The Witness of the Saints

A couple of threads have run together recently prompting me to write this post, a reflection on the witness of holy lives and how those lives are the heart and soul of the Christian faith.

The first thread. Recently I spent some time doing some equipping with leaders and volunteers at North Point Community Church in the north Atlanta area. This is Andy Stanley's church (though I didn't meet Andy during my visit). The Sunday I was there Andy was kicking off a series called Starting Point. You can view and follow the series online here. The sermon I heard was the very first one, Something Happened.

In that sermon Andy pointed out that for the first 300 years of the church there wasn't a bible. And if that is the case, the bible can't be considered the "starting point" for the church. "The bible says," didn't exist for the first three centuries of the church. For 300 years there weren't any appeals to "book, chapter and verse."

Which raises the question. What bound the church together during those early centuries?

One answer, and this is the second thread, is the Christian martyr cults. This answer was brought to mind by the recent essay by Jason Byassee There's Life in Those Bones: Why Christians Venerate Relics at Books & Culture. Jason's essay is an nice introduction to how the Christian tradition has venerated saints. And among the saints the Christian martyrs took pride of place. For much of Christian history, and still today, people flocked to the churches and shrines of the martyrs and their relics.

Popular devotion to the martyrs was so strong that the early church worried about its ability to corral and control it. The populist glue that held the church together wasn't the bible or the Mass or the creeds or the Mother Church. The glue of the church was the martyrs.

Which brings me to my third thread, the essay of Ben Myers--Reflected Glory: Imitation, Biography and Moral Formation in Early Christianity--regarding the importance of the biographies of the saints for Christian moral formation, especially in the early church. Here is how Ben starts his essay:
It was Christianity's immense investment in the idea of incarnation - the belief that God has entered the world in human flesh - that made exemplary lives so important for the Christian moral imagination. If God's life is definitively revealed and made available in the human flesh of Jesus, then ethical principles, universal values and the like will be relatively uninteresting compared to the actual texture of moral life as one finds it in the experience of real human beings.

Nothing is more illustrative of the whole Christian attitude toward life than the preponderance of biography in the early centuries of the faith. The first Christian biographies, like the Passion of Perpetua (circa 203 CE), commended the heroic death of martyrs as exemplars for others. By the time of Pontius's Passion and Life of Cyprian (259 CE), the martyr's wider conduct and way of life had also become material for study and imitation. As well as holding up Cyprian's courageous death as an example to be followed, Pontius praises the entire person of Cyprian as a sort of moral text to be read and assimilated.
Pulling all this together I'd like to make the following claim: holy lives are the glue of the church. What holds the church together isn't the bible (for Protestants) or the Magisterium (for Catholics).

What holds the church together are the saints.

And I think church history bears this out. Before there was a bible or creeds or orthodoxy or an authoritative teaching tradition there were the martyrs and the saints. And it was the veneration of the martyrs and saints that held the church together. If you wanted to point to the heart and soul of Christianity you didn't point to the bible or to the creeds or to the centralized church. Those didn't exist. Rather, you pointed to the saints and martyrs. The saints were the connection to Jesus. The saints were the link.

And I'd argue that the same is true today.

I make this observation because I think we need to recover this point of emphasis. Too much of Christianity today is focused on dogma, orthodoxy and doctrine. Especially in its Internet and social media manifestations, where the coin of the realm is opinions, beliefs, and positions.

Which brings to mind a fourth thread, Robin Parry's recent post about the dangers of Christian apologetics. After describing the ways Christian apologetics often goes awry, Robin ends by focusing on saintliness, the cardinal virtue of which is love. Robin concludes his post this way:
The key apologetic for Christianity—far more important than knowing the right answers to hard questions—is love. Communities of faith that embody the kindness of God in cruciform ‘works of love’ are deeply attractive and are themselves evidence (not proof) of the truth of the gospel...

Intellectual apologetics embedded in the context of lives committed to God’s love for the other is a beautiful and fitting adornment. But apologetics divorced from lives of love is like a gold ring in the nose of a pig. Apologetics is never just about being right; first and foremost it is about living right.
I think that's exactly right. The defense of the faith and debates about the faith aren't rational, intellectual or cognitive. Love is the argument of the faith.

