Vol. 3, Chapter VII – The Exaltation of the Virgin. Mariology


Canisius (R.C.): De Maria Virgine libri quinque. Ingolst. 1577. Lamberertini (R.C.): Comment. dum De J. Christi, matrisque ejus festis. Patav. 1751. Perrone (R.C.): De Immaculata B. V. Mariae conceptu. Rom. 1848. (In defence of the new papal dogma of the sinless conception of Mary.) F. W. Genthe: Die Jungfrau Maria, ihre Evangelien u. ihre Wunder. Halle, 1852. Comp. also the elaborate article, “Maria, Mutter des Herrn,” by Steitz, in Herzog’s Protest. Real-Encycl. (vol. ix. p. 74 ff.), and the article, “Maria, die heil. Jungfrau,” by Reithmayr (R.C.) in Wetzer u. Welte’s Kathol. Kirchenlex. (vi. 835 ff.); also the Eirenicon-controversy between Pusey and J. H. Newman, 1866.

Into these festival cycles a multitude of subordinate feasts found their way, at the head of which stand the festivals of the holy Virgin Mary, honored as queen of the army of saints.

The worship of Mary was originally only a reflection of the worship of Christ, and the feasts of Mary were designed to contribute to the glorifying of Christ. The system arose from the inner connection of the Virgin with the holy mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God; though certainly, with this leading religious and theological interest other motives combined. As mother of the Saviour of the world, the Virgin Mary unquestionably holds forever a peculiar position among all women, and in the history of redemption. Even in heaven she must stand peculiarly near to Him whom on earth she bore nine months under her bosom, and whom she followed with true motherly care to the cross. It is perfectly natural, nay, essential, to sound religious feeling, to associate with Mary the fairest traits of maidenly and maternal character, and to revere her as the highest model of female purity, love, and piety. From her example issues a silent blessing upon all generations, and her name and memory are, and ever will be, inseparable from the holiest mysteries and benefits of faith. For this reason her name is even wrought into the Apostles’ Creed, in the simple and chaste words: “Conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.”

The Catholic church, however, both Latin and Greek, did not stop with this. After the middle of the fourth century it overstepped the wholesome Biblical limit, and transformed the mother of the Lord” into a mother of God, the humble handmaid of the Lord” into a queen of heaven, the “highly favored” into a dispenser of favors, the “blessed among women” into an intercessor above all women, nay, we may almost say, the redeemed daughter of fallen Adam, who is nowhere in Holy Scripture excepted from the universal sinfulness, into a sinlessly holy co-redeemer. At first she was acquitted only of actual sin, afterward even of original; though the doctrine of the immaculate conception of the Virgin was long contested, and was not established as an article of faith in the Roman church till 1854. Thus the veneration of Mary gradually degenerated into the worship of Mary; and this took so deep hold upon the popular religious life in the Middle Age, that, in spite of all scholastic distinctions between latria, and dulia, and hyrerdulia, Mariolatry practically prevailed over the worship of Christ. Hence in the innumerable Madonnas of Catholic art the human mother is the principal figure, and the divine child accessory. The Romish devotions scarcely utter a Pater Noster without an Ave Maria, and turn even more frequently and naturally to the compassionate, tender-hearted mother for her intercessions, than to the eternal Son of God, thinking that in this indirect way the desired gift is more sure to be obtained. To this day the worship of Mary is one of the principal points of separation between the Graeco-Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism. It is one of the strongest expressions of the fundamental Romish error of unduly exalting the human factors or instruments of redemption, and obstructing, or rendering needless, the immediate access of believers to Christ, by thrusting in subordinate mediators. Nor can we but agree with nearly all unbiased historians in regarding the worship of Mary as an echo of ancient heathenism. It brings plainly to mind the worship of Ceres, of Isis, and of other ancient mothers of the gods; as the worship of saints and angels recalls the hero-worship of Greece and Rome. Polytheism was so deeply rooted among the people, that it reproduced itself in Christian forms. The popular religious want had accustomed itself even to female deities, and very naturally betook itself first of all to Mary, the highly favored and blessed mother of the divine-human Redeemer, as the worthiest object of adoration.

Let us trace now the main features in the historical development of the Catholic Mariology and Mariolatry.

The New Testament contains no intimation of any worship or festival celebration of Mary. On the one hand, Mary, is rightly called by Elizabeth, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, “the mother of the Lord” — but nowhere “the mother of God,” which is at least not entirely synonymous — and is saluted by her, as well as by the angel Gabriel, as “blessed among women;” nay, she herself prophesies in her inspired song, which has since resounded through all ages of the church, that “henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” Through all the youth of Jesus she appears as a devout virgin, full of childlike innocence, purity, and humility; and the few traces we have of her later life, especially the touching scene at the cross, (Joh_19:25-27) confirm this impression. But, on the other hand, it is equally unquestionable, that she is nowhere in the New Testament excepted from the universal sinfulness and the universal need of redemption, and represented as immaculately holy, or as in any way an object of divine veneration. On the contrary, true to the genuine female character, she modestly stands back throughout the gospel history, and in the Acts and the Epistles she is mentioned barely once, and then simply as the “mother of Jesus;” (Act_1:14) even her birth and her death are unknown. Her glory fades in holy humility before the higher glory of her Son. In truth, there are plain indications that the Lord, with prophetic reference to the future apotheosis of His mother according to the flesh, from the first gave warning against it. At the wedding in Cana He administered to her, though leniently and respectfully, a rebuke for premature zeal mingled perhaps with maternal vanity. On a subsequent occasion he put her on a level with other female disciples, and made the carnal consanguinity subordinate to the spiritual kinship of the doing of the will of God. (Mat_12:46-50) The well-meant and in itself quite innocent benediction of an unknown woman upon His mother He did not indeed censure, but He corrected it with a benediction upon all who hear the word of God and keep it, and thus forestalled the deification of Mary by confining the ascription within the bounds of moderation.

