Volume II Appendix I
Deciphering the “Language Barrier” Which Causes Unnecessary Misunderstandings Between Protestant and Catholic Christians Concerning the Marian Doctrines and “The Communion of Saints” (And Purgatory, Which Evangelicals Believe in but Call by Another Name)
Though there are some real and significant differences in belief between Protestant/Evangelical and Catholic/Orthodox Christians concerning Mary and the other Saints of God in Heaven, differences resulting in quite different practices, these differences in belief have been hugely exaggerated in the minds of many Christians. A number of factors, including a “language barrier” wherein Catholic Christians mean different things by the same words Protestants use, have led to many gross misconceptions between Christians over these different beliefs and practices. Thus Protestant and Evangelical Christians are often greatly offended by what they mistakenly perceive as heretical worship of Mary and the Saints by Catholic and Orthodox Christians, or at least as an improper elevation of them which takes away from the glory due to Jesus Christ and which interferes with a Christian’s relationship with Christ. These misconceptions have led Protestants, in over-reaction, to deliberately ignore Mary and the Saints at best, and to denigrate them at worst. In reaction to this, without appreciating the genuine (if misdirected) love for Jesus which motivates it, Catholic and Orthodox Christians are often offended by this Protestant and Evangelical prejudice against the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) of the Dead in Christ. They cannot understand why Evangelicals and other Protestants have so much against the Christian Family of Mary and the other Saints of God (our older brothers and sisters in Christ) who have gone before us into Heaven to be with our Father God in the Heavenly Home He prepared for all of His children adopted through the work of Jesus Christ, the Father’s only Natural Son. Since “death has no sting” for the Christian (see 1 Cor 15:55), they cannot understand why Protestants would disdain asking their Christian family in Heaven to pray for them as Protestants ask their Christian family on Earth for their prayers.
However, despite this typical mutual offense taken over each other’s differences in this area, the actual differences are not near so large nor offensive as they usually first appear, once we take the time, in Christian brotherly love, to truly seek to understand each other’s different set of beliefs and practices which are still rooted in the same Scriptures and the same common core of fundamental Christian beliefs and which are careful not to compromise them. There is thus no reason for these differences to be excuses for the harsh and uncharitable attitudes which Christians sadly often show to each other, unloving attitudes which hamper the witness of the Body of Christ the Church to world which needs to know Jesus.
The following are a few excerpts from my book listed in the Catalog, Understanding the Nature of Christian Unity in Diversity in the First Christian Millennium of the Undivided Early Church, As a Guide Towards Renewing Christian Unity in Diversity – and Therefore Increasing Christian Witness and Missionary Effectiveness – in the Third Christian Millennium, specifically from its Part 2: The Christian Unity in Diversity Which Still Exists Today Despite Divisions and the Importance of Developing It Further.
These excerpts from a different book manuscript are written in a significantly different style than Who is Mary in the Church?, one that is less formal and more personal. These excerpts are presented here as an appendix to supplement this present volume on Mary,
1) by explaining the “language barrier” or linguistic source of some of the misunderstandings between Catholic and Protestant Christians concerning Mary, and
2) by explaining the minor Catholic doctrine of “The Communion of Saints,” the doctrine that the Church (in Heaven and on Earth) is truly the Family of God, which has so many popular Catholic (and Orthodox) practices based on it (many related to Mary) which are typically misunderstood by Protestant Christians (including the religious use of icons, the “Family Pictures” of the Family of God the Church, and relics).
It is my hope that this appendix will explain most of the issues relating to Mary that Christians disagree over which were not specifically covered in the main body of Who is Mary in the Church?, so that this volume may be a quite thorough source for aiding Christians in coming to understand each other’s different approaches to Mary in the light of our great common Christian beliefs, to aid the healing of the wounded unity in love of the Body of Christ the Church.
As a “bonus,” the first long excerpt will also explain some of the misunderstandings between Christians over the doctrine the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church calls Purgatory, which Protestant Christians usually completely misunderstand and are sure is wrong, showing how Protestant Christians actually do believe the essence of this Catholic doctrine – one example (of many) of how Protestant and Catholic Christian belief is not near so different when we take the time and effort to approach each other with a Christian brotherly love which seeks to truly understand our differences, instead of approaching each other with “Satanic” accusations of being wrong for being different (note the Hebrew word satan means accuser).
Overcoming the “Language Barrier” by Listening in Love:
Many of Our Perceived Differences Are Actually Common Faith Expressed Differently
A Case Study: Evangelicals Believe in Purgatory but Call it by Another Name
The genuine doctrinal differences between Protestant/Evangelical and Catholic Christians are fewer and less important than many think, since Protestant and Catholic beliefs are much closer, sometimes even the same, on many points once we conquer the “language barrier” by listening to each other as loving brothers seeking to understand each others’ apparently differing beliefs and how we define the words and terms we use to describe them (instead of quickly accusing other Christians of being wrong for being different). For example, once I (while I was still an Evangelical Protestant) truly understood the essential Catholic doctrine of Purgatory (a Western Catholic term not used in the Catholic East1) as it is binding on Catholic faith, I realized I had been taught it at my Evangelical Church and my Evangelical Bible College, except that we Evangelicals called it the “Judgement of Believers” based on 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, and we had not quite made the mental connection that this Bible passage – which uses the traditional Roman Catholic Purgatory imagery of fire, suffering, and loss – describes the process after death by which we who are saved by Jesus but are still sinners while on Earth become sinless in Heaven – since no Christian believes we will still be sinning in Heaven! The transition or change in us, the purification of all sin and all propensity to sin (which is what purgation means), has to happen sometime. Like any change from one state or condition to another, to change from being sinners on Earth to being sinless in Heaven requires a process. 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 describes the process, and Roman Rite Catholics call it Purgatory while Evangelicals call it the Judgement of Believers (or bema Judgement). What seemed to be such a big difference between us because we didn’t listen to each other as beloved brothers in Christ to find out what we meant is actually pretty much common Christian faith!
“According to the grace of God given to me [the Apostle Paul], like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation [by preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ and baptizing and training people in it], and someone else is building upon it [by how they live in response to the saving Gospel of Jesus they accepted]. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw – each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:10-15 ESV, emphasis added, with gloss in square brackets)
So this is essentially a common belief of both Catholic and Protestant Christians, that 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 refers to some sort of judgement for untamed sin in Christians who at least in some areas failed to co-operate with God’s Grace as much as they might have in their lives on Earth in order to live more sanctified, Christ-like lives while on Earth; and refers to some sort of transitional finalizing purification of Christians who were saved by Jesus after their death but before the bliss of Heaven which explains the logical need of a transition between being sinners on Earth to being sinless in Heaven where “nothing impure will ever enter” (Revelation 21:27).2 (Scroll down to the bottom of this webpage for a more thorough Biblical analysis of this passage in footnote 2). This common belief goes back to the Undivided Early Church including Saint Augustine, the greatest theologian of the Early Western Church, the ancient Catholic “Doctor of the Church” who the Protestant Reformers drew from heavily (especially since Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk, belonging to the religious order founded by Saint Augustine). Within a hundred years of Augustine, the word purgatory was being used by early (Western) Christians to describe this common Christian belief.
Many of Our Actual Differences Are of a Nature Which Was Not Cause for Division in the Undivided Early Church: Differences in Theology Are Not Differences in Faith, and Are Often Mutually Enriching
Now, though Protestant and Catholic belief are in essence the same on this point, there are some different theological intellectual speculations or theories based on different approaches to the same topic of just how we as impure sinners (though forgiven) are prepared to enter Heaven where “nothing impure will ever enter” (Revelation 21:27). These include several different theological opinions about how long or short this “purification of sin” process for the saved, described in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 and alluded to in other Bible passages, typically lasts in duration. But these opinions go beyond the data of Divine Revelation which demands faith and they are not binding on the Christian faith of any Catholic or Protestant. Evangelical Protestant Christians typically think this process takes very little time, so they hardly think about it, while 16th Century Roman Catholic Christians typically thought it took a very, very long time, and so they developed theological speculations about it (Roman Catholic Christians today usually do not think it takes anywhere near as long, but still much longer than Protestant Christians usually do). The Bible passages themselves say nothing about just how long this purifying process usually lasts, meaning this is an area of legitimate difference of opinion among loving Christian brothers and sisters. It is very reasonable to think that those Christians who have built on their gift of Jesus’ salvation with more “wood, hay, and straw,” who have more attachments to sin, more areas of untamed sin in their lives, will take longer to go through the purification of sin process than those who have built up their lives on the foundation of Jesus with more “gold, silver, precious stones” (1 Corinthians 3:12), who have more attachments to virtue, more areas in which through conscious co-operation with God’s empowering Grace they have overcome former habitual sins and lessened the frequency of their sins – but we cannot be dogmatic about the “average” time-frame.
Thus in this and in many other areas, a wide range of theological opinion, a wide range of different approaches to the same Biblical and theological questions, and a wide range of practical expressions of Christian belief based on these different opinions, was and is allowable and even enriching within the Catholic (Universal) Christian Church of the First Christian Millennium of the Undivided Early Church and still today – such differences either illuminate different aspects of the infinite Mystery of God (enriching our overall understanding) or simply encourage deeper study to resolve apparent problems and are not causes for Christian divisions. The 35,000 distinct Protestant Churches (worldwide) of today often differ from each other solely on the basis of different theology or lesser doctrines or practices, showing how far Protestants have lost the sense of the Early Church’s enriching unity in diversity (unity of common faith articulated in common dogma, but expressed in a diversity of different theologies and secondary doctrines and practices). Though still not kept perfectly, this sense of unity in diversity is much better kept in the Catholic Church, which today maintains the Undivided Early Church’s structure as a unified Universal (Greek katholikos, or Catholic) Communion of different Eastern and Western Sister Churches with different theological expressions and different practical expressions of their common Christian faith, even though the Western, Roman Sister Church today is far larger than the other Sister Churches which along with it together make up the Catholic (Universal) Church.3 Even within the single Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, there are many whole schools of different theological thought associated with different religious orders, who all share a loving unity in diversity as Catholic Christians in one Christian Church. Byzantine Ukrainian Catholic Christians (like myself) and Antiochene Armenian Catholic Christians and Roman Catholic Christians and Franciscan Order Catholics (like myself) and Jesuit Order Catholics and Dominican Order Catholics (and many others) all come from different theological traditions, different ways of considering and reflecting upon and expressing our common Christian faith in what God has revealed in the Scriptures and especially in the Person of Jesus Christ with whom we have a loving relationship, but our common faith (articulated clearly in the common dogmas of the Ecumenical [worldwide] Councils of all the Eastern and Western Sister Churches together from ancient to modern times) makes us all Catholics in one Universal (Catholic) Church of Jesus Christ – who are frequently enriched in our Christian faith lives by our different perspectives upon the same truths, and who occasionally argue among ourselves over different theological perspectives which do not at first seem to be compatible, while maintaining our Catholic (Universal Christian) unity based on common Christian faith articulated in common dogma, common fundamental Christian beliefs (and common leadership, under the pope and the patriarchs – the pope being the earthly leader of the entire Catholic Church but also the patriarch of the Roman Sister Church within the Catholic or Universal Communion of Sister Churches collectively known as the Catholic Church).4
We Catholic Christians can maintain our Christian unity over time despite some arguments over secondary issues (including the kind which separate Protestant denominations) because not only is it legitimate for Christians to have different opinions about many theological topics within one Christian Church, it is also natural and expected for the prevalent theological opinions within one Church (often articulated in formal doctrines or teachings) to change with time and further reflection. In history Christians have had to “try out” different theological ideas for some time before they can know if the idea takes them closer to or farther away from the center of Christian faith and life and love. The different doctrines (teachings) which are produced by theology (the science of human reason applied to the data of Divine Revelation looking for patterns of order to help us understand Divine Revelation better) frequently have to be altered or abandoned with time and testing in the lives of Christians, just as theories in the natural sciences are altered or abandoned gradually through continued experiment. In history it sometimes took centuries for certain Christian ideas to prove to be heretical when they were taken to their full logical conclusions which were not apparent at first (at which time they were abandoned). Other ideas proved fruitful for increasing Christian love of God and neighbor but still eventually needed to be altered and improved to be even more fruitful. A few ideas proved so exceptionally fruitful that the entire Church together in the Ecumenical Councils recognized that they articulated in a clear and concise way something that was absolutely essential to Christian faith, and became the dogmas or fundamental doctrines of Christianity.
It is important for all Christians to recognize the impermanence of different theologies and the different doctrines based on them. Many of the uniquely Protestant or uniquely Catholic doctrines and theologies of history were never essential dogmas or “articles of faith,” they were never non-negotiable fundamental doctrines binding on Protestant or Catholic faith. Good Protestants or Catholics were and are free to disagree with such doctrines, and many historically popular doctrines and theologies on both sides have since been more or less abandoned, so these kinds of doctrinal and theological differences are no legitimate cause for division among Christians today.
For example, many once-popular Catholic theological theories and opinions (which were never binding on Catholic Christian faith) about the extremely long duration of the purgation/purification of sin described in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 and alluded to in other passages, which were abused in Roman Rite Catholic practice in the 16th Century (in the mercenary sale of indulgences) but have long since been abandoned by most Catholics (as mentioned above), should not be considered to still be a barrier between Catholic and Protestant Christians. It should be noted that the mercenary practices of buying and selling indulgences which provoked Martin Luther’s 95 Theses Against Indulgences which sparked the Protestant Reformation were true abuses of a Catholic doctrine (a doctrine that was not essential Catholic dogma, by the way). It is not even appropriate to use the terms “buying and selling” when speaking of indulgences according to the actual Catholic doctrine of indulgences, a doctrine relating to how as members of the Body of Christ the Church Christians “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), and many Catholic Christians other than Luther had decried this abuse. The Catholic Church in the 19th (and 21st) Ecumenical Councils (Trent and later Vatican II) would officially agree with most of Luther’s 95 Theses as to what was wrong with the sale of indulgences, and fix the problems, so it might be said the Protestant Reformation itself happened only over the kind of miscommunications which still needlessly divide Protestant and Catholic Christians.
