By St. Vincent of Lerens (400-450
On Development in Religious Knowledge.
"But some one will say, perhaps. Shall there, then, be no progress in Christ's Church? Certainly; all possible progress. For what being is there, so envious of men, so full of hatred to God, who would seek to forbid it? Yet on condition that it be real progress, not alteration of the faith. For progress requires that the subject be enlarged in itself, alteration, that it be transformed into something else.
The intelligence, then, the knowledge, the wisdom, as well of individuals as of all, as well of one man as of the whole Church, ought, in the course of ages and centuries, to increase and make much and vigorous progress; but yet only in its own kind; that is to say, in the same doctrine, in the same sense, and in the same meaning.
The growth of religion in the soul must be analogous to the growth of the body, which, though in process of years it is developed and attains its full size, yet remains still the same. There is a wide difference between the flower of youth and the maturity of age; yet they who were once young are still the same now that they have become old, insomuch that though the stature and outward form of the individual are changed, yet his nature is one and the same, his person is one and the same. An infant's limbs are small, a young man's large, yet the infant and the young man are the same. Men when full grown have the same number of joints that they had when children; and if there be any to which maturer age has given birth these were already present in embryo, so that nothing new is produced in them when old which was not already latent in them when children. This, then, is undoubtedly the true and legitimate rule of progress, this the established and most beautiful order of growth, that mature age ever develops in the man those parts and forms which the wisdom of the Creator had already framed beforehand in the infant… In like manner, it behooves Christian doctrine to follow the same laws of progress, so as to be consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age, and yet, withal, to continue uncorrupt and unadulterate, complete and perfect in all the measurement of its parts, and, so to speak, in all its proper members and senses, admitting no change, no waste of its distinctive property, no variation in its limits…
This rather should be the result,--there should be no discrepancy between the first and the last. From doctrine which was sown as wheat, we should reap, in the increase, doctrine of the same kind--wheat also; so that when in process of time any of the original seed is developed, and now flourishes under cultivation, no change may ensue in the character of the plant. There may supervene shape, form, variation in outward appearance, but the nature of each kind must remain the same. God forbid that those rose-beds of Catholic interpretation should be converted into thorns and thistles. God forbid that in that spiritual paradise from plants of cinnamon and balsam darnel and wolfsbane should of a sudden shoot forth…
But the Church of Christ, the careful and watchful guardian of the doctrines deposited in her charge, never changes anything in them, never diminishes, never adds, does not cut off what is necessary, does not add what is superfluous, does not lose her own, does not appropriate what is another's, but while dealing faithfully and judiciously with ancient doctrine, keeps this one object carefully in view,--if there be anything which antiquity has left shapeless and rudimentary, to fashion and polish it, if anything already reduced to shape and developed, to consolidate and strengthen it, if any already ratified and defined to keep and guard it. Finally, what other object have Councils ever aimed at in their decrees, than to provide that what was before believed in simplicity should in future be believed intelligently, that what was before preached coldly should in future be preached earnestly, that what was before practised negligently should thenceforward be practised with double solicitude? This, I say, is what the Catholic Church, roused by the novelties of heretics, has accomplished by the decrees of her Councils,--this, and nothing else,--she has thenceforward consigned to posterity in writing what she had received from those of olden times only by tradition, comprising a great amount of matter in a few words, and often, for the better understanding, designating an old article of the faith by the characteristic of a new name.
Heretics appeal to Scripture that they may more easily succeed in deceiving.
Here, possibly, some one may ask, Do heretics also appeal to Scripture? They do indeed, and with a vengeance; for you may see them scamper through every single book of Holy Scripture,--through the books of Moses, the books of Kings, the Psalms, the Epistles, the Gospels, the Prophets. Whether among their own people, or among strangers, in private or in public, in speaking or in writing, at convivial meetings, or in the streets, hardly ever do they bring forward anything of their own which they do not endeavour to shelter under words of Scripture. Read the works of Paul of Samosata, of Priscillian, of Eunomius, of Jovinian, and the rest of those pests, and you will see an infinite heap of instances, hardly a single page, which does not bristle with plausible quotations from the New Testament or the Old.
