Evangelicals and Tradition: The Saints


Back to my Cypriot seminars. When we look at tradition as it moves along, various developments inevitably occur. We need to test each of these developments against the core of tradition in the Canon of the Faith as well as against Scripture. Some things will be helpful for us as individuals or churches; some will be indifferent; others are to be rejected.

I believe the tradition of honouring our forebears in the faith is reasonable; we do it today to living heroes such as Billy Graham or past ones such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. We see this going on in the mid-second century when Polycarp, a man who had known the Apostle John, was killed by the Roman authorities in Smyrna. The Christians buried his bones and commemorated his life and teachings ever after. We see the same going on with Perpetua and Felicity a bit later in Carthage around the year 200. This sort of practice continued and is evident in Kyprianos of Carthage’s letters in the 250s when the Emperor Decius systematically sought to stamp out Christianity.

However, at some stage, the commemoration of faithful believers went beyond this, and we have the poetry of Paulinos, Bishop of Nola, who was a contemporary of Augustinos’ in the late 300s. He wrote poems to St. Felix, an early Christian martyr, referring to Felix as his friend and offering up prayers to Felix. We also see at this time the emergence of relics and shrines as sites of healings. Missionaries were being sent out in the late 300s accompanied by the relics of martyrs and other holy Christians of prior days to take with them. These are traditions that may have roots in the 200s but which are becoming clearer in the 300s — although various people questioned such action well into the 600s.

Furthermore, although someone like Paulinos of Nola may be a big fan of praying to St Felix, most Christian piety well into the 500s and beyond is focussed on Jesus; it is Jesus most documented Christians pray to most often; it is Jesus who is the centre of the liturgies of these periods; it is Jesus who is even, very often, the focus of the lives of the saints. He is the centre of devotion, even at the time when the prayers to the saints were starting to develop and grow in popularity. This praying to the saints is, I believe as a good Anglican, a derailment of a tradition that developed as a way of encouraging persecuted Christians and remembering the teachings of those who have gone before. However, it should not keep us from reading the so-called ‘Lives of the Saints’ in hagiography. I have read many, many saints’ lives, and sometimes they are silly, but sometimes there is a flash of insight into true virtue or prayer or worship or the character of God that I would have missed because I do not believe in praying to saints.

At all times, the tricky parts of the multitudinous traditions should be held up against the core of the tradition and against Scripture. Are they in conformity to this? Do they draw people nearer to Christ? Do they detract from the true worship of God? Even if a text, such as a saint’s life like the late fifth-century Life of Daniel the Stylite, is not necessarily entirely historically accurate, can God show us things through the example and life of Daniel?

When we approach ancient texts in this way, we can sort through the silly or false parts and find some gems. For there are gems to be found in ancient Christianity, and they are worth finding. For me, the gems have been found in the teachings about the person of Christ and the Trinity, as discussed on Thursday, as well as in the worship and prayer practices of the ancient Church, which have helped me appreciate the holy God of the Bible even more and drawn me nearer to him and helped me in my own times of daily devotion. We must learn to sift through the oddities so as to live with the gems which greatly outweigh the oddities and hard parts, if we are willing to read with an open spirit.

10 thoughts on “Evangelicals and Tradition: The Saints

  1. There’s an old saying: He who represents himself before the judge has a fool for his lawyer. Accordingly, from time to time, I ask God’s most beloved friends to put in good word for me and for others in need. Asking a saint in heaven for his or her intercession does not replace my daily prayers to God, nor does my admiration of our fathers in faith in any way equal or exceed my worship of the one God. Admiration is not worship. Dulia is not latria. So, please pray for me, as I shall for you. May God bless us both.

    • Indeed, latreia and doulia are different; I, personally, find prayers to the saints superfluous, but appreciate your particular perspective. My prayer is that through doulia to the saints, my Catholic and Orthodox friends would increase in latreia to the Most Holy Trinity! 🙂

  2. Scholiast,

    The intercession of the saints is rooted in the communion of the saints: that is, in the mystical Body of Christ. Insofar as a Christian partakes of Christ’s life through faith, Word, and sacrament, he partakes of Christ’s several offices, including Mediator. The mediation of Mary, or Augustine, or Francis, or Dorothy Day, or any of the countless saints in heaven and on earth, occurs by virtue of their participation in the heavenly work of the Son in whom they are sons and daughters.