In any case, the then-widespread theological opinion of the extremely long duration of the purifying fire of 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 (Purgatory) which motivated Roman Catholic Christians at that time to a loving desire to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2) through prayers and other acts of love (sometimes including the giving of monetary sacrifices) offered for the Dead in Christ undergoing their temporary purification from sin for heavenly glory, was corruptly used by some at that time to manipulate the excessive and inappropriate “sale” of indulgences (especially to ignorant and uneducated Catholics). But Catholics today might describe Purgatory as “the anteroom to Heaven” or note (based on some insights of the Catholic Theological Doctors Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint John of the Cross) that since Heaven is the unfiltered Presence of the “consuming fire” of God Himself (Deuteronomy 4:24, Hebrews 12:29), Purgatory, described in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 as a fire that consumes the works of sin which remain in Christian lives, is simply what Heaven feels like when you first get there, when the infinite burning brightness of the “consuming fire” of our God initially makes us squint in pain as the sin and all the holds sin still has on our lives are burned away or purged from us by the Heavenly embrace of His Fiery Burning Love – however long or short a process this is.5
Whatever is in us that makes us still imperfect sinners at the end of our earthly life catches fire in the Heavenly Presence of the “consuming fire” of God once we are “absent from the body and present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8) and we suffer temporarily (1 Corinthians 3:15) before we are able to behold God “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12) without the pain and discomfort of our sinfulness being forever purged from us by His passionate embrace of burning love. Our many personally committed sins are forgiven by Jesus so they no longer prevent us from going to Heaven, but our fallen, sinful human nature inherited from Adam, prone to sin, and what we have built in our lives and personalities through our personally committed sin, is still there, and it cannot stay there in Heaven. It must be cleansed, purified, purged, and 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 indicates that the very entrance of the forgiven but still sinful Christian soul into Heaven starts this process as the heavenly “consuming fire” of God Himself consumes the “wood, hay and straw” of our remaining sinfulness and all ties to sin when He embraces us with His heavenly burning love – such that Purgatory can be described as “the anteroom to Heaven” or “what Heaven feels like when you first get there.”
The above is a more mystical Catholic approach to the theological questions raised by 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 (“Purgatory”), inspired largely by the insights of the great Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross (who the Catholic Church has named a “Doctor” or “Teacher” of the Church), and an insight of the great Catholic doctor Saint Thomas Aquinas. Mystics typically emphasize the soaring intimate love relationship of Christians with their God. Hence I describe this theological approach to Purgatory more thoroughly within my book-length essay Love Unbounded: Tracing Salvation History from the Eternal Trinity to the New Covenant Church – Using Family Theology to Answer the Question How and Why Does Jesus’ Death Save Us? But there are other Catholic approaches to these theological questions which are complementary (not contradictory), illuminating different aspects of the topic.
The theological speculations and theories of Roman Catholic theologians attempting to explain the suffering of the saved in Purgatory (testified to in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15) often speak in terms of God’s justice. This approach to the Bible’s revelation of the purification of Christians in the “consuming fire” which consumes the “wood, hay and straw” of sinful works in Christian lives emphasizes that while in God’s mercy our sins are forgiven, God is still just, and justice demands reparation for harm done (note that reparation means that things broken need to be repaired). Such theologians will often make the distinction that while the eternal consequences of our sins – eternal separation from God in Hell – are completely wiped away by God’s forgiveness because of Jesus’ work, there are still temporal consequences for our sins which God’s justice demands be paid, and a Christian’s temporary time “in Purgatory” (having the “wood, hay, and straw” of sin in his life consumed by the fire of 1 Corinthians 3:10-15), is when the demands of God’s justice are met – I would add, when what is broken in us is repaired, when our sinfulness is removed. Such theologians often speak of these eternal and temporal consequences as eternal and temporal punishment for sin – that is, the eternal punishment for sin is eternal separation from God in Hell for the unsaved, while the temporal punishment for sin is the temporary suffering of Purgatory for the saved.
The “punishment” idea comes from Jesus Himself. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:23-35 (wherein the forgiven man due to sin still has to pay all he owes, making reparation from prison), Matthew 12:31-32 (which implies some sins may be forgiven later in “the age to come”), and also Matthew 5:26 and Luke 12:59 (wherein Jesus warns that those in prison because they did not settle matters of justice “will not get out until [they] have paid the last penny”), makes no sense except in terms of a temporary, temporal purgation of sin (including a reconciling of debts owed to God’s justice), as that which Paul testifies about in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 and which Roman Catholic Christians call Purgatory. Jesus even speaks of torture for the forgiven but still sinful man until he pays all his debt (Matthew 18:34), noting that “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you” (18:35). So it is completely valid for Roman Catholic theologians, seeking to understand these Scriptures in the light of 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 and its purifying fire which causes Christians to suffer after their death, to speak in terms of punishment, since Christ Himself does. However, I find this “punishment” terminology misleading, because it can be misinterpreted to mean the “punishment” is more or less arbitrarily inflicted upon the Christian by God, rather than the suffering being due to the intrinsic consequences of changing from a forgiven but still-sinful Christian on Earth to a glorified, perfected, sinless Christian in Heaven.
Indeed, this misinterpretation is a major reason for the Protestant rejection of Purgatory. Protestants sometimes hear Catholics speaking of God punishing Christians for sin after their death and they balk because Jesus made satisfaction for our sins so we can go to Heaven. But this “punishment” is best understood as the natural, intrinsic consequences of still-sinful Christian human beings GOING to Heaven where “nothing impure will ever enter” (Revelation 21:27). Jesus’ teaching is extremely clear that we must “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48). Jesus teaches this because it is a serious necessity that we be perfectly free of sin before we can ever live eternally in the heavenly “consuming fire” of God Himself, where “nothing impure will ever enter.” The good news is, the teaching of Jesus and Paul in these above passages about purgation and punishment (or discipline) indicate that God makes sure that His children adopted through the work of Christ Jesus indeed become “perfect, as their heavenly Father is perfect,” perfectly free of all stain of sin, all propensity to sin, and all the consequences of sin on their souls so that they can stand to live eternally in God’s passionate burning fiery love.
In fact, Purgatory is perhaps best understood as God the Father finishing the job of raising His adopted Christian children to their full maturity in love. God would not command us to do something we could not do with His aid, so when Jesus commands us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), we can know that God has committed Himself to helping us to truly become perfect as He is. While through consistently cooperating with God’s empowering Grace it is possible for us to achieve a high level of holiness in this life (we all know some more mature Christians who sin less often and less seriously than others), this true and complete “perfection” is something which will take us a little bit beyond this life (just how long being unclear), in the after-death purification or purgation of 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. God helps us there as He helped us grow in holiness on Earth – “Purgatory” is how God the Father makes sure all of His adopted Christian children reach the full maturity in love of Christ His Only Natural Son (whose Bride and Body they are). The lessons in holiness which Christians refused or failed to learn on Earth are taught to them during their transition from Earth to Heaven, “in Purgatory,” in the fiery judgement of 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, so that they may enter the fullness of Heaven where “nothing impure will ever enter.”
So “Purgatory” is just the continuation of God the Father’s constant loving raising of His children to Christian maturity, continuing into the transition between our temporal life on Earth and our Eternal Life in Heaven. In the “firelight” of 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 it is easy to see how the many things the Bible says in both Testaments about how God disciplines and punishes His children for their own good and development of holiness applies both to discipline given on Earth and in the fiery transition between Earth and Heaven.
The Bible says,
“The Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in” (Proverbs 3:12)
“as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you” (Deuteronomy 8:5)
“Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline” (Revelation 3:19)
“Blessed is the man you discipline, O Lord” (Psalm 94:12).
Punishment is a common term for parental discipline, but this punishment or discipline is not to be feared by Christians but appreciated as the means by which the Heavenly Father trains His adopted Christian children in the Christian holiness they need to have to live in the Father’s House eternally, just like human parents train their children to do rightly and not wrongly through various disciplines or punishments.
The Bible says,
“He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him” (Proverbs 13:24)
“Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death” (Proverbs 23:13-14).
Of course God the Father follows His own advice when raising His adopted Christian children! They cannot live eternally with Him as long as any sinfulness at all remains in them, so he “punishes” them with discipline on Earth and in the fiery transition after death as necessary to remove all sinfulness from them in order to “save their souls from death.”
“ ‘I am with you and will save you,’ declares the Lord … ‘I will discipline you but only with justice; I will not let you go entirely unpunished’ ”(Jeremiah 30:11, also 46:28).
Because God is just and because it is just and right (and necessary) that we be sinless in Heaven where “nothing impure will ever enter,” we must expect some punishment or unpleasant discipline from God our Father since we remain impure sinners even though we are forgiven. But this discipline is only suffered by us because of the incredible and joyful fact that He is our Father, and we can bear it knowing that
“When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:32).
It is because we are forgiven our sins that we undergo Purgatory and not Hell. God’s forgiveness allows us to be treated as children of the Father whom the Father disciplines in purgatorial fire to make sure they grow up into the fullness of holiness, “perfect as He is perfect”, and not be treated as rebellious and defective creatures worthy only of Hell. It is the temporary temporal suffering of Christians, both on Earth and in the Judgement of Believers of 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 (Purgatory), which works in us the fruit of holiness until we are “perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect,” that enables us to avoid the eternal suffering of Eternal separation from God in Hell. The Bible says the most about God’s fatherly but painful discipline in this following passage of New Testament Scripture:
“And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:5-11)
This passage makes clear that God’s painful discipline – and none can be more painful than the fire of 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 through which Christians “suffer loss” and are saved “only as through fire” – is specifically given “that we may share in his holiness.” These are not arbitrary punishments inflicted by God but sufferings which flow out of intrinsic necessity. Before we can fully enter Heaven where “nothing impure will ever enter” (Revelation 21:27), we must “Be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect,” and if we did not achieve perfect mastery of sin in our lives on earth (as none of us have, not even the canonized Saints),6 it still must be done before we can fully enter God’s unfiltered Heavenly Presence. But through Jesus Christ we have become God’s adopted family – and God raises His children to their full maturity in love. God has committed Himself to raise us to the level of perfection in love He has called us to, and the fire of 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 which Roman Catholics call Purgatory is how God makes sure that all of His adopted children in Christ achieve what they intrinsically need to in order to enter heaven “where nothing impure will ever enter.”
Curtis A. Martin in Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God writes that
“the doctrine of purgatory is completely reconcilable with a loving God who is a consuming fire. As we are drawn up into His love, into His very divine life, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we begin to burn with that same divine fire, and those impurities to which we have clung in this life must be burned away. This will inevitably involve suffering, as we let go of those imperfect things to which we are attached. The hidden mystery behind the teaching of purgatory is our calling to live in God for all eternity…This is the vocation of the Christian faithful: to accept the finished work of Jesus Christ, and to allow that work to be applied to our lives by the work of the Holy Spirit, so that those who are justified will be sanctified [made holy]. For us it is impossible. But with God, all things are possible.”
I find the more mystical Catholic theological approach to purgatory I have described, in terms of God’s passionate burning love, to be the more helpful, but this approach is still totally complementary with the more common Catholic justice approach to understanding the Bible passages which speak of the suffering and purgation of the saved. Jesus’ parables use mundane, everyday images to teach spiritual realities and Matthew 5:17-26 and Luke 12:57-59 refer to settling matters of justice while you are “on the way” or you will be “thrown into prison” (the ancient world’s “debtor’s prison” wherein people were imprisoned until their debts were paid) and you “will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” In terms of God’s justice concerning the sins of Christians, this suggests that while we are “on the way” in this life we want to cultivate holiness and tame our sinfulness, by deliberately cooperating with by God’s empowering Grace as much as we can, or else we may be “detained” for a while “in prison” (Purgatory) because of our (temporal) debts against justice due to our sin, though we will “get out” so as to go to Heaven once the debt is paid, once that debt of justice for sin is exacted from us to the last cent (once we are made truly holy through suffering the discipline of Purgatory). Jesus’ “delay in prison” image because of debt but still “getting out” eventually closely parallel’s Paul’s image of “testing by fire” because of sin or other worthless acts but still being “saved,” “though as by fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15). I think the fatherhood approach to purgatory ties these other two approaches together quite well because it explains that it is God the Father who loves us with such a burning passionate fiery love that burns off our sin and who, as all fathers, insists that His children are just and grow to full maturity in the practice of justice (and helps make sure they get there). Purgatory can legitimately be described as punishment, but it is the punishment of a loving Father who through it trains His children to reach the full maturity of love, “perfect as He is perfect,” so that they may live with Him eternally in Heaven which is the unfiltered Presence of the Holy Trinity of fiery Divine burning passionate Love.
Catholic Christians thinking deeply about and explaining 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 and other passages in terms of God’s love and in terms of God’s justice and in terms of God’s fatherhood are different complementary (not contradictory) approaches to this Divine Revelation in the Bible which clearly testifies that Christians who are indeed saved by Jesus still suffer after death and before the bliss of Heaven because of the sin they committed in their lives (building their character with the “wood, hay or straw” of untamed sins instead of with the “gold, silver, costly stones” of virtues obtained through conscious cooperation with God’s Grace available to all Christians). Protestant Christians believe the Bible’s testimony concerning this suffering of Christians after death because of their sins, but because they are of the theological opinion (which is not made at all clear one way or the other in the Bible) that this suffering is very quickly over with, they have not bothered to explore their faith in the Divine Revelation of these passages of the Bible nor tried to theologically understand the nature of this “suffering” and “loss” anywhere near as much as Catholic Christians have.
Note that all this is not a difference in Christian faith between Protestant and Catholic Christians – this is simply a difference in theological opinion about questions raised by the Divine Revelation of 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 (and other passages) which Protestant and Catholic Christians both accept as Divine Revelation but which Protestant Christians have not spent any significant time actually theologizing about while Catholic Christians have, and once Protestant Christians start actually thinking about the transition between being sinners on Earth to sinning no more in Heaven as enlightened by this Scripture passage (and others), they will surely find their theological opinions not very far removed from those of Catholic Christians.
The bottom line of all this discussion of purgatory is this: in order to honor Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity “so that the world may believe” and be saved because of the testimony of the love of Christians “for one another,” all Christians need to change their attitudes about those areas where other Christian groups are different from them. Instead of Protestant/Evangelical Christians critically saying, “Catholics are wrong to believe in Purgatory because we don’t” and Catholics critically saying, “Protestants are wrong to not believe in Purgatory because we do,” both sides should be assuming the best of each other as brothers and sisters in Christ united already in vast common faith, and lovingly asking questions desiring to truly understand each other’s different perspective on 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 and other secondary questions relating to our great common Christian faith. In doing this, we find we have no reason at all to uncharitably criticize each other on the basis of our different positions regarding the doctrine of Purgatory, as if we were not brothers and sisters in Christ called by Jesus to love each other.
