Thursday, August 23, 2007

Universality, Antiquity and Consent: On Vincent, Aquinas and Newman

The Church-guiding principle regarding the nature and theological boundaries of that which is the Catholic Faith of the Catholic Church, the Faith as catholicity or ‘according to the whole,’ has been provided to the Church of the ages by the well-known definition of Saint Vincent of Lerins, the oft-invoked Vincentian Canon. How does the Vincentian Canon relate the later development of sacra doctrina as elucidated and explicated by Saint Thomas Aquinas? Is there a relationship between the axiomatic Canon of Saint Vincent and the later theological understanding of Saint Thomas? The purpose of this project is to demonstrate that there is in fact a strong and abiding relationship between these two Fathers of the Faith and their understandings of the development of doctrine, the Church’s Spirit-directed self-understanding and interpretation of revealed truth. The Vincentian Canon, we will show, is itself a deliberately-conceived act of sacra doctrina, a genuine theological task seeking to embrace the whole of revealed truth in a ‘meta-theology’ of life and of the created order of nature and supernature. Vincent’s Canon may well be called a proto-sacra doctrina. The Vincentian Canon forever serves the Church as real holy doctrine, a genuine labour of the Church’s mind in the deliberation to conclusively integrate divine truths into a holistic vision. The evidence demonstrated herein will strive to substantiate the claim that Saint Vincent’s classic definition of the meaning of catholicity is the seed from which the full-blossoming tree of Saint Thomas’ sacred doctrine will grow. Vincent lays the foundation for later scholastic and Thomistic work in grasping the truth of how doctrine rightly and fully develops in the Church of Christ by the hermeneutical guidance of the Holy Spirit. Let us observe how the Vincentian Canon takes its rightful place in the series of metaphysical propositions which result in the instrumentality of sacra doctrina for the Holy Catholic Church. Though separated by centuries and entire schools of thought, Vincent and Thomas are co-workers, together sharing a common goal, forming a mutually-edifying and Church-directing movement in the way that leads to the Church’s fullest self-apprehension of the divine Word supernaturally revealed to her. Thomistic ideas did not develop in a vacuum. Rather, sacra doctrina is the final stage of a long and grand historical trek.

First, let us establish the historical foundation, the ecclesiological and doctrinal framework, by which Saint Vincent promulgates the necessity of the modality of Scripture-Tradition as the means by which doctrine must be conveyed and safeguarded. According to Saint Vincent, faithful Catholic Christians have, through the many centuries of the dispensation of the Church, searched for an abiding, certain, and universally-accepted rule or guide by which the verities of the Catholic Faith might be distinguished from doctrines and beliefs which are heretical, being contrary to the Deposit of Faith once for all delivered. In his Commonitorium, Vincent offers to the Catholic faithful throughout the world a two-fold foundation, a firm and solid principle, by which the ‘Faith once delivered unto the Saints’ (S. Jude 3) might be rightly and properly acknowledged: ‘the authority of the Divine Law,’ that is, Holy Scripture and the universal Tradition of the Catholic Church. For the Church, God graciously provides one source of revelation in two modes: Holy Scripture and Ecclesiastical Tradition. ‘I have often then enquired 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 any one should wish to detect the frauds... of heretics as they arise, 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’ (Commonitorium 2.4).

