In this post I continue my response to the thoughtful concerns regarding the Catholic understanding of the communion of the saints offered by my Baptist friend and biblioblogger extraordinaire, Jim West.
I appreciate all the feedback I received on the last post and I hope to hear more of your thoughts in the comment box below.
A New Idolatrous Pantheon?
Given that, as I explained in my last post, many non-Catholic Christians think that Catholics actually believe salvation comes through works and not purely through God’s grace, you can understand just how “idolatrous” the practice of beatifying and canonizing “saints” may seem.
Jim clearly sees it as problematic, suggesting it smacks of idolatry:
I ask because with the beatification of John Paul II there is much discussion in the media about saints and their mystical magical powers to affect peoples lives and I find it all, quite frankly, more than a little disturbing and just downright pagan. It’s almost as though the Roman Church has simply replaced the Greek pantheon with saints and that the old paganism of Rome is still alive and well in the Vatican and its outlying stations.Again, I completely understand where this is coming from. You walk into a Catholic Church and you’ll see images of various saints and angels all about.
Aren’t all these figures just a distraction?
“Catholics detract from the glory of Christ by putting so much focus on Mary and the saints.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the above complaint. In fact, I’ve heard it stated as fact from theology professors in classes in which I was enrolled.
I understand it. It comes from a sincere desire to keep Christ at the center of Christianity and affirm biblical teachings, e.g., Christ is "the one mediator between God and men" (1 Tim 1:5).
Non-Catholics see how Catholics hold up these people—the “saints”—as examples. They are depicted as glorified (see the picture of the stoning St. Stephen from the Book of Acts above). People even speak of having a “devotion” to saints!
Isn’t all of this idolatry? Isn’t it, as Jim suggests, just reinventing a new “pantheon”.
I don't think so.
I realize that not all of my readers will agree with what I am about to say. That's fine. My one hope is that people will read this and just understand that Catholics do not intend to detract from the centrality and power of Jesus Christ by acknowledging the role of saints. In fact, the saints are meant to do just the opposite.
Let me offer an illustration that might help explain.
The Art Exhibit
Not too long ago the school where I teach was happy to honor a local artist who has done some amazing religious art. To celebrate this artist we had a special event on campus.
The school went all out. One of our classrooms was transformed into a kind of art hall. Canvasses depicting various scenes from Scripture lined the walls.
Now . . . imagine the following scene. I show up with my wife, walk straight passed the art on display and approach the artist. With a smile and outstretched hand I say, “Thanks for you work. I’m so glad they are having this event to honor you.”
The artist says, “Thank you for coming.”
We talk for a while about art, artists, technique, etc. Eventually, the artist realizes that I have not looked at any of the art yet.
“Why don’t walk around the room and look at some of my pieces,” the artist suggests.
“No,” we reply. “We wouldn’t want you to think I was ignoring you. This event is about honoring you and we’re here to celebrate you. We’d like to learn more about you. We certainly don’t want any of these portraits to get in the way of that—to detract our attention away from you today. We don’t want you to think we're being distracted by them,” I say.
At this, the artist might seem a little flustered.
She says, “Well, if you really want to honor me, please look at my work. I would be honored if you would just take some time to examine some of these pieces. I’m happy to talk with both of you, but if you’d really like to get to me better you should also look at my art.”
At this point my wife and I look at one another with perplexed looks on our faces. Does she want us to turn our backs on her and walk around the room?
“Oh,” I say, “I’d feel awful if you thought we weren’t paying attention to you.”
The artist responds, “No—that’s not how I’d feel at all! I want you to pay attention to my art! By looking at my art I think you’ll come to understand me much better. I express myself through my art.
“Actually," the artist continues, "I’d kind of take it as an insult if you refused to look at the art I’ve selected to put on display.”
How could I refuse at this point?
Who Detracts from Christ’s Work and Glory?
Indeed, it would be insulting to the artist to refuse to look at the work that that was on display. By appreciating the art I am not becoming distracted from the artist; I am coming to better appreciate the artist!
All of this relates to how Catholics view the saints.
As mentioned in the last post, in Catholic teaching the saints are not holy apart from Christ—they are saints precisely because of the grace of Christ. Once again, to quote Catechism no. 2011, "The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace". In short, Catholic teaching holds that the saints are only holy because of Christ’s grace. As Jesus explained, “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
In the saints, we see the extent of the transformative power of Christ's grace.
Paul explains, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20). Paul explains, "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling". Is that because Paul is saving himself? Is Paul "semi-Pelagian", insisting that salvation is only partly by grace but partly by works? No! He continues: "for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil 2:12-13).
Paul says "work out your salvation"—but what he means is that the good work accomplished by believers is actually God's work; it is his accomplishment.
So, to honor the saints and reflect upon their holiness, in my view, is not to detract from Christ’s work—it’s to truly appreciate it. To recall their good works is not to praise them; it is to praise Christ!
The saints are to be emulated not because they are gods, but because they point us to Christ. The Catholic understanding is not about rebuilding a pantheon of gods. It’s about recognizing the work of one Lord, Jesus Christ.
It’s not idolatry to hold up human examples of what it means to be like Christ. There’s biblical precedent for the practice. Indeed, St. Paul writes: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). The book of Hebrews likewise lists other examples of faith (cf. Heb 11).
Idolatry? No. Paul, in urging us to imitate him, isn’t urging us to look away from Christ. By calling us to be like him, he is calling us to imitate Christ. And ultimately, it's not simply "imitation" but participation that makes us like Christ—he is working through us. (By the way, this has been one of the major points I've been underscoring in my treatment on Luke-Acts Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).
Now, some might say that Catholics pay an inordinate amount of attention to the saints and do not keep the focus on Christ. Perhaps some do. But if they do that, they are not representing the authentic Catholic understanding of the role of the saints.
Moreover, it should be observed that we do need concrete examples to remind us that, yes, the Lord really can make someone that holy. If the focus is not ultimately on Christ then, yes, that would be idolatry. But holding up human individuals as examples of Christian living—that’s not idolatry.
Just because some misunderstand the role of the saints does not invalidate the authentic teaching. After all, just because some people misuse the Bible, that does not mean the Bible is to be avoided either.
Is God Really That Powerful?
A creeping suspicion is that Catholics make them out to be "too holy". The more they hear a saint's virtues discusses, the more uncomfortable some get.
The underlying assumption seems to be that God doesn’t make people that holy; God doesn’t exalt the saints that high.
What is really appalling for some is the notion that God would allow saints to participate in his work. Can people in heaven actually pray for us? Isn’t asking the dead for such prayers against Biblical teaching?
Here we’re opening up not one but many “cans of worms”: Are the faithful departed conscious prior to the resurrection? Are they aware of what happens “down here”? Can they “hear” us? Isn’t it idolatrous to ask for their intercession?
Well, we’ll get into all of those questions in due time.
For now let me just address the suspicion I mentioned above, namely, that Catholics make the saints out to be too holy.
Giving God Too Much Credit?
Do Catholics in fact give saints too much credit? Non-Catholics will say so. I understand the concern.
But as a Catholic I think the concern is misguided. If we’re giving anyone too much credit, it’s Jesus. Whatever we believe about the saints’ holiness flows from our understanding of the power of the grace of Christ.
In short, for Catholics it’s not detracting from Christ to recognize the holiness of the saints; they are his masterpieces.
Furthermore, Catholics in fact think that it’s non-Catholics who limit the transformative power of his grace. We think that God can in fact make someone that holy and that it doesn’t threaten his glory for him to do so.
In our view, Scripture does not suggest that God needs to horde glory for himself; it teaches that he wants to share it with us. He wants to make us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4). He invites us to sit with him, not on separate thrones, but, stunningly, on the divine throne itself—“ He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev 3:21). Paul even asks, “Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” (1 Cor 6:3).
I realize, of course, again, that not all will see things as I do. But let's be clear: the Catholic view of the communion of saints is anything but a new pantheon—it's about recognizing what God has done in the lives of mere human beings. It's about giving God thanks for he has has accomplished. It's about recognizing that God is faithful to his promises.
You may not like the Catholic understanding of the saints, but, please, be fair; do not make it out to be something it's not.
But isn’t Christ the “one mediator between God and man”? Doesn’t the Bible condemn contacting the dead? Isn’t the Catholic idea that saints can pray for us idolatrous?
Phew . . . we've got our work cut out for us. Stay tuned!
Continue reading: Part 3.