The Language Barrier – Many of Our Perceived Differences Come from Catholic and Protestant Christians Meaning Different Things by the Same Words, since the Catholic Church Is Older than All Modern Languages and Often Uses the Older Meanings or Latin and Greek Root Word Meanings of Words
Christians not only frequently misunderstand each other (and mistakenly accuse each other of heresies!) because they define their theological terms differently or approach theological topics from different angles. I have been surprised at how many of the commonly perceived “huge differences” between Catholic and Protestant Christians are quite literally due to an actual “language barrier” which comes from the fact that the Catholic Church is much older than the English language (and much older than every modern language)! The ancient Catholic Church often uses English (and other language) words in their original meaning, or the original meaning of the Latin or Greek root of the word, whereas the Renaissance era Protestant Churches, which began in the period of early Modern English, use the same words with their more modern meanings – which means that Protestant Christians hear Catholic Christians say things which they interpret in a quite different manner than is intended, hugely exaggerating the apparent differences between Catholic and Protestant Christians (See the below sub-section “How the English Language Has Changed Over the Centuries Causing a “Language Barrier” Which Greatly Exaggerates the Appearance of Differences Between Protestant and Catholic Christians” for some examples). This is all the more reason why Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians must patiently listen to each other in brotherly love when talking about our apparent differences, real or perceived. Even the real differences are much smaller than it usually first appears. I have found that a good dictionary, especially one which includes “archaic” meanings or theological meanings or the Latin or Greek root words, helps to clear up many of the misconceptions Protestants have about Catholic beliefs. All Protestants need to do is read a good dictionary and many of the problems they have with the Catholic Church will disappear or be greatly lessened! It is important that the significant effort of working through the “language barrier” is made by Christians, for the sake of the unity of the Body of Christ the Church which Jesus prayed for, “so that the world may believe” when they see us working out our differences in love rather than misunderstanding each other and harshly judging each other.
A good example of different Christian Churches with wounded unity listening to each other in love occurred in 1439 at the 17th Ecumenical Council. The Eastern and Western halves of the One Christian Church (without formally nor completely separating) had drifted apart, lost sight of their 1st Millennium Unity in Diversity, and had started judging each other’s faith as different because they expressed it with different theology and practices (also rooted in a Latin versus Greek language barrier). After centuries of wounded unity, the Eastern and Western Sister Churches at the 17th Ecumenical Council formally hashed out their differences very precisely and the Council concluded that once their different theological expressions were fully explained, East and West did indeed share the identical ancient Christian faith, “aiming at the same meaning with different words,”and their different practical and ritual expressions of this faith were equally valid!7
… There is no apparently greater issue which separates Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians than their perspectives and beliefs about Mary, the Mother of Jesus. But through taking time to work through the “language barrier” I discovered that all of the Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox8) doctrines and practices concerning Mary were rooted very strongly in the common Christian faith I shared as an Evangelical Protestant – such that even if I as a Protestant disagreed with Catholic theological and doctrinal conclusions concerning Mary, I could respectfully “agree to disagree” as a loving brother, since I saw the genuinely Christian spirit and intent behind these beliefs and practices, strongly rooted in the common Christian faith I shared with them…
… we owe Mary gratitude for her humble, submissive obedience to God’s will (“may it be to me as you have said,” – Luke 1:38) by which God the Son was able to take a human body which would be crucified in order to achieve our salvation (Hebrews 10:10) – but more than this, how can we take Jesus as our brother, and His Father as our Father (how can we mysteriously be Jesus’ very Body, as Paul says) if we do not take His mother as our mother – as Jesus told His beloved disciple at the Cross (representing all His beloved disciples) to do?! (John 19:25-27). So Catholic (and Orthodox) Christians treat our brother Jesus’ mother as our own, because we are undisputedly adopted into His family!
The “Great Cloud of Witnesses” Who “Surround” Us (Hebrews 12:1) or the “Communion of Saints” from the Ancient Apostles’ Creed
Since “Death Has No Sting” for Christians, the Christians Who Make up the One Body of Christ the Church Pray for One Another Whether They Are Still on Earth or Already in Heaven
The primary way Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians treat Jesus’ mother as their own is to ask Mother Mary to pray to God for us (especially to God the Son forever incarnate in Jesus her son, Himself our advocate before the Father), just as we would ask our natural mothers to pray for us. Catholic (and Orthodox) Christians, adopted into God’s Family the Church, understand themselves to have a certain family connection with our older brothers and sisters in God’s Family who are already in Heaven with God (the saints, formally canonized or not), and especially with Mary our Mother in God’s Family, such that we can ask them to pray to God for us just as we would ask our Christian brothers and sisters and mothers still on Earth to pray for us, BECAUSE Catholics (and Orthodox) REALLY BELIEVE THE BIBLE when it says to be “absent from the body” is to be “present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8), because death has no sting for the Christian (1 Corinthians 15:55), and hence “we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” of those who have gone before us in faith (Hebrews 12:1, concluding Ch.11), who are not truly dead, not cut off from life, not cut off from God’s Family the Church, but who are glorified with God in Heaven as the Church Triumphant (and who even in the Bible occasionally come to visit us here on Earth, encouraging faith in God – e.g. Matthew 27:52-53,17:3, Luke 9:30-1 – as they occasionally have been reported to do throughout Christian history, in various “apparitions” to God’s people).
The doctrine of “the Communion of Saints,” that the saints of God (all Christians – in Heaven and on Earth) are one Family, one Body in Christ, and so in communion with each other and with our God, was so important to the early Christians that it was included in the Apostles’ Creed, the earliest formal and widespread “Statement of Faith” of the Christian Church, which developed out of early affirmations of Christian faith before Baptism during the early times of persecution when Christians regularly died for this faith. This early Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian belief and practice Protestants do not share is based on the commonly-held Divine Revelation in the Scriptures which powerfully testify that death has no power over the Christian. Protestant Christians may have no interest in getting to know or even learn about the rest of the family they were adopted into, and they may disagree that there can be communication in prayer support between the members of God’s Family on Earth and those in Heaven, but this too is merely a matter for loving brotherly discussion between Protestant and Catholic or Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters. In such discussion, Protestants will likely come to find that their own instincts are very close to those of Catholic and Orthodox Christians in this matter. Protestant Christians frequently go to the grave-sites of loved ones or otherwise talk to their loved ones among the Dead in Christ who are not truly dead because they are in Christ – subconsciously or instinctively believing that their loved ones can hear them or that God (or His Angels – Angel, after all, literally means messenger) passes the message on to them. Though most Protestants rarely think about the Bible’s “cloud of witnesses surrounding us” (Hebrews 12:1), some Protestants at least take this passage seriously, as indicated by this line from a song by the classic Evangelical Christian band Petra about Kenaniah, from 1 Chronicles15: “Sing unto Jehovah of His wondrous ways / Sing a song of triumph, sing a victory song / And in the cloud of witnesses / Kenaniah sings along.” One “Christian blues” song sung by Evangelical pastor and musician Glenn Kaiser repeats that “we are surrounded by the Witness Cloud.” In another song on Protestant Christian radio a letter from a now-dead father who anticipated his death declares “me and Jesus are watching over you.” This is exactly how Catholics regard the canonized Saints – Christians who have died before us are with Jesus in Heaven and they still pray for us and watch over us here on Earth. I was even recently at an Evangelical worship service where the pastor arranged for a member of the congregation who had lost his wife in a long battle with cancer to share his experience during the sermon time. Near the end of his lengthy, moving testimony of God’s faithfulness in a very difficult time, the widower said of his wife, “she doesn’t have to imagine Heaven anymore, she knows… she’s going to be interceding for us, with Jesus Christ.” When I talked to him later, he indicated his belief that his dead wife is beside him in the Great Cloud of Witnesses. This shows that like Catholic Christians, Evangelical Protestant Christians often believe that they are not fully separated from the Dead in Christ, and that the Dead in Christ CAN INTERCEDE IN PRAYER FOR THEM, which is exactly why Catholic Christians take the next step of sometimes asking dead saints for prayer intercession. Catholic and Protestant beliefs are not near so different when one takes the time to explore them charitably!
Moreover, I frequently ask my (Evangelical Protestant) human parents on Earth, who are “prayer warriors” (especially my mother), to pray for me. I think most Protestants would say that if they had opportunity to ask Billy Graham to pray for them on some issue, they would think his prayer might be more “effective” at convincing God to move His hand on their behalf than the prayers of someone else, simply because he is so close to God, having served Him so powerfully for so many decades, that God might be more inclined to listen to him.9 Catholic and Orthodox Christians simply put these two common Protestant instincts together and so believe that death does not separate us entirely from our older brothers and sisters in Christ who are closer to God even than Billy Graham because they are where He is, and thus they can hear us when we ask for their prayer; and that their prayers like Billy’s would be more effective than those of others. It is taken that having stepped out of Time and into Eternity with God, the saints in Heaven, though human, as glorified and perfected humans would have more ability to hear and be around the saints on Earth, however the communication works (perhaps angelic messengers are involved? Certainly Hebrews 12:1 indicates they “surround” us, indicating their closeness, as God on His Throne in Heaven is also “not far from us” – Acts 17:27). Many requests for prayer from the saints on Earth directed at the same time to the same Saint in Heaven is surely not a problem for Saints who have stepped out of time and into Eternity (they have Eternity to get through their “prayer request e-mail”!).
In any case, even while I was an Evangelical Protestant I quickly realized that whether or not I believed the saints in Heaven can actually hear requests for intercessory prayer, it is certainly not idolatry for Catholics to try any more than it is idolatry for Christians to ask other Christians on Earth to intercede for us in prayer. Christ is the “one mediator” – but we are His Body, which is why we can intercede in prayer for others as He intercedes for us before the Father, and our prayer makes a difference, such that as His Body we are involved in the mediation of God’s Grace in the world through our prayers. So at worst, asking saints in Heaven for prayer would be ineffective. Most Catholic Christians throughout history would in fact testify that the intercessory prayer of Saint Mary and the other saints in Heaven is very effective – that whether on Earth or in Heaven “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16 KJV), “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective (James 5:16 NIV). Since death has no sting, and they do not cease to be part of Christ’s Body the Church when they die, why should those in the “great cloud of witnesses” who “surround” us (Hebrews 12:1) cease to pray for the world?
A few particular Saints have become known among Catholic Christians as good ones to ask for prayer intercession regarding certain things, often but not always for things that they were associated with in their godly lives on Earth – such as “Saint Anthony, Patron Saint of Lost Things,” and “Saint Jude (the Apostle), Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes.” Especially with such Saints, and with Saint Mary whose general prayer intercession has proved to be very powerful, Catholic Christians are not always precise in their specific language when they ask Saints for things, and it may sometimes sound like they are asking the Saint to directly give them something – but it is always understood that any help they ask a Saint for will come from the Saint’s closeness to God in Heaven which allows him or her to approach the God of Heaven with “prayers” or “entreaties” on their behalf in a more direct way than our brothers and sisters in Christ still on Earth can in their prayers for us. All Christians can and do pray directly to God on their own and ask for things, but all Christians instinctively know that prayer requests are more effective when other Christians are joining us in bringing the same request before God, which is why, especially when the request is particularly important to us, we all commonly ask other Christians to pray for us, to add their prayer power to our own as members of the Body of Christ. The only difference between Protestant and Catholic/Orthodox Christians on this point is that Catholic and Orthodox Christians ask Christians (Saints) from the “great cloud of witnesses” already in Heavenly communion with God as well as saints (Christians) here on Earth to join us in our prayers. It is particularly comforting when we are unable to contact other living (on Earth) Christians to ask for their prayer support in difficult times, that we can still contact “the great cloud of witnesses” who constantly “surround” us. It is the whole Body of Christ – on Earth and in Heaven – which “bears one another’s burdens” and “prays for one another,” as the Bible instructs. Answered prayers are understood to be requests granted by God who listened to the entreaties of His beloved children who brought the request before Him, whether these were His children on Earth (the saints in the Biblical use of the term, all Christians) or His children in Heaven (including the formally canonized Saints), or both. On Earth or in Heaven it is the Body of Christ, united to Christ as a Body to its Head, sharing in the mediation of Christ the “one mediator” because they are His Body, which is bringing the request before God, so there is no issue of other Christians on Earth or in Heaven who pray for us getting “in between” the one who initiates the prayer request and Christ, as in the common Protestant misconception of Catholic prayer to the Saints.
Perhaps out of an ecumenically sensitive realization of the misconceptions Catholics promote among Protestants when they are not precise in their language when asking canonized Saints in Heaven (in addition to fellow Christian saints on Earth) for prayer help, many grassroots popular Catholic prayers or entreaties to the Saints (including Saint Mary) specify that it is prayer intercession that the Saint is being asked for, by asking the Saint to “present our petitions before God” or to “please obtain from God for us a favorable response to our request” or similar language which clarifies that the canonized Saint is being asked specifically for prayer intercession, is being asked to also bring one Christian’s prayer request before God so that all the more Christians (and all the more Christians who are particularly close to God) are united in prayer for the same thing, so as to more effectively move God’s hand to grant the request. Formal Catholic Church “Litanies of the Saints” have always been so precise, often listing the names of particular canonized Saints known in their lives for their great love of God and great work towards building His Kingdom, and asking each one to “pray for us.”
The Canonized Saints Are Our Older Brothers and Sisters in Christ Who Achieved Great Maturity in God’s Love and Serve as Good Role Models for Us Younger Christians Who Want to Do the Same
Whether a Protestant Christian agrees that the Christians in the heavenly “great cloud of witnesses” who “surround us” can pray for us Christians on Earth or not, certainly there is proven great spiritual advantage in at least being aware of our older brothers and sisters in Christ who started with what we all start with – a fallen, sinful human nature – and yet through cooperation with God’s empowering Grace managed to live lives of exemplary Christian holiness (still not perfect this side of Heaven). The canonized saints in their lives on Earth were free to resist God’s empowering Grace, as we are (as we prove every time we sin instead of leaning on God’s Grace!). Yet, as “God’s co-workers” (1 Corinthians 3:9) determined to “work out [their] salvation with fear and trembling”(Philippians 2:12) through their co-operation with “God who works in [them]” (Philippians 2:13), freely co-operating with the empowering Grace God offers to all His children, they managed, through God’s Grace, to live lives of exceptional holiness. The level of success they achieved, the level of maturity in love they achieved, starting with the same fallen and sinful nature we all suffer from, and co-operating with the same Grace of God our Father offers to us as well, lets us know for certain that we too can live exceptionally Christ-like (though still imperfect) lives on Earth, and gives us clues of how to co-operate with God as they did so as to get beyond our current level of maturity in Christian love. The example of the Saints shows us that we must not give up (as so many Christians do) in the pursuit of holiness, that we do not have to be content with a lesser standard of God’s love in our lives, as if certain habitual sins will always have a hold on us (none of them are beyond God’s ability to empower us to overcome).
