Thomas Oden looks to St. Vincent as a way to give rebirth to orthodoxy. I would like to explore St. Vincent and Clement of Alexandria’s focus on the true Gnostic. For now, here is St. Vincent:
Is there to be no development of religion in the Church of Christ? Certainly, there is to be development and on the largest scale. Who can be so grudging to men, so full of hate for God, as to try to prevent it? But it must truly be development of the Faith, not alteration of the Faith. Development means that each thing expands to be itself, while alteration means that a thing is changed from one thing into another. The understanding, knowledge and wisdom of one and all, of individuals as well as of the whole Church, ought then to make great and vigorous progress with the passing of the ages and the centuries, but only along its own line of development, that is, with the same doctrine, the same meaning and the same import.
The religion of souls should follow the law of development of bodies. Though bodies develop and unfold their component parts with the passing of the years, they always remain what they were. There is a great difference between the flower of childhood and the maturity of age, but those who become old are the very same people who were once young. Though the condition and appearance of one and the same individual may change, it is one and the same nature, one and the same person … If, however, the human form were to turn into some shape that did not belong to its own nature, or even if something were added to the sum of its members or subtracted from it, the whole body would necessarily perish or become grotesque or at least be enfeebled. In the same way, the doctrine of the Christian religion should properly follow these laws of development, that is, by becoming firmer over the years, more ample in the course of time, more exalted as it advances in age. In ancient times our ancestors sowed the good seed in the harvest field of the Church. It would be very wrong and unfitting if we, their descendants, were to reap, not the genuine wheat of truth but the intrusive growth of error. On the contrary, what is right and fitting is this: there should be no inconsistency between first and last, but we should reap true doctrine from the growth of true teaching, so that when, in the course of time, those first sowings yield an increase it may flourish and be tended in our day also.1
St Vincent of Lérins, Commonitorium 23.28–30: ed. R.S. Moxon (Cambridge, 1915), pp. 88–92. ↩
My interest in the concept of personhood is multifarious as I believe it will help in building a proper theology for various elements in our society and Church. In reading Vincent of Lerins, I happened upon this chapter from his Commonitory (ch14). Unlike Tertullian’s less defined, or unrefined, persona in describing the Father, Son, and Spirit, Vincent (a proper Saint) uses persona differently.
BUT inasmuch as we often use the term person, and say that GOD in a person was made man, we must take very great care, lest we seem to say that GOD the WORD took on Him our properties merely in the way of imitative acting; and that whatever made up His human conversation was done by Him not as a true man, but in adumbration, after the manner of theatres, where one individual represents in quick succession several personages, of which no one is his own.
Sed cum personam sæpius nominamus et dicimus, quod Deus per personam homo factus sit, vehementer verendum est, ne hoc dicere videamur, quod Deus Verbum sola imitatione actionis, quæ sunt nostra susceperit, et quidquid illud est conversationis humanæ, quasi adumbratus, non quasi verus homo fecerit: sicut in theatris fieri solet, ubi unus plures effingit repente personas, quarum ipse nulla est.
But the Catholic faith says that the WORD of GOD was so made man as to take on Him our properties, not fallaciously and in show, but truly and actually; and to deport Himself as a man, not as one who imitates the doings of another, but rather as in his own character; and altogether to be what He represented, just as we ourselves, in that we speak, know, live, subsist, do not imitate men, but are such…So also GOD the WORD, in assuming and having flesh, in speaking, doing and suffering in the flesh, yet without any corruption of His nature, deigned even to go so far as not to imitate or represent a perfect man, but to exhibit Himself as such; so as not merely to be seen or to be thought a true man but to be such, and to subsist as such.
Catholica vero fides ita Verbum Dei hominem factum esse dicit, ut quæ nostra sunt, non fallaciter et adumbrate, sed vere expresseque susciperet; et quæ erant humana, non quasi aliena imitaretur, sed potius ut sua gereret: et prorsus quod agebat, hoc etiam esset, quod agebat, is esset. Sicut ipsi nos quoque in eo quod loquimur, sapimus, vivimus, subsistimus, non imitamur homines, sed sumus….ta etiam Deus Verbum, adsumendo et habendo carnem, loquendo, faciendo, patiendo per carnem, sine ulla tamen suæ corruptione naturæ hoc omnino præstare dignatus est, ut hominem perfectum non imitaretur aut fingeret, sed exhiberet: ut homo verus non videretur aut putaretur, sed esset atque subsisteret.
The idea of personhood, then, as showed to us via the Holy Trinity, is that to be a person requires something more than being human.
Note, Christ could still have been a human without being a person. What makes him a person is his life, not that he was born a human. Perhaps he could have grown up completely free from sin and desire, without the need to eat or expel the wastes of eating. Perhaps he could have simply been born a human male, or dropped from the sky as such. Yet, Vincent reminds us that he subsisted as a person.
If Jesus subsisted as a person, that means he was afforded the ability to be wrong and to be right, to love (maybe lust), to be tempted, to live as each of us do even within the confounds of having previously held the universe in his hand. If Jesus really was a person and lived as such rather than simply becoming human, how might this help us answer questions about those with a disability or LGBT people?
What is required to be a person rather than just being human? And is this important? Can you see the difference?
