Monday, October 29, 2007

Doctrinal Growth In 434 A.D.

Again I have found a gem in Claire Russell's "Glimpses of the Church Fathers." She gives her reader a portion of St. Vincent of Lerins' Commonitorium. Little is known of St. Vincent beyond his writing, but this work dates from 434 A.D. According to Russell, he "is an ecclesiastic writer in Southern Gaul in the fifth century. He died around 450 in the monastery at Lerins."

Chapters 22 and 23 of the Commonitorium comment upon 1 Tim 6:20, "O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid profane babbling and the absurdities of so-called knowledge. (NAB)" St. Vincent articulates that Timothy is to keep the deposit of faith, to "preserve the talent [i.e., the gift] of Catholic Faith inviolate, unadulterate." The warning against altering this deposit is clear, "You have received gold; give gold in turn. Do not substitute one thing for another... teach precisely what you have learned..." I began to think I had stumbled against some good anti-Catholic literature (oh boy!)... St. Vincent's exposition was clear -- Paul warned Timothy, 'Don't change the deposit! Don't add anything! Teach just what you have been given!'

My surprise at this early testimony lasted only a few sentences. St. Vincent draws a wonderful analogy: the deposit of faith is like a human body, "which in the course of years develops and unfolds, yet remains the same as it was." As much as a grown man looks like the infant he was, so too does developed doctrine resemble the original deposit. But it is still the same body, the same being.

He writes of the process of doctrinal growth beautifully, "For it is right that those ancient doctrines of heavenly philosophy should, as time goes on, be cared for, smoothed, polished; but not that they should be changed, not that they should be maimed, not that they should be mutilated."

And then he hit my jugular with shocking prophecy of how I've come to view Protestantism: "For if once this license of impious fraud be admitted, I dread to say in how great danger religion will be of being utterly destroyed and annihilated. For if any one part of Catholic truth be given up, another, and another, and another will thenceforward be given up as a matter of course, and the several individual portions having been rejected, what will follow in the end but the rejection of the whole?"

Do read on (in the Catholic Encyclopedia link above) to St. Vincent's Chapter 25, in which he gives some biting views apropos to Protestantism, such as "hardly ever do they [here he is refering to heretics] bring forward anything of their own which they do not endeavour to shelter under words of Scripture" and "hardly a single page [of heretical writings] does not bristle with plausible quotations from the New Testament or the Old." Read further still, and you will learn his rule for the right interpretation of Scripture, and his views on the Pope of the Roman See.


mac daddy said...

What of the argument that the Church fell into apostacy and corruption soon after the Apostolic generation? That would negate anything that St. Vincent said, no? Since by 400 A.D., a Protestant historian could easily make the accusation that he was taught a doctrine other than that of the Apostolic Church (New Testament).

Thos said...


Thank you for your comment.

If the church fell into apostasy soon after the Apostolic generation, we have many other problems with our faith than just how to take Vincent. But on this count alone, it is worth noting that "anything" he said would not be "negate[d]" by a broken church. Truth is truth, and I admire his view that the introduction of unorthodox teachings from one quarter would lead to others, until finally the church would be fully corrupted by novelties. Luther's best intentions aside, I think this is how things have played out with those he un-yoked from Catholicism.

If St. Vincent's doctrine ABOUT doctrine was corrupted and ergo false, I'm not sure how else to take 1 Tim 6:20. Timothy was warned to guard what was entrusted to him. The leaders (the "Timothys") of a "1 Tim 6:20" church would not let novel doctrinal introductions be made. If this biblically-mandated guardianship doesn't entail preservation and protection from error, what does it mean? You would really have to attack the veracity of 1 Tim 6:20 as much as Vincent's interpretation of it to conclude that church leaders are not obligated to guard and preserve the deposit of faith given by Christ to the Church.

I look forward to hearing your thought fleshed out more.

Peace in Christ,

Canadian said...

If the Church fell into apostasy after the first century, on what basis do we trust the canon of scripture, the formulations of the Triniarian dogmas, the relation of the two natures of Christ and the personal union of those natures in one Son of God, etc all of which were defined by the Church herself throughout the first millennium of the faith. Also, what of Christ's promises to be with us to the end of the age and that the gates of hell would not prevail and that the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth. These seem to fail if she was only a corpse for hundreds of years.