Thus the ancient Catholic Church (East and West) and the Eastern Orthodox Churches no longer in the Catholic (Universal) Christian Communion honor some of God’s saints (all Christians) by canonizing them as (“Capital-S”) Saints only in order to make them family role models for their younger brothers and sisters in Christ still on Earth. It is so helpful to know that we do not have to re-invent the wheel when it comes to loving and serving God and finding the most intimate communion we can with Him – the canonized Saints blazed trails to holiness which we can follow or learn from to help us in our own journey to deeper communion with Jesus, His Father and His Holy Spirit. Chances are there are canonized Saints who shared your personality, career, or interests, and being aware of how they achieved deeper union with God and bore much fruit in helping build God’s Kingdom on Earth will likely be helpful to you in your own pursuit of Christian holiness for love of Jesus our Savior!
The honor given to the Saints (including martyrs who died for Jesus) for their exceptional love of God also fills the ingrained human need for heroes or role models to pattern one’s life after. If Christian children are not presented with the Saints as merely human heroes and role models (in addition to Jesus the God-Man), they will still have merely human heroes and role models but only among celebrity athletes, musicians, and actors who are instead honored for their exceptional talents in their field – but who frequently do not model good Christian character and values as the canonized saints of God do. If Christian children are raised reading not only the stories of the Bible but also the ongoing stories of their older brothers and sisters in God’s Family the Church who lived in times and cultures closer to their own, who lived their lives for God and often gave up their lives for love of Jesus, presented as family role models, they will all the more easily learn just what it means to be a Christian, they will think all the more about living their lives for Jesus and dying for Jesus if necessary as these older brothers and sisters in the Family did, and they will be all the more ready to make the ultimate sacrifice of love for Jesus if God ever so calls them to join the “great cloud of witnesses” while witnessing to God’s love and truth as a martyr for Christ (martyr is in fact the Greek word for witness).
How the English Language Has Changed Over the Centuries Causing a “Language Barrier” Which Greatly Exaggerates the Appearance of Differences Between Protestant and Catholic Christians
Protestant Christians often misunderstand the Communion of Saints partly because they sometimes hear Catholics talk of “praying” to Saints or Mary and mistakenly associate that with idolatry, since they think the word “pray” means to talk to Deity. They get hung up only because they have not read a dictionary. This is an example of the “language barrier” I mentioned earlier, wherein Catholics, since their Church is much older than the English language (and only a portion of all Catholics speak English), often use words with their older meanings or their Greek or Latin root word meanings and not with the modern English meanings of words. This communication problem applies to other modern languages as well – the Catholic Church is far older than all of them – but this section will give only English examples.
Initially the word “pray” simply meant “to ask or entreat,” which is why in Shakespeare you often hear things like “I pray thee, tell me” or the short form, “Prithee tell me.” This is still one of two major meanings of the verb “to pray” in the dictionary. “Praying” to the saints is simply asking them for intercessory prayer, in accordance with “meaning 2” of the word “pray” in most dictionaries, and it has nothing to do with the modern “meaning 1” in most dictionaries, addressing a prayer/entreaty to a deity specifically.
Because the ancient Catholic Church still uses so many older words, it seems some Protestant Christians get mixed up about just what some of these words mean, and, drawing from their own misconceptions of Catholic beliefs, they will often attribute a heretical meaning to a Catholic term just because they do not know what the word actually means! For example: an Evangelical Protestant friend of mine was horrified at the news of my becoming Catholic because she thought Catholics worship Mary as divine, and when I told her Catholics absolutely did not worship Mary as divine, she protested, “but they say ‘Hail Mary’ – and hail means worship!” No dictionary in the world says that “hail” means “worship” – it means “greetings” – so this is a representative case of pure and simple ignorance and prejudice, wherein Protestant Christians assume the worst when they do not know the actual meaning of something Catholics say (instead of assuming the best on the basis of the vast common core of Christian faith shared by Catholic and Protestant Christians, and patiently and lovingly asking questions so as to work through any misunderstandings due to different use of language). The “Hail Mary” prayer is actually from the Bible, quoting Luke 1:28,42, 43 – but from an older English translation. Even the famous Protestant King James Bible of 1611 uses “hail” for Gabriel’s greeting to Mary in Luke 1:28.10 Once again, simply using a good dictionary would completely clear up this area of Protestant concerns about Catholic Christianity – dictionaries confirm that “hail” is simply “an exclamation of greeting,” an “archaic interjection used as a salutation (greeting).”
Perhaps the most confusing “language barrier” example is in the fact that the English words “worship” and “cult” (the Latin cultus is usually translated worship) are occasionally used by Catholic Christians in reference to Mary and the Saints, moreso in centuries old Catholic documents – but this too is a function of Catholics merely using the older meanings of words. The Old English weorthscipe and weorth mean simply “worth” or “worthiness,” from whence comes the Middle English worshipe, which simply means worthiness or honor; in Britain magistrates (judges), mayors, and other dignitaries are still called Your Worship – which certainly does not imply the British see their mayors and judges as Divine. The term “Your Worship” is used in exactly the same sense as North Americans call their judges Your Honor. Thus the original meaning of the English word “worship” has to do with worthiness or honor generically applied, whether to the worthiness of human beings or of deities. Thus “worship,” honor or veneration, is due and is in fact given today to human royalty, Heads of State, judges, or even athletes for their exceptional athletic skills (without any implication that these human beings who are worthy of honor are in any sense Divine). Mary and the Saints are only in this sense “worshiped,” honored or venerated, for their exceptional love of God (without any implication that these human beings who are worthy of honor are in any sense Divine). Thus the Catholic Church, when it speaks (rarely today) of the “worship” or “cult” of Mary or of the Saints, has always done so speaking of the worthiness or honor due to exceptional Christians who loved God incredibly and relied upon God’s Grace so as to achieve in this life a level of Christian holiness which is worthy of emulation among us, their younger brothers and sisters in Christ – we who are just as human as they were and are (though they are now glorified in Heaven) and thus we who are just as capable of living exceptionally holy Christian lives on Earth if we too rely upon God’s Grace to empower us for lived holiness the way they did.
It may help to understand that although the English word worship and the Latin word cultus in their original senses can be applied to express the worthiness of honor due to either human beings or to the Divine Being, Roman Catholic Christians also use two entirely different Latin words to describe the honor they give to God and what they give to Mary and the Saints. Latria is the honor and love due to God Alone, and Dulia is the honor and love due to human beings – whether magistrates, mayors, Presidents, Prime Ministers or Saints (including Mary)!11 These two distinct Latin words are usually translated into English as “Adoration” and “Veneration.” Thus Catholic Christians give Latria or Adoration to God Alone, and Dulia or veneration to Mary and the Saints (and judges, Heads of State, other human beings worthy of honor).
Ironically, as the meaning of language gradually but continually changes, the specific word adoration, which was initially reserved for God Alone both in English and French (which use the same word), is increasingly coming to be used as an emphatic form for the love given to a merely human sweetheart (“oh honey, I adore you”), just like (in the opposite direction) the formerly generic word worship, which could be applied to human beings or to God, has now in current modern English come to primarily mean the honor and love due to God Alone! With such language barriers caused by merely the passage of time within a single language, we Christians have all the more reason to listen to each other patiently in love when we discuss our apparent differences!
So when the Catholic Church sometimes refers to the “cult of Mary,” the proper dictionary definition of this term is “formal religious respect inspired by the dedication of Mary to God.” A good dictionary, aware of the meaning of the Latin root word cultus (usually translated worship), includes “veneration” as one of the possible dictionary meanings of the English word cult, and this is the sense in which Catholic Christians use the word “cult” (or worship) in reference to the Saints (including Mary). Combining this dictionary definition of cult with the dictionary definition of veneration (choosing the dictionary options which Catholics mean when they say they venerate Mary), “cult of Mary” then is accurately defined in dictionary terms as “formal religious respect inspired by the dedication of Mary to God” – which obviously has nothing whatsoever to do with “worship of Mary” in the modern sense of suggesting Mary is in any way Divine, as Protestants typically fear when they hear or read Catholics referring to either the “worship” or the “cult” of Mary (or other saints).
And speaking of the word divine, the Protestant Church of England adds to the linguistic confusion between Christians by often referring to clerics or theologians as “divines.” The British term, “an Anglican divine” simply means an Anglican priest or theologian – and is not understood by Anglicans to impute divinity or deity to Anglican priests and theologians! The English “Church of Saint John the Divine” is simply an Anglican Church building dedicated to the Apostle John! Again, such different uses and definitions of terms between Christians is why all Christians have to listen to each other in love first, and seek to understand the very different ways we express our mostly common Christian faith – without jumping to wrong conclusions about what other Christians believe and accusing them of heresy!
On the Use of Images or Icons by Christians – “Family Pictures” of Our Adopted Family the Church
Another area of great misunderstanding between Protestant and Catholic (or Orthodox) Christians relating to the “Communion of Saints” (including Mary) is in the use of icons or images of Mary and other Saints by Catholic and Orthodox Christians. Protestant/Evangelical Christians typically are concerned that such images (and even images of Jesus such as the crucifix) are idolatrous, or at least in some way take away from the glory due to Jesus (a well-meaning concern), but they totally fail to make a Biblical distinction even Jews make between having and using images on the one hand and worshiping images (in the modern sense!) as deity on the other. The faithful Israelites in the Bible in fact made and used images which God commanded them to make in their religious practice, while being careful to avoid the forbidden worship of images as deity (see below). Protestant Christians typically also fail to understand that God the Father made Jesus “the first-born of many brothers” (Romans 8:29) in His adopted human family, the Church, and that it is only because Catholic and Orthodox Christians take their adoption into God’s family very seriously that they use icons. The Eastern and Western Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) use of icons is no more sinister or against orthodox Christian faith than is a wall full of family photos.
Everyone has in their home family photos or pictures of their family members. The pictures make you think about those family members which you cannot see right now (whether they are simply not at home right now, or live across the city, or live across the country, or are deceased). They remind you of the beloved family to which you belong, of the people who are praying for you if your family is Christian. In the same way, statues or pictures or medals of the saints and angels are like having photographs or paintings of our older brothers and sisters in Christ who we cannot see right now even though they are not dead but “alive in Christ” – they remind us of the Communion of Saints, that we are not alone but are part of God’s Family, surrounded by such a “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) who pray for us.
Protestant/Evangelical Christians typically have such an (admirable) desire to be in individual “personal relationship with Jesus” that they unfortunately often neglect the fact Jesus wanted them to be adopted into His Father’s Family, and that being in family is all about many individual “personal relationships” together. We Christians have a personal relationship with Jesus (God the Son) and His Father (God the Father) because through Jesus’s work we received the “Spirit of Adoption” (Romans 8:15) into God’s Family (God the Holy Spirit), the Spirit of Adoption into God’s Family which allows us to call God Father in the first place (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6). So our “personal” relationship with Jesus is not a merely individual personal relationship with Jesus but a family personal relationship with Jesus as His brother or sister (and therefore also as children of His Father, brothers or sisters of His other adopted brothers and sisters, and children of His mother) – this family relationship with Jesus brings with it many individual “personal relationships,” just like within my human family I have an individual “personal relationship” with not only my wife but also with each of my sons, with my daughter, with my father and mother and my uncles and aunts and brothers and sisters (including in-laws).
I know that Protestant Christians do have some real appreciation of the great extended Family of God to which they belong. When I was a Protestant missionary, I was struck with how on the basis of common faith in Christ Jesus I could so quickly have such a wonderful connection with people I had never met before, who were from very different cultures, and whom in some cases spoke no common language with me. My Evangelical Protestant parents living in China have had the same wonderful experience of how living Christians from all over the world have an immediate close family connection in Christ despite barriers of language and culture. But Protestants are typically prejudiced against the Dead in Christ, as if they were no longer part of God’s adopted family, as if they were cut off or disinherited from the Family, as if they were “black sheep” of the family whom we don’t talk about and whose pictures we have taken down so as to forget them and speak of them no more, as if death had a sting and was a barrier to the fellowship of Christians with each other as the Family of God, as if there were no “great cloud of witnesses” surrounding us as the Bible says there is – as if there were no saints and angels with God whom we praise God together with whenever we gather as the Body of Christ the Church!
As a former devout Evangelical I know that this prejudice of Protestant/Evangelicals against their Family members who are deceased (but alive with God and still praying for us in the “great cloud of witnesses”!) comes from a genuine and admirable (though misdirected) desire to focus on their loving personal relationship with Jesus12 (which they think anything to do with the saints is a distraction to), but they have not thought about how this narrow focus actually impoverishes their “personal relationship” with Jesus.
First of all, the predominant Protestant focus on the individual’s relationship with Jesus frequently even neglects the other two Persons of the Divine Trinity, neglects to meditate upon this primary Mystery of the Trinity revealed to God’s People, impoverishing their understanding of the nature of God the Holy Trinity of Love such that they have less intimate grasp of the fact that the Jesus they know and love is God the Son (Second Person of the Holy Trinity) Incarnate (enfleshed). It perhaps is not surprising then that so many millions of Protestant Christians from the oldest and most mature Protestant “mainline” denominations have gradually lost their grip on these two most fundamental doctrines of Christianity, the Trinity and the Incarnation, questioning, doubting or denying them.
I now find it bizarre that so many Protestant Christians (including myself when I was Protestant) have the prideful audacity to criticize Catholic Christians for making use of standard or formula prayers and rituals, like the Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father) from the Bible itself, and like making the Sign of the Cross while invoking the Trinity to open and close formal times of prayer “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” I understand that this too comes from a great and admirable attempt of Protestant Christians to avoid “vain repetitions” in prayer, but they fail to realize that standard or repetitious prayers can only ever be “empty” or “vain” if one is not attending to the meaning of the words recited, and the Protestant failure to so regularly or “repetitiously” remind themselves of the core of Christian faith is related to Protestant Christians in vast numbers losing their grip on this core of faith. When Catholic (and Orthodox) Christians open and close their daily formal times of prayer by tracing the Sign of the Cross over their bodies while invoking “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” they are engaged in a family tradition of the Family of God which reminds them daily of the core doctrines of Christian faith, the essential faith of the Family. The family tradition of the Sign of the Cross reminds them daily that God exists as a Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that God the Son became Incarnate and died on a Cross for humankind’s salvation. In their well-meaning over-sensitivity to avoid “vain repetitions,” Protestant Christians have failed to make use of such family traditions to help “drill into their children” (Deuteronomy 6:7) the core of Christian faith, and the core of Christian faith has thus been gradually lost by a great many Protestant Christians in the largest “mainline” Protestant denominations which are going increasingly “doctrinally liberal.”