    Granted, this understanding took some time to mature, but the germ is there from the start. There are prayers of intercessions graffitied on the catacomb walls. The earliest prayer to Mary is dated into the mid-3rd century. As far as I know, there was no controversy about prayer to saints prior to the Reformation. How could this be, when every doctrinal novelty in Christian history — whether ultimately deemed orthodox or heretical — was loudly and hotly debated?

    I don’t doubt the cult of the saints has at times gotten out of hand. But to deny the intercession of the saints — on heaven and on earth — is to deny the very mystical Body of Christ itself. Which is to say, it is to deny the incarnation, atonement, resurrection, and ascension, as well as Pentecost — the whole economy of salvation.

    • PJ,

      Thanks for the info on the earlier prayers to saints of which I was unaware. I am still uncomfortable with seeking their intercession, and I still think Paulinus of Nola could have spent his time better in writing more poetry to Christ instead of the ones he wrote to St Felix.

      But you do make a good point that it was never contested until the Reformation. This is something I’ll have to chew on.

  3. But don’t you see, my friend? Poetry about the saints *is* prayer about Christ! “You are glorified in the assembly of your holy ones, for in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts” (Roman Missal, Preface of the Saints).

    St. Augustine wrote: “Let us rejoice and give thanks. Not only are we become Christians, but we are become Christ. My brothers, do you understand the grace of God that is given us? Wonder, rejoice, for we are made Christ! If He is the Head, and we the members, then together He and we are the whole man….This would be foolish pride on our part, were it not a gift of his bounty. But this is what He promised by the mouth of the Apostle: “You are the body of Christ, and severally His members.”

    You cannot pray to the saints without praying to Christ. And, more amazingly, you cannot pray to Christ without praying to the saints. For together the Body, which is the Church, and the Head, who is the Lord Jesus, form the “whole Man,” the totus Christus, the whole Christ.

    To deny the intercession of saints is, in a certain way, to undermine the incarnation, by which man is united with God and made “partakers of the divine nature,” as St. Peter writes.

    Do you see what I’m saying?

  4. One more thought:

    God is not jealous of his holy ones. He brought them into being precisely to share in his love, glory, power, and beatitude. He desires to share his whole self with his saints (insofar as it is possible). This sharing occurs through the mystical union of Christ and Christian which is the Body, the Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit. He desires to work and live in his holy ones.

    When we love and honor and pray to a saint, we are loving and honoring and praying to Christ alive in that saint: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”

  5. It is worth noting that as early as 314, the Roman liturgical calendar already had 24 feast days celebrating 50 different martyrs, confessors, and bishops. At the same time, there was most likely but one dominical feast — Pascha — plus Pentecost. Not long after, the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter would be added, along with the Feast of the Nativity. Still, the calendar is dominated by the cult of the saints.

    I’m also reminded of Celsus’ contempt for the Christian fascination with the bodies of their dead, a contempt noted by Augustine as well. And consider the concern manifested by St. Polycarp’s disciples for the securing of the great saint’s body, which the Jews then burnt in their fury.

    • Celebrating the saints is very important, I agree. And something I read recently about our embodied selves is making relics less uncomfortable. I’ll have to make a clearer investigation, however, into the seeking of their intercession. I don’t get the feeling that people were asking Polycarp to pray for them right off the bat. I could be wrong about that, however.

      From what I’ve seen, the main focal point of all devotion is to be Christ/the Holy Trinity, and if people can keep him in the centre while celebrating St Felix or St Polycarp or St Thomas Aquinas, all well and good.

      Finally, I just hope no evangelicals get scared off from the Fathers by hearing how early prayers were addressed to the BVM!

  6. “And something I read recently about our embodied selves is making relics less uncomfortable.”

    Indeed. Our bodies are no less ourselves than our souls. If God keeps the souls of his beloved children in the palm of his hand as they await resurrection, why should he not desire their bodies be similarly treasured and protected as they await the long-awaited Day?

    The sacraments do not simply glorify our souls, but our bodies, as well. This is why the early church connected the reality of the incarnation with the reality of the eucharist as true body and true blood. In the eucharist, our flesh and blood is strengthened and glorified by Christ’s flesh and blood, our soul by his soul. God’s grace is alive throughout our entire hypostasis, which is at once material and spiritual. Thus the sick are cured by the touch of the saints — they are extensions of the life-giving theanthropic Body of Christ.

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