Paganism and Christianity

Do similarities between pagan religions and Christianity dis prove the Christian claims? To understand the relationship between pagan religions and Christianity it is important to understand the Catholic idea of the ‘development of doctrine.’ This was first set out by fifth century theologian Vincent of Lerins.In this excerpt from his writings he explains how truth develops within the church.

This is based in Christ’s statements that he has other things that he cannot tell his disciples now, and his promise that the Holy Spirit would come and would ‘lead them into all truth’. Therefore, truth is something which unfolds gradually over time. The truth doesn’t change, but humanity’s understanding of the truth grows and multiplies. So Vincent of Lerins writes:

Is there to be no development of religion in the Church of Christ? Certainly, there is to be development and on the largest scale… But it must truly be development of the faith, not alteration of the faith.Development means that each thing expands to be itself, while alteration means that a thing is changed from one thing into another.

The understanding, knowledge and wisdom of one and all, of individuals as well as of the whole Church, ought then to make great and vigorous progress with the passing of the ages and the centuries, but only along its own line of development, that is, with the same doctrine, the same meaning and the same import.The religion of souls should follow the law of development of bodies. Though bodies develop and unfold their component parts with the passing of the years, they always remain what they were. There is a great difference between the flower of childhood and the maturity of age, but those who become old are the very same people who were once young. Though the condition and appearance of one and the same individual may change, it is one and the same nature, one and the same person…

Whatever develops at a later age was already present in seminal form; there is nothing new in old age that was not already latent in childhood.There is no doubt, then, that the legitimate and correct rule of development, the established and wonderful order of growth, is this: in older people the fullness of years always brings to completion those members and forms that the wisdom of the Creator fashioned beforehand in their earlier years.

If, however, the human form were to turn into some shape that did not belong to its own nature, or even if something were added to the sum of its members or subtracted from it, the whole body would necessarily perish or become grotesque or at least be enfeebled.

In the same way, the doctrine of the Christian religion should properly follow these laws of development, that is, by becoming firmer over the years, more ample in the course of time, more exalted as it advances in age.

We see this process in the development of doctrine in the Christian Church, but this principle of the development of truth is also evident in the development of religion throughout history. The most primitive form of religion is animism–in which people sense the divine presence within the forces of nature, and they consider the divine presence to be manifested in the natural objects. So they worship the spirits of trees or rivers or they worship the sun god or the moon goddess.This is not completely wrong. It is instead an understandable first step. It is the infant stage of religious consciousness.

It is true that the Divine Presence is evident in the works of creation. In a sense it is also true that the Divine Presence is present within the works of creation. However, in recognizing the immanence of God in creation the animist sometimes misses the transcendence of God.

Animism develops into polytheism–in which the many manifestations of the Divine Presence become individual gods themselves. This is a sort of offshoot of animism. The gods and goddesses take on a life of their own, but these demi-gods are rarely mistaken for the one God.Behind and beneath most forms of polytheism is an implicit (if not conscious) monotheism. There may be many demi gods for the polytheist, but they sense that there is one God to rule them all. This is a development from animism. Things are coming into focus. The reality of multiple god-like beings is recognized and affirmed. What these beings are and what they do and what their relationship to the one Divine Being are is still out of focus. Nevertheless, there is continuity with animism. The religious idea is growing and developing and maturing.

The monotheism of the Hebrews is a startling development, and a fascinating next step. Suddenly, in the midst of the polytheistic paganism of the ancient Middle East the Hebrew God reveals himself as the one God who is over all and in all and who created all. He is the great ‘I AM’–’JAHWEH’–the One who Is–the Source of Being Itself. This monotheism, along with the idea of the One God being a lawgiver and the one who enters into a covenant with his people sealed with a blood sacrifice is a novel step forward in human religious consciousness. However, it is not discontinuous. It follows the principles of proper development and growth–there is a new maturity and a new consciousness developing.

