Friday, 18 March 2011

The Practicality of the Vincentian Canon

Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est (what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all); this is the well-known "Vincentian Canon", which is often brought into debates on sola scriptura (scripture alone) by proponents of Roman Catholic and Orthodox "scripture + tradition is the rule of faith"* positions as evidence that scripture alone is not sufficient to serve as the sole infallible rule of faith in the church. Rather, these apologists counter, what has been believed "everywhere, always and by all" is the rule of faith. Leaving aside the largely historical question of whether contemporary Roman and Orthodox doctrine is actually quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est (obviously both cannot be so in their totality!), there is the also the methodological question of the fitness or practicality of Vincent's rule to the task Roman and Orthodox apologists ascribe to it.

Here is one prominent Orthodox theologian from the 20th century (indeed, some say the greatest Orthodox theologian of the last century) who thinks the Vincentian Canon is not up to the task:
"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.
...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. ...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."
George Florovsky, from 'The Catholicity of Councils' (I have misplaced the full bibliographic details of this essay; if anyone can supply, thanks in advance!)

If one did not know otherwise, one might assume the author was a Lutheran, so closely does his position on Councils resemble Luther's!

* To be fair, some Roman Catholic and Orthodox apologists would object to this simplified formulation of their positions, but this is what it finally boils down to: tradition (variously defined) is practically an authority in the church alongside scripture, rather than under scripture (Lutherans too have their tradition - but always under the scrutiny and judgment of the one infallible authority of scripture).

More to come soon on the Vincentian Canon, d.v..
In the meantime, see Luther, On the Councils and the Church, Luther's Works (AE) 41; also available, albeit in an early 19th century translation, here:


Lvka said...

Dissenting link, arguing for the contrary.


-- The Opposition. :-)

Pr Mark Henderson said...

OK, I'll add you to my blogroll!