Sunday, 1 May 2011

The Argument From Antiquity As it Pertains to Relics

The argument from antiquity (argumentum ad antiquitatem)'ve all probably heard it or been on the receiving end of it in religious discussions - the church has always believed this/done it this way, therefore it is right and true! A commenter on my recent post on relics suggested that because the church had always venerated relics, the practice was legitimate, and it was up to objectors - like me! - to prove otherwise. However, we don't need to go down the evidentiary path to dispose of the argument for relics from the supposed antiquity of their veneration. The argument from antiquity has a superficial appeal, particularly because most Christians have an innate respect for tradition; indeed, even Lutheranism is known as 'the conservative Reformation' because it kept so much of the liturgical and theological tradition of Western medieval Christianity intact (how the Lutheran confessors measured and sifted tradition is a subject for another post). But in actuality the appeal to antiquity is an informal logical fallacy which proves nothing and should not be used in argumentation.

There are two difficulties with it as it relates to the question of relics: 1) the empirical difficulty of proving the antiquity and universality of the veneration of relics (the New Testament, which all parties to the discussion agree is authoritative, does not mention the practice, so we may reasonably assume that at some point it was an innovation, just as was the veneration of images - this is actually where the burden of proof enters in to this discussion); and 2) the logical difficulty that the antiquity of a practice simply does not prove its truth or goodness (otherwise we might all still happily be sacrificing our children to Molech!). Even the church fathers themselves knew to avoid this fallacy; as Cyprian once wrote, "custom without truth is simply the antiquity of error".

Without institution by the Lord, or apostolic authorisation (and it is really differences in how dominical and apostolic authority are conceived which are behind this discussion), churches which use relics as 'sacramentals' and display them or carry them about for the purpose of veneration, or who claim to heal and bless by them are simply arrogating to themselves an authority which belongs to God alone. God has given the church the means of proclaiming and distributing his grace - his Word, the rite of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, all clearly attested to in scripture. Are they incapable of effecting grace and salvation, that the church should feel the need to invent more?


Stephen K said...

Pastor Mark, I’ve been following the discussion on relics. The debate seems to have two heads: (1) whether it is theologically authorised and meaningful? (2) whether it is good, or not? Here are my thoughts for the Manse’s consideration.

The first head seems to be running along denominational lines: for those whose governing rule is the Scriptures of the New Testament, the answer is no because it does not appear to be a practice either during or after Jesus’ life. For those relying on the centrality and primacy of an ongoing magisterial tradition of interpretation, the answer is yes because it is authorised magisterially. I’m guessing this will remain disputed. Your challenge that veneration of relics is in any case unnecessary in the essential scheme of grace sounds theoretically correct, but this seems to me to be one of those areas within religious practice where natural human emotionalism - which I think we all share towards different things - plays its part. Thus I’m inclined to the view that it is indeed a natural practice.

[By the way, there are two types of veneration as far as I can see: (a) reverence towards the relic because it belonged to a holy person; (b) prayer to the saint of the relic. They can theoretically remain separate, but general practice invariably is that (a) leads to or is accompanied by (b)]

Whether it is a practice that should be discouraged - rather than made an offence - is a separate question. I think it’s valid to suggest that Reformed Christianity, insofar as it places central reliance on the Word, is in this respect more intellectual than emotional, and that by contrast Catholicism retains practices present in what used to be called pagan religions, and which, at least to some outsiders, appear bordering on polytheism. I myself confess to having grown up with many such devotional practices: but now I honestly regard them with some distaste. The distaste is rooted in my rejection of (b), that is, the dead persons’ intercessory role or power. If an Orthodox or Catholic were to object here that there is no question of any power, but power resides solely in God, then this merely supports my thesis. For if they have no intercessory power then it is entirely vain to pray to them in this way.

Thus I find myself examining the second head of the debate, whether it is a good practice or not. I can’t honestly insist that it necessarily leads to bad spiritual effects for indeed many people use relics as devotional and spiritual aids to holiness, and this is independent of the fact that it might be unnecessary in a strict sense, unprescribed by the earliest Christian understanding, and highly conducive to, at worst, rank superstition, and at best, exotic variants of belief in some of its practitioners.

Lvka said...

the New Testament, which all parties to the discussion agree is authoritative, does not mention the practice

So Acts 19:11-12 isn't part of the New Testament. Interesting.

so we may reasonably assume that at some point it was an innovation, just as was the veneration of images

So Hebrews 9:5 isn't part of the New Testament either: also very interesting.

And the books of Exodus, Numbers, Kings, and Chronicles are among the OT apocrypha, right?

Tony Bartel said...

Dear Pastor Mark,

I have responded to most of what you say here at the previous post on relics.

I agree that that the deeper issue is one of authority. As you are aware, those in the Orthodox and Catholic churches do not accept the position of Sola Scriptura. Indeed, it is difficult for us to see how one can arrive at authoritative teaching from a Sola Scriptura position. There are a variety of different position held on doctrinal matters by Christians who hold that the Scriptures alone are the sole source of Christian teaching.

The Catholic and Orthodox Churches accept the authority of the Scriptures, but not that the Scriptures can be understood alone apart from the Tradition of the Church.

The antiquity of a practice is not in and of itself a guarantee of its truth. However, if the Church is the pillar of truth, and if we can point to widespread acceptance of a practice from ancient times by the Church universal, then the presumption of truth is with the ancient practice. The burden is on those who wish to reject it. I do not understand how this can be an informal logical fallacy.