Notice that Vincent insists that we, Christians, must, ‘fortify our own belief.’ The Christian has a personal relationship to the appreciation and application of the Faith for himself. The believer has an indispensable role to play in determining for himself the truths of revealed religion. The faith is not simply handed to the believer fully-formed and easily packaged. The exercise of human reason and research is demanded of the individual. Saint Vincent echoes the venerable teaching of no less a figure than Saint John the Theologian himself, who writes in his first biblical epistle: ‘But you have been anointed by the Holy One, that you may all know everything. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you do know the truth, and know that no lie is of the truth’ (1 John 2.20-21). Anointed by God the Holy Spirit in the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, the Christian as the ‘little Christ’ (S. Cyril of Jerusalem) is given the divine grace to receive, understand, and personally apply the revealed truth of the Gospel, in communion with the Body of Christ the Church. The individual Christian, joined with Christ in Baptism, illuminated by the Spirit in the Sacraments of initiation, possesses the divine unction to live-out and thusly develop the implications of the self-revelation of the Father in His Son and Spirit. Every baptised Spirit-anointed member of the Royal Priestly Body of Christ participates in Christ’s own work of revealing His Nature to mankind. And, hence, each possesses the solemn dignity and responsibility of participating in the work of refining and appropriating the truths of the Faith in every generation: this is sacra doctrina. Saint John’s instruction in turn echoes the divine promise of faith-certitude issued by Our Lord Himself, recorded by the very same beloved disciple: ‘The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my Name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you... When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all truth’ (S. John 14.26, 15.26). The Church, and the several members of it, will be divinely-led into the truth, and are given power to apply it in lives of Christian practice and virtue. Clearly already, Vincent’s meditation on the Johannine tradition is a vital patristic seed planted which will bring forth the fruit of sacra doctrina in later ages. Vincent’s doctrinal synthesis is familiar and essential throughout the whole history of the Catholic Church - Scripture and Tradition together form the sure and certain basis of knowledge of the Catholic Faith that comes to us from the Apostles and thus from Jesus Christ Himself. Interestingly, Saint Vincent affirms the self-sufficiency of Scripture. The Bible is, in and of itself, as he writes ‘sufficient, and more than sufficient:’ ‘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, going to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words one way, another in another: so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters... Therefore it is necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various errors, 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’ (Commonitorium 2.5). Again note how the role of the personal interpreter is inextricable from the process of divine revelation. The truth of the Faith can only be registered and understood insofar as it is interpreted and made accessible to the believer. The interpreter, whose dynamic relation to the truth is certainly equal to the task, may go off-track and err. Right interpretation, a personal act of the truth-recipient, demands subjection to and guidance by Catholic Tradition. This also points to the future development of doctrine and the use of human reason within a context of sacra doctrina. The problem posed to the Church, which has always understood that Scripture is sufficient in itself to communicate the divine truth of the Gospel, is that the Scriptures have been wrongly, falsely interpreted by heretical teachers, who draw out of the Scriptures their own faulty interpretations of the meaning of Scripture. Sola Scriptura cannot work, because Scripture, examined alone, is susceptible of a variety of manifold differing and contradictory interpretations. Therefore, the Catholic Church, as the ‘ground and pillar of the truth’ (1 Timothy 3.15), must have recourse to the guidance and teaching authority of Holy Tradition. And what is the definition of the Church’s self-understanding of the nature of this Holy Tradition? Very simply, Saint Vincent describes Tradition as the ‘norm of ecclesiastical and Catholic opinion’ which is ‘that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.’ Hence, we have the famous phrase known as the Vincentian Canon: ‘Let us hold that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all, for that is truly and properly Catholic’ (Commonitorium 2.6).

This most famous of theological paradigms has itself been woven into Catholic Tradition in its Latin phraseology: in ipsa item catholica ecclesia magnopere curandum est ut id teneamus quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est. The meaning of this statement is elucidated most clearly as being subject to three inseparable and indissoluble historical realities: Universality, Antiquity, and Consent. ‘We shall conform to the principle of universality if we confess as alone the true faith professed by the entire Church throughout the world; to that of antiquity, if we deviate in no particular from the tenets manifestly shared by our godly predecessors and the fathers; and equally to that of consent, if, relying on former ages, we make our own the definitions and opinions of all, or at any rate, the majority of, bishops and teachers’ (Commonitorium 2.6, emphasis added). Observe that Vincent states that ‘we’ again, Christians, must ‘make our own’ the teachings of the majority of bishops and teachers - a personal onus of responsibility for doing the work of sacred doctrine rests on the shoulders, and on the soul, mind, and heart, of the individual believer, endowed as he is with reason, intelligence, skill, and ability. The sacred task of discovering the true meaning of revealed truth is commended to the individual believer and is dynamic, personally-involving, and deeply interactive. Sacra doctrina again appears in its embryonic form. For Saint Vincent, ‘Catholic’ truth literally means kaq ‘olon, ‘according to the whole,’ the whole Faith delivered to the whole Church throughout the whole world, throughout all time, by the ministry of all the Catholic Fathers, Bishops, and Doctors who have ever lived. Universality, Antiquity, and Consent provide an unfailing guide by which orthodox Christians may themselves know and personally discern precisely what the Apostolic Church of Christ has always believed. There are ever more highly-advanced, ever-increasing levels of authority, levels which hold more weight and authority than others in the Church’s labour to define and teach doctrine. Priests are above laymen, bishops higher than priests, councils higher than bishops - that which may be believed by all is grounded and located in the more eminent circles of Church authority, as all faith is finally united in the universality of the Church’s teaching Tradition (Pelikan 339).

