Progress and Tradition

Vincent's Understanding of Progress

Vincent and Tradition

Last week we discussed the high view of Church tradition held by Vincent of Lérins’s (5th century monk). For review, Vincent’s belief is best summed up with this statement, “every care should be taken to hold fast to what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.”[1] In other words, it is the duty of the Church to preserve and protect what the Church has always claimed to be true—from Jesus, to the Apostles, to the Apostolic Fathers. This is done for the purpose of protecting the Church from heresy and falsehoods.  

It is important to note that Vincent is writing in the middle of the 5th century. Major counsels have been held. Important creeds have been written. But Vincent knows that new theological questions will arise in the future. There are theological question that the Church will need to resolve. In chapter 23 of The Commonitories, Vincent shifts gears from his discussion of tradition, and he looks ahead to future theological progress of Church doctrine in light of tradition.

Progress Flowing Through Tradition

Vincent spends the majority of The Commonitories providing justification for his high view of Church tradition. He then turns to a major question that is sure to be on the minds of his readers—“What about progress?” Vincent responds, “There has to be progress, even exceedingly great progress.”[2] Vincent not only allows for theological progress in the Church, but he goes so far as to call it necessary.

However, there are stipulations. Progress for the sake of novelty will not do! This progress that Vincent calls for must be appropriate progress. He explains, “Progress means that each thing grows within itself, whereas change implies that one thing is transformed into another.”[3] Vincent introduces a helpful distinction between progress and change. Progress is organic development, while change involves some form of outside alteration. In other words, doctrine that is expanded should be a clear and natural development from a prior belief. It should not be an altered or changed positions from what was held previously.

The Human Body 

To help visualize the distinction between progress and change, Vincent supplies a helpful illustration—the human body. An embryo grows into an infant, that infant into an adolescent, and that adolescent eventually becomes an old man—limbs grow, the mind develops, and his appearance changes considerably. However, “there remains one and the same nature and one and the same person.”[4] All the changes that have taken place have done so only by natural development. If the human form were somehow transformed into “another kind” then the body itself would become more like a “monstrosity”.[5] Vincent’s point is to show that humans develop yet still remain fully human. They mature and look different, but their development is natural and logical. Progression within Church doctrine should follow the same organic pattern.

The Wheat Field

Another illustration is offered, “In ancient times, our forefathers sowed the seeds of the wheat of faith in that field which is the Church. It would be quite unjust and improper if we, their descendants, gathered, instead of the genuine truth of wheat, the false tares of error.[6] The seed gives life to a plant that is naturally in agreement with itself. Tomato plants produce tomatoes not cucumbers! Vincent continues to say, “we reap from the planting of the wheat of doctrine the harvest of the wheat of dogma.”[7] The doctrine planted is the same in nature as the dogma formed, but the appearance may be more fully formulated—nonetheless, it is still of the same origin! Vincent urges his readers—and the Church in general— that “whatever has been planted in the husbandry of God’s Church by the faith of the fathers should, therefore, be cultivated and guarded by the zeal of their children; it should flourish and ripen; it should develop and become perfect.”[8]

As Timothy was called to guard the deposit entrusted to him (1 Tim 6:20), the Church is called to protect the faith entrusted to it. Vincent explains that the doctrine offered in the deposit ought to be more fully developed—it must progress—but he is helpful in explaining that the future dogma of the Church must grow solely from the faith originally deposited to the Church. As wheat begets only wheat, Christian doctrine begets only Christian dogma.

Conclusion

Nestorious, Photinus, and Apollinaris explained Trinitarian relations through their own novel understandings. However, their understandings were not formed from what had been believed everywhere, always, and by all—Christian tradition. The ideas they produced were not organically developed Christian doctrines, but instead they were additions, contrary to the nature of the faith. They broke tradition in an attempt to offer doctrinal progress, but instead they presented unnatural doctrinal change.

There is a lot that could be said about how the Church has improperly turned from Vincent’s understanding of tradition and progress, but this is currently not the venue for such discussions. I believe the Church has turned away from Vincent's wisdom, but Vincent wisely calls the Church back to the Bible and early Christian thought. Vincent’s words should remind Christians that we want to be faithful to the deposit of faith entrusted to us. Christians, trusts the Word of God over novel ideas of the day.



[1] Vincent of Lérins, The Commonitories, trans. Rudolph Morris, vol. 7, FC (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1949), 270.

[2] Ibid, 309.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 310.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. Emphasis mine.