Bob said...

If the Church fell into apostasy, by what basis, by what authority can we be sure that Martin Luther or Calvin provided the correction? Is there some divine revelation that shows this?

I seems to me, that once we head down this road of declaring the Church in apostasy, any determination of the True Church becomes a subjective one. Then the question comes to mind, would Christ leave generations of humanity without a church (since the Church is apostate) and then leave the decision as to the True Church (the Church which is not apostate after the Reformation) to subjective criteria? It seems to me that the chain is broken and cannot be repaired. In this regard, Mormonism makes more sense, since at least it claims a divine revelation regarding the restoration of the Church from apostasy.

Jim said...

mac daddy:

There have been restorationist theories among Christians for a thousand years (probably longer), they're not a Protestant invention.

More importantly, the standard "restorationist" line, "the church was pure until . . ." [the apostles died, Constantine became emperor] was not what the magisterial reformation taught. It sought to reform the church -- something that just about everyone, including popes, thought necessary at the time -- not to "start" a church.


[1] Theologians talk about specific heresies and specific heretics. It's not persuasive to lift a quotation out of a 5th century theologian condemning heretics who quote the Bible and apply it automatically to people 1,500 years later. Just because the devil quotes Scripture does not mean that anyone who quotes the Scripture is therefore the devil.

[2] If one "Catholic truth" is denied, then the whole thing unravels? So unless you can buy an indulgance that transfers merit from the treasury of the saints to you -- a pernicious doctrine if ever there was one, making people think that their sins are forgiven when they aren't -- then the whole Catholic faith unravels?

I don't think so, even if the whole of the Roman Catholic faith unravels.

[3] If you're interested in doctrinal development, you should read Jaroslav Pelikan's multi-volume study, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. Pelikan died Eastern Orthodox. His history of doctrinal development is frequently accounted the best there is.

Tom L. said...


You're showing off your ignorance of Indulgences. You should read what they are from a Catholic perspective before you comment. "Pernicious doctrine"? No need in concealing how you really feel about things you are completely ignorant of and the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Jaroslav Pelikan's multi-volume study? better than the saints or the Early Church Fathers? Hmmm... And I suppose Luther had the best interpretation of the Scriptures despite the 1500 year history of the Church before him. Interesting, I think I understand your logic now.

Tom Leinhart

Thos said...


"[1] ...It's not persuasive to lift a quotation out of a 5th century theologian condemning heretics who quote the Bible and apply it automatically to people 1,500 years later..."

I was not trying to be persuasive in an argumentative sense, but sharing how this ancient text struck me. I appreciate your and others' views of how to take St. Vincent's ancient words. I wrote that, as I've come to view Protestantism, St. Vincent's criticism of how certain unorthodox groups used scripture seemed prophetic. He notes that the ability to support a reasonable argument with scripture is not dispositive, as all unorthodox groups did that. The same can be said today - many reasonable interpretations of scripture abound (take the sacraments, for instance). Rather, a scriptural view is only reliable if it has been held universally by the church.

If we discussed this, I'm sure I would grant that your view of Lutheranism deserves to be excluded from the way I've categorized "Protestantism", insofar as you're right that it was engaged in "sacramental" reformation. But there are some striking differences even between the Lutheran Synods - doesn't each side believe their views are more biblical (e.g., on female ordination)?

"[2] If one "Catholic truth" is denied, then the whole thing unravels? So unless you can buy an indulgence that transfers merit from the treasury of the saints to you...then the whole Catholic faith unravels?"

St. Vincent does seem to observe that if one can call a universally held truth into question, then all truths will be called into question. I only meant to observe that this struck me as an impressive prediction of relativism/individualism (which I see to be rampant in Protestantism). St. Vincent seems to say that if one can call the incarnation or trinitarianism into question (e.g., Spong), then that one no longer holds to the universal (i.e., Catholic) faith. I'm not sure how that applies to Roman Catholic teachings on indulgences, and I didn't mean my quotation of St. Vincent to be interpreted as a Catholic apologetic. Tom L did not take the time to explain what the teaching was, but I think he was getting at this: the indulgence teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is that "sins" are not "forgiven" (for oneself or the departed) through the exercise (purchase, if you will) of indulgences, but that temporal punishments can be remitted. I'm pretty sure I don't understand that, but it doesn't seem like the way you characterized it.

