Saturday, July 19, 2008

Death to St. Vincent -- the Naitnecniv Canon

Many readers are probably familiar with the "Vincentian Canon" -- the statement of the fifth-century bishop Vincent of Lerins of the Church's responsibility to hold fast to the apostolic Tradition:
Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. That is truly and properly 'Catholic,' as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally. We shall hold to this rule if we follow universality [i.e. oecumenicity], antiquity, and consent. We shall follow universality if we acknowledge that one Faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is clear that our ancestors and fathers proclaimed; consent, if in antiquity itself we keep following the definitions and opinions of all, or certainly nearly all, bishops and doctors alike.
By this, St. Vincent did not mean that truth is decided by majority vote, though some have tried to cast it that way. Rather, truth was given in revelation by Christ and the Holy Spirit to the apostles, who in turn - through both their written statements recorded in Scripture and their teaching and practices preserved in Tradition - passed on that deposit of faith to their own disciples and the Church throughout the ages.

Accordingly, from the beginning, the Church received revelation from God. Subsequently, errors arose not by God's act but by man's. Yet because they were subsequent and particular, these errors were not "universal" as the initial deposit of faith was. Suppose, for example, a heresy were to arise in fifth century Germania, and two differing theological teachings or Biblical interpretations of some issue were to be found there. But suppose only one of those interpretations appeared in Spain and Thrace and Egypt, and that that same interpretation was that perseved by the Fathers from the previous century, whereas the other one were localized to just fifth century Germania... well, then it's a fair bet that it is that more "universal" or "catholic" interpretation, not the Germanic novelty, which represents the original teaching of the Church. This is the reasoning behind St. Vincent's statement -- that that which has been universally received, taught and preached in Scripture and Tradition is normative, whereas the heresies peculiar to a particular time or place are deviant.

Thus, when various heresies arise (Gnosticism, denying that the one God is creator of heaven and earth; Arianism, denying that Christ was truly God; Nestorianism, denying that Christ was truly one Person; Monophysitism, denying that Christ was truly Man; etc) -- heresies which are contrary to the established interpretation of Scripture and to the Traditions of the Church -- the "Vincentian Canon" alerts us to the fact that these novelties are, in all likelihood, erroneous. Thus the condemnation of these errors -- and so too the condemnation of iconclasm, of the denial of the Real Presence, etc.

Now, this is not to say that new articulations - or new applications - of the fundamental truths do not arise. Of course they do. For example, the New Testament teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman. At one time and place, a particular culture might advocate polygamy. The Church, encountering this practice, would see that it violated that Scriptural norm and condemn it. At a different time and place, a culture might advocate homosexuality, or bestiality, or marriage to kitchen appliances. In all these cases, the Church would turn to the same teaching of Scripture to evaluate the cultural practice and condemn it. Sure, the situations might be new -- none of the apostles wrote about carnal relations with electric mixers -- but the faith, the norms of belief and morality, by which the new situations are evaluated remain those eternal truths of revelation.

This means, also, that what is true and established remains true and established. The fact that new issues or occasions or clarifications arise in the life of the Church does not mean that the faith, that Scripture and Tradition, have changed, or been abrogated, or been replaced by some new Third Covenant. It simply means that a new articulation is required. If the Church says, in first century Palestine, "Jesus Christ is Lord" in Aramaic, then in 7th century Rome the Church says in Latin "Jesus Christ is Lord", not "Jesus Christ is Merely a Philosopher". The language and cultural context have changed -- the message remains the same. And this is true of both theology and morality. And if murder is a sin in 4th century Milan, then murder is a sin in 21st century Dehli. The circumstances may change -- but the truth? The truth endures.

Yet various modern churchmen and academics would have you forget all this. Of course, it has been trendy in academic circles for some decades now to deny that there is any objective truth. And one can play very entertaining intellectual games - and have some remarkable discussions - playing around with these ideas. Yet I guarantee you that the most adamant advocate or such relativism will stop at the street corner to let the cars go by... he may claim in the seminar room that "there is no objective truth", but he still believes it to be objectively true that those cars exist, and that they will hit him if he jumps in front of them, and that it will hurt! Unfortunately for theologians and churchmen, the equal spiritual dangers of denying the truth of the faith are not quite so apparent in this life.

And so, day after day, we encounter people throwing out rationality, objectivity and faith. To pick just one recent example (found simply by a quick google search) we get an episcopal candidate in PEcUSA saying:
I am committed to work toward the reconciliation of our church [there's that "reconciliation" buzzword -ed]... I believe the Episcopal Church is called to bear witness that God is doing a new thing among us, to share our experience of God’s blessing through the gifted ministries—both lay and ordained—of our gay and lesbian members. And yet, both scripture and history teach us that whenever God does new things, we mortals are slow to learn.
Slow to learn, is that it? Seems to me that people are awfully slow to learn that while God may do new things, he doesn't do contradictory things. And yet this is what PEcUSA leaders would have you believe -- homosexual activity is explicitly condemned by Scripture and Tradition and the practice of the Church for centuries... but now it's suddenly okay. Out with the Vincentian Canon... God is doing a NEW THING! Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him? Hey-hey! Not any more! God is doing a NEW THING!!!

