Rev. Alban Butler (171173). Volume V: May. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.
St. Vincent of Lerins, Confessor
See his Commonitorium adversus Hæreticos, with the English preface of Mr. Reeves, t. 2. Also Ceillier and Orsi; and his Justification and Life in Papebroke, Acta Sanctor. t. 5, p. 284.
ST. VINCENT was of Gaulish extraction, had a polite education, was afterwards for some time an officer in the army, and lived with dignity in the world. He informs us in his prologue, that having been some time tossed about in the storms of a bustling military life, he began seriously to consider the dangers with which he was surrounded, and the vanity and folly of his pursuits. He desired to take shelter in the harbour of religion, which he calls the safest refuge from the world.1 His view in this resolution was that he might strenuously labour to divest his soul of its ruffling passions, of pride and vanity, and to offer to God the acceptable sacrifice of an humble and Christian spirit; and that being further removed from worldly temptations, he might endeavour more easily to avoid not only the wrecks of the present life but also the burnings of that which is to come. In these dispositions he retired from the crowds of cities, and made for the desired haven with all the sail he could. The place he chose for his retirement was in a small remote island, sheltered from the noise of the world. This Gennadius assures us to have been the famous monastery of Lerins, situated in the lesser of the two agreeable green islands which formerly bore the name of Lerins not far from the coast of Lower Provence towards Antibes. In this place he shut himself up, that he might attend solely to what God commands us, and study to know him. Vincent reflected that time is always snatching something from us: its fleeting moments pass as quick as they come, never, never more to return, as water which is gone from its source runs to it no more. Our course is almost run out; the past time appears as a shadow; so will that which is now to come when it shall be once over, and no tears, no entreaties, no endeavours, can recal the least moment we have already let slip unimproved. In these reflections the fervent servant of God assures us, that he earnestly strove to redeem time,2 and to be always turning it to the best account, that this invaluable grace might not rise up at the last day in judgment against him. He considered that true faith is necessary to salvation no less than morality, and that the former is the foundation of Christian virtue; and he grieved to see the church at that time pestered with numberless heresies, which sucked their poison from their very antidote, the holy scriptures, and which by various wiles spread on every side their dangerous snares. To guard the faithful against the false and perplexing glosses of modern subtle refiners, and to open the eyes of those who had been already seduced by them, he, with great clearness, eloquence, and force of reasoning, wrote a book, which he entitled, A Commonitory against Heretics, which he composed in 434, three years after the general council of Ephesus had condemned the Nestorians. He had chiefly in view the heretics of his own times, especially the Nestorians and the Apollinarists, but he confuted them by general clear principles, which overturn all heresies to the end of the world. Together with the ornaments of eloquence and erudition, the inward beauty of his mind, and the brightness of his devotion, sparkle in every page of his book.
Out of humility he disguises himself under the name of Peregrinus, to express the quality of being a pilgrim or stranger on earth, and one by his monastic state in a more particular manner estranged from the world. He styles himself, the least of all the servants of God, and less than the least of all the saints, unworthy to bear the holy name of a Christian. He layeth down this rule or fundamental principle, in which he found, by a diligent inquiry, all Catholic pastors and the ancient fathers to agree, that such doctrine is truly Catholic as hath been believed in all places, at all times, and by all the faithful.3 By this test of universality, antiquity, and consent, he saith, all controverted points in belief must be tried. He showeth, that whilst Novatian, Photinus, Sabellius, Donatus, Arius, Eunomius, Jovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, and Nestorius expound the divine oracles different ways, to avoid the perplexity of errors, we must interpret the holy scriptures by the tradition of the Catholic Church, as the clue to conduct us in the truth. For this tradition, derived from the apostles, manifesteth the true meaning of the holy scriptures, and all novelty in faith is a certain mark of heresy; and in religion nothing is more to be dreaded than itching ears after new teachers. He saith: They who have made bold with one article of faith will proceed on to others; and what will be the consequence of this reforming of religion, but only that these refiners will never have done till they have reformed it quite away.4 He elegantly expatiates on the divine charge given to the church, to maintain inviolable the sacred depositum of faith.5 He takes notice that heretics quote the sacred writings at every word, and that in the works of Paulas Samosatenus, Priscillian, Eunomius, Jovinian, and other like pests of Christendom, almost every page is painted and laid on thick with scripture texts, which Tertullian also remarks. But in this, saith St. Vincent, heretics are like those poisoners or quacks who put off their destructive potions under inscriptions of good drugs, and under the title of infallible cures.6 They imitate the father of lies, who quoted scripture against the Son of God when he tempted him.7 The saint adds, that if a doubt arise in interpreting the meaning of the scriptures in any point of faith, we must summon in the holy fathers who have lived and died in the faith and communion of the Catholic Church, and by this test we shall prove the false doctrine to be novel. For that only we must look upon as indubitably certain and unalterable which all, or the major part of these fathers have delivered, like the harmonious consent of a general council. But if any one among them, be he ever so holy, ever so learned, holds anything besides, or in opposition to the rest, that is to be placed in the rank of singular and private opinions, and never to be looked upon as the public, general, authoritative doctrine of the church.8 After a point has been decided in a general council the definition is irrefragable. These general principles, by which all heresies are easily confounded, St. Vincent explains with equal eloquence and perspicuity.9 His diction is pure and agreeable, his reasoning close and solid; and no controversial book ever expressed so much, and such deep sense, in so few words. The same rules are laid down by Tertullian in his book of Prescriptions, by St. Irenæus and other fathers. St. Vincent died in the reigns of Theodosius II. and Valentinian III., consequently before the close of the year 450.10 His relics are preserved with respect at Lerins, and his name occurs in the Roman Martyrology.
St. Vincent observes11 that souls which have lost the anchorage of the Catholic faith, are tossed and shattered with inward storms of clashing thoughts, that by this restless posture of mind they may be made sensible of their danger; and taking down the sails of pride and vanity which they have unhappily spread before every gust of heresy, they may make all the sail they can into the safe and peaceful harbour of their holy mother the Catholic Church; and being sick from a surfeit of errors, may there discharge those foul and bitter waters to make room for the pure waters of life. There they may unlearn well what they have learned ill; may get a right notion of all those doctrines of the church they are capable of understanding, and believe those that surpass all understanding.
Note 9. The best edition of St. Vincents Commonitorium is that given by Baluze. On the eminent usefulness of this book see Orsi, and that learned Roman controvertist, the late Cardinal Gotti, in his book against John Clerc. [back]
Note 10. The Vincentian objections against the doctrine of St. Austin could not come from the pen of St. Vincent, who condemns with great warmth Pelagius and his followers over and over again, and highly extols the letter of Celestine to the bishops of Gaul; in which that pope reprehends their neglect of watchfulness and duty in suffering the profane novelties of Semi-pelagianism to spring up and grow among them. We find two other Vincents living at Marseilles at that very time, and there might be others of the same name: one of whom might be a Semi-Pelagian. [back]