[3] Thank you for the Pelikan recommendation. You've reinforced that it's something I really do need to get to. First I've got to polish of Newman's work on the same topic.

Peace in Christ,

Jim said...


[1] A fair enough rebuke for me on indulgences, given my short comment and the complete absence of context. I should have been more specific, regarding the teaching and practice of selling indulgences to which Luther responded, eliding from temporal punishment to sins. The system was full of abuse at the time.

[2] As far as I know, the early-church fathers did not write histories of their own writings, they only wrote.

Any number of fair-minded Catholic historians and theologians would recommend Pelikan's history.

[3] I don't believe I opined about Luther in my comment.

Tom L. said...


First, your description was not lacking specifics (which is what you apologized for), it was misleading:

"So unless you can buy an indulgance that transfers merit from the treasury of the saints to you -- a pernicious doctrine if ever there was one, making people think that their sins are forgiven when they aren't -- then the whole Catholic faith unravels?"

What it was lacking was any even merely objective understanding of Indulgences. This is either from complete ignorance (which you have failed to admit) or from a very anti-Catholic perspective meant to intentionally misrepresent Catholic teaching. You labeling the doctrine "pernicious" could easy present your position as the latter, but I'm willing to assume the best, that you are only ignorant and choose to make rash judgments based solely on your ignorance and what you "choose" to believe. I don't expect a Protestant who is honestly ignorant of Catholic teaching to understand the Catholic concept of "Church", "communion of saints", "double consequence", and the "Sacrament of Penance". Then to tie all of those into the doctrine of "indulgences".

Included in your rather weak apology was this statement:

"The system was full of abuse at the time."

Correct. Tell me how the failures of men who betrayed Christ and His Church for submitting to the weakness of their own fallen natures makes the doctrine pernicious. Luther had a just complaint, but he should have stuck to seeking the correction of these problems (which were corrected after he was excommunicated as a heretic) rather than desiring to change the ancient teachings of the Apostles.

Clarify this for me as well:

"As far as I know, the early-church fathers did not write histories of their own writings"

I don't understand what that means. Did the Early Father's write history? Yes. Have you ever read Eusebius' Churh History? Did they write histories of their writings? I don't understand, do you mean to ask if they wrote about how they came to write about their writings? If that's the case, I imagine that would be quite vain and, no, I don't think I've read anything like that.


I didn't feel the need to take the time explaining anything to Jim. Here are my reasons:

1) He suggested a book. That means he can probably read. He also selected the material on information that he wished to educate himself more on. That means he's intelligent. Therefore, if he can read and seek resources, he could probably find a way to educate himself on Indulgences from the perspective of Catholic Church teaching if he wants to know more about it. My feeling is that he doesn't, however, since he was so quick to spew the word "pernicious" based on an uneducated opinion. It seems that he is quite comfortable trapped in his own intellectual cell.

2) Actual Catholic Church teaching would be a better source for him to learn from rather than an explanation from a simple layman. I want him to know what he's talking about, not to know what I think I know what I'm talking about. He can start in the Catechism if he wants a summary, then he work his way up to more complex and detailed documents if he wants to know more about it. If he decides to remain in ignorance, hopefully he'll also decide to hold his "pernicious" tongue when the urge comes to blabber empty words that only serve to deceive. Lies come from the father of lies.

3) He doesn't seem like the type to admit when he's wrong (see above). I do not wish to engage a person of such nature. I do not wish to cast my pearls lest they are trampled and I am torn to pieces.

You have a very respectful blog. I apologize for visibly being upset by this, but I hope you can understand. I'll refrain from posting in the future.

Tom Leinhart

Thos said...

Tom L.,

1) I do not want you to "refrain" from posting in the future. I appreciate all the comments by people who take the time to share their thoughts.

