Evangelicals and Tradition: The Saints

Polycarp

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.