In striking contrast with this healthful and sober representation of Mary in the canonical Gospels are the numerous apocryphal Gospels of the third and fourth centuries, which decorated the life of Mary with fantastic fables and wonders of every kind, and thus furnished a pseudo-historical foundation for an unscriptural Mariology and Mariolatry. The Catholic church, it is true, condemned this apocryphal literature so early as the Decrees of Gelasius; yet many of the fabulous elements of it — such as the names of the parents of Mary, Joachim (instead of Eli, as in Luk_3:23) and Anna, the birth of Mary in a cave, her education in the temple, and her mock marriage with the aged Joseph — passed into the Catholic tradition.

The development of the orthodox Catholic Mariology and Mariolatry originated as early as the second century in an allegorical interpretation of the history of the fall, and in the assumption of an antithetic relation of Eve and Mary, according to which the mother of Christ occupies the same position in the history of redemption as the wife of Adam in the history of sin and death. This idea, so fruitful of many errors, is ingenious, but unscriptural, and an apocryphal substitute for the true Pauline doctrine of an antitypical parallel between the first and second Adam. It tends to substitute Mary for Christ. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, are the first who present Mary as the counterpart of Eve, as a “mother of all living” in the higher, spiritual sense, and teach that she became through her obedience the mediate or instrumental cause of the blessings of redemption to the human race, as Eve by her disobedience was the fountain of sin and death. Irenaeus calls her also the “advocate of the virgin Eve,” which, at a later day, is understood in the sense of intercessor. On this account this father stands as the oldest leading authority in the Catholic Mariology; though with only partial justice; for he was still widely removed from the notion of the sinlessness of Mary, and expressly declares the answer of Christ in Joh_2:4, to be a reproof of her premature haste. In the same way Tertullian, Origen, Basil the Great, and even Chrysostom, with all their high estimate of the mother of our Lord, ascribe to her on one or two occasions (Joh_2:3; Mat_13:47) maternal vanity, also doubt and anxiety, and make this the sword (Luk_2:35) which, under the cross, passed through her soul. In addition to this typological antithesis of Mary and Eve, the rise of monasticism supplied the development of Mariology a further motive in the enhanced estimate of virginity, without which no true holiness could be conceived. Hence the virginity of Mary, which is unquestioned for the part of her life before the birth of Christ, came to be extended to her whole life, and her marriage with the aged Joseph to be regarded as a mere protectorate, and, therefore, only a nominal marriage. The passage, Mat_1:25, which, according to its obvious literal meaning (the ἕως and πρωτότοκος ), seems to favor the opposite view, was overlooked or otherwise explained; and the brothers of Jesus, who appear fourteen or fifteen times in the gospel history and always in close connection with His mother, were regarded not as sons of Mary subsequently born, but either as sons of Joseph by a former marriage (the view of Epiphanius), or, agreeably to the wider Hebrew use of the term אָח, cousins of Jesus (Jerome). It was felt — and this feeling is shared by many devout Protestants — to be irreconcilable with her dignity and the dignity of Christ, that ordinary children should afterward proceed from the same womb out of which the Saviour of the world was born. The name perpetua virgo, ἀεὶ παρθένος, was thenceforth a peculiar and inalienable predicate of Mary. After the fourth century it was taken not merely in a moral sense, but in the physical also, as meaning that Mary conceived and produced the Lord clauso utero. This, of course, required the supposition of a miracle, like the passage of the risen Jesus through the closed doors. Mary, therefore, in the Catholic view, stands entirely alone in the history of the world in this respect, as in others: that she was a married virgin, a wife never touched by her husband.

Epiphanius, in his seventy-eighth Heresy, combats the advocates of the opposite view in Arabia toward the end of the fourth century (367), as heretics under the title of Antidikomarianites, opposers of the dignity of Mary, i.e., of her perpetual virginity. But, on the other hand, he condemns, in the seventy-ninth Heresy, the contemporaneous sect of the Collyridians in Arabia, a set of fanatical women, who, as priestesses, rendered divine worship to Mary, and, perhaps in imitation of the worship of Ceres, offered little cakes (κολλυρίδες) to her; he claims adoration for God and Christ alone. Jerome wrote, about 383, with indignation and bitterness against Helvidius and Jovinian, who, citing Scripture passages and earlier church teachers, like Tertullian, maintained that Mary bore children to Joseph after the birth of Christ. He saw in this doctrine a desecration of the temple of the Holy Ghost, and he even compares Helvidius to Erostratus, the destroyer of the temple at Ephesus. The bishop Bonosus of Sardica was condemned for the same view by the Illyrican bishops, and the Roman bishop Siricius approved the sentence, a.d. 392.

Augustine went a step farther. In an incidental remark against Pelagius, he agreed with him in excepting Mary, “propter honorem Domini,” from actual (but not from original) sin. This exception he is willing to make from the sinfulness of the race, but no other. He taught the sinless birth and life of Mary, but not her immaculate conception. He no doubt assumed, as afterward Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas, a sanctificatio in utero, like that of Jeremiah (Jer_1:5) and John the Baptist (Luk_1:15), whereby, as those two men were fitted for their prophetic office, she in a still higher degree was sanctified by a special operation of the Holy Ghost before her birth, and prepared to be a pure receptacle for the divine Logos. The reasoning of Augustine backward from the holiness of Christ to the holiness of His mother was an important turn, which was afterward pursued to further results. The same reasoning leads as easily to the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary, though also, just as well, to a sinless mother of Mary herself, and thus upward to the beginning, of the race, to another Eve who never fell. Augustine’s opponent, Pelagius, with his monastic, ascetic idea of holiness and his superficial doctrine of sin, remarkably outstripped him on this point, ascribing to Mary perfect sinlessness. But, it should be remembered, that his denial of original sin to all men, and his excepting of sundry saints of the Old Testament besides Mary, such as Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Isaac, Melchizedek, Samuel, Elijah, Daniel, from actual sin, so that πάντες in Rom_5:12, in his view, means only a majority, weaken the honor he thus appears to confer upon the mother of the Lord. The Augustinian view long continued to prevail; but at last Pelagius won the victory on this point in the Roman church.

