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?



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."



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!

Now let's turn to a more common topic of debate: infant baptism. Someone has called baptism "the waters that divide." There can be as many views on the subject as there are Christians in the room.

The belief and practice of the Orthodox Church is that we bring even our youngest members to be joined to Christ in holy baptism, and so they can be brought up in "the nurture and admonition of the Lord" in our homes and in the Church. If at all possible we baptize by full immersion, though sprinkling the baby with water may be permissible for health or other considerations.

There is a sound scriptural argument for infant baptism in Luke 18:15-17 "Then they also brought infants to Him that He might touch them; but when His disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to Him and said, `Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.'"

Furthermore, the book of Acts reports that the centurion Cornelius and the jailer of St. Paul at Philippi were baptized along with their households. Presumably, a "household" would include children, and there's no indication that children were excluded in either case. Finally, a proponent of infant baptism might point out that baptism is a New Testament fulfillment of the Old Testament practice of circumcision as initiation into the people of God, which certainly was performed on infants, on the eighth day after birth. (Come to think of it, you don't hear of men in the Old Testament arguing for adult circumcision instead!)

Proponents of adult or "believers'" baptism, on the other hand, insist that people must first come to faith in Christ before they are baptized. This, of course, would rule out the baptism of infants. Believers' baptism people might point to the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts, noting that the eunuch first believed in Christ and then was baptized. They might also turn to Mark 16:16, where Jesus says, "He who believes and is baptized will be saved."

How can we say whose interpretation of Scripture is correct? St. Vincent specializes in dilemmas such as this, where Bible-believing Christians can be found on both sides of an issue. For St. Vincent to truly be of help, however, the parties involved should agree up front that they will be open to what they find - even if they don't like it!

So let's take the test:

Infant baptism passes the universality test. In every known place where the Gospel spread, the Church baptized her infants. It was done in East and West--and likely north and south as well.

It also passes the antiquity test. Early Christian writers seemed to view infant baptism as a foregone conclusion. The children of their fellow-Christians were routinely baptized. By contrast, while infant baptism is ancient, restricting baptism to those who have made an adult confession of faith appears only after the Reformation. Obviously, non-Christian adults in ancient times who came to Christ were baptized but adulthood wasn't a requirement.

Finally, infant baptism passes the consensus test. The phrase "everybody's doing it" would certainly be true. The consensus of the historic church is incredibly strong, for infant baptism was the accepted norm. Even today, a conservative estimate would be that 80% of Christians baptize babies without waiting for them to grow up.

So tomorrow at work, when your evangelical friend criticizes the office of bishop, weekly communion, liturgy versus spontaneity in worship--or whatever--you've got a new friend to guide you in discerning how we know what the faith really teaches: St. Vincent of Lerins.

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