Sunday, 11 October 2009

Florovsky on the Vincentian Canon & Church Councils

I have a penchant for modern Russian theologians, partly I'm sure because when I was a young man I had a dear Russian Orthodox friend who tried to teach me the language and who exhibited a profound but simple piety that deeply impressed me (indeed, she later became a nun), but also because Russian theologians often say what one least expects them to say - see some of the quotes posted on my blog from Schmemann and Meyendorff, for example. I can only attribute this quality to the fact that from within their basic conservatism/orthodoxy they are secure enough to think the apparently unthinkable...and write it down! This can make them fruitful interlocutors for conservative Lutherans.

Apropos the Vincentian Canon, the subject of my most recent posts, I now offer the following quote from the writings of Fr. George Florovsky (or Georges, if you prefer the French). Born in Russia in 1893, the son of a priest, Florovsky was a polymath who after the Revolution of 1917 went into exile and soon found himself in the heady environment of the Russian emigre movement centred in Paris. He later emigrated to the USA and became Dean of St Vladimir's Seminary in New York, and then Professor of Patristics and Russian Religous Thought at Harvard, following which he became a Professor of Slavic Literature at Princeton -a stellar career by anyone's standards!
However, while highly erudite, Florovsky was also pious, a rare combination in my experience. Note here how Florovsky's views on the catholicity of church councils dovetail quite nicely with the Lutheran view (see Luther, On The Councils and the Church). His views also remind one of Kierkegaard's dictum - truth never resides with a majority!

"The well known formula of Vincent of Lerins is very inexact, when he describes the catholic nature of Church life in the words, Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est. [What has been believed everywhere, always, and by all]. First of all, it is not clear whether this is an empirical criterion or not. If this be so, then the "Vincentian Canon" proves to be inapplicable and quite false. For about what omnes is he speaking? Is it a demand for a general, universal questioning of all the faithful, and even of those who only deem themselves such? At any rate, all the weak and poor of faith, all those who doubt and waver, all those who rebel, ought to be excluded. But the Vincentian Canon gives us no criterion, whereby to distinguish and select. Many disputes arise about faith, still more about dogma. How, then, are we to understand omnes? Should we not prove ourselves too hasty, if we settled all doubtful points by leaving the decision to "liberty" — in dubiis libertas — according to the well known formula wrongly ascribed to St. Augustine. There is actually no need for universal questioning. Very often the measure of truth is the witness of the minority. It may happen that the Catholic Church will find itself but "a little flock." Perhaps there are more of heterodox than of orthodox mind. It may happen that the heretics spread everywhere, ubique, and that the Church is relegated to the background of history, that it will retire into the desert. In history this was more than once the case, and quite possibly it may more than once again be so. Strictly speaking, the Vincentian Canon is something of a tautology. The word onmes is to be understood as referring to those that are orthodox. In that case the criterion loses its significance. Idem is defined per idem. And of what eternity and of what omnipresence does this rule speak? To what do semper and ubique relate? Is it the experience of faith or the definitions of faith that they refer to? In the latter case the canon becomes a dangerous minimising formula. For not one of the dogmatic definitions strictly satisfies the demand of semper and ubique.
Will it then be necessary to limit ourselves to the dead letter of Apostolic writings? It appears that the Vincentian Canon is a postulate of historical simplification, of a harmful primitivism. This means that we are not to seek for outward, formal criteria of catholicity; we are not to dissect catholicity in empirical universality. Charismatic tradition is truly universal; in its fulness it embraces every kind of semper and ubique and unites all. But empirically it may not be accepted by all. At any rate we are not to prove the truth of Christianity by means of "universal consent," per consensum omnium. In general, no consensus can prove truth. This would be a case of acute psychologism, and in theology there is even less place for it than in philosophy. On the contrary, truth is the measure by which we can evaluate the worth of "general opinion." Catholic experience can be expressed even by the few, even by single confessors of faith; and this is quite sufficient. Strictly speaking, to be able to recognize and express catholic truth we need no ecumenical, universal assembly and vote; we even need no "Ecumenical Council." The sacred dignity of the Council lies not in the number of members representing their Churches. A large "general" council may prove itself to be a "council of robbers" (latrocinium), or even of apostates. And the ecclesia sparsa often convicts it of its nullity by silent opposition. Numerus episcoporum does not solve the question. The historical and practical methods of recognizing sacred and catholic tradition can be many; that of assembling Ecumenical Councils is but one of them, and not the only one. This does not mean that it is unnecessary to convoke councils and conferences. But it may so happen that during the council the truth will be expressed by the minority. And what is still more important, the truth may be revealed even without a council."
From an essay by George Florovsky, The Catholicity of Councils. (Unfortunately, I have misplaced my copy of this essay, and can give no more accurate bibliographical information than this; fortunately, I had copied this extract onto a scrap of e-paper.)


Schütz said...

So, that doesn't help much, does it? You can say that St Vincent's definition was unhelpful as an empirical measure of what is "catholic", but you don't get any closer to a definition of what "catholic" is, do you?

Acroamaticus said...

Precisely, David! Maybe that's why I find it such an intriguing series of thoughts, but I really must read the whole essay again - it's been some time.