Notwithstanding this exalted representation of Mary, there appear no clear traces of a proper worship of Mary, as distinct from the worship of saints in general, until the Nestorian controversy of 430. This dispute formed an important turning-point not only in Christology, but in Mariology also. The leading interest in it was, without doubt, the connection of the virgin with the mystery of the incarnation. The perfect union of the divine and human natures seemed to demand that Mary might be called in some sense the mother of God, θεοτόκος, Deipara; for that which was born of her was not merely the man Jesus, but the God-Man Jesus Christ. The church, however, did, of course, not intend by that to assert that she was the mother of the uncreated divine essence — for this would be palpably absurd and blasphemous — nor that she herself was divine, but only that she was the human point of entrance or the mysterious channel for the eternal divine Logos. Athanasius and the Alexandrian church teachers of the Nicene age, who pressed the unity of the divine and the human in Christ to the verge of monophysitism, had already used this expression frequently and without scruple, and Gregory Nazianzen even declares every one impious who denies its validity. Nestorius, on the contrary, and the Antiochian school, who were more devoted to the distinction of the two natures in Christ, took offence at the predicate θεοτόκος, saw in it a relapse into the heathen mythology, if not a blasphemy against the eternal and unchangeable Godhead, and preferred the expression Χριστοτόκος, mater Christi. Upon this broke out the violent controversy between him and the bishop Cyril of Alexandria, which ended in the condemnation of Nestorianism at Ephesus in 431.

Thenceforth the θεοτόκος was a test of orthodox Christology, and the rejection of it amounted to the beginning or the end of all heresy. The overthrow of Nestorianism was at the same time the victory of Mary-worship. With the honor of the Son, the honor also of the Mother was secured. The opponents of Nestorius, especially Proclus, his successor in Constantinople († 447), and Cyril of Alexandria († 444), could scarcely find predicates enough to express the transcendent glory of the mother of God. She was the crown of virginity, the indestructible temple of God, the dwelling place of the Holy Trinity, the paradise of the second Adam, the bridge from God to man, the loom of the incarnation, the sceptre of orthodoxy; through her the Trinity is glorified and adored, the devil and demons are put to flight, the nations converted, and the fallen creature raised to heaven. The people were all on the side of the Ephesian decision, and gave vent to their joy in boundless enthusiasm, amidst bonfires, processions, and illuminations.

With this the worship of Mary, the mother of God, the queen of heaven, seemed to be solemnly established for all time. But soon a reaction appeared in favor of Nestorianism, and the church found it necessary to condemn the opposite extreme of Eutychianism or Monophysitism. This was the office of the council of Chalcedon in 451: to give expression to the element of truth in Nestorianism, the duality of nature in the one divine-human person of Christ. Nevertheless the θεοτόκος was expressly retained, though it originated in a rather monophysite view.


82. Mariolatry

Thus much respecting the doctrine of Mary. Now the corresponding practice. From this Mariology follows Mariolatry. If Mary is, in the strict sense of the word, the mother of God, it seems to follow as a logical consequence, that she herself is divine, and therefore an object of divine worship. This was not, indeed, the meaning and purpose of the ancient church; as, in fact, it never asserted that Mary was the mother of the essential, eternal divinity of the Logos. She was, and continues to be, a created being, a human mother, even according to the Roman and Greek doctrine. But according to the once prevailing conception of her peculiar relation to deity, a certain degree of divine homage to Mary, and some invocation of her powerful intercession with God, seemed unavoidable, and soon became a universal practice.

The first instance of the formal invocation of Mary occurs in the prayers of Ephraim Syrus († 379), addressed to Mary and the saints, and attributed by the tradition of the Syrian church, though perhaps in part incorrectly, to that author. The first more certain example appears in Gregory Nazianzen († 389), who, in his eulogy on Cyprian, relates of Justina that she besought the virgin Mary to protect her threatened virginity, and at the same time disfigured her beauty by ascetic self-tortures, and thus fortunately escaped the amours of a youthful lover (Cyprian before his conversion). But, on the other hand, the numerous writings of Athanasius, Basil, Chrysostom, and Augustine, furnish no example of an invocation of Mary. Epiphanius even condemned the adoration of Mary, and calls the practice of making offerings to her by the Collyridian women, blasphemous and dangerous to the soul. The entire silence of history respecting the worship of the Virgin down to the end of the fourth century, proves clearly that it was foreign to the original spirit of Christianity, and belongs among the many innovations of the post-Nicene age.

