When my wife and I began dating some seventeen years ago, one of the first things we discussed was religion. She was Catholic at the time, and a great number of her family still are. I would attend Mass with her and go to her family functions. While her pee-paw lived, he’d always offer the blessing for the meals at family gatherings since he was viewed as a patriarch of sorts. He’d begin by invoking the Trinity, “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.” While invoking the Trinity, he and others present would sign themselves with the cross. They’d begin at their foreheads, work down to their hearts, and then cross each shoulder beginning with the left and ending on the right. Eastern Orthodoxy begins with the right shoulder and ends with the left for reasons unrelated to this article.
The earliest source I could find that mentioned Christians crossing themselves is in the writings of the African theologian, Tertullian (c. AD 201). In his work On Crowns (De Corona), Tertullian mentioned crossing oneself. First, allow me to give context. On Crowns focused on a Christian who served in the military. It was customary for soldiers to wear laurel crowns at certain times. However, on one occasion, a Christian objected to wearing the crown on the basis of being a Christian. As a result, this Christian was stripped of his military regalia for refusing to don the laurel crown as a soldier and, subsequently, put in prison. The reason for this Christian’s refusal was what Tertullian investigated.
The wearing of the laurel crown coincided with “the bounty of our most excellent emperors” (Coron. 1), which likely referred to a pagan or unchristian association given the heathenness of the emperors then. He wrote that some justified wearing the crown on the basis that the Scriptures didn’t forbid it, but, he retorted, it was on the basis of the Scriptures not enjoining the wearing of the crown that it should be denied. Here we see an early argument regarding the silence of the Scriptures. Tertullian advocated that since the Scriptures didn’t enjoin one to wear the crown that they should not do so. He wrote, “I should … say that what has not been freely allowed is forbidden” (Coron. 2). However, you and I will find it ironic that he mentioned crossing oneself when the Scriptures also do not enjoin such. Nevertheless, tradition held sway alongside Scripture for Tertullian and those in that time (Coron. 3).
While mentioning Christian living, he wrote, “In all ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign” (Coron. 3). His insistence on tradition having authority alongside Scripture appears in the next chapter when he wrote, “If, for [this] and other such rules, you insist upon having positive Scripture injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom as their strengthener, and faith as their observer” (Coron. 4). I will eagerly contend that we have traditions too that have no scriptural basis. For example, the song of invitation is a tradition as is announcements during a worship service. Do either contradict Scripture? No. However, they do serve a Christian purpose, and crossing oneself served a Christian purpose then and now for those who do/did it.
In his work On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Tertullian explained the purpose of crossing oneself. As he wrote about how acts in the flesh benefited the soul, he stated that the flesh is washed to cleanse the soul in baptism, that the flesh was anointed to consecrate the soul, and that the flesh is signed with the cross “that the soul too may be fortified” (Resurr. 8). It isn’t so much that crossing oneself is necessary to fortifying the soul, but that it was a gesture meant to strengthen the believer. If one finds strength in such a gesture, surely there can’t be any harm to it since it doesn’t defy any principle of Scripture. Some kiss their Bibles, others wear crosses, and others tattoo themselves as a reminder of their faith. Do these work any ontological benefit to the state of one’s soul? No. Baptism, however, is biblically explained as benefiting the soul through faith in Christ, so the same cannot be said of it as I say of crossing oneself. However, the early church held a different opinion than I state here regarding crossing oneself.
Cyprian of Carthage (c. AD 200–258) studied the writings of Tertullian, but he held a different opinion of the sign of the cross. Keep in mind that Cyprian’s many writings commanded the observance of infant Chrismation. He believed that only those who’d been reborn and signed with the sign of Christ could escape judgment (Demet. 22). Augustine (c. AD 354–430) held a similar opinion (In evang. Ioh. 118). Others were not as insistent on the sign of the cross carrying a soteriological benefit as Cyprian and Augustine had. Lactantius (c. AD 240–320) saw it akin to Tertullian. He believed that the sign of the cross was to overcome Satan and give glory to God (Div. inst. 4.27).
I believe the great takeaway from this is precisely that the cross, an instrument of destruction, judgment, and death, was redeemed through Christ having hung upon one. On the cross was the Christian’s rallying cry. We find that our sins are dealt with at the cross, and that through it death is defeated by the death that Christ died and His subsequent resurrection. By invoking this symbol that brought God’s spiritual benefits to humanity, the believer conferred the same message to whatever they crossed. They belonged to God, and the element(s) signed with the cross were dedicated to holy purposes.