Recognising the fact that the heretics, who dissent from the doctrinal unanimity of the Great Church of the ages, themselves embrace and invoke the language and practice of precedent, which alone cannot suffice to clarify the faith or safeguard the transmission of the divine revelation. Vincent calls upon the individual Christian to carefully examine the decisions and teaching of Ecumenical or General Councils received by the whole Church. The faithful should prefer the formulated and carefully-deliberated decisions and teachings of the Councils over the more hastily formed or ignorantly-contrived doctrines of heretical individuals and councils which do not have the sanction of universal Catholic authority. The dogmatic decree of the Ecumenical Councils outweighs the selective and private opinions expressed by individual theologians or lesser councils convened apart from the Church as a whole. Clearly, if one reviews the history of doctrine or the writing of the ancient Fathers, one sees that disagreements arise. Individual Fathers contradict each other and diverge from one another’s theological opinions. Vincent takes this unavoidable reality into account when developing his Canon, the rule of determining what in fact represents the universal and consentient teaching of the Catholic Tradition. Universality, articulated through various councils comprised of diverse and representative fathers and teachers throughout the whole Church, overcomes the narrow and private ideas, the theologumenon, of individual Fathers, and certainly, heretics. There is ‘strength in numbers’ when it comes to rightly receiving the depositum fidei. What if a General or Ecumenical Council does not speak to a particular issue or controversy of faith? What if there exists no clear, unambiguous teaching given by the universal, ancient, consentient Church on any given subject? Then the Christian believer must do his homework - he must collect together and scrutinise the views and teachings of representative Church Fathers who reflect the Church’s presence in various ages, places, and times, and from them all gather a consistent and cohesive doctrinal opinion. Such is hard work indeed, but is precisely the scenario laid out for us by Vincent in the Commonitorium. He insists, in the absence of a ruling of a Council or a definite articulation out of Scripture and unbroken Tradition, that only those representative Fathers be examined who, having lived in various places and various times through the ages, have remained in the Faith and sacramental communion of the Catholic Church. The Fathers used by Christians in their theological task must be those who, by the Church’s witness, have been approved as reliable voices of Catholic Tradition (JND Kelly 50).

Trustworthy sources taken together in forming the consensus fidelium can be depended upon: ‘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? Then it will be his care to cleave to antiquity, which at this day cannot possibly be seduced by any fraud or novelty (Commonitorium 3.7). ‘But what, if in antiquity itself there be found error on the part of two or three men, of a city or 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. But what if some error should spring up on which no such decree is found to bear? Then he must collate and consult and interrogate the opinions of the ancients, of those, who though living in divers 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, equal, with one consent, openly, frequently, persistently, that he must understand that he himself also is to believe without any doubt or hesitation (Commonitorium 3.8). It is our ‘care’ that we must do the work - the Christian is summoned, commanded to take upon himself the reasonable and exegetical action of sorting, sifting, gathering, comparing, contrasting, and drawing out of patristic resources the essence of the Christian deposit. There is no room in this paradigm for the ‘armchair Christian’ who idly sits by and accepts gratis whatever the Church hands him. Saint Vincent makes it abundantly clear that the Christian has a co-operative task to achieve in the theological enterprise; in fact, the burden of proof, and of the work of the theological effort, lie squarely on the shoulders of the lay-theologian, the man in the pew, the faithful member of the Royal Priestly Body of Christ, the Church. God has revealed Himself faithfully and vividly through His Scriptures, Tradition, and Church, as all is interpreted by the Catholic Consensus of the Fathers and Doctors of the Christian dispensation. But, God having done His work, turns, in a sense, the labour over to the faithful, who must creatively and critically question and filter the truth, dividing it from heresy and error. In the end, the Christian’s duty is accomplished when the disparate voices of the Fathers are united, examined, strained, and ciphered through prayerful research and reason. When the opinions of true Faith are finally distinguished, a true and reliable picture of true things emerges, and then the work is done. It is not our purpose here to raise the difficult questions of just precisely how one gathers, separates, and filters the plethora of patristic writings, sermons, and other sources from which the One Catholic Faith must be ascertained, or what objective tests above them or superior to them all should be used. The Vincentian Canon opens itself, sadly, to the insidious interpretations of which we are warned by Vincent. Suffice it to assert here that we have a very early, fifth-century model of the relationship between divine revelation and human reason which will later take full-fledged form as Thomas Aquinas’s sacra doctrina. In the Catholic Tradition of Vincent, God permits man to work together with Him in order that man may ultimately, by divine help, get to the truth as God intended it to be known and lived. Man is graced with a synergy, a co-operative effort with God as God’s co-worker, in the process that leads to the full dissemination of truth. God so loves and dignifies man that He enables the human race, replete with free-will, to join God in a dynamic relationship of revelation and truth-discerning. God and man work together so God may fully reveal and that man may truly receive and live the revelation. A contemporary of Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Vincent of Lerins actually served as a key player, albeit behind the scenes, of the Pelagian controversy that raged during fifth century. Saint Vincent produces his Commonitorium, under a pseudonym, in order to attack the predestinarianism of Saint Augustine as being a deviation from the Catholic orthodoxy of earlier centuries. We see instantly why it is that Vincent places such a high priority on the free-will and free-intellect of man, in opposition to the radical depravity doctrine of Augustine (Pelikan 333). For his openness to the role of human freedom and free-will in the economy of salvation and in the theological process, Saint Vincent was accused by the partisans of his day, who unquestioningly followed Saint Augustine, as being a ‘remnant of the Pelagian heresy’ (Pelikan 319). Epithets and heated language abounded during the struggle. Vincent tried to stay on-target.