In the beginning of the fifth century, however, the worship of saints appeared in full bloom, and then Mary, by reason of her singular relation to the Lord, was soon placed at the head, as the most blessed queen of the heavenly host. To her was accorded the hyperdulia (ὑπερδουλεία) — to anticipate here the later scholastic distinction sanctioned by the council of Trent — that is, the highest degree of veneration, in distinction from mere dulia (δουλεία), which belongs to all saints and angels, and from latria (λατρεία), which, properly speaking, is due to God alone. From that time numerous churches and altars were dedicated to the holy Mother of God, the perpetual Virgin; among them also the church at Ephesus in which the anti-Nestorian council of 431 had sat. Justinian I., in a law, implored her intercession with God for the restoration of the Roman empire, and on the dedication of the costly altar of the church of St. Sophia he expected all blessings for church and empire from her powerful prayers. His general, Narses, like the knights in the Middle Age, was unwilling to go into battle till he had secured her protection. Pope Boniface IV. in 608 turned the Pantheon in Rome into a temple of Mary ad martyres: the pagan Olympus into a Christian heaven of gods. Subsequently even her images (made after an original pretending to have come from Luke) were divinely worshipped, and, in the prolific legends of the superstitious Middle Age, performed countless miracles, before some of which the miracles of the gospel history grow dim. She became almost coördinate with Christ, a joint redeemer, invested with most of His own attributes and acts of grace. The popular belief ascribed to her, as to Christ, a sinless conception, a sinless birth, resurrection and ascension to heaven, and a participation of all power in heaven and on earth. She became the center of devotion, cultus, and art, the popular symbol of power, of glory, and of the final victory of catholicism over all heresies. The Greek and Roman churches vied throughout the Middle Age (and do so still) in the apotheosis of the human mother with the divine-human child Jesus in her arms, till the Reformation freed a large part of Latin Christendom from this unscriptural semi-idolatry and concentrated the affection and adoration of believers upon the crucified and risen Saviour of the world, the only Mediator between God and man.

A word more: respecting the favorite prayer to Mary, the angelic greeting, or the Ave Maria, which in the Catholic devotion runs parallel to the Pater Noster. It takes its name from the initial words of the salutation of Gabriel to the holy Virgin at the annunciation of the birth of Christ. It consists of three parts:

(1) The salutation of the angel (Luk_1:28):

Ave Maria, gratiae plena, Dominus tecum!

(2) The words of Elizabeth (Luk_1:2):

Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus.

(3) The later unscriptural addition, which contains the prayer proper, and is offensive to the Protestant and all sound Christian feeling:

Sancta Maria, mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis. Amen.

Formerly this third part, which gave the formula the character of a prayer, was traced back to the anti-Nestorian council of Ephesus in 431, which sanctioned the expression mater Dei, or Dei genitrix (θεοτόκος). But Roman archeologists now concede that it is a much later addition, made in the beginning of the sixteenth century (1508), and that the closing words, nunc et in hora mortis, were added even after that time by the Franciscans. But even the first two parts did not come into general use as a standing formula of prayer until the thirteenth century. From that date the Ave Maria stands in the Roman church upon a level with the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed, and with them forms the basis of the rosary.


83. The Festivals of Mary

This mythical and fantastic, and, we must add, almost pagan and idolatrous Mariology impressed itself on the public cultus in a series of festivals, celebrating the most important facts and fictions of the life of the Virgin, and in some degree running parallel with the festivals of the birth, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.

1. The Annunciation of Mary commemorates the announcement of the birth of Christ by the archangel Gabriel, (Luk_1:26-39) and at the same time the conception of Christ; for in the view of the ancient church Mary conceived the Logos (Verbum) through the ear by the word of the angel. Hence the festival had its place on the 25th of March, exactly nine months before Christmas; though in some parts of the church, as Spain and Milan, it was celebrated in December, till the Roman practice conquered. The first trace of it occurs in Proclus, the opponent and successor of Nestorius in Constantinople after 430; then it appears more plainly in several councils and homilies of the seventh century.

2. The Purification of Mary or Candlemas, in memory of the ceremonial purification of the Virgin, forty days after the birth of Jesus, therefore on the 2d of February (reckoning from the 25th of December); and at the same time in memory of the presentation of Jesus in the temple and his meeting of Simeon and Anna. (Luk_2:22-38) This, like the preceding, was thus originally as much a festival of Christ as of Mary, especially in the Greek church. It is supposed to have been introduced by Pope Gelasius in 494, though by some said not to have arisen till 542 under Justinian I., in consequence of a great earthquake and a destructive pestilence. Perhaps it was a Christian transformation of the old Roman lustrations or expiatory sacrifices (Februa, Februalia), which from the time of Numa took place in February, the month of purification or expiation. To heathen origin is due also the use of lighted tapers, with which the people on this festival marched, singing, out of the church through the city. Hence the name Candlemas.

3. The Ascension, or Assumption rather, of Mary is celebrated on the 15th of August. The festival was introduced by the Greek emperor Mauritius (582-602); some say, under Pope Gelasius († 496). In Rome, after the ninth century, it is one of the principal feasts, and, like the others, is distinguished with vigil and octave.

It rests, however, on a purely apocryphal foundation.

The entire silence of the apostles and the primitive church teachers respecting the departure of Mary stirred idle curiosity to all sorts of inventions, until a translation like Enoch’s and Elijah’s was attributed to her. In the time of Origen some were inferring from Luk_2:35, that she had suffered martyrdom. Epiphanius will not decide whether she died and was buried, or not. Two apocryphal Greek writings de transitu Mariae, of the end of the fourth or beginning of the fifth century, and afterward pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Gregory of Tours († 595), for the first time contain the legend that the soul of the mother of God was transported to the heavenly paradise by Christ and His angels in presence of all the apostles, and on the following morning her body also was translated thither on a cloud and there united with the soul. Subsequently the legend was still further embellished, and, besides the apostles, the angels and patriarchs also, even Adam and Eve, were made witnesses of the wonderful spectacle.

Still the resurrection and ascension of Mary are in the Roman church only a matter of “devout and probable opinion,” not an article of faith; and a distinction is made between the ascensio of Christ (by virtue of His divine nature) and the assumptio of Mary (by the power of grace and merit).

