Monday, March 26, 2007

Historical origins of the cult of the saints

Roman Catholicism still reveres those that it calls "the saints".

The political capital that the Pope makes from this and the unseemly haste to canonise the last Pope show that it is still an important business.
The Official Catechism (956) quotes from Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, one of the principal documents of Vatican II, on the intercession of the saints. "Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness.... They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus.... So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped."

What is a saint in Scripture?

Does it refer only to those that the Pope has canonized? To these and also
to 'uncanonical' saints that are venerated regardless? Only miracle-workers?
Only martyrs? Anyone deceased who might have been at all good or at all
Christian? The New Testament provides this definition whenever it uses the
word hagios, which is rightly translated as saints: those who are
consecrated and sanctified unto God. It is clear from its various contexts
that it refers to ordinary believers in local churches. Paul even uses the
title for the Corinthians ( 1 Cor. 1:2 and very significantly I Cor. 6:1-2)
despite their being 'yet carnal' (I Cor.3:3). Were all apostles? Were all
prophets? Were all teachers? Were all workers of miracles? (cp. 1 Cor.
12:29). In the opening verses of Ephesians and Colossians Paul identifies
the saints with the 'faithful brethren' and not exclusively with the
overseers and deacons (Phil. 1:1). In Hebrews we find a whole chapter
devoted to why 'so great a cloud of witnesses' (Heb. 12:1) (greek.
martyrion - martyrs) are to be regarded as martyrion. Only by faith is the
message of chapter 11. These are of course not largely supposed to be saints
in the Roman Catholic system.

Historical origins of 'the mediation of the saints'

How then did the veneration of saints arise? Consensus among historians is
that what they term the 'cult of the saints' emerged in the fourth century.
Roman Catholic theologians would not deny that the beginning of the Roman
Catholic Church was in the establishment of Christianity in 330 AD, and as I
recall the motto of Roman Catholicism has been semper idem - always the
same. There is little doubt that 'Christianity' in the fourth century was
half-paganised. Constantine patronised important foundations of pagan
religion as well as Christian. Paganism was of course only suppressed in 385
it had coexisted officially with Christianity for this century and had been
recently revived under Julian the Apostate. Augustine reports a member of
his congregation:

'To be sure, I visit the idols, I consult magicians and soothsayers, but I
do not forsake the church of God. I am a catholic Christian'. Psalms 88
Sermon III.4.

Although the saint was regarded as residing in heaven, his intercession only
rested partly on that fact, the belief in his presence at his tomb was of
equal importance:

'Here lies Martin the bishop, of holy memory, whose soul is in the hand of
God; but he is fully here, present and made plain in miracles of every kind'

Gregory of Nyssa spoke of relation of praying to the saints with their
decomposed bodies or relics thus:

'those who behold them embrace, as it were, the living body in full flower:
they bring eye, mouth, ear, all the senses into play, and then, shedding
tears of reverence and passion, they address to the martyr their prayers of
intercession as if he were present.'

We must take note of the syncretistic influence of the spirit of the 3rd and
4th centuries - neoplatonism - which was influential amongst the
theologians, particularly the Alexandrian and Cappadocian fathers. The
policy of ecclesiastical authorities in the fourth century was to conserve
as much as possible, when churches replaced temples there was no sudden
change: services, pagan inscriptions, images and idols were kept. Cardinal
J.H.Newman in his book 'The development of the Christian religion'
catalogues an extensive list of Roman Catholic rituals which he admits to be
of 'pagan origin'. Msgr. O'Sullivan in 'The externals of the catholic church
' wrote similarly: 'thus, it is true that some Catholic rites are a
reproduction of those pagan creeds'.

We may look at the influence of the Hellenistic and Roman beliefs which were
still very much current in Late Antiquity. There was the ancient cult of
heroes whereby the dead were idealised, it was accepted that some form of
worship was due to the deceased in the family or in a public cult of
emperors and heroes. We find however a distinction kept between the cult
worship of the heroes and the gods. Tombs of Christian martyrs carried the
same name as those of the older heroes - heroon.