Thus, if churches want to defend their view of the faith, for outsiders or for other Christians, the best strategy would be to take a cue from the earliest Christians. Churches should shut up, put their bibles away, and point to their saints. That's the only legitimate defense of the faith and doctrine.

If you aren't talking about biographies you aren't talking about God. That's the truth of the Incarnation. That is why the Spirit is poured out on flesh.

And if saintly exemplars are lacking in the church, well, that exposes something: a radical disjoint between the modern and the early church. Shoot, it's a radical disjoint between the modern church and Jesus. If you lose the saints you lose the connection with Jesus.

And to be honest, to make this sting a bit, I think any personal argument about the faith should echo St. Paul: "Imitate me as I imitate Christ."

Because if we can't give that argument--"Why don't you follow me around today."--then I wonder if we shouldn't be stepping away from the keyboards and the debates. More important things in our lives need to be attended to.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed:
The primary confession of the Christian before the world is the deed which interprets itself.
The lives of the saints will always be our confession before the world. Before anything--creeds, church or bible--we point to them.

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31 thoughts on “The Witness of the Saints”

  1. Perhaps the most important post you've written lately. Thanks for the reminder; lots of layers of truth here, both in the text and between the lines. qb

  2. Amen. A thousand times.

    Unless the intellectual stuff is basically clearing the way for us to see Jesus and the saints, and emulate them, it isn't doing its job at all. All too often, theology and apologetics are a substitute for love, not an expression of them. They are good, but taken out of place, they become the excuses that we make for disobedience.

  3. Yer dang skippy. Especially the bit about shutting up, putting your bible away, and LIVING it.

    Every rare once in a while I'll get on my website and rant on some theological point or another. But usually I regret it. More and more, I'm just interested in doing what I do -- telling stories, making pictures, crafting films -- and letting the tsunami cluster-cuss of "theological discussion" carry away those who are nuts enough to think it's worth it.

  4. What a wonderful and insightful post. Thank you.

    Dare I add a rather earthy example–one that would be denied by those whose name I make it in- but Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) as well as other recovery programs seems to have this approach as well.

    The emphasis is on getting a sponsor to walk you through the steps. And by walk I mean just that, the day to day living without addiction. And the Sponsor, who is the living example, becomes the first role model of this new way to live.
    Not just a expositor of recovery lingo (some of course become only that) but a real, living, breathing, struggling sober person that strangely was only not long ago a self centered, egotistical maniac yet now gives their self away. The glue of good meetings is not the big book, the steps or even location. It is the sober people. The first groups didn't have a big book either, in the beginning.

    Added to this would be the anonymity. Sponsors of addicts live near you. Work often below you. They are helping heal communities one individual at a time without parade or fanfare. Salt. Ah, the upside down, wonderful movement of the kingdom.

  5. "And to be honest, to make this sting a bit, I think any personal argument about the faith should echo St. Paul: "Imitate me as I imitate Christ."

    Because if we can't give that argument--"Why don't you follow me around
    today."--then I wonder if we shouldn't be stepping away from the
    keyboards and the debates. More important things in our lives need to be
    attended to."

    This is very, very good stuff and a "gut-check" sort of reminder on what's important. Thanks for putting it in such a clear and direct way.

  6. Can you agree with the conclusion while disagreeing with much of the supporting material?

    Did the first Christians have scriptures? Yes. We call it the OT. Jesus quoted from it all his life and said things like "The Law, the Prophets and psalms, these all talk about me."

    What is a saint? You can use Justice Potter's definition of you know it when you see it. Which is what Bonhoeffer says when he says "the deed interprets itself". Which by the way is a very Protestant way of understanding scripture. How do you know? It testifies to itself. How do you produce saints? Well, someone needs to preach. The Word comes from outside of us. The Spirit works through means. Those means are often the church and scripture and sacraments.

