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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Sometimes theological controversy is … theological

Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil
Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil

I often find myself in situations where I feel a bit awkward, or naive, or as though I had missed something in my own readings as a historian of ancient Christianity. Wisdom tells me to keep quiet; or, hey, write an anonymous blog post so no one will know it was me, right?

For example, I recently heard a scholar state the fact that the problem in the Pelagian Controversy was that wealthy laypeople were doing their own ascetic thing in their homes separate from the authority of the bishops.

I admit to not having reviewed all of the evidence of the Pelagian Controversy, and not having thought much about it for a few years. Nonetheless, it strikes me that a controversy that starts in Rome but has its fiercest opponents in North Africa can’t simply be about power. And if Pelagius and his supporters are seen as threats to the local bishop, why does Pope Innocent I at one point actually exonerate them from heresy?

Regardless of which side you support in this debate, it is also clear that there are substantive theological differences between St Augustine of Hippo and the Pelagians, especially Julian of Eclanum. To reduce it to power politics requires a certain kind of extreme cynicism that I cannot accept.

Now, I don’t imagine that the bishops of Late Antiquity were always grand heroes seeking the true good and spiritual health of the world. Nor do I imagine that, when they were seeking the spiritual good of others, their methods were those of which I would approve.

The coercion of Donatists as approved by St Augustine, for example, is a bad idea. Similarly the legal restrictions against heretics, pagans, and Jews, largely supported by the bishops, are not the way a free and just society lives. By the grace of God, Christianity has largely rejected such coercive methods, and need never have used them. But ideology and power make for a dangerous combination.

Nevertheless, to imagine that Augustine vs Donatism (or vs Pelagianism or vs Manichaeism) is simply about him trying to get more power in the hands of North African ‘catholic’ clergy is reductionist to the extreme. It goes hand in hand with the sort of unintellectual anti-clericalism that must be espoused by people who have never actually spent quality time with clergy. I have met both on the same day, sometimes in the same person.

If we want to create a properly nuanced view of the history of Christianity in the Late Roman and Early Medieval worlds, we need to be open to sincerity as well as politicking. St Cyril of Alexandria, for example, is notorious as one of those ‘bad people’ who went to war against his fellow bishops to try and keep his own episcopal see in a position of power and prominence. He did. It’s true.

Yet on what grounds did Cyril attack Nestorius? On Christological grounds that, if you read Cyril’s pre-Nestorius writings, you will realise he already believed. And if you read his theology, you’ll realise that his is a brilliant mind to be neglected at our loss. We need not agree with how he went about things, and we may acknowledge that part of the animus against Nestorius was due to shifting balances in geo-ecclesiology — but, based upon his theological writings and biblical commentaries, Cyril was honestly opposed to the theology of Nestorius.

Or take St Caesarius of Arles and his attempts to root out practices in the countryside that he consider ‘pagan’ or ‘superstition’. It is perfectly likely that the local people did not think these practices were incompatible with their Christian faith. They may have seen some things as non-religious and others even as part of Christianity as they understood it. However, we need not move immediately to, ‘Caesarius opposed these practices and religious expressions because he wanted a monopoly on religious power.’ Is not as easy to say, ‘Caesarius opposed these practices because he believed they were spiritually dangerous to his flock‘? I can assure you, when I witnessed a young M.A. student suggest this to senior scholars, he got patronising shakes of the head and blank stares before they moved the discussion elsewhere.

When I mention such ideas, people query my ability to judge sincerity.

What about their ability to judge insincerity?

Why straight to cynicism? Why the reductionism of all theological and pastoral activities in Late Antiquity to ecclesiastical power politics, of bishops trying to consolidate all power in themselves?

Consider the fact that many Christians in Late Antiquity — bishops, monks, educated laypeople — believed that heresy spelled eternal damnation, right alongside paganism and Judaism, and maybe we’ll have a different view of their activities. Again, we can disagree with their measures without having to disagree with their goals and without assuming them to be ‘bad people’ or ‘bastards’ or simply out to gain power.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes theological controversy is actually theological.

The Inquisition and Messy Church History

This is the latest in a series on the Messy Reality of Post-Constantinian Church History. Part One is here. Part 2a is about the Late Antique targets for the regularisation of official orthodoxy; Part 2b is about the mediaeval targets. Part 3 is about the orthodox targets of official Christianity. I also wrote an excursus on the Synod of Whitby in 664.

In any discussion of the true church going ‘underground’ after Constantine, or of a ‘Great Apostasy’, after which the official organisms of Orthodox Catholic Christianity persecuted true believers, the Inquisition must feature. The Inquisition must feature because it always (always) features in discussions of how wicked Christianity or Roman Catholicism or (at least) the Church in the Middle Ages was/is.*

The number one crime with which people charge the Inquisition is, of course, all those poor souls they burned at the stake.