Second of all, the predominant Protestant focus on the individual’s relationship with Jesus to the exclusion of the rest of His family of the redeemed (failing to even think about how their union with Jesus as a member of His Body and as an adopted child of His Father might relate them to Mary His mother and the other human saints in Heaven) impoverishes their relationship with Jesus by taking away any real sense of belonging to God’s Family because they know Jesus. They have a “personal relationship with Jesus” but they do not care to know anything about nor to get to know His mother and brother and sisters whom He loves so much – they do not really want to be part of His Family at all but just to be on honeymoon forever with Jesus! What does it say about a loving personal relationship when you have no interest in getting to know your lover’s family nor in being a part of it? If I told my human spouse that I love her but I have no desire to learn anything about her side of the family, that I do not want to meet her mother or spend any time with her relatives whom she loves so much, she would tell me truly that I was not loving her very well. Likewise, it is a deficient loving “personal relationship” with Jesus, lacking the full intimacy Jesus desires, which refuses to know and love those who Jesus loves as His own Family.
Since I know that many Protestant Christians genuinely desire the most intimate relationship they can have with Jesus, I suggest to them that ignoring His Family whom He loves is not the best way to do that, and it will enrich your experience of Jesus to become aware of yourself as a fully adopted member of His entire Family. This is the Family Communion of Heaven which you are destined to live in Eternally and which already surrounds you in “the great cloud of witnesses” – and what a shame it would be to have refused to act like you were part of Jesus’ whole family during your Christian life on Earth, refusing to look at family albums and read the stories of your family and refusing to put up family pictures to remind you of your older brothers and sisters who pray for you and whom you will live with eternally, praising God.
You see, our whole destiny as the redeemed of God is to be members of God’s Family. It is being outside of God’s Family that we need to be saved from. The Bible’s frequent description of the Church as both the Bride and the Body of Jesus Christ are closely related to each other (see especially Ephesians 5:22-32) and closely related to our adoption into God the Father’s Family. The Family of God the Church (made up of us individual Christians) is the Body of Christ because it is first the Bride of Christ. We as individuals become members of the Bride of Christ the Church though “belief and Baptism” (see Mark 16:16) – Baptism being the “Spiritual Wedding Ceremony” which makes us the “Bride” of Jesus, committed in love to Him. In becoming the Bride of Christ, the mysterious “one-flesh union” of a Bride and her husband makes us also the Body of Christ because we are as “one flesh,” unified in committed love, with Him – and it is also therefore that we become children of His Father, just as any bride becomes the new daughter of her husband’s father. We are adopted into God’s Family as the Father’s children because we have become the Body of Christ the Father’s only natural Son through the mysterious “one-flesh union” of the husband (Christ) and the Bride (us the Church – Baptism being the “Spiritual Wedding Ceremony” which so commits and unites us individually to Christ as part of His loving Bride the Church and therefore mysteriously part of His Body the Church – see Ephesians 5:22-32 and Volume II Chapter 2). As individual Christians who participate in the overall Mystery of the Church as the Bride and Body of Christ the Only Natural Son of God, who are thus adopted by God the Father as His children, and only therefore SAVED, we must not focus too narrowly on our own individual “personal relationship with Jesus,” or we risk offending our beloved Jesus by our bad and uncaring attitude towards the rest of His beloved Family.
As a former Evangelical, I know the well-meaning motivation behind the Protestant refusal to ask the saints in Heaven for prayer intercession (“praying to the saints” in the original meaning of the word pray). They think that any time spent speaking to a saint is time taken away from speaking to Jesus in Heaven, and thus is getting “in between” them and Jesus, and they (admirably) want nothing to get between them and Jesus. However, this does not stop them from asking the saints on Earth (other Christians) for prayer intercession, once again indicating the Protestant prejudice against the Dead in Christ. The only reason that the prayer of other Christians on Earth is effective at all is because those Christians on Earth are part of Jesus very Body, the Church, and thus by their prayers they mediate God’s Grace by their union with Christ the “one mediator” as a member of His Body. The Christians in Heaven, alive in Christ, have prayers which are effective for exactly the same reasons. In the Mystery of the Body of Christ, revealed in the Bible, Jesus identifies Himself so closely with the Church His Body that what Christians do (for love) to others is Jesus doing it to them, and what others do to Christians (like Saul persecuting them) is being done to Jesus (“Saul, why do you persecute me?”). So when we ask our brothers and sisters in Christ, the saints, on Earth or in Heaven, for prayer, or speak to them about anything (whether they are living Christian family or other living fellow Christians or departed immediate family members or departed famous Saints including Mary), we need not fear that these members of the Body of Jesus are in any way “getting between” us and Jesus – Jesus came specifically to make us all one Family and one Body who would be in communion with Him and each other for all Eternity, together worshiping the Holy Trinity!
This Heavenly Family worship has already started though the Kingdom will not be fulfilled completely until Jesus returns. Jesus said the Heavenly Kingdom of God He preached is “among us” already, it has already “come upon us” (Luke 17:21, Matthew 12:28) – and in our acknowledging the “great cloud of witnesses” of saints and angels who “surround” us (Hebrews 12:1), we are acknowledging the present reality of that Heavenly Kingdom already “among us” as Jesus declared. So when we gather as the Body of Christ the Church to worship God, we are already participating in the never-ending heavenly worship of Jesus’ Kingdom.
Thus even the Eastern (Orthodox and Catholic) custom of “kissing the icons,” which, when I was an Evangelical Protestant, I was tempted to see as idolatrous (and which even some Roman Catholics do not understand), is simply a function of this understanding of our being part of God’s Family the Church, the Communion of Saints, not separated from each other by death which has no sting for the Christian, but joining together (in Heaven and on Earth) when we worship God. Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians have a custom of “kissing the icons” or images of Jesus, and of Mary and the saints, when they enter and leave the church sanctuary for the Sunday (and other day) Divine Liturgy celebrations. This is simply based on the New Testament instructions of Paul that when Christians meet together that they are to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26). Although our North American culture today is more inclined to give a “hearty handshake” (which is how one Protestant Bible translation translated the passages about “greeting each other with a holy kiss”!), when Eastern Christians (like myself) enter the Church and see the icons which remind us of our older brothers and sisters in faith who we can no longer see with our eyes, in this Biblical manner of a “holy kiss” we acknowledge the unseen presence of the “great cloud of witnesses” with whom we have gathered to worship God!
The Use of Icons In Religious Worship is in the Bible and is Clearly Distinct from Idolatry
To further illustrate the distinction between making and having and using an image on the one hand, and worshiping an image as deity on the other: If I have pictures (paintings or photographs) of my beloved family on my wall or desk at work, do I love the picture/image or do I love the PERSON the image reminds me of? I myself have looked at a picture of my baby girl on my desk at work and said, full of emotion, under my breath, “precious little girl – I love you.” Clearly I do not love the photo with a father’s love: I love the little girl the photo reminds me of.
Likewise, Catholic Christians never worship a statue or painting or mosaic of Jesus, they worship the Divine Person who the image reminds them of and perhaps helps them focus their attention on. The Bible says that Jesus Himself is the “image (Greek: ikon, from whence comes the English “icon”) of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). No human being may be worshiped, yet in the mystery of the Incarnation Thomas could fall before the man Jesus and declare, without Jesus correcting him, “my Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). God Himself has given us an “image” of Himself, in human flesh like ours to help us relate to Him better. Ikons (images) of the ikon God gave us simply remind us of and help focus our attention on Jesus, God incarnate, Himself the “ikon of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). To demonstrate the contrast between icons and idols: in the Book of Judges, Micah lamented when his idols were stolen because they took his gods away (Judges 18:24). This was not simply an image (Greek: ikon) which reminded him of a transcendent God. Idolatry by definition is worshiping a created object (a natural object like the sun or moon, or an artifact, a natural object shaped by human creativity) as if it were deity.
Interestingly, the most beloved verse of the Bible, John 3:16, appears in an immediate context which is also iconic:
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:14-16)
In this passage the Old Testament icon/image of the bronze snake raised up on a wooden pole which God told Moses to make and which the people dying from serpent’s poison had to look up to in order to live (Numbers 21:4-9) is specifically paralleled with the New Testament “icon/image of the Invisible God,”Jesus Christ Himself, similarly raised up on a wooden cross and which people who are dying spiritually from the serpent Satan’s poison of sin have to look up to in order to live eternally. God used an image/icon in the Old Testament which would specifically prefigure Jesus “the image/icon of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). The bronze snake icon was not destroyed until after it was no longer used as an icon but as an idol, as an object of worship in itself (2 Kings 18:4).
In the Bible God Commanded That Images/Icons Be Made and Used in Israelite Worship Without Violating the Ten Commandments
Even Jews who reflect on their Torah (the Books of Moses) know the difference between making, having and religiously using images (icons) and the forbidden worship of them as deity (idols). God commanded that many images including cherubim (a kind of angel) – including 15 foot high gold ones – be made for use in the Tabernacle and Temple (and on the Ark of the Covenant). The difference between the huge golden Cherubim (and many more small ones) in the Temple and the Golden Calf at Sinai is that in the context of the Jewish worship of Yahweh (the LORD) the golden Cherubim icons/images reminded the Jews of transcendent and holy things, reminded the Jews of the reality of angelic assistance, reminded the Jews of the reality of the angelic order which never ceases to worship God, with whom they as human beings could join in worship – while the golden calf image was worshiped as if it was itself a deity. I was at a Synagogue service once where the Rabbi, after reading the portions of the Torah wherein God commanded the crafting of images, made this Biblical distinction! Catholic and Orthodox Christians simply use icons (paintings, statues, stained glass or mosaics) of angels (and those saints now in Heaven with the angels since Jesus opened the way for humans to enter heaven!) in the same way as the Biblical Jews used such images – to similarly remind them of the heavenly order of angels (and saints) who constantly worship God, with whom Christians join in worship when we gather as the Body of Christ the Church.
Even though Protestant worship spaces are typically vacant of such iconic images to remind them they have gathered to worship God together with “the great cloud of witnesses” of angels and saints in Heaven, many Protestant Christians also commonly have images – statues or paintings and so on of Jesus or angels or Biblical scenes – in their homes, which similarly serve as a comforting reminder of holy realities which are not otherwise visible to the eyes. We can assume such Protestant Christians have at least an unconscious grasp of the distinction between icons and idols – they know they are not engaging in forbidden idolatry even if they foolishly and inconsistently criticize Catholic Christians for likewise using images to remind them of invisible spiritual realities!
You see, the Commandment God gave at Sinai (Exodus 20:4,5) says we are not to make an image “in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (verse 4) and worship it (verse 5). If the Commandment meant that we are not to make an image at all, then any image breaks this Commandment. “Precious Moments” porcelain figures and posters (popular among both Protestant and Catholic Christians), soapstone carvings of Inuit/Eskimos and polar bears, toy animals, any statue/drawing/ painting of Jesus (or anybody else), Christmas Creches/ Nativity Scenes (especially the little statue of baby Jesus), and all photographs – all break this commandment, if the Commandment forbids the making of images. However, this cannot be the case, because God, who would never command someone to sin, has Himself commanded the making of images, images which were specifically to be used in Israel’s worship or which would be an instrument of God’s healing power. God commanded the construction of several images “in the form of [something] in heaven above or on the earth” which were to be used in Jewish worship, though not the objects of worship themselves. For example, the two gold cherubim on top of the Ark of the Covenant between which God spoke to Moses (Exodus 25:18 – 22, 37:7 -9, Numbers 7:89 ); ten curtains full of embroidered cherubim in the Tabernacle (Exodus 26:1, 31, 36:8, 35); the two 15-foot gold cherubim in the Holy of Holies of the Temple of the Lord, plus many more carved on its walls and doors (1 Kings 6:23-35, 2 Chronicles 3:10-14),13 pomegranates on the robes of the priests (Exodus 28:33-4, 39:24-26) and the brass snake which people were to look upon in order to be healed (Numbers 21:8 -9). God’s Temple which He commanded Solomon to build in addition to cherubim also had many images of lions, bulls14, pomegranates, palm trees, lilies, and gourds, all of them images “in the form of things on the earth” (1 Kings 6:29-35, 7:18-29, 36, 42, 44, 2 Chronicles 3:5, 16, 4:3-5, 13,15). Did God order people to violate his own commandment of not making an image of anything on or above the earth? Or is the point of the commandment only that you don’t worship any thing as deity unless it’s God? Clearly, God would not forbid the making of images in Exodus 20 and command the making of images a few chapters later in Exodus 25. We know God in fact commanded the making of images, specifically images for use in religious worship and as an instrument of His healing power, thus God cannot have previously forbidden the making of images in general nor forbidden the making of images for use in religious worship. The whole commandment in Exodus 20:4,5 is very clear that we are forbidden to make an image and worship it. It is not making nor having an image that is forbidden in the Ten Commandments, it is not using an image (an icon) for religious purposes that is forbidden in the Ten Commandments, it is only bowing down to and worshiping an image as deity which is forbidden in the Ten Commandments.
So in summary, the Eastern and Western Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) use of icons (in whatever artistic medium) is no more sinister or against orthodox Christian faith than a wall full of family photos. We Catholic Christians take our adoption into God’s family very seriously, and so we remind ourselves of our family members in God’s Family (especially Jesus, but also Mary, the saints, and angels) with pictures of them just like we remind ourselves of our earthly family members with pictures of them. We use such pictures not only at home (like many Protestant/Evangelical Christians do with pictures of Jesus and angels) but also in our worship spaces, specifically to remind ourselves that we are not worshiping alone but are joining in the never-ending worship of the angels and saints in Heaven – we specifically remind ourselves of the communion of saints, the “great cloud of witnesses” who “surround” us (Hebrews 12:1), with whom we have gathered together to worship the Holy Trinity of Love, Father, Son (Incarnate in Jesus), and Holy Spirit. Since Protestant/ Evangelical Christians today also commonly use images/icons in the form of paintings of Jesus or angels or Biblical scenes and even some recently more popular artists’ sculptures in their homes if not their formal worship spaces – for the same reasons as Catholics, that the images remind them of godly things, and of Jesus their brother whom they love – it is inconsistent to criticize the Catholic or Orthodox use of icons unless Protestants do not use religious images at all. Again, even Jews understand the difference between using images for religious purposes and worshiping them (based on their reflection on the fact God in the Torah commanded them to make religious images such as cherubim), and in fact in the Early Church it was only the Islamic influence which temporarily put doubt into the minds of Christians as to whether icons should be used or not (Muslims have a very strict policy about religious images which is why they decorate with patterns only). The Undivided Early Christian Church at the 7th Ecumenical Council determined, after the controversy caused by the Islamic influence, that the use of icons was indeed appropriate, partly on the basis of the fact that Jesus Himself is the “image (Greek ikon) of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).
