Vincent of Lerins – Why the Church decides the Interpretation of Scripture

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.’

John Calvin on the Holiness of the Church of Jesus Christ

Never I fan of Calvin, I am reading Stroup’s Calvin (Abingdon Press, Pillars of Theology Series) and noticed a comment referring to the ‘c’hurch of Jesus Christ in Calvin’s writings. For me, I can think of no other name under heaven (for salvation) for in heaven (the royal family) which I rather be under than that of the Lord’s. Further, why not have the Body named after the Head? Or the Espoused carry the name of her Husband? So, it interested me this small reference.

Continue reading “John Calvin on the Holiness of the Church of Jesus Christ”

John Chrysostom on Quality over Quantity

And if I see you persisting, I will forbid you for the future to set foot on this sacred threshold, and partake of the immortal mysteries; as we do fornicators and adulterers, and persons charged with murder. Yea, for it is better to offer our accustomed prayers, with two or three, who keep the laws of God, than to sweep together a multitude of trangressors and corrupters of others. — St. John Chrysostom, Homily on Matthew 5

John Chrysostom on Righteousness

In that we fulfill the whole law; and to express this He said, all righteousness. For righteousness is the fulfilling of the commandments. Since then we have performed all the rest of the commandments, says He, and this alone remains, it also must be added: because I have come to do away the curse that is appointed for the transgression of the law. I must therefore first fulfill it all, and having delivered you from its condemnation, in this way bring it to an end. It becomes me therefore to fulfill the whole law, by the same rule that it becomes me to do away the curse that is written against you in the law: this being the very purpose of my assuming flesh, and coming hither. — St. John Chrysostom, Homily on Matthew 3

De Unitate Ecclesiae, pt 1

Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage during some of the most severe persecutions, left the world with a great deal of writings, himself being the most significant of the early Latin writers for Christendom. During and after the persecutions, Cyprian experienced a struggle with Rome, as other both before and after him, did one Roman primacy. Victor I had caused great controversy by assuming greater powers when he excommunicated Polycrates of Ephesus over the Quartodeciman controversy.

I will continue posting on Cyprian’s call for Church unity, as I find the subject intriguing. I believe that the Apostle had the idea that the Church must be united as he wrote Ephesians, and perhaps there is a tingle of apocalyptic thought in his words. I find it of historical interest as well, that Cyprian fought so strongly against Roman primacy while maintaining the position that he had on the Episcopate.

1. Since the Lord warns us, saying, “Ye are the salt of the earth,” (Matthew 5:13) and since He bids us to be simple to harmlessness, and yet with our simplicity to be prudent, what else, beloved brethren, befits us, than to use foresight and watching with an anxious heart, both to perceive and to beware of the wiles of the crafty foe, that we, who have put on Christ the wisdom of God the Father, may not seem to be wanting in wisdom in the matter of providing for our salvation? For it is not persecution alone that is to be feared; nor those things which advance by open attack to overwhelm and cast down the servants of God. Caution is more easy where danger is manifest, and the mind is prepared beforehand for the contest when the adversary avows himself. The enemy is more to be feared and to be guarded against, when he creeps on us secretly; when, deceiving by the appearance of peace, he steals forward by hidden approaches, whence also he has received the name of the Serpent. That is always his subtlety; that is his dark and stealthy artifice for circumventing man. Thus from the very beginning of the world he deceived; and flattering with lying words, he misled inexperienced souls by an incautious credulity. Thus he endeavoured to tempt the Lord Himself: he secretly approached Him, as if he would creep on Him again, and deceive; yet he was understood, and beaten back, and therefore prostrated, because he was recognised and detected.

2. From which an example is given us to avoid the way of the old man, to stand in the footsteps of a conquering Christ, that we may not again be incautiously turned back into the nets of death, but, foreseeing our danger, may possess the immortality that we have received. But how can we possess immortality, unless we keep those commands of Christ whereby death is driven out and overcome, when He Himself warns us, and says, “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments?” (Matthew 19:17) And again: “If ye do the things that I command you, henceforth I call you not servants, but friends.” (John 14:15) Finally, these persons He calls strong and stedfast; these He declares to be founded in robust security upon the rock, established with immoveable and unshaken firmness, in opposition to all the tempests and hurricanes of the world. “Whosoever,” says He, “heareth my words, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, that built his house upon a rock: the rain descended, the floods came, the winds blew, and beat upon 422 that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.” (Matthew 7:24) We ought therefore to stand fast on His words, to learn and do whatever He both taught and did. But how can a man say that he believes in Christ, who does not do what Christ commanded him to do? Or whence shall he attain to the reward of faith, who will not keep the faith of the commandment? He must of necessity waver and wander, and, caught away by a spirit of error, like dust which is shaken by the wind, be blown about; and he will make no advance in his walk towards salvation, because he does not keep the truth of the way of salvation.

