Orthodoxy Is: Universality, Antiquity, Consent – Vincent of Lérins

So, what exactly is orthodoxy?

According to Vincent of Lérins, orthodoxy is the Church’s theology. It is the way the Church interprets Sacred Scripture through Holy Tradition.

It’s not your interpretation. It’s not my interpretation. It’s the Church’s interpretation.

So, how do we determine what the Church’s interpretation is?

Well, Vincent says it is “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” (2.6)

Only, Vincent doesn’t leave it at that. As mentioned in an earlier post, he expands on that and gives us his three-fold rule:

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.

So, this is the three-fold test: universality, antiquity, and consent.

First, the whole Church must believe it. Not just a part of the church. Not just our particular denomination, or even a segment of all our churches. For it to be truly orthodox Christian faith, the whole church throughout the world has to believe and hold to this thing.

Of course, Vincent isn’t talking about pure democracy here. He’s not interested in taking votes and counting them up to get a simple majority. Right is right, regardless of the number of people who adhere to it.

Nor is he naive to the fact that sometimes a new idea takes hold of the church for a time that later turns out to be wrong. See Arianism. Or any number of heresies that Vincent will list.

Sometimes the current majority of Christians get led astray or confused about something, and then later have to be corrected.

So, universality isn’t just about sheer numbers. Rather, it’s Vincent’s way of saying that the Church cannot be sectarian. To be an orthodox Christian, everyone everywhere has to hold to this idea. You can’t be Christian without it.

Like the Incarnation. You can’t be the Church, and you can’t be truly Christian if you don’t hold to the Incarnation the way the Church as a whole preaches and teaches it. It’s a universally held belief.

Of course, that raises the question: What do you do when a new idea seems to lead astray the vast majority of Christians? As Vincent puts it in 3.7:

What, if some novel contagion seek to infect not merely an insignificant portion of the Church, but the whole?

Then it will be his care to cleave to antiquity, which at this day cannot possibly be seduced by any fraud of novelty.

And this is the second step: Antiquity. What the Church has always believed.

When in doubt, Vincent says, we turn to the Church of old, from the beginning to right now. Orthodox faith is what Christians have always believed and held to be true.

So, any new idea has to be tested by whether or not it fits with what the Church has always believed, what it has always taught, how it has always interpreted Scripture. In any place where current teaching runs contrary to traditional teaching, we are to favor traditional teaching. The new is always rejected for the old.

Of course, Vincent is aware that most mistakes and errors aren’t really new. They are often just as old as orthodoxy. History does tend to repeat itself. So, if you want, you can always dredge up some old church father or theologian who seemingly supports your current view.

So, what do you do then? Vincent writes (3.8):

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 of 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.

But what, if some error should spring up on which no such decree is found to bear?

Then he must collate and consult and interrogate the opinions of the ancients, of those, namely, who, though living in divers times and places, yet continuing in the communion and faith of the one Catholic Church, stand forth acknowledged and approved authorities:

and whatsoever he shall ascertain to have been held, written, taught, not by one or two of these only, but by all, equally, with one consent, openly, frequently, persistently, that he must understand that he himself also is to believe without any doubt or hesitation.

This is the third and final step of Vincent’s rule: Consent (or Consensus). What the trusted authorities of the Church believed.

This is the part that will probably bother modern Christians the most. Especially modern Americans.

Vincent is not interested in simple majorities. He’s not even interested in the opinion of the average pastor or lay person.

Vincent says: When in doubt, turn to the trusted authorities of the Church.

Now, nominally, we might agree with him. The problem is, our trusted authorities are usually academic scholars.

After all, in a theological discussion that’s who we turn to. We start citing scholars. Like NT Wright, Bart Ehrman, Ben Witherington, or Raymond Brown. Or we cite pastors of large churches, particularly those who’ve written popular books, like Adam Hamilton, Rick Warren, or Mike Slaughter. These are our modern experts.

However, Vincent has in mind a different kind of expert. What he might call a church mother or father.

