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The Household of God

September 20, 2010

This article was submitted by Emily, who has written previously on Catholic matters for us in the article “Why I am Joining the Catholic Church“.

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As a follow-up to a post Eric wrote a while back about the saints, I was asked to tackle the controversial issue of sainthood from a Catholic perspective. Once again, it is a task beset with perils. One might try to explain Catholic theology and find that he must instead spend his time un-teaching incorrect perceptions of Catholic theology. If one were to ask me “Why do you worship saints?” for example, I would have to decide whether I should explain the theology behind friendship with and veneration of the saints, or whether I simply should state quite clearly, “We do not worship saints.” Indeed, we do not worship saints, but rather than get into a semantic argument about worship and veneration and honor, it seems more productive to acknowledge that we clearly do something with them. I will not be able to address all objections, but hopefully I can cover a few, and hopefully include enough Scripture to dispel the Catholic-theology-is-entire-unbiblical myth.

A note before I begin: the purpose of this article is not to convince, so do not look for a convincing argument. I am still quite the rookie when it comes to apologetics, and all I intend to accomplish in this article is to explain, not to persuade. I hope those who cannot make heads or tails of the saints will come away with a picture that makes sense, even if it still seems dubious.

* * *

A friend once told me that every problematic question about Catholic theology can be answered with the word body: “…because we all one body,” “…because Christ came and took on a body,” “…because we must care for our bodies.” Whether or not that skeleton key works for all locks, it certainly is the right place to start for the issue of veneration of the saints. If you want a simple answer to the question of the veneration and intercession of the saints in Catholic theology, it is because we are all part of the same body, those who have come before and those who will come after. That union is not merely sentimental nor invisible until the end times; it is a functional union now.

Of course, the notion that we are all part of the same body is not foreign to anyone familiar with Scripture. Notably, Eph 4:15-16 says that we are all joined and held together in one body with Christ at the head, and when each part is working properly, Christ makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. More familiarly, I Cor 12 describes how the different individual members of the body function together, explaining that “God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” If we can (for a moment at least) grant that the dead are part of the same body, that we are still connected to the Apostle Paul, for example, then the Church is strengthened by the glory of the members who have preceded us in heaven. As St. Paul is honored, we rejoice together.

Objection: “But the word ‘saint’ in Scripture applies to all Christians, not merely the elite. The Catholic Church’s honoring of some Christian ‘saints’ above others is contrary to the way Scripture itself uses the term.”

Indeed, Paul frequently refers to his readers as saints, though at other places (Rom 1:7, I Cor 1:2) he says they are “called to be saints,” implying that sainthood is something that we are becoming rather than something we have already attained. Paul himself did not see himself as having already obtained full knowledge of Christ in his suffering and resurrection that he strove for, nor was he already made perfect (Phil 3:12). Yet even in that context he could urge his readers to “join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Phil 3:17). A strict egalitarian view of the members of the Church that would say that we are all the same, in addition to being anti-Scriptural (remember I Cor 12), is crippling. If Paul who was himself not yet made perfect had offered himself as an example as we press on toward the goal, we would best take all the help we can get. The canonized saints are simply those who have pressed on and made it, and they are held up for us to imitate.

In fact, the author of Hebrews gives a catalogue of “the great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) as his stimulus for running with perseverance the race marked out for us. The list includes Abel whose faith commended his sacrifice above that of Cain, concluding (quite oddly) that “through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (11:14). It is odd because there are no recorded words of Abel for him to be speaking to us, nor an explanation for his faith that commended his sacrifice, yet he apparently “still speaks” to us from that great cloud of witnesses. Perhaps it is a metaphor, but I would hesitate to put rules on how much help we are allowed to receive from these heroes of the faith that seemed to be given to us like a wrapped present for our aid in our own struggle toward sainthood. Though we may quibble on how to unwrap that present, I do at least feel certain that we should try.

It is in that context that the intercession of the saints begins to make sense. Since they are a part of the body to which we are connected, since they have gone through our struggles before and lived lives worthy of intercession, since even though they are seemingly dead they still surround us and “speak” to us (however the author of Hebrews meant it), since they have entered glory already and live with the very God to whom we pray, we ask for their intercession.

Objection: “But ‘there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’ (II Tim 2:5). Christ is the Great High Priest who sympathizes with our weakness (Heb 4:15); to look to other humans to mediate is not only indirect; it usurps Christ’s role and his purpose in sharing our humanity in the Incarnation.”

This is an important point, and I do not want to minimize its significance. If the Catholic Church held the saints up as sub-deities under Christ, all the charges of idolatry would be well merited.

Be that as it may, Scripture itself is not so stingy with its mediators. Though Christ is the one mediator between God and men, we recall, “the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom 8:27). And this is not merely a function of the Spirit’s position in the Trinity; we ourselves are called to intercede for one another again and again: “I appeal to you…to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf” (Rom 15:30), Paul says, “making supplication for all the saints” (Eph 6:18). The list could go on, of course, and none of us deny the mandate to pray for one another.

These prayers matter, as we see in Scripture again and again, from Abraham who intercedes for Sodom (Gen 18) to Moses who intercedes for Israel (Num 14) to Job who intercedes for his friends (Job 42) to St Paul who intercedes for Simon the Magician (Acts 8). Prayer matters because of our union with Christ the mediator, because we share in his life and the work of his Kingdom. If the saints-who-are lead us saints-who-will-be in their union with Christ, it is not a stretch to imagine they pray on our behalf just as they did on earth.

