Saints

According to Roman Catholic doctrine, saints are those now in heaven because of their exemplary lives, who can make intercession with God for the living as well as for those in purgatory.* The practice of the veneration of saints claims biblical foundation, e.g., Genesis 18:16-31; Matthew 19:28; Hebrews 12:1; Revelation 6:9f.; see also Paul's doctrine of Christ's mystical body, with all members as “fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). The nonbiblical sources for the practice range through Christian history, beginning in the pre-Nicene period with the Odes of Solomon and the Martyrium Polycarpi (c.156). Origen* was probably the first of the Fathers to permit the cult of martyrs a theological claim, and Cyril* and Chrysostom* made the distinction between those commemorated at the Eucharist and the ordinary dead.

As devotion to the saints grew, idolatry arose, to counter which theologians tried to make clear the difference between worshiping God and honoring the saints: the Greek terms latreia and douleia respectively. By the Carolingian period, popular devotion was flowering with pilgrimages,* greater concern with relics,* naming of patrons, and even making feasts civil festivals. The first formal canonization occurred in 993 with Ulrich.* Increasingly the “lives” were publicized, more stereotype than fact, which only added abuses. The great task of revising these lives, begun by Lipomani, Surius, and Baronius,* was critically done by Jean Bollandus (1596-1665) in his Acta Sanctorum, which provided a model. Leo I,* Gregory I,* and John of Damascus* furthered the theology of the practice, while liturgical developments reflected popular devotion and patristic teaching. Iconography grew accordingly, and even some angels were elevated (Raphael,* Gabriel,* Michael*).

A saint, by description not title, could be designated unofficially without beatification* or canonization.* These many practices brought protest from within, at the councils of Avignon (1209) and the Fourth Lateran (1215), as well as without (Cathari,* Waldenses*). The fiercest objections came at the Reformation from Zwinglians and Calvinists. The Council of Trent* approved the practice, but encouraged moderation, with Robert Bellarmine's* principles governing much of the present teaching. The modern practice is governed by canon law,* distinguishing between the worship of God and the honoring of Mary, the saints, and angels.

The Eastern Churches are similar to Rome in their attitude on the subject. With Protestant refusal to venerate the saints (since sanctity is potentially the province of all who enjoy salvation) their legends have diminished. The literary interest of John Milton* and some of his contemporaries kept them alive, but the Enlightenment,* especially Voltaire* and the Encyclopedists,* only reinforced the Protestant view. In the Anglican Communion the practice was revived with the Oxford Movement* despite early Tractarian misgivings.

H. Delehaye, Sanctus (1927) and Les Origines du culte des martyrs (1933); R. Aigrain, L'Hagiographie (1953); H. Roeder, Saints and Their Attributes (1955); J. Douillet, What Is a Saint? (1958).


SAINTS (קָדוֹשׁ, H7705, and חָסִיד, H2883. The Aram. in Daniel has קַדִּ֔ישׁ, NT ἅγιοι, consecrated to God, holy, sacred, pious.) People sacred to God, members of the Jewish and Christian congregations.

The Heb. word qãdôsh basically means “separated” although the evidence for that rendering is not extensive. The word means set apart, consecrated, sacred. The root was used of ancient shrines like Kadesh-barnea and is applied to God, angels, the sanctuary, priestly functionaries, and the people of Israel. In Ugaritic it is used also of gods and priests. Because the root refers to things dedicated to deity, it is applied to the male and female prostitutes at the licentious Canaanite shrines (Deut 23:18).

The emphasis of qãdôsh is on the consecration of the subject involved rather than upon its or his moral purity. Of course, all things and people consecrated to God are ideally to be free from moral and ceremonial defilement. God Himself is the thrice-holy One (Isa 6:3).

Relatively seldom are the people of Israel called “saints.” Aaron is called a saint (Ps 106:16 KJV) as are the Nazirites (Num 6:18, tr. “holy”) and others. Psalm 89:7 mentions the assembly of the saints. Zechariah 14:5 foretells the eschatological coming of the saints with God.

The Heb. word ḥãsîd, “pious ones,” has stronger moral overtones. Related to ḥesed, “mercy,” “goodness,” it is never applied to objects used in worship, but only to people (twice to God). It usually is tr. “saint,” but is used only about thirty times. The Psalms use the term with special frequency. It is thought that in the days of the Maccabees, it became a name for a strictly orthodox party which may have become the precursors of the Pharisees.