3. But, beloved brethren, not only must we beware of what is open and manifest, but also of what deceives by the craft of subtle fraud. And what can be more crafty, or what more subtle, than for this enemy, detected and cast down by the advent of Christ, after light has come to the nations, and saving rays have shone for the preservation of men, that the deaf might receive the hearing of spiritual grace, the blind might open their eyes to God, the weak might grow strong again with eternal health, the lame might run to the church, the dumb might pray with clear voices and prayers – seeing his idols forsaken, and his lanes and his temples deserted by the numerous concourse of believers – to devise a new fraud, and under the very title of the Christian name to deceive the incautious? He has invented heresies and schisms, whereby he might subvert the faith, might corrupt the truth, might divide the unity.[1] Those whom he cannot keep in the darkness of the old way, he circumvents and deceives by the error of a new way. He snatches men from the Church itself; and while they seem to themselves to have already approached to the light, and to have escaped the night of the world, he pours over them again, in their unconsciousness, new darkness; so that, although they do not stand firm with the Gospel of Christ, and with the observation and law of Christ, they still call themselves Christians, and, walking in darkness, they think that they have the light, while the adversary is flattering and deceiving, who, according to the apostle’s word, transforms himself into an angel of light, and equips his ministers as if they were the ministers of righteousness, who maintain night instead of day, death for salvation, despair under the offer of hope, perfidy under the pretext of faith, antichrist under the name of Christ; so that, while they feign things like the truth, they make void the truth by their subtlety. This happens, beloved brethren, so long as we do not return to the source of truth, as we do not seek the head nor keep the teaching of the heavenly Master.

4. If any one consider and examine these things, there is no need for lengthened discussion and arguments. There is easy proof for faith in a short summary of the truth. The Lord speaks to Peter, saying, “I say unto thee, that thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mathew 16:18-19) And again to the same He says, after His resurrection, “Feed my sheep.” And although to all the apostles, after His resurrection, He gives an equal power[2], and says, “As the Father hath sent me, even so send I you: Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they shall be remitted unto him; and whose soever sins ye retain, they shall be retained;” (John 20:21) yet, that He might set forth unity, He arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one. Assuredly the rest of the apostles were also the same as was Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honour and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity. Which one Church, also, the Holy Spirit in the Song of Songs designated in the person of our Lord, and says, “My dove, my spotless one, is but one. She is the only one of her mother, elect of her that bare her.” (Song of Songs 6:9) Does he who does not hold this unity of the Church think that he holds the faith? Does he who strives against and resists the Church trust that he is in the Church, when moreover the blessed Apostle Paul teaches the same thing, and sets forth the sacrament of unity, saying, “There is one body and one spirit, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God?” (Ephesians 4:4)

5. And this unity we ought firmly to hold and assert, especially those of us that are bishops who preside in the Church, that we may 423 also prove the episcopate itself to be one and undivided[3]. Let no one deceive the brotherhood by a falsehood: let no one corrupt the truth of the faith by perfidious prevarication. The episcopate is one, each part of which is held by each one for the whole. The Church also is one, which is spread abroad far and wide into a multitude by an increase of fruitfulness. As there are many rays of the sun, but one light; and many branches of a tree, but one strength based in its tenacious root; and since from one spring flow many streams, although the multiplicity seems diffused in the liberality of an overflowing abundance, yet the unity is still preserved in the source. Separate a ray of the sun from its body of light, its unity does not allow a division of light; break a branch from a tree, – when broken, it will not be able to bud; cut off the stream from its fountain, and that which is cut off dries up. Thus also the Church, shone over with the light of the Lord, sheds forth her rays over the whole world, yet it is one light which is everywhere diffused, nor is the unity of the body separated. Her fruitful abundance spreads her branches over the whole world. She broadly expands her rivers, liberally flowing, yet her head is one, her source one; and she is one mother, plentiful in the results of fruitfulness: from her womb we are born, by her milk we are nourished, by her spirit we are animated.

[1] (Schaff) Here note that our author’s entire ignorance of any Centre of Unity, of any one See as the test of communion; in short, of any one bishop as having more of Peter’s authority than others, – is a sufficient disproof of the existence of any such things. Otherwise, how could they have been overlooked in a treatise devoted to the subject of unity, its nature and its criteria? The effort to foist into the text something of the kind, by corruption, demonstrates how entirely unsatisfactory to the Middle-Age theorists and dogmatists is the unadulterated work, which they could not let alone.

[2] Cyprian is known for placing the episcopate on a higher footing that it had enjoyed before, but he was careful to note that the Apostles were equal in authority, so that no one Apostle was above another. This was his argument against the Bishop of Rome, then Stephen, who sought to follow in Victor I’s footsteps in declaring Rome as the center of unity. The center of unity is the Doctrine universal and the Tradition.

[3] Cyprian, many have stated, indicates that he sees the episcopate as one Chair, that of Peter, but that each Bishop holds a piece of it. Cyprian has to be commend, even by those that would not normally do so, for his fight against the encroachment of the papacy. For him, the Bishops were the Church universal, with each existing as a sunbeam from the Chair of Peter. His beam, though, was equal to that of Rome or Alexandria, or Antioch.