The Magazine

Tradition Unbound

A church father gets an ideological makeover.

Jan 27, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 19 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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Vincent of Lérins was a Gaulish monk who lived and wrote in the fifth century. Little is known about him, really. It’s said that he was originally a soldier but gave up his military career to enter a monastery near Cannes, on the small Mediterranean island of Lérins (later renamed the Île Saint-Honorat, after the founder of Vincent’s monastery). He may have been a brother of the better-known St. Lupus of Troyes—famous for somehow persuading Attila the Hun not to sack the city of which he was bishop—but the evidence is thin enough to be measured in microns. 

Vincent of Lérins

Vincent of Lérins

He probably held to some version of Semipelagianism—the doctrine (later declared heretical) that the initial choice of faith requires no grace—although even his thought on that topic is something of an inference, resting on such reeds as the doctrine’s general prevalence in southern Gaul and his leaving Augustine’s name off a list of saints. He’s often named as the author of the “Objectiones Vincentianae,” a set of anti-Augustinian propositions that have come down to us only in their repudiation by Augustine’s bulldog, Prosper of Aquitaine. But the one thing that seems beyond doubt is that, around 434 a.d., under the pseudonym of Peregrinus, Vincent wrote a text called the Commonitorium, his “Reminder” or “Remembrancer,” kept to refresh his memory as he worked his way through the difficult issue of distinguishing truth from heresy.

Interestingly, the thinness of the historical record has not kept Vincent and the surviving manuscripts of the Commonitorium from being employed by thinkers throughout the subsequent ages, as the distinguished theologian Thomas Guarino points out in this new study. A Roman Catholic priest and professor of systematic theology at Seton Hall, Guarino is the author of Vattimo and Theology (2009), the standard study in English of the postmodernism of Gianni Vattimo, as well as Foundations of Systematic Theology (2005) and innumerable scholarly articles. In this latest work, Guarino sets out to rebuild Vincent of Lérins’s reputation—mostly by removing the monk from the useful place he has occupied in modern debates about the ever-adapting “spirit of Christianity,” the development of doctrine, and the inviolability of the meaning of ancient texts.

Make no mistake: Vincent has been quite useful, mostly as an archetypal figure in arguments since at least the First Vatican Council in the 1860s. In any discussion of tradition—“how it serves as a warrant for truth and how it preserves a certain constancy amidst growth, development, and change,” as Guarino notes—there will be those who, on the one hand, insist that nothing important alters and that we have a duty to adapt our understanding to hallowed prior formulations, to study and intuit their meaning and present application. On the other hand, there will also be those who demand that we abandon traditional formulas as outmoded and irrelevant to changed circumstances, people who define their central tenets as a state of mind, a spirit born in founding documents that requires reformulation to be applied in any new age.

“Teach the same things you were taught, so that when you speak in a new way you do not say new things,” Vincent concludes in a classic statement of the conservative understanding. Indeed, he argues, in what has been dubbed the Vincentian Canon, that we should accept as faith only “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.” Quote such lines often enough, and you end up with a kind of easy abbreviation: “Vincent of Lérins” as shorthand for the pole of conservatism in debates about the importance of tradition. 

The question of tradition is hardly limited to Christian doctrine. The Supreme Court’s reading of the Constitution, arguments over the direction of charitable foundations that seem out of sync with their founders’ intentions, the Hippocratic Oath, analysis of literary texts—any root question of changed circumstances long after a social contract. The public square contains little except the fight between traditional understandings and claims of the modern spirit. One of the most depressing features of intellectual life is the realization that every interpretative problem is paralleled by one or another of the early Christian debates over heresy and orthodoxy. Struggle your way up the hill to survey the battlefield from what you imagine will be a new vantage point, and you invariably discover that the Church Fathers have been sitting there for a millennium-and-a-half, surprised only that it took you so long to find them.

In Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Christian Doctrine, Guarino insists that we have entirely misread Vincent. Thanks, especially, to the battles surrounding the Second Vatican Council, the monk’s name became a byword for a position he never actually held. Yes, he did demand that any supposed progress in a theological doctrine “must be made according to its own type, that is, in accord with the same doctrine, in the same meaning, and in the same judgment.” But the line occurs in the context of a passage arguing that progress actually happens—a passage making the distinction between the Latin words profectus and permutatio:

But someone will perhaps say: is there no progress of religion in the Church of Christ? Certainly there is progress, even exceedingly great progress. For who is so envious of others and so hateful toward God as to try to prohibit it? Yet, it must be an advance [profectus] in the proper sense of the word and not an alteration [permutatio] in faith.

Guarino asks us to compare Vincent’s description with a line from John Henry Newman’s influential 1845 analysis An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine: “A true development,” Newman notes, “is conservative of the course of antecedent developments being really those antecedents and something besides them: it is an addition which illustrates, not obscures, corroborates, not corrects, the body of thought from which it proceeds.” What real difference is there?

To some degree, Guarino is caught in a trap of his own making. If Vincent of Lérins is a kind of proto-Cardinal Newman, camping on the same sane middle ground as that great Victorian theologian, then why do we bother to read him? This isn’t a way to save Vincent; it’s a way to dismiss him. And to even achieve this much, Guarino has to generally downplay Vincent’s probable Semipelagian leanings and accept him narrowly as an interpreter of tradition.

Still, taken on its own terms, Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Christian Doctrine is entirely persuasive. Vincent has been genuinely misread as an icon of extreme conservatism about tradition, and we should free him from that shorthand use. Which shouldn’t surprise us. Useful history is almost always doubtful history: The neater and cleaner a historical marker seems, the more we should suspect that the rough edges of actual circumstance have been sanded away. Or, put another way, the more one knows about historical figures, the more there is to say about them—and the less there is to conclude. 

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and distinguished visiting professor at Houston Baptist University.