But since Mary, according to the most recent Roman dogma, was free even from original sin, and since death is a consequence of sin, it should strictly follow that she did not die at all, and rise again, but, like Enoch and Elijah, was carried alive to heaven.

In the Middle Age — to anticipate briefly — yet other festivals of Mary arose: the Nativity of Mary, after a.d. 650; the Presentation of Mary, after the ninth century, founded on the apocryphal tradition of the eleven years’ ascetic discipline of Mary in the temple at Jerusalem; the Visitation of Mary in memory of her visit to Elizabeth; a festival first mentioned in France in 1247, and limited to the western church; and the festival of the Immaculate Conception, which arose with the doctrine of the sinless conception of Mary, and is interwoven with the history of that dogma down to its official and final promulgation by Pope Pius IX. in 1854.


84. The Worship of Martyrs and Saints

I. Sources

The Memorial Discourses of Basil the Great on the martyr Mamas (a shepherd in Cappadocia, † about 276), and on the forty martyrs (soldiers, who are said to have suffered in Armenia under Licinius in 320); of Gregory Naz. on Cyprian († 248), on Athanasius († 372), and on Basil († 379); of Gregory Of Nyssa on Ephraim Syrus († 378), and on the megalomartyr Theodorus; of Chrysostom on Bernice and Prosdoce, on the Holy Martyrs, on the Egyptian Martyrs, on Meletius of Antioch; several homilies of Ambrose, Augustine, Leo the Great, Peter Chrysologus Caesarius, etc.; Jerome against Vigilantius. The most important passages of the fathers on the veneration of saints are conveniently collected in: The Faith of Catholics on certain points of controversy, confirmed by Scripture and attested by the Fathers. By Berington and Kirk, revised by Waterworth.” 3d ed. 1846, vol. iii. pp. 322-416.


II. The Later Literature

(1) On the Roman Catholic side: The Acta Sanctorum of the Bollandists, thus far 58 vols. fol. (1643-1858, coming down to the 22d of October). Theod. Ruinart: Acta primorum martyrum sincera et selecta. Par. 1689 (confined to the first four centuries). Laderchio: S. patriarcharum et prophetarum, confessorum, cultus perpetuus, etc. Rom. 1730. (2) On the Protestant side: J. Dallaeus: Adversus Latinorum de cultus religiosi objecto traditionem. Genev. 1664. Isaac Taylor: Ancient Christianity. 4th ed. Lond. 1844, vel. ii. p. 173 ff. (“Christianized demonolatry in the fourth century.”)


The Worship of Martyrs and Saints

The system of saint-worship, including both Hagiology and Hagiolatry, developed itself at the same time with the worship of Mary; for the latter is only the culmination of the former.

The New Testament is equally ignorant of both. The expression ἅγιοι, sancti, saints, is used by the apostles not of a particular class, a spiritual aristocracy of the church, but of all baptized and converted Christians without distinction; because they are separated from the world, consecrated to the service of God, washed from the guilt of sin by the blood of Christ, and, notwithstanding all their remaining imperfections and sins, called to perfect holiness. The apostles address their epistles to “the saints” i.e., the Christian believers, “at Rome, Corinth, Ephesus,” etc. (Comp. Act_9:13, Act_9:32, Act_9:41; Act_26:10; Rom_1:7; Rom_12:13; Rom_15:25, Rom_15:26; 1Co_1:2; 1Co_6:1; Eph_1:1, Eph_1:15, Eph_1:18; Eph_4:12; Phi_1:1; Phi_4:21, Phi_4:22; Rev_8:7, Rev_8:10, etc.)

After the entrance of the heathen masses into the church the title came to be restricted to bishops and councils and to departed heroes of the Christian faith, especially the martyrs of the first three centuries. When, on the cessation of persecution, the martyr’s crown, at least within the limits of the Roman empire, was no longer attainable, extraordinary ascetic piety, great service to the church, and subsequently also the power of miracles, were required as indispensable conditions of reception into the Catholic calendar of saints. The anchorets especially, who, though not persecuted from without, voluntarily crucified their flesh and overcame evil spirits, seemed to stand equal to the martyrs in holiness and in claims to veneration. A tribunal of canonization did not yet exist. The popular voice commonly decided the matter, and passed for the voice of God. Some saints were venerated only in the regions where they lived and died; others enjoyed a national homage; others, a universal.

The veneration of the saints increased with the decrease of martyrdom, and with the remoteness of the objects of reverence. “Distance lends enchantment to the view;” but “familiarity” is apt “to breed contempt.” The sins and faults of the heroes of faith were lost in the bright haze of the past, while their virtues shone the more, and furnished to a pious and superstitious fancy the richest material for legendary poesy.

Almost all the catholic saints belong to the higher degrees of the clergy or to the monastic life. And the monks were the chief promoters of the worship of saints. At the head of the heavenly chorus stands Mary, crowned as queen by the side of her divine Son; then come the apostles and evangelists, who died a violent death, the protomartyr Stephen, and the martyrs of the first three centuries; the patriarchs and prophets also of the Old Covenant down to John the Baptist; and finally eminent hermits and monks, missionaries, theologians, and bishops, and those, in general, who distinguished themselves above their contemporaries in virtue or in public service. The measure of ascetic self-denial was the measure of Christian virtue. Though many of the greatest saints of the Bible, from the patriarch Abraham to Peter, the prince of the apostles, lived in marriage, the Romish ethics, from the time of Ambrose and Jerome, can allow no genuine holiness within the bonds of matrimony, and receives only virgines and some few vidui and viduae into its spiritual nobility. In this again the close connection of saint-worship with monasticism is apparent.