Thus just as we might ask a pastor or elder or wise Christian to pray for us, the Catholic Church continues to ask the intercession of those who have gone before and now share closer union with Christ. The saints are given to us for the building of the Church through emulation, intercession, and friendship. We are joined to them as we are built together into a dwelling place for God.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
-Ephesians 2:19-22

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ben permalink
    October 3, 2010 2:35 pm

    Hi Emily,

    Nice article :-)

    I had some comments (quibbles ? :-) if you’re interested.


  2. October 18, 2010 10:38 am

    Comment away! I’m not apologist (as you know) and don’t have much interest in persuasion (as many suppose I do), but I’ll do what I can to entertain quibbles honestly. I’m not hugely invested in this particular topic (Eric had suggested it), so hopefully I’ll be able to engage it without too many biases.

  3. BenRI permalink
    December 17, 2010 1:47 pm

    Hey Emily,

    Here is some data supporting an alternative interpretation for how Paul is using the word “saint” (e.g. holy ones, αγιοις). This is just an example, so I’m just commenting on 1 Cor 1:1-2. As for the significance, I don’t see any reason that people can’t use the word saint in a different way, just because Paul used the word αγιοις in this way. I also don’t know of any reason to think that this interpretation goes against Catholic doctrine. (I looked at the Catechism.) So, I see this more as an interesting discussion on how best to begin thinking about the topic, and I don’t think there is really anything here that you need to defend (e.g. απολογία) against, though I could be wrong. Instead, I think the concept of being “called” has ended up being more interesting than I initially knew!

    When I first looked at 1 Cor 1:2, it was to look at the phrase “called to be saints” in order to see whether the tense on “to be” was future, or what. (My Greek is not great.) I was surprised to find that the phrase “to be” is simply not there at all! Paul seems to have written just “κλητοις αγιοις”, that is “called saints”. This raised the question of whether the phrase means that God is commanding them “be saints”, or whether it means that God has called them and they are also saints, or (perhaps) whether God has called them, which constitutes them as saints, etc.

    I next did a bit of reading about what it means for God to “call” people, and what “holy” means. In several places Paul describes people as being just “called” – there is nothing for them to be called (See e.g. 1 Cor 1:24). In other places, calling seems to be parallel with “election”, and being “chosen”. So, I think that this is actually people-of-God language, and frequently relates directly to Israel (Rom 11:28-29).

    Similarly, “holy” can also refer to things that are set apart for God, including the nation of Israel. Furthermore, “holy” can refer to a large number of things including the holy writings, the holy city, every male who opens the womb, holy ground, and the holy place (e.g. the temple). I want to suggest that in almost all cases the word “holy” can be replace with the phrase “God’s” and is used to disambiguate which things we are talking about. This might explain things like “holy spirit” (the spirit that is Gods), “holy prophets” (the prophets of YHWH), “holy angels” (messengers from God), “the holy covenant” (the covenent made by God), “the holy writings” (writing of God, versus other writings), and finally “a holy nation, a people for his own possession”. Therefore, it is possible that “saints” (e.g. holy ones) can refer to precisely the “ones” which are God’s posession. (As in “the collection for the saints”, 1 Cor 16:1)

    How does 1 Cor 1:1-2 read in light of this idea?

    v1: “From Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Sosthenes, our brother”
    v2: “to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, and called to be saints, with all those in every place who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.” (NET)

    Note that Paul is called too — “by the will of God”. However, he is not merely a “saint”, but an “apostle of Christ Jesus”.

    In 1 Corinthians, then, Paul begins by actually setting out his status (v1) and then the Corinthians’ status (v2) with God. They are both “called” – included in God’s people — according to God’s plan. The Corinthians have been “sanctified” (perfect passive participle) – they have been given the status of “holy”, having been included in God’s people. Finally, they share the attribute of calling on the name of the Lord Messiah Jesus.
    • Paul’s status within God’s people is different than the Corinthians: He was called as an apostle, they were called as saints.
    ∘ Is an apostle, then, not a saint? I presume that an apostle is a saint, but a saint is not necessarly an apostle.
    • Nevertheless, they have the same Lord. Question: How does calling on the name of Lord Jesus Messiah relate to their status as God’s people? Presumably, it is another way of describing those who are God’s people.

    If this approach correct, then Paul is using the word “saint” to do more interesting work that just to refer to the Corinthians: he is using it to communicate information. Specifically, he is using it to communicate information about their inclusion and status as “holy”, meaning “belonging to God”.

    Interestingly, the New Jerusalem Bible seems the take the same tack in its interpretation of verse 2: (

    2 to the church of God in Corinth, to those who have been consecrated in Christ Jesus and called to be God’s holy people, with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord as well as ours.

    If the New Jerusalem Bible is well known as a “liberal” Catholical Bible, and not as one that does a good job representing Catholic thought, then I suppose this wouldn’t mean much. However, if not, then it indicates that perhaps my idea is consistent with a Catholic interpretation of Paul’s writing.

    Now, where does this leave the more common meaning of “holy” and “saint” that we find in English (and Latin, I presume) today? I think that is a good question, and I don’t know the answer. However, I note the following:

    As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:14-16 ESV)

    Furthermore, I would suggest that Paul encourages his readers to live out the identity and status that they have already been given. Then we could happily say (presumably along with others), that we have been sanctified (we are holy), we are being sanctified (we are being made holy), and we will be sanctified (we will be made holy).


    P.S. For any interested readers, here is a quick way to find examples of the words call, called, calling in the NT.

    P.P.S. I hope that this is not a “quibble”, but has instead become a friendly conversation about ideas.

    P.P.P.S Any time one does a lot of research to check a point, one is open to the danger (and the charge) of bulldozing someone. I have probably done this before, but I sincerely hope I have not done so here. If I have, please let me know.

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