What Does It Mean to Worship? (Part 1)

In my last post I reviewed why Catholics make sacred images and often venerate them, and how we understand that does not violate God’s command to not make or bow down to an idol.  We also of course venerate (or honor) the saints, and especially the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The Catholic understanding of that practice was covered here.  Often, these actions on our part lead to claims we worship the saints or these images.  An example of that thinking:

In response to the accusation that they worship Mary and the saints, Catholics will often claim that they “venerate,” not worship, them.  To venerate is to regard with great respect or to revere.  Veneration can be defined as “respect or awe directed toward someone due to his/her value or greatness.”

The simplest definition of worship is to “ascribe worth.”  Worship can be more completely defined as “showing respect, love, reverence, or adoration.”  Based on the dictionary, no clear difference between veneration and worship exists.  In fact, veneration and worship are often used as synonyms for each other.

But dictionary definitions are not the point.  It does not matter what it is called.  The Bible nowhere instructs followers of Jesus Christ to offer worship, veneration, adoration, or anything similar to anyone but God…..

Only God is worthy of worship, adoration, praise (Nehemiah 9:6; Revelation 4:11; 15:4), and veneration, no matter how it is defined.
Read more: http://www.gotquestions.org/veneration.html#ixzz3PQLDIoY0

As I mentioned in my last post, similar claims are also made by some religious groups that many Christians in the US worship the American flag.  They interpret actions like bowing when it is presented, or removing your hat, or placing your hand over your heart and offering a “pledge of allegiance” as signs of worship.  Of course, most US Christians would say that is a mischaracterization of the purpose of their actions.  As Catholics, we would also say claims that we worship the saints or sacred images is a mischaracterization of our beliefs and actions. 

But that does lead us to an important question – what does it mean to worship?  What defines a particular action as worship? 

One of the things I find problematic about the quote above is the view we are not to offer worship, veneration, adoration or “anything similar” to anyone but God.  Yet they provide a more complete definition of worship as “showing respect, love, reverence, or adoration.”  Dictionary.com includes “honor” as a synonym for worship.  There is clearly a very broad spectrum of words that can be considered as similar to worship.  Are we really to believe we should not offer respect, honor, or love to other people because that’s similar to worship?  If one of the definitions of venerate is to “regard with great respect,” are we really saying we shouldn’t offer great respect to others?

If so, that line of thinking would be quite opposed to the concepts we see in Scripture.  We’re told to honor our parents (Exodus 20:12).  St. Paul tells the Romans we should “Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due (Romans 13:7).  He tells the Corinthians to give recognition to those who have labored for Christ (1 Corinthians 16:17-18), the Philippians to honor those in the service of Christ (Philippians 2:29-30), and the Thessalonians to respect those over them in the Lord and to “esteem them very highly in love” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).  We simply can’t take seriously a recommendation that we should offer nothing “similar” to worship to anyone in fear we might cross a line.  Rather, should we not make an intentional effort to understand the line between how we relate to other people and what is truly due only to God?

The Catholic Church drew this line long ago with the Latin terms latria, dulia, and hyper-duliaLatria is adoration – a reverence directed only to the Holy Trinity.  Dulia is the veneration or honor (as commanded by Scripture) that is due to human beings, especially those who lived and died in God’s friendship – the saints.  Hyper-dulia is a term used only for the special honor given to the Virgin Mary, who bore Jesus, God in the flesh, in her womb.  “Hyper” simply means “more than.”  She is honored more than the other saints.  It is greater in degree, but still of the same kind of honor given to the other saints.  It is not the same thing, or a lesser degree of latria, that is due only to God.

In the article cited above, it also notes the line drawn by the Catholic Church between latria that is owed only to God, and dulia that is the honor given to the saints.  But it incorrectly refers to them as different degrees of worship.  That would mean the honor and respect St. Paul tells us is due to specific people is simply another degree of worship, which isn’t true.  We’re back to the question – exactly what defines worship?

The English word “worship,” like most words has experienced a change in meaning over time.  When we are dealing with an ancient religion and ancient church, we always need to be mindful of how language can change over time.  Worship, like the word pray, at one time had a much larger meaning than in general it does today.  Like the word pray, its usage has narrowed over time.  Initially, worship simply meant to show respect or honor.  It’s why in England a judge is still referred to as “your Worship,” while in the US we would say “your Honor.”  It’s why as part of the marriage ceremony from the Anglican 1662 Book of Common Prayer the language was “with this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.”  It’s why when Queen Elizabeth was coronated in 1953, Prince Phillip professed he became her “liege man of life and limb, and of earthly worship.”  Nobody took issue with this language because the word worship had a broader meaning than many give it today.  When reading ancient documents, we have to be very mindful of these changes in language or the time period of a specific translation.  If not, we can reach some very incorrect conclusions.