To the saints, about the same period, were added angels as objects of worship. To angels there was ascribed in the church from the beginning a peculiar concern with the fortunes of the militant church, and a certain oversight of all lands and nations. But Ambrose is the first who expressly exhorts to the invocation of our patron angels, and represents it as a duty. In favor of the guardianship and interest of angels appeal was rightly made to several passages of the Old and New Testaments: Dan_10:13, Dan_10:20, Dan_10:21; Dan_12:1; Mat_18:10; Luk_15:7; Heb_1:14; Act_12:15. But in Col_2:18, and Rev_19:10; Rev_22:8, Rev_22:9, the worship of angels is distinctly rebuked.

Out of the old Biblical notion of guardian angels arose also the idea of patron saints for particular countries, cities, churches, and classes, and against particular evils and dangers. Peter and Paul and Laurentius became the patrons of Rome; James, the patron of Spain; Andrew, of Greece; John, of theologians; Luke, of painters; subsequently Phocas, of seamen; Ivo, of jurists; Anthony, a protector against pestilence; Apollonia, against tooth-aches; etc.

These different orders of saints and angels form a heavenly hierarchy, reflected in the ecclesiastical hierarchy on earth. Dionysius the Areopagite, a fantastical Christian Platonist of the fifth-century, exhibited the whole relation of man to God on the basis of the hierarchy; dividing the hierarchy into two branches, heavenly and earthly, and each of these again into several degrees, of which every higher one was the mediator of salvation to the one below it.

These are the outlines of the saint-worship of our period. Now to the exposition and estimate of it, and then the proofs.

The worship of saints proceeded originally, without doubt, from a pure and truly Christian source, to wit: a very deep and lively sense of the communion of saints, which extends over death and the grave, and embraces even the blessed in heaven. It was closely connected with love to Christ, and with gratitude for everything great and good which he has done through his instruments for the welfare of posterity. The church fulfilled a simple and natural duty of gratitude, when, in the consciousness of unbroken fellowship with the church triumphant, she honored the memory of the martyrs and confessors, who had offered their life for their faith, and had achieved victory for it over all its enemies. She performed a duty of fidelity to her own children, when she held up for admiration and imitation the noble virtues and services of their fathers. She honored and glorified Christ Himself when she surrounded Him with an innumerable company of followers, contemplated the reflection of His glory in them, and sang to His praise in the Ambrosian Te Deum:

“The glorious company of the Apostles praise thee;

The goodly fellowship of the Prophets praise thee;

The noble army of Martyrs praise thee;

The holy church throughout all the world doth acknowledge thee;

The Father, of an infinite majesty;

Thine adorable, true, and only Son;

Also the Holy Ghost, the Comforter.

Thou art the King of glory, O Christ;

Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.

When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man, thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb;

When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death, thou didst open the kingdom of heaven to all believers.”

In the first three centuries the veneration of the martyrs in general restricted itself to the thankful remembrance of their virtues and the celebration of the day of their death as the day of their heavenly birth. This celebration usually took place at their graves. So the church of Smyrna annually commemorated its bishop Polycarp, and valued his bones more than gold and gems, though with the express distinction: “Christ we worship as the Son of God; the martyrs we love and honor as disciples and successors of the Lord, on account of their insurpassable love to their King and Master, as also, we wish to be their companions and fellow disciples.” Here we find this veneration as yet in its innocent simplicity.

But in the Nicene age it advanced to a formal invocation of the saints as our patrons (patroni) and intercessors (intercessores, mediatores) before the throne of grace, and degenerated into a form of refined polytheism and idolatry. The saints came into the place of the demigods, Penates and Lares, the patrons of the domestic hearth and of the country. As once temples and altars to the heroes, so now churches and chapels came to be built over the graves of the martyrs, and consecrated to their names (or more precisely to God through them). People laid in them, as they used to do in the temple of Aesculapius, the sick that they might be healed, and hung in them, as in the temples of the gods, sacred gifts of silver and gold. Their graves were, as Chrysostom says, move splendidly adorned and more frequently visited than the palaces of kings. Banquets were held there in their honor, which recall the heathen sacrificial feasts for the welfare of the manes. Their relics were preserved with scrupulous care, and believed to possess miraculous virtue. Earlier, it was the custom to pray for the martyrs (as if they were not yet perfect) and to thank God for their fellowship and their pious example. Now such intercessions for them were considered unbecoming, and their intercession was invoked for the living.

This invocation of the dead was accompanied with the presumption that they take the deepest interest in all the fortunes of the kingdom of God on earth, and express it in prayers and intercessions. This was supposed to be warranted by some passages of Scripture, like Luk_15:10, which speaks of the angels (not the saints) rejoicing over the conversion of a sinner, and Rev_8:3, Rev_8:4, which represents an angel as laying the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne of God. But the New Testament expressly rebukes the worship of the angels (Col_2:18; Rev_19:10; Rev_22:8, Rev_22:9), and furnishes not a single example of an actual invocation of dead men; and it nowhere directs us to address our prayers to any creature. Mere inferences from certain premises, however plausible, are, in such weighty matters, not enough. The intercession of the saints for us was drawn as a probable inference from the duty of all Christians to pray for others, and the invocation of the saints for their intercession was supported by the unquestioned right to apply to living saints for their prayers, of which even the apostles availed themselves in their epistles.

But here rises the insolvable question: How can departed saints hear at once the prayers of so many Christians on earth, unless they either partake of divine omnipresence or divine omniscience? And is it not idolatrous to clothe creatures with attributes which belong exclusively to Godhead? Or, if the departed saints first learn from the omniscient God our prayers, and then bring them again before God with their powerful intercessions, to what purpose this circuitous way? Why not at once address God immediately, who alone is able, and who is always ready, to hear His children for the sake of Christ?

