their own mad error, and unmindful of their name, their religion, their profession, were preferring the sacrilegious temerity of one man before the Church of Christ, then they alone throughout Africa were safe within the sacred precincts of the Catholic faith, who, detesting the profane schism, continued in communion with the universal Church, leaving to posterity an illustrious example, how, and how well in future the soundness of the whole body should be preferred before the madness of one, or at most of a few. (p. 9)
St. Vincent’s general answer to the question, “What ought we do to in the event of schism?” is that we must detest schism, preferring the soundness of the whole body to the madness of one or of a few. (p. 9)
In case heresy has made its way into some few in the Church, we must prefer the decrees of an ancient General Council to the “rashness and ignorance of a few.” But if there has been no relevant decrees from a General Council, then we must consult the Tradition:
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. (p. 8)
If, however, some “novel contagion” seeks to infect not merely an insignificant portion of the Church, but the whole (as in the case of the Arians, cf. p. 10),”then we must “cleave to antiquity, which at this day cannot possibly be seduced by any fraud of novelty.” (p. 7)
B. The Cause of Heresies and Schisms
1. Cause: Wicked Novelty Subverting Well-Established Antiquity
The general cause of heresy and schism, according to St. Vincent is “wicked novelty subverting well established antiquity.” (p. 11) Again, St. Vincent’s diagnosis is an indictment of ecclesial deism, because the nature of heresy is to “burst forth at a particular time, at a particular place, from a particular person.” (p. 62) That would not be the case if the whole of the Church, save for an elect few, could universally and simultaneously, even if gradually, sink into heresy. He writes:
Who ever originated a heresy that did not first dissever himself from the consentient agreement of the universality and antiquity of the Catholic Church? That this is so is demonstrated in the clearest way by examples. For who ever before that profane Pelagius attributed so much antecedent strength to Free-will, as to deny the necessity of God’s grace to aid it towards good in every single act? Who ever before his monstrous disciple Cœlestius denied that the whole human race is involved in the guilt of Adam’s sin? Who ever before sacrilegious Arius dared to rend asunder the unity of the Trinity? Who before impious Sabellius was so audacious as to confound the Trinity of the Unity? Who before cruellest Novatian represented God as cruel in that He had rather the wicked should die than that he should be converted and live? Who before Simon Magus, who was smitten by the apostle’s rebuke, and from whom that ancient sink of every thing vile has flowed by a secret continuous succession even to Priscillian of our own time, — who, I say, before this Simon Magus, dared to say that God, the Creator, is the author of evil, that is, of our wickednesses, impieties, flagitiousnesses, inasmuch as he asserts that He created with His own hands a human nature of such a description, that of its own motion, and by the impulse of its necessity-constrained will, it can do nothing else, can will nothing else, but sin, seeing that tossed to and fro, and set on fire by the furies of all sorts of vices, it is hurried away by unquenchable lust into the utmost extremes of baseness? (p. 62)
Through many illustrations, St. Vincent argues that heresy always has its source in novelty against the universal doctrine of the Church. Each heretic introduces something new, something previously unknown. Thus in principle, heresy can be distinguished from orthodoxy by the ‘profane novelty’ of the former. St. Vincent repeats this in the subsequent paragraph:
[I]t is an established law, in the case of almost all heresies, that they evermore delight in profane novelties, scorn the decisions of antiquity, and, through oppositions of science falsely so called, make shipwreck of the faith. On the other hand, it is the sure characteristic of Catholics to keep that which has been committed to their trust by the holy Fathers, to condemn profane novelties, and, in the apostle’s words, once and again repeated, to anathematize every one who preaches any other doctrine than that which has been received. (p. 63)
According to St. Vincent, heretics know that the novelty of heresy refutes it, and so they dress up their heresy under a name other than its own, and appeal to ancient writers to make it seem that they are not the first to hold this position:
[They] get hold often of the works of some ancient writer, not very clearly expressed, which, owing to the very obscurity of their own doctrine, have the appearance of agreeing with it, so that they get the credit of being neither the first nor the only persons who have held it. (p. 19)
He walks through the examples of Nestorius (p. 29), Photinus (p. 30), Apollinaris (p. 31), Origen (p. 43), and Tertullian (p. 46), to show in each case how their error was the result of advancing a profane novelty against the universal tradition of the Church.
2. Why does God permit them?
Why then does God permit some eminent men to become the authors of [heretical] novelty in the Church? (p. 27) St. Vincent’s answer: To try us.
