Previous article in this series: August 2017, p. 443.
As we saw last time, the opening paragraphs of this fifth chapter of the Second Helvetic Confession establish the fundamental biblical truth that God must be worshiped through the only Mediator, our Lord Jesus Christ. They also condemn the worship of the Roman Catholic Church, which raises up other mediators alongside the only Mediator. These other mediators include especially the saints and the Virgin Mary. Over against Rome’s insistence that the faithful “adore, worship, and pray to the saints in heaven,” the SHC maintains that “God and Christ the Mediator are sufficient for us; neither do we give to others the honor that is due to God alone and to his Son….” Among the “solas” upon which the Reformation insisted was solus Christus, that is, Christ alone. Rome taught then and Rome teaches today that Christ and the saints are mediators of believers. The Reformers taught that Christ alone is the Mediator between God and man.
Having rejected Rome’s false teaching concerning the saints, the SHC now turns to the proper way in which Reformed Christians are to honor the saints. The Reformers were balanced in their theology and in their practices. That balance is exemplified in this chapter of the SHC. They realized the ditches on both sides of the straight and narrow way into the kingdom. Rather than to overreact, taking an extreme and radical position, the Reformers time and again took the middle way between two equally pernicious errors. That was true of their teaching concerning the saints and the due honor that ought to be rendered to them.
One very important premise of this chapter of the SHC is that the saints are not the “super saints” of the Roman Catholic Church. Saints are not those who have been officially canonized by the church hierarchy, after their alleged miracles had been duly verified. The Reformation rejected this view of the saints. Rather, the saints are the ordinary members of the church who make a confession of Christ and live out of that confession. They are the ordinary members of the church who refuse to recant their confession of the truth and proper worship of God, and therefore have been tortured, hanged, beheaded, drowned, and burned at the stake. These are the saints in the church. They were in the apostles’ days (cf. Rom. 1:7; 16:2; I Cor. 1:2; 6:1; Eph. 5:3; Phil. 4:21). And they are the saints in the church today.
The due honor to be rendered to the saints
At the same time we do not despise the saints or think basely of them. For we acknowledge them to be living members of Christ and friends of God who have gloriously overcome the flesh and the world. Hence we love them as brothers [and sisters], and also honor them; yet not with any kind of worship, but by an honorable opinion of them and just praises of them. We also imitate them. For with ardent longings and supplications [to God] we earnestly desire to be imitators of their faith and virtues, to share eternal salvation with them, to dwell eternally with them in the presence of God, and to rejoice with them in Christ. And in this respect we approve of the opinion of St. Augustine in De Vera Religione: “Let not our religion be the cult of men who have died. For if they have lived holy lives, they are not to be thought of as seeking such honors; on the contrary, they want us to worship Him by whose illumination they rejoice that we are fellow-servants of His merits. They are therefore to be honored by the way of imitation, but not to be adored in a religious manner.”
According to Heinrich Bullinger, the author of the SHC, the “due honor to be rendered to the saints” consists of especially three things. First, it consists of our love and honor of them as brothers and sisters in the faith. Although they are departed from the church on earth and dwell in the glory of heaven, we still love them and speak well of them. Although we do not render to them “any kind of worship,” we hold “an honorable opinion of them and [utter] just praises of them.” This implies, of course, that we are to keep the memory of the saints alive in the church. Part of that keeping alive their memory is that we speak of them among ourselves, and to our children and grandchildren. It includes that we write about them, their lives and struggles, their sacrifices and sufferings, their victories and deliverance. The Scriptures themselves lead the way with their infallible utterances concerning the lives of the saints, as recorded especially in the Old Testament Scriptures, the gospel narratives, and the Book of Acts. Think of how often Old Testament saints are mentioned in the Psalms, in the prophets, and in portions of the New Testament, like Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7. Or think of the catalog of the champions of faith in the well-known eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Beside the record of the lives of the saints infallibly recorded in the Bible, there are a great number of good books that have been written to keep alive the memory of the saints in the church. One of the earliest such books is the classic Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, written by John Foxe (1516-1587), which recounts the persecutions of Christians at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church beginning with the medieval period through the persecution and death of countless Protestants in England and Scotland during the “killing times” of the reign of Bloody Mary. A good number of worthwhile books of church history keep the memory of the saints alive. A book like Portraits of Faithful Saints, written by Prof. Herman Hanko, is an excellent example of the “due honor” that is to be rendered to the saints by keeping alive their memory.
What the SHC calls for is not Roman Catholic hagiography. Hagiography is the account of the lives of the saints that focuses, not on God’s work of grace in the saints, but on the saints for their own sake. In such writings the saints are glamorized and attention is called to stupendous deeds and notable miracles that are attributed to them. No such false glorification of the saints for the sake of the saints themselves is in view in the SHC. Rather, what is in view is the sober and honest recounting of their lives, including their struggles, weaknesses, and sins, so that the glory for their lives and deaths may be given to God and to His Son, Jesus Christ, whom the saints served and whose name they confessed.
Second, due honor of the saints includes that “we also imitate them.” We are to imitate them, both in their bold confessions of the truth and in their godly lives unto death, which was often as martyrs at the hand of the false church or an antagonistic government. If we are to imitate them, the strength to do so must come from God, who was their strength. Thus, “with ardent longings and supplications [not to the saints, but to God] we earnestly desire to be imitators of their faith and virtues.” Such saints may be those who lived in a bygone era, in another time and place. They may be our own relatives, whose lives we uncover through research into our family tree. They may be our own parents or grandparents, or some other revered member of the church. The saints as “living members of Christ and friends of God” are worthy of our imitation. But if we are to follow after them and take them as our examples, we will need the abundant grace of God. And God gives “His grace and Holy Spirit to those only, who with sincere desires continually ask them of Him, and are thankful for them” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 116).