2) I do understand the strength of your feelings. In my experiences sharing thoughts with Jim, his comments have been fair, very intelligent and well reasoned, so I have an inherent benefit-of-the-doubt bias when I read his comments. I do not expect you to read him the way I do, and do not think your reading is unreasonable (therefore your passion seems reasonable).


It seems you may have meant in your first comment that my interpretation of St. Vincent would cause Catholicism to unravel based on the example of pre-Trent ingulences teaching to which Luther was exposed (i.e., that individual believers could buy actual forgiveness -- a pernicious doctrine if there ever was one!).

If that's what you meant, I would note this: 1) Vincent's famous line is "Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus"; 2) the teachings on indulgences Luther condemned (as Trent did) were not held everwhere in the Catholic world even in Luther's time; so 3) do not meet the quod quod quod test; therefore 4) no Vincentian unravelling occurs in your example.

Peace in Christ,

Jim said...

I do not wish to engage a person of such nature.

Well, Tom, you've certainly written a lot for someone who says that, and who just a few sentences earlier asks me to clarify some points.

Assuming you're actually interested in continuing the discussion, here's what I'd respond:

[1] What I meant to communicate -- and you can decide whether it's not enough for you -- was that it was the church's teaching on the sale of indulgences during the immediate pre-reformation era that was indeed corrupt.

To the extent that you "thought" I was talking about the current theology of indulgences, then I apologize for my sloppy communication. Given the proximity of "Reformation Day," it's somewhat of a more live issue than usual, plus (unrelated to the calendar), I just read through the pertinent section in Pelikan's book. Since you've made clear that that explanation is not enough for you, that's fine, we'll have to disagree.

What we disagree on is this characterization of yours:

the failures of men who betrayed Christ and His Church for submitting to the weakness of their own fallen natures makes the doctrine pernicious.

Pastors fail in their responsibility to teach truth when [a] they fail to teach the substantive content of truth and also [b] when they allow error to continue uncorrected.

As I understand it, the endorsement of the sale of indulgences was endorsed by all levels of the church at the time, up to and including the pope. This elided into, well, um, a studied ambiguity regarding the extent of the remission effectuated by the purchased indulgences.

[2] On your comment, "Jaroslav Pelikan's multi-volume study? better than the saints or the Early Church Fathers?"

Pelikan's work on the development of doctrine spans history from just after the apostles up to a century ago.

Perhaps I've simply missed Eusibius's treatment of doctrinal development from 300 a.d. to 1900 a.d., but I didn't know it existed.

And I'd agree that reading primary sources is the best. I assumed that Thos was reading secondary sources because he doesn't have the time to become intimately familiar with the entire corpus of theology written from the start of the church to the current day.

And I realize that my apology is not good enough for you, but I can't help but believe that if I had better contextualized my original remark, you would not have been so provoked. And for that I reiterate my apology. This is not to minimize that I understand you take strong exception to how I characterize the church's culpability in the Reformation-era indulgence controversy.

Tom L. said...


Thank you.

"As I understand it, the endorsement of the sale of indulgences was endorsed by all levels of the church at the time, up to and including the pope."

Exactly. As you understand it. Like I've stated, your understanding is woefully deficient and terribly one-sided. You can read history and theology from a Catholic perspective if you want to improve your arguments on this topic. The other option is to remain in your ignorance and look foolish on blogs with your factless comments. If you can read books that explain things contrary to Catholic teaching, I'm sure you can read books that support it as well.

I don't understand how I could have taken your vitriol out of context when you not only misrepresented the doctrine by claiming that purchased indulgences "[made] people think that their sins are forgiven when they aren't" and then continued to call it "pernicious" to attack the straw man you so eloquently constructed.

Don't change the subject like a bitter housewife in an argument. You misrepresented the teachings of the Church to place your own opinions on a pedestal, then, from that pedestal, you cursed that misrepresentation. You see, you cannot admit when you are wrong.

