On the Appeal to Antiquity in Matters of Religion
Jeremiah 6:16
Thus said the LORD, Stand you in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein…

The appeal to antiquity is worth your closest observation, as one which may as well be made in our own days as in those of the prophet Jeremiah. The paths which are to be sought for are "the old paths," and it is their age which seems represented as giving them safety. Now it were quite idle to assert that this is in all cases a sound view, or that it will necessarily hold good when applied to the businesses and sciences of life. If we attempted, for example, to introduce into natural philosophy, the principle that the old paths are the best, we should only be urging men to travel back to a broad waste of ignorance, and to settle themselves once more in the crudest and most erroneous of opinions. We are quite ready with the like admission, in matters of civil polity. We hold unreservedly that nothing human can come to its perfection at once; and that whilst there are certain fundamental principles which can never be swerved from with safety, the determination of the best form of government for a community demands many successive experiments; so that one generation is not to hand down its institutions to the next, as not to be violated because not to be improved. The legacy of the fathers should be their experience, and that experience should be carried by the children as a new element into their political competitions. But the principle which applies not to sciences or governments may be applicable, without reservation, to religion. Religious truth is matter of revelation, and not therefore left to be searched out and determined by successive experiments; whereas truth of any other description is only to be come at by painful investigation; and until that investigation has been carried to the farthest possible limit, we have no right to claim such a fixedness for our positions, that those who come after us must receive them as irreversible. Yet we would not have it thought, that even in matters of religion, we yield unqualified submission to the voice of antiquity. We hold that there is room for discovery, strictly and properly so called in theology, as well as in astronomy or chemistry. We ourselves must necessarily be more advantageously circumstanced than any of our fathers, when the matter in question is the fulfilment of prophecy. Prophecy is of course nothing but anticipated history; and the further on, therefore, we live, in the march of those occurrences which are to make up the story of our globe and its tenants, the more power have we to find the foretold in the fulfilled, and thus to lessen the amount of unaccomplished prediction. Now when this exception has been made, we do not hesitate to apply our text to the disclosures of revelation, and to assert that in all disputes upon doctrines, and in all debates upon creeds, it is the part of wise men to appeal to antiquity.

1. When we speak of antiquity, we refer to Christianity in its young days, whilst the Church was still warm with her first love, and her teachers were but little removed from those who had held intercourse with Christ and His apostles. It is in this manner, for example, that we introduce the authority of antiquity into the question of infant baptism. Unless apostles baptised infants, and unless they taught that infants were to be received into the Church, it seems well-nigh incredible that those who lived near their times, and must have obtained instruction almost from their very lips, should have adopted the custom of infant baptism. We would advance another illustration of the worth of the witness of antiquity, and we fetch it from a fundamental matter of doctrine. We believe, undoubtedly, that the Bible is adapted to all ages of the world and all ranks of society; and that the Spirit which indited it, is as ready now, as in the early days of Christianity, to act as its interpreter and open up its truths. We are assured, therefore, that the sublime doctrine of the Trinity, if it, indeed, be contained in the Word of inspiration, will be made known to every prayerful and diligent student; and that there will need no acquaintance with the creeds or the commentaries of primitive Christians, in order to the apprehending of this grand discovery of the nature of Godhead. But, at the same time, when all kinds of opinions are broached, diametrically at variance with the doctrine of the Trinity, and men labour to devise and support interpretations of Scripture which shall quite overthrow this foundation stone of Christianity, we count it of no mean worth, that in writings which have come down to us from days just succeeding the apostolic, we can find the Trinity in unity as broadly asserted, and as clearly defined, as in any of the treatises which now professedly undertake its defence. Now you will understand, from these instances, the exact use of antiquity, in matters of religion; and the sense in which it may fairly be expected that the old paths are the right. "Where was your religion till Luther arose?" is the question broached in every dispute between the Romish Church and the Reformed. The Romish Church prides itself on being the old Church, and reproaches the Reformed with being the new. And we admit, in all frankness, that if the Romish Church made good its pretensions — if it could win for itself the praise of antiquity, and fix fairly on the Protestant newness, Popery would gain an almost unassailable position; for we are inclined to hold it as little less than an axiom in religion, that the oldest Christianity is the best. But we are quite ready to meet the Roman Catholic on the ground of antiquity; and to decide the goodness by deciding the oldness of our paths. We contend, that whatever is held in common by the two Churches may be proved from Scripture, and shown to have been maintained by the earliest Christians; but that everything received by the Romish and rejected by the Protestant, can neither be substantiated by the Bible, nor sanctioned by the practice of the primitive Church.

2. There is not one amongst you, who ought not to know something of this appeal to antiquity. We may make the like assertion in regard to the Christian Sabbath. If asked for our authority for keeping holy the first day of the week, in place of the seventh, you cannot produce a direct scriptural command; but we are in possession of such clear proof, that the apostles and their immediate successors made the first day their Sabbath, that we may claim to the observance all the force of Divine institution. This, however, we must all see, is employing the practice of antiquity where we have not a distinct precept of Scripture; in other words, we prove the right paths by proving the old paths. We are not, indeed, able to appeal to primitive Christians, and to show you this union of Church or State as being sanctioned by apostolical practice. Of course, until the rulers of the kingdom embraced the faith of Christ (and this was not of early occurrence), Christianity could not become established. But, as Milner observes, from the earliest ages of patriarchal government, when holy men were favoured with a Divine revelation, governors taught the true religion, and did not permit their subjects to propagate atheism, idolatry, or false religion. There was, as under the Jewish constitution, an unquestionable authority which the magistrates possessed in ecclesiastical regulations: so that union between Church and State, in place of being novel, can be traced up almost from the beginning of the world.

(H. Melvill, B. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein.

WEB: Thus says Yahweh, "Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, 'Where is the good way?' and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But they said, 'We will not walk in it.'

Novelty in Religion Exploded
Top of Page
Top of Page