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St Vincent of Lérins

A Homily from Made Perfect in Faith (Ch. 24)

by Father James Thornton

From time to time, it is beneficial to remind ourselves of the importance of correct terminology and its use. Unless we do this, and unless we rightly instruct ourselves, our children, and new converts coming to us in this terminology, we are at risk of confusion, and we are likewise at risk of forfeiting to those outside of the Church that which rightfully belongs to the Church, that which is our patrimony.

The Orthodox Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. She is One, since all of Her members share an identical Faith and are united by spiritual bonds that are broken neither by the passage of time nor by distance, not even by death. She is Holy, since She was founded by Christ as the fountainhead of all holiness in this world, as manifested in the lives of countless Saints. She is Catholic, because She upholds and teaches God’s revelation to us in its totality, without addition or subtraction (the word “Catholic” comes from the Greek kath’ holou and means, literally, “of the whole”). The word “Catholic” also denotes the universality of the Faith of the Church. Ours is not a tribal Church, limited by ethnicity or region. The mission of the Church in this world is limitless; She reaches out to all of mankind. And She is Apostolic, since Her Faith and teaching have been passed down without change from the Holy Apostles, through the generations, to us.

Although we use the term “Catholic,” for example, when speaking of the modern Church of Rome, we do this as a matter of convenience. Strictly speaking, only the Orthodox Church can legitimately call Herself “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.” Other religious bodies may refer to themselves by these terms, yet those words are proper only to us. Other religious bodies may call themselves “Evangelical,” to draw from another example. However, since that word “Evangelical” refers to that which is in accord with the Holy Gospel—a Gospel that is of, by, and for the Orthodox Church—that word, too, is proper only to Orthodoxy. The Holy Father we investigate today, Saint Vincent of Lérins, was particularly concerned with the correct application of such terminology, setting down for us means by which we might sort out truth from error.

We know neither the date of Saint Vincent’s birth nor that of his death. We know only that he was a Gaul, born sometime in the late fourth century, and that he reposed in the mid-fifth century, sometime after the mid-430s but before 450. We know also that he abandoned a career in the Roman military to become a monk at the great Monastery of Lérins, located on a small island (today known as Isle Saint-Honorat) just off the Mediterranean coast from the modern city of Cannes. A contemporary refers to Saint Vincent as deeply holy and as outstanding for his great learning and for the eloquence of his writing. As with Saint John Cassian, whom we spoke of some weeks ago, certain modern commentators accuse Saint Vincent of sympathy with what they call Semi-Pelagianism. However, of this he is accused only because he opposed the theological hyperbole of Saint Augustine of Hippo in dealing with the subject of the importance of God’s Grace in man’s conversion. Certainly, Saint Vincent is entirely Orthodox in his teachings.

Saint Vincent is remembered today because of his work Commonitorium or A Commonitory. This work is a compendium of rules by which a believer may distinguish theological truth from error. The title Commonitorium means that the work is intended as a memory aid, a work that one may consult quickly for the purpose of refreshing one’s memory, as the Saint himself notes in his introductory comments.

In his great work, the Saint tells us that we may discover the truth first through reading Holy Scripture, for that is the basis of everything. Yet, he points out, men may differ in their interpretation of Holy Scripture. How may we know which interpretation is the correct one? We know by consulting the writings of authorities within the Church, the great Saints and Church Fathers, and this we do carefully. In Saint Vincent’s words: “[I]n the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense ‘Catholic,’ which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, and consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.”[1]

The Faith and the Church described in these words by Saint Vincent is clearly the Orthodox Faith and the Orthodox Church, since, as the Saint writes, decisions are reached and the power of governance is exercised in collegial fashion, that is, by Bishops consulting one another and acting in harmony, reaching important decisions in concert. In Orthodoxy, there is no infallible, universal Bishop making important decisions about the faith by himself. A synodal Church government is what Saint Vincent describes, and that is one of the features of his work that makes it clearly Orthodox.

Now, Saint Vincent requires that in determining what we believe, we adhere quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est (“to that which is believed everywhere, always, and by all”), or, to phrase it another way, as the Saint does, to that which possesses universitas, antiquitas, et consensio (“universality, antiquity, and consent”). Protopresbyter Georges Florovsky writes that Saint Vincent’s rule is “at once the criterion and the norm. The crucial emphasis was here on the permanence of Christian teaching. St. Vincent was actually appealing to the double ‘ecumenicity’ of the Christian faith—in space and time.”[2]

If someone begins to preach some new dogma, how do we respond, inwardly, in our own hearts and minds? Let us briefly examine this question by applying Saint Vincent’s rule to the example of the modern ecumenist belief that all religious bodies retain only portions of the truth and that only by merging them all together can the fullness of truth be found.

First, we ask ourselves, is this belief held throughout the Church, universally? That all religious bodies have only portions of the truth and therefore need to be merged together to achieve the fullness of truth is not a belief held universally within the Church, and only in a few places have such notions been expressed by Church members, and even then usually only by implication.

Second, did our Fathers in the Faith, the Orthodox of past ages, hold such a belief? Quite the contrary is the case; the idea that the Orthodox Church is not the single repository of the fullness of truth was explicitly condemned by the Church’s ancient authorities, the Holy Fathers and the Holy Oecumenical Synods. (Let us remember in this context, however, that antiquity by itself is not a safe measure of truth, since some heresies are also ancient and have their own ancient authorities.)

Third, does this new belief enjoy the unanimous (or nearly unanimous) approval of all Church authorities? Definitely not! Considerable numbers of Church authorities and the Church Faithful have objected to the ecumenist dogma (even among those who participate formally but with reservations in the ecumenical movement itself), and, despite misleading impressions to the contrary, only a tiny handful of clerics has given categorical approval to this novel teaching.

So we see that if we follow Saint Vincent’s rule, we remain on theologically solid ground.

Orthodox Christians living in the world are bombarded perpetually by the spokesmen of religions who stand in opposition to Orthodoxy, through newspapers, printed tracts, books, radio programs, television programs, and websites. These trumpet forth the religious beliefs of hosts of sectarian preachers. Most generally, sectarians are highly adept in the use of the mass communications media, and they are nearly always lavishly funded in their endeavors. More often than not, the sects offer what appear to be far easier ways of life than does Orthodoxy. Orthodox believers must take great pains to protect themselves and those in their charge from the contaminating influence of non-Orthodox religions and their spokesmen. We do not judge such men and women or their followers as individuals; we can say only that insofar as they differ from the Orthodox Church, they are in error.

Our Blessed Forebears in the Faith were decidedly straightforward in their defense of truth. They held—absolutely correctly—that forthrightness in these matters is necessary, since religious truth involves the life or the death of the soul, involves one’s state for all eternity. Thus, Saint Vincent tells us that it is incumbent on all Orthodox believers “who are anxious to approve themselves genuine sons of Mother Church, to adhere henceforward to the holy faith of the holy Fathers, to be wedded to it, to die in it; but as to the profane novelties of profane men—to detest them, abhor them, oppose them, give them no quarter.”[3]

Let us resolve to embrace our saving Orthodox Faith unconditionally, to strengthen it by prayer and by study, and forevermore to reject and oppose all theological innovation. Let us embrace the Faith that is believed and upheld “everywhere, always, and by all.”

Endnotes

  1. A Commonitory, 2.
  2. [Protopresbyter] Georges Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, Vol. 1 of The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky (Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishing Company, 1972), 73.
  3. A Commonitory, 33.

From Made Perfect in Faith (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2006), pp. 146-151. This superb book of homilies is highly recommended! Posted on 29 Sep, 2006 (n.s.).