Third, the due honor of the saints includes the earnest desire “to share eternal salvation with them, to dwell eternally with them in the presence of God, and to rejoice with them in Christ.” Implied clearly is the Reformation’s rejection of the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. The saints, that is, all those who have died in faith in Jesus Christ go not to purgatory, as Rome taught, but immediately into the presence of God and of Christ. And the hope of God’s people on earth is that at the end of their earthly pilgrimage—at that very moment—they will be privileged to join the saints in glory. Not the specter of purgatory, but the hope of one day joining the saints who have gone before in order with them to praise God in Jesus Christ forever. Certainly our hope is mainly that we will dwell in friendship and fellowship with God in Christ. That will be the great glory of heaven. But it also belongs to our earnest expectation that in heaven we will enjoy the friendship and fellowship of all the saints of God who have gone before us: Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Peter, and Paul; but also Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, Hendrik de Cock, Herman Bavinck, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Hoeksema, George Ophoff, and many more besides. What joy awaits us in the glory of heaven!
Relics of the saints
Much less do we believe that the relics of the saints are to be adored and reverenced. Those ancient saints seemed to have sufficiently honored their dead when they decently committed their remains to the earth after the spirit had ascended on high. And they thought that the most noble relics of their ancestors were their virtues, their doctrine, and their faith. Moreover, as they commend these “relics” when praising the dead, so they strive to copy them during their life on earth.
This paragraph concerns the subject of the relics of the saints, a very important aspect of the Reformers’ objection to the prevailing practice in the church of their day. One of the most important treatises that John Calvin wrote was against the multiplication of and the superstitious veneration of relics. The adoration of relics and the payment of money to the church to view and allegedly receive saving power from the relics of the saints the Reformers rejected as false worship: “Much less do we believe that the relics of the saints are to be adored and reverenced.”
Rather than to adore the saints’ relics, the SHC calls for a proper regard for the saints and their remains. That proper regard begins with “decently commit[ing] their remains to the earth after the spirit had ascended on high.” With the increasing support in the church today for cremation, it is noteworthy that the SHC by clear implication rejects cremation and calls for respect of the saints that takes the form of giving them an honorable burial. The bones of the saints are not to be enshrined and venerated superstitiously, but instead committed to the earth by way of Christian burial.
Over against the physical relics of the saints, the SHC identifies “the most noble relics” of the saints as “their virtues, their doctrine, and their faith.” These are their true relics and priceless treasures that the saints have left behind for the benefit of all Christians: how they lived, what they taught, and that which they confessed. These are the relics that believers ought to “commend… so that they strive to copy them during their life on earth.” This is rendering due honor to the saints.
Swearing by God’s name alone
These ancient men did not swear except by the name of the only God, Jehovah, as prescribed by the divine law. Therefore, as it is forbidden to swear by the names of strange gods (Ex. 23:13; Deut. 10:20), so we do not perform oaths to the saints that are demanded of us. We therefore reject in all these matters a doctrine that ascribes much too much to the saints in heaven.
The Reformation’s rejection of Rome’s false doctrine and practices concerning the saints included the rejection of all oaths sworn to and in the name of the saints. Ironically, in a way the Reformation began with such a wrongful oath. This is not a justification for swearing such an oath, but it is a historical fact. It was in a severe thunderstorm, in July of 1505, that Martin Luther was cast to the ground and struck with such fear that he swore by St. Anne, the patron saint of his miner father, that if God spared his life, he would become a monk. That vow led him to forsake the study of law at the University of Erfurt and to enter the Augustinian monastery in that city. And thus, the sovereign God brought good out of evil, using Luther’s sinful oath to begin a series of events that culminated in the Reformation.
The whole matter of wrongful oaths was a major issue at the time of the Reformation. An indication of this is the Heidelberg Catechism’s devotion of an entire Lord’s Day to this one application of the third commandment. Lord’s Day 37 is concerned exclusively with “swearing religiously.” Q. 102 asks, “May we also swear by saints or any other creature?” as was the practice in the church of that day. And the answer is, “No; for a lawful oath is calling upon God, as the only one who knows the heart, that He will bear witness to the truth, and punish me if I swear falsely; which honor is due to no creature.”
One important issue having to do with unlawful oaths was the issue of oaths sworn of perpetual celibacy. Were these oaths binding upon former nuns and priests who had sworn such wrongful oaths while in the Roman Catholic Church? The Reformers were united in their rejection of the binding character of such wrongful oaths, and for that reason they encouraged former priests and nuns to renounce such oaths and to marry. But another important issue was the swearing of oaths by and in the name of the saints. This was common practice in the Roman Catholic Church of the sixteenth century. It was part of the fabric of everyday life, done almost without thought even by very pious members of the church. On the one hand, the Reformers rejected the extreme Anabaptist rejection of the use of the oath altogether, defending from Scripture its lawful use by Christians.
On the other hand, they rejected Rome’s perverse use of the oath, the swearing of oaths in the name of and to the saints. Over against Rome’s abuse, the Reformers insisted that this was an honor due alone to God. No one but God can read the heart, judging the sincerity of an oath. And no one is able to avenge an insincere oath or the oath not carried out except God. The concluding line of this fifth chapter of the SHC is worth repeating: “We therefore reject in all these matters a doctrine that ascribes much too much to the saints in heaven.”