Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Vincentius Lirinensis

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Vincentius (11) Lirinensis (Vincent of Lerins), St., a distinguished presbyter of Gaul in 5th cent. Date of birth uncertain; must have died in or before a.d. 450.

Authorities.—Gennadius, Vivorum Illustrium Catalogus (c. 64). References to himself and to his times in his chief (most probably his sole) work, the Commonitorium.

Life.—Concerning the events of Vincent's life we are almost entirely ignorant. He was a native of Gaul, possibly brother of St. Loup, bp. of Troyes (LUPUS (2)], involved in the turmoils of worldly life before his retirement into a monastery near a small town, remote from the stir of cities. This was that of Lerins (Lerinum), situated in the island of that name near Antibes, now known as L’Ile de St. Honorat, from the founder of this celebrated institution. Here he wrote adversus Profanas Omnium Novitates Haereticorum Commonitorium, almost 3 years (as he tells us in c. 42) after the council of Ephesus, i.e. in 434.

Writings.—The only one universally admitted to be the genuine and authentic production of Vincent is briefly known as Commonitorium. In the form in which we have it it extends, even in a 12mo ed., to only 150 pages, and consists of 42 short chapters. Peregrinus (as Vincent called himself) begins by stating that he thought it might be useful and in accordance with scriptural precepts (Deut. xxxii. 7; Prov. xxii. 17, iii. 1) to write down certain principles which he had received from holy Fathers. His tests to discern the truth of the Catholic faith from heresy will be sought first in the authority of the divine law, and next in the tradition of the Catholic church. The second source of information would not be needed had not all the leading heretics claimed the support of Holy Scripture (cc. i. ii.). We must hold that which has been believed everywhere, always, by all ("quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est"); in other words, we must follow Universitatem, Antiquitatem, Consensionem; understanding by the last the agreement of all, or almost all, bishops and doctors (c. ii.). A small portion of the church dissenting from the rest must be cut off like an unsound limb; nay, even a large portion if it does not abide by antiquity. Illustrations are afforded negatively by Donatism and Arianism; positively by the teaching of St. Ambrose and other eminent confessors (cc. iv.–viii.). Antiquity was on the side of pope Stephen, bp. of the apostolic see, and against the excellent Agrippinus, bp. of Carthage, who desired to rebaptize heretics. True, the rebaptizers claim the sanction of the holy Cyprian; but to do so is behaving like Ham towards Noah, for on this point that pious martyr erred (cc. ix.–xi.). Apostolic warrant for what has been advanced may be found in St. Paul's writings, e.g. in Tim. and Tit. (passim), Rom. xv. 17, and Gal. i. 7-10. Those who would make accretions to the faith stand thereby condemned for all time. The Pelagians are such (cc. xii.–xiv.). Valentinus, Photinus, Apollinaris, and others are similarly condemned by the warnings of Moses (Deut. xiii. 1-11). Even good gifts, such as those of Nestorius, or useful labours like those of Apollinaris against Porphyry, cannot be pleaded against their novelties (cc. xv. xvi.). He explains with some minuteness wherein consisted the heresies of Photinus, Apollinaris, and Nestorius, and the true doctrine of the church as opposed to them (cc. xvii.–xxii.).

