Tradition and Doctrinal Development: Can Vincent of Lerins Still Teach the Church?

By Guarino, Thomas G. | Theological Studies, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Tradition and Doctrinal Development: Can Vincent of Lerins Still Teach the Church?


Guarino, Thomas G., Theological Studies


FROM THE BEGINNING of Christianity, theological reflection has been deeply concerned with the nature of tradition--how it serves as a warrant for truth and how it preserves a certain constancy amidst growth, development, and change. (1) But the questions surrounding the theology of tradition are multiple and ever more complex. The word tradition itself is polyvalent from the outset, referring to both the content of what is handed on as well as the process of handing on this content. Then, too, when one speaks of tradition, what exactly does one mean? Does one intend a set of continuous and enduring meanings? If so, to what extent is this kind of continuity possible in a world, as postmodernity teaches, deeply marked by finitude, historicity, rupture, and breach? And if we mean by tradition that something durable and abiding is handed on, then to what extent is this perduring "content" changeable and adaptive to new circumstances? Further, if tradition is somewhat changeable, then how does it function as a warrant or criterion for doctrinal truth, itself intended to be stable and secure? All these questions are matter for theological investigation.

I will discuss aspects of the thought of Vincent of Lerins on the nature of tradition. In particular, I will examine his axiom, which, I believe, may still be usefully invoked to advance and develop an understanding of tradition that properly balances the twin imperatives of continuity and change intrinsic to Christian life and thought while carefully avoiding the aporias of perceiving "living tradition" as either stolid repetition or protean heterogeneity. In my judgment, significant elements of Vincent's theology of tradition bear creative reappropriation, perhaps allowing us once again to acknowledge Harnack's insight about the monk of Lerins: "We really breathe freely when we study the attempt of this man to introduce light and certainty into the question [of tradition]." (2)

Vincent of Lerins's work has suffered something of an eclipse in contemporary theological discourse. A generation ago Hermann Sieben observed that there was a paucity of research on Vincent, and this situation has not changed much in the ensuing years. (3) When Vincent is studied, attention is normally paid to what has come to be known as the Vincentian Canon or "first rule," that is, his controversial claim that ecclesial doctrine is validated by the criteriological norm of what has been attested semper, ubique, et ab omnibus (the warrants of antiquity, ubiquity, and universality). Much less time has been devoted to Vincent's "second rule," that is, his assertion that while there is, undeniably, significant progress in church teaching, this development must always be understood in eodem sensu eademque sententia with what has preceded it. (4) The crucial passage from his Commonitorium reads:

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. For progress means that each thing is enlarged within itself, while alteration implies that one thing is transformed into something else [aliquid ex alio in aliud]. It is necessary, therefore, that understanding, knowledge, and wisdom should grow [crescat] and advance [proficiat] vigorously in individuals as well as in the community, in a single person as well as in the whole Church and this gradually in the course of ages and centuries. But this progress 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. (5)

Immediately after this passage Vincent goes on to discuss how the growth of religion is similar to the growth of the body, which over time develops and changes while still remaining the same. …

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Tradition and Doctrinal Development: Can Vincent of Lerins Still Teach the Church?
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