The inadequacy of the Vincentian canon

Fr. Georges Florovsky, in his book The Catholicity of the Church wrote:

“The well known formula of Vincent of Lerins is very inexact, when he describes the catholic nature of Church life in the words, Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est. [What has been believed everywhere, always, and by all]. First of all, it is not clear whether this is an empirical criterion or not. If this be so, then the “Vincentian Canon” proves to be inapplicable and quite false. For about what omnes is he speaking? Is it a demand for a general, universal questioning of all the faithful, and even of those who only deem themselves such? At any rate, all the weak and poor of faith, all those who doubt and waver, all those who rebel, ought to be excluded. But the Vincentian Canon gives us no criterion, whereby to distinguish and select. Many disputes arise about faith, still more about dogma. How, then, are we to understand omnes? Should we not prove ourselves too hasty, if we settled all doubtful points by leaving the decision to “liberty” — in dubiis libertas — according to the well known formula wrongly ascribed to St. Augustine. There is actually no need for universal questioning. Very often the measure of truth is the witness of the minority. It may happen that the Catholic Church will find itself but “a little flock.” Perhaps there are more of heterodox than of orthodox mind. It may happen that the heretics spread everywhere, ubique, and that the Church is relegated to the background of history, that it will retire into the desert. In history this was more than once the case, and quite possibly it may more than once again be so. Strictly speaking, the Vincentian Canon is something of a tautology. The word onmes is to be understood as referring to those that are orthodox. In that case the criterion loses its significance. Idem is defined per idem. And of what eternity and of what omnipresence does this rule speak? To what do semper and ubique relate? Is it the experience of faith or the definitions of faith that they refer to? In the latter case the canon becomes a dangerous minimising formula. For not one of the dogmatic definitions strictly satisfies the demand of semper and ubique.

Will it then be necessary to limit ourselves to the dead letter of Apostolic writings? It appears that the Vincentian Canon is a postulate of historical simplification, of a harmful primitivism. This means that we are not to seek for outward, formal criteria of catholicity; we are not to dissect catholicity in empirical universality. Charismatic tradition is truly universal; in its fulness it embraces every kind of semper and ubique and unites all. But empirically it may not be accepted by all. At any rate we are not to prove the truth of Christianity by means of “universal consent,” per consensum omnium. In general, no consensus can prove truth. This would be a case of acute psychologism, and in theology there is even less place for it than in philosophy. On the contrary, truth is the measure by which we can evaluate the worth of “general opinion.” Catholic experience can be expressed even by the few, even by single confessors of faith; and this is quite sufficient. Strictly speaking, to be able to recognize and express catholic truth we need no ecumenical, universal assembly and vote; we even need no “Ecumenical Council.” The sacred dignity of the Council lies not in the number of members representing their Churches. A large “general” council may prove itself to be a “council of robbers” (latrocinium), or even of apostates. And the ecclesia sparsa often convicts it of its nullity by silent opposition. Numerus episcoporum does not solve the question. The historical and practical methods of recognizing sacred and catholic tradition can be many; that of assembling Ecumenical Councils is but one of them, and not the only one. This does not mean that it is unnecessary to convoke councils and conferences. But it may so happen that during the council the truth will be expressed by the minority. And what is still more important, the truth may be revealed even without a council. The opinions of the Fathers and of the ecumenical Doctors of the Church frequently have greater spiritual value and finality than the definitions of certain councils. And these opinions do not need to be verified and accepted by “universal consent.” On the contrary, it is they themselves who are the criterion and they who can prove. It is of this that the Church testifies in silent receptio. Decisive value resides in inner catholicity, not in empirical universality. The opinions of the Fathers are accepted, not as a formal subjection to outward authority, but because of the inner evidence of their catholic truth. The whole body of the Church has the right of verifying, or, to be more exact, the right, and not only the right but the duty, of certifying. It was in this sense that in the well known Encyclical Letter of 1848 the Eastern Patriarchs wrote that “the people itself” (λαος, laós), i.e, the Body of the Church, “was the guardian of piety” (υπερασπιοτης της Θρησκειας). And even before this the Metropolitan Philaret said the same thing in his Catechism. In answer to the question. “Does a true treasury of sacred tradition exist?” he says “All the faithful, united through the sacred tradition of faith, all together and all successively, are built up by God into one Church, which is the true treasury of sacred tradition, or, to quote the words of St. Paul, ‘The Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth’ (1 Tim. 3:15).

