Saturday, April 30, 2011

Saints...but not always saintly

Growing up Roman Catholic meant hearing the names of various "saints" all the time. It appears John Paul II will soon be made a saint by the Roman Church. I get a kick out of one of the reports concerning his candidacy as a saint-

The beatification is taking place despite a steady drumbeat of criticism about the record-fast speed with which John Paul is being honored, and continued outrage about the clerical abuse scandal: Many of the crimes and cover-ups of priests who raped children occurred on John Paul's 27-year watch. But Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, the retired head of the Vatican's saint-making office who presided over the investigation into John Paul's life for the beatification, said Saturday the pope couldn't be held responsible for something he didn't know about. (NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press)

It's not the opposition to JPII's sainthood (on the basis of the RC child abuse scandal), that I get a kick out of, of course. Nor does the "head" of the Church's ignorance about a widespread sexual abuse situation evoke any kind of amusement in me. No, it's the "saint-making office"reference that strikes me funny.

I don't object with calling various figures in church history "Saint". St. Paul, St. Peter, St. James, etc. I do object with the idea that some Christians are saints and others are not. Anyone cleansed by the blood of Christ through faith is a saint. In Roman Catholic theology, the saints are in heaven. In the Bible, the saints are on earth (unless referring to their memory). In Roman Catholic teaching, a person becomes a saint when they are “beatified” or “canonized” after death by the Pope or the Vatican's saint-making office, as it were. In Scripture, everyone who has faith in Jesus Christ is a saint. In Romanism, the saints are revered, prayed to, and in some instances, worshipped. In the Bible, saints are called to revere, worship, and pray to God alone.

It is important to note, however, Scripture refers to Christians as saints but also calls Christians to live like saints. Understanding what this means comes from a knowing what the term "saint" literally means. The word “saint” comes from the Greek word hagios, which means “consecrated to God, holy, sacred, pious, holy." It is almost always used in the plural- "holy ones". So, people are positionally holy when they are in union with Christ by faith, but they are also called to live out their position by practicing holiness in this life. We can be reasonably sure saints were not people chosen by a group of bishops as the term is used extensively in the New Testament before very many bishops (elders) were appointed. The whole of the New Testament was written before 70 AD (95 AD at the latest), so the NT usage of "saint" refers to living Christians unless referring to the memory of a Christian who died.

Philippians 4:21 Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you

We're saints by virtue of union with Christ by faith...but we ain't always too saintly.


Zach said...

Tony, riffing off a careless expression from the Associated Press (that the Vatican has a "saint-making office") is kind of a lame thing to do. Don't you have better sources?

Surely you are aware that the Catholic Church in no way claims that its canonization process "makes" a saint. Rather, when the Church canonizes someone, it is publicly recognizing that the person is already a saint.

And surely you realize that, in declaring one person a saint, the Church does not imply that, as you write, "others are not." The Church has canonized, at most, a few thousand saints. Do you really think it teaches that only those few thousand people are in heaven? Come on.

Also, contrary to what you assert, the Catholic Church does not reserve the term saint only to those who are in heaven. The Catechism reads: "'What is the Church if not the assembly of all the saints?' The communion of the saints is the Church."

And help me out with the distinction you see between the Catholic Church using the word saint to refer to a Christian who has died -- and the Bible using the word saint to refer to, in your words, "the memory of a Christian who died." Those pretty much sound like the same thing to me.

I'm sorry if I sound a bit ornery, but your post comes across as nothing more than an exercise in ax-grinding.

Woody Woodward said...

Referring individually to many brave Russian speaking warriors for Christ, that my book was built around, I remember the person doing the editing had a fit, almost demanded that I change my wording! As I told of those who suffered and many paid the ultimate price for their uncompromising testimonies for Christ, she was appalled that I referred to these brave believers as “Saints”. Believers are referred to as Saints in God’s Word, and they are remembered as Saints in my words.

Reepicheep said...


Admittedly, much of my perspective on the Roman Church comes from my own experience having grown up Romanist for 18 plus years. I wasn't a casual Romanist, I had meaningful interaction with a particular nun, and two priests in my parish. We had many conversations about various things all the way through to the time I left for college. Since then I continue to interact with various Romanists. Ironically, the only ones who argue like you do, are former Reformed folk who actually still function confessionally. Most Romanists are clueless about their catechism or what their authorities think or said. Former Reformed folk make the most ardent papist defenders...largely because they still think like confessionalists...which is interesting...maybe a future post.

But to your point- I was unaware the Romanism sees every Christian as a saint. I was never taught that. I was under the impression the "communion of the saints" was a reference to a communion "regular" Christians could be part of, but the saints were those special ones (the few thousand, as you say). My bad if Romanism teaches, like the bible, that all Christians are saints. That still leaves me scratching my head about the beatification process or canonizing of people like JPII...seems like at least a hierarchy to me. If regular Christians can be saints according to Romanism, they better get that clarification out's not understood that way by my Romanist friends (who weren't previously reformed).

