Christians are people of the cross. We hang crosses in our homes and churches as visible reminders of who we are, what we believe, and to whom we belong. For many Christians, making the sign of the cross over their bodies is a meaningful part of this cruciform piety. But for others, the sign is viewed as a superstitious ritual, and is sometimes associated with Roman Catholicism. How should Christians think about the sign of the cross?
Though some argue that the sign of the cross was handed down by the apostles, and is therefore binding for Christians (2 Thessalonians 2:15), this is impossible to prove; therefore, the sign of the cross is best considered as an extrabiblical Christian tradition. Extrabiblical traditions can be assessed by several criteria, including:
- The length or endurance of the tradition;
- The breadth or universality of the tradition;
- The extent to which the tradition helps us to carry out scriptural principles and commands;
- The extent to which the tradition is edifying in any given context.
For example, the altar call is (1) a short tradition, (2) practiced by a small part of the church; however, (4) contexts that are accustomed to using altar calls may continue to do so, (3) insofar as they are carried out in a way that builds up the church and embodies biblical principles or commands (e.g., when an altar call is used to obey the commands of James 5:16 to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another”).
The sign of the cross can be considered in light of these four criteria.
First, making the sign of the cross is one of the longest and most enduring Christian traditions. Evangelical Anglican theologian John Stott provides a helpful historical summary in the first chapter of The Cross of Christ, which has become something of a modern classic. He cites Tertullian, “who flourished around AD 200,” as a witness that early Christians constantly made the sign of the cross in all their daily activities:
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.
Cyril of Jerusalem later instructed Christians to continue this practice as a way of visibly professing Christ and sanctifying all of life for him:
Let us not be ashamed to profess the Crucified One; let us confidently seal our forehead with our fingers, let us make the sign of the cross on everything, on the bread we eat and over the cup we drink. Let us make this sign as we come and go, before sleeping, when we lie down and when we arise, while traveling and while resting.
Hippolytus, writing just a few years after Tertullian (approximately AD 215), included the sign among traditions “already long established,” and instructed his readers to “imitate him (Christ) always, by signing thy forehead sincerely: for this is the sign of his passion.” Hippolytus adds, “When tempted, always reverently seal thy forehead with the sign of the cross. For this sign of the passion is displayed and made manifest against the devil if thou makest it in faith, not in order that thou mayest be seen of men, but by thy knowledge putting it forth as a shield.”
The sign of the cross far predates the Roman Catholic Church, as well as Constantine.
This theme, that the sign of the cross is a sign of spiritual warfare, is found throughout the fathers. It is prominently featured in Athanasius’s famous work On the Incarnation: “by the sign of the Cross all magic is stopped, and all witchcraft brought to nought, and all the idols are being deserted and left, and every unruly pleasure is checked, and every one is looking up from earth to heaven” (31). “For by the Sign of the Cross, though a man but use it, he drives out their deceits” (47). Athanasius also writes that “by the sign of the Cross, and by faith in Christ, death is trampled down” (29; cf. 27). Christ deprives death “of all his power in each one of them that hold His faith and bear the sign of the Cross” (29). Notice Athanasius’s emphasis on faith: the sign of the cross is only powerful when it is an expression of sincere faith in the Christ of the cross.
Marcina, sister of Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, thanked God for the sign in her beautiful deathbed prayer:
You have given to those who fear you
a visible token, the sign of the holy cross,
for the destruction of the Adversary
and for the protection of our life.
Contrary to the claims of the Puritans and of many modern evangelicals, the sign of the cross far predates the Roman Catholic Church, as well as Constantine, “who gave added impetus to the use of the cross symbol” (Stott), but did not invent it. Making the sign of the cross is more catholic than Catholic.
Second, making the sign of the cross is a nearly universal Christian tradition, embraced by most churches in the East and West, including many Protestant and Methodist churches. John Wesley made the sign of the cross and instructed Methodists to do the same, even after they formally separated from the Church of England. For example, in his rite for infant baptism, included in his Sunday Service for the Methodists in North America, Wesley instructs, “the Minister shall make a cross upon the infant’s forehead.”
Last year, while I was transitioning between churches, I visited Anglican, Lutheran, and Eastern Orthodox congregations. All made the sign of the cross throughout their worship, and I was happy to join them (when in Rome, do as the Romans do). I have several conservative Methodist friends who sign themselves in private prayer, and find it very meaningful.
Third, making the sign of the cross is, for many Christians, an expression of piety, and of unity with Christians throughout the world and across time. Stott concludes, “There is no need for us to dismiss this habit as superstitious. In origin at least, the sign of the cross was intended to identify and indeed sanctify each act as belonging to Christ.” Can the sign be made in a superstitious way? Of course. But abuse does not take away proper use.
It is historically ignorant, uncharitable, and judgmental to view someone with suspicion because they make the sign of the cross.
It is historically ignorant, uncharitable, and judgmental to view someone with suspicion because they make the sign of the cross. We all have ways of expressing devotion, such as raising a hand; or raising two hands; or stretching out our hands with open palms. For many Christians, the ancient sign of the cross is a meaningful expression of vital piety. If their heart is as your heart, why quibble? Signing oneself can be a way of using one’s physical members to worship God, and to remind oneself and others (if they are present), “I belong to Christ” and “I believe in the Holy Trinity.” For many, it is also a way of remembering their baptism, since some traditions make the sign of the cross over the newly baptized (as in Wesley’s rite above).
For those who struggle with assurance, the sign can have great practical and pastoral benefit. Once, in a moment of intense prayer, feeling the weight of my inadequacy in God’s presence, I instinctively signed myself. It was a way of saying to God, “I need your Son’s atonement every hour,” and an encouraging reminder to me that I am in Christ and covered by his blood, despite my many infirmities.
Finally, some churches are now unaccustomed to the sign of the cross and would be confused, not edified, by its public practice; therefore, those who find themselves in such contexts, but want to make the sign of the cross, would do well to sign themselves privately. I affirm Article 34 of the 39 Articles of Religion, which states, “It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, and utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word” (cf. John Wesley, Sermon 39: “Catholic Spirit”). Article 34 concludes with the Pauline principle “that all things be done to edifying” (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:26).
Some churches are now unaccustomed to the sign of the cross and would be confused, not edified, by its public practice.
This is not to say that an extrabiblical tradition can never be introduced to a church. Many of the extrabiblical traditions that we now cherish were once begun in the face of some suspicion or hesitation. Because of my love for church history, and my deep desire to be grounded in historic Christian doctrine and practice, I would rejoice to see the sign of the cross reclaimed in more churches. However, we should not insist on making the sign in a context where it’s likely to cause confusion or division. Those who are zealous for the traditions of the holy fathers must always have the mind and heart of Christ for his church. All things must be done for building up the body and exalting its faithful head, the Christ of the cross.