Some quotes from Vincent of Lerins

Just because.

On the polyvalence of Scripture:

But here some one perhaps will ask, 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? 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. (ch. 5)

Don’t preach heresy!

To preach any doctrine therefore to Catholic Christians other than what they have received never was lawful, never is lawful, never will be lawful: and to anathematize those who preach anything other than what has once been received, always was a duty, always is a duty, always will be a duty. (ch. 25)

Heresy is poison:

They have, in fact swallowed a quantity of poison — not enough to kill, yet more than can be got rid of; it neither causes death, nor suffers to live. O wretched condition! With what surging tempestuous cares are they tossed about! One while, the error being set in motion, they are hurried wherever the wind drives them; another, returning upon themselves like refluent waves, they are dashed back: one while, with rash presumption, they give their approval to what seems uncertain; another, with irrational fear, they are frightened out of their wits at what is certain, in doubt whither to go, whither to return, what to seek, what to shun, what to keep, what to throw away. (ch. 49)

They do, in fact, what nurses do when they would prepare some bitter draught for children; they smear the edge of the cup all round with honey, that the unsuspecting child, having first tasted the sweet, may have no fear of the bitter. So too do these act, who disguise poisonous herbs and noxious juices under the names of medicines, so that no one almost, when he reads the label, suspects the poison. (ch. 65)

The goal of church councils:

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? (ch. 59)

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Vincent and Christology

As I said last time, it was Vincent and Christology that really got me when reading the Commonitorium. From my angle, this is because I study Leo the Great and the transmission of his letters. Leo was himself a writer on Christology, and it was Christological controversy that both gave him the appellation ‘the Great’ and ensured the survival of so many of his letters.

For Vincent, Christology is important because it’s what’s just been being discussed at the Council of Ephesus in 431, where Nestorius was anathematised as a heretic by Cyril of Alexandria’s council, and John of Antioch’s council went without recognition or approval of the emperor. All sorts of politicking went on to gain approval, but from the monk’s eye view, what mattered was what was true.

That, essentially, is the point of the Commonitorium. Figure out the truth.

While truth-seeking method is Vincent’s main aim, he does provide some of this truth himself.

Vincent is opposed to Nestorianism, which he takes to be the belief that Christ was two persons, even if Nestorius denies believing that:

But if any one supposes that in his writings he speaks of one Christ, and preaches one Person of Christ, let him not lightly credit it. For either this is a crafty device, that by means of good he may the more easily persuade evil, according to that of the apostle, That which is good was made death to me, (Romans 7:13) — either, I say, he craftily affects in some places in his writings to believe one Christ and one Person of Christ, or else he says that after the Virgin had brought forth, the two Persons were united into one Christ, though at the time of her conception or parturition, and for some short time afterwards, there were two Christs; so that forsooth, though Christ was born at first an ordinary man and nothing more, and not as yet associated in unity of Person with the Word of God, yet afterwards the Person of the Word assuming descended upon Him; and though now the Person assumed remains in the glory of God, yet once there would seem to have been no difference between Him and all other men. (ch. 35)

Vincent proceeds to describe what the catholic faith in the Trinity and incarnation is. He does this in a way that, to me, is wholly consistent with the Latin tradition, arguing that, ‘In God there is one substance, but three Persons; in Christ two substances, but one Person.’ (ch. 37) He is using substantia here not unlike the way natura will be used as terms become more precise. By and large, he is on the trajectory that ends up at Leo (whether we read the history of theology teologically or not, that is where Latin theology goes):

Thus, then, in one and the same Christ there are two substances, one divine, the other human; one of (ex) God the Father, the other of (ex) the Virgin Mother; one co-eternal with and co-equal with the Father, the other temporal and inferior to the Father; one consubstantial with his Father, the other, consubstantial with his Mother, but one and the same Christ in both substances. There is not, therefore, one Christ God, the other man, not one uncreated, the other created; not one impassible, the other passible; not one equal to the Father, the other inferior to the Father; not one of his Father (ex), the other of his Mother (ex), but one and the same Christ, God and man, the same uncreated and created, the same unchangeable and incapable of suffering, the same acquainted by experience with both change and suffering, the same equal to the Father and inferior to the Father, the same begotten of the Father before time, (before the world), the same born of his mother in time (in the world), perfect God, perfect Man. In God supreme divinity, in man perfect humanity. Perfect humanity, I say, forasmuch as it has both soul and flesh; the flesh, very flesh; our flesh, his mother’s flesh; the soul, intellectual, endowed with mind and reason. (ch. 37)

This is, if you ask me, the thoughtworld of Leo’s Tome, even if expressed differently.

