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Protestantism’s Missing Saints

Devin Rose

As the Church rejoices at the canonization of Pope St. John XXIII and Pope St. John Paul II, we’re pleased to offer this sample from Devin Rose’s best-selling book, The Protestant’s Dilemma.

If Protestantism is true,

Most of Christianity’s saints believed in a corrupted gospel.

When I was a Protestant, I once referred to the saints as members of “the Catholic Hall of Fame.” But in reading about their lives, I also wanted them on my team. They were heroic in their witnessing to the Faith, even to the point of torture and grisly execution. They clearly loved Jesus and were given grace to be courageous and eloquent, following the example of St. Stephen[i] and many other faithful men and women from the Apostolic Age. Yet, to my dismay, when I delved into the writings of these great Christians, I found them to have unabashedly Romish tendencies, leading me to conclude that they cannot be looked up to as true saints, no matter how holy they may have appeared.

 A Saintly Paradox

When I first started reading the lives of the saints, I felt cheated: “Why haven’t I been told about all these amazingly faithful people?” Their books didn’t show up anywhere in the Christian bookstores I went to, nor very often in the secular bookstores. I had read most of the Left Behind series but nothing by Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Athanasius, or Francis de Sales. Something was wrong with that.

If I were drafting baseball players as a Protestant Christian, I would want St. Augustine on my team for his great love of Scripture, the honesty of his Confessions, his Protestant-friendly ideas on justification and predestination, and his philosophical wisdom. He was a monumental influence on Western Christianity and in particular on the theology of John Calvin and Martin Luther. By all accounts, he’s batting cleanup for me.

But then St. Augustine has to go and say things like this:

The succession of priests keeps me [in the Church], beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep, down to the present episcopate. And so, lastly, does the name itself of Catholic, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house. Such then in number and importance are the precious ties belonging to the Christian name which keep a believer in the Catholic Church, as it is right they should.[ii]

If he had stopped there, all might have been well. We can all go astray on one or two doctrines. But St. Augustine also erred on the canon of Scripture, wrongly including the seven Catholic deuterocanonical books as inspired; he erred on baptismal regeneration, purgatory, and on his acceptance of the Church’s Tradition as an authority alongside the Bible. The coup de grace was the unavoidable fact that he was a bishop of the Church in the fourth and fifth centuries, with all the trappings that go along with that: the Mass, hearing confessions, baptizing babies, ordaining priests, and so on.

I knew Augustine could not be on my team. Neither could St. Athanasius, St. Cyprian, St. Thomas Aquinas, or St. Francis. They all believed in papist rubbish—in the awful corruptions and accretions that the Catholic Church had added over the centuries, which a true saint would have been able to see through.

I also knew that the Catholic usage of the word “saint” differs from what is found in the Bible. In Scripture, saints are not those Christians who have died and gone to Christ but the members of the Church still living their earthly lives. So as a Protestant, I felt good about calling myself and my Christian friends “saints,” and I may have even mentally canonized my faithful grandmother, but I was loath to apply that title in a way that the Bible did not explicitly set a precedent for.

Because Catholicism is true, 

Catholic saints had heroic faith in Jesus Christ and lived that faith in spirit and in truth.

Those whom the Church calls saints were men and women who loved God and who accepted his love in a way that penetrated every part of them. As a questioning Protestant, I longed to love God as they did. They were the very best that Christians could be, the fulfillment of Christ’s commands to love God and one another with all our hearts. They were merciful, courageous, brilliant, humble, holy. And they were as Catholic as the pope! They believed in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, the power of confession and the other sacraments, and the authority of the Church.

As a Protestant, I failed to realize that Catholic saints were impressive not in spite of their belief in a false religion but because they believed in a true one. In fact, if we let Catholicism be true, the behavior and lives of the saints fit perfectly. They received the Holy Spirit and his gifts and power. They bore his fruits. They were strengthened against sin by reception of the Eucharist. They remained in constant friendship with God through the sacrament of Confession. They were given graces to fulfill their vocational calls in marriage, religious life, and the priesthood. They guarded and preached the fullness of Christian truth that God entrusted to the Church. They took that gospel to the ends of the earth, and Christ blessed their efforts by making those seeds take root and grow in the hearts of men from every nation. Often they watered the ground of these evangelized nations with their own blood.

In Scripture, passages from Revelation and Hebrews suggest close kinship between the saints (Christians) on earth and those in heaven offering up their prayers to God.[iii] In its doctrine of the communion of saints,[iv] the Catholic Church underscores the connection that all Christians share in being joined as one body in Christ—whether here on earth or in heaven. So the term “saint” applies validly to all Christians, whether alive or dead, who live in God’s love and friendship.

The Protestant’s Dilemma

If Protestantism is true, then all of the saints from the fourth century to the sixteenth believed in an adulterated gospel taught by a heretical Church. Though they may have loved God, they did so while promulgating erroneous—perhaps even evil—teachings on important matters of faith. So, although some of their piety and actions are to be commended, they cannot be looked to as Christian models to be admired and imitated. If they had only followed the Bible, they could have corrected the errors of the Church, as the later Reformers did. But sadly, for over a thousand years we have a vacuum of true Christian witness, with all the most devout and brilliant men and women hopelessly tangled up with a false gospel.

[i] Acts 7

[ii] Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus, 4

[iii] Rev. 5:8, Heb. 12:1

[iv] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2683

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