And here’s the fun fact about the Inquisition: They never burned anyone at the stake.

Of course, we must admit that they handed people over to the secular authorities. And they burned the heretics at the stake. But the Inquisition? Nope. Not a one.

Mind you, they were at least accessories to burning people at the stake. Or were they?

Well, yes, they were, okay. But that’s not their main job. Their main job was not to go into your local village or town and say, ‘Bring out your heretics,’ set up a kangaroo court, and then hand the loveable wretches over to the secular authorities for the required burning.

Their job was to go into your local village or town and ask if anyone nearby was being heretical. And then they’d interview them, and, if they were good at their job, either get the loveable wretches  to recant or proclaim them orthodox.

And here many people will say, ‘Ah, but look at the Catholic standards of orthodoxy! Have you ever seen The Catechism of the Catholic Church?’ But that’s not the standard they were holding people up to. According to a mediaevalist (with a real, live PhD) I know, who’s not a believer and so has no dog in this fight, the standard of orthodoxy was … well … the Creed. You know, this one.

Mostly, Inquisitors tried to get suspected heretics away from the stake.

In fact, places where we know people were oft getting burnt for heresy it is the eager activity of the local ruler (e.g. Richard II of England) not the Inquisitors that is the deciding factor.

Immediately, I hear the concerns. The church through her interaction with the powerful is still corrupted. Christianity can no longer be free and pure when the fear of the King keeps people in step. While I certainly disagree with putting people to death for heresy, I still believe in the Church policing the boundaries of belief. And she exercised her power to save people from those Kings.

This is really all I wanted to say about the Inquisition. Sorry I didn’t bring up the Spanish.

Next: My general thoughts about the relationship between the Church and secular authority down the ages.

*Then quickly the Crusades will be pulled in and the not mediaeval at all witch trials.

Heresy and the human spirit: Bede’s allegorical reading of Luke 17:11-19

Today, I was leading a tutorial discussion about Clement of Alexandria (150-215; saint of the week here) and Origen (185-254; on whose importance, see here), and my students were discussing the usefulness of allegory, of which Origen is a highly famed practicioner. How useful is it? How legitimate is it? And, in a colleague’s group, can we use it of the New as well as Old Testament? Origen says that we can use it of the New, although never neglecting the literal truth.

The Venerable Bede (672-735; saint of the week here) certainly thought you could allegorise the New Testament, and Mark Armitage over at Enlarging the Heart has helpfully given us a beautiful example of allegory expertly used in Bede’s discussion of Luke 17:11-19; it has been broken into three parts (first, second, third) on his blog. You should read them; each is pretty short.

For me, what resonates most strongly in Bede’s exegesis is the image of leprosy as heresy. Perhaps this is because I still self-identify as Anglican and see the Anglican churches of the West as deeply marred by heresy at this moment of history. Perhaps it’s also because I see the Fathers and their concern about heresy time and again being miscast as struggles for power, whereas my reading of Leo vs. the heretics (here) is not a power struggle, but a pastoral concern.

If heresy is like leprosy, this means it is a disease. It is something that you can acquire against your will. And, as Bede points out, as leprous skin is always mingled with healthy skin, heresy is always mixed with truth. The image is of a sick person, a sick world, a sick idea, that needs healing and restoration, not a bad person who needs condemning. Sometimes when we (I) get fired up about unorthodox persons in our (my) midst, we (I) lose sight of the need for healing by Christ  in their lives.

And, if we admit it, we may be a little unorthodox (heretical) ourselves, in need of that healing as well.

I like that this allegory puts Christ at the centre of the cure for heresy.

I also like Bede’s commentary on the nine who do not thank him. This is a warning to those of us who have it all together — I believe Nicaea and Chalcedon (indeed, all Seven Ecumenical Councils!), I believe in the Bible, I actually believe the 39 Articles of Religion. So my heresy is washed away. Well done.

Do we remember to thank Christ in humility, acknowledging that He is the source of any orthodox thought we have, the source of all spiritual health in us, doctrinal, moral, dogmatical, ethical?

So I approve of Bede’s use of allegory here. It follows Augustine’s exhortation in On Christian Teaching that a reading of Scripture that draws people further into love of God cannot be really wrong.

After all that heresy, what about sin?

St Augustine Tiffany Window

Tonight, I gave my run-through of Christology up to Chalcedon in 2 h or less with a Greek translator. Whew! Bits may make it here as I reflect on things. In the questions at the end, one of my friends asked me a good question:

It seems that these guys spent a lot of time fighting against heresy, did they have anything to say about sin?

