THE STORY OF THE CHURCH - PART 3, TOPIC 3
- Veneration and Invocation of Saints
- The earliest roots of this concept are during the persecutions. Martyrs and confessors gained spiritual authority
by their status as sufferers for the faith. This authority sometimes exceeded or contradicted that of the bishops.
- Confessors gained the authority of interceding for those who had "lapsed" -- i.e. denied the faith
under persecution. They could ask for the church to restore those who were under discipline.
- As martyrs died, it became a practice to build small shrines to them. One of these shrines has been excavated
under St. Peter's in Rome and appears to be a serious contender for the actual tomb of Peter.
- The idea that confessors and martyrs could intercede for one in this life led to the belief that they could
continue to do so after death. After all, their deaths were glorious and exceedingly pleased God, and now they
were closer to God than ever.
- We saw in our survey of art in the early class how Mary first appears as a common woman, and changes to a Goddess
figure by the time of the Christian emperors.
- Mother of God controversy in Constantinople -- Nestorius and the monks. The term "God bearer" or
"Mother of God" was popular in devotional usage, but Nestorius objected to it. Even though he took the
wrong side ultimately in the Christological controversies, we may still appreciate his hesitancy. However, he was
mightily opposed by the monks and the people, whose superstitions (not for the last time) outstripped the capability
of theologians to keep up.
- By the late 2nd century or soon afterward, it was also being supposed that Mary had remained a virgin
all her life. The widespread popularity of celibacy or at least the suspicion that normal marriage was a lower
form of Christian living, contributed to this view, even though there is flat contradiction of it in the Bible.
("his mother and his brothers," etc.)
- By Augustine's time it was also firmly believed that Mary had not actually been born with original sin. After
all, how could Christ's mother have all these infirmities like normal people?
- Even though Aquinas taught differently, the theologian Duns Scotus in the 13th century systematized
the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which teaches that Mary was actually conceived without original sin.
- Remember the handkerchiefs carried from Paul to heal the sick? Imagine building an entire edifice of doctrine
around such an idea, and you get some idea of relics.
- The question of martyrs and saints is intimately bound up in the idea of relics. Martyr's bodies were certainly
treated with reverence and respect by their fellow Christians, and they were buried in whatever way could show
the most honor to the martyr.
- However, by Constantine's time the superstition had again taken over, and we have such things as Constantine's
mother Helena "discovering" the "true cross." Now relics didn't have to have any historical
validity, but could be manufactured to order for credulous pilgrims and kings and any others who needed such crutches
for their faith.
- Relics were credited with miracles throughout the Middle Ages and even today in Roman Catholicism such claims
are made. Of course, even statues and pictures can perform miracles in some popular Catholic thinking.
- Veneration of relics was treated with care and approval by Scholastic theologians such as Aquinas.
- Pictures were painted in the catacombs, but there is no evidence that they were used in worship at first. In
Dura-Europos, in the excavated remains of the earliest church meeting room ever found, there are Old Testament
scenes depicted on the walls.
- Before long, and certainly by Constantine's time, churches were adorned with art. The Christian Roman emperors
starting with Constantine put their wealth and prestige behind the creation of fine art for the various churches.
- The Iconoclastic Controversy in the Eastern empire (8th and 9th century) first abandoned,
and then established, the veneration of icons or images of saints and Christ. This is too detailed to go into here,
but the emperor and the army were essentially trying to purge the icons from the worship of God. They saw the icons
as idolatry, especially since they felt the pressure from the emerging Muslim world which denounced the icon-worshiping
Christians as idolaters.
- According to Schaff, there was much principled opposition in the Frankish world, especially Charlemagne, to
the superstitious worship of images. But the Eastern view, which was the majority Western view too, prevailed,
with the difference that only flat images are allowed in Eastern Orthodoxy while Roman Catholicism allows sculptures
- Of course, there is a medieval Scholastic interpretation of all this that attempts to preserve the honor due
to God only, and yet continue the veneration of icons. To Protestant ears, this kind of argumentation sounds very
suspicious. The common claim that "the people" are instructed by icons is undercut by the very real problem
that "the people" are the very same ones who are least able or willing to observe the fine distinctions
of the theologians between the honor due to a picture, the honor due to the saint who is pictured, and the honor
due to God.
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Copyright © 1998, 1999 by Mark S. Ritchie. Permission is granted
to use materials herein for the building up of the Christian Church. Bibliographic entries for published works
quoted may be found in Bibliography page.