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St. Vincent of Lérins and Catholicity

A fundamentalist Protestant publication recently published an attack against Orthodoxy in which the accusation was made that Father Georges Florovsky and his "followers" reject St. Vincent—specifically his definition of Catholicity. I have not read much of Florovsky, but I have a hard time believing that this claim is correct. (Fr. J.W., TX)

Neither did Father Florovsky reject nor have his "followers" ever rejected St. Vincent and his definition of catholicity. Rather, Father Florovsky and those who have expanded on his notions point out that the Vincentian formula, "...quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est," is not adequate, per se, to describe the catholicity of the Church. Catholicity is not a matter of geography and majority (what is believed everywhere and by everyone), since it is often the case that truth resides in the minority (the "little flock") and among even the very few (e.g., the Cappadocians or the anti-unionists at the time of St. Mark Evgenikos). What Father Florovsky, in particular, argues is that we must understand St. Vincent in terms of a larger consensus, a kind of existential universality that encompasses the whole spiritual voice of the Church. "Universal consent," a Protestant idea, can easily be derived from a misunderstanding of St. Vincent’s famous words; therefore, Father Florovsky rightly points out that we Orthodox (and St. Vincent) accept the teachings of the Fathers, for example, not by subjection to the external authority of some "democratic" consensus, but because of their inner catholicity, the inner evidence of their catholic truth. This profound distinction is not immediately obvious in St. Vincent’s formula. Clearly, then, the formula is inadequate only in the sense that it cannot stand alone, without a deeper understanding of what catholicity is and how it relates to the Church’s true authority, which rises from the common authority of  the Fathers, who are the criterion of catholicity (even, in some matters, beyond and above the synods and councils) when they speak (each one of them in every place, their oneness and location understood, here, spiritually and not empirically) for the whole people of God, for the entire experience of the revealed truth of the Christian Church.

It is obvious, from what we have written, that the Protestant fundamentalists to whom you refer not only misunderstand us Orthodox when we speak about the Fathers, but imagine that we are somehow limited in our thinking, such that a phrase or formula from one of the Fathers cannot be approached in critical terms. Father Florovsky is, once again, simply pointing out, in his statements about St. Vincent, that this Saint’s famous formula for catholicity is inadequate only if its terms are accepted in an empirical, simple-minded way, as they are by Protestants in deriving a theory of "universal consent" (democratic truth) therefrom, and Roman Catholics, who find therein a geographical and external definition of authority. Moreover, he also argues, in one place, that St. Vincent’s catholic formula is as much a statement about the permanence of Christian teaching as about catholicity itself. Needless to say, Father Florovsky and his "followers" do not, thereby, reject St. Vincent.

Let us finally say that Father Florovsky would have been outraged at the idea that he collected "followers." He considered himself a "follower" of the Fathers, and this theme underlies all of his theology, even his appeal for the "Hellenization" of Orthodox thinking. One might wish that Florovsky had been more of a "follower of the Fathers" with regard to his early views on ecumenism, many of which (especially his brief infatuation with Augustinian sacramentalism) he admittedly later disavowed, but his fidelity to the whole of Orthodoxy and the entire choir of Her Saints, including St. Vincent of Lérins, cannot be questioned. That the polemical meanderings of fundamentalist sectarians should impugn this fidelity is sad indeed.

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XII, No. 4, pp. 19-20.

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Further Remarks on St. Vincent's Canon

What follows is an exchange of letters between Archbishop Chrysostomos and Deacon [now Father] John Whiteford.

Master, bless.

Dear Archbishop Chrysostomos,

I was wondering if you had time to clarify a fine distinction for me. In St. Vincent of Lerin’s definition of Catholicity, he speaks of Universality and Consent as well as Antiquity. A protestant I have corresponded with has asked for an explanation of the distinction between Universality and Consent, since to him it seems redundant. I have tried to explain it, but would be interested in your input.

Here is what he writes:

Now this isn’t a big point, but I do want to get it right. So previously I searched diligently in your book and Lérins for it and couldn’t find a non-redundant difference between consent and universality. I have no problem in admitting it, since my larger criticism would apply against either version. I just found that I myself couldn’t exposit it non-redundantly. Keep in mind that this charge of circularity is different from the one you address on p. 40 of your booklet. I have no problem with universality being tied to the true faith. But within that context, I just would like to see the difference between universality and consent. Here is what your book says. Universality: "thus an authentic teaching of the Church would be found throughout the Church." Consent: "Consensus means that we look at the faith commonly held by the Fathers of the faith." I’m guessing you’re not making a mere laity/teacher distinction here. The Fathers are in focus in both. If so, what’s the subtle distinction? These two lines appear to say the same thing.

As I see it, the two are obviously closely related ideas, as are "Faith" and "hope", for example—and yet there is certainly a distinction. In this case, it is sort of like the diference between width and depth (antiquity being height), as I see it.

Could you illumine this further?

Asking for your prayers and kissing your right hand,

Deacon John Whiteford

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Dear Father John:

Evlogeite.

The distinction in question is a very complex one. Quite obviously, there is no redundancy in what St. Vincent says. Your Protestant friend, in typical fashion, thinks that language defines theology. Theology defines language, and language serves this task of definition poorly. In Orthodox theology, the Fathers try to approximate the truth in the inadequate medium of human verbal intercourse, using language carefully, intentionally, and at times even in an ironic manner. This is true, incidentally, of Scripture, too. Anyone who speaks Greek (and I am not speaking of the artificial Erasmian language of seminaries, here) sees this immediately in Scripture and in the Fathers. Thus, any notion of redundancy, contradiction, and so on, is foreign to our thinking. We look, rather, to our own inadequacies when reading Scripture and the Fathers.

By catholicity, St. Vincent refers to the noumenal dimensions of the Faith. Catholicity captures the fullness of the spiritual reality of Christianity, which is passed on to us noetically. Consent is nothing more than human acquiescence to that universality, which is prompted by the knowledge of Truth dwelling in each of us and which is mediated by the activity of the discursive intellect. As for the notion of "antiquity," this too is not a mere historical idea. It refers to that golden thread of spiritual consensus that rises out of the noumenological truths of Christianity, which is verified externally by the consent of the Church (Holy Tradition, the Ecumenical Synods, and so on), and which is as ancient in its present-day manifestation as it was when the Lord revealed our Faith to the Apostles. (Hence, what is ancient is not necessarily Orthodox. What has endured through the ages by consent and which rises out of the noumenal truths of Christianity, this is what is "ancient.")

One might say that catholicity, consent, and antiquity correspond, as well, to the ancient formula of our Faith: that which was delivered by the Lord (universal Truth), preached by the Apostles (the verification of this Faith by consensual teaching), and preserved by the Fathers (that phronema which embodies and passes on the Truth of Christianity from the past to the present and on into Eternity).

Finally, one cannot understand St. Vincent of Lérins without placing him in the context of the Fathers. Textual analysis, logical machinations, and the stuff of literary evaluation do not belong to the realm of true Patristic knowledge. The mind of the Fathers derives from the universal truth which they pass on from the beginning in common.

I wish you a Blessed Nativity, Father. Pray for me.

Least Among Monks,

Archbishop Chrysostomos