On Faith and Orthodoxy: – St. Vincent de Lerin

Is Faith a gift? Is faith a grace only from God? Can faith be prayed for?The subject arose when I was asked by someone whose son had gone away from his Catholic faith, to pray for this boy as  his devout Mother was deeply saddened by this.

In a subsequent conversation with a friend, who also happened to be a priest (but now of blessed memory) it was explained to me that faith was indeed a gift from God available only by grace.It can be prayed for by the person seeking it, but in the case of another we should be praying God’s will for that person lest our prayers are in conflict with that persons free-will. I remember wondering why God would not want to give this ‘grace’ to everyone.At that time I was not aware of the Augustinian teaching on grace, but fairly recently the subject came to mind again, in similar circumstances.

It was then that I learnt of St. Vincent de Lerin, and that this dilemma was indeed centuries old. Since the Feast of St. Vincent de Lerin was on May 14th, and as he is not perhaps the best known ‘St. Vincent’ I was interested to see that The Catholic Herald had nominated said saint as their ‘Saint of the Week’.

Before you read the Catholic Herald’s brief biography, there is a section of his ‘Commonitory’ which although written in the 5th Century, in the light of recent controversies, rather proves the old adage ‘that there is nothing new under the sun’:

If what is new begins to be mingled with what is old, the profane with the sacred, this disorder will spread universally, till at last the Church will have nothing remaining intact, nothing unchanged, nothing sound, nothing unblemished. Where formerly there was a sanctuary of chaste and undefiled truth, thenceforward there will be a brothel of impious and shameful errors. May God’s mercy avert this wickedness from the minds of His servants; be it rather the frenzy of the ungodly. The Church of Christ, the careful and watchful guardian of the doctrines deposited in her charge, never changes anything in them, never diminishes, never adds, does not cut off what is necessary, does not add what is superfluous, does not lose her own, and does not appropriate what is another’s.

Vincent de Lérins (died c 445) was a nobleman who seems to have been a soldier in his youth. Later he became a monk on Saint-Honorat, one of Les Iles de Lérins, a mile offshore from Cannes.

Vincent belonged to a school of monks in the south of France who sought to moderate the harsh views of St Augustine on grace. Augustine (354-430) had taught that no one can attain faith or salvation without the previous reception of God’s grace.

There could be no question of deserving this gift. The matter of who should or should not be visited with grace has been predestined for all eternity: “No one is added or subtracted.”

Augustine seemed almost to revel in the cruel implications of this view. “Many are not saved,” he explained, “not because they themselves do not will it, but because God does not will it.”

Against Augustine were ranged the Pelagians, who taught that every individual is capable of attaining virtue and salvation through the unaided exercise of the will. This belief, which implicitly denies both Original Sin and the necessity of the sacraments, hardly left a role for the Church.

It was the aim of Vincent de Lérins, along with other theologians such as John Cassian at Marseille, to find a middle way: to soften Augustine’s teaching without denying the necessity of grace.

Known as Semi-Pelagians, they proposed that the human will and divine grace might work together. If, in the cases of St Matthew and St Peter, it seemed that the the action of grace had been dominant in their calling, were there not also suggestions, for instance in the stories of Zacchaeus the tax collector, and of the good thief at the crucifixion, that God sometimes responds to the impulses of good nature?

Vincent de Lérins is chiefly remembered for his Commonitorium, written around 434, in which he proposed a means for distinguishing true from false doctrine.

“In the Catholic Church,” he wrote, “all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all… This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent.”

To Cardinal Newman this test by itself implied too static a theology. Newman agreed that the seeds of doctrine had always been present in the Church’s teaching; he held, however, that it is in the development of those seeds that the full meaning is revealed.

“It is sometimes said,” Newman wrote, “that the stream is clearest nearest the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad and full.”

Sancta Vincente – ora pro nobis

About Gertrude

Sáncte Míchael Archángele, defénde nos in proélio, cóntra nequítiam et insídias diáboli ésto præsídium.
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9 Responses to On Faith and Orthodoxy: – St. Vincent de Lerin

  1. ann says:

    Gertrude–I certainly believe that faith is a gift, and I think one cannot necessarily have it just for the wanting but at the same time why can’t someone’s prayers be efficacious for another that he or she might receive the gift of faith? After we all repeatedly urged to pray “for poor sinners” as Our Lady of Fatima instructed the children and all the rest of us, including the prayer to be said at the end of ever decade of the Rosary. Perhaps I need clarification here for what the Church teaches about this. Is Augustin the last word on this doctrine? I believe (and hope)there are many “good thieves” out there who receive that great gift if only at the last minute. The Eleventh Hour workers if you will. The greatest tragedy to my mind are those who lose their faith and don’t realize they’ve lost it. They just think the rest of us are foolish, naive, medieval, etc. to still believe these things. I see this especially among some of the clergy and religious. I see it among members of my own family. For myself, I will keep praying for all those entrusted to me through kinship and friendship that they come “to a deep and saving knowledge of Christ.”


