Arthur Middleton on St Vincent of Lérins and development

Vincent in his Commonitorium [23, 28 and 2–3] states that there must be development of religion in the Church, but ‘it must truly be development of the faith, not alteration of the faith. Development means that each thing expands to be itself; while alteration means that a thing is changed from one thing into another.’ So our understanding, knowledge and wisdom as individuals, as well as that of the whole Church, needs to progress through the centuries, ‘but along its own line of development, that is, with the same doctrine, the same meaning and the same import.’

He uses the analogy of the body. ‘Tough bodies develop and unfold their component parts with the passing years, they always remain what they were. There is a difference between the flower of childhood and the maturity of age, but those who become old are the very same people who were once young.’ Appearances of the same individual may change, but it is the same nature and the same person. The limbs of unweaned children and the grown limbs of young people are still the same limbs, and adults have the same number of limbs.

The later development was already present in a seminal form, meaning that ‘there is nothing new in old age that was not already latent in childhood. There is no doubt, then, that the legitimate and correct rule of development, the established and wonderful order of growth, is this: in older people the fullness of years always brings to completion those members and forms that the wisdom of the Creator fashioned beforehand in their earlier years.’ A human body distorted into a shape alien to its own nature, or with something added or subtracted, can destroy the body, making it freakish or handicapped.

‘In the same way, the doctrine of the Christian religion should properly follow these laws of development, that is, by becoming firmer over the years, more ample in the course of time, more exalted as it advances in age.’ In the beginning, our ancestors in the faith planted the good seed in the Church. ‘It would be very wrong and unfitting if we, their descendants, were to reap not the genuine wheat of truth but the intrusive growth of error.’

We need to secure a fixed and guiding principle for distinguishing the true Catholic Faith from heresy. A healthy faith is fortified in two ways; first, by the authority of God’s Law; secondly, by the tradition of the Catholic Church.

Not only do we need Scripture but alongside it the interpretation of the Church, because of Scripture’s depth of meaning and everyone placing as many interpretations as there are people. The intricacies of error require a rule for the exposition of Scripture in accordance with the standard of the interpretation of the Church Catholic where care is taken to hold ‘that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.’

Keep this rule by following universality, antiquity, and consent. In universality, acknowledging that one Faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; in antiquity by not departing from those interpretations proclaimed by our ancestors; in consent, by following the definitions and opinions of antiquity.