If possible, he says, we should turn to the ancient Ecumenical Councils. Like the Council of Nicea or of Ephesus. These are the definitive statements of the Church.

However, we are not limited to these Councils. This is the mistake I’ve noticed lately among some of my progressive friends who want to hold to the word “orthodoxy.” They want to limit “orthodox” to the Councils and Creeds.

Vincent disagrees. The Councils were convened to deal with specific theological issues. But, sometimes, things come up that a Council hasn’t specifically dealt with yet. No definitive statement has been given.

Still, Vincent says, the Church has spoken. She has spoken through all those church mothers and fathers whose writings have been accepted as authoritative by the church as a whole from the earliest days till now.

Like Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome in the west. John Chrysostom, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa in the east. These are some of the earliest church authorities. And we could add a host of other names like Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Therese Lisieux, John Cassian, and so many more.

These are what the early church tended to call the Doctors of the Church. The term “doctor” here simply means “teacher.” These are the trusted teachers of the Church. Their writings are authoritative and binding theologically.

What’s more, Vincent reminds us, it’s not just what any one of them in isolation might say. Goodness knows, Augustine by himself could lead you to Calvinist predestination (something the Church never endorsed or believed).

An isolated quote here or there isn’t enough. Rather, it’s what all of them say in unison (consensus). If all of them are in agreement on something, then that settles it; that’s orthodoxy. If the vast majority are in agreement, then likely that’s the right view, and we must hold to it.

Orthodoxy is the Church’s theology as filtered through its most trusted authorities from the earliest days till now, and assented to by the vast majority of the church then and today.

That is, it is Universality (the whole Church), Antiquity (the historical Church), and Consent (the consensus of the trusted authorities of the Church) held in tension and unison with one another.

No one by itself is enough, but together these three things can help us verify what is orthodox Christian faith from what is not.

I don’t know about you, but I find this incredibly helpful in sorting out our current theological debate in the church today.

I doubt it will be enough to alter the course of the United Methodist Church, but if we were willing, it would certainly help.



One response to “Orthodoxy Is: Universality, Antiquity, Consent – Vincent of Lérins

  • dane

    Hello! Interesting article. I read it after a friend tweeted it. With all due respect – and please accept my reply in the spirit of brotherhood – I must disagree with much of what has been said.

    You wrote: “So, this is the three-fold test: universality, antiquity, and consent.

    First, the whole Church must believe it. Not just a part of the church. Not just our particular denomination, or even a segment of all our churches. For it to be truly orthodox Christian faith, the whole church throughout the world has to believe and hold to this thing.”

    The obvious question is: how do we test the above statement to see if it is in itself true? Would this statement pass its own test? Would the whole church agree with the test of orthodoxy? For example, would our Anabaptist brothers and sisters agree along with our Baptist fellow workers? If not, then the statement itself cannot be true.

    So, how do we know the provided article is true? How can we test it?

    Next, you wrote:

    “To be an orthodox Christian, everyone everywhere has to hold to this idea. You can’t be Christian without it.”

    This is downright scary. It might be a popular statement in churches where people are not encouraged to think for themselves. But, for those of us who “test the spirits, whether they are of God,” the shallowness of it is striking.

    No where does the Bible teach that one cannot be Christian without holding to universally-held doctrines. Instead, what the Bible teaches is that, “if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” Positively, the Bible describes a Christian as one who is believing with one’s heart and confessing with ones mouth (Rom 10:9). Neither Jesus or the Apostles insisted that orthodox doctrine was essential for regeneration. If you are going to insist that we need to understand the Apostles through the writings of the Church Fathers, then I will be only too glad to enter that discussion with you at another time. Sufficient to say, however, that the Apostles never told us that we must believe the later writings of the Church Fathers. If that is going to be insisted upon, then I must ask the same question as above: how can we test that statement to see if it is true?

    It is good that men like Jan Huss, John Wyecliff, Martin Luther, or Menno Simons never read this article or thought this way. Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (2 Cor. 3:17). Thank God that these men understood that liberty as a freedom to think for themselves.

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