We’re a few days away from Milan, where St. Augustine finally became a Christian, and the day after we’ll overnight in Pavia, home to some relics of St. Augustine… which prompts some thoughts on saints.
It’s one of the more obvious differences between Lutherans and Catholics that they former don’t venerate or pray to saints and the latter do. The Augsburg Confession, Lutheranism’s “charter document,” associates saint veneration with “childish and needless works” (Article xx), and that’s what has stuck in the Lutheran institutional memory. On the other hand, the Augsburg Confession also says, “Concerning the cult of the saints our people teach that the saints are to be remembered so that we may strengthen our faith when we see how they experienced grace and how they were helped by faith” (Article xxi). Perhaps it’s time to focus a little more on that one.
There is more pro-saint evidence in the Lutheran confessional record. Melanchthon gives an account of why Christians should not invoke the saints in prayer (Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Article xxi). But he and Luther both allowed for the possibility that the saints pray for us, and neither of them denied the designation of some believers as saints in the sense of “extraordinary witnesses to Christ.” In fact, Melanchthon lays out three extremely important things that saints do for believers that makes “giving honor” to them perfectly appropriate:
“Our confession approves giving honor to the saints. This honor is threefold. The first is thanksgiving: we ought to give thanks to God because he has given examples of his mercy, because he has shown that he wants to save humankind, and because he has given teachers and other gifts to the church. Since these are the greatest gifts, they ought to be extolled very highly, and we ought to praise the saints themselves for faithfully using these gifts just as Christ praises faithful managers [Matthew 25:21, 23]. The second kind of veneration is the strengthening of our faith. When we see Peter forgiven after his denial, we, too, are encouraged to believe that grace truly superabounds much more over sin [Romans 5:20]. The third honor is imitation: first of their faith, then of their other virtues, which people should imitate according to their callings.” (Apology, Article xxi)
The danger is that “[w]hen people try to imitate [the saints], for the most part they imitate the outward practices, but not their faith” (Apology, Article xv). But probably most Christians, Lutheran and Catholic alike, don’t bother trying to imitate the saints at all because it seems a hopeless task. Somehow “saint” has come to mean “utterly sinless in every way,” which is demotivating not to say inaccurate. “Saint” popularly also implies “boring.” But some of the greatest saints of church history were downright odious (St. Jerome and St. Cyril of Alexandria come to mind) and many were what we’d call “a character.”
It seems to me that this is a place where there could be a lot of ecumenical growth. I’ve written elsewhere a proposal for hagiography from a Lutheran point of view. One way or another, I admit it: I think it’ll be pretty cool to see St. Augustine’s bones.