    I guess all of that is to say Irenaeus' Creed, Church & Scripture is ancient (2nd Century). The Martyrs and saints are ancient. They are the chicken and the egg. How did it start? The incarnate Word came and proclaimed the kingdom and taught the apostles how they were to do it. If we are elevating one (the saints) we really need to do it without degrading the other (the scriptures & church). They go together. (That might be the great sin of the reformation. Luther pointed to scriptures and everyday saints and to hell with the church.)

  7. Thanks as always for your writing, Richard. This is A+ stuff.

    And right after I read this, I read the responses in RHE's "Ask Derek Webb". Notable:

    (Q:) Is there one thing you see as the biggest issue/blind spot for the church, an area where Christianity is failing to live up to its promise and purpose?
    (A:)If I had to distill it to one issue... I would say it’s that the visible church seems to care more about ideas than people.

    It sounds like a chorus is growing.

  8. How did early Christians do it? How do people who only have part of the bible in their language do it? How much does it matter? How badly is God gonna zap me if I don't? Which version of the bible is the right one to read? Whose interpretation of what the bible means is correct? Yours? Mine? How many times do I have to read the bible cover to cover to get the essentials? Should I read the apocrypha? If not, why not? Why do I have to believe convoluted, post-Jesus arguments for a closed canon? What if the translation I have has translation errors and I memorize the WRONG thing? What if I'm incapable of understanding it because I'm not that intelligent? What if I'm incapable of understanding it because my culture makes that impossible? Does it matter if I know if I'm living it? Can I ever actually KNOW if I'm living it?

    Answer those questions and I'll answer yours :)

  9. Great read. No doubt, this is why the New Testament was formed. The Apostles, and those with them, recognized that if the story wasn't accounted for it could be lost for those generations to come. Further, isn't it strange how people just want to affiliate with someone great? How many "Lutherans," "Calvinists," or "Franciscans" have you met, who aren't really sure about the doctrine of their chosen leader, but they probably have some really cool stories to tell about them? That's my experience anyway. Thanks for the post!

  10. The church (at least within my tradition) has not done a good job of teaching/modeling Kingdom virtue and values. But there are those who occupy our gatherings who need to be "outed" as models of the Spirit's fruit of compassion, patience, generosity, and etc., to whom we might point to as living embodiments of the Gospel. They are the ones that must step forward to establish a different rhythm and witness of what following Jesus might look like. Paul was constantly calling attention to those in the Christian gatherings who were embodying the Jesus story (e.g., Rom.16:3-16; 1Cor.16:15f., Phil.2:19-30). They may not get the publicity of others but these are our living saints and whose stories can help to shape a people and point to the things that really matter. Do you know any living saints whose stories can be heard and retold as a living witness to the Gospel story?

  11. Great Post. The only thing I'd add is that the Protestant church does have saints. But the saints most heavily touted are the people who can get the most conversions as opposed to the most sacrificially loving lives. And this is because the Gospel is still equated with a belief system as opposed to a community of love.

  12. 1. How did the early Christians do it? Apostles and teachers who passed on their traditions.

    2. How do people who only have part of the Bible in their language do it? Use what they have (the Bible is very intertextual, so even with part of the Bible you have echoes and allusions to the other part), missionaries, evangelists.

    3. How much does it matter? A lot. Jesus constantly responded to those who challenged him with "Have you never READ...."

    4. How badly is God gonna zap me if I don't? Well, if you don't care about His Word, it's like you don't care about Him, because He identifies pretty closely with His Word.

    5. Which version of the Bible is the right one to read? If you mean which translation, it's usually better to read one that strikes a balance between literal translation and readability, erring towards literal translation so you get as close as possible to the original meaning.

    6. Whose interpretation of what the Bible means is correct? Good question. The best way to answer that is by reading carefully and arguing vigorously with other brothers and sisters in the Church, like the Bereans did (Acts 17:11).

    7. How many times do I have to read the bible cover to cover to get the essentials? You don't. A catechism class that highlights key themes, passages and people in Scripture will take care of that.

    8. Should I read the apocrypha? I don't see why not. They illuminate the context and give access to later developments and other interpretations.

    9. Why do I have to believe convoluted, post-Jesus arguments for a closed canon? Why do they strike you as convoluted? I find them quite straightforward. And EVERYTHING you think you know about Jesus is post-Jesus, through the apostles and their students. And you should want to know whether there is a canon of Scripture because if Scriptural books are indeed distinct from others by virtue of being God-breathed, you will not want to miss a word that comes from the mouth of God.

    10. What if the translation I have has translation errors and I memorize the WRONG thing? You can check multiple translations. Do your homework.

    11. What if I'm incapable of understanding it because I'm not that intelligent? I think God will hold you accountable for using whatever intelligence you have.

    12. What if I'm incapable of understanding it because my culture makes that impossible? Christianity has made converts in every part of the globe from people of every nation and tongue, so I highly doubt that there is any culture that makes understanding absolutely impossible.

    13. Does it matter if I know if I'm living it? Yes. Make your calling and election sure. Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.

    Really, this is elementary stuff. I would only expect interested unbelievers to have these kinds of questions.

  13. “I sold the same Word that said to me, ‘Sell what thou hast and give to the poor.’” - Serapion

  14. Ha-ha! You actually DID it. Wow. This raises another question: Do all theologians believe so heartily in the power of their own minds?

    I, for my part, am very much NOT impressed with my own ability to think things through. Nor am I interested in spending too many moments of my life on this. So while I could quibble some of your points, I'm not going to bother (especially since your last comment felt, um... not cool).

    Instead, I'll fulfill the obligation of the challenge I proposed. So...,

    I don't know how I'd know if I was living the way Jesus did without knowing about Jesus through the Bible (or the bajillion books-about-the-bible that I've read). Except, perhaps, by the witness of a flower in a crannied wall, or a really good hug. But that's beside the point. I've read the bible more times than most, have read more theology than most, have discussed and wrestled with it more than most... and in the end it all bounced around in the echo chamber of my head like a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

    Ultimately, I don't think God cares what you believe. Not. One. Bit.

    I've known wonderfully-loving folks who believed some horrible stuff. I've also known obnoxious, self-righteous jackwaggons, who could nonetheless hum a lovely tune about grace and love.

    If it makes you happy and more loving to ponder theological minutea, go nuts. I'm done with it. None of it ever made ME happy. Mostly it just made me afraid. I'm a writer and an artist, and I'm gonna make stuff and live TODAY -- not two thousand years ago.

    If that's elementary, then awesome... that's what I'm going for. I wanna become like a little child. I wanna play with my friends, have fun, and enjoy the sunshine. Ever see a little child who loved to sit inside and read theological tomes and then blather on about them on the internet? Me neither.

  15. Well... I don't think of a twelve year old Jesus as a "little child"... but suit yourself.

    If you were reading heady theological tomes when you were an actual little child, well... I'd be tempted to call that a lost childhood and feel sorry for you. But it takes all sorts, and I'm certainly no one to judge. So go nuts with your theology. More power to you. If you want to approach the truth intellectually and say that it's the only way to get at the truth, have at. I'll flirt with my intellect from time to time, but I'm mostly bored of it.

    I read Dr. Beck's stuff because he wears Sanuks and overalls, rides a bicycle non-ironically, and seems to know how to laugh at himself (which theologians, in my experience, rarely do).

    I'm off! Time to get back to ye olde novel-writing. Cheers!

  16. Thank-you, Richard.

    One of the skills I really value is the ability to make the implicit explicit. It's what links good psychology with good poetry. It's the kind of thing that seems obvious about a second after someone's said it. You always knew that, you always thought that was important, but you hadn't quite put it into words before.

    Like, "Love is the argument for faith," for example, or;
    "If you aren't talking about biographies, you aren't talking about God."

    Your post reminded me of a previous one in which you presented holiness in terms of our radical availability to others. I've found that idea tremendously helpful, too.

    Looking forward to 'The Witness of the Saints: A Poem'.

  17. By the time the
    Roman Empire had become "Christianized", martyrdom had taken on a
    different meaning. This from Merton;

    Christianity overcame pagan Rome by nonviolence.

    But when Christianity became the religion of the Empire, then the stoic and
    political virtues of the Empire began to supplant the original theological
    virtues of the first Christians. The heroism of the soldier supplanted the
    heroism of the martyr—though there was still a consecrated minority, the monks,
    who kept the ideal of charity and martyrdom in first place.

    The ideal of self-sacrifice was never altogether set aside—on the contrary! But
    it was transferred to a new sphere. Now the supreme sacrifice was to die
    fighting under the Christian emperor. The supreme self-immolation was to fall
    in battle under the standard of the Cross. In the twelfth century even
    monks took up the sword, and consummated their sacrifice of obedience by dying
    in battle against infidels, against heretics. Unfortunately, they also fought other monks, and this was not necessarily
    regarded as virtue. But it does show what comes of living by the sword!

    Christian chivalry was the fruit of a union between Chris­tian faith and
    Roman, Frankish, or Germanic valor. In other words, Christians did here what
    they also did elsewhere: they adopted certain non-Christian values and
    "baptized" them, consecrating them to God. Christianity might just as

    well have turned to the East and "baptized" the nonmilitant, contemplative,
    detached, and hieratic institutions of the Ori­ent. But by the time Christianity
    was ready to meet Asia and the New World, the Cross and the sword were so
    identified with one another that the sword itself was a cross. It was the only
    kind of cross some conquistadores understood.

    There was no further thought of Christianizing the ideals and institutions of
    these ancient civilizations: only of destroy­ing them, and bringing their people
    into subjection to the militant Christianity of Europe. Hence the strange
    paradox that certain spiritual and largely nonviolent ideologies which were in
    fact quite close to the Gospel were attacked and coerced in the name of Christ
    by the Christian soldier who was often no longer a Christian except in name:
    for he was violent, greedy, self-complacent, and supremely contemptu­ous of
    anything that was not a perfect reflection of himself.

    (From Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by Thomas Merton, pg. 101, 1966,

  18. How early is early? Does Justin Martyr count? Does Irenaeus?

    It's potentially misleading to say "for the first 300 years, the church didn't have a Bible" and leave it at that. They didn't have a formalized canon, sure. But they sure had some texts, and they sure thought they were authoritative well throughout the first 300 years (and, of course, they had creeds and bishops too). I don't think you can read Irenaeus or Origen and think the early church didn't bother pointing to scripture to justify its teachings or to distinguish 'orthodoxy' and 'heresy' until 300 AD.

    Now, of course the church pointed to the example of the saints. Of course holy living was essential to genuine apologetic. But the dichotomy (or really the acceptance of any opposition at all) between all of that and rationality, cognition, and argument looks to me like a modern imposition rather than something you see characteristically in the Patristic writers (or indeed in the New Testament).

  19. All that is true. My hesitancy in focusing on the church fathers is that it equates Christianity with what the literate elites were doing. This post is about the illiterate masses, the heart and soul of what we might call "popular Christianity." Those people didn't have a bible. Could could they have read it if they had one.

  20. That's an interesting point, but I think the evidence is good that the illiterate were indeed taught a rule of faith. The writings we have are from folks who taught them. I certainly agree that the lives of the saints were an absolutely essential aspect of Christian moral formation. And I also agree that moral transformation was an important aspect of the Church's apologetic.

    Both of these points are an important challenge to modern and contemporary Christianity. But I think the conclusion you draw doesn't really appreciate the challenge the early Church presents here if it continues on with a dichotomy or opposition between "love" on the one hand and the "rational, intellectual, [and] cognitive" on the other.

  21. Agreed. I don't want to separate the rational from the emotional.

    About the rule of faith, again, there was no standard rule of faith. People were being baptized in Arian churches next door to Trinitarian churches. What bound Christians together, on the streets, wasn't their respective "rules of faith" but their devotion to the martyr shrines. What made them all "Christians" weren't their rules of faith--these didn't agree--but their common devotion to a shared family of saints.