As for the Pelikan argument, I don't really have much to discuss on the topic. You seem to be increasing the scope of the conversation to avoid the mistake you made. Anyhow, you seem to understand what I was getting at with my question, except for the jab that your explanation was somehow not good enough for me; even though I didn't return to this point. Pelikan's book and your opinions on it do not concern me. Your blatant misrepresentation of the Church does. Let's stay on point, ok? Do your research before you speak and admit when you are woefully ignorant or intentionally attacking straw men. You sound just like a bad lawyer. Note: I said you "sound just like" a bad lawyer, not that you "are like" one.

Don't bother with your closing statements that you will surely make to cover your tracks or divert the conversation elsewhere. I'm done here.

I apologize, Thos. I struggle with patience when talking to someone who, in my dealings with them, seem completely obstinate. I'm glad that you have had better dealings with him and that he doesn't have a track record if blurring facts. Charitably, I'll take this as an anomaly.

Good day.

Tom Leinhart
Tom Leinhart

Jim said...


Before we get to the part which I expect you'll continue to disagree with -- and while I recognize you've now twiced said that you won't post any more, since you've nonetheless continued to post -- if you want to suggest a book (or other material) regarding the pre-Reformation sale-of-indulgence controversy by a reputable Catholic scholar or theologian, I'll do my best to read it with as open a mind as I can.

Secondly, just to be clear, I did not "curse" anything. That was your word, not mine.

Third, I'm not sure what topic it is that I'm supposedly trying to change -- I thought I've been clear that I continue to affirm my central factual claim about the problem with selling indulgences, namely, that it induced "people [to] think that their sins are forgiven when they aren't."

I realize that this is the nub, but this was Luther's objection to the selling of indulgences and as best I'm able to understand, is correct.

As I'm sure you know, naming-calling is not an argument, nor is it evidence for your view. But that's all I've seen from you so far. And I'll stipulate that you believe Luther and all Protestants to be as ignorant and obstinate on the point as I am. (I'll even stipulate that I far surpass Luther and other Protestants in my ignorance, if you prefer.) But if I haven't advanced the argument, it's because you've provided nothing to advance against, except the assertion that I'm ignorant.

Since you think I'm ignorant, illumine me.

Finally, on Pelikin -- I can't believe you're arguing about this. Pelikin wrote a history of doctrinal development that was the culmination of his life's work as a church historian at Yale. The series spans 1900 years in thousands of pages. Unless you're claiming that histories should not be written -- we should only read the fathers and never read secondary sources -- then I don't understand your point.

If you have an argument against one or more of Pelikan's specific arguments or conclusions (and I don't think he's at all beyond criticism), then make the argument.

Finally, you've now twice written

I do not wish to engage a person of such nature.


I'm done here.

My goal is not to drive you off from commenting on Thos's blog. But it doesn't help your argument repeatedly to end your comments with comments to the effect that "I'm not going to comment any more," and then you continue to comment.

All my best,

-- Jim

Tom L. said...

Thos and Jim,

I've already spoken about the summary on this "pernicious" doctrine included in the Catechism for reading. Here is the link.

Here is also a link to the Catholic Encyclopedia which gives a basic description of what an indulgence is NOT (Jim's description) and what an indulgence IS. It also speaks of the sin of abuse, which I've already agreed that there was, of this doctrine (it was doctrine before Trent). It should be no surprise that humans have a tendency to sin, and being consecrated for Holy Orders does not remove concupiscence and make humans perfect.

Once you've read those I'll provide more reading material.

Tom Leinhart

Thos said...

Tom L.,

I have read the material you recommended. Thanks.

Peace in Christ,

Jim said...

Crazy at work.

Thanks, Tom.

I appreciate the links to current Catholic teaching. (It may suprise you to learn that I read the entire Cathechism years ago.) But the immediate point of contention isn't the Catholic church's current doctrine on indulgences, but the state of doctrine and institutional practice immediately prior to the Reformation.

So I will reiterate my invitation: If you want to suggest a book (or other material) regarding the pre-Reformation sale-of-indulgence controversy by a reputable Catholic scholar or theologian," I'd be happy to read it.

I inviting you to suggest material beyond a summary paragraph on "abuses" in the on-line "Catholic Encyclopedia." Given that it's this issue that launched the Reformation, I assume there are lengthy treatments of the topic by Catholic academics. That's what I'm looking for.