Very little is known of the author of the following Treatise. He writes under the assumed name of Peregrinus, but Gennadius of Marseilles, who flourished a.d.495, some sixty years after its date, ascribes it to Vincentius, an inmate of the famous monastery of Lérins, in the island of that name, and his ascription has been universally accepted.
Vincentius was of Gallic nationality. In earlier life he had been engaged in secular pursuits, whether civil or military is not clear, though the term he uses, |secularis militia,| might possibly imply the latter. He refers to the Council of Ephesus, held in the summer and early autumn of 431, as having been held some three years previously to the time at which he was writing |ante triennium ferme.| This gives the date of the Commonitory 434. Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, was still living. Sixtus the Third had succeeded to the See of Rome; his predecessor, Celestine, having died in 432. Gennadius says that Vincentius died, |Theodosio et Valentiniano regnantibus.| Theodosius died, leaving Valentinian still reigning, in July, 450. Vincentius' death, therefore, must have occurred in or before that year.
Baronius places his name in the Roman Martyrology, Tillemont doubts whether with sufficient reason. He is commemorated on the 24th of May.
Vincentius has been charged with Semipelagianism. Whether he actually held the doctrine which was afterwards called by that name is not clear. Certainly the express enunciation of it is nowhere to be found in the Commonitory. But it is extremely probable that at least his sympathies were with those who held it. For not only does he omit the name of St. Augustine, who was especially obnoxious to them, when making honorable mention at any time of the champions of the faith, but he denounces his doctrine, though under a misrepresentation of it, as one of the forms of that novel error which he reprobates. Indeed, whoever will compare what he says in § 70 of the heresy which he describes but forbears to name, with Prosper's account of the charges brought against Augustine by certain Semipelagian clergymen of Marseilles, will have little doubt that Vincentius and they had the same teacher in view, and were of the same mind with regard to his teaching. Be this however as it may, when it is considered that the monks of Lérins, in common with the general body of the churchmen of Southern Gaul, were strenuous upholders of Semipelagianism, it will not be thought surprising that Vincentius should have been suspected of at least a leaning in that direction. Tillemont, who forbears to express himself decidedly, but evidently inclines to that view, says |L'opinion qui le condamne et l'abandonne aux Semipelagiens passe aujourd'hui pour la plus commune parmi les savans.|
It has been matter of question whether Vincentius is to be credited with the authorship of the |Objectiones Vincentianæ,| a collection of Sixteen Inferences alleged to be deducible from St. Augustine's writings, which has come down to us in Prosper's Reply.
Its date coincides so nearly with that of the Commonitory as to preclude all doubt as to the identity of authorship on that score, and it must be confessed that its animus and that of the 70th and 86th sections of the Commonitory are too much in keeping to make it difficult to believe that both are from the same pen.
Vincentius's object in the following treatise is to provide himself, as he states, with a general rule whereby to distinguish Catholic truth from heresy; and he commits what he has learnt, he adds, to writing, that he may have it by him for reference as a Commonitory, or Remembrancer, to refresh his memory.
This rule, in brief, is the authority of Holy Scripture. By that all questions must be tried in the first instance. And it would be abundantly sufficient, but that, unfortunately, men differ in the interpretation of Holy Scripture. The rule, therefore, must be supplemented by an appeal to that sense of Holy Scripture which is supported by universality, antiquity, and consent: by universality, when it is the faith of the whole Church; by antiquity, when it is that which has been held from the earliest times; by consent, when it has been the acknowledged belief of all, or of almost all, whose office and character gave authority to their determinations. This is the famous |Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus,| with which Vincentius's name is associated. The body of the work is taken up with its illustration and application.
The work consisted originally of two books; but unfortunately the second was lost, or rather, as Gennadius says, was stolen, while the author was still alive; and there remains to us nothing but a recapitulation of its contents, which the author, unwilling to encounter the labour of rewriting the whole, has drawn up.
In prosecution of his purpose Vincentius proceeds to show how his rule applies for the detection of error in the instances of some of the more notorious heretics and schismatics who up to his time had made havoc of the Church, -- the Donatists and the Arians, for instance, and the maintainers of the iteration of Baptism; and how the great defenders of the Faith were guided in their maintenance of the truth by its observance.