Moreover, I would argue that Vincent is also on the trajectory of the hypostatic union *edit AND communicatio idiomatum* — again, not that that’s a necessary end-point of thought, but he does seem to be leading there in chh. 39 and 40. He writes:

In consequence of which unity of Person, boththose attributes which are proper to God are ascribed to man, and those which are proper to the flesh to God, indifferently and promiscuously. (ch. 40)

He also writes:

Blessed, I say, be the Church, which declares this unity of Person to be so real and effectual, that because of it, in a marvellous and ineffable mystery, she ascribes divine attributes to man, and human to God; because of it, on the one hand, she does not deny that Man, as God, came down from heaven, on the other, she believes that God, as Man, was created, suffered, and was crucified on earth; because of it, finally, she confesses Man the Son of God, and God the Son of the Virgin. (ch. 41)

All of this is interesting to see going on in Southern Gaul in the 430s. Eastern debates are live, and the West has its way of articulating theology that will gain in nuance but, at least in these two questions, little in substance as the years go on. Of course, easterners as a result criticise us for allegedly just parrotting Augustine and Leo for 1500 years. And maybe that’s why we all need each other.

Looking for orthodoxy with Vincent of Lérins

So on the weekend, I read Vincent of Lérins’ Commonitorium. This fifth-century (ca. 432-440) text is famous for stating that catholic truth is that which has been believed always, everywhere, by all. This is probably all most people ever hear about the text, quoted with swelling chest by a certain breed of traditionalist, queried with raised eyebrow by those who are pretty sure this is a pretty useless approach to finding truth in real life.

I, personally, was more interested when he got talking about Christology. (No big surprise there!) But, since Vincent is more famous for his quest for catholic truth, I’ll write a pair of posts about the Lerinian monk, starting with the quest for orthodoxy.

First, the early fifth-century context. I’ve written about it a bit more fully here, but what you need to know is that monasticism is kicking off in a big way in southern Gaul (southern France) where Vincent lived, a few decades after the death of St Martin up north in Tours (Tours, on the Loire, is on the cusp of northern Gaul — they still have wine, though!). The island of Lérins (near Cannes and the beach) was a major centre for the ascetic life, and several Gallic bishops started off their ecclesiastical careers as Lerinian monks. Down the coast from Lérins is Marseilles, and around this time John Cassian’s famous works on the ascetic life were being published.

The predestinarian debate is going on in Gaul, starting to enter the phase where people we today call ‘semi-Pelagian’ are being challenged for not being Augustinian enough, including Cassian, Vincent, and the future abbot of Lérins and bishop of Riez, Faustus. Fun fact: All three are saints, so maybe we should cool our heresy-hunting predestinarian horses. Anyway, this debate leaves little trace in Vincent.

Vincent is more concerned about Christology. Off in Ephesus, the Bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, had been condemned as a heretic in a council led by Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, about which Vincent has knowledge. The condemnation of Nestorius at Ephesus in 431 is not, of course, the end of the story, not even for the 430s. Various letters are going back and forth, East and West, about the easterners who reject Cyril’s council, until a reunion between Alexandria and Antioch happens in 433, although there’s still some simmering on both sides afterwards.

Anyway: Orthodoxy. How do we know it? Obviously, it’s a hot topic in Vincent’s day, all this talk about predestination and whether Jesus was two persons or not.

The two most important things for Vincent are fidelity to Scripture and fidelity to tradition (ch. 4). He argues for the importance of tradition on the grounds that most heretics use the Bible in their defense (ch. 5). Even in small disputes, this is worth noting, as when I explained to a Presbyterian friend that episcopal hierarchy isn’t actually contrary to Scripture. (By ‘small’, I mean Presbyterians aren’t heretics.) The appeal to Scripture alone doesn’t necessarily help you against the Arian or the Origenist, does it? Thus: Tradition!

Vincent goes on to demonstrate times when you lean on antiquity when confronted by error and times when you put your weight on the testimony of the majority. He demonstrates novelty with the examples of the Donatists and Arians. The modern historian will point out that Donatists and Arians would claim that they taught nothing novel, but I do think that pure Arianism, in fact, by stating its case baldly, is a departure from antiquity, from the liturgical expression of the Church, from the (at leas) binitarian nature of biblical worship.

Donatism is actually a better example of the minority. If all the churches of the Mediterranean except for a small number in Africa go one way, are we to believe that the Africans are right? Of course, what about that time everybody was (semi-)Arian after the council of Rimini? Well, that’s why antiquity also helps. Hold them in tension, you should be able to figure it out.

Vincent also talks about why and how heresies arise. Why? Heretics are God’s way of testing the church. They are also a reminder not to be proud. Even Origen and Tertullian fell, after all. How? By not holding fast to antiquity, universality, and consensuality. By trusting in their own cleverness. Through pride. This is how heretics arise.

It’s a worthy warning for we who think ourselves clever when he pulls out Origen and Tertullian. Now, we may want to nuance both of these condemnations. (Like, was Tertullian actually a Montanist?) But still. We shouldn’t be over wise (Ecclesiastes 7:16).

The question is: What does all of this have to do with us?

First, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The consent of the 318 fathers at Nicaea, for example, when coupled with First Constantinople, First Ephesus, and Chalcedon, should have some weight in the question of, ‘Is Jesus fully God?’ We don’t have to recreate the doctrine of the Trinity from scratch — Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers, and the Cappadocians have already been there and done that.

But Vincent’s approach does leave room for exploration. He has this idea of putting together your own little anthology of patristic greatest hits to help you on your way. (I suspect that this is what his Excerpta are.) He wants his readers to be delving into the works of the Fathers, not simply accepting the dogmatic formulae of the councils.

