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Everybody's Doing It

St. Vincent of Lerins taught that if a religious practice is carried out 'always, everywhere, and by all,' it's the real thing

It's so easy to get into one of those seemingly endless and insoluble doctrinal debates with someone from another branch of Christianity. You can be at school, at work, or in a friend's living room, when suddenly someone will make a statement like this:



"Well, my pastor doesn't believe in infant baptism." Or, "Liturgical worship is boring; nothing but vain repetition, so we just have hymns and a sermon." You can argue these questions all day and all night, and you won't settle anything with your coworker or friend.


Nonetheless, you can effectively present the Orthodox Church's position on these contentious doctrinal questions, for on them the Church speaks with one voice. But how can you find out what that position is? Where can you turn for help?



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Enter St. Vincent of Lerins. He was born in Gaul (today's France), probably in the late fourth century. St. Vincent was a monk who lived on the island of Lerins, now known as St. Honorat, just off France's southern coast. His best-known book is his "Commonitories," written in about 434 A.D.



St. Vincent is famous for this single brief sentence: "Hold fast that faith which has been believed everywhere, always and by all." Believe it or not, that short phrase gives the Church solid, reliable guidance in interpreting the Bible. It was so useful that it came to be known as "the Vincentian Canon."



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Let's take an example to show how it's applied. We'll start with the ridiculous. You are at the water cooler at work, and you overhear someone say, "I believe if you're truly a Christian, you should eat only raw potatoes and drink only water." You say to yourself, "Um, let me apply the Vincentian Canon here." So you think back through those key words, "..believed everywhere always and by all." Each one of those words is a significant part of the discernment process.



Everywhere

. St. Vincent asks how widely this doctrine is believed in terms of geography. Is it universal, accepted by the Church in all places, or is it believed only here and there?



Always. How old is this belief? Was it present in antiquity, from the Church's very beginning? Or did the doctrine come upon the scene late in time?

By all. What is the consensus of the Church on this teaching? Is there agreement on this point? If there was once disagreement, was it debated in one of the great Ecumenical Councils and settled by the Church Fathers? Or does this opinion fall outside the pale of Christian consensus?

So we now can apply the Vincentian Canon to the "potatoes and water" doctrine. Using the first test, everywhere, you can't find it anywhere! As for the second test, always, the potatoes and water were unknown at any time in Christian history. Regarding consensus, the third test, potatoes and water also draw a blank. Thus, the doctrine of "potatoes and water alone" adds up to nowhere, never and by none!

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