Vincent did not follow Augustine in his extreme views on predestination. Vincent held that Augustine’s more excessive perspective on predestination led to fatalism and determinism, in which the role of human freedom in human salvation is annihilated. Our Saint desired to preserve the reality of man’s free-will in the face of man’s disastrous fall and the curse of ancestral sin, affirming that God’s desire is that all men be saved, and that all men are capable of being saved. Saint Vincent joined the ranks of Saint John Cassian and Saint Fautus of Riez in defending the truth that man has a genuine free-will and can co-operate with the divine initiative in the process of salvation. Man, Saint Vincent teaches, can reject grace and lose his salvation. He can freely accept or reject the loving provisions of God’s grace. Vincent, defending the ancient tradition of the Eastern Fathers, stood firmly against a hyper-Augustinian doctrine of grace, salvation, and human freedom which would eventually, in the course of church history, degenerate into Calvinism (Pelikan 324). The Commonitorium is developed, with its central all-embracing definition of the meaning of Catholicism as universality in both time and space, in order to demonstrate that Augustinian doctrine on predestination must be rejected by the whole Catholic Church as contrary to ‘the interpretations that obviously were maintained by our saintly forbears and fathers.’ Even Augustine the great theologian must defer to the ‘decisions of antiquity,’ for as we have seen, individual fathers and doctors of the Church can and do err, and must be subject to Catholic authority defined as Catholic consensus. Cleverly, in order to show how the principle of Catholic consensus works in relation to Saint Augustine, Vincent uses an example of how a good Catholic thinker can go bad - Origen. Origen, who began as an ‘ornament of the Church’ for his piety, fell from grace and corrupted the ancient faith. If Origen could fall, we are led to presume, others (i. e. Augustine) can fall as well (Pelikan 336-339). Vincent does not judge Augustine guilty of outright heresy, but resists the consequences implied by Augustine’s teachings. In the name of Catholic consensus and Tradition, Vincent challenges Augustine’s extreme views as opposed to catholicity.

