Monday, July 08, 2013


         I first discovered Vincent of Lérins during my doctoral studies.  I was researching 17th and 18th century high church Anglicans and Nonjurors, who regularly turned to this 4th century theologian for support.  In their efforts to separate themselves from the Church of England’s Reformation anchorage, they sought to link themselves to the catholic traditions of the early church without having to go through Rome.   For Nonjurors such as Thomas Brett and Thomas Deacon [see my book Visible and Apostolic: The Constitution of the Church in High Church Anglican and Non-Juror Thought(University of Delaware Press, 1993) for more information on this movement] Vincent offered a platform upon which to move past the Reformation’s principle of Sola Scriptura and embrace a broader understanding of the authority of Tradition.  They did so in large part to support their liturgical endeavors.  Later on I discovered that Thomas Oden also appealed to Vincent in his attempts to rethink the nature of orthodox Christian theology, taking into account the teachings of the early Christian fathers.  So, when I ran across the title of Thomas Guarino’s book on Vincent I had to obtain a copy (thank you Baker Academic). 

                Guarino makes no mention of the Nonjurors or Oden, but he does offer a very helpful introduction to the thought and impact of Vincent’s theology.  Vincent of Lérins was a monk living on the island of Lérins off the Mediterranean coast of France.  He is best known for developing what is known as the Vincentian canon – semper, ubique, et ab omnibus (always, everywhere, and by everyone).  He develops this principle in his book Commonitorium, published around 434 CE.   He developed this principle in order to confront what he considered theological novelties that led to heresy.  While talented theologians, such as Nestorius (and possibly – at least in regard to predestination – Augustine) could develop ideas that sounded attractive but moved away from the truth.  For Vincent, safety was found in theological consensus – scripture, creeds, general councils, theologians.  Vincent was part of the Western/Latin church, and so he did have a special place for the Bishop of Rome, but in no way did he believe that Rome was infallible or could overrule consensus.  His was a conciliar vision of the church.  So, where there is broad agreement, as with the doctrine of the Trinity, the church could rest easy that they had access to the truth. 

                Guarino’s book isn’t a long one, but it has great depth as he shares Vincent’s understanding of doctrine, of consensus, and development.  Although Vincent has had some influence on Anglican theologians, including the early John Henry Newman, many Roman Catholic theologians, including Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) shied away from his views.  In large part this is due to the belief that following Vincent’s views leads to a static vision of the church.  What was, is.  What Guarino seeks to do is expand our reading of Vincent to see how he understood doctrinal development.  In the second of the three chapters of the book, the author explores the ways in which John Henry Newman used Vincent.  The early Newman appealed to Vincent’s vision of consensus, doing much the same thing as the early Nonjuror theologians, looking to the early Church for a broader theological vision that included Scripture (as the norm) but looking beyond to the teachings of the early church.  Like Vincent he was aware of the problem of novelty, but appreciated the appeal to the creeds and the councils – something he as an Anglican could embrace, without embracing Rome. 

In the second book of the Commonitorium, which we have now only in summary form, Vincent began to work through an understanding of the doctrinal development.  The later, Roman Catholic Newman, turned to this portion of Vincent’s writings as an aid to his own thinking about doctrinal development.  According to Guarino, Newman, for all his brilliance, failed to integrate the two aspects of Vincent’s thinking.  Had he been able to integrate them, he would have seen that there is nothing incongruent about consensus, which is conservative in nature, and development, which is progressive.  For Vincent, development was possible and necessary, but it needs to be rooted in this consensus.  He is concerned with the question of who will be the “Timothy” of each generation, the one whom Paul (or a disciple of Paul) commissioned to “guard the deposit” (1 Tim. 6:20).  If one can be true to the faith first delivered to the apostles, then development is possible, and necessary.  The doctrine of the Trinity being one of those doctrinal developments.   What needs to happen is that as the church continues to think through and reapply doctrine, it needs to continually be looking for consensus. 

Development, for Vincent, has two dimensions.  First, there is the reframing of a traditional doctrine so that it can speak to a new day – his vision can be summed up in this statement “speak newly, but never say new things.”  The second way in which he understood development was in terms of the “organic growth” of a teaching that is rooted in earlier understandings. 

It is the idea of organic growth that intrigues me as a theologian and historian.  Guarino notes that many theologians believe that Vincent is “captive” to tradition.  That he seeks only to preserve what was already developed.  But to do this is to limit his understandings of theology.  For Vincent change can happen in two ways, one legitimate and one illegitimate.  In Latin, these are known as profectus and permutatio.   When development serves to perfect an understanding, it has value, when change perverts the truth, it is to be rejected.  If we integrate the two parts of Vincent’s vision, we can understand his concern that the church conserves the past, the landmarks from which we should not diverge (he would say that Conciliar decrees are chief among these landmarks), as we as allowing truths to grow or flower over time.  Certainly, the full understanding of the Trinity, and especially the broadening understanding of the Holy Spirit, is included in this aspect of development. 

Guarino asks the key question:  “For Vincent and for Christianity today, the questions are these:  How can we preserve the purity of the gospel message while allowing for authentic and homogeneous growth?” (p. 91).  Vincent answers the question by suggesting that all authentic developments should be in full harmony with earlier traditions.  Vincent puts Scripture at the fore, and then Tradition as an interpretive voice. 

What Guarino seeks to do in this book is free Vincent from his reputation as a cranky traditionalist, and introduces us to this fuller vision of Vincent so that we can have the tools to think through doctrinal issues facing the present day.  His is an offering to the church of another tool for the church to discern the wisdom and will of God.  For this we can be greatly appreciative.   

As I read the book, I did so as a left of center mainline Protestant.  I do believe that our understandings of biblical truth have evolved and must evolve.  The question is, how do we do this with all faithfulness to the deposit of faith?  Vincent can be a good resource, even for liberals, and Guarino is an excellent interpreter of Vincent’s thought – as well as Newman’s. 

Guarino writes in his conclusion that his goal is to complicate our reading of Vincent, so that he can once again offer the contemporary church wisdom.  In this, I believe he has succeeded.  And when I go back to reading the Nonjurors I can do so with a fresh set of eyes.    


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