Charles Hodge on Roman Catholic Idolatry

Screen Shot 2013-12-09 at 11.37.28 AMI recently found some genuine insight, new to me at least, in Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology. I offer it here not merely so you can stack up some ammo for debate, ammo you may never get to use anyway, but so you yourself can by God’s grace obey the second of the ten commandments. I’ll be preaching on that commandment next week, and I’m very excited to dig into it again.

My only possible criticism of Hodge is that he sets up a definition of idolatrous worship by which he evaluates Catholic veneration of saints, but he doesn’t (at least in this section of his ST) argue for that definition. The definition makes sense to me, however.

Romanists are accustomed to distinguish between the cultus civilis due to earthly superiors; δουλεία [douleia, service] due to saints and angels; ὑπερδουλεία [hyperdouleia] due to the Virgin Mary; and λατρεία [latreia, worship] due to God alone. These distinctions, however, are of little use. They afford no criterion by which to distinguish between δουλεία [douleia] and ὑπερδουλεία [hyperdouleia] and between ὑπερδουλεία [hyperdouleia] and λατρεία [latreia]. The important principle is this: Any homage, internal or external, which involves the ascription of divine attributes to its object, if that object be a creature, is idolatrous. Whether the homage paid by Romanists to saints and angels be idolatrous is a question of fact rather than of theory; that is, it is to be determined by the homage actually rendered, and not by that which is prescribed. It is easy to say that the saints are not to be honoured as God is honoured; that He is to be regarded as the original source and giver of all good, and they as mere intercessors, and as channels of divine communications; but this does not alter the case if the homage rendered them assumes that they possess the attributes of God; and if they are to the people the objects of religious affection and confidence.

His next insight  is helpful, too, but of course a Catholic will reply that they do have divine revelation—through tradition and the magisterial office of the pope. So this criticism works, and I do think it works, only if one assumes a Protestant bibliology.

If in fact departed saints are not authorized and not enabled to hear and answer the prayers of suppliants on earth, then the people are in the condition of those who trust in gods who cannot save, who have eyes that see not, and ears that cannot hear. That the saints have no such office as the theory and practice of invocation suppose is plain, because the fact if true cannot be known except by divine revelation. But no such revelation exists. It is a purely superstitious belief, without the support of either Scripture or reason.

When Hodge gets specific about what divine attributes Catholics ascribe to saints, his arguments gets clearer. It really would take divine revelation to tell us that finite human beings become capable of hearing thousands of simultaneous prayers from people on earth.

The invocation of saints as practised in the Church of Rome is idolatrous. Even if it be conceded that the theory as expounded by theologians is free from this charge, it remains true that the practice involves all the elements of idolatry. Blessings are sought from the saints which God only can bestow; and attributes are assumed to belong to them which belong to God alone. Every kind of blessing, temporal and spiritual, is sought at their hands, and sought directly from them as the givers. This [Catholic apologist Robert] Bellarmin admits so far as the words employed are concerned. He says it is right to say: “Holy Peter, save me; open to me the gates of heaven; give me repentance, courage,” etc. God alone can grant these blessings; the people are told to seek them at the hands of creatures. This is idolatry. Practically it is taken for granted that the saints are everywhere present, that they can hear prayers addressed to them from all parts of the earth at the same time; that they know our thoughts and unexpressed desires. This is to assume that they possess divine attributes. In fact, therefore, the saints are the gods whom the people worship, whom they trust, and who are the objects of the religious affections.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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