Monday, February 26, 2007

St. Vincent and the TEC

I have been reading The Fathers of the Church by Mike Aquilina, and found the following quote from the Commonitory of St. Vincent of Lerins to be quite enlightening about what's gone wrong in all the doctrinal conflicts that are tearing apart the Episcopal Church and other mainline Protestant denominations these days. Most of us are probably familiar with the first sentence, but I had never read the whole context before.

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, 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.

What then will the Catholic Christian do, if a small part of the Church has cut itself off from the communion of the universal Faith? The answer is sure. He will prefer the healthiness of the whole body to the morbid and corrupt limb. But what if some novel contagion try to infect the whole Church, and not merely a tiny part of it? Then he will take care to cleave to antiquity, which cannot now be led astray by any deceit of novelty. What if in antiquity itself two or three men, or it may be a city, or even a whole province be detected in error? Then he will take the greatest care to prefer the decrees of the ancient General Councils, if there are such, to the irresponsible ignorance of a few men. But what if some error arises regarding which nothing of this sort is to be found? Then he must do his best to compare the opinions of the Fathers and inquire their meaning, provided always that, though they belonged to diverse times and places, they yet continued in the faith and communion of the one Catholic Church; and let them be teachers approved and outstanding. And whatever he shall find to have been held, approved and taught, not by one or two only but by all equally and with one consent, openly, frequently, and persistently, let him take this as to be held by him without the slightest hesitation.

(Translation from the Internet History Sourcebooks Project at Fordham University.)

As an exercise for the student, compare and contrast St. Vincent’s words with these from the Episcopal Bishop of San Diego, James R. Mathes:

As I have already suggested, Episcopalians have divergent ways of interpreting Scripture. Some talk about the clear reading of Scripture. Others have said that there is nothing clear in Scripture. This divide leads to great consternation. Some call others literalists or fundamentalists, decidedly unhelpful and untrue labels. In response, the accusation is thrown in the other direction that the Bible has been totally dismissed as a source for theological discourse, also neither true nor helpful.

[…] We must accept the primacy of Scripture in our common life and theological discourse or we fail to be true to our Anglican heritage. However, this does not answer the question of how we interpret Scripture. There are in fact many modalities of interpretation that are at work. In the life of the community, there has been an historic and broad acceptance of many ways to interpret Scripture. In reality, those who may seem the most literalistic in their means of interpreting Scripture at times, can be decidedly contextual or metaphorical in their interpretations of certain passages, as they equivocate over divorce and remarriage or explain away the delay of the Parousia. Others who take a more critical reading of scripture can be very literal, particularly on the more social justice passages. What each of us does is to choose from our own theological center a canon within the canon. I am particularly using the word canon as the measure or rule of scripture.

And by canon within the canon, I mean that each of us has a particular part of Scripture that we hold at a higher level than other parts. For myself, the Epistle to the Philippians, the story of the Prodigal Son, the passion as recorded in Luke?s Gospel, and Jesus’ vision of judgment found in the 25th chapter of Matthew have particular power for me. They have been critical in my own spiritual development. That is not to say that other passages of Scripture are not highly important. But these are the ones that continually form who I am as a person of faith. Another person’s formative passage may be similar to my own, while others will be distinctly different.

For the Biblical Christian, this canon within the canon leads us to certain assumptions about Jesus Christ and salvation. How we view Jesus and his saving acts is informed by which passages we find the most important to use. This, of course, is particularly true when we are dealing with theological issues upon which the Bible offers more than one way of considering the question or ones in which there is great divergence of opinion.

The problem with Protestantism in general (as opposed to any particular doctrine), which reveals itself most clearly in the travails destroying the Episcopal Church, is the basic notion that a man and his bible (and his personal spiritual experiences) are in and of themselves sufficient authority for the interpretation of scripture and the determination of what is and what isn't Christianity. In the first place, every denomination that I am aware of has a Tradition of some sort, whether they admit to it or not. Every church, from Baptist to Byzantine, has a set of filters by which it interprets theFaith - just try telling your Evangelical friends that you think "once saved, always saved" is a crock!

However, if there isn't a firm, universal foundation on which to build that Tradition, then it is impossible for it to stand against the inroads of innovation and heresy once that innovation or heresy becomes popular. The end result is theology by democratic vote - a condition that we would not accept for any other field of endeavor.

Can you imagine allowing for a personal interpretation of Physics? A dam built on those portions of physics which I find "the most important to use" is unlikely to bear much pressure. A theology based on what I personally find important is unlikely to bear much pressure, either. Truth is what it is, whether or not anyone likes it - or believes it. "Jesus is Lord" is either true or false, and what I choose to think about it will not change the reality of the statement.