As I serve in ministry and especially when the holidays approach, I’m often surprised by the number of articles and advocates I come across on any number of topics associating certain beliefs and practices with paganism. Reference to paganism is often used as a primary argument against the practice of everything from Christmas, to wearing jewelry, to photography as a form of making a graven image. In the discussion that follows, I argue for a shift in our approach from relegating things to paganism to evaluating them on the basis of Biblical principles. I hope to demonstrate that relegating ideas to paganism is itself symptomatic of a pagan understanding infecting one’s Christian belief and practice.
When Protestantism arose, the Christian groups that differentiated from Catholicism also differed in their understanding of how grace reaches the individual. This shift followed Martin Luther’s emphasis that the just shall live by faith. Many protestants came to recognize that a priest is not necessary to convey grace and forgiveness to the individual in confession. The sinner can go and pray directly to Jesus (Heb 4:14–16; 1 John 1:9). Part of this differentiation process extends to other areas of the Christian life as well, but before we look at those, we first need to understand what sacraments are at a fundamental level.
The Catholic church, like many religions steeped in philosophy, teaches that sacraments convey grace. That is, the performance of certain rituals or actions are the means by which grace is transferred to the believer’s account. This transactional view is interesting because it bears a striking similarity to how other pagan religions work. For example, in Hinduism, if your crops are failing due to drought, you might worship, perform a ritual, and bring the appropriate sacrifice to the deity associated with rain in the hope that rain might fall. The overarching perspective is that by your actions, you might be able to make your deity serve your purposes. Here, human beings interact with and control reality by performing religious rites to entice the gods to act. There is an inherent continuity common in pagan myth between the idol and reality. If something looks the same or sounds the same, it is the same. So in pagan thought, since an idol looks like Baal it is considered Baal. This is the basis behind divination. The Biblical prophetic voice argues against this continuity as seen in the sacrificial service which pointed forward to Christ’s death, rather than representing a live enactment of a heavenly sacrifice on a regular basis. Furthermore, God exposes the illogical nature of such ideologies in Isaiah 44:9–20. An example of pagan continuity is seen in 1 Kings 18:26–29 where the pagan prophets of Baal sought to bring response by inciting Baal’s sympathy through forms of divination including dancing, crying aloud, and even cutting themselves. In stark contrast stood the true prophetic voice where all that was necessary was Elijah’s humble prayer soliciting the aid of God (vv.36–38). Elijah knew he could not force God’s will; he knew that divination was both meaningless and forbidden by God (Deut 18:10–14; Isa 8:19).
So how did this begin to creep into the church? Augustine taught that sacraments are “outward signs of inward grace, instituted by Christ for our sanctification.” This might not sound so bad, for example, if you view the choice to be baptized as the “outward sign” of the inward grace where God has worked within one’s life bringing them to the point of deciding to follow Jesus in baptism. However, the way in which this teaching is both understood and applied in Catholicism is quite different. Performance of an “outward sign” came to be viewed as the actual conduit through which the inward grace became a reality. As a result, one might participate in the mass as a way to bring about cleansing. Similarly, one might purchase an indulgence as an extra-sacramental means of obtaining remission of punishment from sin. Such practices, of course, did not necessarily equate to a change of heart. Sacraments and the like were ultimately works-based-merit-conduits. The idea of pagan continuity is here preserved.
It is also interesting to note that a lot of the characteristics of continuity are not unknown to Islam. Merit can be derived through participation in holy days (e.g. Ramadan), going to holy places (e.g. Mecca) or participating in holy practices (e.g. ritual prayer). Besides Mecca and the Qur’an, Muslims don’t typically subscribe to the idea that objects can be holy. In Catholicism, one might make a pilgrimage to Rome or other “holy” sites where apparitions of Mary have occurred. Statues of saints and symbols, in general, tend to hold a greater level of meaning because of how merit is associated with actions and objects by many. Generally speaking, the benefits provided through such avenues are ultimately seen as originating from God, but the entire system bears a striking resemblance to the pagan, rather than the prophetic voice of Scripture.
As Martin Luther studied the Bible, his thinking began to shift to where he ultimately rejected most of the sacraments, except for The Lord’s Supper and baptism, which he retained. Penance, confirmation, marriage, holy orders (ordination), and extreme unction (anointing) were rejected as sacraments. Today, how Protestantism relates to each of these obviously varies by denomination. In Seventh-day Adventism, the entire notion of pagan continuity and performing something as a conduit of grace is categorically rejected from a theological perspective, even though the practice and understanding among Adventist individuals may vary based on the influences of their prior religious background.
As time went on and separation from Rome increased, some of this influence decreased, but much of it is still alive and well today. Infant baptism persists in most denominations as a means of ensuring the salvation of the infant in case of death. Sunday observance as a worship day is frequently seen more as an activity demonstrating how “Christian” you are, rather than representing the outflow of a rich relationship with God. After the weekly church service has been attended, life as usual typically resumes for the rest of the day.
So how is it with Adventism? Where do we see the influence of the pagan voice and philosophy in Adventist theology? Adventism retains many practices that appear to share things in common with Catholic practice. This is not inherently bad because the underlying theology is different. Adventists navigate topics like baptism, ordination, observance of the Sabbath, holidays, etc. not on a basis or theological foundation of merit, but based on principles seen in Scripture. So, rather than baptizing infants as a means of saving them, we recognize that the experience of salvation is a result of free choice in response to God’s saving grace. Consequently, we practice baptism once an individual is capable of making that decision with intentionality and comprehension in imitation of the Biblical example. Baptism is performed not in order to produce salvation, but as a recognition of an existing saving relationship with Christ. This sequence is a key contrast when compared with both pagan divination and sacraments which usually reverse it.