The danger of ignoring the principles here laid down, more especially the test of antiquity, is painfully exhibited in the case of Origen, whose acute, profound, and brilliant genius (fully recognized by imperial disciples and the church at large) has not saved his writings from becoming a source of temptation; though it is just possible, as some think, that they may have been tampered with (c. xxii.). A very similar judgment must be passed upon Tertullian, of whom Hilary (of Poictiers) too truly said that "by his errors he had diminished the authority due to his approved writings" (c. xxiv.). The true and genuine Catholic is he who loves Christ's body, the Church; who puts God's truth before all things, before any individual authority, affection, genius, eloquence, or philosophy. Many who fall short of this standard, when not slain, are yet sadly stunted in their spiritual growth (c. xxv.). Additions to the faith or detractions from it are alike condemned by Holy Scripture, especially by St. Paul (I. Tim. vi.). The deposit is the talent of the Catholic faith, which the man of God must, like a spiritual Bezaleel, adorn, arrange, and display to others, but not injure by novelties (cc. xxvi. xxvii.). Certainly there is to be progress ("profectus religionis"), but it must resemble the growth of the infant into manhood and maturity—a growth which preserves identity. The dogmas of the heavenly philosophy may by the operation of time be smoothed and polished, and gain, by greater fullness of evidence, light and elucidation ("distinctionem"), but they must retain integrity and all essential characteristics (cc. xxviii.–xxx.). Such has been the church's task in the decrees of councils, which have simply aimed at adding clearness, vigour, and zeal to what was believed, taught, and practised already (cc. xxx.–xxxii.). St. John, in his 2nd epistle, is as emphatic as St. Paul against the teacher of false doctrine. Such an one cannot be encouraged without a virtual rejection of saints, confessors, and martyrs—a rejection, in short, of the holy church throughout the world. Pelagius (with his disciple Coelestius), Arius, Sabellius, Novatian, Simon Magus, were all introducers of novelties (cc. xxxiii. xxxiv.). The heretics use the Scriptures, but only in the way in which bitter potions are disguised for children by a previous taste of honey, or poisons labelled as healing medicines. The Saviour warned us against such perils by His words concerning wolves in sheep's clothing. We must attend to His subsequent advice, by their fruits ye shall know them. His apostle bids us beware of false apostles (II. Cor. xi. 13-15), the imitators of Satan, who transform themselves into angels of light. Their employment of Scripture resembles that of Satan in the temptation of our Lord. They presume, in the teeth of the teaching of the church, to claim a special illumination for their own small conventicle (cc. xxxv.–xxxvii.). Catholics must apply to the interpretation of Scripture the tests of universality, antiquity, and consent. Where they can, let them adduce the decrees of general councils; failing those, the consistent rulings of great doctors. This does not apply to small questions, but only to whatsoever affects the rule of faith. Inveterate heresies can generally be met by Holy Scripture alone, or by clear decisions of oecumenical councils. New ones often present at first greater difficulty, and we must be careful to cite those Fathers only who lived and died in the faith. What all or the majority clearly and perseveringly received, held, and taught, let that be held as undoubted, certain, and ratified. But any merely private opinion, even of a saint or martyr, must be put aside. This again agrees with St. Paul (I. Cor. i. 10, xii. 27, 28, xiv. 33, 36; Eph. iv. 11). That Pelagian writer Julian neglected these cautions, and broke away from the sentiments of his colleagues (cc. xxxviii.–xl.).

Bk. ii., as Gennadius informs us, was mostly lost, having been stolen from its author, who gives a recapitulation of its substance, which occupies 3 additional chapters. The first of these (c. xli.) simply re-states the main proposition of the earlier book. The author then, to shew that his view is no offspring of private presumption, adduces the example of the council of Ephesus, held nearly 3 years before the time of writing, in the consulship of Bassus and Antiochus. Great pains were taken to avoid an unfortunate issue, such as that of the council of Rimini (Concil. Ariminense); and the testimonies of martyrs, confessors, and orthodox doctors were considered by an assemblage of nearly 200 bishops to prove Nestorius an irreligious impugner of Catholic truth, and Cyril to be in accordance with it. Amongst the saintly doctors present in person, or whose works were cited as authoritative, were Peter of Alexandria, Athanasius, Theophilus, Cyril, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil and his excellent brother Gregory of Nyssa. The West was represented by letters of Felix and of Julius, bps. of Rome; the South by the evidence of Cyprian of Carthage; the North by that of Ambrose of Milan. The whole of the bishops, for the most part metropolitans, acted upon the principles maintained in this treatise and censured Nestorius for his unhallowed presumption—that he was the first and only man who rightly understood the Scriptures (xli.).

One element must be added, lest to all this weight anything seem lacking, namely, the authority of the apostolic see, which was illustrated by the twofold testimony of the reigning pope, SIXTUS III., and of his predecessor Coelestine. It was on the principles herein set forth that pope Sixtus condemned Nestorius; and Coelestine wrote in the same spirit to certain priests in Gaul who were fostering novelties. It is, in fact, an acceptance of the warning of St. Paul to Timothy to keep the deposit (I. Tim. vi. 20, R.V. marg.) and to the Galatians, that he would be anathema who should reach to them any other gospel (Gal. i. 8). Justly upon these grounds are Pelagius and Coelestius as well as Nestorius condemned[1] (xlii.).

