IT seems, then, that we have to deal with a case something like the following: Certain doctrines come to us, professing to be Apostolic, and possessed of such high antiquity that, though we are only able to assign the date of their formal establishment to the fourth, or the fifth, or the eighth, or the thirteenth century, as it may happen, yet their substance may, for what appears, be coeval with the Apostles, and be expressed or implied in texts of Scripture. Further, these existing doctrines are universally considered, without any question, in each age to be the echo of the doctrines of the times immediately preceding them, and thus are continually thrown back to a date indefinitely early, even though their ultimate junction with the Apostolic Creed be out of sight and unascertainable. Moreover, they are confessed to form one body one with another, so that to reject one is to disparage the rest; and they include within the range of their system even those primary articles of faith, as the Incarnation, which many an impugner of the said doctrinal system, as a system, professes to accept, and which, do what he will, he cannot intelligibly separate, whether in point of evidence or of internal character, from others which he disavows. Further, these doctrines occupy the whole field of theology, and leave nothing to be supplied, except in detail, by any other system; while, in matter of fact, no rival system is forthcoming, so that we have to choose between this theology and none at all.
Moreover, this theology alone makes provision for that guidance of opinion and conduct, which seems externally to be the special aim of Revelation; and fulfils the promises of Scripture, by adapting itself to the various problems of thought and practice which meet us in life. And, further, it is the nearest approach, to say the least, to the religious sentiment, and what is called ethos, of the early Church, nay, to that of the Apostles and Prophets; for all will agree so far as this, that Elijah, Jeremiah, the Baptist, and St. Paul are in their history and mode of life (I do not speak of measures of grace, no, nor of doctrine and conduct, for these are the points in dispute, but) in what is external and meets the eye (and this is no slight resemblance when things are viewed as a whole and from a distance),—these saintly and heroic men, I say, are more like a Dominican preacher, or a Jesuit missionary, or a Carmelite friar, more like St. Toribio, or St. Vincent Ferrer, or St. Francis Xavier, or St. Alphonso Liguori, than to any individuals, or to any classes of men, that can be found in other communions. And then, in addition, there is the high antecedent probability that Providence would watch over His own work, and would direct and ratify those developments of doctrine which were inevitable.
If this is, on the whole, a true view of the general shape under which the existing body of developments, commonly called Catholic, present themselves before us, antecedently to our looking into the particular evidence on which they stand, I think we shall be at no loss to determine what both logical truth and duty prescribe to us as to our reception of them. It is very little to say that we should treat them as we are accustomed to treat other alleged facts and truths and the evidence for them, such as come to us with a fair presumption in their favour. Such are of every day's occurrence; and what is our behaviour towards them?
We meet them, not with suspicion and criticism, but with a frank confidence. We do not in the first instance exercise our reason upon opinions which are received, but our faith. We do not begin with doubting; we take them on trust, and we put them on trial, and that, not of set purpose, but spontaneously. We prove them by using them, by applying them to the subject-matter, or the evidence, or the body of circumstances, to which they belong, as if they gave it its interpretation or its colour as a matter of course; and only when they fail, in the event, in illustrating phenomena or harmonizing facts, do we discover that we must reject the doctrines or the statements which we had in the first instance taken for granted. Again, we take the evidence for them, whatever it be, as a whole, as forming a combined proof; and we interpret what is obscure in separate portions by such portions as are clear. Moreover, we bear with these in proportion to the strength of the antecedent probability in their favour, we are patient with difficulties in their application, with apparent objections to them drawn from other matters of fact, deficiency in their comprehensiveness, or want of neatness in their working, provided their claims on our attention are considerable.