This same kind of thinking infects academia as well -- the notion that there is no objective (or obtainable) historical truth; that because truth is unknowable or non-existent, there's no point in treating historical evidence as objective starting-points for an investigation into fact; that history merely provides the raw material for rhetorical constructions advocating your own opinions, preferences and policies; that a historian's job is to re-create the past to support their image of the future... rather than (as St. Vincent believed) obediently to discern the truths preserved in the past to safeguard them for the future. Of course, academics are not charged with defending the truths of revelation and the faith of the Church. Nor are they required, by their offices, to believe them. (Unlike the case with clergy... well, unlike what is supposed to be the case with clergy, not that you'd know it from PEcUSA's leaders!) But this doesn't stop them from advancing revisionist history about the Church.

Ruth Glendhill gives us a preview of an upcoming article, claiming it is Christian tradition to ordain women. Now, the article isn't published yet, so it's a bit irregular of her to blog about and quote from it. And, of course, a proper evaluation of the article would require seeing the whole thing and checking its sources... who knows, perhaps this author has uncovered a radical and huge cache of evidence which will overturn the clear historical facts and precedents.

But, judging from what Gledhill quotes, I don't think so.

Here is an excerpt from the article (at least, so Gledhill presents it) which gives a preview of how this radical claim is to be defended:
The Council of NĂ“mes, held in 394, noting that “women seemed to have been assumed into levitical service,” ordered that “such ordination should be undone when it is effected contrary to reason. It should be seen that no one so presume in the future.” It is quite likely that the ministry of women to the Eucharist was being discussed here, although some scholars have argued that it was the diaconate rather than the presbyterate that the Council intended to forbid. Ninety years later, in 494, Pope Gelasius in a letter to the bishops of southern Italy and Sicily also spoke out against bishops who were allowing women to serve at the altar. Gelasius had heard that “women are confirmed to minister at the sacred altars and to perform all matters imputed only to the service of the male sex and for which women are not competent.
This is supposed to convince us that it's okay to ordain women... because this evidence of condemnation shows it was done before.

Hang on there just a sec, buddy. We're not asking if it was done before. Lots of things have been believed and done before. The divinity of Christ has been denied before, as has the Virgin Birth, the resurrection, the Real Presence, and all those other teachings which Spong and his Episcopal buddies regularly deny. Nothing new there. And just about any behavior you care to think up, no matter how deviant, has got its own historical precedents as well. Whoop-de-doo.

But not only have these things been believed or done before... they have been consistently condemned by the Church as heretical, apostate, and damnable. Sure, people - even churchmen - have done or said things contrary to Scripture and Tradition in the past. And, because they are contrary, the Church has condemned them (as in the fourth and fifth century examples above). Condemned them because, since such teachings and practices "depart from those interpretations which it is clear that our ancestors and fathers proclaimed," these beliefs, interpretations and policies are WRONG. They were wrong then; they are wrong now. The medium might change (English rather than Aramaic; internet rather than papyrus; 21st century culture rather than 2nd century culture)... but the message, the truth, remains the same. THAT's what the Vincentian Canon has to say about these revisionist innovations and recycled heresies.

Of course, you can guess what the modernist liberal/heretic/apostate response will be:
Oh, but that was the real truth which was viciously oppressed by all those misogynistic homophobic fundamentalist bigots (like St. Paul) who wrenched control of the Church away from Christ and the Holy Spirit within the first months of its existence and have rigorously suppressed the truth in their vast right-wing conspiracy (burning documents, hiding evidence, and crushing dissenters and freedom fighters) until, finally, in our day, the real truth has been rediscovered [be it by a new examination of well-known documents or the prophetic voice of homosexual activists or the pseudo-scientific babbling of retired clergy] and restored to the world! The fact that there is so little evidence of these practices, and that when they do show up they are consistently condemned, just PROVES that these are the true, original teachings and practices of Jesus which those demonic right-wing patriarchs have been suppressing since day one!
Or something like that.

In other words, what we have being preached by PEcUSA and its allies today is the exact inverse of the Vincentian canon... the Naitnecniv canon!

I.e. if something has ever been done or preached by somebody in (or claiming to be in) the Church, and especially if that practice or belief was criticized and condemned -- and even more so if it's a behavior or teaching which only appears rarely in a few isolated, out-of-the way spots -- then those isolated examples justify our mimicry of them... for their very rarity and historical rejection proves that they MUST be the truth!

And so there's nothing to do for it now but impose these "new things" on the rest of the world and to persecute all those who disagree... those who uphold traditional Christian teaching and practice. It is, after all, their turn now, those evil repressive bigots!

Long live Saint Naitnecniv!


Redtabby said...

This article has helped me. Thank you.