The Bible generally avoids suggesting that objects have properties akin to a sacrament for the purpose of conveying grace because this would tend to set the stage for idolatry. Even the bronze serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness later had to be destroyed by Hezekiah because people were burning incense to it (1 Kings 18:4). In Scripture, people and objects are attributed with holiness not because they convey inherent grace, but because God aims for us to live or treat things differently as a means of recognizing or understanding the need for reverence towards God (Lev 10:10). Apart from God, holiness is never inherent but derived from God alone who is holy (cf. Lev 19:2; 20:8). Uzzah died not because he touched a physical object alone, but because of how he related irreverently to something that God had set apart as a place where His presence was made manifest (2 Sam 6:6–7; Ex 25:22, Num 4:15; Patriarchs and Prophets, p.706).
The Sabbath which was sanctified (made holy) also derives its holiness from God (Gen 2:3). This reason, combined with the Fourth Commandment is the basis for our observance of the Sabbath on Saturday. Some might say that we choose not to worship on Sunday because it is pagan, but this imports a conduit-based sacramental view. We observe the Sabbath on Saturday not because Sunday is pagan, but because God has asked us to observe it on Saturday as a reminder that God alone sanctifies us (Ezek 20:12). Sabbath-keeping is, therefore, the antithesis of a sacrament as a works-based-merit-conduit. True Sabbath-keeping merely serves as the sign of the ongoing reality that God is sanctifying the heart. Incidentally, if you arbitrarily observe the Sabbath, you risk adopting a sacramental mindset.
Returning to the broader topic, doing or not doing something because of mystical pagan associations ultimately reverts one back to utilizing a worldview where _________ [you fill in the blank] itself becomes a conduit of good or evil. This is just a subtle hybrid of modern divination and is not in harmony with the teaching and practices of the prophets throughout Scripture. Adventists reject the sacramental rationale for religious practice that would subscribe to any kind of inherent mystical or magical power in favor of evaluating them on the basis of Biblical principles instead. As we have seen, baptism is not inherently what saves us, but represents the choice to follow Jesus who saves us. Choosing to not be baptized might suggest a corresponding set of questions concerned with the state of one’s relation to Christ, but the key is to recognize that baptism is not the cause of relationship, but simply an outward demonstration of what is supposed to already be in place when such a commitment is made. Along similar lines, ordination is not a permanent soul modification as in Catholicism which places an individual on a higher hierarchical plane but is instead the recognition that God has set someone aside for a particular role as a servant ministering to others (Matt 10:25–26).
With this understanding in place, the question must be asked, how might an Adventist in line with the prophetic voice approach each of the following topics from a positive, principle-focused perspective, rather than a pagan perspective?
- Holidays. Are a day’s pagan origins sufficient to discredit it? Is it wrong to spend a particular day celebrating something positive because of someone’s historical misuse of the same day? What about the probability that every day of the year has likely been celebrated by a pagan at some point?
- Objects associated with holidays. Does the fact that trees have been misused in the past moderate their use in the present? Is it wrong to have a Christmas tree because of past associations? What about climbing a tree? Who governs what something means?
- Communion, and in particular, the disposal of the emblems. What is the function of burying unused portions of the bread and wine after celebrating the Lord’s Supper, given that we do not believe in transubstantiation?
- Ordination and ministerial hierarchy. How do we understand the function of ordination? Does it differ from, say, baptism in terms of being a recognition of an existing and observed reality? If it increases one’s rank and/or authority, upon what basis might that be explained with Biblical principles?
- Wedding bands vs. Jewelry. Is it the raw materials themselves when formed into the shape of jewelry that makes them wrong, or do we evaluate such questions based on principles such as pride and status as opposed to humility and function?
- Culture. Is all cultural practice something to be categorically avoided as opposed to Scripture, or should we evaluate each practice through the lens of Biblical principles?
- Church. Is a church sanctuary inherently holy, or do we set certain areas apart at certain times (or all the time) in recognition that God seeks to connect with us there? Does this differ from a context where church is held under a tree or in a hall? If a building once used as a church is sold, we also recognize that it may be used differently in the future depending on to whom it is sold. What about spaces that are rented by church plants before a permanent church is later established?
More dialogue is necessary, and certainly much more could be added to this list, but the major key is to navigate each area of life by establishing belief on the basis of Biblical principles. This will do far more to engage and weigh the real issues than by utilizing pagan philosophical rationales as a basis for exclusion.
What are some topics you would add to the list above that are often evaluated largely based on guilt by association with paganism? Post your responses in the comments section below.
. John Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 48.
. Daniel J. Kennedy, “Sacraments,” ed. Charles G. Herbermann et al., The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church (New York, NY: Robert Appleton Company, 1913), https://www.catholic.com/encyclopedia/Sacraments.
. William H. Kent, “Indulgences,” ed. Charles G. Herbermann et al., The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church (New York, NY: Robert Appleton Company, 1913), https://www.catholic.com/encyclopedia/indulgences.