Augustine felt this difficulty, and concedes his inability to solve it. He leaves it undecided, whether the saints (as Jerome and others actually supposed) are present in so many places at once, or their knowledge comes through the omniscience of God, or finally it comes through the ministry of angels. He already makes the distinction between λατρεία, or adoration due to God alone, and the invocatio (δουλεία) of the saints, and firmly repels the charge of idolatry, which the Manichaean Faustus brought against the catholic Christians when he said: “Ye have changed the idols into martyrs, whom ye worship with the like prayers, and ye appease the shades of the dead with wine and flesh.” Augustine asserts that the church indeed celebrates the memory of the martyrs with religious solemnity, to be stirred up to imitate them, united with their merits, and supported by their prayers, but it offers sacrifice and dedicates altars to God alone. Our martyrs, says he, are not gods; we build no temples to our martyrs, as to gods; but we consecrate to them only memorial places, as to departed men, whose spirits live with God; we build altars not to sacrifice to the martyrs, but to sacrifice with them to the one God, who is both ours and theirs.

But in spite of all these distinctions and cautions, which must be expected from a man like Augustine, and acknowledged to be a wholesome restraint against excesses, we cannot but see in the martyr-worship, as it was actually practised, a new form of the hero-worship of the pagans. Nor can we wonder in the least. For the great mass of the Christian people came, in fact, fresh from polytheism, without thorough conversion, and could not divest themselves of their old notions and customs at a stroke. The despotic form of government, the servile subjection of the people, the idolatrous homage which was paid to the Byzantine emperors and their statues, the predicates divina, sacra, coelestia, which were applied to the utterances of their will, favored the worship of saints. The heathen emperor Julian sarcastically reproached the Christians with reintroducing polytheism into monotheism, but, on account of the difference of the objects, revolted from the Christian worship of martyrs and relics, as from the “stench of graves and dead men’s bones.” The Manichaean taunt we have already mentioned. The Spanish presbyter Vigilantius, in the fifth century, called the worshippers of martyrs and relics, ashes-worshippers and idolaters, and taught that, according to the Scriptures, the living only should pray with and for each other. Even some orthodox church teachers admitted the affinity of the saint-worship with heathenism, though with the view of showing that all that is good in the heathen worship reappears far better in the Christian. Eusebius cites a passage from Plato on the worship of heroes, demi-gods, and their graves, and then applies it to the veneration of friends of God and champions of true religion; so that the Christians did well to visit their graves, to honor their memory there, and to offer their prayers. The Greeks, Theodoret thinks, have the least reason to be offended at what takes place at the graves of the martyrs; for the libations and expiations, the demi-gods and deified men, originated with themselves. Hercules, Aesculapius, Bacchus, the Dioscuri, and the like, are deified men; consequently it cannot be a reproach to the Christians that they — not deify, but — honor their martyrs as witnesses and servants of God. The ancients saw nothing censurable in such worship of the dead. The saints, our helpers and patrons, are far more worthy of such honor. The temples of the gods are destroyed, the philosophers, orators, and emperors are forgotten, but the martyrs are universally known. The feasts of the gods are now replaced by the festivals of Peter, Paul, Marcellus, Leontius, Antonins, Mauricius, and other martyrs, not with pagan pomp and sensual pleasures, but with Christian soberness and decency.

Yet even this last distinction which Theodoret asserts, sometimes disappeared. Augustine laments that in the African church banqueting and revelling were daily practised in honor of the martyrs, but thinks that this weakness must be for the time indulged from regard to the ancient customs of the pagans.

In connection with the new hero-worship a new mythology also arose, which filled up the gaps of the history of the saints, and sometimes even transformed the pagan myths of gods and heroes into Christian legends. The superstitious imagination, visions, and dreams, and pious fraud famished abundant contributions to the Christian legendary poesy.

The worship of the saints found eloquent vindication and encouragement not only, in poets like Prudentius (about 405) and Paulinus of Nola (died 431), to whom greater freedom is allowed, but even in all the prominent theologians and preachers of the Nicene and post-Nicene age. It was as popular as monkery, and was as enthusiastically commended by the leaders of the church in the East and West.

The two institutions, moreover, are closely connected and favor each other. The monks were most zealous friends of saint-worship in their own cause. The church of the fifth century already went almost as far in it as the Middle Age, at all events quite as far as the council of Trent; for this council does not prescribe the invocation of the saints, but confines itself to approving it as “good and useful” (not as necessary) on the ground of their reigning with Christ in heaven and their intercession for us, and expressly remarks that Christ is our only, Redeemer and Saviour. This moderate and prudent statement of the doctrine, however, has not yet removed the excesses which the Roman Catholic people still practise in the worship of the saints, their images, and their relics. The Greek church goes even further in theory than the Roman; for the confession of Peter Mogilas (which was subscribed by the four Greek patriarchs in 1643, and again sanctioned by the council of Jerusalem in 1672), declares it duty and propriety (χρέος) to implore the intercession (μεσιτεία) of Mary and the saints with God for us.

We now cite, for proof and further illustration, the most important passages from the church fathers of our period on this point. In the numerous memorial discourses of the fathers, the martyrs are loaded with eulogies, addressed as present, and besought for their protection. The universal tone of those productions is offensive to the Protestant taste, and can hardly be reconciled with evangelical ideas of the exclusive and all-sufficient mediation of Christ and of justification by pure grace without the merit of works. But it must not be forgotten that in these discourses very much is to be put to the account of the degenerate, extravagant, and fulsome rhetoric of that time. The best church fathers, too, never separated the merits of the saints from the merits of Christ, but considered the former as flowing out of the latter.

We begin with the Greek fathers. Basil the Great calls the forty soldiers who are said to have suffered martyrdom under Licinius in Sebaste about 320, not only a “holy choir,” an “invincible phalanx,” but also “common patrons of the human family, helpers of our prayers and most mighty intercessors with God.”