But the more secretly they conceal themselves under shelter of the Divine Law, so much the more are they to be feared and guarded against. For they know that the evil stench of their doctrine will hardly find acceptance with any one if it be exhaled pure and simple. They sprinkle it over, therefore, with the perfume of heavenly language, in order that one who would be ready to despise human error, may hesitate to condemn divine words. They do, in fact, what nurses do when they would prepare some bitter draught for children; they smear the edge of the cup all round with honey, that the unsuspecting child, having first tasted the sweet, may have no fear of the bitter. So too do these act, who disguise poisonous herbs and noxious juices under the names of medicines, so that no one almost, when he reads the label, suspects the poison.
It was for this reason that the Saviour cried, "Beware of false prophets
who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves."
What is meant by "sheep's clothing"? What but the words which prophets
and apostles with the guilelessness of sheep wove beforehand as fleeces,
for that immaculate Lamb which taketh away the sin of the world? What are
the ravening wolves? What but the savage and rabid glosses of heretics,
who continually infest the Church's folds, and tear in pieces the flock
of Christ wherever they are able? But that they may with more successful
guile steal upon the unsuspecting sheep, retaining the ferocity of the
wolf, they put off his appearance, and wrap themselves, so to say, in the
language of the Divine Law, as in a fleece, so that one, having felt the
softness of wool, may have no dread of the wolf's fangs. But what saith
the Saviour? "By their fruits ye shall know them;" that is, when they have
begun not only to quote those divine words, but also to expound them, not
as yet only to make a boast of them as on their side, but also to interpret
them, then will that bitterness, that acerbity, that rage, be understood;
then will the ill-savour of that novel poison be perceived, then will those
profane novelties be disclosed, then may you see first the hedge broken
through, then the landmarks of the Fathers removed, then the Catholic faith
assailed, then the doctrine of the Church torn in pieces…
Heretics, in quoting Scripture, follow the example of the Devil.
But what do they say? ‘If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down;’ that is,. If thou wouldst be a son of God, and wouldst receive the inheritance of the Kingdom of Heaven, cast thyself down; that is, cast thyself down from the doctrine and tradition of that sublime Church, which is imagined to be nothing less than the very temple of God. And if one should ask one of the heretics who gives this advice, How do you prove? What ground have you, for saying, that I ought to cast away the universal and ancient faith of the Catholic Church? he has the answer ready, "For it is written;" and forthwith he produces a thousand testimonies, a thousand examples, a thousand authorities from the Law, from the Psalms, from the apostles, from the Prophets, by means of which, interpreted on a new and wrong principle, the unhappy soul may be precipitated from the height of Catholic truth to the lowest abyss of heresy. Then, with the accompanying promises, the heretics are wont marvellously to beguile the incautious. For they dare to teach and promise, that in their church, that is, in the conventicle of their communion, there is a certain great and special and altogether personal grace of God, so that whosoever pertain to their number, without any labour, without any effort, without any industry, even though they neither ask, nor seek, nor knock, have such a dispensation from God, that, borne up by angel hands, that is, preserved by the protection of angels, it is impossible they should ever dash their feet against a stone, that is, that they should ever be offended.
What Rule is to be observed in the Interpretation of Scripture.
BUT it will be said, If the words, the sentiments, the promises of Scripture,
are appealed to by the Devil and his disciples, of whom some are false
apostles, some false prophets and false teachers, and all without exception
heretics, what are Catholics and the sons of Mother Church to do? HOW
ARE THEY TO DISTINGUISH TRUTH FROM FALSEHOOD IN THE SACRED SCRIPTURES?