The Needless Confusion and Disunity Caused by the Two Different Traditional Ways Jews & Christians Have Arranged Exodus 20:2-17 into Ten Commandments
To review: the Ten Commandments given in Exodus 20:2-17 clearly forbid only making an image and worshiping it as deity. In context the Ten Commandments cannot possibly be interpreted to forbid the making of images in general, nor can they possibly be interpreted to forbid the making of images for religious use, since God Himself on a number of occasions, including within the same book He gave the Ten Commandments, commanded His faithful people to make images which would be used in the worship that is pleasing to God.
Thus it is no surprise that Christians since the beginning of Christianity did not doubt the appropriateness of making images or icons and in fact made religious images (of Jesus, Mary, the Apostles and the early martyr-saints who died for love of Jesus) to decorate their worship spaces. During the early centuries of the brutal Roman persecution of Christians, when Christians were forced to hide and worship Jesus in the Catacombs, the underground tombs beneath Rome, even these makeshift worship spaces were decorated with religious art, images, icons. It was only the later influence of the new Islamic religion, which encroached on Christian lands in the East and in Spain, a religion which was so strictly against religious images that Muslims only used patterns in their decorations, that later put doubt into the minds of some Christians as to whether or not the Ten Commandments should be interpreted to mean that it was forbidden or inappropriate for Christians to use icons in their worship spaces and devotional practices (the “Iconoclast” controversy – “Iconoclasts” were literally “image-wreckers”). Christians wrestled with this question for some years, and finally this controversy was settled by the 7th Ecumenical Council in 787 AD, in favor of the Christian practice since the beginning of using icons, especially icons of “the ikon of the invisible God,” Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:15). Except for the time of this controversy, it was the common practice of the Undivided Early Church, in the East and the West, to use icons in Christian worship which were clearly distinct from idols and so in no way violated the Commandment against making an idol, against making an image and worshiping it as deity.
I am sad to report that even though the consistent ancient and ongoing Christian use of icons, in the East and the West, is a thoroughly well-thought-out practice that is completely in line with the Ten Commandments in their Biblical context, Satan the deceiver, the enemy of Jesus and His Body the Church, has sown such a black choking cloud of ignorance and uncharitable accusations in the hearts of Christians over this practice so as to divide the Body of Christ the Church that many Protestants actually believe (as I used to when I was a Protestant Evangelical) that the Roman Catholic Church deliberately took the Commandment against making images out of their list of the Ten Commandments in an attempt to justify the anti-Biblical Catholic use of images/icons. This Protestant misconception is utterly without foundation, and can only exist with a great deal of ignorance about the Bible – yet it persists, one of many examples of how the Devil has successfully sown ignorance and confusion and hatred which keeps Christians divided from each other, failing to love each other as brothers “so that the world may believe” when it sees the love of Christians “one for another,” so that the loving unity of Christians may not hamper Satan’s own designs for the world.
It is a testimony to how great is “the father of lies” ability to sow Christian division that I will have to spend as much time as I will below to completely untangle this misconception. I believe it is time well spent, however, because going through it is an example of the kind of patience in love that is necessary for Christians to really listen to each other in love (not accusation) and try to understand each other so as to heal our divisions, so that we can stop accusing each other and put the blame appropriately on Satan who has worked with all his might to keep the Church, the portion of God’s Kingdom which is on Earth, divided so that we will not be as effective against his own Kingdom of Darkness.
The misconception is rooted in the fact that in Exodus 20:2-17, the Moral Law God gave at Sinai is given in 16 verses with about 17 sentences and over 300 words, with no mention of this Law being subdivided into ten “parts” or Commandments. Later, the Bible refers to the Law given at Sinai as “the Ten Commandments” (Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13, 10:4), but nowhere in Scripture does it indicate exactly how the many clauses of the Sinai Law in Exodus 20:2-17 (which are repeated in Deuteronomy 5:6-21) are supposed to be separated so as to yield only ten distinct Commandments.
Thus, because of the references to specifically Ten (undefined) Commandments, Jews and Christians through history have had to make their own lists of exactly what the 10 Commandments are. In this process, different Jews and different Christians have had to decide which of the many clauses are distinct Commandments (to a maximum of ten), and which of the many clauses are “included under” another commandment as extrapolation or rewording to get the point across, and are not distinct commandments. Because the whole passage is over 300 words long, those clauses identified as extrapolation are usually dropped from lists of the Ten Commandments to make the lists easy to remember.
Many of the clauses are clearly distinct commandments or clearly extrapolation, but still the entire passage actually contains eleven distinct “you shall not” statements PLUS a section about honoring one’s father and mother which is unrelated to what comes before and after and thus is clearly a distinct Commandment. So if the Bible said there were supposed to be twelve distinct Commandments, it would be easy to identify them; since the Bible says there are ten, different Jews and different Christians have had to decide just what the ten are, and have come up with slightly different lists.
Saint Augustine, the greatest theologian of the early Western Church (loved by Protestants), came up with the traditional list used by the Roman Catholic Church (the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church). Following the lead of the most common Jewish enumeration of the Ten Commandments, Augustine took the “you shall not make for yourself an idol…” section (Exodus 20:4-6, which itself contains two “you shall not” statements) as extrapolation of the previous clearly distinct Commandment “you shall have no other gods before me,” (Exodus 20:3)15 and not as a distinct Commandment. To make ten, he understood the statement “you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Deuteronomy 5:21a, Exodus 20:17b) to be a distinct Commandment, alongside a similar but still distinct Commandment, “you shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Deuteronomy 5:21b, Exodus 20:17a,c). To his thinking, the statement against making idols was just another way of saying “you shall have no other gods before me,” while the statement against coveting your neighbor’s wife prohibited a distinctly different kind of sin than the statement against coveting your neighbor’s goods.
Given that Martin Luther, the first Protestant, was an Augustinian monk, belonging to the religious order founded by Saint Augustine, and he and the other Reformers drew heavily (if selectively) from Saint Augustine in their development of early Protestant theology, it is surprising that so many Protestants would so object to how he enumerated the Ten Commandments, following the most common Jewish enumeration. Saint Augustine, whose writings (especially The Confessions of Saint Augustine) are so loved by Protestant Christians, obviously did not think he was leaving out the prohibition against worshiping idols or images when he made his list. And neither does the Roman Catholic Church which uses his list. The prohibition against idolatry is simply included in the full meaning of “you shall have no other gods before me,” and the use of icons is distinct from idolatry and approved by God according to the Biblical evidence above. The typical Protestant list of the Ten Commandments also drops a large number of the over 300 words of Exodus 20:2-17, also leaving only the short statements understood to be distinct Commandments and not extrapolation, also in order to make the list easy to remember. So nothing is “left out” of any of the different lists of the Ten Commandments – the full text of Exodus 20:2-17 is understood to be the “full meaning” of any list of the Ten Commandments, which are usually much shorter than Exodus 20:2-17 only in order to make the lists easy to remember.
So the list of the Ten Commandments typically used by the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church obviously has nothing to do with “deliberately” leaving out the commandment against making idols or images in order to “justify” an “anti-Biblical” Catholic use of images. Only ignorance about the Bible’s distinction between idols and icons and ignorance of the nature of the Exodus 20 Sinai Law which was only later referred to as “the Ten Commandments,” coupled with an irrational hatred of the Catholic Church sown by the Devil to keep the Church divided, could come up with such notions.
Saint Augustine was actually the Roman Catholic Bishop of the City of Hippo and a thorough read of his voluminous works (which is a massive task) even reveals he in essence believed everything Catholics do which Protestants disagree with (the editions of The Confessions of Saint Augustine which are so popular among Protestants usually omit the later chapters which clearly show him as a Roman Catholic Bishop). Since Protestant Christianity was founded so heavily upon the theological work of Saint Augustine, the greatest theologian of the Early Western (Roman) Catholic Church, it perhaps would be worthwhile for Protestant Christians to explore Saint Augustine and his obvious Catholicism more closely, in order to better see that Catholic ideas are not incompatible with the common core of Christian faith as Protestant Christians usually assume they are. This common core is itself simply those Catholic beliefs which the Protestant Reformers took with them when they left the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church.
So the notion I once held as an Evangelical Protestant (which is still held by many Protestants) that the Roman Catholic Church deliberately “took out” the commandment against making images in order to “justify” its religious use of icons, is completely silly. Rather, I am tempted to say, it is demonic, since it is a lie completely ungrounded in truth which the Devil uses to keep Christ’s Church divided and thus less effective against the Kingdom of Darkness. Yet another way to demonstrate this “silliness” is to consider the list of the Ten Commandments traditionally used by the Eastern Catholic (and Orthodox) Churches. Saint Augustine was the premier early theologian of the Western, Roman Church, and his list became the one most used by the Roman Rite of the Catholic (Universal) Christian Church. The Eastern Rites of this Undivided Early Church came to commonly use a different list, using the other of the two most common ways Exodus 20:2-17 has been separated by Jews and Christians into ten distinct Commandments – which is the same way Protestants typically enumerate the Ten Commandments. So both Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians use a list which (unlike Saint Augustine’s list) considers that the “you shall not make for yourself an idol/graven image…” section (Exodus 20:4-6) is a separate Commandment distinct from “you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3), and it keeps the list to ten by treating “you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” and “you shall not desire/covet your neighbor’s goods” as a single Commandment, “you shall not covet.”
So the Eastern Orthodox Churches use the same traditional enumeration that the Protestants use, with the explicit prohibition of worshiping “graven images” or “idols” as a separate commandment. Yet the Eastern Orthodox Churches (and Eastern Catholic Churches) use icons far more than the Roman Catholic Church does, even having a traditional devotion of “kissing the icons” described above, and they do not see any contradiction between their use of icons and the prohibition of worshiping images in their list of the Ten Commandments. As the Biblical Jews did, they know the Biblical distinction between using an image/icon as a mere reminder of unseen heavenly realities or a focal point to help center their attention on the one hand, and the forbidden worship of a statue or other image as deity (an idol) on the other hand. So obviously, the Roman Catholic Church did not deliberately “take out” the prohibition against idols in order to “justify” their use of icons, when the Eastern Orthodox Churches which retained the prohibition against idols uses icons far more than the Roman Catholic Church does, feeling fully justified in their use of icons which is distinct from idolatry on Biblical grounds! Both the Roman Catholic and the (more elaborate) Eastern Orthodox (and Eastern Catholic) use of icons is justifiable on Biblical grounds, and so it is irrelevant whether their list of the Ten Commandments considers the prohibition against idols as a distinct commandment (as the Eastern Orthodox and Protestant lists do) or whether the prohibition against idols is considered to be extrapolation of the Commandment against having other gods and as such is dropped from the list to make it easier to remember (as the Roman Catholic list does).
Yet there has been a gross amount of hatred and accusations of vile idolatry which have come from Protestant and Evangelical Christians, fueled by the typical Roman Catholic list of the Ten Commandments not having “you shall not make for yourself a graven image.” Many Protestants are outraged by both their mistaken perception of Catholic idolatry and their mistaken perception that the Catholic Church has disrespected the Bible by omitting the prohibition against idolatry given on Mount Sinai specifically to justify this anti-Biblical idolatry. The fact that this whole confusion is innocently caused by there simply being two different traditional ways to separate the many clauses of Exodus 20:2-17 into only Ten Commandments is an example of how pure and simple ignorance without any brotherly Christian love to motivate one to overcome one’s ignorance is behind so many of the accusations between Protestant and Catholic Christians which keeps the Church of Jesus Christ divided .
The Hebrew Word Satan Means Accuser, So When Christians Accuse Each Other of Being Wrong for Being Different Instead of Seeking (In Brotherly Love) to Understand How Our Differences Are Related to Our Vast Common Faith, We Show the World Satan Instead of Showing the World Jesus
I am now amazed at how “hoodwinked” by the Devil I was (serving his interest in keeping the Church divided) that upon finding out that the Roman Catholic Church’s usual list of the Ten Commandments did not have “you shall not make a graven image” my first and only response as an Evangelical Protestant was not to even ask questions of good Catholics regarding this but instead to accuse the Catholic Church of both idolatry and disrespect for the Bible (and my response is typical of many Evangelical Protestants). The Hebrew word satan means accuser, as does the Greek word diabolos (Devil in English). When we Christians accuse each other of being wrong wherever we are different, we are doing the Devil’s work, and we are showing the world Satan instead of showing them Jesus.
The appropriate Christian response to another group of Christians having a different list of the Ten Commandments (or any other difference) would be to ask questions, in brotherly Christian love on the basis of the vast common core of fundamental Christian beliefs shared by Catholic and Protestant Christians, and to otherwise investigate the matter as necessary in order to overcome one’s ignorance, rather than to assume the worst of other Christians and make accusations which spread ignorance and disunity. Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity “so that the world may believe” when it sees our “love for one another” will never be granted (for the world’s great benefit!) until we as members of the Body of Christ the Church cultivate an attitude of loving and patient listening to our various separated brothers and sisters in Christ, giving them the benefit of the doubt whenever we have a hard time understanding their different perspective . Usually the other Christians we ask will not be scholars or other experts and they likely will not be able to give us answers we can truly understand and appreciate right away. Both the average Protestant Christian and the average Catholic Christian are not theological experts in their own church’s beliefs, and they themselves may have some misconceptions about what their church teaches, but would readily change their understanding if directed by a more knowledgeable authority figure in their church. Even experts from another church than yours may not understand your different perspective so as to best explain things in ways you will understand and appreciate. So patience in love is necessary, for all Christians to do their part as members of Christ’s Body in working towards the loving unity of the Body of Christ the Church which Our Lord Jesus prayed for.
It is my hope that my experience, having at different times been a member of all the major branches of today’s divided Christianity and finding that the great majority of my Christian faith never changed as I became a devout member of each church, wholly faithful to each church’s official teaching, will help currently divided Christians to develop the attitude towards each other which we need to have if we are to honor Jesus’ prayer for the unity of His followers – one of assuming the best of other Christians, seeing them as brothers and sisters in Christ who express their Christian faith differently than we do and seeking to understand their differences in the light of our common saving Christian faith, instead of assuming the worst of other Christians and quickly accusing them of heresies or errors wherever we find them different. It should greatly help Christians to resist the “demonic” urge to accuse other Christian churches of heresies (doing the work of the Devil, “the accuser of the [Christian] brothers” – Revelation 12:10) to know that the Catholic Church (in its unified Eastern and Western Rites), the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the many conservative or Evangelical Protestant Christian churches16 all share these below common traditional fundamental tenets of orthodox Christianity, and that all faithful members of these Christian churches understand their different secondary doctrines and practices in the light of these common fundamental Christian beliefs:
the One God, Creator of the Universe, who is Love, exists as a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the Incarnation (enfleshment) of God the Son in Jesus Christ through Mary’s Virgin Birth, making Jesus fully God and fully man, able to make Atonement for the sins of all humanity, which He did by dying on the Cross and rising from the dead so that humanity can be forgiven and saved (and find human fulfillment) through Him; we acquire this forgiveness from sin and salvation unto eternal life through, drawn and empowered by God’s Grace, our turning away from sin (anti-love), accepting what Jesus has done for us and coming into loving, saving relationship with Him (and His Father and Holy Spirit) through belief and baptism, as He taught (Mark 16:16), which makes us members of the one Body of Christ the Church; Jesus’ literal Resurrection and Ascension into Heaven; Jesus’ future return in glory and judgement and the bodily resurrection of all the dead; the tenets of traditional Christian morality (described in the 10 Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, among other passages of Scripture) as how to be loving and so how to please the God who is Love; the inspiration and inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures which testify to all these things.
Though different Christians may use somewhat different language to express these same beliefs, “aiming at the same meaning in different words,” to quote the 1439 AD 17th Ecumenical Council which temporarily healed the wounded unity of the Eastern and Western Christian Churches (before the Muslim conquerors of the East forced a more profound and formal division), the above “Common Creed” is equivalent to the official common essential beliefs of the Catholic, Orthodox, and Traditional Protestant Churches, meaning that any Catholic Christian, Orthodox Christian, or conservative Protestant Christian you meet who does not accept all of this common core of Christian faith is accountable to their own church’s authorities to hold it, and thus you can and should remind them they are already accountable to hold this faith rather than foolishly judging their church to be in error on the basis of their personal failure to hold their church’s faith. Our modern society is pervaded with secularism which has led many members (and some local leaders) of all Christian churches (and all religions), who are all members of the secular society as well as members of their particular faith group, to question or doubt some or many aspects of their religion or church’s official teaching even when they do not abandon their faith altogether, and thus many Christians sadly are not very good members of their particular church. Good and devout members will uphold this above common core of Christian faith, and members who do not are accountable to their own church to hold this faith. Meeting one of the many Christians (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant/Evangelical) who do not actually hold all of their church’s teaching with respect to these common essentials is not a cause to judge that person’s church as wrong because some of its members wrongly fail to hold their church’s official fundamental teaching, but is an opportunity to support all the churches united in this common faith by educating them or otherwise encouraging them to accept these common Christian truths.
The Honor and Use of Relics – a Biblical and Early Church Practice Continued in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches
To very briefly deal with a final aspect of the Catholic veneration or honor of their older Christian brothers and sisters the Saints, which Protestants usually do not understand and are uncomfortable with, I will begin with the Bible’s testimony to it:
2 Kings 13:21 says,
“Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.”
Acts 19:11-12 says,
“God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.”
These Scripture passages testify to a spiritual reality ignored by Protestants which is recognized in the ancient Christian Tradition of the Eastern and Western Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) honor and use of relics (a “first order” relic being part of the body of a saint, as in 2 Kings 13:21, a “second order” relic being something worn or touched by a saint, as in Acts 19:11-12).
Instrumentality: the Saints Are God’s Instruments and God Is Not Afraid (As Protestants Often Are) That Honor Paid to the Saints for Holiness or Miracles Will Take Anything Away from the Glory Due to God Who Empowered Them to Live Holy Lives or Who Worked the Miracle Through His Human Instruments: Rather God Is Confident That Those Who See Their Good Works (Including Miracles) Will Glorify Their Father in Heaven (Matthew 5:16)
God uses His people, members of Christ’s Body the Church, as instruments of His power, and even sometimes works miracles through them, sometimes even after they are dead or are not present except through things they have touched or used (like the Apostle Paul’s dirty hankies!). It seems God in this way sometimes calls attention to a holy life that is worthy of emulation, God is saying “pay attention to this person’s life if you want to grow in holiness,” and God is not afraid (as Protestants are) that such miracles associated with a particular human instrument of His will take away from the glory due to Him who worked the miracle through that human instrument: rather God is confident that those who see their good works (including miracles) will glorify their Father in Heaven (Matthew 5:16). According to this Bible verse Catholic Christians often note that “God is marvelous in His Saints,” because the lived reality of an exceptionally holy Christian life on Earth (with or without miracles) is a testament to God’s power to make people holy and it brings glory to God who made them holy when Saints are honored for their holiness, for their Christ-likeness worked in them by God’s power. As a human father is very satisfied when his child grows up to be like him, and might say ‘look at my boy!,” so our loving Heavenly Father is excited when His children grow up to be like Him, and He may even say “look at my boy!” through performing a miracle through that particular child of His either before or after their earthly death, as in the above Scripture passages. It brings further glory to God when people follow the examples left by such Saints as role models, and themselves achieve greater maturity in Christian love because they look to the examples of their older brothers and sisters in Christ who loved God with great fervor.
The Saints themselves clearly recognized their instrumentality. Saint Francis of Assisi once said that he was God’s violin. In his humility, as people were seeking him out in droves he recognized that they were coming not to see him, but to hear God’s music played on him. People would travel thousands of miles to hear the famous Itzak Perlman play the violin, no matter what ratty old fiddle he was playing on. The instrument is just a tool for the Master Musician, and the glory goes to the Musician, not the instrument. The worse the quality of the instrument, the more glory goes to the Musician who can make beautiful music out of such limited materials. Thus when Saint Francis was once asked why God chose him for the great reforming ministry he had, his humble response was that God, looking over the Earth, could find no one else more vile through which to demonstrate His Glory. God shows His Glory by taking vile sinners and making them His holy instruments. Saint Francis immortalized this concept of instrumentality for those who follow his example in his famous Peace Prayer, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…” Similarly, the (only recently) deceased Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta used to say that she was God’s pencil – just a little stub of pencil with which God wrote what He liked. The magnificent truth in these images is that they make the point that sainthood is for everyone – not just the generic declaration of sainthood by incorporation into Christ, as in the Bible’s use of the term for all Christians, but actual lived holiness is for everyone. We cannot all be holy by our own effort, but we can all be mere instruments of Him who is Holy, and this in fact is all the great saints of the Church were. If we are great sinners, then we qualify for sainthood, because God uses the weak and base as instruments to show forth His strength and holiness (cf 1 Cor. 1:26-29). The canonized Saints remind us that we too can be Holy, since we start with exactly what they started with – a fallen, sinful human nature – and through God’s Grace available to them and us they achieved exceptional (though not absolutely perfect) levels of real lived holiness in this life.
Relics Were Very Important to Christians since the Heroic Age of the Early Persecuted Church
Even without miracles being done by God through them as instruments, relics of saints were always important to the Early Christian Church. The very early, primitive Church of the Roman persecutions typically met to worship God around the tombs of the martyrs for Christ, whether in the Catacombs underneath Rome or elsewhere. Christians gathered to worship around the tombs (and relics) of those Christian martyrs who had proved their conformity with Christ their Lord by dying with great love for Jesus and others (including their murderers) rather than denying Him. So naturally, when the persecutions eased, as Christians were used to meeting at the tombs of the martyrs in any case, the very first church buildings were typically built around the tombs of the martyrs, with the bones of the martyrs typically underneath the altar. In continuation of this tradition from the very early, heroic Christian Church, Catholic Churches today usually have at least one relic, typically a bone fragment from a Saint, embedded in the church’s altar. The Early Church explained to the pagan, polytheistic Romans, who misconstrued many elements of Christian faith, “we love the martyrs, but only Christ we worship,” so that the Romans would understand that only Jesus Christ was worshiped by Christians as Divine, though the early Christians also had a very great love and respect for those fellow members of Christ’s Body who lived with great love and died with great love for Jesus.
Catholic devotions concerning relics are much less popular today than in centuries past, partly because of past abuse of the practices in the medieval forgery of relics and the like. It should still be noted though, that those simple medieval peasants were motivated to acquire relics, genuine or forged, because of a desire to be near something on Earth that God had touched in a special way, something belonging to someone they were related to in the mystery of the Body of Christ and Family of God the Church – and something which reminded them of how holy this older brother or sister in Christ had become, which motivated them to all the more fervently pray to God and seek holiness themselves.
Relics Are a Tangible and Vivid Reminder of That the Church Is the Body of Christ and the Spiritual Family of Christ
Having relics of a beloved deceased spiritual family member was like having the ashes of a beloved deceased natural family member in an urn. It served the same purpose as icons or photographs of deceased spiritual (or natural) family members, of being a reminder of members of our beloved family dead and gone (but alive in Christ!), but being a much more intense and tangible reminder. Some Catholic Christians today are still interested in acquiring relics, and the most common “third degree” relics are pieces of cloth or crosses or medals or other items which have been physically touched to a first or second degree relic, or to the tomb of a Saint. Like icons, relics of any degree are reminders of our beloved family in Christ which help us to not forget our great spiritual family in Jesus who we are temporarily separated from by death but whom we will be united with forever in Heaven since “death has no sting” for the members of our Christian family! What makes relics of any degree distinct from icons is that they are all about Christ Jesus physically touching the Earth through His Body the Church, bringing love, inspiring holiness, and sometimes even working miracles through the physical touch of Jesus’ Body on Earth, the Church of the saints (canonized or not).
It seems God still affirms the use and veneration or honor of relics, since God continues to occasionally do miracles through relics as in the Bible, and in a minority of cases, God has actually made the relics (bodies) of Christian saints who loved Him intensely and fruitfully a miracle in themselves, to help call people to pay attention to their lives and so learn to love Him as much as these Saints did, as in the case of the “incorruptibles,” a bizarre phenomenon known only among a handful of Catholic Saints, whose bodies17 simply did not corrupt, and even hundreds of years later their bodies can be seen, fresh and supple, in glass caskets (quite distinct from Lenin’s preserved corpse, which has chemicals added to it weekly). Catholics who go to see this phenomenon are typically inspired to try to live as these servants of God did, loving God all the more intensely, showing the logic that God has called attention to their lives on Earth by performing this miracle concerning His saints, to ensure that their godly lives are emulated among their younger brothers and sisters in Christ still on Earth.
[end of excerpts]
© 2004, 2009 Peter William John Baptiste SFO
1As the Western, Roman Church developed the doctrine more precisely and named it “Purgatory” (from the Latin purgatorium) some Eastern Christians during the early 2nd Millennium “drifting apart” of East and West thought it might be a difference in faith, but at the 17th Ecumenical Council at Florence in 1439, Eastern and Western Christian leaders and theologians confirmed the essential equivalence of the Eastern and the Western Christian understanding of the purification of sin from Christians in Heaven.
2Although this interpretation is the most natural interpretation for this passage, which is why it was common in the Early Church and still today among both Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics, several modern Bible commentators (Protestant and Catholic), possibly due to an over-dependence on the modern historical-critical method of Biblical interpretation (which is good and useful but only in concert with other methods and approaches), suggest that this is not the meaning, or at least not the primary meaning but only a secondary meaning. They suggest this because they are legitimately concerned with interpreting this passage in its greater context of 1 Corinthians 3:1-23, which is about divisions in the church over the exaltation of different church leaders and in that context, verses 10-15 could refer to church leaders specifically and how they have “built upon” the foundation Paul laid when he set up local churches and how the work they did in building up the local churches will be tested and judged. I accept this suggestion as a legitimate secondary application of the passage, but it cannot be the primary meaning. One of the problems with limiting verses 10-15 to church leaders only are that this fails to recognize that even in the context of the whole church (or whole local churches) rather than individuals, Paul has established elsewhere that all Christians have at least one spiritual gift given to them for the building up of the church as a whole, and thus all Christians will be judged for what they built in the church as a whole. Moreover, Paul in several places uses the metaphor of all Christians individually or collectively as a building (especially a Temple building), as in this passage, not just leaders. Verses 10-15 repeatedly emphasize the responsibility and the works of “each one” and “anyone” in this Christian “building/Temple,” not just leaders, and limiting the passage to leaders and their work in building local churches makes little sense of the reference to Judgement Day and the fire associated with it – for in the end only individual Christians can be tested by the fire of judgment, not whole “local churches.”
Also, the whole issue of making sure verses 10-15 match the 1 Corinthians 3:1-23 context, which has motivated these modern commentators to suggest the work of church leaders as the primary meaning of verses 10-15, can easily be resolved by simply understanding that verses 10-15 represent an inspired digression related to but much deeper than the original topic, which is not uncommon in Paul’s writing. Paul’s letters indicate in several places that his usual way of writing is to speak or dictate his letters as they come to him while someone else writes his words down, and sometimes he even identifies the one who took the dictation. Possibly this was because he had very poor eyesight or diseased eyes (hence, when actually writing directly on parchment to finish one letter, he writes “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!” – Galatians 6:11). Thus it is not unusual for Paul, while in this way speaking/dictating on one topic, to, as the Spirit leads him, suddenly digress into a related topic which is much deeper, more mysterious, more mystical, in the middle of his first topic (to which he returns after the digression). The 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 digression is clearly marked with “bookends” in verses 9 and 16. In verse 16, Paul repeats what he said in verse 9 about his readers being God’s building or Temple, indicating that he is picking up where he left off in verse 9, after his verses 10-15 digression, which still applied to the greater context of 1 Corinthians 3 (and continued the “building” metaphor) but which also had a distinct and much deeper primary meaning about the judgement of all believers for how they have built up their lives on the foundation of Jesus Christ (which the Church has typically seen as the primary meaning since the beginning). Another example of Paul digressing like this is Ephesians 5:22-32, in the midst of a wider topic in Ephesians 5:21-6:9. Remember that “chapter and verse” demarcations were more or less arbitrarily added much later on to the Bible’s text and a single line of thought often goes beyond a chapter boundary. Ephesians 5:21-6:9 is about all Christians submitting to each other in love out of reverence for Christ (whose Body they are!) in all their various relationships with one another, including husband/wife, parent/child, and master/slave relationships (one third of the Roman Empire’s population were slaves at this time). But the husband/wife relationship in particular was designed by God to be a living symbol of the intimate love between God and His People, and so mentioning the marriage relationship leads Paul into an inspired digression about why and how the Church is both the Bride and therefore the Body of Jesus Christ, explaining Paul’s frequent references to the Church as either the Bride or the Body of Christ in a much more deep and mysterious, mystical way than he has anywhere else. Paul clearly indicates that he has been digressing into a distinct, deeply mysterious (though related) topic by saying of his husband and wife discussion which started in 5:22, “this is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church” (5:32), and then he gets back to his original topic of Christians submitting to each other in love in all their various relationships by saying that actual husbands and wives “ALSO” (5:33) must love each other as indicated – applying the 5:22-32 digression to actual spouses only as a secondary meaning for Ephesians 5:22-32. Then from 5:33-6:9 Paul continues the original topic started in 5:21 about Christians submitting to each other in love – even specifying that Christian masters must treat their Christian slaves “in the same way” (6:9), with the same loving submission.