  22. Well in the period I'm (heretofore ambiguously) talking about (i.e., that of Tertullian, Origen, and Irenaeus), the Arian controversy hadn't arisen yet, and it really couldn't have. The issues that made it possible hadn't been settled yet. But your point is still well-taken; there was clearly diversity of belief. I'm just not sure I make the same thing of the diversity that existed. I don't think Gnostics and Marcionites held common devotion to a shared family of saints, and I'm also not sure they really were bound together with (proto-)orthodox Christians in any way I'd want to hold up as exemplary. The content as well as the significance of the heritage putatively received from the saints was very much in dispute between these groups. It doesn't seem likely to me that at the lay level all these folks just got along in Christian love.

    Later on, of course, once some of the issues of the 2nd-to-early-3rd centuries had been dealt with, disagreements took on a somewhat different character. Arians and proto-Nicenes (and, later, Nestorians and Chalcedonians, Donatists and Catholics, etc.) shared much more than proto-orthodox shared with Gnostics and Marcionites--not least, they shared much more agreement on what scripture was and the basic story it told. But still, the Arian controversy caused enough social upheaval that the emperor felt it needed to be sorted out for the sake of the peace of the empire. Maybe the elites just had that much influence? But I think those disputes had enough import for liturgy that people lay people cared enough that it wasn't just an academic disagreement.

  23. True, focusing exclusively on the literary elite is always a danger. Nevertheless, many of the fathers were not writing, as the literary elite do in our day, to other members of the literary elite. They were often writing to the actual church members, who may or may not have been literate. Especially among the very earliest fathers (Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch) the letters they wrote would be indistinguishable from some of St. Paul's and Peter's epistles, were it not for the canonization. So I'd argue that the line between literary and non-literary is not as clearly demarcated as we make it today.

    Incidentally, as one commentator below pointed out, I do largely agree with your conclusion: that we shouldn't be so wrapped up doctrine that we forget to *live* Christ. This is something I have appreciated about the Fathers, that they stress the life of faith in addition to the doctrines; they are equally important.

  24. I really like this. But I suggest that you may be taking this theory too far in an effort to combat idolatry of the bible. I believe the "glue" holding the church together is and always will be the Holy Spirit. Both the bible and the lives of saints/martyrs are noble and important for a growing, vibrant faith but neither replace the work of the Holy Spirit throughout the ages.

  25. Yeah. I sort of have a problem with the people the evangelical church lauds as their saints. Several years ago Christianity Today had a good article about how we venerate the wrong people and put them on such a huge pedestal that it is practically impossible for them NOT to fail. I was in Colorado at the time so I immediately thought of Ted Haggard and how busy, busy, busy he told everyone he was right before the scandal broke. :-/ So I sort of don't like the populist "saints" that the American Evangelical church has been venerating (Tebow?). That being said, I think, in practice there ARE people who I venerate for having very godly lives, women who are prayer warriors or have lived such a life of sacrifice that its impossible not to rise up and call them wise women. So I think I get the spirit of what you're saying while quibbling with it in practical terms.

  26. I was raised Catholic which meant that when I was confirmed I went through a book of saints lives to find a name I liked to take as my confirmation name. Disappointingly, there was no Katherine with a K, so I had to settle for for Catherine who if I recall correctly died some horriic death - probably at the hands of the church. And that was all saints were to me - people who were tortured and killed - mostly by members of the church heirarchy.

    But some years ago I began to enter into spiritual territory which was hard to understand and difficult to navigate. It seemed that God was leading me and working in me in ways that were unfamiliar and sometimes startling. And no one around me seemed to know what I was talking about or have any guidance to offer. One day I was complaining to God about this lack and it occurred to me that this is what the saints were for. The saints have walked this path with God before and their stories held experiences and insights which can guide us today. So John of the Cross has become a dear friend through his work. And Therese. Origin. And others I have found in passing.

    We do spend so much time talking about what to believe and why. But what is really needed is instruction in how to live, how to know and walk with God, how to navigate our spiritual lives. I've actually heard Christians say that we should avoid even the word spiritual! Clearly we are missing a great deal. I wonder if you are aware of any books which compile the spiritual biographies of believers who went before?

  27. This is beautiful Rebecca. Thanks so much.

    I don't know of any compilations of biographies, just stand alone biographies for any given saint. I have, however, enjoyed James Martin's book My Life With the Saints, which is a compilation of sorts of the saints that affected and shaped Martin's life:

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