There apparently are few instances in either Testament of the use of the word “saints” as referring to their saintly character. In Scripture it is almost always used with reference to the group of believers who belong to God as His own. The exceptions to this usage are: “befits the saints” (Rom 16:2); “for the equipment of the saints” (Eph 4:12); “as is fitting among saints” (Eph 5:3), where the saintly character of them is in the forefront of the apostle’s thinking.

It is easy to see how the term “saints” would inevitably take on an ethical and moral meaning. If a person belonged to Christ, he showed his Christian character by an exemplary life, and if he made notable progress in sanctification, so that his reputation as a good, moral and spiritual person became widely spread among the churches, people would begin to speak, not only of his belonging to God more than other people, but of his “saintly” character more than ordinary Christians. In that way the term would gradually be used only of such persons who were outstanding in spirituality.

That is prob. the origin of the Roman Catholic custom of restricting the usage of the term “saints” to those notable persons like the apostles and those whom the church selected and honored officially as “saints.” The fact that most Christians still have sinful characteristics, even though they are genuine Christians, would cause the church gradually to withhold the term “saints” from ordinary Christians, and apply it only to such esp. spiritual individuals. Even the restriction of the use of the term to those whom the church hierarchy selected, can be explained by the difficulty of selecting the best individuals to whom the term “saint” could be applied. There would have to be a final authority to decide such a selection, and during the lifetime of those who knew the saint personally, it would be difficult to cover up minor defects of character. That is prob. the reason why people must be dead many years before they can even be considered by the Roman church as suitable saintly material.

According to Roman Catholic theology, individuals can store up a reservoir of merit, by good deeds and blameless lives. That reservoir of such merit becomes available to other humble Christians in answer to prayers offered to the saint. Those who feel themselves particularly in need of merit would then pray to the saint for help and merit.

The worship of the saints would easily develop from such a doctrine. If a saint could really give his or her merit to any person, would not that saint be likely to give special favor to that person if he burned candles and brought special offerings to the saint? Would he or she not be more likely to give greater favors to those who brought better offerings? Gradually prayers and petitions would be offered almost exclusively to the saint, and the honor and worship which belongs to God alone would be transferred almost exclusively to the alleged saint. Because of the danger of such a situation arising, one can readily understand why God forbade all prayers and worship to anyone, but to God Himself. All so-called aids-to-worship have that danger instrinsic in them.

Among Protestants today, the word “saints” has almost totally lost its original denotation, that is, of being set aside for the exclusive ownership and use of the Triune God. Very few people in the Christian Church today would consider themselves to be “saints,” for the word today has the derivative meaning almost universally. Unfortunately the original meaning of the word “saints” has largely fallen into disuse.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

sants: In the King James Version 3 words are thus rendered:

(1) qadhosh (in Da the same root occurs several times in its Aramaic form, qaddish);

(2) chacidh, and

(3) hagioi.

Of these words (2) has in general the meaning of righteousness or goodness, while (1) and (3) have the meaning of consecration and divine claim and ownership. They are not primarily words of character, like chacidh, but express a relation to God as being set apart for His own. Wherever qadhosh refers to angels, the rendering "holy one" or "holy ones" has been substituted in the Revised Version (British and American) for the King James Version "saint" or "saints," which is the case also in Ps 106:16 margin (compare 34:9), and in 1Sa 2:9, as the translation of chacidh.

While hagioi occurs more frequently in the New Testament than does qadhosh in the Old Testament, yet both are applied with practical uniformity to the company of God’s people rather than to any individual. Perhaps the rendering "saints" cannot be improved, but it is necessary for the ordinary reader constantly to guard against the idea that New Testament saintship was in any way a result of personal character, and consequently that it implied approval of moral attainment already made. Such a rendering as "consecrate ones," for example, would bring out more clearly the relation to God which is involved, but, besides the fact that it is not a happy translation, it might lead to other errors, for it is not easy to remember that consecration--the setting apart of the individual as one of the company whom God has in a peculiar way as His own--springs not from man, but from God Himself, and that consequently it is in no way something optional, and admits of no degrees of progress, but, on the contrary, is from the beginning absolute duty. It should also be noted that while, as has been said, to be a saint is not directly and primarily to be good but to be set apart by God as His own, yet the godly and holy character ought inevitably and immediately to result. When God consecrates and claims moral beings for Himself and His service, He demands that they should go on to be fit for and worthy of the relation in which He has placed them, and so we read of certain actions as performed "worthily of the saints" (Ro 16:2) and as such "as becometh saints" (Eph 5:3). The thought of the holy character of the "saints," which is now so common as almost completely to obscure the real thought of the New Testament writers, already lay in their thinking very close to their conception of saintship as consecration by God to be His own.