To rephrase the question: What would be the meaning of the Christian gospel if there were no wonderworkers, no people who had been transfigured with the Divine Light, no clairvoyant prophets, no healers, no people who had raised the dead, no ascetics living alone in the deserts for years on end, no beacons of radical, all-forgiving love?
What would be the meaning of the Christian gospel if there were no wonderworking relics, no true Body and Blood of Christ, no true Baptism in the death and resurrection of Christ? What if there were no weeping icons?
First, it would mean that the two-storey version of Christianity was the correct version. What would remain if all those artifacts of the faith were removed would be the mere idea of Christianity accompanied by the moral efforts of those who admired it. Saints would simply mean “dead Christians.”
The Christian gospel, as recorded in the Scriptures and maintained in Classical Christianity, is replete with the artifacts of holiness – tangible, living examples of transfigured lives – not morally improved but something other. Human beings becoming gods (in the bold language of the early fathers).
There began, however, in the 16th century, a rebellion against the honoring of the saints, and the wholesale jettisoning of many aspects of the Classical faith. The 16th century, with the Reformation, saw the advent of the ordinary Christian as the normative Christian and the ordinary world as the normative world.
All believers are saints! (they said)…
The preaching of a radicalized grace and the demonization of works brought about the democratization of heaven (many contemporary Christians still denounce practices such as fasting and vigils as “works righteousness”). The spiritual elitism of a special class of Christians was denounced as a fraud. In England (and other places as well), the bodies and bones of the saints were dismantled, desecrated and destroyed. The democratic republic of heaven wanted no going back.
The removal of any form of transformation to somewhere other than our present world was required by the exaltation of the ordinary. The possibility of present-tense transformation endangered the entire scheme of the ordinary. The presence of a single honored saint who was more than merely heroic represented an indictment of the entire Reformation project.
Thinking of the Reformation and contemporary Christianity in such terms almost sounds like the plot of a children’s novel. But that is the nature of a time that can only be seen as bizarre.
Moving forward in history, this same shift to the ordinary was met with resistance which continues to this day. The great “awakenings” (the “First” and the “Second”) should be seen as uprisings against the ordinary. Against the theory of idealized, postponed Christianity, popular revolts leapt forward towards experience. In England, the Methodists following John and Charles Wesley were accused of enthusiasm (a very serious matter among the British). People swooned, and even barked like dogs under the “sway of the Spirit” as John Wesley, George Whitefield and others preached. The established Church was ruptured.
The Second Great Awakening gave birth to the Second Birth, and theology itself was ruptured with the creation of evangelical experiential claims. Perhaps the most significant (and extreme) response to the ordinary-driven reforms were found in the various Pentecostal movements of the 20th century (and beyond). Evangelical demands for a born-again experience were pushed by demands for a Baptism in the Spirit (with signs following).
The instinct of these reactionary movements should be seen in the context of ordinary Protestantism. The emptiness of a postponed spiritual reality gave birth to undisciplined, non-traditional forms of spiritual experience. The New Testament itself bore constant witness against the banal, empty futility of ordinary Protestantism. It promises so much more.
From a Classical Christian perspective these eruptions of experience-hungry movements should not be judged too harshly. They are often defective in doctrine and marked by delusional claims, but their instinct and hunger are correct. I think that current conversations between Orthodoxy and Pentecostalism (at least on the theological level) will be very fruitful – particularly for the Pentecostals.
The Tradition teaches the reality of the spiritual life:
We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly spirit, we have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity who has saved us!
The Tradition also places the reality of the experience into the disciplined life of the Church. Thus 2,000 years of experience produces saints rather than ephemeral movements. For in the end, the experience of Orthodox Christianity is about far more than popular demand: it is the promise and realization of union with God.
Individual believers have a “taste” of this reality – but the fruit of the Orthodox life is found in the saints – those persons who have been so united with Christ that the very life of Christ Himself is tangibly visible in their works and teachings. Like the resurrection of Christ Himself, their reality validates the life and struggles of all believers.
The traditional ascesis of Orthodoxy is not a method. It is not a set of actions and thoughts that inherently produce the results of sanctity. Such a notion would reduce God to an impersonal force. They are, however, guards against delusion and the path by which we may normatively know the true and living God. But the “ordinariness” of general experience is not the “norm” for the Christian life. Christ Himself alone, and the stature of His fullness (Eph. 4:13) are the measure and standard of the Christian life.
The language of the Church quickly evolved in its use and definition of the term “saint.” Though St. Paul regularly addresses his readers as “saints,” in a manner that makes the term seem synonymous with the word “believers,” it sometimes has a stronger meaning.
To all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 1:7)
To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (1Co 1:2-3)
In time, the Church came to restrict the use of the title, “saint,” for those whose manner of life truly conformed to the life of the gospel. They were not merely significant “historical” figures, but people whose lives were indeed filled with the Spirit. Figures who remain controversial in this designation (such as Constantine the Great) are controversial precisely because some question whether they rightly meet this standard. Their inclusion does not change the meaning – the questioning confirms it.
I have elsewhere described this normative, Classical understanding of truly experiential Christianity as “Christianity in a One-Storey Universe.” The bifurcation of the Christian life is ultimately a denial of the truth of the faith and an exaltation of a bland, mundane substitute whose emptiness can only suffocate true believing.
The Church of the saints is the only complete proclamation of the Christian faith.
All articles are written by Fr. Stephen Freeman, Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, TN, unless otherwise noted.