restricted access St. Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Christian Doctrine
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St. Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Christian Doctrine

The term “development of doctrine” inevitably calls to mind the classic work of Blessed John Henry Newman that has exercised so much influence on Christian thought over the past century and a half.1 But the eminent nineteenth-century historian was not the inventor of this idea. As Newman himself freely acknowledged, the notion of development has its roots deep in the theological work of St. Vincent of Lérins, a fifth-century resident of a monastery on the Mediterranean coast of Gaul.2 In our own day, the island of Lérins (now called Saint-Honorat after the first abbot in 410) still boasts the presence of a monastery. But, in its earliest years, Lérins was a citadel of profound theological reflection, giving rise to numerous monk-theologians, among whom was the insightful Vincent.3

It is my contention that St. Vincent, with his vigorous endorsement of authentic doctrinal development, is an author worthy of retrieval by the contemporary Church. His work can still aid theological and ecumenical advances, even while it shows that the very notion of development is neither a modern idea nor a defensive reaction to the corrosive acids of historical scholarship. On the contrary, the notion of faithful development lies deep within the Church’s genetic code. [End Page 103]

We know little of St. Vincent outside of the fact that he was a monk of Lérins and was, as Gennadius tells us around a.d. 490, “learned in Holy Scripture and in church doctrine.” His magnum opus, the Commonitorium or Reminder, remains an important monument to his theological acumen despite its unusual career. Although written in 434 (for Vincent tells us he is writing three years after the council of Ephesus, convoked in 431), for a full millennium the great book was enveloped by silence, so that from the sixth to the fifteenth century we do not hear a single word about it. The most likely explanation for this neglect is that the manuscript was buried in archives inaccessible to later thinkers. When the volume was finally rediscovered in the sixteenth century, Vincent’s book was hailed by both Catholic and Protestant theologians as a contribution of singular importance. The seventeenth-century Catholic theologian St. Robert Bellarmine described it as a golden book, libellus plane aureus, an evaluation confirmed by the fact that over twenty editions of the Commonitorium appeared in the sixteenth century and another thirteen (along with twenty-one translations from the Latin) in the nineteenth.4

In recent decades, however, Vincent’s reputation has fallen from its prior lofty position, and once again theologians have fallen silent about his work. This neglect has occurred for two principal reasons. First, the monk of Lérins has come to be perceived as a determined opponent of St. Augustine, particularly of the latter’s accent on the sovereign priority of grace. Vincent, it is claimed, is a staunch defender of semipelagianism, the idea that man’s own disciplined efforts (rather than divine grace) constitute the beginning of salvation. While one needs God’s grace to live a virtuous life, a person’s first turn to God—the initium fidei—comes about through one’s own agency. Even if this allegation is true (and a host of studies debate the issue), the charge does not substantively touch the Commonitorium’s orthodoxy, since the precise relationship between grace and free will was a contentious topic in the early Church and received no authoritative clarification until the second council of Orange in 529, long after St. Vincent’s death. Further, the grace-free will issue is [End Page 104] tangential to Vincent’s volume, which is centrally concerned with questions relating to the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity.

A second and more substantive reason for Vincent’s current eclipse is the alleged unwieldiness of his famous “canon” or rule, the bright line that the monk of Lérins offers for separating salutary orthodoxy from noxious heresy. Vincent asks: How do Christians who are constantly beset with errors and heresies (and Vincent lists a full roster of them) know the truth...