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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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.