  2. I dont think God withholds grace. I think everything depends on our receptivity to it, and our capacity for holiness differs to an individual. As someone once likened people to different sized cups which can all be full, but with different amounts of grace. Perhaps St. Augustine was just saying that God does not save all by virtue of Him being perfect Justice. It would not be perfectly just to save all. I doubt it was some sort of shadenfreude on the part of St Augustine. When St Augustine speaks of predestination, I believe he is talking of God’s foreknowledge by virtue of Him being the Alpha and the Omega. We still have free-will. We are not predestined against it. God just happens to know before-hand the beginning and end of all things.


  3. Gertrude says:

    These are interesting answers, and the message of Fatima, ‘to pray for poor sinners’ is very relevant. Do we not pray when praying the rosary, after each decade, O My Jesus forgive us our sins, lead all souls to heaven especially those in most need of thy mercy? So, are we praying for their faith or for the salvation which would require an act of faith?
    I am not an Augustinian scholar, but I favour Irenaeus’s suggestion that God might not save all, though by virtue of Him being perfect justice He could. Then we come back to our free-will. I recall a friend, a devout Catholic and by profession a lawyer, who, on this subject was quite sure that, when confronted by Almighty God to give an account of himself, would ‘throw himself on the mercy of the court’!

    As for praying for those who have ‘lost’ their faith, I am sure you will have heard many times that very often folk will return to the Church and credited a ‘praying mother’ (or other relative) for the rediscovery of their Catholic faith. These would be people though who once had faith, and I suppose would not compare with maybe someone like Stephen Hawkins who declares their is no need for God.

    “He that believeth and is baptized”, said Christ, “shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be condemned” (Mark 16:16); and St. Paul sums up this solemn declaration by saying: “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). The absolute necessity of faith is evident from the following considerations: God is our beginning and our end and has supreme dominion over us, we owe Him, consequently, due service which we express by the term religion. Now true religion is the true Now true religion is the true worship of the true God. But it is not for man to fashion a worship according to his own ideals; none but God can declare to us in what true worship consists, and this declaration constitutes the body of revealed truths, whether natural or supernatural. To these, if we would attain the end for which we came into the world, we are bound to give the assent of faith.

    Perhaps Father Jonathan might have some wisdom to impart? Thank you for your thought provoking answers.


  4. ann says:

    Thank you Gertrude for these clarifications. I think Irenaeus illuminates a crucial point with the notion of receptivity and why is one soul receptive and another is not? I do believe intercessory prayer is the answer. Perhaps it is one’s ancestors in heaven praying, or some relative, a mother perhaps or one’s guardian angel–who knows? Maybe the intercessions from daily Mass for all souls but I think prayer is the essential “factor x” and your comments about a mother’s prayers were encouraging to me since I am a mother praying for my children who have left the Church and their faith. I might add my own mother prayed for me a good number of years before the “gift” was returned and embraced for which I will be eternally grateful to God. I am a walking advertisement for the mercy of God. Anxious to hear what Fr. Jonathan might offer.


  5. toadspittle says:

    “Augustine seemed almost to revel in the cruel implications of this view. “Many are not saved,” he explained, “not because they themselves do not will it, but because God does not will it.” “

    Toad is no theologian (as we can see) and will doubtless live to regret this post, but..
    If the above is true, doesn’t it make Augustine the first Calvinist?


  6. toadspittle says:

    When Toad carefully re-reads this post and the comments, he can hear the deafening din of several square pegs of grace being desperately being pounded into round holes of orthodoxy.

    (But then, his hearing is not what it was.)


  7. manus says:


    Only you can hear them – is it a sign from God?


  8. toadspittle says:

    Manus says …

    Toad, “Only you can hear (the din) – is it a sign from God?”

    You’re supposed to tell Toad that, Manus.


  9. churchmouse says:

    Toadspittle et al. — Apologies for possibly ruining the post but Toadspittle, with whom I rarely agreed when I first commented here a year ago, has it spot on with regard to St Augustine. Yes, he has a special place in Calvinists’ minds, and John Calvin referred to him often in his own writing.

    Nonetheless, Calvinists pray and evangelise to bring as many people to (and back to) Christianity as possible. Some of the lost are temporarily astray, others never were saved, but, as we don’t know for sure, Augustine’s followers from the Reformed faith do what they can to help.

    Blessings for your second year of blogging!


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