For our purposes, it is clear that Saint Vincent believes in the goodness and real power of the human will, mind, reason, and intellect - and for this cause he places a tremendous emphasis on the human mediation and appropriation of God’s revealed Word in the Christian vocation. Vincent’s high Christian anthropology plants him solidly in the ‘pro-sacra doctrina’ field. Does the foregoing model of divinely-promised ceritude guaranteeing the Church’s divinely-provided message mean that Saint Vincent of Lerins has no concept or understanding of sacra doctrina as later developed by Saint Thomas Aquinas? No, quite the opposite! Clearly the last option outlined above give us a clear sense of sacra doctrina as it will later be formulated by Aquinas. For, in the absence of any clearly-defined or unambiguously-given formula of doctrine or belief, it is up to the believer, the individual Christian, to weigh and test the various and differing claims and teachings of the Fathers. A human element, an unmistakable use of sanctified reason and intelligence, must in the end be utilised if the Catholic truth is to be rightly and faithfully determined. The Christian has an irreplaceable role to play in his own participation in the theological mystery; the Christian has a theological task, a moral and spiritual responsibility, to carefully examine and scrutinise sundry and disagreeing truth claims, and to personally resolve theological conflicts. There exists a divine-human synergy, or co-operative relationship, a necessary correspondence, between the divine Giver of truth, Who communicates revelation to man via Sacred Scripture, Apostolic Tradition in the Faith, and communion of the Catholic Church, and the recipient of the divine message, who must freely and intelligently evaluate, embrace, and appropriate the truth for himself - even taking upon himself the task of resolving theological/doctrinal conflicts when they arise. This notion of the use of human reason will obviously play a very exacting role in the later development of sacra doctrina. Vincent does not rule out or exclude the possibility that doctrine, and man’s capacity to appreciate, comprehend, or mediate doctrine, may develop and grow. And, again, in this exercise of the gift of freedom for the search and development of doctrine comes responsibility to be faithful that which has been delivered: ‘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 everything, above the authority, regard, genius, eloquence, or 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 only that which he sure the Catholic Church has held universally and from ancient time; but whatsoever new and unheard-of doctrine he shall have found to have been introduced by some other besides that of all the saints, he will see as a trial, not the truth (Commonitorium 20.48). The Christian’s labour of love in developing genuine interpretation of the Faith requires obedience and humility, as well as consistency. Yes, there is for Saint Vincent genuine progress and development of doctrine, of a specific kind. He uses the example of undisputed Ecumenical Councils as a type of development - because Councils deliberately refine and polish doctrinal propositions. Traditional formulae and concepts receive deeper and fuller explication by the conciliar process. Councils serve to take the original Faith and make it clearer. ‘This is what the Church, roused by the heretics, has accomplished by the decrees of her Councils - this and nothing else - she has consigned to posterity in writing what she had received from ancient times 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’ (Commonitorium 23.59). Doctrine takes on new language and ideas.

