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Developing Theology

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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February 24, 2023 12:01 am

Developing Theology

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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February 24, 2023 12:01 am

What is a saint? Are all Christians saints, or only those who are the most devoted? Today, W. Robert Godfrey considers the biblical definition of this term and how it would gradually become distorted by the Roman Catholic Church.

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We need to stop and consider where our traditions in the church originate. Take, for example, the Roman Catholic tradition of praying to saints. Where did that come from? If you needed something from the emperor, you had to know somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody.

The chances that you could go see the emperor and get anything done were nearly nil. Well, if that's the way you look at reality, it easily bleeds over, doesn't it, into the way you look at heaven. In those early centuries of the Christian church, new ideas were presented, false concepts were refuted, and some things over time became tradition. Hello, and welcome to the Friday edition of Renewing Your Mind. I'm Lee Webb, and we have been pleased to feature Dr. W. Robert Godfrey's series, A Survey of Church History. Today we'll learn that it is not a long leap from well-meaning practices in the church to self-promoting ritual.

Last time we were looking at ideas about the spiritual life and the practice of the spiritual life in the ancient church, which has cast a very long shadow over the church, has continued to be very influential. And I want to return to that theme a little bit at the beginning of this lecture and to think with you a little bit about the idea of saints. It's not that I think you can't spell, but I write the word saints up there because the English word saint is derived from the Latin word sanctus, meaning holy, and saints are the holy ones. And when Paul writes most of his letters to the churches, he addresses the Christians, all the Christians, as holy ones, and usually in our English translations it's still translated saints.

And that's right. That's how the New Testament conceives all Christians. All Christians are holy ones. We are holy because we are set aside to be Christians in Christ.

We're holy because Christ has provided a perfect righteousness for us, and we're holy because His Holy Spirit is at work in us to make us more holy. So in a variety of ways, the Bible rightly sees us all as saints. But in the history of the ancient church, that word saint began over time to be applied more narrowly to those who had most seriously undertaken the disciplined, the ascetic Christian life. And saint began to be restricted so that it didn't apply so much to all Christians anymore as to special Christians. And amongst those special Christians were usually, first of all, the martyrs, those who had died bearing testimony to Christ, those who were willing to die for their faith. But then also it began to be applied to some of those who had embraced this ascetic, disciplined life. And if you go back and look at what is now known as the calendar of the saints in the Roman Catholic or the Greek Orthodox churches, you'll see how many of those ancient saints were either martyrs or monks or nuns or priests serving the Lord.

And came to be seen as a special category of particularly devoted people. And what's important to the piety of the ancient church is that over time the church began to think that those people, living or dead, could pray for us in ways that would be particularly helpful. And so today if we go to visit a Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox church, we're going to find there statues or pictures of the saints. We're going to see sometimes whole churches dedicated to the saints or we're going to see side altars dedicated to the saints. And the idea is that these saints can help us. These saints will hear us and aid us, and this idea is a spiritual idea that did develop in the ancient church but not in the earliest centuries. It's a later development, and we're going to talk about it now because it illustrates another very important aspect of the intellectual world of the ancient church that we can call hierarchicalism.

It's another of those 25-cent words that you pay theologians for. Now, we've talked a lot about the spiritual, spiritualizing character of ancient thought, but there's also this very important matter of hierarchical thinking in the ancient world. And hierarchical thinking means that all of reality is layered with those at the top of the pyramid, if you will, being the most important. And we can illustrate that through the figure of a pyramid, and this pyramid can serve many different purposes. But if you were an ancient Roman, you would know that all of political and social life is set up as a pyramid. At the top is the emperor, and under the emperor are the members of the Roman Senate, and then there's a Roman nobility, and then there are Roman citizens, and then there are the ordinary people, and at the bottom are the slaves. And there was no conception that all these people are equal.

They are most definitely not equal. Society is arranged on layers, and the further up the layers you go, the fewer and fewer people there are, and the more and more important they are. And this kind of hierarchical attitude to life is to be found in many cultures. You still see remnants of it today, can't you, in a place like England?

The Queen of England is at the top of the pyramid. Underneath is the House of Lords. Then there's the gentry, people with money but no titles. The lords, by and large, are people with titles and no money, but we don't want to get into all of that.

And there's the gentry, and then there's the House of Commons, and then there are the real common people. And people think that's just the way life is. That's the way God ordered it. That's the way God intended it. And in genuine hierarchical thinking, there's a tendency to think you can't move around on this hierarchy. You just are where you're placed, and that's the way it goes. But when you think hierarchically, and we're so democratic in America, by and large we don't think this way, have some trouble thinking this way, we're very quick to say, so you think you're better than I am?

No, you're not, even if people are better. But anyway, that's another issue too. But people who think this way really find it difficult in any circumstance of life to get out of thinking that way. And so it begins to influence the church. And it begins to influence, you see, the spirituality of the church. If politics is a hierarchy, then doesn't it make sense to think that heaven is a hierarchy? And you don't have to think very long before realizing, well, yeah, heaven is a hierarchy, isn't it? There's God, and then there are archangels, and then there are angels, and then there are the saved in heaven, and amongst the saved in heaven, we know some people are more sanctified, were more holy in this life than others were, so they're the specially holy in heaven, and then the just recently holy in heaven, and then there's the church on earth. And when you think in this hierarchical sort of way, it's rather easy to begin to think saints are a special class of people above most of us. And then what's very important is that in the Roman system, if we go back to thinking of this as a political pyramid, in the Roman system, there was a great emphasis on what was known as patronage. And what that meant is if you wanted anything to happen that you needed help from someone further up the pyramid, you had to have a patron. You'd have to have somebody who'd put in a good word for you.

