Over the years I have heard many Anglicans and Orthodox criticize the Catholic Church for teaching innovative doctrines not taught by the early Church. In particular they will cite St. Vincent of Lerin’s words in his Commonitory that “we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.” (Commonitory chapter 2, paragraph 6) In other words the orthodox tradition has a claim to universality, antiquity, and consent that the heterodox traditions lack (I refer to this doctrine as the Vincentian Canon, or VC, throughout this paper). These critics of the Catholic Church cite the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption of Mary as novelties not taught everywhere, always, and by all; thus the Catholic Church does not have a claim to be the true Church.
I want to demonstrate that these objections miss the point of St. Vincent’s argument. I think we ought to take St. Vincent at face value and see him as writing for a man already in possession of the tradition (i.e. himself; see chapter 1.1) rather than for a man outside the tradition trying to determine which tradition is correct. When I first read the Commonitory I was reading it like those Orthodox and Anglicans I mentioned earlier read it; the result, I found, was a point so poorly argued that I began to wonder a) if St. Vincent was a very poor thinker, or b) I had misunderstood what St. Vincent sought to demonstrate in the first place. After reading his work as advice to those already in the Church rather than those hoping to find the true Church, the argument of the Commonitory made much more sense. In this post, I assume for the sake of argument that St. Vincent really seeks to give criteria on how to discover the true Church. In showing how bad his argument is when viewed in this way, I hope the reader begins to understand why this interpretation cannot make sense of the text. As I will show, the VC must first assume prior knowledge of the correct tradition as a standard by which to judge a particular doctrine as a ‘novelty of words’. Any appeal to the VC as a means of determining which church is orthodox will inevitably end up begging the question against its rival traditions.
The first criterion for determining which tradition is correct is to find the tradition that is held universally, i.e. throughout the whole world (chapter 2.6). If there are a few who hold a different teaching, St. Vincent appeals to the General Councils to determine what the ancient faith is: “But what, if in antiquity itself there be found error on the part of two or three men, or at any rate of a city or even a province? Then it will be his care by all means, to prefer the decrees, if such there be, of an ancient General Council to the rashness and ignorance of a few.” (Commonitory 3.8) Does Vincent of Lerins judge General Councils to be orthodox because they conform to what has been held “everywhere, always, and by all,” or does he determine what has been held “everywhere, always, and by all” by an appeal to the General Councils? The latter seems to conform to the text, as the quotation cited above indicates. But from where do the General Councils derive their authority? St. Vincent cannot answer that a General Council is authoritative if it conforms to the preceding tradition held “everywhere, always, and by all” because such a move would make his reasoning circular.
In fact, St. Vincent never addresses how the man of simple faith is to determine which Councils are orthodox and which are not. In chapter 31.79 he gives an example of a council that conforms with the Tradition (i.e. the Council of Ephesus); but to say that a council is orthodox is not to explain why a council is orthodox. The early years of the Church saw many councils, many of which dissented from those traditions which St. Vincent calls orthodox in the Commonitory. These councils were attended by a great number of bishops who ultimately taught doctrines contrary to the teachings laid forth in the VC.
Although St. Vincent never addresses how we are to determine which councils are orthodox, perhaps his second criterion may help. The second criterion for determining which tradition is orthodox is to determine whether the doctrine taught conforms to the faith of antiquity. We can distinguish orthodox councils from heterodox councils by seeing which councils contain some novelty of words that was not previously contained in the deposit of faith. In order to determine which councils are orthodox and which aren’t, we ought to refer to Scripture or the teachings of the Apostles, whose faith was guaranteed to be pristine.
St. Vincent makes this very move in chapter 28.71 to determine the means by which the true believer can detect and condemn the novelties of Heretics. Against new heresies, he argues, it is enough to investigate the ancient consent of the holy Fathers to determine what is true doctrine. In the case of long-standing heresies, however, ought not to be dealt with in this way; rather, we should appeal to “the sole authority of Scripture”, or “to shun them as having been already of old convicted and condemned by universal councils of the Catholic Priesthood.”
Now obviously the second criterion cannot be used to establish the authority of a council without begging the question; what about the first way, by appeals to Scripture? Here St. Vincent seems to contradict himself. In chapter 2.5 St. Vincent argues that Scripture—although sufficient in every way—requires the Church’s interpretation. For, “owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters.” Furthermore, when arguing for the necessity of the ancient Tradition for the interpretation of Scripture, St. Vincent notes the variety of interpretations of Scripture: Novatian interprets it one way, Sabellius in another way, etc. Later on, he complains that the heretics are very good at using Scripture to support their own novelties. Thus, an appeal to Scripture in order to determine which doctrines are heresies assumes that one is already in possession of the tradition of the Church in the first place.
The VC faces other difficulties. In chapter 23.54-59 St. Vincent argues that there is such thing as a genuine development of religious knowledge. Such knowledge cannot be contrary to or in addition to the knowledge that was taught by the Father’s of the Church. Real progress is not an alteration of the faith, but an adornment of it. It is the job of brilliant minds to fashion and polish, consolidate and strengthen those ancient doctrines that antiquity had left shapeless and rudimentary (23.59), not to mutilate it with an addition, subtraction, or mutation. A true development designates an old article of faith by a new name. In this way we are able to move from that which was believed in simplicity to that which is believed intelligently.
St. Vincent contrasts truly developed religious knowledge to what 1 Timothy 6:20 terms “novelties of words.” But how does a sincere seeker of the truth determine what is real development and what is not? The sincere seeker of truth by definition does not have, but seeks to obtain, the orthodox tradition. But how does he go about doing this? He does not have the luxury of the ancient Tradition to aid him in his reading of Scripture in determining which tradition is the correct one. Nor can he decide which councils possess authority and which do not. Thus, what the Arians would call sound doctrine is a novelty to the Nicaean Fathers, and what is sound doctrine to the Nicaean Fathers is accused of being a novelty by the Arians. The only way of accurately labeling one of these sets of teachings as novel or sound doctrine is to have knowledge of what the correct tradition is in the first place.
Taking all of these considerations into account, I conclude that the VC has little value in helping an outsider determine which church is possession of right doctrine. In order for the VC to be of any use in the first place, the reader must first assume that he already is in possession of the orthodox Tradition. There is no non-question begging way to use the VC to separate true doctrine from long-standing false doctrine. None of the criteria—what is believed everywhere, always, and by all—can be used in a non-question begging way to determine what is true and what is novel.
Thus, the VC cannot be used in a non-question begging way to demonstrate that the Catholic Church’s doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary are noveldoctrines. The Catholic believer without inconsistency can claim that these doctrines are truly developed religious knowledge, developed from premises contained in but not developed adequately by the preceding Tradition. Far from being “novelties in word”, these doctrines are legitimate developments of religious knowledge. The means of distinguishing the orthodox tradition from its heterodox opponents must be a means other than the VC.
Edit: I did a major overhaul on the introduction to this post. I struggled and struggled, and finally said want I want to say. I also added a link to the Commonitory in the first paragraph.