I think this is a great question because people like me (and, thus, the scholarly world at large) spend a lot of time discussing ‘the Fathers’ and heresy and how orthodoxy was forged on the anvil of heresy.

But what about sin, for St. Pete’s sake?

First, these people saw heresy and sin as intimately related. If you are an incorrigible sinner, you are probably a heretic. And if you are a heretic, you are probably a sinner.

Second, some of these heretical or non-mainstream (I don’t count Manichees as heretics but as members of an entirely different religion) groups engaged in what the (proto-)orthodox thought of as sin. Some Gnostics felt that what you did in the body didn’t matter, so they became gluttonous sex-aholics, basically. According to the report of Pope Leo I’s investigation into Manichaeism in the City, the Manichees were having ritual sex with underage virgins.*

Nonetheless, these people were concerned about holiness and sin, and not just my perenially-mentioned Desert Fathers. Augustine, for example, discusses in his Confessions that one of the reasons he delayed baptism was his enjoyment of pre-marital sex, and one of his falls after conversion was having vivid sexual dreams at night.

Since some people think Augustine was an over-guilty, Platonic, sexual deviant, I also encourage you to look at John Chrysostom’s sermons for their moral and ethical exhortations about things like lying or going to horse races or reading your Bible. Or take Augustine’s famous opponent Pelagius who was first targetted by the likes of Augustine for his moral rigorism.

Heresy is the doctrinal deviation of the human mind from God’s truth.

Sin is the moral deviation of human action from God’s path.

Both of them are matters of importance to the ancient Christians.

*For the full horror of this abomination, recall that a woman in the ancient world was ‘of age’ when she turned 12. I am actually cringeing having divulged that information.

Issues bigger than the ‘presenting issue’ in Anglicanism

I did not go to church this morning. Since I’ll be going this evening with my wife once she’s done work, it’s not that big a deal. And since we were up late with friends, it’s no surprise that I slept in. However, I still had enough time to make it to the 11:00 High Mass at a nearby Scottish Episcopal Church of the Anglo-Catholic persuasion.

Although I like their liturgy (as though my personal tastes have anything to do with worship!) and appreciated the sermons I heard from the rector, I opted to stay home this morning. I thought about going. And then I got an uncomfortable feeling — what if Fr. Malcolm is preaching?

Last time I was at this church, it was Fr. Malcolm who preached the sermon. We were celebrating Advent, joyously looking forward to Christ’s Incarnation as an infant (‘God was eight days old and held in the arms of his mother’ -St. Cyril of Alexandria), and the Gospel for that week was the Annunciation to Mary. Fr. Malcolm proclaimed, straight from the beginning, that this story and everything from all of the birth narratives in the Gospels is pious fiction.

Nothing else he had to say mattered.

Also, I laughed out loud.

I feel a bit awkward about that.

Anglicans have chosen to explode themselves over questions of human sexuality, and fault lines are forming all over North America and amongst the member provinces of the Anglican Communion. This is startling because we have bigger problems afoot. Like Fr. Malcolm denying the Annunciation and the Virginal Conception.

At another Anglo-Catholic church here in Edinburgh, former Archbishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway sometimes preaches. His stance on human sexuality as espoused in that pulpit is so extreme that he says that intercourse should be between consenting adults. Full stop. He denies not only the Virginal Conception, as does Fr. Malcolm and a former Bp of Durham whose name escapes me, but also the miracles of Jesus’ ministry, the Resurrection, and the Second Coming.

Whether Holloway also denies the divinity of Christ and God’s operation in the creation of the universe, I do not know. If he did, he would be in pretty much full agreement with another retired Anglican bishop, John Shelby Spong.

I used to be bothered by Anglo-Catholics who would ‘put the baby to bed’ (process the consecrated Host to the Tabernacle), or bow to the Host, or pray to saints, or believe in transubstantiation, or various other Roman beliefs/practices condemned by the 39 Articles. But I’m willing to let those go. Especially in the face of the enormity of the differences between traditional Christianity and some of Anglicanism’s liberal faces that have been popping up in recent years.

I sincerely do not know what to do regarding my dear, old Anglican church. I am going to take the opportunity of my wife working Sundays to visit some other Scottish Episcopal Churches I’ve not visited yet, but from preliminary observations at the ones I’ve visited, the outlook is bleak. Will I encounter historic orthodoxy at these churches or will a mere ‘God loves you, be nice to each other,’ suffice to fill their pulpits?

Or should I risk a sermon by Fr. Malcolm? Is perhaps the way to help orthodoxy be reborn to persist through the bad sermons and have polite but firm conversations with those with whom you disagree? (I’m not so good at this last one — I tend to get very heated. Hence laughing at Fr. Malcolm.) I don’t know.

I sincerely wonder if any of you have thoughts on this subject…

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 …