But the perplexing question occurs: Wherefore, in God's providence, were persons, eminent for their attainments and their piety, such as Photinus, Apollinaris, and Nestorius, permitted to fall into heresy? To which the answer is, For the Church's trial. And Vincentius proceeds to show, in the case of each of these, how great a trial to the Church his fall was. This leads him to give an account of their erroneous teaching severally, from which he turns aside for a while to expound the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity as opposed to the heresy of Photinus, and of the Incarnation as opposed to the heresies of Apollinaris and Nestorius, in an exposition remarkable for its clearness and precision. It contains so much in common with the so-called Athanasian Creed, both as to the sentiments and the language, that some have inferred from it, that Vincentius was the author of that Formulary.
Returning from this digression, Vincentius proceeds, after promising to deal with these subjects more fully on a future occasion, to two other very signal instances of heretical defection caused by the disregard of antiquity and universality; those of Origen and Tertullian, of both of whom he draws a vivid picture, contrasting them, such as they were before their fall with what they became afterwards, and enlarging on the grievous injury to the Church generally, and the distressing trial to individuals in particular, consequent upon their defection.
But it will be asked, Is Christian doctrine to remain at a standstill? Is there to be no progress, as in other sciences? Undoubtedly there is to be progress; but it must be real progress, analogous, for instance, to the growth of the human body from infancy to childhood, from childhood to mature age; or to the development of a plant from the seed to the full-grown vegetable or tree; it must be such as the elucidation of what was before obscure, the following out into detail of what was before expressed only in general terms, not the addition of new doctrine, not the rejection of old.
One difficulty which is not unlikely to perplex a simple Christian is the readiness with which heretics appeal to Scripture, following therein the example of their arch-leader, who, in his temptation of our Lord, dared to make use of arms drawn from that armoury. This leads to the question, How are we to ascertain the true sense of Scripture? And, in the answer to it, to a more detailed exposition of the general rule given at the outset.
Scripture, then, must be interpreted in accordance with the tradition of the Catholic Church, our guide being antiquity, universality, consent.
With regard to antiquity, that interpretation must be held to which has been handed down from the earliest times; with regard to universality, that which has always been held, if not by all, at least by the most part, in preference to that which has been held only by a few; with regard to consent, the determination of a General Council on any point will of course be of summary authority, and will hold the first place; next to this, the interpretation which has been held uniformly and persistently by all those Fathers, or by a majority of them, who have lived and died in the communion of the Catholic Church. Accordingly, whatsoever interpretation of Holy Scripture is opposed to an interpretation thus authenticated, even though supported by the authority of one or another individual teacher, however eminent, whether by his position, or his attainments, or his piety, or by all of these together, must be rejected as novel and unsound.
Here the first Commonitory ends; but it ends with a promise of a still further and more detailed inquiry, to be prosecuted in the Commonitory which is to follow, into the way in which the opinions of the ancient Fathers are to be collected, and the rule of faith determined in accordance with them.
Unfortunately that promise, however fulfilled according to the author's intention, has been frustrated to his readers. The second Commonitory, as was said above, was lost, or rather stolen, and all that remains to us is a brief and apparently partial recapitulation of its contents and of the contents of the preceding.
In this Vincentius repeats the rule for ascertaining the Catholic doctrine which he had laid down at the outset, enlarging especially upon the way in which the consent of the Fathers is to be arrived at, and illustrating what he says by the course pursued by the Council of Ephesus in the matter of Nestorius, -- how the Fathers of the Council, instead of resting upon their own judgment, eminent as many of them were, collected together the opinions of the most illustrious of their predecessors, and following their consentient belief, determined the question before them. To this most noteworthy example he adds the authority of two bishops of Rome, Sixtus III., then occupying the Papal Chair, and Celestine, his immediate predecessor, -- the gist of the whole being the confirmation of the rule which it had been his object to enforce throughout the Treatise -- that profane novelties must be rejected, and that faith alone adhered to which the universal Church has held consentiently from the earliest times, Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus.