Substance and solidarity, that’s what many of us desire in the wake of “evangelicalism’s” growing identity crisis. We seek something more than an amorphous and superficial spirituality driven all too often by pragmatism, consumerism, celebrity, and entertainment. Wearied by all this trendiness, a growing number of us stand by the road asking for the ancient paths (Jer 6:16). Retrieving the sign of the cross offers one potential way of both expressing cohesion with the early church and enriching the substance of our own spirituality. Yet retrieving the sign form the ancient church doesn’t mean we simply mimic our predecessors, but implies an attempt to reflect critically on how their practical piety may emerge faithfully in our own theological context. Thus, from the situation of contemporary “evangelicalism,” three main objections frame our retrieval of the sign.
A Roman Catholic Practice, Right?
Of course, Catholics sign the cross, but the origin of the practice stems from the ancient church, long before what we now call Roman Catholicism. Tertullian (ca. 150-225) witnesses to the common use of the practice in his day, implying a genesis sometime closer to the apostolic period (cf. De Corona, 3). The Eastern Fathers too, like Athanasius (ca. 296-373), Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. 313-387), and John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407) all testify to the widespread use of the sign among their churches. The tradition clearly shows Christians employing the sign over the broadest geography, centuries before the medieval church. Furthermore, the Protestant Reformation doesn’t represent a break with the ancient church, but with the abuses of the Roman Church. Therefore, Luther on the continent and Thomas Cranmer in England both retain the sign of the cross for Christian piety (cf. Book of Concord, 363-64; Book of Common Prayer 1549). Down to the present, evangelicals in the Protestant tradition like John R. W. Stott, for example, keep the ancient practice. The sign of the cross is thus “catholic” in the best sense of the word, potentially instilling a deeper sense of solidarity with the church universal.
There’s No Chapter and Verse!
Many Protestants in the Reformed tradition reject the sign of the cross on the basis of the regulative principal. Since the Bible nowhere prescribes the practice, they reason, it has no legitimate place in worship. Yet, we should remember that no single author of Scripture explicitly expounds or enjoins belief in the Trinity either. Nevertheless, every orthodox believer rightly affirms the Bible’s God is Triune. The point is that the Bible may inspire certain legitimate beliefs and practices without prescription or explicit exposition from the biblical authors. Of course, I’m not suggesting the sign of the cross emerges with the same innate canonical force as the Trinity, but it does bear some biblical warrant. Tracing the sign of the cross with my right hand from forehead to sternum and shoulder to shoulder evokes many biblical images. For example, just as signs on the forehead and hand recall God’s redemption in the Exodus (Ex 13:8-16), so the sign of the cross recalls the new exodus God achieves in Christ (1 Cor 5:7,8; John 19:32-36). Ezekiel and John’s imagery of God sealing his elect on their forehead is further suggestive (Ezek 9:15; Rev 7:3; 14:1). For the early church, the sign of the cross ultimately evokes one’s baptism, regeneration, and sealing with the Holy Spirit (e.g. John 3:1-8; Titus 3:4-6; Eph 1:13, 14). The sign also serves as a deliberate way of putting on the “helmet of salvation” against the powers and principalities (Eph 6: 17).
Superstitious Incantation, No?
Admittedly, Tertullian’s account of believers crossing themselves at every turn sounds superstitious at first glance (cf. De Corona, 3). Perhaps this is why the fathers so often stress the sign profits nothing without faith. For example, Athanasius insists the sign properly directs the eye of faith heavenward (De Incanatione, 31). Likewise, Chrysostom exhorts believers to trace the sign not merely with fingers but with the heart’s firm purpose and faith (Gospel of Matthew, Homely 54). Augustine too, warns his people about the vanity of tracing the cross without Christ and his Word abiding as intimates (Tractates on the Gospel of John, 50.2). Any religious rite may become an empty rabbit’s foot. But, just because some people employ the sign naively doesn’t mean the habit itself is superstitious. In fact, on further reflection, John Stott’s conclusion on Tertullian’s account rings true. “In origin at least, the sign of the cross was intended to identify and indeed sanctify each act as belonging to Christ” (Cross of Christ, 28). Furthermore, the dominate truth evoked by the sign among the fathers is that of Christus Victor. Tracing the cross reminds us that through the waters of baptism we share in Christ’s victory over the devil and his angels. Marked by Christ’s blood, sealed with the Spirit, we can trample on serpents and scorpions by his power. Thus, signing ourselves at the beginning and end of the day, as Luther suggested (Book of Concord, 363-64), may indeed help frame our days more deliberately under Christ’s reign.