Now, that's not entirely unknown to us in America, is it? If you want to build something in a city that has restrictive building codes, if you know somebody who knows the mayor, things may get done a little faster. That's patronage.

Somebody who can be a go-between, who can plead your case and grease the skids. And depending what part of the country you're in, you may have to come up with a little money for that to happen. We'd like to believe that isn't true, but maybe it is once in a while. That was the way it was in the Roman society. If you wanted anything to happen, you needed a patron. And maybe your patron, if he wanted anything to happen, had to have a patron. And certainly if you needed something from the emperor, he had to know somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody.

The chances that you could go see the emperor and get anything done were nearly nil. Well, if that's the way you look at reality, it easily bleeds over, doesn't it, into the way you look at heaven. If you can't go to the emperor, what makes you think you can go to God? Why is God going to listen to you? God's busy. Well, that's not very good theology, is it? But that's the way people begin to think God's busy.

He's got a lot going on. And if I can't get to the emperor, why should I think I can get to God with my requests? What I need is a patron. I need someone who can take my requests to God. Someone who will be, and this creeps in subtly, someone who will be more sympathetic to me than God is. You know, God's holy.

I'm not, but I may be able to find someone who's not quite as holy as God, but He's holier than I am, and so that person will be a little more sympathetic to me and will plead my cause. And so out of this hierarchical thinking begins to emerge this idea that the saints will pray for us, and we should pray to the saints. Now, as far as we can tell, that kind of piety doesn't really emerge till the fourth century in the ancient church, the 300s. And what's really interesting when you think about that is that's the time of the conversion of the emperor to Christianity and a massive influx of pagans into the church. And those pagans flooding into the church, what were they used to? They were used to all these different Roman gods that you'd pray to for different needs. And they sort of bring that attitude with them, you see, into the church. I used to be able to go to Apollo for this or Hera for that, and now I can find saints who have similar interests, special interests.

The saints always seem to have special interests. You've got to find ideally the right saint to appeal to to carry your case to God. And this develops into a crucial part of the piety of the late ancient church, the medieval church, and the continuing Roman Catholic church today. Who is the saint I can pray to who will have more clout with God than I will in carrying my prayers? And from the beginning, the church recognized that this was problematic. There's a theological problem with praying to the saints.

And the theological problem is this. When I pray to a saint, how does the saint hear my prayers? The saint's in heaven now, and the saint's a finite being.

So, if I'm praying to Saint Jude in Orlando, and somebody is praying to Saint Jude in Paris at the same time, how can Saint Jude hear both of these prayers? Well, the theologians admitted there are really only two possibilities. One possibility is that God gives to the saints the divine attribute of omniscience, so they can know everything. But all the theologians sort of recognized that's not very likely.

That doesn't seem a very satisfactory idea, that the finite cannot become infinite. Well, the alternative then is that God tells the saints what the prayers of the faithful are. But since the whole point of praying to the saints is so that they'll carry the prayers to God, that seems sort of redundant. And Saint Augustine, who wrestled with this question, finally concluded this was a great mystery. That's the great theological cop-out.

This is a great mystery. But you see how much sense it made to people in that world. It's so much more sensible that someone holier than I am should carry my prayers to God. It seems so much more likely that God would listen if someone else carried my prayers, and that developed in the ancient world and helps us understand why that cultivation of the saints became so important in the late part of the ancient church that was carried over into the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. Now a special part of that developing cult of the saints is the devotion to the Virgin Mary. I suspect for many of us as Protestants, the Roman Catholic devotion of the Virgin Mary is one of the mysteries of why Roman Catholicism has developed the way it is. And in a sense, what we can say is Mary is simply a special case of the saints.

If there is a hierarchy in heaven, then surely if there are saints up here, Mary is even a little further up. Mary is the one who surely will have influence over her son. And not only that, Mary is a mother. Mothers are always more sympathetic. Well, maybe not always, but in this case, Mary as the mother is going to be more sympathetic to us than Jesus will be.

That, again, just seemed to make sense to people, the sympathy of a mother. There came to be a story in the Middle Ages after our time, but illustrative at this point, and the story was told in the Middle Ages that when Mary came into heaven, Jesus greeted her and said, oh mother, I'm so glad you're here. I will divide my kingdom with you, and I will be the king of righteousness, and you will be the queen of mercy.

And that expressed the attitude, you see. Somehow Jesus was holy. Jesus was exalted.

Jesus was unapproachable. But Mary, she understands. She's sympathetic. She's approachable. She'll carry our burdens to the Son. And some of the theologians have said a part of this reflects a failure to understand the real character of Jesus. Because part of this said Jesus can't fully understand us.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-24 05:48:01 / 2023-02-24 05:54:16 / 6

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