A problem with rejecting the appeal to antiquity and the consensus of the early Church is that is difficult to justify why the Scriptures should have authority in the Church without such an appeal. Why should I receive the canonical New Testament books and not others? How do I know that Luke's Gospel is a faithful presentation of the life of Christ but the gnostic Gospel of Thomas is not? Why should I bother with the Pastoral Epistles when modern scholarly opinion is that they were not written by Saint Paul? Why not take the New Testament Books I don't like and put them in a separate section to denote them as something less than the others? To answer these questions and others like them about the authority of Scripture it is necessary to start appealing to the practice and teaching of the early Church. That is, to establish the authority of the Scriptures, it is necessary to appeal to sources outside of the Scriptures. And at this point Sola Scriptura crumbles.

I must add that although I have been a student of Eastern theology for many years, I have only been in the Orthodox Church for the past three years. I hope and pray that I have correctly represented what the Church teaches, but I am always willing to be corrected.

Lest your readers think that the Orthodox do not honour the Scriptures, I am leading a Bible study group in my parish with the blessing and support of my parish priest.

Kind regards.

Tony Bartel

Anonymous said...

"Everything that does not come from faith is sin." (Romans 14:23). "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Romans 10:17). Luther was right when he said, God's word establishes articles of faith. (SA II 15). What can be truly trustworthy other than God's word? If God makes a promise of temporal physical healing regarding a handkerchief, then I am all for it. But where is the promise? Trusting in what God has not promised is unwise.

Moreover, what we really need is not mere temporary physical healing that leads to only a few more years on earth; but rather we need the eternal spiritual healing that leads to eternal life. This God has given us abundantly in the waters of baptism and his physical body and blood. Those are the most important gifts. Those are the most important promises, and those promises are clear. Clear promises create true faith.


Anonymous said...


Why should anyone teach the flock to chase around after handkerchiefs and mythical promises of temporal healing, when we have better promises: verified universal promises from God to give real gifts that create and sustain real faith unto life everlasting? And so even amongst the cloud of witnesses, we fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. (Hebrews 12:2).


Pr Mark Henderson said...


You wrote, "I can’t honestly insist that it necessarily leads to bad spiritual effects for indeed many people use relics as devotional and spiritual aids to holiness". This goes directly to the question of authority. I would suggest that the use of relics in this manner is more than simply a devotional aid, they have become 'sacramentals', that is, conduits of God's grace and holiness. That is a matter of worship or "divine service" (God's service to us) as we Lutherans prefer to call it. It's more than saying "that picture helps me to focus my prayers", or "that crucifix reminds me of the sacrifice of Christ", because grace is claimed to emanate from the object. Because this is claimed/done without divine authorisation, it is a self-chosen form of worship, which is forbidden in scripture.

As a further explanatory note, I should add that Lutherans do not say that everything that is done in divine service must have explicit Biblical warrant - that is more the Calvinist or Purtian position - there is room for things that are not forbidden but not commandeed either, but which are conducive to worship, such as vestments, liturgical actions, stained glass, etc. But we don't claim that divine grace attaches to these, that's the difference. God has chosen the means of grace and given them to the church, we need no others.

Pr Mark Henderson said...


Respectfully, the question goes to divine authority and not just sola scriptura. When man arrogates to himself the right to invent means of grace without divine authorisation, he is usurping the role of God - "in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the traditions of men".

I would not presume to say that the Orthodox faithful do not honour the scriptures. I'm glad to hear you are cionducting a Bible study in your Orthodox congregation. I have a copy of the Orthodox Study Bible and have found it helpful.

Pr Mark Henderson said...


Thanks - my thoughts too. This also applies to Pentecostals and Evangelicals, of course, who have 'sacramentals' of their own. I think this is one time at least we can agree with John Calvin - the human heart is an idol factory!

Tony Bartel said...

Dear Pastor Mark,

Do you really believe that the Orthodox believe that they have ursurped the role of God?

Instead, they find divine authority for what they do in the Tradition of the Church which they believe is divinely inspired. The veneration of relics (and icons for that matter) is part of the Tradition.

The question, then is what do you find authoritative?

Kind regards,

Tony Bartel

Pr Mark Henderson said...


The Word of God is authoritative.

At the risk of repeating myself, a sacramental act performed by the church requires divine authorisation. The church is not at liberty to invent rites and ceremonies that it then claims convey grace. Authorisation is key, which is why the Gospels and Epistles are at pains to provide such authorisation from the Lord for the acts of the ministry of the church. This is so much a part of the 'warp and woof' of Biblical theology that I find it that it is indisputable.

But even on the purely human cultural level of ritual, you must know that authority is crucial to effective ritual - the ritual must be authorised and it must be enacted by someone authorised to enact it in order to be regarded as valid and efficacious.

In the Christian context, that authorisation comes from the Holy Trinity. No rite or custom, no matter how pious and ancient, dare be said to convey God's grace without God's Word.

Tony Bartel said...

Dear Pastor Mark,

Thank you for answering my question although you did not post my last comment.

An Orthodox view would be that the Tradition is authoritative and Scriptures are the core, although not the sole, part of the Tradition.

Therefore, we would not consider that we act without divine authority. I am sorry if you have misunderstood and thought that we would do anything which we consider lacked such authority.

Kind regards,

Tony Bartel

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Dear Tony,

I haven't received any other comments from you. I'll check to be sure, but just in case I invite you to submit that comment again. I always post comments unless they are abusive.

I'm not accusing the Orthodox of bad faith, just of bad doctrine

We've both staked our lives on the authority question, shall we just say that the dilemma will be resolved in heaven, and pray that we both get there?

Kind regards!