That the Lord your God may try you; he says. And assuredly it is a great trial when one whom you believe to be a prophet, a disciple of prophets, a doctor and defender of the truth, whom you have folded to your breast with the utmost veneration and love, when such a one of a sudden secretly and furtively brings in noxious errors, which you can neither quickly detect, being held by the prestige of former authority, nor lightly think it right to condemn, being prevented by affection for your old master. (p. 28)
When a heretical teacher arises, then those under his influence are faced with a choice, “the Church’s authority drawing them one way, their Master’s influence the opposite.” (p. 31) This is a test allowed by God, to see whether we will in faith cling to the Church, or whether we are lovers of self, and so prefer our own reasoning to the faith offered to us by holy Mother Church. The true Catholic loves the Church above the authority of every man:
This being the case, he is the true and genuine Catholic who loves the truth of God, who loves the Church, who loves the Body of Christ, who esteems divine religion and the Catholic Faith above every thing, above the authority, above the regard, above the genius, above the eloquence, above the philosophy, of every man whatsoever; who sets light by all of these, and continuing steadfast and established in the faith, resolves that he will believe that, and that only, which he is sure the Catholic Church has held universally and from ancient time; but that whatsoever new and unheard-of doctrine he shall find to have been furtively introduced by some one or another, besides that of all, or contrary to that of all the saints, this, he will understand, does not pertain to religion, but is permitted as a trial, being instructed especially by the words of the blessed Apostle Paul, who writes thus in his first Epistle to the Corinthians, There must needs be heresies, that they who are approved may be made manifest among you: 1 Corinthians 2:9 as though he should say, This is the reason why the authors of Heresies are not immediately rooted up by God, namely, that they who are approved may be made manifest; that is, that it may be apparent of each individual, how tenacious and faithful and steadfast he is in his love of the Catholic faith. (p. 48)
According to St. Vincent, when St. Paul said that there must be heresies among us, that those who are approved may be made manifest among us, he was providing the reason why God allows such heresies to arise, so that our faith may be tested.
C. The Antidote: Interpret Scripture within and according to the Church
So, what is the antidote to heresies and schisms? St. Vincent points to the martyrs and confessors who suffered and died not for the sake of doctrines advanced by a small portion of the Body, but for the sake of the faith of the whole Body.
But in this divine virtue, as we may call it, exhibited by these Confessors, we must note especially that the defence which they then undertook in appealing to the Ancient Church, was the defence, not of a part, but of the whole body. For it was not right that men of such eminence should uphold with so huge an effort the vague and conflicting notions of one or two men, or should exert themselves in the defence of some ill-advised combination of some petty province; but adhering to the decrees and definitions of the universal priesthood of Holy Church, the heirs of Apostolic and Catholic truth, they chose rather to deliver up themselves than to betray the faith of universality and antiquity. (p. 14)
Why were they willing to die for the faith of the whole Body? Because the faith of universality and antiquity is necessarily the faith taught by the Apostles and thus by Christ. That is the faith of which we can have the certainty that comes from God, a faith for which we must be willing to lay down our lives.
How then, are Catholics to interpret Scripture, so as to avoid the errors and misinterpretations of the heretics? St. Vincent gives the following rule:
[T]hey must interpret the sacred Canon according to the traditions of the Universal Church and in keeping with the rules of Catholic doctrine, in which Catholic and Universal Church, moreover, they must follow universality, antiquity, consent. And if at any time a part opposes itself to the whole, novelty to antiquity, the dissent of one or a few who are in error to the consent of all or at all events of the great majority of Catholics, then they must prefer the soundness of the whole to the corruption of a part; in which same whole they must prefer the religion of antiquity to the profaneness of novelty; and in antiquity itself in like manner, to the temerity of one or of a very few they must prefer, first of all, the general decrees, if such there be, of a Universal Council, or if there be no such, then, what is next best, they must follow the consentient belief of many and great masters. Which rule having been faithfully, soberly, and scrupulously observed, we shall with little difficulty detect the noxious errors of heretics as they arise. (p. 70)
We must interpret Scripture according to the traditions of the Universal Church, and the rules of Catholic doctrine, preferring the soundness of the whole to the corruption of the part. Where the Church’s Magisterium in the Universal Councils has answered questions or defined doctrines, we must interpret Scripture in subordination to those Magisterial decisions. Where the Church has not offered Magisterial decisions, we must follow universality, antiquity, and consent, preferring the soundness of the whole to the corruption of a part. Again, this rule indicates St. Vincent’s belief in the indefectibility of the Church; otherwise, it would be possible for the part to be what is sound, and the whole to be corrupt.
