Essay / Theology

Theological Saint-Watching

Advice to anybody who wants to think well about theology: Find a holy person and watch them closely.

Good theologians are good saint-watchers. They pay attention to the believers they know, and devote time to describing what they see taking place in the lives of the people around them who are conspicuously Christ-like. They should also be good at catching the scent of holiness in ordinary Christians, but let’s face it: some people just stand out as especially Christ-like.

A saint, the sense I’m using here, is somewhere between the directly Biblical sense of the word and the Roman Catholic sense. To take the foundational biblical sense first: Paul calls all Christians saints, indicating that to be in Christ is to be set apart –sanctified, designated and separated as holy. “Paul, to the saints and faithful in Christ in Ephesus…”

The Roman Catholic Church uses “saint” in a technical sense, designating a special class of deceased Christians whose ministries were marked by holiness and who have proven themselves still potent after their deaths. You can hear this sense of saint working in the background whenever people talk about somebody as “Saint So and So.” “Saint” as a title tends to point to the sheer cliff of difference between those of us who are normal Christians on the one hand, and a very special category of people who live on a different level, on the other hand. If “saints” means “set apart,” then the select group of officially titled saints is set apart indeed, from all other Christians.

But again, the Biblical sense of sainthood works the other direction: it puts all believers into the category of set apart and marked as holy in Christ. However we use the word saint, it must comport with the way it is used by, um, Saint Paul. We should be able to call him Saint Paul without placing him unbiblically on the far side of a sacerdotal grand canyon from us; and we ought to be able to call him Brother Paul without descending into egalitarian chuminess.

A theologian with an eye for holiness will see it where others might overlook it. At least we would hope so: if a theologian spends h is time immersed in holy things, he ought to recognize holy people. If he has learned Christ, he ought to recognize Christlikeness when it crosses his path. And if it crosses his path humbly, should that make it any harder to see? Isn’t holiness most itself when it succeeds in pointing away to God?

But why would a theologian need saints if he has Holy Scripture? What gain is there in turning from the noonday sun of Christ the Holy One to the little local lights of imperfect Christlikness?

Let us be clear: the lives of conspicuously holy Christians do not constitute a source of new information for theological reflection. The are not another book in which to read startling new truths on a level with what we read in the Bible. If you call their lives “a third testament,” you say too much. Don’t dare call them “a fifth gospel.” If you call them “the twenty-ninth chapter of Acts,” you’re closer to the truth.

Saintly lives are not a source of theological data. We already know what we are looking for when we look closely at the lives of our local saints. We want to see Jesus. We can’t find anything in them which was not already to be seen in Christ, because from his fullness they have all received, and grace upon grace.

But saints can surprise us by being Christlike in our regional dialect. We expect Jesus to be holy, after all, but we’re caught off guard when somebody next door begins acting like a son of God. We weren’t expecting a child of God to have our accent, or somebody else’s, or to be so little, or to be confined to our very own social limitations. Jesus Christ impinges on us in exactly that way, and the lives of conspicuously holy Christians opens our eyes to the fact. We don’t get new information, but we can get new insight.

Become a theological saint-watcher. Pick somebody holy and keep an eye on them. Here are four directives for how to do this well:

1. You have to pick somebody alive and observable. Books don’t count here. Books about holy people are the work of previous saint-watchers: Athanasius on Anthony of Egypt, Jonathan Edwards on David Brainerd, etc. It’s great to read those documents of theologians who knew how to watch saints, but what I’m saying is that you should go and do likewise.

2. It can’t be yourself. Even if you really really are a conspicuously holy person who somebody else ought to put on their list of saints to watch, you can’t be on your own list. You just can’t observe yourself in the same instructive way that you can observe another person.

3. It can, however, be a close friend or family member. It could be your spouse: Jonathan Edwards had one eye on the holiness of David Brainerd and the other on the holiness of his wife Sarah. He learned different things from each of them.

4. Don’t tell them. Not all secrets are bad secrets.

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