The doctrine of divine simplicity is complicated and controversial—even among those who admire Aquinas’ philosophical theology. But the following account should provide the reader with a rough sketch of what this doctrine involves. Consider the example human being. A person is a human being in virtue of her humanity, where “humanity” denotes a species-defining characteristic. That is, humanity is an essence or “formal constituent” that makes its possessor a human being and not something else (ST Ia 3.3). Of course, a human being is also material being. In virtue of materiality, she possesses numerous individuating accidents. These would include various physical modifications such as her height or weight, her particular skin pigmentation, her set of bones, and so forth. According to Aquinas, none of these accidental traits are included in her humanity (indeed, she could lose these traits, acquire others, and remain a human being). They do, however, constitute the particular human being she is. In other words, her individuating accidents do not make her human, but they do make her a particular exemplification of humanity. This is why it would be incorrect to say that this person is identical to her humanity; instead, the individuating accidents she has make her one of many instances thereof.
I was first made familiar of Vincent of Lerins through the use of the Orthodox Study Bible, finding him to be no less abrasive today that he was 1600 years ago.Perhaps that is one of the reasons he is rarely used today – he focused on orthodoxy. In reading though my old thoughts on the subject, I have found myself attempting to measure up to his abrasiveness.
The quote that the editors use is this:
I cannot sufficiently wonder at the madness of certain men, at the impiety of their blinded understanding, at their lust of error, such that, not content with the rule of faith delivers once for all, and received from the times of old, they are very day seeking one novelty after another, and are constantly longing to add, change, and take away, in religion.
They use that to comment on the verse where Solomon tells us not to remove what that king termed the ancient landmark (Proverbs 22.28). The following is a selected passage from Lerins’ Commonitory. It is a good read for those who enjoy what might best be described as heavy metal doctrinal inerrancy.
1 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.
While I might not completely believe in his outcome, Lerins is correct, that in order too prevent ‘heretical pravity’ from entering into the flock, we must first fortify ourselves with the Word of God, supremely, and then with the Tradition handed down through the Church. Of course, this Tradition must not be unchallenged, and should be examine biblically and historically. There is a good range of difference between the right doctrine and the allowance of a cultural, or communal, practice of a local congregation – I believe that Vincent is only talking about the former. The Tradition of interpretation is handed down, and measured by those and with those that stand immediately before us. Our approach may be different, our tools new, but the result should be the same, right? isn’t it always the Word of God that comes first, followed only then by Tradition?
2 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.
I wonder if Vincent doesn’t anticipate a common habit Protestantism, one in which everyone is allowed to interpret Scripture based only on his or her subjective reasonings. This has given the world many denominations, sects, splits and cults, as well as produced a fair number of atheists who cannot reconcile the Bible and the ‘inconsistencies’ found therein not because of the biblical texts, but because of their own traditional interpretation. This is why, starting with the very Word of God, the Church must have an interpretation that is universal, but mindful of human failure, on the points of Doctrine. I find myself in agreement with Vincent, that due to the great heresies that have arisen because of people failing to understand the depth of the Word of God, the very Word of God must be framed in interpretation by the Church who foundation is the Apostles and Prophets, with Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone. It matters then to what Church is that true Church, doesn’t it?
3 Here, possibly, some one may ask, Do heretics also appeal to Scripture? They do indeed, and with a vengeance; for you may see them scamper through every single book of Holy Scripture,—through the books of Moses, the books of Kings, the Psalms, the Epistles, the Gospels, the Prophets. Whether among their own people, or among strangers, in private or in public, in speaking or in writing, at convivial meetings, or in the streets, hardly ever do they bring forward anything of their own which they do not endeavour to shelter under words of Scripture. Read the works of Paul of Samosata, of Priscillian, of Eunomius, of Jovinian, and the rest of those pests, and you will see an infinite heap of instances, hardly a single page, which does not bristle with plausible quotations from the New Testament or the Old.
Vincent faced the same problem then that many face today – too many people quote from something that they do not understand, often times in their own unique cultural context acting in a way which seems like the bible had been written by their neighbor, in order to persuade one or another to a different position, as if by the mere power of quotation (or memorization) an argument can be settled. Sometimes this is an accident of their tradition, but many times, this is purposed. Many will point to this Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, but only to supplant the true and holy Faith with a false doctrine. They will use the books of the bible, as many has shown themselves capable of doing, and use great swelling words to convince their listeners that they are the leaders of the right way. This is not a new phenomenon, and nor should we expect to stamp it out. While Vincent was railing against those who do such things, we in the West known uphold Religious Pluralism.
4 But the more secretly they conceal themselves under shelter of the Divine Law, so much the more are they to be feared and guarded against. For they know that the evil stench of their doctrine will hardly find acceptance with any one if it be exhaled pure and simple. They sprinkle it over, therefore, with the perfume of heavenly language, in order that one who would be ready to despise human error, may hesitate to condemn divine words. 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. (Vincent of Lérins, The Commonitory)
There is little to add to Vincent, as his colorful language and exact imagery of false prophets detail what is going on in the world today. These false prophets soothe the ears of the listeners with promises of miracles or prosperity, drawing the attention away from God. They have forsaken the doctrine, if they ever knew of it in the first place, to dwell among those that would edify their own destructive measures. They use the language of the heavenly Word as medicine, infusing it with poison all the while beguiling those whose heart seek God. They lead these people away, and it is owed to the fact that too many times people are told that ‘to each his own’ when it comes to biblical interpretation.
Stand and measure yourself against the Old, as there is nothing ‘new’. The Faith of the Church is the faith once and for all delivered. There is no ‘new’ word, no ‘now’ word. There is but the very Word of God.
I have to wonder how Vincent would have fared in today’s Christianity. Where would he have stood in biblical studies, textual and the various other criticisms, the numerous hermeneutics, interpretations, and the advent of modern technology which has diluted the authority of ‘the Church’ over ‘Christendom.’