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.
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.