Saints: A nonconformist point of view

Following on from my recent “thinking out loud” about how I, as a nonconformist, view church structures, I wanted to expand on a few other things that I think about slightly differently from some mainstream denominations, and to give my reasons for doing so. Some of this should explain some of the stylistic oddities you may have noticed if you have read much of this blog. In this case, I wanted to explain my thinking behind why, when referring to various figures (particularly the apostles) I use the like of Paul or Peter, rather than St. Paul or St. Peter, which entails looking at the idea of who is (and who isn’t) a saint.

The traditionalist viewpoint

The more traditional churches seem to have a special regard for some individuals who are regarded as “saints.” I know the catholic church has a process now in place where someone is regarded as “blessed” and where a miracle has to be verified after a believer has prayed to this dead individual. That miracle is then attributed to the dead person and a long drawn out process is made eventually culminating in the person being “beatified” and declared to be a saint by the pope.

In christianity, many of the catholic saints were “adopted” though the memory of the reformation, particularly in England, does lead to less worship of saints than may be found elsewhere, even if this is defended under the guise of “veneration” or some other linguistic trickery to avoid the suspicion of idolatry.

While I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we remember individual men & women who have contributed to helping others both inside and outside church communities, helping to spread the gospel, it just strikes me as odd that some individuals are picked out as being special more than the countless millions throughout history who have done so either anonymously or who passed into obscurity.

What does the bible say?

The New Testament is littered with references to saints, but in these the referent is clearly the group of all believers in a given location. Individuals are sometimes singled out, but these are then followed up with phrases like “greet all the saints.”

To be specific, take Romans 1:7 for example. “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

In Acts 9:32, the term is used interchangeably with believers: “Now as Peter went here and there among all the believers, he came down also to the saints living in Lydia.”

There are plenty of other references of this kind. To take just a sample, have a look at 1 Corinthians 16:15; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 4:22; Hebrews 6:10 and Jude 3.

One other set of passages that will be of particular relevance will be those found in Revelation. In chapter 8, the prayers of the saints are pictured as incense rising. For biblical literalists, this is the foundation of the use of incense as swung around in extremely “high” churches. Here, the meaning of saints is less clear, so I would propose that our best understanding of its usage comes from the context of the other New Testament writers as indicated above.

Rev 11:18 may at first glance seem distinguish saints from other people, as there are also listed prophets and ‘ones fearing your name’ though when you read around the verse in context it is fairly clear that this is a rhetorical device for saying “everyone” – something not unknown in today’s modern English parlance. This similar usage may be found also in 16:6, 17:6 and 18:24.

Chapter 14 gives a description of who John thought the saints were: “those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of [or ‘in’] Jesus.”

Of course, I have not given you an exhaustive list of references to saints, but having looked through them, I do not think that any omissions add to or change the main argument. But do look them up, it makes for fascinating reading.

The argument

What makes this of particular concern, rather than any lame attempt to drive a wedge between denominations, is the difference in the theological statements between those who subscribe, as I do to the “all believers are saints” hypothesis and those who go along the lines of “some are saints to be revered above others.”

The term “saint” is often contrasted with that of “sinner” and is just as frequently seen as representing a contrast between two opposites. This is so prevalent, that it has slipped outside of church terminology and is used within our much wider secular society. The trouble this has, as with any terminology that has been adopted outside of its precise theological context, is that connotations arise which distort a word’s meaning. In this instance, “saint” has come to mean someone who is especially well-behaved, a do-gooder, if you will. On the other hand, “sinner” has become a pejorative term, sometimes implying criminal behaviour.

I would contend that the two are not opposites at all. Rather, saints are simply a subset of sinners. In my usage of the term, sinners would just be another byword for “people” (in line with Romans 3:21-23) though I very rarely use it because of the judgemental overtones that could be interpreted, even when they are not meant.

One of the alternative translations of “saint” that you will find in some translations is “holy ones” or something similar. Where we get to the nub of the argument is this: who declares us to be ‘holy’ or otherwise?

My point of view, based on my present understanding of scripture, is that God alone is the one who can declare us to be holy. We are made so by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. It is for God to decide who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ – and this is skirting a whole other argument I don’t wish to have right now. But the point is that I can’t see how it can be right for some individuals to be declared saints by the church authorities (who are to be servants, not commanders, remember). Whatever criteria is used, it is inherently made-made, which must therefore be inherently inferior to the perfect judgement of God.

Conclusion

In light of the evidence and the argument supported by it, it seems bizarre to me that anyone would cling to the traditionalist use of these words, as it clearly has no relation to the kind of faith that the early church had.

In terms of remembering individuals, it’s not bad that we might be encouraged to remember. But it is decidedly odd that you should allocate particular individuals to specific days. What it implies is that on the 17th of July we ought to remember one person, but that they can be forgotten for the rest of the year and that on that day all others are considered to not be as important. Nor do I find it particularly helpful that someone may be considered the patron saint of whatever. I see no biblical imperative for it, nor is it helpful in any way except to perpetuate traditionalism which I don’t regard as being inherently valuable anyway.

For my part, I will choose to remember those saints who I have known throughout my lifetime, who have encouraged me, helped me grow and have challenged me to question my thinking.

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