Regarding older heresies, St. Vincent writes:
But heresies already widely diffused and of old standing 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. (p. 71)
Regarding new heresies, which have not yet been treated by a Magisterial decision, he urges that we examine the Church Fathers:
Therefore, as soon as the corruption of each mischievous error begins to break forth, and to defend itself by filching certain passages of Scripture, and expounding them fraudulently and deceitfully, immediately, the opinions of the ancients in the interpretation of the Canon are to be collected, whereby the novelty, and consequently the profaneness, whatever it may be, that arises, may both without any doubt be exposed, and without any tergiversation be condemned. But the opinions of those Fathers only are to be used for comparison, who living and teaching, holily, wisely, and with constancy, in the Catholic faith and communion, were counted worthy either to die in the faith of Christ, or to suffer death happily for Christ. Whom yet we are to believe in this condition, that that only is to be accounted indubitable, certain, established, which either all, or the more part, have supported and confirmed manifestly, frequently, persistently, in one and the same sense, forming, as it were, a consentient council of doctors, all receiving, holding, handing on the same doctrine. But whatsoever a teacher holds, other than all, or contrary to all, be he holy and learned, be he a bishop, be he a Confessor, be he a martyr, let that be regarded as a private fancy of his own, and be separated from the authority of common, public, general persuasion, lest, after the sacrilegious custom of heretics and schismatics, rejecting the ancient truth of the universal Creed, we follow, at the utmost peril of our eternal salvation, the newly devised error of one man. (p. 72)
When an allegedly novel teaching arises, and the Church has not yet offered a decision, we should examine the Church Fathers to see whether the teaching is in agreement with what they believed and taught, or whether it is contrary to it. What was believed and taught by all or most of the Fathers carries far greater weight than what was taught by only a few. And if a teacher holds a unique belief, then we should treat that as his own fancy, not as part of the authoritative Apostolic Tradition.
What St. Vincent has said in his general rule might seem to preclude the possibility of the development of doctrine. But, that would be to misunderstand his rule, as forbidding every sort of novelty, when in fact his rule forbids only profane novelty, not developmental novelty. He devotes seven paragraphs to the nature of the development of doctrine. First, in his exposition of St. Paul’s injunction to St. Timothy, whom St. Vincent takes to represent the Magisterium of the Church, he writes:
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. (p. 53)
Then, anticipating the objection that if we follow the Vincentian canon there will be no doctrinal progress, he writes:
But some one will say, perhaps, Shall there, then, be no progress in Christ’s Church? Certainly; all possible progress. For what being is there, so envious of men, so full of hatred to God, who would seek to forbid it? Yet on condition that it be real progress, not alteration of the faith. For progress requires that the subject be enlarged in itself, alteration, that it be transformed into something else. The intelligence, then, the knowledge, the wisdom, as well of individuals as of all, as well of one man as of the whole Church, ought, in the course of ages and centuries, to increase and make much and vigorous progress; but yet only in its own kind; that is to say, in the same doctrine, in the same sense, and in the same meaning. (p. 54)
Of course the Vincentian canon disallows “alteration of the faith.” But genuine doctrinal development, according to St. Vincent, differs from “alteration of the faith.” Progress “enlarges” the subject, drawing out what is implicitly present, whereas “alteration” transforms it into something altogether different in “kind” (i.e. essence). This development is organic, like that of a growing physical body:
The growth of religion in the soul must be analogous to the growth of the body, which, though in process of years it is developed and attains its full size, yet remains still the same. There is a wide difference between the flower of youth and the maturity of age; yet they who were once young are still the same now that they have become old, insomuch that though the stature and outward form of the individual are changed, yet his nature is one and the same, his person is one and the same. An infant’s limbs are small, a young man’s large, yet the infant and the young man are the same. Men when full grown have the same number of joints that they had when children; and if there be any to which maturer age has given birth these were already present in embryo, so that nothing new is produced in them when old which was not already latent in them when children. This, then, is undoubtedly the true and legitimate rule of progress, this the established and most beautiful order of growth, that mature age ever develops in the man those parts and forms which the wisdom of the Creator had already framed beforehand in the infant. Whereas, if the human form were changed into some shape belonging to another kind, or at any rate, if the number of its limbs were increased or diminished, the result would be that the whole body would become either a wreck or a monster, or, at the least, would be impaired and enfeebled. (p. 55)
In like manner, it behooves Christian doctrine to follow the same laws of progress, so 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 measurement of its parts, and, so to speak, in all its proper members and senses, admitting no change, no waste of its distinctive property, no variation in its limits. (p. 56)
Just as a living body grows and develops, though it remains the same in kind, so the faith of the Church follows “the same laws of progress,” as the Church grows in her understanding and explication of it, realizing more fully what is latent within it, but never changing it in its essence, either by loss or addition. For St. Vincent, the faith is living, and so is the Body of Christ, the Church. Even the works of the saints are like seeds which are planted and grow in time, until later generations reap their harvest. He writes:
For example: Our forefathers in the old time sowed wheat in the Church’s field. It would be most unmeet and iniquitous if we, their descendants, instead of the genuine truth of grain, should reap the counterfeit error of tares. This rather should be the result — there should be no discrepancy between the first and the last. From doctrine which was sown as wheat, we should reap, in the increase, doctrine of the same kind — wheat also; so that when in process of time any of the original seed is developed, and now flourishes under cultivation, no change may ensue in the character of the plant. There may supervene shape, form, variation in outward appearance, but the nature of each kind must remain the same. God forbid that those rose-beds of Catholic interpretation should be converted into thorns and thistles. God forbid that in that spiritual paradise from plants of cinnamon and balsam, darnel and wolfsbane should of a sudden shoot forth.
