I’ve been reading Keith Mathison’s book The Shape of Sola Scriptura and I’ve so far found it very interesting and compelling. After reading a little over 100 pages into this work I took a detour. In the body of this book Mathison quotes Vincent of Lérins. St. Vincent is a contemporary of St. Augustine. Vincent joined the monestary in Lérins in 425 and died in 450 AD.
St. Vincent wrote an important epistle titled The Commonitory: For the Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith Against the Profane Novelties of All Heresies. The title is a mouth full, but it is a delightful read.
I set Mathison’s book aside because I believed a quote that he used from The Commonitory to be so important that I wanted to be sure that Mathison was dealing accurately with what St. Vincent actually wrote. After reading the whole of Vincent’s epistle, I am sure that Mathison uses him correctly, and he could have quoted him a good bit more.
It becomes clear that Vincent holds to a very different understanding of the relationship between Scripture and tradition than that of the Modern Roman Catholic Church. It is all clear that he believes that one should not lightly dismiss the historic teachings of the faith, which I believe is an all too common problem among modern Evangelicals who have little knowledge of, or interest in, the history of doctrine or the church itself.
Mathison’s quote that caused me to set his book down and read The Commonitory is taken from Chapter II. St. Vincent wrote “That whether I or any one else should wish to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church.”
That sounds like the conventional Roman Catholic position, but Vincent is not finished. He then defines what he means by this statement. He says “But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation?”
It is important to notice two things here. First, St Vincent clearly believes that “the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient.” This is a very high view of the Bible and one that every Evangelical would heartily agree with, but look at what he adds. He asks “what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation.”
St. Vincent, in this passage, equates tradition with the historic interpretation of the Scriptures. This is not what the modern Roman Catholic (RC) means by tradition. The Modern RC, when he speaks of tradition, is referring to a body of beliefs that exist extra-biblically.
St Vincent’s position on tradition would match perfectly with the classical Protestant position on the matter, and is in stark conflict with the modern RC view and from another angle it is at odds with most (baptistic) Evangelicals as well.
We see Vincent’s position reiterated a number of times in the thirty three chapters of this work. In referring to the errors of Origen he writes “Hence it came to pass, that this Origen, such and so great as he was, wantonly abusing the grace of God, rashly following the bent of his own genius, and placing overmuch confidence in himself, making light account of the ancient simplicity of the Christian religion, presuming that he knew more than all the world besides, despising the traditions of the Church and the determinations of the ancients, and interpreting certain passages of Scripture in a novel way, deserved for himself the warning given to the Church of God, as applicable in his case as in that of others.”
In the body of the epistle it’s clear that St. Vincent believes Origen erred when he abandoned the traditional interpretation of Scripture and followed his own ideas. Origen’s errors, according to St Vincent, were that he thought too much like a modern Evangelical.
In chapter XXVII St. Vincent reinforces what he said in chapter II. He writes “in the beginning of this Commonitory, we said that holy and learned men had commended to us, that is to say, they must interpret the sacred Canon according to the traditions of the Universal Church and in keeping with the rules of Catholic doctrine, in which Catholic and Universal Church, moreover, they must follow universality, antiquity, consent.” He even goes so far as to say that “as to the more ancient schisms or heresies, we ought either to confute them, if need be, by the sole authority of the Scriptures, or at any rate, to shun them…”
In chapter XXIX St. Vincent affirms that Scripture alone is, in and of itself sufficient, but then reaffirms the importance of looking at Scripture in the light shed on it by the historic teachings of the Church. Here are his own words “it has always been the custom of Catholics, and still is, to prove the true faith in these two ways; first by the authority of the Divine Canon, and next by the tradition of the Catholic Church. Not that the Canon alone does not of itself suffice for every question, but seeing that the more part, interpreting the divine words according to their own persuasion, take up various erroneous opinions, it is therefore necessary that the interpretation of divine Scripture should be ruled according to the one standard of the Church's belief,”
Notice that St. Vincent here admits that the canon (i.e. the Holy Bible) will, on its own “suffice for every question.” That is not the modern RC position, but it is something that Evangelicals would readily agree with. We flip flop this situation when we look at what he next says. He writes “it is therefore necessary that the interpretation of divine Scripture should be ruled according to the one standard of the Church's belief.” This is where the modern RC and the Evangelical will switch places. The Evangelical will disagree and the RC will agree. But the classical Protestant would agree with both statements.
The Commonitory of St. Vincent is a wonderful work and sheds light on a number of important items that are not addressed here. After reading it I am now ready to return to Mathison’s book. It is proving to be a very good and very important book indeed.