That this One God–the Lawgiver and Covenant maker–the Great Father–then comes into human history in human form is the next great leap forward. The way had been prepared by the pagan myths of the Divine Man–the resurrected one–the Son of a Virgin Mother–a Son of God. Just as there had been whisperings and hints of monotheism within animism, so there were whisperings and hints of the Incarnation of God within the various pagan mythologies and mysteries.The Catholic therefore sees and recognizes the connections between the ancient pagan religions and Christianity, but understands them not as disproving the Christian claims, but on the contrary–as validating them.

The pagan religions were the testing ground. They were the early stages of what came naturally on from them. The continuity therefore with earlier religious forms shows first Judaism, and then Christianity as being a growth in maturity and finally a full flowering of the religious consciousness and understanding.

So, did Christianity develop from paganism? Yes and no. It developed from paganism as a flower grows from a seed. The growth and development process from animism through paganism to Christianity can be traced logically. That this growth and flowering continues within the history and development of the Catholic faith follows logically.

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  • Charles E. Mac Kay

    Sounds like the intro of Paul to the Romans. This was a God that did not ask us to sacrifice ourselves for him but sent His son as a sacrifice of Himself for us.

  • Noah Moerbeek

    In Father Meaghers DD book “How Christ Said the First Mass” he outlines a different perspective on the rise of paganism. Adam passed on the true religion which passed down to his son etc anyway things get out of hand and Noah is left and he passes on the true religion to his sons. His son stayed Faithful and from his lineage came Abraham, of course this lineage is in first chronicles. All forms of religion apart from the Ancient religion started as a corruption of the true Faith.

    If you are interested in reading the book it is past copyright and available at internet archives.

  • TKH

    Well, there is development from the standpoint of human understanding of a mysterious, inexplicable truth, but then there is the actual revelation of God, His revealing of Himself in time, which is not a development. It is an actual occurrence. That point should be made very clear. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the 2nd Person of the Trinity, did not develop. It actually happened. Who the 2nd Person is (our Chalcedonian+ model) has developed however. So, things that actually happened or happen do not develop; our understanding of mysterious and seemingly inexplicable truths tend to develop however.

  • Christian

    Even in 6th grade catechism class we occasionally refer to pre-Christian and pre-Jewish sources of faith and imagery:

  • Marcos Manon

    Dear Father Longenecker,

    C.S. Lewis said that the story of the resurrection was foretold in paganism. Balder, Adonis, and Bacchus contained stories similar to the one in the Bible — of a god coming to earth, dying to save his people, and rising again from the dead.

    Could you direct my study with some resources that amplifies this theme and a blog?

    Marcos Manon

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    read the linked articles on my blog post to start with.

  • MT

    Protestants are fond of accusing Catholicism of being pagan and therefore false. The thing that Catholicism does in all cases is to distinguish truth from falsehood. The Church recognized the human truths that existed before Christ and then brought those truths into the faith. She brings into her fold not the false aspects of paganism, but the human aspects that remain true at all times in history. Part of the job of the Catholic Church is to relentlessly pursue truth wherever it exists. Protestantism rejects the humanness in ritual, tradition, and authority. Protestantism thus rejects certain truths of human nature. Rejecting truth can only end in falsehood.

  • Ismael

    If there was no trace of the True Faith in paganism it would mean that God would have abbandoned mankind, making only an exception for the Jews until Christ.

    Although, in a way, the Jews were an exception as the ones chosen to receive God’s direct revelation, God did not abbandon the rest of mankind to itself.

    It follows only logically that God has guided mankind as a whole, even when He did not reveal Himself directly to the people.

    AHowever, even if there are similarities, Christianity (and Judaism before it) did bring domething completely new and original to the table.

    Many make reference to the resurrections of Osiris or Adonis and others but at closer inspection Jesus’ Resurrection is something very much different than the ‘resurrection’ stories of these pagan gods.