The conviction of the Orthodox Church that the “guardian” of tradition and piety is the whole people, i.e. the Body of Christ, in no wise lessens or limits the power of teaching given to the hierarchy. It only means that the power of teaching given to the hierarchy is one of the functions of the catholic completeness of the Church; it is the power of testifying, of expressing and speaking the faith and the experience of the Church, which have been preserved in the whole body. The teaching of the hierarchy is, as it were, the mouthpiece of the Church. De omnium fidelium ore pendeamus, quia in omnem fidelem Spiritus Dei Spirat. [We depend upon the word of all the faithful, because the Spirit of God breathes in each of the faithful, St. Paulin. Nolan, epist. 23, 25, M.L. 61. col. 281]. Only to the hierarchy has it been given to teach “with authority.” The hierarchs have received this power to teach, not from the church-people but from the High Priest, Jesus Christ, in the Sacrament of Orders. But this teaching finds its limits in the expression of the whole Church. The Church is called to witness to this experience, which is an inexhaustible experience, a spiritual vision. A bishop of the Church, episcopus in ecclesia, must be a teacher. Only the bishop has received full power and authority to speak in the name of his flock. The latter receives the right of speaking through the bishop. But to do so the bishop must embrace his Church within himself; he must make manifest its experience and its faith. He must speak not from himself, but in the name of the Church, ex consensu ecclesiae. This is just the contrary of the Vatican formula: ex sese, non autem ex consensu ecclesiae. [From himself, but not from the consensus of the Church].

It is not from his flock that the bishop receives full power to teach, but from Christ through the Apostolic Succession. But full power has been given to him to bear witness to the catholic experience of the body of the Church. He is limited by this experience, and therefore in questions of faith the people must judge concerning his teaching. The duty of obedience ceases when the bishop deviates from the catholic norm, and the people have the right to accuse and even to depose him (For some more details cp. my articles: “The Work of the Holy Spirit in Revelation,” The Christian East, 5.13, No. 2, 1932, and “The Sacrament of Pentecost,” The Journal of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, No 23, March 1934).


3 Responses to “The inadequacy of the Vincentian canon”

  1. Fr. Andrew Says:

    I’ve had these same sort of thoughts regarding St. Vincent’s words. Some folks are indeed trying to interpret them as an “empirical criterion.” This is similar to the “receptionist” theory regarding Ecumenical Councils (i.e., they have to be “received” before they’re valid), which would have come as something of a surprise to the Fathers of those councils, who certainly acted and spoke as if their decrees were immediately binding.

    All this detracts from attention to the inner spiritual reality of Orthodox dogmatic authority. No, it’s not really something that can be proven to people with argument, nor is it a subjective “burning in the breast” as with the Mormons (which is essentially an empirical criterion, as well). I don’t really know how, exactly, but I do believe that God Himself authenticates the true faith to the humble of heart. This is why the beginning of the Gospel teaching is always “Repent!”

  2. dpc+ Says:

    Thank you for visiting and commenting, Father.
    Yes, “repent.” And that is precisely what ecusa (aka “tec”) has failed and will always fail to do. We have “re-thought sin” until sin is no more. And the bishops refuse to teach (actually they do teach, but what they teach is heresy), and so the people are without a shepherd… Etc. Etc. Ezekiel’s indictment of the shepherds and priests strikes a ringing note right about now.

  3. Webelf Report Blogroll « The WebElf Report Says:

    […] THE INADEQUACY of the Vincentian canon …. (luke2219) […]

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