must be very careful to pursue that course which, in the beginning of this
Commonitory, we said that holy and learned men had commended to us, that
is to say, they must interpret the sacred canon according to the traditions
of the universal church and in keeping with the rules of catholic doctrine,
in which catholic and universal church, moreover, they must follow universality,
antiquity, consent. And if at any time a part opposes itself to the whole,
novelty to antiquity, the dissent of one or a few who are in error to the
consent of all or at all events of the great majority of Catholics, then
they must prefer the soundness of the whole to the corruption of a part;
which same whole they must prefer the religion of antiquity to the profaneness
of novelty; and in antiquity itself in like manner, to the temerity
of one or of a very few they must prefer, first of all, THE GENERAL DECREES,
IF SUCH THERE BE, OF A UNIVERSAL COUNCIL, or if there be no such, then,
what is next best, they must follow the consentient belief of many and
great masters. Which rule having been faithfully, soberly, and scrupulously
observed, we shall with little difficulty detect the noxious errors of
heretics as they arise. [St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitory, Ch. 23-27
(c. A.D. 434)]
Appendix II - How an Atheist Pushed Me Towards Catholicism:
By Greg Krehbiel (circa 2000)
Once there was an atheist who began to participate in an online forum I was involved with so that he could learn more about Christianity. He and I interacted somewhat, and I watched his interactions with others on the forum with a great deal of interest.
When you get into these kinds of discussions, it's clear that no single argument for Christianity is so completely persuasive that this atheist was going to convert based on it alone. There is always some wiggle room in the conclusions. Sure, lots of arguments brings us towards Christianity, and support Christianity, but they don't prove it.
I argued that all these separate arguments cohere within the Christian system. IOW, if you believe in Christianity, all these individual arguments make sense in a larger scheme. But if you reject Christianity, you have to assemble a whole collection of ad hoc, incoherent explanations.
It's as if each of the arguments is the beam of a flashlight that gets wider the farther it goes. If we look at one of the beams of light, we're not entirely certain where it's pointed. It might be this, or it might be that. But there are twenty flashlights in a circle, and while some point to this and those other things, there is only one thing that every one of them points to.
At least that's the way it seemed to me, and the attempt to resist the Christian solution to all the arguments seemed to reject the significance of this coherence. The argument from coherence is simply this: Someone has pointed all these lights in such a way that, collectively, they only illumine one thing.
While I was arguing with this atheist, I ran into trouble with an old friend. My hidden Roman Catholic interlocutor (that troublesome fellow who lives in the back of my head, whom no amount of wine, love or song would pacify) turned my own argument on me. (I hate it when he does that.)
Sure, he said, we can understand Scripture and Tradition, and the papacy, and the unity of the church, and the need for confessional authority, and all those other things Roman Catholic apologists like to talk about, in a way that doesn't necessarily point us to Rome. But while all those beams of light point to Rome as well as to other solutions, they don't cohere in any other system. All of the other choices have to compromise or neglect a significant line of argument.
While I was chiding the atheist for his refusal to see the significant of coherence as it relates to belief in God, I began to realize that I was doing the same thing with Rome.
You either have to end up believing that God has intentionally left
things a tangled mess just to frustrate us (a position I seriously considered),
or that the sum of these arguments is greater than the individual parts
because they are, collectively, directions and signposts along the way.
Appendix III —The Church as a Universal Society:
By Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900)
The union of the Divine and the human, which is the goal of creation, was accomplished individually (or hypostatically) in the unique person of Jesus Christ, 'perfect God and perfect Man uniting the two natures in a perfect manner without confusion and without division (formula of Pope St Leo and the Council of Chalcedon). The historic work of God enters henceforward upon a new stage. It is no longer a matter of a physical and individual unity but of a moral and social union.
The God-Man desires to unite humanity with Himself in a perfect union. The human race is steeped in error and sin. How shall He set about it? Is He to approach each human soul separately and unite it to Himself by a purely interior and subjective bond? He answers, No: Oikodomhsw thn ekklhsia mou. 'I will build My Church.' It is a real objective work of which we are here told. But will He allow this work to be subject to all the divisions natural to the human race? Will He unite Himself to individual nations as such by giving them independent national Churches? No, He does not say: I will build My Churches, but: My Church.
