Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Always, everywhere, by everyone?

Perhaps you are familiar with the Vincentian Canon (VC -- not, thank heavens, the DVC!). Penned by St. Vincent of Lerins as a reliable guide for detecting and rejecting heresy in the Church, the heart of the famous canon is as follows: "...quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est", which means "That which is believed everywhere, in all times, by all [people]." St. Vincent was aware how easily heretics could refer to the common Scriptures, but still come up with heretical teachings. What to do, then? Subject your reading and understanding of Scripture to the common, universal and ancient Tradition of the One Catholic Church, argued St. Vincent. And it's been sterling counsel for centuries. The VC is commonly invoked by Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox as a prime defense against novelties. They tend to hold a "strong Vincentian position" (SVP) on the rule of faith.

I am aware of various logical and theological weaknesses in the so-called SVP (eg., ongoing and widespread dissent, episcopal apostasy, promulgated heresy, ambiguity, misapplications of the VC's terms, etc.), but something else about it, historically speaking, got me wondering, and then blogging...

Does the VC itself meet its own criteria? Can such a "ubiquitous, sempiternal and omnibus" (USO) criteria of orthodoxy itself be found in the ubiquitous, ancient and common patristic testimony? Is the VC truly strong-Vincentian?

Considering I'm a Catholic, the obvious answer should be, "Yes, of course, the VC is valid on patristic grounds. (Just think of St. Irenaeus's defense of orthodoxy against the Gnostics based on the unbroken, universal witness of the apostolic episcopacy.)"

But, in my ignorance, I sense a very subtle, yet very crucial, logical gap between saying the VC is valid as such and saying it is valid on the terms provided by St. Vincent himself. For some reason, it strikes me as analogous to the problem of (say, Churchland-style) eliminativism, namely, claiming there are no minds, and thus no thoughts, is itself a thought produced by and "embedded" in what we can only call minds; hence elimnitavism is wrong because it requires the very things it denies in order to make itself known! By analogy, saying "St. Vincent's" canon expresses the mind of the Church seems flawed precisely because, until St. Vincent penned it, no one had explicitly pronounced the VC! Lacking St. Vincent, the USO mind of the Church fails to articulate its own USO canon!

Now, I'm NOT pressing this as any kind of hard argument "against" the VC or St. Vincent or Holy Tradition or the Faith, etc. I'm also NOT expressing myself clearly, and maybe this shows the whole venture is vain, but my basic point is: if the VC were such an axiomatic, well, axiom of orthodoxy, why didn't anyone state it prior to St. Vincent (ca. mid-to-late 5th century)?

The significance of the logical gap, for me, is that I think relying on the VC, like a pure deductive mantra, misses the point that there existed a multiplicity of approaches to the Faith (not to say "Faiths") in the early Church, as now, and that even the VC was subject, in the vital, pneumatic, theandric concreteness of the Church, to the magisterium and the faithful in their care. In other words, the SVP too easily lets us assume to know the ekklesia phronima (mind of the Church), without a concrete act of obedience to the episcopal guardians of the ubiquitous, sempiternal, omnibus Tradition. Indeed, notice how St. Irenaeus centuries before did not simply refer to the USO Tradition, but to the lines of episcopal succession in possession of that Tradition. This touches on the problem Is ee with the SVP, namely, that an earlier witness had the great opportunity to articulate the VC, but didn't articulate the SVP.

As such, it seems the VC, on its own, is inadequate on strictly Vincentian grounds, since the true mind of the Church was intimately bound up with apostolic authority to settle disputes over what really was USO. As such, I think the SVP must be "relegated" to a VC-cum-episcopacy formula (or something like that). And, as such, I am inclined to deny the VC is actually valid on its own strict terms.

I'm all ears, humbly.


Anonymous said...

But isn't the Vincentian canon just another way of saying "unanimous consent of the fathers," which is enshrined in lots of Catholic theology (and, I believe, has been stated as a standard dogmatically)?

(Too lazy to sign up for a blogger account.)

John Lamont said...

The Vincentian canon seems fine as a sufficient condition for identifying some belief as part of the faith, and read in this way, it is not self-refuting. (To be useful it would have to be read as saying that if a belief is explicitly accepted everywhere and by everyone for a long period of time as certainly part of the Christian faith, then it is part of that faith. It can't require that a belief be accepted absolutely all of the time by everyone, since that would mean the very fact of disagreement over a belief would mean that it did not satisfy the canon.) As a necessary condition for a belief's being part of the faith, it is wrong.

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