Seven ways to identify superstition
George Gillespie (1613 – 1648) ministered in Fife and Edinburgh and was one of the main Scottish theologians at the Westminster Assembly. He wrote several important publications in support of Presbyterian church government.
7 Sep, 2023

It is likely that the word “superstition” conjures up the idea of some pagan ritual or elaborate ceremony in ancient religions such as Hinduism. A more trivial form of superstition which pervades society, but is not really taken seriously by Christians, is the concept of luck. For those who believe in the working of a divine providence, such practices as crossing our fingers, touching wood, or using some star sign to comfort us, however seriously used by others, are really just foolish or even childish superstitions.

The Reformation brought the charge of superstition much closer to home. Not only were the practices of the Roman Catholic church removed as superstitious, but anything that didn’t come with divine authority from scripture was removed from the worship of the church. Indeed, religious ceremonies or practices of any kind were declared unlawful when devoid of a biblical mandate. This sweeping principle removed more than the obvious superstitions of paganism – it declared to be unlawful what was not commanded in every aspect of religious life, as well as in worship.

But how can we tell if our practices are superstitious? George Gillespie ministered in a time when only a few apparently innocuous religious ceremonies were imposed on the Scottish church. These had been observed in England since the Reformation and the Scottish Reformers had removed them. The simple principle had been applied, that they did not have authority for them in the Bible. While still in his twenties, and before ordination, Gillespie wrote an extensive treatment of this issue. Published anonymously, the work became pivotal to the Second Reformation and the Westminster Standards. He argued that the imposed ceremonies were neither necessary, expedient, lawful or indifferent. In the following updated extract, Gillespie sets down seven ways in which any activity or practice in worship is superstitious.

When it is excessive

The basic way in which the vice of superstition is opposite to religion is that superstition goes to excess. The great theologian Zanchi said, “If you add something to what which Christ established, or if you follow something added by others, [e.g.,] if you add other sacraments …, or other sacrifices … or if you add rites to the ceremonies of some sacrament, all those are rightly called by the name ‘superstition’.” Superstition is done “beyond what is established” [by Christ]. It is something used in God’s worship on no basis other than human appointment.

When it is misdirected

Superstition gives worship either to whom it does not owe it, or not in the way in which it owes it. A ceremony is superstitious, even if it gives worship to God, when it is done inordinately, or when the worship is performed otherwise than it should be. For example, God is worshipped by baptism, but there is a problem with baptisms administered in private, because (as pointed out in the Leiden Synopsis) baptism is a supplement to public ministry, not to private exhortation. Similarly, the Church Fathers of the fourth century regarded the private administration of the Lord’s Supper as something “inordinate” in the same sense.

When it is not edifying

Some things have no necessary or profitable use in the church, and cannot be used without being superstitious. It was according to this rubric that the Waldenses and Albigenses taught against the exorcisms, breathings, crossings, salt, spittle, unction, chrism, etc., used in baptism. As these were neither necessary nor requisite in the administration of baptism, they occasioned error and superstition, rather than edification to salvation.

When it displaces necessary duties

A ceremony is superstitious when it is not only used in God’s worship unnecessarily and unprofitably, but in fact it hinders other necessary duties. People are superstitious when they set about to serve the true God, yet they do so with needless services, while they defraud Him of duties that are actually necessary. By “necessary duties” I mean things like worshipping God in a spiritual and lively manner, pressing the power of godliness on people’s consciences, maintaining faithful and well qualified ministers in the church, showing mercy and meekness, not offending the weak, having all things in God’s worship ordered according to the Word and not according to the will of man, not exercising lordship over the consciences of those whom Christ has made free, and abolishing past and present idolatry. If these and other necessary duties are shut outdoors by needless ceremonies, these ceremonies are superstitious.

When it promotes external activities above spiritual activities

Something is superstitious if it gives God a merely external service and a grace-defacing worship. God does not care for this. It makes fleshly observations step into the place of God’s spiritual worship. Augustine used the word, “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21), against superstitious persons, who devoted their primary concern to externals. Christian worship ought to be “in spirit.” Indeed, the kingdom of God comes not with splendour and worldly ostentation. Carnal worship, therefore, is superfluous in religion, and by consequence superstitious.

When it is regarded as holy itself

When people associate holiness and necessity with a ceremony, that makes the ceremony superstitious.

Holiness. For example, some say the festival days are “clothed with outward robes of holiness,” and “more holy than other days.” Some call the cross “a holy sign.” Of course, they claim that these things are not holy in themselves, by only per aliud (by virtue of something else) (such as their association with something holy). But read on in their writings and they claim that these things are worship in themselves! In practice they offer this or that ceremony as worship to God. So we see that superstition is not only offering to God in worship something which He has not commanded, but also using for help in God’s worship anything as if it was sacred or holy when He Himself has not ordained it.

Necessity. Some will say that observing this or that ceremony is necessary for God’s glory, or promoting piety, or for orderliness, peace, charity, and so on. Yet if something is observed for the sake of orderliness and policy, that must mean that it can be changed — yet the argument from necessity is used as a reason why it cannot be changed! Or sometimes they say it is necessary because the church leadership (or other influential people) have decided it should be done. Yet appealing to such human authority as the sole reason for doing something means it is superstitious.

When there is no distinction between appointment and consecration

We have to distinguish three things.

One is appointment, when you designate something for a certain use, yet reserving the right to put it to a different use as and when you wish. In this way the church appoints seasons and times for preaching on weekdays, yet reserving the right to use those times for other things when she sees fit.

Distinguish this from dedication, when you devote a thing to some use (whether religious or secular), and waive all right to reclaim it subsequently. For example, you might dedicate a sum of money to build a hospital, or a church, and then you cannot later claim your rights to that money.

Distinguish both these from consecration (also called sanctification), when you set something apart for a holy and religious use, so that it cannot afterwards be put to any other use.

It is right and proper for the church to set time apart for ordinary and weekly preaching when they do this by “appointment”. The church is not then saying that 7pm on a Tuesday is a holy time, only that we are temporarily using that time for a holy use. Note too that we do not say that the worship is appointed because it’s appropriate for that time — only that the time is appointed as convenient for the worship.

Contrast this with “holy days” such as Christmas and Easter. They are regarded as holy both by “dedication” and by “consecration”. But if certain times (or places, or things) can be made holy by the church’s dedication or consecration, then it would follow that other things, places, or times are more profane, and less suitable for divine worship, even if they are used for the same holy activities. Yet, as someone has said, to us Christians, no land is strange, no ground is unholy, and every faithful company (indeed, every faithful body) is a temple to serve God in. For Christians, it is superstitious to bind religion to particular places (or things, or times). If I am standing in a churchyard when it rains, may I not go into the church to keep dry? A church building, then, may serve for a secular use in the same way as it serves for a holy use. It’s the same with preaching on weekdays — the time may rightly be used for something other than divine worship [something that cannot be said of the Lord’s Day].

Certain things are not in reality observed as circumstances of worship, for order and policy. Rather, as the chief parts of God’s worship are placed in them, they are kept and celebrated superstitiously, as if they have some sacred meaning, or are holier in themselves than other things. What happens in practice is that the worship which is performed around them is attributed to them, making it superstitious.



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