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An Introduction to Saints

A point of confusion and, sometimes, contention within the Christian religion is the role of saints in the life of the Church. In some branches of Christianity, such as Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism, saints occupy an important place, as is evidenced, among other things, by the names of their churches—St. Luke, St. George, St. Cuthbert, and so on. In some other traditions, particularly within evangelicalism and fundamentalism, the word “saint” is used rarely and with a different meaning. Some people in these traditions actively oppose Roman Catholic and Anglican ideas about saints and sainthood, but it seems that many, perhaps most, are unfamiliar with these issues and have questions about saints. What is a saint? Do some Christians worship saints? In this post I hope to answer some of these questions and give an overview of the role of saints in the ancient tradition of the Church.

What Is a Saint?

The English word “saint” reflects the Latin sanctus, which is similar in meaning to the Ancient Greek hagios. All three words can carry the meaning of “holy one.” In the New Testament the word hagios generally refers to Christians (e.g., Rom 1:7; Eph 1:1); they who are in Christ are holy ones. We often use the word “saint” to translate hagios in these cases, as in the NRSV translation of Phil 4:22: “All the saints greet you, especially those of the emperor’s household.” In this sense of the words, all believers are worthy of the label hagios/sanctus/“saint.” When evangelicals and fundamentalists use the word “saint,” they often have this meaning in mind.

Throughout Church history, a different usage of the term “holy one” emerged. The term began to be used as a title for those of great importance to the Christian religion, especially those of heroic stature. It was (and is) applied to people from the Old Testament (e.g., St. David), people from the New Testament (e.g., St. Luke), angels (e.g., St. Michael), and people from post-New Testament times (e.g., St. Patrick).

We might think of the term “saint” as similar to the English word “sir.” In a broad sense, all men can be called “sir,” like at a restaurant: “And what can I get for you, sir?” But it can also be used as an important honorary title, as with Sir Elton John.

How Did the Church Come to Be So Concerned with Saints?

This is a big question, so I will focus my discussion on post–New Testament saints. The origins of applying the narrower meaning of “saint” to Christians from after the apostolic period may be traced to times of persecution during the early-Church period. Certain people who gave their lives for their faith, such as St. Polycarp of Smyrna and St. Felicitas of Rome, were understandably elevated to a place of great importance. Christians went to great lengths to honour them and to preserve their legacy. For example, in the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the church at Smyrna records that after Polycarp’s body was burned, Christians took the bones with an attitude of great reverence and stored them in a place where they would meet each year on the anniversary of his death (18).[2]

This type of behaviour continued over time and seems to have been connected with some interesting (and perhaps developing) theological beliefs. As Lawrence S. Cunningham writes, “By the fourth century . . . prayers and liturgies at the tombs of martyrs were considered to be especially efficacious and the bodies and other relics of the saints were thought to be loci of sacred power.”[3] Christians also began to ask for the intercession of saints in heaven, which would become an important aspect of later Christian spirituality.[4] (Note that not all contemporary Christians who use this narrower meaning of “saint” maintain these beliefs and practices; many, especially within Anglicanism and Lutheranism, do not.)

Enormous change came when, in the fourth century, Christianity was protected from persecution within the Roman world. Naturally, this led to a drastic drop in the number of new Christian martyrs. At this time non-martyrs began to take on the heroic role of sainthood, especially those who pioneered monasticism, a lifestyle involving extreme denial of worldly pleasures and intense religious devotion.[5] The most famous of these early monastic figures is St. Anthony. They, however, were not the only ones who became saints. Other important figures, especially teachers and ecclesiastical leaders such as St. Augustine of Hippo, also attained this special status and occupied a place of tremendous significance in the Christian religion.

Do People Worship Saints?

In answering this question, we need to acknowledge that there is often a huge difference between what careful Christian teaching says and what average Christians actually do. In some cases Christians do seem to fall into the sinful practice of worshiping saints, but the Church has always opposed this. Many theologians distinguish between dulia (“veneration,” “honour”) and latria (“worship”). Dulia is to be given to the saints, and latria is reserved for God alone.[6]

Some people don’t find this distinction helpful, as it can be difficult to maintain in practice; sometimes it seems that veneration becomes worship, and it is hard to tell where one stops and the other begins. This is a legitimate concern, and I won’t engage with it deeply here, but it is worth pointing out that the issue of veneration seemingly becoming worship is a problem that is not only connected to the saints. For example, it can be unclear whether some patriotic people respect (dulia) or worship (latria) their country.

Sizing up Sainthood

While this post is not designed to persuade people to adopt any particular stance with regards to saints, I want to encourage my readers to wrestle through some of the ideas and issues I have raised (explicitly or implicitly). Is it appropriate to give the title “saint” to certain people and not to others? Does God work through relics? Should Christians venerate saints?

As you think about these things, I encourage you to read more and talk about it with others. This is part of what it means to participate in the living tradition of Christianity.


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David Doherty

David Doherty

David Doherty serves in ministry in the Anglican Church of Canada and also works as a copyeditor and proofreader. He holds a Bachelor of Religious Education from Emmanuel Bible College (Kitchener, Ontario) and a Master of Theological Studies from McMaster Divinity College (Hamilton, Ontario). His research interests include the Gospel of John, metaphors in religious thought, and the development of Christian theology in the West. Together since their mid-teens, he and his wife adventure through life together and encourage each other in their faith and research. They live in Ontario.

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