For Saint Vincent, innovation of doctrine is by nature heresy, false doctrine. Innovation equals falsity. Doctrines cannot be novel; they cannot be created anew or newly-generated, but true doctrine revealed by God in the Church can be elucidated and expressed in a new and more precise manner. In the conciliar tradition, which perfects and improves the elucidation of doctrine (not thereby making new doctrine), the ancient and venerable truths of the Catholic Faith, the original deposit of Faith transmitted from Christ and the Apostles, are given a brilliant, sharper clarity than would otherwise be obtained. The Canon’s more limited approach to the content of holy doctrine here differs significantly from later Thomistic sacra doctrina, which allows for the introduction of such development in understanding of doctrine that the breakthrough could be labelled ‘new.’ Very strictly, Vincent grants no permission for the expansion of doctrine beyond what is definitively and objectively held in the past ages. Saint Thomas will take sacra doctrina a step further and can, under certain conditions, be interpreted as allowing for the addition, from God, of a new data of revelation in the Church. Therefore Vincent does not hold sacra doctrina in the modern sense; he is ‘proto’ not ‘toto’ sacra doctrina. According to the Saint of Lerins, the Church, by conciliarity, produces a better vocabulary, a higher expression, for the primitive Gospel: Councils declare ‘not new doctrines, but old ones in new terms.’ Non nova, sed nove. John Henry Cardinal Newman will borrow heavily from Saint Vincent in his Essay on the Development of Doctrine by primarily reproducing the Vincentian idea that doctrine organically grows. Saint Vincent allows an organic development of Christian doctrine, one analogous to the development of the human body from the stage of infancy to the stage of old age. He permits the Church to see growth and advancement in the way in which Christian revelation is perceived, understood, mediated, communicated, shared, and participated in by members of the Church. Very guardedly, the Saint of Lerins asserts that development of doctrine is real, but cannot allow even in the slightest any alteration or change in the original deposit of Faith. The original meaning and significance of the divine revelation in the Church must be preserved without any change whatsoever. Any change in the meaning of doctrine would be innovation, and thus, again, heretical (JND Kelly 51). Let us more closely explore Vincent’s concept of doctrinal development. ‘But some will say perhaps, ‘Shall there then be no progress in Christ’s Church?’ Certainly all possible progress... Yet on condition 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, to increase and have much 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 (Commonitorium 23.54). ‘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 to full size, yet still remains the same...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. In like manner, it behoves 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 unadulterated, 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 (Commonitorium 23.55-56). Real and determinable progress occurs in the development of Christian doctrine - growth but not alteration, development but not change. The infant grows into the adult, but the person is still the same person. So it is with the Faith: it grows, is seasoned and flavoured with time and age, and matures into the full stature of adulthood. Yet it is discernibly the same truth, the same content, the same reality. See that in this proto-sacra doctrina the children of the Church do the work, engage in the labour, exercise the ministry of discernment of doctrine. Using the planting metaphor we can say the farmers must be faithful in reaping only that which has been sown by God in the Church. Development occurs. In the field of God’s Church the growth of the plant is tangible, visible, demonstrable. And yet, it is only for the harvesters to lovingly and provisionally gather what has been planted and has grown by its own power. The children of the Church cultivate pre-existent doctrine; they do not invent new breeds and kinds. It is farming, not cloning or genetic engineering. They cannot reap what has not been sown. ‘From doctrine which was sown as wheat, we should reap, in the increase, doctrine of the same kind - wheat also.... no change may ensue in the character of the plant... the nature of each kind, through the process of time and cultivation from seed to plant, must remain the same. 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 go forward to perfection. For it is right that the ancient doctrines... should as time goes on be cared for, smoothed, polished; but they should not be changed, maimed, or mutilated. Doctrine may receive proof, illustration, definiteness; but they must retain their completeness, integrity, and characteristic properties (Commonitorium 23.57). John Henry Newman begins in his Essay the programme of explaining how doctrine develops. His focuses on the claims made by Saint Vincent and the way his Canon has been historically utilised by Anglicans in the apologia of their particular doctrinal position. He describes the Canon, as seen by Anglican historians, as ‘a principle infallibly separating, on the whole field of history, authoritative doctrine from opinion, rejecting what is faulty, and combining and forming a theology.’ He admits the Vincentian Canon is ‘a short and easy method for bringing the various informations of ecclesiastical history under that antecedent probability in its favour...’ (Newman 7). He sees Vincent’s rule as providing a sort of lowest-common denominator in the history of doctrine: ‘What [is] more conclusive than that doctrine that was common to all at once was not really their [the ancients’] own but public property in which they all had a joint interest, and was proved by the concurrence of so many witnesses to have come from an apostolical source?’ (Newman 7). However, Newman points out the almost self-evident problem of the Canon - its negative nature. It functions not so much to tell the Church what her doctrine is, but rather what her doctrine is not. ‘Its difficulty lies in applying it to particular cases. The rule is more serviceable in determining what is not than what it is Christianity’ (Newman 8). The Canon may serve to show us what was not contained in the original deposit of Faith as expressed by the earliest Councils and Fathers, but because the Canon is itself open to interpretations from various theologians and schools, Newman claims that it cannot function on its own to demonstrate the actual positive content of the earliest Christian doctrinal Tradition.