Ephraim Syrus addresses the departed saints, in general, in such words as these: “Remember me, ye heirs of God, ye brethren of Christ, pray to the Saviour for me, that I through Christ may be delivered from him who assaults me from day to day;” and the mother of a martyr: “O holy, true, and blessed mother, plead for me with the saints, and pray: ‘Ye triumphant martyrs of Christ, pray for Ephraim, the least, the miserable,’ that I may find grace, and through the grace of Christ may be saved.”

Gregory of Nyssa asks of St. Theodore, whom he thinks invisibly present at his memorial feast, intercessions for his country, for peace, for the preservation of orthodoxy, and begs him to arouse the apostles Peter and Paul and John to prayer for the church planted by them (as if they needed such an admonition!). He relates with satisfaction that the people streamed to the burial place of this saint in such multitudes that the place looked like an ant hill. In his Life of St. Ephraim, he tells of a pilgrim who lost himself among the barbarian posterity of Ishmael, but by the prayer, “St. Ephraim, help me!” and the protection of the saint, happily found his way home. He himself thus addresses him at the close: “Thou who standest at the holy altar, and with angels servest the life-giving and most holy Trinity, remember us all, and implore for us the forgiveness of sins and the enjoyment of the eternal kingdom.”

Gregory Nazianzen is convinced that the departed Cyprian guides and protects his church in Carthage more powerfully by his intercessions than he formerly did by his teachings, because he now stands so much nearer the Deity; he addresses him as present, and implores his favor and protection. In his eulogy on Athanasius, who was but a little while dead, he prays: “Look graciously down upon us, and dispose this people to be perfect worshippers of the perfect Trinity; and when the times are quiet, preserve us — when they are troubled, remove us, and take us to thee in thy fellowship.”

Even Chrysostom did not rise above the spirit of the time. He too is an eloquent and enthusiastic advocate of the worship of the saints and their relics. At the close of his memorial discourse on Sts. Bernice and Prosdoce — two saints who have not even a place in the Roman calendar — he exhorts his hearers not only on their memorial days but also on other days to implore these saints to be our protectors: “For they have great boldness not merely during their life but also after death, yea, much greater after death. For they now bear the stigmata of Christ [the marks of martyrdom], and when they show these, they can persuade the King to anything.” He relates that once, when the harvest was endangered by excessive rain, the whole population of Constantinople flocked to the church of the Apostles, and there elected the apostles Peter and Andrew, Paul and Timothy, patrons and intercessors before the throne of grace. Christ, says he on Heb_1:14, redeems us as Lord and Master, the angels redeem us as ministers.

Asterius of Amasia calls the martyr Phocas, the patron of mariners, “a pillar and foundation of the churches of God in the world, the most renowned of the martyrs, who draws men of all countries in hosts to his church in Sinope, and who now, since his death, distributes more abundant nourishment than Joseph in Egypt.”

Among the Latin fathers, Ambrose of Milan is one of the first and most decided promoters of the worship of saints. We cite a passage or two. “May Peter, who so successfully weeps for himself, weep also for us, and turn upon us the friendly look of Christ. The angels, who are appointed to guard us, must be invoked for us; the martyrs, to whose intercession we have claim by the pledge of their bodies, must be invoked. They who have washed away their sins by their own blood, may pray for our sins. For they are martyrs of God, our high priests, spectators of our life and our acts. We need not blush to use them as intercessors for our weakness; for they also knew the infirmity of the body when they gained the victory over it.”

Jerome disputes the opinion of Vigilantius, that we should pray for one another in this life only, and that the dead do not hear our prayers, and ascribes to departed saints a sort of omnipresence, because, according to Rev_14:4, they follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. He thinks that their prayers are much more effectual in heaven than they were upon earth. If Moses implored the forgiveness of God for six hundred thousand men, and Stephen, the first martyr, prayed for his murderers after the example of Christ, should they cease to pray, and to be heard, when they are with Christ?

Augustine infers from the interest which the rich man in hell still had in the fate of his five surviving brothers (Luk_16:27), that the pious dead in heaven must have even far more interest in the kindred and friends whom they have left behind. He also calls the saints our intercessors, yet under Christ, the proper and highest Intercessor, as Peter and the other apostles are shepherds under the great chief Shepherd. In a memorial discourse on Stephen, he imagines that martyr, and St. Paul who stoned him, to be present, and begs them for their intercessions with the Lord with whom they reign. He attributes miraculous effects, even the raising of the dead, to the intercessions of Stephen. But, on the other hand, he declares, as we have already observed, his inability to solve the difficult question of the way in which the dead can be made acquainted with our wishes and prayers. At all events, in Augustine’s practical religion the worship of the saints occupies a subordinate place. In his “Confessions” and “Soliloquies” he always addresses himself directly to God, not to Mary nor to martyrs.

The Spanish poet Prudentius flees with prayers and confessions of sin to St. Laurentius, and considers himself unworthy to be heard by Christ Himself.

The poems of Paulinus of Nola are full of direct prayers for the intercessions of the saints, especially of St. Felix, in whose honor he erected a basilica, and annually composed an ode, and whom he calls his patron, his father, his lord. He relates that the people came in great crowds around the wonder-working relics of this saint on his memorial day, and could not look on them enough.

Leo the Great, in his sermons, lays great stress on the powerful intercession of the apostles Peter and Paul, and of the Roman martyr Laurentius.

Pope Gregory the Great, at the close of our period, went much farther.

According to this we cannot wonder that the Virgin Mary and the saints are interwoven also in the prayers of the liturgies, and that their merits and intercession stand by the side of the merits of Christ as a ground of the acceptance of our prayers.