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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

09 January 2007

Honoring the Saints

St. Louis CathedralQ: The Lutheran Smalcald Articles say, “Although the angels in heaven pray for us (as Christ Himself also does), as also do the saints on earth, and perhaps also in heaven, yet it does not follow thence that we should invoke and adore the angels and saints, and fast, hold festivals, celebrate Mass in their honor, make offerings, and establish churches, altars, divine worship, and in still other ways serve them, and regard them as helpers in need ... and ascribe to each one a particular form of assistance.... For this is idolatry, and such honor belongs alone to God.”

The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod officially holds this confession but many churches in the LCMS are named after saints. To this layman, this seems like a violation of the above doctrine (“and establish churches”). Can you explain why it is (or is not) ok to name a church after a saint?

A: We note that these words of Dr. Martin Luther come from a section titled “Of the Invocation of the Saints.” The primary concern is not on holding them in esteem, but on focusing upon them “as helpers in need.” The problem Luther saw in his day was that the vast number of churches that were named for saints were also used to promote worship and intercession of these same saints. Many held relics (often bones) purported to have belonged to their namesakes and said to have special powers of forgiveness, healing, and the like.

95 ThesesTo establish churches or, to touch on another abuse, to hold festivals honoring them, often equated to actual worship of the saints and angels. Such activity, in part, precipitated the beginning of the Reformation. History reminds us that Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church on the eve of All Saints’s Day — the day on which Elector Frederick opened his huge collection of relics for public viewing that his subjects might gain indulgences for their sins.

Our Lutheran Confessions do not absolutely forbid remembering and honoring the departed heroes of the faith. For example, the Apology (Defense) of the Augsburg Confession specifically says of the saints, “Our Confession approves honors to the saints.” It continues by citing a “threefold honor.” One is that of “thanksgiving” — to God, not the saints — because in their lives He shows clearly how He saves sinners and because through them, He taught and otherwise gifted His Church.

The second honor is “strengthening of our faith.” This comes when we see how God overcame the sins of these holy people in order to forgive them and move them to good works. The example given is that of Christ restoring Peter: In it, we should see that if even denial of the Christ was completely forgiven, then we should never despair over the magnitude of our own sins. Finally comes the honor of “imitation” — God allows us to remember the saints in order to imitate first their faith and then all their other virtues.

Cloud of WitnessesI hold that this understanding is completely in line with Hebrews 11:1-12:2. Chapter 11, the great “Faith Chapter” of Scripture, honors a host of saints, including Abel, Abraham, Moses, and an unnamed host of others. Of these, “Some were tortured.... Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated — of whom the world was not worthy.... (11:36-38)”

The purpose of this summary of holy people who were “commended through their faith (11:39)” wasn’t to lead people to worship them. They are listed because they held the promised Savior as the object of their faith. Think of the people mentioned in Hebrews 11 in context of the previously noted “threefold honor” as you read Hebrews 12:1-2. Consider where thanksgiving to God for the saints, strengthening of faith, and imitation of their virtues fit the text.

JesusAfter looking back at these departed saints, the writer says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses [thanksgiving], let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us [imitation], looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith [strengthening of faith], who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Smalcald Articles and Apology of the Augsburg Confession quoted from the public domain text of the Book of Concord.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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Blogger Kelly Klages said...

The first thing that I thought of when I saw this post was St. Mary's Church in Wittenberg, a parish church where Luther often preached that is considered the "Mother Church of the Reformation." The early reformers obviously didn't feel compelled to rename all their churches, nor to remove all the artwork or statuary as some of the more radical Reformers would have. Lutherans have always been much more conservative in nature. As already stated, "establishing churches" is primarily concerned with things like saints' relics, intercession, and merit, not naming a church in their honor.

10 January, 2007 19:29  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Revelation 15:4

"…Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest…"

How is it then that a Lutheran congregation will hold a cross to be holy? Is holy defined in several ways?

07 February, 2007 20:34  

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