Therefore, whatever has been sown by the fidelity of the Fathers in this husbandry of God’s Church, the same ought to be cultivated and taken care of by the industry of their children, the same ought to flourish and ripen, the same ought to advance and go forward to perfection. For it is right that those ancient doctrines of heavenly philosophy should, as time goes on, be cared for, smoothed, polished; but not that they should be changed, not that they should be maimed, not that they should be mutilated. They may receive proof, illustration, definiteness; but they must retain withal their completeness, their integrity, their characteristic properties. (p. 57)
There will be change in the shape, configuration, and outward appearance over the course of genuine development, but there will be no change in the nature of the kind. What the Apostles and Fathers sowed, that is what we also should reap, in its developed form, smoothed and polished, but not changed (i.e. in essence), not maimed, and not mutilated. As the Church addresses heresies and gives further definiteness to the faith, the faith retains its completeness, its integrity, and its characteristic properties. The whole of the Catholic faith is dependent on all its parts, such that removing one element of the faith would destroy the whole; likewise, introducing novelty into the faith would corrupt the whole (p. 58)
But the Church of Christ preserves the faith, and develops the doctrine it has received:
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. (p. 59)
St. Vincent teaches that the Church is a “careful and watchful guardian” of the apostolic deposit, never changing anything in it, but only developing whatever has been left undeveloped, or polishing it further if it has already been developed. This developing of doctrine is what the Councils do as they respond to heresies and resolve doctrinal disputes, and this activity involves putting into writing for the sake of posterity what had been passed down from those of ancient times only by [oral] tradition.
St. Vincent’s Commonitory reveals the ecclesial and Catholic character of fifth century Christianity, between the third and fourth Ecumenical Councils. He shows why Scripture cannot be interpreted authentically apart from the authority of the Magisterium (Prelacy) of the Church and apart form the Tradition found in the Church Fathers. He indicates an implicit belief in the indefectibility of the Church, and a rejection of ecclesial deism. And that rejection of ecclesial deism corresponds to his explication of the doctrine of development, because the living and active Spirit of God always remains in the Body, the Church. Because St. Vincent provides a rule by which heresy and orthodoxy can be distinguished, his work is very important for providing the second-order means by which Christians divided from each other can seek reconcilation. His rule requires that we virtually return to the point of separation, and consider together which of our positions is the profane novelty and which is the authentic and authorized preservation or development of what had always and everywhere been believed by all. The authority of the Church and her Councils and the Apostolic See is part of that Tradition, as is the notion of the development of doctrine, which St. Vincent hands down in this work from those who handed it down to him. His rule turns us to the Tradition handed down by the Church Fathers, and to the decisions of the Magisterium, or even prior, to the pursuit of the identity of that Magisterial authority of which St. Vincent speaks.
St. Vincent, pray for us, that Christians divided from each other may be reconciled and united in the true and ancient faith Christ entrusted to His Church.
- All the references to St. Vincent’s Commonitory are to the paragraph numbers; see here for the full text. I will not be discussing here the secondary texts that treat St. Vincent’s work. My intention here is much less ambitious: to present and examine the fundamental points he is making, the lines of reasoning he uses, the principles he is assuming and the paradigm in which thinks. [↩]
- That can be seen most clearly, in St. Vincent’s use of the example of the Council of Ephesus, concerning which he presents all the patristic witnesses brought to bear at that Council in defense of the Catholic position against Nestorius. See paragraphs 78-80. [↩]
- See “St. Thomas Aquinas on the Relation of Faith to the Church.” [↩]