Review of Thomas G. Guarino, Vincent of Lerins and the Development of Christian Doctrine (Baker, 2013), and Ronald E. Heine, Classical Christian Doctrine: Introducing the Essentials of the Ancient Faith (Baker, 2013). 

In his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, John Henry Newman set the tone for modern readings of the so-called Vincentian Canon, a measure for doctrinal orthodoxy ascribed to the 5th-century monk Vincent of Lerins. It claims the Catholic faith is nothing other than what has been believed “everywhere, always, and by all” (ubique, semper, et ab omnibus). Contemporary theologians, following Newman, often dismiss this canon: if true in the abstract, nevertheless it often appears as an unhelpful criterion for distinguishing orthodoxy from heresy in particular cases, and also too readily co-opted for the mummification of doctrine in the past.

Thomas Guarino, however, in Vincent of Lerins and the Development of Christian Doctrine, has attempted to rehabilitate Vincent by showing from a reading of his Commonitorium that he in fact had a complex, subtle, and balanced picture of how the Church is faithfully to guard the faith once delivered to the saints.

Guarino suggests that those who reduce Vincent to his canon simply have not read Vincent’s work. It is true, Guarino acknowledges, that Vincent’s first rule for doctrinal transmission is in fact the ubique, semper, et ab omnibus criterion. But this rule is followed almost immediately by a second one: because there is undoubtedly, over time, growth and development in Christian doctrine, any further understanding must be articulated in eodem sensu, i.e., “according to the same sense” found in earlier formulations of the faith. Vincent clearly understands, therefore, that there will be progress — “even exceedingly great progress” — in our understanding and explication of the gospel (p. 15). We must  ensure that this progress constitutes an advance (profectus) rather than an alteration (permutatio), but it is nevertheless crucial for the Church to release and unfold the latent potency lying in its doctrine, and so to enlarge and amplify its understanding of the gospel as time goes on.

Advertisement

Guarino combines Vincent’s two rules with the clever maxim, noviter, non nova: the church is to speak in every place and generation in a new way (according to the exigencies of context), but the substance of its message is always to remain the same (it should never say “new things”). Newman’s own doctrine of development, as Guarino shows, owes much to the Lerinian, and ought not to be read as a straightforward dismantling of a mere antiquarian.

Even in his famous canon, Vincent “is not wistfully looking back to some golden age … never again to be recaptured” (p. 5). Semper, ubique, et ab omnibus is actually part of a multilayered and polycentric set of living safeguards and channels by which Vincent imagines the Church faithfully guarding and transmitting the deposit of faith. These include Scripture (the primary and sufficient source for all doctrine), ecumenical councils, learned and holy theological doctors, the whole body of bishops/overseers, the lay faithful, and the Bishop of Rome.

Guarino puts the accent especially on the centrality of ecumenical councils for Vincent: “the formal meetings of teachers gathered from the entire church themselves represent the consentient judgment of antiquity,” i.e., they represent the concrete realization in actual ecclesial life of Vincent’s canon (p. 5). It is here that Guarino sees in Vincent the most potential for contemporary fruit, especially in modern ecumenism, but it is also just here that his deployment of Vincent is not entirely convincing.

Guarino, a Roman Catholic, is clearly a bit uneasy with the definitions of Vatican I concerning papal infallibility. Although he sees clearly in Vincent an appeal to the Bishop of Rome as caput orbis (“head of the world”), the height of authority for the Lerinian always lies in the consentient judgment of the whole body of bishops. Guarino tries to read Newman — who is himself, he says, following Vincent — as saying that what validated papal infallibility as a “harmonious development” rather than a “profane corruption” was the “acceptance of the bishops and faithful of the definition,” and then looks to Vatican II as the vindication of conciliar consensus as the hallmark for authority (p. 69). But the idea that papal definitions are only infallible when they have the consent of the Church is precisely what Pastor Aeternus denies, which means that precisely what the bishops and faithful accepted after Vatican I is that their acceptance is not necessary. And although it is undoubtedly true that Vatican II emphasized the “collegiate character” of the body of bishops, it nevertheless emphasized that authority rests decidedly in the successor of Peter as its head: “the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff” (Lumen Gentium, 22).

In any case, Guarino’s book is a helpful retrieval of an unfairly neglected early theologian, one who provides good material for reflecting anew on some of Christians’ knottiest questions about ecclesiology and authority.

A very different sort of book, and yet one no less useful in the right kind of context, is Ronald Heine’s Classical Christian Doctrine: Introducing the Essentials of the Ancient Faith. This small volume intends to be a “gateway into the beliefs and teachings of the early Christians,” and could serve as a helpful basic textbook in an introductory course in early Christian theology (p. vii). Heine defines “classical Christian doctrine” in a rather Vincentian way: “those doctrines that were accepted as true by most Christians before the end of the first four centuries of the Christian era,” and identifies the Nicene Creed as the touchstone thereof (p. 3).

The strengths of the book include the complete avoidance of heavy theological jargon, a firm grounding of the development of orthodox doctrine in its Scriptural source material, and substantive excerpts from primary texts in the margins, which will give the uninitiated a clear sense of the lively intellectual rigor and devotional warmth of the Fathers. Weaknesses include occasional philosophical imprecision: he says that Nestorius falsely taught that there were two natures in Christ, united in one person, but Heine’s construal is indistinguishable from the stated position of Nestorius’ opponents. There are also some rather large gaps in coverage: Heine only gives a few sentences on “the Lord’s Supper,” and, in his discussion of creatio ex nihilo, says nothing about how the doctrine preserves the truth that God creates out of sheer generosity and not because of any external compulsion or internal deficiency.

That said, this volume does provide a good bare bones outline of key patristic debates, and could offer an effective means for getting parishioners or students to wade into classical doctrine. If accompanied by substantive teaching on the nuances and subtleties of the controversies, and a more robust explanation of what’s at stake in these questions — why they matter for the life of the church and the individual Christian — this book is a helpful stepping stone into the world of the Early Church.

About The Author

Fr. Mac Stewart is studying for a doctorate in historical theology at the Catholic University of America, and serves as assistant priest at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  Subscribe  
Notify of