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Saint of the week

The monk who softened St Augustine’s teaching on grace

St Vincent de Lérins (May 14) tried to find a middle way between Augustine and the Pelagians

By on Thursday, 12 May 2011

The fortress on Île Saint-Honorat, where St Vincent became a monk

The fortress on Île Saint-Honorat, where St Vincent became a monk

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.”