‘Vincent alone’ is, to Newman, just as nebulous and unhelpful as ‘Scripture alone.’ Newman’s best point on the subject of the Canon as a guide for perceiving and apprehending the development of Christian doctrine is found in his Anglican work, The Prophetical Office of the Church, which he quotes in the Essay. There, Newman more specifically explains the difficulties raised in the application of the Canon to particular doctrines and historical circumstances. ‘The Rule is not of a mathematical or demonstrative character, but moral, and requires practical judgement and good sense to apply it. For instance, what is meant by being ‘taught always?’ does it mean in every century, or every year, or every month? Does ‘everywhere’ mean in every country, or every diocese? and does ‘the Consent of Fathers’ require us to produce the direct testimony of every one of them? How many Fathers, how many places, how many instances, constitute the fulfilment of the test? It is, then, from the nature of the case, a condition which never can be satisfied as fully as it might have been. It admits of various and equal applications in various instances; and what degree of application is enough, must be decided by the same principles which guide us in the conduct of life...’ (Prophetical Office in Newman 8). Newman highlights the crux of the matter in connection to sacra doctrina: the use of the Rule of Saint Vincent requires moral, intellectual, philosophical, and theological judgement, the discerning and wise application of the will, heart, mind, and soul in the process of determining religious truth. Man must co-operate with God in the sacred discipline of developing and translating sacred doctrine into the human idiom. Although the Rule undoubtedly has its limitations and contingencies, it demands of the individual Christian and the Church alike a real co-working relationship, a personal connectedness and cohesiveness with God, in order that holy doctrine may be known and lived. Here it can be said in response to Newman’s questions that certainly serious and problematic troubles arise when the precise requirements of the Canon demand fulfilment in the practical sphere of history. It is true that the Canon has a negative effect; its purpose is to weed out heresy from the general consensus of the Catholic Church’s doctrinal Tradition of every age - the Canon does in fact serve to exclude heresy more than its does to positively affirm the substantial and defined content of the Catholic deposit. Vincent leaves that process of determination, or refinement and definition, to the Church convened in General Councils, which for him serve as the supreme tribunal of Catholic truth. The Canon preveniently goes before Councils, searching out and extricating that which does not belong to the Traditio Apostolorum. To be fair to Vincent, we must admit that the Saint of Lerins is not altogether ephemeral and unrealistic in laying out the conditions of the Canon. He does supply guidance for its application in a concrete context, as we have seen. In an almost ‘private judgement’ sort of manner, he places the onus of responsibility for judging the times, places, Fathers, the ideas of universality and collective consent, upon the individual researcher, who has, Vincent believes, both the supernatural ability to do the research and the access to the necessary information to make a correct judgement possible. The faithful Catholic Christian bears the moral imperative to ‘work for truth,’ to gather information from every age, every particular Church, every Church Father acknowledged to have been in communion with the Catholic Church as she understood herself in the earliest centuries, and from reliable information available make a sound determination as to the content of the Faith. Like the kenosis of Incarnation, God wills to rely on human nature.

The rules are plainly laid out, granted. But, Newman is undoubtedly correct in highlighting the perplexing conditions and requirements of a task which seems, in itself, vastly beyond the capacities of the average Christian. This author contends that the Canon is, to a much greater degree asserted by Newman, self-explanatory and self-directing. Sacra doctrina, later exposited by Thomas Aquinas, finds itself rooted and grounded here in the fertile soil of Vincent’s Canon. Development and reasonableness of doctrine rely on the effort and intelligibility of man. Vincent’s insistence upon the autonomy and free-will of man in the pursuit of truth, and his essential relationship to the divine initiative in revelation, makes more for the human element than other paradigms of doctrinal discovery (i.e. Augustinianism). Let us give credit where credit is due. The Canon’s description of genuine doctrinal development becomes, in the course of time, the basis for real developed knowledge and application of doctrine, and the human mediation and participation in divine truth. Newman again questions the Rule by using the example of the Anglican divines, who use it to exclude, on one hand, the novel claims of protestantism, and, on the other hand, the assertions of the Roman Church regarding Papal dogmas. The Canon, Newman posits, cannot be used to reject some Church Fathers’ teachings while accepting those of others: ‘It cannot at once condemn St. Thomas and St. Bernard, and defend St. Athanasius and St. Gregory Nazianzen’ (Newman 8). Though Newman says that the Canon cannot honestly be used in this manner, Saint Vincent does make such a claim for the Canon’s function, as was seen earlier in the case of Saint Augustine and before him, Origen. Newman, by repudiating a decisive decision-making role for the Canon as it stands historically, seeks a way out of the authoritative and interpretative use of the Canon by Anglicans to call into question the universal supremacy and infallibility of the Bishop of Rome. Against the idea that the Canon always objectively works in the promotion of a particular doctrine, he invokes the doctrines of Original Sin and Purgatory, claiming that Anglicans can either reject one or both doctrines according to how they employ the Vincentian Canon (Newman 15). In another place, however, Newman seems to concur with the notion that the Rule of Vincent can and does work, that is, in special reference to the dogma of the Blessed Trinity - he admits a ‘consensus of doctors’ from separate testimonies of differing Fathers through varying times and places which creates the presumption that the Trinitarian doctrine existed before its solidification by Council (Newman 10). This positive appraisal is the exception, not the rule, of Newman’s thought on the subject. Newman generally refuses any practical reality to the Canon’s utility. But in so doing, this writer argues, he may very well be missing the original point, or purpose, of the Canon. Vincent clearly does grant to his Rule the ability to distinguish for the Church the collective and consentitent, consistent mind of the greatest majority of Fathers from that which is merely the isolated opinions of an individual Father or even a smaller but unrepresentative number or group of Fathers put together. Without the foundation which the Canon procures for the Church, Christianity could fall into the trap of doctrinal creation, doctrinal innovation, not genuine doctrinal development. However cloudy or indecisive the Canon’s stipulations may be, they cannot and should not be ignored - for to do so would be to imperil the ancient Catholic Church’s own doctrinal standard and to place the modern Church into the error of thinking herself more advanced or more faithful to the original Christian Tradition than the original Tradition itself. Newman’s psychological reaction against the Vincentian Canon, because of its uses by Anglican apologists for the defence of their non-Roman or even anti-Papal theological positions, should not at once cause the Church to recoil at it or to ignore its irreplaceable safeguarding of truth. The Vincentian Rule, fraught with philosophical or even practical difficulties as it is, still should provide the norm, the solid bedrock, for approaching to the Catholic dogmatic vision.
Although its tone and demeanour are apophatic in nature, offering a via negativa defence of catholicity against error, the Rule or Canon of Saint Vincent of Lerins serves as the backdrop for the positive theological development of the patristic and medieval Church, which will ultimately evolve the concept of a full-blown sacra doctrina. Unfortunately, Saint Thomas Aquinas, in developing his metatheological worldview in the Summa Theologicae, never directly refers to Saint Vincent or his Commonitorium. Nevertheless, the Thomistic achievement would have been impossible without the firm basis laid in the work of a fifth-century monk, whose writing has gone on to impact the Catholic doctrinal treasury for century upon century. Saint Vincent displays for us today a theological landscape wide and broad, of limitless potential and yet ever faithful to the first truths of the ancient Religion of Christ. We begin to see in the Saint of Lerins the first planting of the vineyard of sacra doctrina. Saint Vincent, representative of the undivided Church, is the doctor of a proto-sacra doctrina.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Fr. Chad:
Thanks so much for this essay on Vincent! I have thoroughly enjoyed it and am struck by one point I had not given any attention to and that is Vincent's emphasis upon the individual person's ability and responsibility to inquire and know the teaching of the Church. It is so practical and so simple that I have never paid any attention to it. But it adds a practical dimension to Vincent’s recommendations. It seems that the narrative behind Vincent's own essay may a pastoral care issue. It sounds as though he is providing a rough and ready formula for his parishioners - that is laymen - by which they can judge a purported Christian teaching.