Even in the Hebrew Scriptures we see the same Hebrew word – shachah used to note both worship of God and honor to others:

Genesis 22:5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship (shachah), and come again to you.” 

Genesis 24:26 The man bowed his head and worshiped (shachah) the Lord

Genesis 18:2 He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him.  When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed (shachah) himself to the earth

Genesis 23:7 Abraham rose and bowed (shachah) to the Hittites, the people of the land.

It is interesting even though the same Hebrew word (shachah) is used in the examples above, if God is the object of the action it is translated as worship, but if it’s other people who are the object the translation is simply to bow.  There are many aspects that can be part of worship when directed to God that are not exclusive to worship.  Bowing is an example.  We can certainly bow to God in worship.  But as we can see above, Abraham bowed to the Hittites, and there is no indication this was considered as worship and not acceptable.  In Psalm 138:2 the psalmist states “I bow down toward thy holy temple and give thanks to thy name for thy steadfast love and thy faithfulness.”  There is no indication that by bowing toward the temple he was in error worshipping the building. 

However, in Revelation 22:8 we see John fell down and worshipped an angel, and the angel corrected him and told him only God was to be worshipped.  We likewise see in Acts 10:25 when the Gentile Cornelius met Peter, he fell down at his feet and worshipped him, and his action was corrected by Peter.  It would seem that falling at the feet of someone has a different Biblical connotation than simply bowing to a person. While it’s clear bowing when directed to God is an action that may be a part of worship, it is not an action that is exclusive to worship.  Bowing to others is very prominent in some cultures as a sign of respect and doesn’t mean worship.  Even in the US it’s common in some regions to give a bow of the head to another to recognize them. 

Prayer is certainly an aspect of worship when directed toward God.  But the meaning of the word “pray” is another word that has narrowed in focus over time.  People “prayed” to each other all the time in previous usages of the word, as was covered here.  Depending on the usage of the word, we cannot say prayer is exclusive or limited to worship. 

Offering praise is another example that is not exclusive to worship.  The quote above says praise should only be offered to God.  Would that mean we should never praise another person for a good they have done?  While the Bible is full of praise to God, we also see Jacob told Judah his brothers would praise him (Genesis 49:8), Moses called for other nations to praise Israel (Deuteronomy 32:43), and St. Paul offered praise to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:2 KJV).  In fact, Scripture even indicates God will honor and praise us (John 12:26, Romans 2:29, 1 Peter 1:6-7) so these things are clearly not exclusive to worship.

There is however one activity in Scripture that is exclusive to worship, and that is to offer sacrifice.  That practice and what it means for our worship today will be covered in my next post.

One thought on “What Does It Mean to Worship? (Part 1)

  1. I am a Catholic, and I think it is misguided for Catholics to deny that they worship saints. The original broad concept of the word worship is still part of the definition of the word, and the Latin word latria is irrelevant for the English word and the Church never taught that only God is to be adored. The word adore means to greatly love and esteem. Catholics greatly love and esteem saints. There are Catholic devotional books by saints that use the word adoration for the veneration of Mary. The Church itself officially shows great love and esteem for saints in its canonization ceremonies and litanies and cults of veneration and masses. The only limits to how much we may love and esteem persons are that we must not love and esteem them more than God or regard them as if they are pagan gods or make sacrifices to them.

    Catholic apologists didn’t start saying that Catholics don’t worship saints until the late 20th century (probably in the 1980s when Catholic Answers was founded) as a response to prots saying that they do, and their explanations are unconvincing to prots, because veneration of saints looks like worship. Its like how Catholic apologists say that Catholics don’t believe they are saved by works but that they believe they are saved by grace alone. That goes against observation and Church doctrine and scripture. The Church and scripture teach that good works have merit before God for justification, and that everyone is judged and rewarded by God according to their works.

    Catholics since the 1960s have a tendency to respond to people’s unjust accusations against them and the Catholic religion and the Church in ways that are contrary to reason and facts and Church doctrine and scripture. Examples of this are Catholics responding to Jews’ accusation of antisemitism by agreeing that the Church was antisemitic and saying that the 2nd Vatican council taught that the jews were not responsible for the death of Christ, and that Jesus and Mary and the apostles are jews; and responding to the accusation that the Church is against science by saying that the Church accepts the big bang theory and evolution theory, admitted that Galileo was right, and that there is no conflict between faith or the Church and science.


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