What Is Orthodoxy? – Vincent of Lérins

What is orthodoxy? What are those things that we must believe in order to be truly Christian?

Is it just what we find specifically mentioned in the Bible? Is it only those things we find specifically listed in the major creeds? Or is it simply what most of the Christians around us likewise believe?

What is it that makes us orthodox?

It’s a question that seems to be making the rounds in the church these days. And it’s likewise the question that bothered Vincent of Lérins.

Vincent was a monk in Gaul (France) who had attended the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. A few years later, around 434 AD, he wrote a little book called the Commonitorium, in which he tried to outline the process the council had used to verify what was orthodox Christian teaching and what wasn’t.

Vincent asks: How do we know what the truth is? How do we know who is right and who is wrong? How do we know what we can agree to disagree about, and what we simply cannot compromise on? How do we know for sure?

Vincent then answers in chapter 2.4:

That whether I or any one 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.

So, note that Vincent lists two things: 1) Sacred Scripture, which is what he means here by Divine Law, and 2) Holy Tradition, that is, the Church’s interpretation of Sacred Scripture.

According to Vincent, these two things together tell us what is orthodox belief, what we must accept as true in order to be genuinely Christian.

Only, Vincent doesn’t stop there. He goes on to limit what we mean by Holy Tradition. What makes up Holy Tradition? Who determines what the Church believes, or how it interprets the Bible? Where do we get this Tradition?

Vincent elaborates in ch. 2.6:

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.

So, how do we determine what is Holy Tradition? Vincent says it is what has been believed everywhere, always, by all. Or, as it is often quoted in Latin: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus.

This is Vincent’s famous dictum. Nearly every textbook on church history will at some point quote this line.

Only, again, Vincent doesn’t stop there. He goes on to explain what he means by that. “Everywhere, always, and by all” is shorthand for his three-fold test for orthodoxy: universality, antiquity, consent. 

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting on Vincent and his rule. I’ll be honest, I like his formula, and I wonder if it can help some of our theological disputes today.

Mind you, none of this is new. In fact, it’s quite old. Still, I don’t hear many people defining orthodoxy the way Vincent does. And I wonder what that says about us.

 

 

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