July 19, 2012

Pagan Saints

by Nathan Busenitz

zeus_and_peter_statuesAs a church history professor, I am sometimes asked how certain practices developed in church history. For example: When did the Roman Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) emphasis on praying to saints and venerating relics and icons begin?

A somewhat obscure, but extremely helpful, book by John Calvin answers that question directly.

In his work, A Treatise on Relics, Calvin utilizes his extensive knowledge of church history to demonstrate that prayers to the saints, prayers for the dead, the veneration of relics, the lighting of candles (in homage to the saints), and the veneration of icons are all rooted in Roman paganism. Such practices infiltrated the Christian church after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century.

Here is an excerpt from Calvin’s work that summarizes his thesis:

Hero-worship is innate to human nature, and it is founded on some of our noblest feelings, — gratitude, love, and admiration, — but which, like all other feelings, when uncontrolled by principle and reason, may easily degenerate into the wildest exaggerations, and lead to most dangerous consequences. It was by such an exaggeration of these noble feelings that [Roman] Paganism filled the Olympus with gods and demigods, — elevating to this rank men who have often deserved the gratitude of their fellow-creatures, by some signal services rendered to the community, or their admiration, by having performed some deeds which required a more than usual degree of mental and physical powers.

The same cause obtained for the Christian martyrs the gratitude and admiration of their fellow-Christians, and finally converted them into a kind of demigods. This was more particularly the case when the church began to be corrupted by her compromise with Paganism [during the fourth and fifth-centuries], which having been baptized without being converted, rapidly introduced into the Christian church, not only many of its rites and ceremonies, but even its polytheism, with this difference, that the divinities of Greece and Rome were replaced by Christian saints, many of whom received the offices of their Pagan predecessors.

The church in the beginning tolerated these abuses, as a temporary evil, but was afterwards unable to remove them; and they became so strong, particularly during the prevailing ignorance of the middle ages, that the church ended up legalizing, through her decrees, that at which she did nothing but wink at first.

In a footnote, Calvin gives specific examples of how Christians saints simply became substitutes for pagan deities.

Thus St. Anthony of Padua restores, like Mercury, stolen property; St. Hubert, like Diana, is the patron of sportsmen; St. Cosmas, like Esculapius, that of physicians, etc. In fact, almost every profession and trade, as well as every place, have their especial patron saint, who, like the tutelary divinity of the Pagans, receives particular hours from his or her protégés.

You can read the entire work on Google Books.

Calvin’s treatment includes a historical overview, quotes from the church fathers, and even citations from sixteenth-century Roman Catholic scholars. The result is an air-tight case for the true origin of many Catholic practices.

Calvin’s conclusion is that these practices are nothing more than idolatrous superstitions, rooted in ancient Roman paganism. Even today, five centuries later, his work still serves as a necessary warning to those who persist in such idolatry. Hence his concluding sentence: “Now, those who fall into this error must do so willingly, as no one can from henceforth plead ignorance on the subject as their excuse.”

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Justin Erickson

    Thanks Nate! Very helpful. I wonder if you know the name of the book Dr. MacArthur has referenced on the Roman Catholic Church’s hermeneutics especially the NT in light of the OT?

  • Jean

    I would say that I’m shocked by what I’ve read here but then I’d be lying. I really believe that the core of all this mess started with ‘Nimrod’, and was carried forth by even more corrupt minded folks. Sadly, the Catholic Church still doesn’t feel as if they’re doing anything wrong, when the Word of God clearly states by ‘their actions’ and that Word that they are. Thanks for posting this much needed info here anyway though.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Well, this posting should make friends and influence people in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.   If I’m not mistaken, they already have a high regard for John Calvin.

  • ccvan

    I’ve always wondered how Catholics got these beliefs in the saints. This was a very interesting post, thanks for sharing this little bit of history.

  • Thanks for this post. The truth you share here is undeniable by anyone who studies history. If you read things by people like Gregory of Tours who lived in Merovingian Gaul in the years after the fall of the western Roman Empire you see the prominence of St. Martin, as one example. Though dead, miracles and protection are attributed to him and bad things happen to people who cross him. The saints were seen as protectors of churches and the presence of the saint was often attached to the presence of a relic in the local church. Paul Freedman of Yale University says “The important thing is to realize that the conception of the saint is not merely that of a pious respect, but of fear of a living presence. Somebody who, although dead, is not dead in the normal understanding of the word ‘dead’. The bishops and monks mobilize a kind of locus of sacred power (through the saints).” None of this can be gotten from the Bible. It’s clearly a transfer of ideas from the pantheon of pagan gods to a new “Christianized” pantheon of saints.

    • Greg The Explorer

      I disagree, as one who grew up Roman Catholic and has read much of late, I see nothing like this supposed dead/undead pious zombie worship you seem to see. The Saints are particular people who by their life have shown themselves people to be emulated, respected and learnt from. You show a lack of understanding of Catholic doctrine, and it would seem that you allow anti-catholic bias to cloud your judgement on what you do see.

      • That may well be the case now Greg, but we’re talking about the origin of the practice, which history tells us a great deal about. However, I’ve known enough Roman Catholics to know that saints are prayed to and their favor is still sought today, a practice foreign to scripture.

      • MarkO

        If I may speak to this also or actually let Scripture itself speak to this matter of praying to saints to intercede for us: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”.  Prayer is a form of worship. We should not worship or venerate anyone other than God Himself.

  • MarkO

    on this point Eastern Orthodox wouldn’t fair much better. I’m wondering if there can be a connection made between animistic cultures who worship dead ancestors and these “civilized” practices of venerating saints.

  • Bex

    There but for the grace of God go I… Let’s face it, if the Lord tarries, in another hundred years with the way things are going and the cults of celebrity pastors we may be having something similar within Protestanism

  • Malcolm Cunningham

    Thank you. Without giving it much thought before asking this question, I wonder what ‘pagan’ practices we are still introducing in worship today?

  • Birdy

    Even though we can pray to Jesus ourselves, we all ask other people to pray for us and the Saints are not dead, but in an even better position to intercede for us. And the Church in history believed this, including our favorite St. Augustine – http://www.catholic.com/tracts/the-intercession-of-the-saints

    • elainebitt

      Where in the bible says that dead (gone from this earth) people intercede for us? thanks.

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