Tom Holland on the changing meaning of the word ‘saint’

‘Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind’ by Tom Holland
‘Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind’ by Tom Holland is out now

By Graham Harter

I was interested recently to see that historian Tom Holland, in his new book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, refers to the change in the meaning of the word ‘saint’ down the centuries of Christianity.

“In the New Testament, the term ‘saints’ is applied to all those who believe in the Lord Jesus.”

Anybody who has read the New Testament will be aware that, there, the term ‘saints’ (Greek ὁι ἅγιοι, hoi hagioi = ‘the holy ones’) is applied to living and breathing believers in the Lord Jesus Christ — and not just to particular, especially ‘saintly’ believers, but to all those who believe in the Lord Jesus.

So, for example, the apostle Paul, writing to the church at Philippi, says (I give a couple of English translations):—

“To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons…”
Letter to the Philippians 1:1 (ESV)[1]

“Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons…”
Letter to the Philippians 1:1 (AV)[2]

This ‘universal’ meaning of the word ‘saint’ gradually changed during the early centuries of Christianity. As Christianity became tolerated, legalized, and even the dominant faith of the Roman Empire, the term took on a more restricted meaning, being applied rather to those especially ardent or ‘holy’ Christians who had already died and joined their Master.

“As Christianity became tolerated, legalized, and even the dominant faith of the Roman Empire, the term ‘saint’ took on a more restricted meaning, being applied rather to those especially ardent or ‘holy’ Christians who had already died and joined their Master.”

Tom Holland notes this fact in chapter 5, ‘Charity,’ of Dominion,[3] which considers the development of Christian thought in the West during the fourth century.

He cites the example of Martin of Tours — a Christian bishop and monk whose biography by Sulpicius Severus is well worth reading in Carolinne White’s Early Christian Lives — who died in A.D. 397.[4]

The Martin who had departed from a life here below characterized by holiness, self-denial, virtue and zeal for the Lord, was now ‘Saint’ Martin of Tours. Along with this elevation to ‘sainthood’ went the beginnings of the mediaeval fascination for the relics of parted saints.[5]

Subsequent further restriction

This limitation of the term ‘saint’ from its original, universal meaning, continued in the same direction in subsequent centuries. It began to require the attestation of posthumous miracles attributed to the person in question. Thus, the Roman Catholic Church today has a tightly restricted and regulated mechanism for declaring someone a ‘saint.’ I have written about this in more detail here.

The underlying difference

Underlying the gradual transformation in meaning of ‘saint’ from all believers, including those still living here below, to a select caste of particularly ‘saintly’ departed believers, is a huge historic shift in the understanding of soteriology: “how is a person saved?”

When Paul writes in his New Testament letters to “the saints” (e.g., Philippians 1:1 as above), he is assuming that his readers are already saved through the faith they have placed in Jesus Christ. This saving faith has been manifested in baptism — the public declaration of a person’s faith in Jesus Christ (try not to think of baby baptism at this point, which wasn’t practised until much later) — and is now being expressed in the believers’ living of lives radically different from the Gentiles around them. It is on the basis of this assumption that Paul can call his readers “saints.”

“When Paul writes in his New Testament letters to ‘the saints,’ he is assuming that his readers are already saved through the faith they have placed in Jesus Christ. This saving faith has been manifested in baptism, and is now being expressed in the believers’ living of lives radically different from the Gentiles around them.”

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Letter to the Ephesians 2:8-9[6]

[…F]or in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
Letter to the Galatians 3:26-27[7]

It was as the Christian Church began to lose the clarity of what radical thing Paul is saying here, that the idea of ‘saints’ in a restricted sense began to emerge. And, of course, as Christianity became the majority religion, and inevitably there needed to be some way to distinguish the really ardent Christian from the nominal ‘Christian.’

The Protestant Reformers had to ‘rediscover’ this radical idea of Paul’s in the sixteenth century, couching it for posterity in the famous Reformation concepts of sola gratia (“by grace alone”), sola fide (“by faith alone”), and the universal priesthood of all believers.

The New Testament clearly teaches that a person is saved, not by some human effort of their own, but solely and entirely by the grace of Christ received by faith in Christ. See the quotations of Ephesians and Galatians above.

Paul’s use of the term ‘saint’ to address the Christians to whom he writes, alone bears ample testimony to this wonderful truth.

 

Tom Holland’s Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind is available now, published by Little Brown.

 

 

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Scripture quotations, unless otherwise stated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Philippians+1%3A1&version=ESVUK

[2] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Philippians+1%3A1&version=AKJV

[3] Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (Little Brown, 2019), 140–41.

[4] Ibid., p.127

[5] Ibid., p.140

[6] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+2%3A8-9&version=ESVUK

[7] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Galatians+3%3A26-27&version=ESVUK

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