Friday, May 27, 2011

Apologetics toolbox: Communion of saints II

In Part I we looked at sainthood and sanctity as part of justification. We had to do this because we needed to establish that God can and does make people holy, and that we are all called to that holiness as part of our life in Christ. Sainthood is the result of justification through God’s sanctifying Grace.

Now we look at saints and their role within the Christian community. As I said before, the Church doesn’t make saints; rather, saints make the Church. And this is a wholly orthodox position:

After confessing “the holy catholic Church,” the Apostles’ Creed adds “the communion of saints.” In a certain sense this article is a further explanation of the preceding: “What is the Church if not the assembly of all the saints”(Nicetas of Remesiana, Explanation of the Creed 10)? The communion of saints is the Church (CCC 946).

We see in the New Testament that St. Paul addresses his letters to those “called [to be] holy [hagiois]” (Rom 1:7; cf. 1 Cor 1:2, 2 Cor 1:1, Eph 1:1, Phil 1:1, Col 1:2). In narrow scope, the communion of saints is the communion of Christians as the Body of Christ (Rom 12:4-5; cf. 1 Cor 6:15, 12:20-27; Eph 5:30). But that’s the horizontal axis; the vertical axis is through time: We are bound not only with Christians today but with Christians throughout history.

“Saints are dead”

The temptation here is simply to view the bond metaphorically, as another aspect of Tradition. But that same tradition tells us that this binding is not mere metaphor. Saint Clement of Alexandria, one of the first Christians to unite doctrine with Greek philosophical traditions, said of the “true Gnostic”:[1] “So is he always pure for prayer. He also prays in the society of angels, as being already of angelic rank, and he is never out of their holy keeping; and though he pray alone, he has the choir of the saints standing with him” (Stromata 7:12).

This creates a problem for the Evangelical, who believes the saints are dead and that prayer to them is necromancy (Dt 18:10-11). However, prayer to the saints isn’t to be compared with the witchcraft of the medium of Endor (1 Sam 28:3-25), who actually conjured up the spirit of Samuel for King Saul; that isn’t what Catholics do or strive to accomplish.
[Clarification: Necromancy is an attempt to magically control the spirits of the dead, to get information from them or to force them to do the magician's power. The Evangelical position is therefore not only bad Scriptural exegesis but ignorant of occult matters. — TL 6/1/11]

In his discussion about marriage in heaven with the Sadducees, who rejected the resurrection of the dead, Jesus told them, “Now about the dead rising — have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ [Ex 3:6]? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken” (Mk 12:26-27 NIV)! And in the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John saw Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah (Mk 9:4; cf. Mt 17:3, Lk 9:30).

The question is, what cosmology do these Evangelicals hold? For if the spirits of the dead aren’t immediately judged on their death, then where do they go, what do they do while waiting for the Parousia? But in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-30), it’s taken for granted that both have gained the rewards of their lives when they die; otherwise the rich man can’t intercede for his brothers from his place in Sheol. And so it is when Jesus promises the good thief, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43 NIV).

The author of Hebrews uses Chapter 11 to tell us of various OT men of faith to describe what they’d done and accomplished based on nothing more than a hope and promise. Then he tells us, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud [nephos; can be translated as “throng, multitude”] of witnesses” (Heb 12:1 NIV) …; this language is out of keeping with a conception of holy ones as inaccessible.

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them (Wis 3:1-6 RSV).

If you ask whether they hear our prayers, then you might as well ask whether God hears our prayers. For in Revelations 5:8, we’re told that the four beasts and twenty-four elders hold golden bowls full of incense, representing the prayers of the holy ones. You can’t argue that the prayers are directed to God alone without strengthening the case, for the fact that the elders hold the bowls tells us they’re aware of them. But on what passage can we argue that angels and saints can’t hear prayers? That would be merely dogmatic gainsaying!

No, the cosmology and eschatology of the Evangelical is wrong; the saint passes from this world to Heaven, where he is not bound by constraints of time. “For I am convinced,” wrote St. Paul to the Romans, “that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39). And if we remain in his friendship, remaining one in the Body of Christ, then we remain in communion with the saints who have fallen asleep as well as those who still walk on earth.

Point to remember: Those who die in God’s friendship go to Heaven, yet remain in communion with the living Body of Christ.

[1] “Though he constantly opposes the concept of gnosis as defined by the Gnostics, he used the term ‘gnostic’ for Christians who had attained the deeper teaching of the Logos” (Wikipedia, “Clement of Alexandria”).