    —-C.S. Lewis said that the story of the resurrection was foretold in paganism. Balder, Adonis, and Bacchus contained stories similar to the one in the Bible — of a god coming to earth, dying to save his people, and rising again from the dead.—

    Actually that is WRONG.
    Balder, Adonis, and Bacchus did not come to earth to “save their people”… certainly not in a Christian sense, anyway.
    Nor did they die because of a ‘willing sacrifice’ as Jesus did.

    So let’s be careful before drawing parallels that really are NOT there except some marginal similarities.

    There is also the problem that some pagan stories COPIED Christianity. For example the story where Bacchus/Dyonisus turns water into wine is borrowed from Christianity and not vice versa as the texts referring to this ‘miracle’ by Bacchus were writtien in post-Christ times not pre-Christ.

  • SteveD

    I have always been interested in the general need of mankind to make sacrifices which has been evident in most (all?) ancient cultures. In the 1970′s it was reported that, when Norwegian fishermen who returned to port to hear that the nation had voted against entry into the European Union, they returned to sea and threw back their catch in thanksgiving. They did not, note, do so as a Christian act but presumably in response to some ancient impulse to thank fate, providence, the gods, whatever.. It impressed me that this must be something inbuilt in man that caused this act. The South American civilisations that indulged in human sacrifice apparently readily accepted the concept of the sacrifice Jesus made of Himself when the missionaries told them of it. I’d love to know more about this subject.

  • Gia

    And don’t forget the brief appearance of monotheism during the reign of Akhenaten in Egypt, which led to a dramatic, more naturalistic shift in art and architecture. There are similarities between Akhenaten’s “Hymn to the Aten” and Psalm 104 — and there Hebrews in Egypt at the time. You can debate the exact amount of intercultural transference, but it’s a fascinating slice of religious history.

  • Ken Fast

    Growing up in South America, I was able to explore the Inca ruins, and even at a young age that made quite an impression on me. So I wondered about this whole question for many years, and my quest finally led me to a university major in cultural anthropology. On the basic question, Don Richardson wrote a book “Eternity in their Hearts” which might be of interest to you on this subject as he draws from numerous ancient traditions to make the point that the ancient religions were a preparation for the gospel of Christ (the writing style is overly flamboyant but it serves as a good reference with footnotes). In more depth, Joseph Ratzinger’s book “Introduction to Christianity” shows how the New Testament turns everything upside down — including the pagan concept of sacrifice. Very much worth the read.

  • S.J.

    “Development means that each thing expands to be itself, while alteration means that a thing is changed from one thing into another.”

    Reading this, it immediately sprang to my mind that is the essential difference between the theory of evolution and the ancient doctrine of special creation.

  • 9thCenturion

    Within a world of limited dimensions, it was only a matter of time before the expression of a common nature becomes repetitive. The same for a common evolution so bound is to be expected. That some stagnate does not change this fact nor prove the presence of the Holy Ghost.

    In fact, the Catholic Church is filled with priests, bishops and popes who “went backward” along pagan lines of sin.

    The truths and Christ’s life were no more evolutionary to mankind than His miracles and Sacrifice. And He is always the one who brought mankind back. Not the evolution or commonality of man.

  • Jude

    What do you think Fr?

    Paganism will be enforced on all of God’s Churches

    Please I beg you take a second and let us know,

    thank you for your time JMJ Jesus bless your sacred servant

  • barbaryan priest

    Christianity split from paganism of Adamites of Jehovah, the human species that came from Adam. When Christians came to power they being totalitarian started destroying manuscripts and priests related to other indigenous faiths of other human species not blood related to Adam and Eve, all info and people that could expose Christian lies was destroyed. Now modern Christian speak of humankind as if human species here have the same origin totally ignorant of the fact that other humans existed here long before Jehovah started making his own creatures on this planet, who are one of many really.
    Therefore Christianity is a hammer of judaic paganism used to destroy other non Abrahamic paganisms.