Vincent's Vexation

Week of Monday, May 28, 2001

Last week, I recommended the advice of the 17th-century Lutheran theologian Peter Meiderlin that Christians should move beyond our little self-absorbed factions that cause so much bickering. Instead, we should exhibit “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.” Peter’s “prayerful admonition,” as he called it, sounds great, but it begs a huge question. Just what are the “essentials” of the Christian faith around which we might celebrate unity, and how do you ever identify them? This leads me to Vincent’s vexation.

In the fifth century Saint Vincent of Lerins (d. 445), writing off the southeast coast of France near Cannes, was vexed with a similar question. Was it possible, he wondered, “to secure a kind of fixed and, as it were, general and guiding principle for distinguishing the true Christian faith from the degraded falsehoods of heresy?” Yes, at one level it appears easy, he said; everyone told him to follow what the Scriptures teach, for Christians agree they are “complete and abundantly sufficient.” But Vincent was convinced that even though the Bible is our ultimate authority, it is not our only authority. We need “church tradition.”

Why would we ever need church tradition?! Vincent describes two frustrating experiences most Christians have had at one time or another. First, different believers interpret Scripture in different ways. “Because of the very depth of Scripture all people do not place one identical interpretation upon it. The statements of the same writer are explained by different people in different ways, so much so that it seems almost possible to extract from it as many opinions as there are people.” Second—and what evangelical has not experienced this frustration with, say, a Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon?!—even heretics quote the Bible! So, we need to follow the Bible, but not just any interpretation of it, and we need to follow Christian tradition, but not just any old tradition.

In his Commonitorium Vincent proposes his solution, a “fixed and guiding principle” which has since been called the Vincentian Canon. “We take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” Notice his three criteria: universality, antiquity, and consent. Universality implies geographical breadth, that a Christian belief has been held throughout the church the world over. Antiquity has to do with time and asks whether a teaching can claim any support from our earliest forebears in the faith up to the present. Then there is ecumenicity or the consent of all or nearly all the fathers, creeds and councils. In sum, says Vincent, we should adhere to that Christian teaching that has been “held, approved and taught, not by one or two only but by all equally and with one consent, openly, frequently and persistently.”

What Vincent describes here is similar to what CS Lewis defines as “mere Christianity”, that form of Christian faith common to all believers. If we wanted an example, the Apostles’ Creed comes to mind. When you wonder whether a certain Christian doctrine or belief should command your attention, ask yourself: has this teaching been held by believers nowhere, never, by none? Only a few places, for a brief period of time, and by no major church father or council? Or instead, “everywhere, always, by all,” or something close to that? By measuring doctrines by Vincent’s “canon” or rule, you can get a fairly good idea about what Peter Meiderlin called an “essential” of the faith.

But just how helpful is Vincent? With several qualifications, I think he is a reliable guide.

First, we should resist the idea that there was ever a time or place in the church when all three of his criteria were fully met. Sometimes, truth is held by a peripheral minority, not the institutional majority. For example, one of the more famous theological tracts of the 12th century was a book called Yes and No by Peter Abelard (1079–1142), the premier teacher in the Paris of his day. He arranged 158 sayings of the church fathers that appeared to contradict one another. So Vincent’s “consensus” is proximate and relative, not ultimate and absolute.

Next, notice that Vincent is struggling to identify the essential core of the Christian faith, not with what might be more or less important in any given time or place. For example, I happen to think that the ordination of women to ministry is very important to the church in the modern west, and so I support it. Likewise, I think that speaking in tongues is not as nearly as important as some Christians do who seem to elevate it to some sort of “essential” of true spirituality. Both of these matters are important in certain times and places; but neither are even close to being an essential of the faith. Clearly, Christians disagree about their disagreements as CS Lewis once remarked, and that’s fine as long as we do not confuse what is essential with what is merely more or less important.

Third, Christians acknowledge that the infinite God and His truth transcend any human formulation of it. Since we are limited, sinful, and bound by our own times and cultures, even our formulations of “essential” doctrines will be, ultimately, inadequate to the task. Evagrios of Pontus(345–399) avowed that “God cannot be grasped by the mind...If he could be grasped He would not be God.” So we need to remember that even as we rightly affirm the essentials of orthodox Christianity, we acknowledge that our words will be inadequate to the Reality. One implication of this is the so-called “Protestant principle”, that we honor the right of every Christian to follow their own intellectual conscience and conviction, even when we think they are dead wrong. Put another way, stifling theological criticism, doubt and critique is rarely helpful, whereas honoring theological modesty is eminently healthy.

Finally, as we spend serious energy and effort on the essentials of the faith, we must always beware of the danger of “salvation by correct doctrine.” We are not saved by affirming theological statements. We are saved by accepting the loving embrace of God’s free grace in Christ.

Paul Tillich (1886–1965) makes this very point. The great truth of the Protestant Reformation was justification by faith, that God saves me in spite of my moral condition. But Tillich suggested that there is also justification by faith despite our intellectual condition:

You cannot reach God by the work of right thinking or by a sacrifice of the intellect or by a submission to strange authorities, such as the doctrines of the church and the Bible. You cannot, and you are not even asked to try. Neither works of piety nor works of morality nor works of the intellect establish unity with God. They follow from this unity, but they do not make it.1
Although ideally the two should never be separated, there is a difference between affirming orthodox doctrines about God, even “essential” ones of the faith, and loving and being loved by God. The essentials of Christian faith are important because they have to do with constructing a truly Christian world view. But that is slightly but ever so importantly different than developing a loving relationship with the living God and our next door neighbor.
  1. Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. xi.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.