Swimming the Tiber 23: When the Saints Go Marching in

God creates out of nothing, wonderful, you say: yes, to be sure, but he does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners.

– Søren Kierkegaard, trans. Alexander Dru (emphasis original)

But these [men], remaining behind in confidence, inherited glory and honor and both were raised and became written by God in their memorial into the ages of the ages. Amen.

It is also necessary therefore that we be glued to examples such as these, brothers. For [it] has been written,1 “Glue [yourselves] to the holy [ones], because the [ones] being glued to them will be made holy.”

– First Letter of Pope St. Clement I to the Corinthians
between AD 95 and 97 (my translation)
With the loyal you show yourself loyal;
with the blameless you show yourself blameless;
with the pure you show yourself pure;
and with the crooked you show yourself perverse.
– Psalm 18:25-26, NRSVCE

There are, perhaps, two primary elements of Protestant argumentation against the saints. Okay, three. We’ll go with three, because there are probably more, and I don’t want to spend months on this subject.

In the first place, I used to say, Scripture uses “the saints” to refer to all Christians, not just the dead in heaven. This is plainly evident in Acts 9:13, 32, 41; 26:10; Romans 8:27; 12:13; 15:25-26; 16:2, 15; 1 Corinthians 6:1-2; 14:33; 16:1, 15; 2 Corinthians 1:1; 8:4; 9:1, 12; 13:12; Ephesians 1:1, 15; 3:8; 4:12; 6:18; Philippians 1:1; 4:21-22; Colossians 1:2, 4, 26; 2 Thessalonians 1:10; 1 Timothy 5:10; Philemon 1:5, 7; Hebrews 6:10; 13:24; Jude 1:3; Revelation 13:7, 10; 22:21.

But you know where it’s less evident? In Scripture. Specifically, in Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 1:18; 2:19; 5:3; Colossians 1:11-12; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; Revelation 14:12; 18:20; 19:8. Sure, it’s fewer verses, but I really only need one to point out that use of the term is not universally consistent. The word itself means “holy” or “sacred” (I translated it “holy” in the passage above by the fourth Pope, as I usually do), not merely “Christian” or even “faithful,” so that’s strike one against it being synonymous with “believer.”

These passages point out what we already know quite intuitively: we are not already saints. We are “called to be saints” (Romans and 1 Corinthians) with a “glorious inheritance” to acquire (Ephesians 1), so we may be united with (others who are called) saints (Ephesians 2); all the while we are called to a higher standard of behavior (Ephesians 5). This inheritance belongs to the holy ones in the light, to which we must gain access by God’s grace (Colossians). The saints, too, are those who will return with Jesus when he comes to us again (1 Thessalonians). The saints adhere to righteousness (Revelation 14), though we on earth only strive to do so. They are counted among those in heaven (Revelation 18), and they have done “righteous deeds” (Revelation 19).

So while we are all “saints” (Christians), we are not all “saints” (holy). Both uses of the term were common in the early Church. As time went on, the “holy” usage (technically, the original usage) won out, because we called ourselves Christians and didn’t need euphemisms for it once people stopped killing us all the time.

The second major point I made against “the saints” as a Protestant was this: “You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear” (Deuteronomy 10:20, NRSVCE). Because, okay, sure, maybe there are some saintly folks in heaven–but that doesn’t mean we should worship them! Talking about “venerating” the saints, “revering” them, and so on–that’s idolatry, plain and simple!

But is that what veneration is? Is it “worship,” which is reserved for God alone? I would say not, and Scripture agrees with me. In the first place, most of our “veneration” is looking to the saints as examples (see the Clement quote above). We want to emulate the saints, and in so doing, emulate Christ (compare 1 Corinthians 4:15-16; 11:1-2; Philippians 3:17; 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:6-7; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9; etc.). We treat them with respect and honor (which is not worship, or else we would not be commanded to do it so often – compare Romans 12:9-10; Ephesians 6:1-3; 1 Timothy 5:3, 17-18; 1 Peter 2:16-17). We consider them paragons of virtue and people to be admired and followed (compare Hebrews 11).

“But what about angels?” you may say, “You venerate angels, too, and Revelation 19:10 clearly says not to do that.”

On the other hand, Joshua 5:13-15 seems to have no trouble with it whatsoever. The angels, like the saints, are faithful to God, obedient to his will, serving and worshiping him always; we should be so blessed as to live as they do. (And, I say in hope, someday we shall, worshiping and praising God in that eternal day.)

There seems to be little in Scripture to suggest that properly due veneration is forbidden, but rather setting people or things at or above God’s place is. The former is appropriate, the latter is idolatry. Catholics do the former and repudiate the latter as much as anyone. We follow the saints only insofar as they lead us to God.

My third argument against the saints was about what Catholics frequently do in venerating the saints: prayer. “You can’t pray to the saints!” I said, “Even if you don’t count veneration as worship, prayer must be!”

In a profoundly anticlimactic way, I ask, “Must it?” Let me refer back to my very first post in this series, wherein I defined the term “to pray” for the purposes of this conversation. For Catholics, “praying” doesn’t mean “worship,” but it means “making a request.” We are not worshiping the holy dead, but asking them for their assistance. After all, “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:16, NRSVCE) and, “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer” (1 Peter 3:12, NRSVCE). We know that the saints are in heaven, praising and worshiping God, and so we know that they are righteous; especially in the midst of our sin, their prayer would be effective indeed at getting us the grace and help we need.

This has nothing to do with adding a layer between us and God. Of course we can still pray to God. Catholics have more prayers to God than any other denomination.2 This is asking for help from people perfectly willing to offer it. Look at the full text of James 5:16. “Pray for one another.” Consider also Matthew 18:19-20; Romans 15:30-32; 1 Thessalonians 5:25; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; etc. We should pray to God for each other, and we ask each other for prayer. Christians of all denominations submit prayer requests to their local church or Bible study group or Sunday school. We submit these requests because we know that we are one Body in Christ with our fellow believers–but we are also one Body in Christ with all the saints in heaven; why should we not ask for their prayers as well?

Here ends my primer on the saints. I have answered the three points I thought were heavy-hitters when I was Protestant. Perhaps I have missed others, but I have confidence in the faith. Feel free to ask via comment or email if you have questions. Next week, we begin to tackle my greatest challenge yet; this one part of the Catholic faith tripped me up more than any other, but it is no stumbling block. The driving force behind my repulsion here was not sound theology or prophetic utterance, but simple emotional reactionism, couched in my ignorant youth. The topic for the next several weeks is the greatest of all the saints, Mary, Jesus’ mother.

Next Post:

1Coincidentally, no one is quite sure where this is written, but Clement certainly thought highly of it.
2Probably. I mean, it’s almost guaranteed, statistically speaking. Just by the numbers.

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