Bare dogma is not theology. It is a picture frame — sometimes a very ornate frame. Theology is the picture. (My image, not his.)

Second, this approach helps us test new-seeming ideas. I’m too tired to articulate anything here. Sorry.

The general idea is: Test the spirits. Use Scripture and tradition as tools when you come up against something you aren’t sure about. Does it fit in the picture frame of the statements from the councils? Can you find it in older writings? Is it counter to older writings? Do a lot of people in your communion believe this?

Finally, I don’t think it will work beyond the individual believer, because I’m an Anglican from Canada. I’ve already seen schisms in my lifetime because some rejected universality, others antiquity, and no consensus was available.

Vincent of Lerins, Scripture, and Tradition

Given my post about how its opponents perceive heresy, how can we find out what exactly is heresy? It seems to have been very important to the writers of the Patristic age, so I reckon that being able to identify it is a worthwhile task.

Being able to perceive heresy or orthodoxy is especially important today, I reckon, given that the world is aswirl with varieties of teachings about philosophical/religious/biblical teachings.

When faced with Osteen’s blend of Pelagianism and prosperity, with Archbp. Richard Holloway’s rejection of the bodily resurrection of Christ, with Bp. John S. Spong’s rejection of God as Creator, with the ongoing efforts of scholars to rehabilitate those whom the ancient and mediaeval Church rejected as heretics (from Nestorius to Pelagius to Arius to the Cathars), with Bart Ehrman’s insistence that the Orthodox ‘corruption’ of Scripture makes the whole text untrustworthy, with the well-meaning pluralism of close, dear, intelligent friends — and so forth — when faced with such things, how do we really know what to do when we sit down to think theologically, ethically, biblically, philosophically?

Sometimes Bible passages have multiple interpretations. Sometimes Jesus doesn’t seem to be God. Sometimes he does. Sometimes the Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to be God. Sometimes the Kingdom of God seems to be the biggest deal out there. Sometimes the crucifixion/resurrection event does. Sometimes the logic of atonement doesn’t hold together. Sometimes it’s crystal clear. Sometimes … sometimes …

Vincent of Lérins, famous for the dictum that orthodoxy/the catholic faith is what has been believed everywhere, always, by all, said this:

Often, therefore, when I have sought thoroughly with great zeal and the highest attentiveness from very many men outstanding in holiness and doctrine in what way and by what certain and, as it were, general and regular way I could distinguish the truth of the catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical perversion, I always receive a response of this sort from pretty much all of them, that whether I, or someone else, were wishing to discover the lies of rising heretics or to evade their snares, and to remain whole and healthy in healthy faith, one ought to fortify one’s own faith in a double manner, with the Lord’s help — first, with the authority of clearly divine law, then from there with the tradition of the catholic church. (Commonitorium 2, my trans.)

Given that “orthodoxy” is right belief, we all think we’re orthodox, so let’s not argue about the word right now.

The first step, according to St. Vincent, is to turn to Scripture, ‘the authority of clearly divine law.’ This means that, while we should consider soberly the arguments of people such as Ehrman (The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture) and Spong (The Sins of Scripture), we can still believe that God has inspired the words, however flawed the manuscript tradition is, however flawed some of the persons and events recorded therein are.

If a belief is riotously counter-scriptural — ‘God, while pretty cool, didn’t create the universe’, or ‘we should have sex with any consenting partner’ — we can safely reject it.

Nevertheless, this is probably still not good enough, for most Christians today, from Bp. Michael Ingham and Marcus J Borg to Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn to N T Wright and Miroslav Volf, claim to take Scripture very seriously.

This is where St. Vincent’s second criterion comes into play: the tradition of the catholic church.

Tradition is, literally, that which has been handed down (Latin trado, tradere). According to Lewis & Short, one of the definitions of trado is ‘entrust.’ Tradition is that which has been entrusted to us by those who have come before.

Augustine Casiday, in Tradition and Theology in St. John Cassian, says, ‘Tradition … is a process of creative fidelity to one’s origins.’ (122)

Our origins, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, are the apostolic writers and the holy men and women of the patristic age. They preserved the tradition of Jesus and his followers, spread it throughout the Mediterranean basin, and meditated deeply upon it in prayer, philosophy, verse, and holiness in action.

Of course, what do we do with the fact that after 451 the Nestorians (Church of the East) broke away into their own tradition, and soon thereafter the ‘Monophysites’ (Armenian Apostolic, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian Orthodox Churches) broke away from the imperial church, and then in 1053 there was an official split between the Byzantine Church and the Roman Church, and then in 1517 a long process of disintegration took hold of the Roman Church in the West?

What is the tradition we are to turn to today? Traditional forms of Anglicanism, Puritanism, Presbyterianism, Methodism, Baptist-ism(?), Pentecostalism? Or are we to turn to Rome or Byzantium or Cairo for answers?

These are tough questions. However, if we prayerfully read Scripture and turn to the exegesis of the first five centuries as well as writers beyond that who agree with the conciliar formulae, perhaps that will be tradition enough?

And then perhaps we shall be safe from the poison of heresy …