The Sign of the Cross and Other Early Christian Traditions

I often run across historical claims that make me angry, especially from Roman Catholics. Because they assume so much they are constantly reinterpreting early church history into their own viewpoint, even when their viewpoint is ludicrous.

Worse, when I point it out to them, they are completely blind to it. They can’t see anything except their own view.

An example is apostolic succession. Even though it’s blatantly obvious that their interpretation of passages in Irenaeus and Tertullian is wrong, not only can I not convince them, I can’t even get them to understand what I’m saying.

Today, however, I read a blog that addresses a Roman Catholic practice, and his history is (sort of) accurate.

The Sign of the Cross

Before we get to early church traditions, the really interesting point he made is in answer to the question, “Why don’t most Protestants make the sign of the cross?”

He writes:

Further, we are talking about the sign of the CROSS. Protestants trace the cross on their Bibles, their clothing, their churches, their pews, and in dozens of other places. Why do they not trace it on themselves?

Excellent point.

However, “why not?” is not a good enough reason to do something. There’s some history worth looking at:

The Sign of the Cross in Early Church Tradition

Back in A.D. 200, a Christian named Tertullian wrote:

At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign [i.e., of the cross]. (De Corona 3)

Tertullian argues that such traditions were ancient, even in his time, and thus authoritative. They came from somewhere, he says, and that somewhere, he says, is tradition.

Tradition is held as meaningless among Protestants, but to the early Christians, it mattered. One sort of tradition mattered, anyway: that which was apostolic.

This is Scriptural. Paul three times says that we are to follow the traditions he handed down. One of those times he specifically includes oral tradition (2 Thess. 2:15; the other two are 1 Cor. 11:2 and 2 Thess. 3:6).

In another place, he tells Timothy to “commit” to faithful men the things that he’d taught Timothy (2 Tim. 2:2).

Clearly, Paul meant for his traditions to be held onto.

The Traditions of God vs. the Traditions of Men

Yes, the Scriptures speak against the traditions of men. Jesus said clearly that they can render the commandments of God ineffective (Matt. 15:6).

However, not all traditions are of men. Why did Paul tell the Corinthians and Thessalonians to hold fast to his traditions? In 1 Cor. 14:37, he told the Corinthians that the things he writes to them are the commandments of Christ. In 1 Thess. 2:13 he says that his entire message to them is the message of God.

The traditions of the apostles are not to be dismissed as things that render the commands of God ineffective. They are to be held to as the commands of God.

This, according to the Scriptures and the early church, is true even if those traditions are handed down to us through other men (Paul to Timothy to faithful men to us).

Finding Apostolic Tradition

I’m not an advocate of finding the origin of every modern tradition in order to determine if it’s apostolic. I have trouble believing it’s all that important whether we’re tracing the sign of the cross on our forehead.

The writer of the blog I mentioned earlier thinks it’s important. He writes:

The early church fathers attest that miraculous healings frequently occurred when the sign was traced over someone who was sick.

I don’t know what “early” church fathers he’s talking about. I’ve read pretty much everything Christian that’s been written before A.D. 225, and I don’t remember one mention of the sign of the cross producing miraculous healings. I’m sure, though, that in the superstitious, idolatrous atmosphere of the 4th century there were many such testimonies, along with testimonies of healing through splinters of the cross and martyrs’ bones.

There are other things, though, that are much more important than the sign of the cross. In the same passage quoted above, Tertullian mentions this early church practice:

I shall begin with baptism: When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel. Then when we are taken up [translator’s note says this means as new-born children], we taste first of all a mixture of milk and honey, and from that day we refrain from the daily bath for a whole week.

Immersed three times? Where did this practice come from?

It’s mentioned in The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, a document which is likely much earlier than Tertullian. Perhaps some of the questions we argue about could be resolved if we paid some attention to those who had opportunity to know what the apostles taught on certain matters.

About paulfpavao

I am a church historian and pastor, but I do occasionally play APBA baseball for fun.
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