Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The saints: Friends or patrons?

There is a lot in Elizabeth Johnson's Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading Of The Communion Of Saints. It touches on several aspects of eschatology in addition to its discussion of the communion of saints. For now, though, I want to focus on her essential distinction between the patronage model and the companionship model of the communion of saints.

By the fifth century, the Christian church had begun to adopt the Roman system of patronage as a way to understand the communion of saints. In this understanding the martyrs and saints were seen as patrons, that is, someone with special influence (because of the holiness of their life and/or their martyr's death) who could intercede with God on behalf of their client/petitioner. Over time - and for a variety of reasons - the saints became understanding and effective patrons who interceded with a remote, even judgmental, Christ. The saints were pictured as courtiers in a hierarchy of importance, headed by Mary, gathered around the throne of Christ. Each was thought to have their own sphere of influence ("patron saints"). Mutuality was obscured or even eliminated. There were the saints and there were the commoners on earth, appealing to their betters for a favor.

The Reformation criticized this model, particularly as it manifested itself in the invocation of saints. They claimed that it obscured Christ's role as mediator and, worse, "it distorts faith, turning the 'kindly Mediator' into a 'dreaded Judge'". Furthermore, they said, there is not scriptural warrant for it and no promise that the saints can hear the prayers. The conservative, Lutheran Reformation retained the practice of remembering and honoring (though not invoking) the saints for three purposes:

  • to thank God for them
  • to allow our faith to be strengthened by theirs
  • to imitate them
Vatican II, according to Johnson, brought reform to the doctrine of the communion of saints that was very much in line with the Reformation criticisms. Broadly speaking (see the book for all the details), it moved toward a companionship model for the communion of saints. It recognized that the saints were fellow travellers - paradigmatic, of course, but part of the whole people of God. Ordinary folks in their pursuit of sanctity in everyday life were part of this same fellowship called to holiness. The system became more Christ-centered.

The companionship model is what we see in the New Testament and, according to Johnson, was the dominant metaphor for the communion of saints before the patronage model took hold. The phrase "cloud of witnesses" in Hebrews is the classic statement of the companionship model.

Johnson says that there is room in the companionship model for invocation, though she stresses that even in Catholic theology this has never been required of laypeople. Her concern, however, is to encourage those practices amenable to a companionship model of the saints. We should remember the saints and imitate them. We should thank God for them. We should lament their sufferings, which in some cases will inspire us to work for justice in our world.

Johnson did not mount a defense (or even much of a discussion) of the practice of invocation. In fact, she de-emphasizes it. As I was reading I also began wondering about Eastern Orthodox practice. I know they invoke the saints but I do not know whether they adopted the patronage model or if they work from completely different principles. Neither Peter Brown nor Elizabeth Johnson address this.

Apart from the issue of invocation, though, this is an excellent book. For those who might be concerned with the feminist aspect, there is no need to worry. She does criticize the traditional, patronage model for, among other things, its patriarchalism. I believe many of her criticisms are valid. Even if I did not, however, the critical aspects are not dominant. It is a remarkably helpful book.

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About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.