Augustine also speaks of how 'When peace came to the church, a mass of
pagans who wished to come to Christianity were held back because their feast
days with their idols used to be spent in an abundance of eating and
drinking' and that 'Pagans had now entered the church and brought their evil
habits with them'. We know that in external forms there was no real
difference between the pagan cult of the dead and the Christian feasts of
saints. Candles were burnt on graves, offerings were made of lamps, flowers,
ointments and foodstuffs. Practices such as leaving the infirm to spend a
night in the tomb of the saint for healing have their precursor in the cults
of the healer gods Asclepius, Sarapis and Isis. As in pagan custom also,
effigies of healed limbs were hung in thanksgiving. We know too that the
cult of relics was not unknown to antiquity - the bones of Theseus for

The gods were localised and guardians of particular cities, a role the
saints came to assume. Direct substitution of saint for god was normal
procedure for instance Constantine's cousin Gallas brought the bones of St.
Babylas to Daphne to replace the oracle of Apollo there.

The concept of the patron saint was popular at this time, an invisible
friend for protection and inspiration. Ammianus Marcellinus relates the
theology of this at the time:

'The Theologians maintain that there are associated with all men at their
birth...certain divinities of that sort, as directors of their conduct.' For
the 2nd century rhetor Aelius Aristides it was the god Asclepius, for the
Christian poet Paulinus it was St. Felix. This was where the custom of a
Christian name came in. Baptism was supposed to have cancelled the influence
of the stars that had initially formed the personality, the individual was
given a new protecting spirit and new genius as well as taking the name of
the saint who was supposed to guarantee all this.

These protecting figures were called in to do their job at death
particularly. In the burial chamber of the Vincentii (late 3rd-early 4th
century) the lady Vibia is depicted being led into the feast of the gods by
her good angel. In 396 Lady Veneranda is depicted in her burial chamber
together with the martyr saint Petronilla - the supposed daughter of the
apostle Peter, and who hasn't been mentioned since. Worshippers lost many
advocates for their times of need when the temples and shrines were finally
closed and it is not difficult to speculate how they filled the void. (The
bulk of the evidence presented here is selected from 'The cult of the
saints: its rise and function within Latin christianity' by PRL Brown).

There are also social and political reasons for a particular rise of
interest in saints at this time, but in the interests of space I cannot
recount them here. We may not be inclined to doubt the Roman Catholic
scholar Karl Adam when he declares in his 'The spirit of Catholicism' (p.2):
'We Catholics acknowledge readily without shame, nay with pride, that
Catholicism cannot be identified simply and wholly with primitive
Christianity, nor even with the Gospel of Christ.'
The basis of prayer

In Christ's teaching on prayer, we are directed to pray 'our Father' because
the basis of prayer is the Father and child relationship. Earnestness,
amount of words and vain repetitions do not count (Matt. 6:7ff.). It is only
upon the basis of our sonship that we are heard. All our requests are to be
made known to God (Phil.4:6). Moreover, our access to God depends solely
upon Christ's work for us (Heb.10:19-22). We are raised to sit with him in
heavenly places (Eph.2:6). We come boldly to the throne of grace for help
in time of need therefore (Heb. 4:16). We know that there is only one
mediator between God and men and that is Christ (1 Tim.2:5). It is sometimes
said however that the infinite and perfect mediator we have in Christ is our
primary mediator and the saints are our secondary mediators. When however,
secondary evidence, reserves, ballots, braking etc. come into play it is
only once the primary has been proved insufficient. There is no possibility
of this being the case with Christ. The cult of the saints clearly
undermines therefore, the unique mediatorial glory and all-sufficiency of
Christ. Is his righteousness not enough that the "merits" of the saints
should be dispensed instead of his?

This is one obvious area where Roman Catholicism is not only far away from
the Gospel but actively undermining and counterfeiting it.