St. Vincent’s Three Rules: Antiquity, Universality, Consensus

St. Vincent’s Three Rules: Antiquity, Universality, Consensus

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St. Vincent of Lerins lived in the fifth century in Gaul, and he, more than anyone, is the reason that I am an Orthodox Christian.

When I was much younger than I am today, I had good friends who were Catholic, and because of them, I grew to have a great deal of affection for the Catholic Church. But I could never be a Catholic, I thought, because of the images of saints in the Churches. In venerating the saints and their images, I thought, Catholics were giving something to men, something that the Bible taught belonged only to God. It seemed important to me to hold to the things taught in the Bible.

When St. Vincent of Lerins was young, he also thought that it was important to hold to the things taught in the Bible. But he had noticed that there were as many interpretations of the Bible as there were people who read the Bible. There were as many different Bible teachings as there were teachers.

When I was young, I had noticed the same thing.

Vincent didn’t think it was possible that so many contradictory ideas could all be true. And so he began to ask people who were well known for their knowledge and for their holiness if they could teach him how to tell what was true about God from what was false. He wanted a simple rule, something that would make it easy to recognize the truth when he heard it.

They all pretty much told him the same thing. They couldn’t give him a single rule that would work every time. But they gave him a set of three rules that would work rather like a map to keep him on the right track.

The first rule was to prefer ancient teachings over anything new. God had revealed himself utterly in the Person of the Word, and had held nothing back. God, being infinite, might not be immediately comprehensible to his finite creatures, so we might keep learning more. But the new learning should be an unfolding of what was already revealed, just as a flower opens from a bud, or a tree grows from a seed. New situations would arise, and the old teachings would have to be applied in new ways. But if a teacher came along saying, “God has revealed something entirely new to me, something nobody has ever heard before,” you should prefer the old teaching.

The second rule was to prefer the teachings that were held by all Christians, or nearly all, of all places and time over anything held by an individual or a small group. God doesn’t play favorites. He doesn’t hold back His truth from some and reveal it to others. Indeed, He has gone as far as He could possibly go, in the Incarnation, to show Himself plainly and understandably to all. Some of us, indeed, might be more capable than others of understanding. But there is no secret knowledge of God, no private interpretation of the things God has said. In particular, Vincent said, when many teachers and leaders of the church from all over the world come together to work out contentious issues in council, with the help of the Holy Spirit, when they reach a consensus, you can expect it to be trustworthy. If teachers come along saying that God has given them a private teaching, one revealed only to them, you should prefer the teaching that is shared by all.

Vincent acknowledged that there are times when those two rules won’t answer the question that you have. In these cases, he said, you can use a third rule: read and study to determine if there is a consensus on the issue among those people whose lives revealed their exemplary faith and obvious holiness. And, Vincent said, you should probably wait until they’re dead to decide that they really had such faith and holiness – people during their lives can put on a front. But if their lives, and even their deaths, revealed such holiness that it’s clear that they had an intimate relationship with God, and if among such people there is a consensus about the issue you’re struggling to understand, then you should prefer the consensus of such holy people to the teachings of people whose lives showed them a stranger to the things of God.

It may yet happen that you have questions where the three rules give you no clarity. There are questions that people didn’t ask a thousand years ago or more, questions that no council ever addressed, questions whereon there is no consensus among people of great sanctity. That’s okay. There are questions where the Church doesn’t offer an answer. Sometimes, there is no answer in the Church because it’s not that kind of question. Sometimes, the question is so new that a consensus hasn’t yet developed. For any such question, you are free to work it through and to prefer the answer that makes the most sense to you. Others may prefer different answers. That’s okay.

St. Vincent wrote these rules down so that he would remember them, and his writings have come down to us over the centuries.

And when I first encountered the Orthodox Church, the first thing that I saw were the icons of the saints. And the first thing I learned was that the Orthodox Church still uses St. Vincent’s rules.

And St. Vincent’s rules made sense to me. And at that moment, I knew that icons, and the veneration of the saints, passed St. Vincent’s rules. When I took art history in college, I learned that saints were venerated, and icons were made, in the very earliest years of the Christian faith. And I knew that nearly all Christians in all places and at all times venerated saints and their images. I hadn’t yet read the defense of icons by St. John of Damascus. I hadn’t studied the lives of the saints. But I knew that this was a practice that not only spanned the history of the Church, but one that was important to many people whose holiness far surpassed mine.

Antiquity. Universality. Consensus. Three rules. A map that showed me the way home.

Troparion for St. Vincent of Lerins:

We bring to you our honor, Saint Vincent of Lerins.

You set the standard by which we now are blessed.

The faith of old, and that of Divine assent; that which always and everywhere received consent.

These ancient truths revealed to us in Scripture, the faith you received, to us you impart.

We humbly beg you, O holy man of God, your intercessions as we seek the path you trod.


Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network. You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+

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Charlotte Riggle

Charlotte Riggle is the author of Catherine’s Pascha and The Saint Nicholas Day Snow. These children’s picture books let you see these holy days through the eyes of a child. Charlotte believes that home decorating is chiefly achieved by installing enough bookshelves. She has discovered that there is no such thing as enough bookshelves. She and her husband, Alex Riggle, attend Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church, Shoreline, Washington. You can find more about her books at www.charlotteriggle.com.