As for my statement about saints being a reference to dead Christians, I mean how Scripture will speak of the "dead in Christ" as the saints in Mt. 27 are referred to- the bodies of the "saints" who had died.Also, in Revelation, there is reference to the blood of the saints..this means Christians who died.

Oh, and yeah...I guess I do have an axe to grind with such practices. Sorry.

Zach said...

Thanks for your reply, Tony. I just now happened upon a catechesis Pope Benedict gave a couple of weeks ago called On Everyone's Call to Be a Saint. This sounds like what you're looking for:

"What does it mean to be saints? Who is called to be a saint? Often it is thought that holiness is a goal reserved for a few chosen ones. St. Paul, however, speaks of God's great plan and affirms: '[God] chose us in him [Christ], before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him. In love he destined us' (Ephesians 1:4). And he speaks of all of us. At the center of the divine design is Christ, in whom God shows his Face: the Mystery hidden in the centuries has been revealed in the fullness of the Word made flesh. And Paul says afterward: 'For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell' (Colossians 1:19). In Christ the living God has made himself close, visible, audible, tangible so that all can obtain his fullness of grace and truth (cf. John 1:14-16). . .

"Because of this, the whole of Christian existence knows only one supreme law, the one St. Paul expresses in a formula that appears in all his writings: in Christ Jesus. Holiness, the fullness of Christian life does not consist of realizing extraordinary enterprises, but in union with Christ, in living his mysteries, in making our own his attitudes, his thoughts, his conduct. The measure of holiness is given by the height of holiness that Christ attains in us, of how much, with the strength of the Holy Spirit, we mold all our life to his. It is our conforming ourselves to Jesus, as St. Paul affirms: 'For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son' (Romans 8:29). And St. Augustine exclaimed: 'My life will be alive full of You' (Confessions, 10, 28). . .

"However, the question remains: How can we journey on the path of holiness, how can we respond to this call? Can I do so with my own strength? The answer is clear: A holy life is not primarily the fruit of our own effort, of our actions, because it is God, the thrice Holy (cf. Isaiah 6:3), who makes us saints, and the action of the Holy Spirit who encourages us from within; it is the life itself of the Risen Christ, which has been communicated to us and which transforms us. To say it again according to Vatican Council II: 'The followers of Christ are called by God, not because of their works, but according to His own purpose and grace. They are justified in the Lord Jesus, because in the baptism of faith they truly become sons of God and sharers in the divine nature. In this way they are really made holy. Then too, by God's gift, they must hold on to and complete in their lives this holiness they have received'"

Reepicheep said...

Thanks Zach.

A couple observations:
1. This pericope from the catechesis seems to imply that Christians become saints over time as they are holy? This differs from the biblical notion that a person is a saint by virtue of their union with Christ. I think this probably strikes at the RC difference with the Reformed concerning infused righteousness over imputed righteousness. We think imputed righteousness (of Christ) makes us positionally holy immediately, and hence saints. The RC notion seems to imply a process a person goes through.
2. There seems to be two tiers of saints for RC's. "Regular" Christians are in some way "saints" (small "s"), whereas some elite group of super Christian is a "Saint" (big "S") and go through a beatification process, etc. I still don't get how Joan of Arc got through that process...but hey.

Anyways, it's helpful to learn RC's think there is a way to refer to Christians as saints in general, while I would quibble with the details of what that means as per what you posted. I am reasonably sure most RC's don't know that all Christians are in some way saints.

Zach said...

I think most Christians (of whatever stripe) would acknowledge that believers can and should grow, develop, and mature in holiness as God conforms them to Himself over time. This is necessarily a "process a person goes through." Do you deny that God works in this way?

And yes, I have no problem recognizing that certain Christians have been heroic in their conformity to Christ -- and are thus to be remembered, cherished and emulated. You yourself elevate certain Christians above others when you hang images of Calvin, Luther, and Knox on the wall. Call them "Saints," call them "elite Christians," call them "magisterial Reformers," call them what you will, but I don't see you contemplating pictures of random, unknown Christians on the wall.

Reepicheep said...

Sanctification is the process God uses to make a believer more and more like Christ.

Sanctification isn't what makes a person a saint, however. Christ's righteousness imputed to a person is what makes them a saint or "holy one".

I don't think there's good reason to give special "saintly" designation to one believer over an other. Further, praying to any dead "saint" makes no biblical sense (to put it mildly). Historical appreciation for a person is one thing, acting as though they healed a person from the dead is quite another.