Tuesday, January 19, 2010

St. Vincent of Lerins on Tradition

Here's some good stuff I came across from St. Vincent of Lerins Commonitorium (Chapter 2), c. 450 AD:

I have often then inquired earnestly and attentively of very many men eminent for sanctity and learning, how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical pravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: That whether I or any one else should wish 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, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church.

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 theChurch'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.

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 [unanimous] definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.

Besides being a good apologetic for the Faith contra sola scriptura, St. Vincent gives us three criteria for making sure that even within the Church we are adhering to the Catholic faith "in the strictest sense," which he says is done by following three principles: universality, antiquity and consent.

Universality - Is what we believe what is believed by all Catholics everywhere?

Antiquity- Is what is believed what the Fathers and our "holy ancestors" understood and believed?

Consent- Is what is believed from antiquity that which the all, or "at least almost all" of the Fathers or held, or is it a minority opinion or an isolated case?

In chapter 5 of the same work, St. Vincent tells us that, because of the universality and antiquity of the Faith, when one stands up for the faith professed by the martyrs and apostles (that is, the ancient Church), one is not merely defending one part of the Church but the Church entire, as St. Vincent explains:

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. For which cause they were deemed worthy of so great glory as not only to be accounted Confessors, but rightly, and deservedly to be accounted foremost among Confessors.

You can read St. Vincent's Commonitorium at New Advent here.


Steve said...

I boycott New Advent because of the following:

In approving the devotion to the Sacred Heart, the Church did not trust to the visions of St. Margaret Mary; she made abstraction of these and examined the worship in itself. Margaret Mary's visions could be false, but the devotion would not, on that account, be any less worthy or solid. However, the fact is that the devotion was propagated chiefly under the influence of the movement started at Paray-le-Monial; and prior to her beatification, Margaret Mary's visions were most critically examined by the Church, whose judgment in such cases does not involve her infallibility but implies only a human certainty sufficient to warrant consequent speech and action.


I love Saint Vincent for exposing the insanity of ecumenism and plumbing the depths of the chasm that separates his day from ours!

Fr. Larry said...

I love your website. I just added your site to the links on my homily website.

Boniface said...

Thabks Fr. Larry...can you send me the link to your homily website???

Ben G said...


What does St. Vincent mean by "Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient"?

And what would his rule of universality and antiquity do to the Assumption of our Lady, since it seems that wasn't expressed by any of the earliest fathers before the 6th century?

Boniface said...


I am assuming that St. Vincent's saying is stating that all the doctrines of the Faith are contained within the Scriptures, as well as whatever necessary Spiritual nourishment the believer is in need of. Remember, even the things found in Sacred Tradition, the Fathers saw at least typologically in the Scriptures. Perhaps St. Vincent believed that everything necessary to salvation is at least found in the Scriptures implicitly or by type (of course, this could not be true if he meant it literally and formally). Many Catholic theologians, ancient and modern, have held that the Scriptures are "materially sufficient", meaning it would have to contain or imply all that is needed for salvation. This is a helpful quote:

"[W]e can admit sola scriptura in the sense of a material sufficiency of canonical Scripture. This means that Scripture contains, in one way or another, all truths necessary for salvation. This position can claim the support of many Fathers and early theologians. It has been, and still is, held by many modern theologians." . . . [At Trent] it was widely . . . admitted that all the truths necessary to salvation are at least outlined in Scripture. . . . [W]e find fully verified the formula of men like Newman and Kuhn: Totum in Scriptura, totum in Traditione, `All is in Scripture, all is in Tradition.' .. `Written' and `unwritten' indicate not so much two material domains as two modes or states of knowledge" (Tradition and Traditions [New York: Macmillian, 1967], 410-414) [This Rock, Jimmy Akin, see link: http://www.catholic.com/thisrock/1993/9310fea2sb2.asp]

Of course, they don't mena anything close to a Protestant notion of sola scriptura, which claims that Scripture is so clear that no outside information or authority is needed in order to interpret it.

That's the best I can come up with.

Boniface said...

Re: the Assumption - we would just have to "assume" (pun intended) that this was something that was held prior to then, but which didn't get expressed in writing until that time. Or we could say that it was a legitimate development of dogma that grew out of existing "antique" beliefs, though this would be harder to argue, since the Assumption is not a theological truth (though it still is that) so much as it is a historical fact, and I don't see how a historical fact can develop.

Ben G said...


The Oriental Orthodox split off from the Church after the Council of Chalcedon in the 5th century, and apparently they believe that Mary died, was resurrected and taken bodily into heaven. Even way off in India and Armenia they believe this. So maybe it is a belief from the first centuries which wasn't considered that important, and so wasn't written down. I agree that it doesn't seem to be able to develop. The belief itself is pretty basic: God took Mary's body into heaven. By comparison, the Immaculate Conception is extremely complex, and clearly did develop. If development means that a belief remains identical but increases in complexity/specificness/technical language (e.g. transubstantiation) I don't see how the Assumption could have developed.

Or are we allowed to maintain that a belief could emerge from another belief because it was implicit in it? Is this still orthodox development?

Thanks for the comments about material sufficiency.

Boniface said...

Or are we allowed to maintain that a belief could emerge from another belief because it was implicit in it? Is this still orthodox development?

I think we could call that legitimate development so long as the seeds of one belief are at least found in earlier belief - obviously, for example, Mary's role as Mediatrix was not well-defined theologically until the early middle ages - but we can see the seeds of this belief in statements by Irenaeus about Mary undoing the know to Eve's disobedience. Development (the way I understand it) is "unpacking" what is already implicity.

Regarding material sufficiency, we do have to take it with a grain of salt, though, because this has not been the universal view of theologians and it was used by Higher Critics during the Conciliar period to argue that since Scripture is materially sufficient, all interpretation of revelation would fall to exegetes (ie, without recourse to Tradition). Check out Ratzinger's book "Milestones," pages 124-126. It is simply one possibility.

Ben G said...

But you can point out Church Fathers who taught the doctrine of Mary as Mediatrix very early on, e.g. St. Ephraem in the 4th century: "With the Mediator, you are the Mediatrix of the entire world". St. Cyril of Alexandria was also quite clear on this subject. As you said, the doctrine wasn't well defined until the Middle Ages, but Marian mediation was far more explicit in early times than to be merely "contained" like a seed in another belief.

With the Assumption one can assume that it was either (a) not mentioned but still believed, or (b) implicit in other early ideas (Mary as Ark of the Covenant, the New Eve, Co-Redemptrix, Mother of God, etc. which all lead to the conclusion that she was assumed into heaven).