These two deeply mystical digressions (1 Corinthians 3:10-15 and Ephesians 5:22-32) actually are also related to each other, since the Church, the Bride of Christ, truly becomes the end-times “spotless Bride” Christians sing about, truly “without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish” of sin, fully “holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27), only through being purified or purged in the fire of 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 which burns up anything of sin that still clings to the individual Christians who make up the Bride of Christ the Church. This purification or purgatory makes the Bride the Church truly spotless and beautiful, without any stain of sin, for Christ the Bridegroom for all Eternity.
3Only one quarter of all Catholic Christians were Roman Catholics in the Undivided Early Catholic (Universal) Church – the other three quarters were Antiochene, Alexandrian, or Byzantine Rite Catholics (and some Jerusalem Rite Catholics), before substantial portions of the Antiochene and Alexandrian Catholic Churches were lost to the Nestorian and Monophysite heresies (now known as the “Lesser Eastern Churches”), after which the remainder of these Catholics were mostly (though not totally) wiped out by militant Islam in the First Millennium (their traditional territories are now known as Muslim countries). The Second Millennium began with only half of all Catholic Christians being Roman Rite Catholics, the other half being Byzantine Rite Catholics, who commonly called themselves Eastern Orthodox Christians to specify that they did not belong to the Eastern heretical Churches of Nestorians and Monophysites, but this term did not mean they were not Catholics, and they still participated in most of the Ecumenical Councils of East and West, until the Muslim conquest of Byzantium (Constantinople) in 1453, after which (in 1472) their Muslim conquerors forced the separation in which the Eastern Orthodox Churches were created for the first time as non-Catholic churches (East/West disunity before this time had never been a complete nor formal break, not even in the 1054 personal mutual excommunication of the Roman and Byzantine Patriarchs, and the strained East/West relations had been substantially and joyfully healed in the 1439 17th Ecumenical Council. It was Eastern Catholics who fell to the Muslims in 1453). Significant numbers of those forced out of the Catholic Communion of Sister Churches by the Muslims returned to full Catholic Communion after this (including half of Ukraine 123 years later). There are also non-Protestant Roman Rite Christians who broke away from the Catholic Communion unified under the pope (such as the “Old Catholic Union” and other groups which I call “Roman Orthodox” since they are not at all Catholic – which means universal – though they are very Roman) but these groups are small in numbers while by far the largest portion of Roman Rite Christians are still Catholic. The Catholic Church is made up of whichever portions of the ancient unified Eastern and Western Christian Sister Churches remain in communion with the Successor of Peter and holder of the keys Jesus gave to Peter (the pope), regardless of how large or small these portions are. The Successor of Peter resides in Rome and also is the Patriarch of the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church only because Peter died in Rome – if Peter had stayed in Antioch and died there, the Bishop of Antioch, not of Rome, would be the pope, and the pope would also be the Patriarch of the Antiochene Rite of the Catholic Church.
4This is why the pope traditionally wears a bishop’s mitre (special hat) with a triple-crown, an important symbol which appears on the Vatican Flag. The 3 crowns symbolize 3 distinct and separate offices of overseership the pope holds – the first crown represents that the pope is the local overseer or bishop of the City of Rome, in which capacity he is like any other local overseer/bishop; the second crown represents that the pope is the Patriarch of the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, a special overseer or bishop who oversees a distinct Rite or Sister Church within the Catholic Communion of Sister Churches which is the Catholic Church; and the third crown represents that the pope is the Successor of Peter, “holder of the keys of the Kingdom” which Jesus gave to Peter (these keys being a symbol which also appears on the Vatican Flag), the Universal Overseer/Bishop and Head Pastor of the entire Catholic Church, in all of its distinct Sister Churches in full Christian communion with each other and the pope.
5This is why the private revelations some Catholic Christians have received about (or from) Christians in Purgatory describe them as happy, though they are suffering. They indeed suffer in the fiery process of having all their remaining ties to sin removed, burned up or consumed in the fire, as 1 Corinthians 3:15 says, but since it is the Heavenly “consuming fire” of God Himself which surrounds them, they are also happy (even eager to get back in the fire after delivering the message God asked them to give). They are comforted by His Presence, knowing that the suffering they endure is worth it since they will perfected, ready to see God “face to face” without squinting in pain at His burning brightness, when the process is finished (however long or short a process this is). This is much like a professional back massage that hurts with a “good pain” as your stiff and sore muscles are manipulated – even while you feel the pain, you know your back is getting better, and will feel great afterwards.
6It is not uncommon for Roman Catholics to speak of canonized Saints “not going to Purgatory” but “going straight to Heaven” when they die, and, in humility not expecting themselves to be canonized as Saints, saying that they expect not to “go straight to Heaven” when they die, but to go to Purgatory first or be delayed in Purgatory. This kind of language is imprecise, based in metaphorical conceptions of Heaven and Purgatory as two different physical places rather than as two different spiritual conditions of the soul in the Presence of its God after death. And unfortunately, this kind of language is also totally misunderstood by Protestants, who mistakenly think this means Catholics have no assurance of going to Heaven when they die. This confusion should be completely settled by simply noting, as above, that Purgatory is just “the anteroom to Heaven” or “what Heaven feels like when you first get there,” it is the “consuming fire of God Himself,” whose Presence is Heaven, acting on the sinfulness that initially still remains in Christians at their death and burning it up. Purgatory simply takes seriously what the Bible says about the temporary suffering of Christians after death, and it does not mean Christians do not go to Heaven immediately upon their death, “absent from the body and present with the Lord” – it just means the Lord’s Heavenly Presence is uncomfortable or even painful at first until the “wood, hay, and straw” of sinfulness is burned off! In reference to the canonized Saints, it would be more precise to say that they, as all Christians, undergo the Judgement of Believers and testing by fire of 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 – they “go to Purgatory” – but because they have built on the foundation of Jesus Christ with much “gold, silver, precious stones” by consistently (though not always and perfectly) cooperating with God’s empowering grace to do rightly while they were free to resist God’s Grace (as they and we prove every time we do sin), they quickly receive their reward (1 Corinthians 3:14), the reward of Heaven in its fullness. The canonized Saints regularly relied on and cooperated with God’s Grace and so they developed habits of holiness (virtues) and conquered their former sinful habits, such that they much more rarely and much less seriously sinned (though they remained sinners – their own writings usually indicate how aware they were of their remaining sinfulness next to God’s absolute perfection). Because of their particularly consistent cooperation with God’s empowering Grace offered to all Christians, these Saints had comparatively little “wood, hay and straw” to be painfully burned away, so the suffering associated with the purgatorial fires of 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 is next to nothing for them (though note their very “gold, silver, precious stones” are also purified by this fire – anything less than purely motivated in their good works and good habits – such as spiritual pride or even the subtle “pride in one’s humility” – is also purged from them). This is why Saint John of the Cross (using the metaphorical image of Purgatory as a physical place) says of those very mature Christians who go through the “Second Dark Night of the Soul” while on this Earth (whether they become formally canonized saints or not) that they “go not to Purgatory or are delayed there but an instant.” The canonized Saints – who often did a great deal of suffering while on Earth through which God disciplined them and developed their holiness – have comparatively little perfecting still needed after their death and during the transition to Heaven, so they experience the 1 Corinthians 3 purification more as a brief flash of discomfort than as great suffering of loss. This means that Catholics in essence generally regard the Saints as experiencing the Judgement of Believers of 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 in much the same way as Protestants (without thinking it through) typically assume all believers do – as a “burning doorway” into Heaven, uncomfortable or painful only for a moment.
7The earlier 1274 14th Ecumenical Council had, less thoroughly, reaffirmed the Eastern and Western Unity of Faith in Diversity of Faith Expressions, but most of the Eastern delegation was shipwrecked on the way to the Council, so there was less Eastern representation at the Council, and the Council did not produce the desired effect. The much more substantial healing of the wounded unity at the 1439 Council was sadly ruined by the Muslim conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and the separation of the conquered Eastern Church from the Western Church forced by the Muslim conquerors in 1472. The Eastern Orthodox Churches as churches completely independent of the ancient Catholic (Universal) Communion of orthodox Sister Churches (Western and Eastern), collectively known as the Catholic Church, did not exist before 1472.
8Those Eastern Orthodox Churches no longer in the Universal Christian (Catholic) Communion of Eastern and Western Sister Churches (collectively known as the Catholic Church), which are just as ancient as the Roman Catholic Church, have every bit as strong a Marian devotion as Roman Catholic Christians, and the same Christological Marian Feast Days (everything the Church believes about Mary is rooted in its belief about her Son), and their doctrines relating to Mary are essentially the same but either worded differently or simply not as precise and well developed, since after being forced out of Catholic Communion by the Muslims in 1472 they repudiated all the more precise doctrinal definitions made by the Universal Church after the 7th Ecumenical Council of 787 AD, even though they had participated in most of the first 17 Ecumenical Councils to 1439 AD. Some Eastern Orthodox Christians, merely out of anti-Roman Rite prejudice, will claim they don’t believe the Roman Marian doctrines when they only reject the terminology Roman Christians use to describe the same essential beliefs. As noted above, Protestants looking at both churches critically can see no substantial difference between the Catholic and Orthodox positions, simply because the differences are superficial not substantial!
9In this area Protestants also show an instinctive understanding and practice of the Catholic concept of merit which Protestants have been known to criticize. Billy Graham merits having God pay particular attention to his prayers because Billy has freely cooperated with the empowering Grace of God with a great deal of consistency when he could have resisted it and fallen into sin a lot more than he has. Even Protestants regularly experience the simple reality that Christians who freely choose to pray more and so on become more holy and sin less often and less seriously than those who do not, and in this way as individuals we freely cooperate with the empowering Grace God makes available to all Christians, so that those individual Christians who choose to prioritize their lives to spend more time with God achieve more growth in spirituality and holiness than those individual Christians who do not – and therefore, as closer friends of God by their own choice when they had the freedom to spend less time with Him, they merit having God listen more closely to their prayers. When instead we sin, or fail to curtail habits of sin (empowered by God’s Grace available to us), we block the communication between God and us – we have no reason to expect God will take our prayer requests as seriously as those of someone who spends much more time with Him and consistently seeks holiness. After all, it is not just anyone’s prayer but “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man [that] availeth much” (James 5:16). So when Catholics ask a Saint to pray for them or otherwise make a request to God through “the merits and prayers” of a canonized Saint, they are simply calling attention to the fact that that Saint while on Earth merited God’s paying particular attention to his or her prayers, moreso than those of many other of God’s (still beloved but less obedient) adopted children. The concept of merit reminds us that we are all part of God’s Family, and it has a further benefit in spiritual growth, because it encourages Christians who seek the prayer intercession of a Saint (an older brother or sister in God’s Family the Church) to model themselves and their own prayer lives after such Saints, so that they themselves may come to merit God listening more closely to their own prayers.
10Where one modern English translation renders Luke 1:28 as “Greetings [Mary], highly favored one,” the older English “Hail Mary” prayer renders it “Hail Mary, full of grace” – “highly favored one” and “full of grace” both being attempts to translate the original Greek Kecharitomene, which is the past, perfect participle of charis, grace or favor (more commonly grace).
11Some Catholic theologians will speak of a “hyper-dulia” due to Mary, an honor higher than any other human being, but this is only due to Mary’s unique relationship with Jesus as His true Mother and source of His human nature. If we are to honor (or venerate) our own father and mother, and human judges or monarchs, how much more should we honor or venerate the Mother of Jesus Christ, God the Son Incarnate? But this is still a form of Dulia, the honor due to human beings, entirely distinct from the kind of honor and love uniquely due to God in Latria (Adoration).
12Some Protestant Christians also have a theological opinion promoted by Luther of the “sleep of the soul,” which understands that the minds of the Dead in Christ are not active (so as to pray for us!) until the Final Resurrection. This theory does not make good nor complete use of the whole Biblical testimony, however – it contradicts or ignores “to be absent from the Body is to be present with the Lord,” “death, where is thy sting,” as well as the Biblical testimony of the “great cloud of witnesses” and of various visitations of the Dead in the Lord and so on – as well as contradicting the actual practice of many Protestant Christians of speaking to their dead relatives who are in Christ! This theological opinion is always coupled with the above prejudice against the Dead in Christ, for otherwise even if the Dead in Christ were asleep, they would not cease to be members of the Family who Christians would appropriately have pictures of to remind them of deceased Family members.
13The thought has occurred to me that if we want clues as to how God thinks houses of worship should be built, look in the Bible and check out the house of worship that God Himself designed and told Solomon to build. Clearly, ornate Catholic or Orthodox Churches with statues look more like the one God designed than many simple or even austere Protestant churches. This is not to say that that there is anything wrong with worshiping God in simpler surroundings: God certainly visits us wherever we are gathered in His name (and the Franciscan tradition within the Catholic Church also encourages simplicity). But I do not think the tendency of many Protestant Christians to deliberately avoid beautiful worship spaces and to criticize or look down on Catholic and Orthodox Christians for often having beautiful, ornate houses of worship is particularly Biblically defensible. The Tabernacle (the Mobile Temple) and the grander Temple reminded the Israelites of the beauty of heaven where God dwells and so also do ornate Christian churches remind us of our heavenly homeland. Indeed, the traditional Christian worship of the Divine Liturgy (Eastern term) or Holy Mass (Western term) is largely patterned after the Heavenly Liturgy described in John’s Revelation: heaven touches down on Earth when Christians gather to worship God together with the “great cloud of witnesses,” and the beautiful, other-worldly environment of an ornate church sanctuary is meant to remind Christians of the unseen heavenly reality of the constant heavenly worship of God they are actively participating in.
14The carved bulls circling the bronze Sea which rested on twelve bronze bulls in God’s Temple (2 Chronicles 4:1-5) were images of the same species of animal “on the earth” as the Golden Calf, but these bulls were not worshiped as deity as the Golden Calf was.
15This of course is counted as one of the eleven “you shall not” statements, as it is equivalent to “you shall not have other gods before me.”
16Including the “Messianic Jewish” branch of Protestantism, though not including those “doctrinally liberal” mainline Protestant churches which have lost their traditional grip on this faith at the denominational or congregational level, even their highest denominational leadership being uncertain about these fundamentals and possibly denying some of them. There is still hope that these Protestant churches no longer unwaveringly committed to the common traditional fundamentals of Christianity can once more become so committed, but it will help for them to see the rest of the world’s Christians – together the great majority – united both in this faith and in love.
17Or parts of their bodies, such as the tongue of a great preacher which did not corrupt while the rest of his body did – a sign from God to pay attention to this saintly Christian preacher!