If we want to learn from church history, we must look at both the errors and the successes of the Christian community. As the saying goes, “those who will not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it,” so today we will look at a set of erroneous views and practices that remain points of contention—the cult of Mary and the saints.
The cult of Mary and the saints refers to those beliefs and practices that view the saints and the Virgin Mary as mediators between God and humanity. The Reformers and their heirs rejected these beliefs and practices, but they play a significant role in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. We are not speaking merely of the desire to honor Mary and those who have gone before us. There is an appropriate way to honor godly people who have influenced the church for good. Paul’s commendations of his fellow-workers and his call for believers to honor those who deserve it indicate that there is a way to honor others in a proper manner without detracting from the Lord’s glory (Rom. 13:7; 16:1–16).
In the cult of Mary and the saints, we see vestiges of hierarchicalism, a view that understands the world primarily in a hierarchical manner. The most important person—the emperor—holds the top place in the hierarchy, followed by noblemen, then merchants, and on down to peasants and slaves. The opposite of hierarchicalism is not the idea that hierarchy is inherently bad; rather, it is the idea that all people are created equal before God, that no person has more of a claim on Him than anyone else. Hierarchicalism in the ancient world said that the higher up on the ladder you were, the closer you were to the divine.
We are always affected by the prevailing worldview, and over time, Christian piety adopted hierarchicalism with respect to the cult of Mary and the saints. In this hierarchy, God is at the top, and just below Him are those who achieved a high degree of sanctification in their lives, followed by those who are less holy, and on down the line. Since the emperor was inclined to listen more readily to those near the top of the hierarchy, it was easy for ancient Christians to think that the Lord would be more disposed to listen to Mary and the saints than He would to the ordinary Christian.
However, asking the departed to make intercession for us, no matter how well-intentioned, cannot be justified on a biblical basis. Scripture calls us to pray to God alone through Christ—the only Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5).