I am also interested in the term "Catholic Christian." An example of that language is "‘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?" Do you think that is actually his term? What do you think he meant by that? Again I'm trying to imagine a historical-narrative context for this and it might be that he was contrasting "Catholic Christian" with for lack of a known term "Parochial Christian" or "Neo-Christian. I'm not sure that it matters at all except for us today "Catholic Christian" seems like a redundancy.

I also have some questions about the Newman material. I really don't see see much strength in Newman’s complaint about the negative downside to the formula: "Its difficulty lies in applying it to particular cases. The rule is more serviceable in determining what is not than what it is Christianity’ (Newman 8)." So what? Especially if this is a formula meant to aid laymen in discerning quickly what to keep one's distance from then it is serviceable indeed and serviceable on the spot. That's especially useful for laymen who are trying to keep their loved ones safe from those false physicians of the soul who are gifted at sugar coating their poison. Of course I'm not suggesting that the formula is useless to the learned theologian and teacher. I think it is useful and it seems that there are levels of application of Vincent's creed (as you pointed out) that depend upon the job to be done. I think Newman is at his best when he is emphasizing the personal subjective moral, volitional, intellectual character of the person who is applying the canon in his search for truth.

That being said it also seems to me that Newman is practically begging the question when it comes to his assertion that the formula cannot be used to reject some Church Father and to accept others. ‘It cannot at once condemn St. Thomas and St. Bernard, and defend St. Athanasius and St. Gregory Nazianzen’ (Newman 8).” Why not? It seems that if the canon is especially useful as a negative tool to determine what is not, as Newman puts it “Christianity,” one should precisely be able to condemn or defend a teaching from particular Fathers of the Church. As I said it seems to me that Newman may be begging the question on this point since the application of Vincent’s canon to the dogmas of the Papal Infallibility and the Immaculate Conception of the BVM would show them not to be the natural development of orthodox dogma, but innovations. After all from Rome’s perspective and I suppose by that time from Newman’s perspective did Rome need anything like Vincent’s canon? By then Rome’s dogma was declared dogmatically by he who spoke “from himself and not from the consensus of the Church.”

May 2024 Comprovincial Newsletter

The Comprovincial Newsletter for May 2024 -