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.

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?

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?

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.

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.’

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