Orthodoxy as the “Authority of All”

Icon of John Cassian, courtesy wikimedia commons.
Icon of John Cassian, courtesy wikimedia commons.

John Cassian, who had a profound impact on monasticism thanks to his influence on Benedict, comments on the universality of the orthodox consensus:

“The consensus of all ought of itself to be enough to refute heresy; for the authority of all shows indubitable truth, and a perfect reason results where no one disputes it. Therefore if a [person] seeks to hold opinions contrary to these, we should, at the very outset, condemn his perversity rather than listen to his assertions. For someone who impugns the judgment of all announces his [or her] own condemnation beforehand, and a [person] who disturbs what had been determined by all is not even given a hearing. For when the truth has been established by all [people] once and for all, whatever arises contrary to it is by this very fact to be recognized at once as a falsehood, because it differs from the truth.”

Cassian’s insight is similar to what would later be called the Vincentian Canon, named after its progenitor St. Vincent of Lerins.  He argued, “we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”

The early church, led by the apostles and their successors, saw themselves as in continuity with the teaching of Jesus handed on by the disciples.  They determined to hold “the authority of all,” led by the Holy Spirit, above any individual or regional variations.

In an age where atheist preachers are fighting to keep their pulpits, this insight is more important than ever.  The Christian movement is not subject to my personal whims but is, in Jude’s language, the “faith once delivered,” and the health of the Body is not possible unless we hold fast to that deposit of faith and practice held authoritative everywhere, by everyone, and for all time.

Source: Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: Volume 1, 338-339.

11 thoughts on “Orthodoxy as the “Authority of All””

  1. Well, that is a slap in the face to post- modernity teaching!

    In Christ,

    Tony Moreau Associate Pastor Mt Zion UMC


  2. There’s just one small problem with this position. If indeed orthodoxy is the consensus held by all . . . then heresy would, ipso facto, be impossible. Heresy would be more than error; it would be irrationality given voice, something with which it would be impossible to argue. While not disputing the importance of doctrine . . . arguments like this (which seemed so convincing that Henry Cardinal Newman left the Anglican Church because of their “logic”) are actually self-refuting. Unless, of course, you’re willing to embrace all sorts of doctrines the church has set aside over the centuries . . .

      1. And heresy is not “by definition” anything except whatever the user wishes it to be. A lie? Perhaps, but there are all sorts of lies. A Seminary professor of mine, hardly a flaming liberal in any sense of that word, offered the notion that “heresy” is an error of love: The Arians loved God so much they couldn’t place Christ on the same metaphysical plane; the Waldensians loved Christ so much they preferred the simple life outside the Catholic Church (and current Waldensians in Italy have an established relationship with Methodists in Europe; so are they heretics or are those who persecuted them heretics?). Once I was all keen on calling all sorts of folks heretics. Now, I realize it’s a game, pure and simple, one I choose not to play. Are, say, Mormons “Christian” or not? They certainly think so. Are Jehovah’s Witnesses? Again – they believe themselves to be. Considering the bloody history of hunting heretics, I think it far wiser, and far more in keeping with a Wesleyan understanding of grace, to preach and teach our faith without worrying overmuch if we’re all getting it right. Isn’t that, after all, no different than wanting to make sure we are good enough and work hard enough to win salvation? All our doctrine errs, because we are human and sinful. Our faith is in the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not some words on a page or computer screen.

    1. Really? Name one doctrine held everywhere, always and by all that the “church has set aside. . . .”

  3. Good insights to which I would add this, the Church is called apostolic in the Creeds. This is due to the Church being under the apostolic authority dwelling in the New Testament.

    Thus, we pastors and congregations have an apostolic ministry and message. Otherwise, some other driving force and message will master us as pastors and congregations.

    Therefore, Orthodoxy means viewing the church as apostolic.

  4. I think I’m more conservative than you, Drew, but this argument doesn’t really do much for me. As much as the Vincential Canon has a nice ring to it, it’s just not true / tenable if you acknowledge heretics as real people with sincere opinions. Because then, by definition, orthodoxy has not been believed by “all.” The fact is there have been many people teaching in the name of Christ, and in connection with Christian churches, many things which do not comport with orthodoxy. So we need a better definition other than “what everyone has always taught.” As wary as I usually am of this phrase, to dismiss heretics in this way would be “denying their personhood” in a real sense. You are defining “all” by certain parameters which are unstated but need to be stated.

    Because I subscribe to the historic Christian faith and I do believe that faith has specific, identifiable content, I do believe it is sometimes necessary to say to someone: “Your teaching or belief is inconsistent with apostolic, or historic, or creedal, or Scriptural Christianity; what you are espousing is not rightly called Christianity.” But I don’t think it’s helpful to say “You are wrong because you are disagreeing with everyone who counts for anything.” And the latter is how this argument reads to a great many in our present cultural context.

    That said, I believe both John Cassian and Vincent of Lerins made fair points in their day. They just need more translation for us to make that point in a more precise way today.

  5. James,

    I think the Vincentian/Cassian definition of orthodoxy relies, much like Calvinism, on the definition of ‘all.’ Specifically, the fact that in Greek, the word we translate as ‘all’ can mean both ‘everyone/everything’ and ‘some of every kind.’ The emphasis with the Vincentian canon and the Cassian teaching is on orthodoxy being more than just a regional variation. The key part of the definition is that orthodoxy is known in every part of the Church, whereas heresy is distinctly regional or individual.

  6. If orthodoxy is “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all” then we Methodists are heretics. For 1800+ (give or take) years, and even to this day with Catholics, Orthodox, and many Protestant denominations, women were/are not allowed to lead congregations or teach men. That is the “orthodox” view and there is plenty of Biblical support for the position. Just because something is “believed everywhere, always and by all” doesn’t make it right. Anyway, that’s my two cents.

  7. Drew, as I read Pelikan (have read more volume 2 — Eastern tradition — than V1) I sense doctrine unfolding as thinkers in the early church pondered, argued, thought more, met. You don’t mean to say that any sort of Christian orthodoxy sprang — kaboom — from a puff of smoke and all at once…right?

    I read that development as a troubling confrontation between people educated in Greek philosophy forced to make sense — logical sense — of elements in scripture. The Trinity is a strange notion…is Jesus the Son of God but the same as God? How does that work? Through the Holy Spirit (note: lucky youngsters with your modern translations of “spirit” rather than the Holy Ghost!)…OK, but are we tri-theists? How do we maintain monotheism?

    Why is everything about love (agape, or ahava, I assume) in Paul? Why such an emphasis on loyalty in the Old Testament but on agape in Paul and the Epistles of John?

    So…as I have read Pelikan 1 and 2, as well as Byzantine history (yikes! Monotheletism!), it looks like orthodoxy shifts over time. That makes sense…nothing living stays fixed and changeless, to paraphrase Dewey. Maybe not huge changes, but enough that John Cotton and the founders of New England worried about different problems (predestination, a limited number of the elect, etc) than Sir Thomas More or St John Chrysostom…to pick a random pair. To pick a Methodist: Borden Bowne, in his “Metaphysics”, was more concerned with stopping cosmologists and philosophers from attempting to prove or disprove the existence of God, or of ultimate meaning, or the original creation of everything (Bowne pre-dates discussion of “the big bang” and what might have been before the big-bang).

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