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.

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The heebie-jeebies about tradition

I’ve blogged about tradition a few times in the past, most recently this post hereTradition, or in Greek paradosis, is what is handed along, what is handed down. Usually, in Christian circles, we differentiate between the unwritten tradition and the Scriptures, although Cypriot Greek Orthodox priests do not; there is only tradition, of which Scripture is the primary and most important and authoritative part.

The rest of us, because of the Reformation, are aware of two forces acting upon how we do Christianity. In its widest sense, this force of tradition is enormous and unwieldy. It includes not just the ‘core’ in my more recent post about tradition as well as saints’ days (and the whole cultus of the saints), purgatory, the immaculate conception of the BVM, transubstantiation, consubstantiation, your mom, most of the liturgy/-ies, Romanesque architecture, Gothic architecture, icons, stained glass, particular translations of Scripture, and so on and so forth.

And when, in the Reformation, the western Church was abusing certain aspects of these traditions, such as manipulating purgatory to get people to purchase papal indulgences to raise money to build St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the question was posed, and answered, forcefully: Why are all of these traditions binding?

And it was determined amongst we ‘Protestants’ that no tradition that was not supported by the force of Scripture was binding. Thus, in the 39 Articles of the Anglican religion, we have:

VI. Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

Nonetheless, tradition is still a force at work within Protestantism, especially in the ‘magisterial’ Reformation (whose descendants largely reside in today’s mainline denominations: Lutherans, the Reformed incl. Presbyterians, Anglicans). Anglicans have bishops, priests, and deacons, and basically use a Reformed, English version of Sarum Use for the Lord’s Supper and the daily office. Only priests can consecrate at the Eucharist, only bishops can ordain priests and deacons. These are matters for which, despite perhaps Reformed Presbyterian outcries on the one hand and certain types of ‘Catholic’ voice on the other, Scripture does not lay down a clear, discernible rule.

So we follow tradition. These matters of church polity are not necessarily the central, core realities of the Christian faith. So how does one go about organising a Protestant church? Sort of like a mediaeval one, if you ask the Anglicans and Lutherans (though each group with its own modifications). This is the design of church governance handed down to us by tradition.

Tradition alone cannot be binding upon any Christian. For example, I believe that a robust theology of the incarnation leads at least to allowing icons, if not necessarily venerating them. But I do not consider iconoclast churches heretical; I do not think their souls are in danger of hellfire. Indeed, sometimes I worry more about iconodules and where their own emphasis lies in personal devotion.

Tradition is useful today when so many divergent readings of Scripture abound. The core of the tradition as found in the canon of the faith that I blogged about two posts ago is a lens of Scriptural interpretation that was in existence before the set limits of the canon of Scripture. As Baptist scholar DH Williams discusses in Evangelicals and Tradition, the two canons played off of one another as the church lived, worshipped, and meditated on the truth. That of the faith helped the church discern whether or not a text such as the Gospel of Peter was Scripture or not. The various documents of Scripture helped dictate the shifts in the canon of the faith that happened at Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381).

With the various twistings of doctrine and ethics justified by logically valid readings of Scripture, whether being proferred to us by liberal Christianity, Unitarians, Christadelphians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, atheists, or agnostics, those of us who hold to an ‘evangelical’ view of how Scripture is to be read, we ‘conservatives’ need the ancient, central tradition to help us justify why our readings are more true than others’.

Beyond the canon of the faith, there are also traditional readings of Genesis and certain ethical issues regarding the law and Christian morality, that we find in a broad consensus of the orthodox Fathers, mediaeval writers, and Reformers (both Protestant and Catholic). So, when people come up with reinterpretations of moral commands, we need not abandon our vision either of sola scriptura nor of the old morality; for sola scriptura works best with tradition as a hermeneutical tool (famously, alongside reason and then experience as a last resort [to make Hooker’s three-legged stool Wesley’s quadrilateral]).

This, in brief, is how I feel about tradition right now and most broadly.

The path to orthodoxy involves ‘great peril to walk’

The Council of Nicaea, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus

Orthodoxy, that reasoned attempt to maintain in its whole the Apostolic Tradition as found in Scripture and the living life of the Church, is a narrow road, as we read in Leo the Great, Sermon 25:

Not only on works of virtue, not only on observance of the commandments lies that ‘narrow and difficult way leading to life,’ (Mt 7:14) but — along with these — on the path of faith. It involves great peril to walk, without stumbling, down the one path of sound doctrine among the dubious opinions of the unlearned and falsehoods which have the appearance of truth. It involves great labor and great peril to avoid every risk of deception when from all around snares of error set themselves in the way. (Trans. Agnes Josephine Conway and Jane Patricia Freeland for the ‘Fathers of the Church’ series)

To tread a path so perilous, how could it be naught but exciting, naught but thrilling, naught but a romance (in the mediaeval sense of the word). So thought G K Chesterton in his work Orthodoxy:

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. …

To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect. (In context at The Chesterton Society)

These images of the persistence of Orthodoxy fit well with what I was reading earlier today in D. H. Williams,* who argues — for ‘Free Church’ evangelicals (i.e. Baptist types) — that the Tradition of the faith is not opposed to Scripture as many think, but that Tradition and Scripture co-inhere, for Scripture informs Tradition and was formed in the same period as the Tradition.

Through the decades, centuries, millennia, the Church has responded to crises of belief from within and from without. She responded to the challenges presented her by pagans and Jews, by Gnostics and Marcionites, by Donatists and Meletians, by Arians & Pneumatomachi, Appolinarians & Eutychians, by Manichaeans and Cathars. At each turn in this road fraught with peril, she saw what lay ahead and through prayerful consideration and reasoned examination, she determined which of the paths ahead of her was the narrow road that leads to Christ.

Thus, Tradition is not only not opposed to Scripture, it is not dead. It is the living deposit of faith coming from the Apostles through the historic Church to our hands. We are entrusted with this faith, these truths, and must communicate them to our own age, responding to the dangers along the trail, both within the Church and out.

And as we do so in this reeling, rollicking ride, may we always truth in love (one without the other is neither).

*D. H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants, 34-39. He draws on concepts of tradition from Alisdair MacIntyre.