Mankind united to God must form a single social structure and for this unity a solid basis must be found. Any genuine union is based on the mutual interaction of those who are united. The act of absolute truth which is revealed in the God-Man (or the perfect Man) must meet with the response of imperfect humanity in an act of irrevocable adherence which links us to the divine principle. God incarnate does not desire that His truth should be accepted in a passive and servile spirit…
In the creation of the individual physical humanity of Christ the act of the divine Omnipotence required for its realization only the supremely passive and receptive self surrender of feminine nature in the person of the Immaculate Virgin. The building up of the social or collective humanity of Christ, of His universal body, the Church, demands less and at the same time more than that: less, because the human foundation of the Church need not be represented by an absolutely pure and sinless individual, since there is no question in this case of creating a substantial and individual relation, or a hypo static and complete union, between two natures, but simply of forging a living moral bond.
If, however, this new link (the link between Christ and the Church) is less intimate and fundamental than the previous link (that between the Word of God and human nature in the womb of the Immaculate Virgin), it is humanly speaking more positive, and of more far-reaching influence: more positive, because this new bond between the Spirit and the Truth demands a virile will to respond to God's revelation and a virile intelligence to give a definite form to the truth which it accepts; moreover, this new link is of wider scope because, forming as it does the creative foundation of a collective entity, it cannot be confided to a personal relationship but must be extended through time as a permanent function of the society so formed…
The Church is above all a society founded on Truth. The basic truth of the Church is the union of the Divine and the human in the Word made Flesh, the recognition of the Son of Man as the Christ, the Son of the living God. Therefore in its purely objective aspect the Rock of the Church is Christ Himself, Truth incarnate. But if she is to be actually founded on the truth, the Church as a human society must be united to this truth in a definite manner. Since in this world of appearances truth has no existence which is directly manifest or externally necessary, man can only establish contact with it through faith which links us to the interior substance of things and presents to our intelligence all that is not externally visible…
Since the objective truth of faith is universal and the true subject of faith must be conformed to its object, it follows that the subject of true religion is necessarily universal. Real faith cannot belong to man as an isolated individual but only to mankind as a complete unity; and the individual can only share in it as a living member of the universal body.
But since no real and living unity has been bestowed on the human race in the physical order, it must be created in the moral order. The limits of natural egoism, of finite individuality with its exclusive self-assertion, must be burst by love which renders man conformable to God Who is Love. But this love which is to transform the discordant fragments of the human race into a real and living unity, the Universal Church, cannot be a mere vague, subjective and ineffectual sentiment; it must be translated into a consistent and definite activity which shall give the inner sentiment its objective reality…
Those who agree with us in founding the Church upon love and yet see world-wide ecclesiastical unity only in a fossilized tradition which for eleven centuries has lost all means of actual self-expression, should bear in mind that it is impossible to love with a living and active love what is simply an archeological relic, a remote fact, such as the seven ecumenical councils, which is absolutely unknown to the masses and can only appeal to the learned. Love for the Church has no real meaning except for those who recognize perpetually in the Church a living representative and a common father of all the faithful, capable of being loved as a father is loved in his family or the head of the state in a kingdom…
This foundation is the faith of Peter living in his successors, a faith which is personal that it may be manifest to men, and which is (by divine assistance) superhuman that it may be infallible. We shall not cease to challenge those who deny the necessity of such a permanent center of unity to point to any living unity in the Universal Church apart from it, to produce apart from it a single ecclesiastical act which concerns the whole of Christendom, or to give without appealing to it a decisive and authoritative reply to a single one of the questions which divide the consciences of Christians. It is of course obvious that the present successors of the Apostles at Constantinople or at St. Petersburg are imitating the silence of the Apostles themselves at Casarea Philippi.
To summarize shortly the foregoing reflections: The Universal Church is founded on truth affirmed by faith. Truth being one, true faith must be one also. And since this unity of faith has no present and immediate existence among the whole mass of believers (for in religious matters all are not unanimous) it must reside in the lawful authority of a single head, guaranteed by divine assistance and accepted by the love and confidence of all the faithful. That is the rock on which Christ has founded His Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. [Excerpts from the book 'Russia and the Universal Church' (c. 1889)]
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