In two previous posts (I & II), we examined the theology of Vincent of Lérins. First, we looked at his high view of church tradition—primarily as it relates to Trinitarian theology. Second, we looked at the idea of theological progress within a framework that highly values tradition.
We could sum up those two articles in this way:
- Tradition is primarily defined by what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. This view of tradition looks back at Scripture and the earliest interpreters understanding of Scripture. These interpretations include those of the Church Fathers as well as early creeds and ecumenical councils.
- Vincent believed that tradition protected the church from going astray. In a way, tradition was a fence that laid out clear boundaries—tradition keeps you safely within the bounds of orthodoxy.
- Theological progress is possible and even necessary, but progress must be understood as an organic growth from what has already been understood. Progress is not change, but instead, it is a faithful clarification and contextualization of prior beliefs (tradition).
- Heresy is a distortion of former beliefs. Heresy places the innovation of new ideas over the preservation of gospel truths.
This article seeks to explain how Vincent’s beliefs are Pauline in nature.
The Cost of Deviation
Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written in the midst of theological confusion. The churches of Galatia had turned to a false gospel, filled with distortions (Gal 1:6–7). Paul is calling the church back to the gospel of Christ that he had preached to them prior. It was of major importance that the church listened to Paul and turned back to the true gospel of Christ.
This gospel confusion was such a major issue that Paul says, “If we [Paul and the brothers with him] or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (1:8). This distorted gospel message was toxic, and whoever was spreading the toxic message was liable to punishment. Paul’s words are clear—even frightening. He is concerned with the purity of the gospel. To distort that purity is to risk condemnation.
That should call all Christians to take care in our understanding of the gospel. We don’t want to lead our brothers and sisters astray. Nor do we want to be led astray! How do we protect ourselves from going astray? Obviously, read and know the Bible on its own terms—without your personal biases distorting the gospel message. But also, know what has been believed in the church everywhere, always, and by all—know tradition! Let tradition be your guide, not theological innovation. Vincent’s view of tradition as the great protector of the church falls in line with Paul here, who reminded the Galatians to rely on the gospel that they had already received (1:9).
The Importance of Preservation
In Galatians 2, Paul discusses the Judaizers in Jerusalem, who desired to spy out Christian freedom that is found in Jesus Christ. Concerning the Judaizers, Paul says, “to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you” (2:5). The truth of the gospel was already at stake in Paul’s day. Paul and the apostles in Jerusalem were forced to protect the gospel from “false brothers.” In protecting the gospel, they did not bargain, concede truths, or compromise in any way with the Judaizers. They did not yield. They stood their ground! Why? Because compromise would have meant the loss or distortion of gospel truth.
To many, Vincent’s view of tradition seems militant. However, Paul’s words match and possibly trump Vincent’s severity. Protecting the truths of the gospel is of great importance. Paul labored to preserve the truth of the gospel for the Galatians and ultimately for us today. He was succeeded by a line of other believers who “did not yield” to false gospel understandings. It is because of the faithfulness and bravery of these men and women—all of them aided by the Holy Spirit—that we have the pure gospel of Christ today.
The Bible makes clear that the gospel can and will be distorted (Gal 1:6–9), but thanks be to God, for he has raised up faithful men and women to preserve the truth of the gospel in the midst of theological confusion.
Vincent’s view of tradition is rooted in Pauline thinking. He understood that the gospel needed to be preserved at all cost. He also understood that it would be challenged and distorted at every turn in history. His remedy was to rely on the line of the faithful believers that God has used throughout history.
Vincent’s high view of tradition flows from a love of the gospel, and I believe his remedy for theological error is a helpful one that we should all follow. Christians ought to know what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. By knowing this we can protect ourselves from novel ideas that distort the truth of the gospel.