It may safely be asserted that few theological books of such modest bulk, published within our period, have attracted so large a share of attention. It has been included in all the best known collections of the Fathers (e.g. in the Maxima Bibliotheca Patrum, Lugduni, a.d. 1677; and in that of Migne), repeatedly published separately in many lands, and not unfrequently translated. A Scottish trans., dedicated to Mary Queen of Scots, was issued by Knox's opponent, Ninian Winzeit, at Antwerp, in 1563; [2] an Engl. one in Schaff and Wace's Post-Nicene Lib. by Dr. Heurtley, and another by Rev. W. B. Flower (Lond. 1866).

The Commonitorium has gathered around itself a literature. How far its leading principles have been accepted, either explicitly or implicitly, in the past; how far they made a line of demarcation between those who accepted or rejected the Reformation; to what extent they are available in the controversies between the various Christian communions, or in the contest between Christianity and unbelief—these questions have all been keenly discussed. To review these controversies would far exceed our limits, but it seems right to call attention to one or two features of the debate which have not received elsewhere the notice which they deserve.

That the Commonitorium lays down a broad line of demarcation between the Protestant and the Roman churches is an obvious overstatement. The Magdeburg Centuriators distinctly pronounced in its favour as a work of learning and acuteness; as a book which revealed and forcibly assailed the frauds of heretics, supplied a remedy and antidote against their poisons, set forth a weighty doctrine and displayed a knowledge of antiquity with skill and clearness in its treatment of Holy Scripture. The praise given by Casaubon to the principles of the English Reformation, the challenge of Jewel, and a large consensus of 17th-cent. divines, all rest, more or less explicitly, upon the famous dictum of Vincent—which, indeed, derives considerable support from certain portions of the Prayer-Book, Articles, and Canons.

It is, of course, equally true that Roman Catholic divines, especially at the epoch of the Reformation and long after, also professed to take their stand upon the principles asserted in the Commonitorium. There is no reason to doubt their sincerity in so acting. They were not in a position to judge the evidence on behalf of this and that portion of medieval doctrine and practice, and they appealed with confidence to such stores of learning as lay open to them. A day came when this confidence was rudely shaken. The Benedictine editions of the works of the Fathers appeared, with honest and discriminating criticism applied to their writings. Not only was it seen that a considerable portion of their works, long accepted as genuine and authentic, was in reality spurious, but also that while distinctively Roman tenets and practices received much support from the sermons and treatises relegated into the appendix of each volume, the case was widely different when reference was made to genuine Patristic remains. A new school of Roman Catholic divines arose, of whom Father Petau (Petavius) may perhaps be considered the earliest, as he is certainly among the greatest. The process of development in the church of Rome has widened the breach between her teaching and the principles of Vincent of Lerins. The church which set forth the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mother, not merely as a lawful opinion but as a dogma, has broken with the maxim, "Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus." A new ed. for academical use was ed. by Jülicher, Sammlung . . . Quellenschrifter (Freiburg i. Br. 1895).

[J.G.C.]


Footnotes[edit]

  1. It must be owned that there is a certain amount of difficulty, one may almost say mystery, connected with these last two chapters. In the first place, they introduce a new element into the discussion—namely, the authority claimed for the Roman see. The author appears to assume that this authority will always be manifested on the side of his great maxim of the "quod semper, quod ubique, quad ab omnibus," and makes no provision for the possibility of a divergence between the teaching of Rome and that of antiquity. Secondly, while the language concerning Nestorius and his opponent Cyril is clear and emphatic, there does seem to be a certain degree of reticence about some of the opponents of Augustine, e.g. Julian. The name of Augustine is not even mentioned, and though this is equally true of Jerome and Chrysostom, there was no special reason to introduce their names, while the repeated mention of Pelagius would have rendered the introduction of that of his chief opponent only natural.
  2. "A richt goldin buke writtin in Latin about xi c zeris [years] passit and neulie translated in Scottis be Niniane Winzet a catholik Preist." (Original title.)