The Vincentian Canon

I long ago committed to memory — in Latin, no less — quod semper, quod ubique, et quod ab omnibus creditum est. I also made sure I knew the English meaning, since I don’t speak Latin (and nobody has set that to music so could sing it).

I probably was introduced to it by C.S. Lewis, but just learned today that this distillation leaves out an important premise: the scopes of semper, ubique, and omnibus.

The noble intention of C.S. Lewis’s famous book Mere Christianity was to defend not this sect or that sect, but rather those teachings which had been held by almost all Christians in almost all times and places.

Though Lewis himself proceeded differently, the idea itself goes back to a criterion of orthodoxy proposed by St. Vincent of Lerins in his famous Commonitory. Here are St. Vincent’s own words:

“I have often then inquired earnestly and attentively of very many men eminent for sanctity and learning, how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical pravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: That whether I or anyone else should wish to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church.

“But here someone perhaps will ask, ”Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation?” For this reason — because, 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. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.

“Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense Catholic, which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.”

J. Budziszewski (emphasis shifted).

“Catholic,” of course, does not exclude Orthodox in this context. St. Vincent was born more than 600 years before the Great Schism, and is venerated by Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican alike. He was untainted by the Reformation solas, but tacitly allows (in theory) much of the premises of sola scriptura:

… the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything …

But then he takes back with his reality hand what he’d given with his theoretical hand:

… 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.

Surely this is an undeniable empirical fact, is it not? I don’t want to bear false witness, but I’m pretty sure that more than 10,000 denominations have been counted, and I frequently hear multiples of that number. Luther had barely put his hammer away after his visit to the Wittenburg Door when he was forced to fight against Anabaptists, and the beat goes on, and on, and on.

That being so, the Protestant notion of perspicacity of scripture seems empirically false. The only alternative to that, I think, is that hundreds of millions are interpreting the perspicacious scriptures in bad faith. It really is necessary to read “in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.”

Moreover, the tacit principle of antiquity absolves me for disbelieving Roman Catholic innovations since the Great Schism, conventionally dated 1054 — which innovations particularly multiplied in the 19th Century (for reasons I may some day apprehend; I’m assuming it arose from something putting particular pressure on the Roman Church).

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