The term hagioi (saints), used some 60 times in the NT, always occurs in the plural sense.
Gradually, the term came to apply to men and women of singular holiness – invariably, they were martyrs. By the time of Origen, a definite cult of martyrs had developed.
Prayer to such special witnesses foreshadowed in some of the intertestamental Jewish apocryphal writings. The mediatorial power of Christian saints were enhanced in people’s minds during periods of intense persecution.
Gradually, a need expressed in the Western church was for formalization of the process of defining ‘saints’. Most of the major Protestant denominations issuing from that period of European history have retained some saints’ days as part of their liturgical calendars.
A high view of biblical inspiration is, clearly, non-negotiable. Such might be exemplified by the strange event that occurred at the tomb of the prophet Elisha. Once, when some Israelites were burying a man near that spot, their funeral service, interrupted by Moabite raiders, caused them to hurriedly deposited the corpse in the nearby tomb of Elisha. When the dead Israelite body touched the bones of Elisha, he came to life and stood up on his feet. A residual holiness in the bones of the prophet contained the power to restore a corpse to life.
Equivalent NT incidents are found in the record of the Acts of the Apostles. God used the apostle Paul to touch others in an extraordinary way. The sick had sweatbands and aprons touched the apostle place on them. By the use of those items of clothing, evil spirits exorcised and illnesses cured.
There are biblical grounds for acknowledging that the word ‘saints’ includes some people of God associated with special manifestations of power. Recognition of those biblical grounds perhaps falls near the fringes of most Reformed theology while remaining more central – theologically – for the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
Experience of Orthodox and Catholic Christians living as minorities in Islamic nations – that saints and martyrs play a role in their spiritual heritage makes their faith more accessible to their Muslim neighbours. In Cairo, a saint seen as approachable by Muslims as well as Christians is St. Therese d’Avila. There are many from each religious community who feel she has helped transform their lives.
Closely associated with the helpful work of powerful saints is appreciation of appearances on a large-scale of the Virgin Mary. One cannot help but wonder what might have been the effect if the appearances had been of Jesus, rather than Mary.
These paragraphs about saints and appearances may seem strange to some readers. Their purpose is neither to promote nor to condemn ways in which other Christian believers see the ‘communion of saints’ affecting the world of the senses. Nor is it to attempt any theory of identification – whether the ‘saints’ or ‘light-visions’ involved might be other than what they seem.
One can state categorically that the calling up of the departed human souls by mediums is absolutely forbidden in the Bible. The apostle Paul, in his defense of the resurrection, comments in passing on the Corinthian practice of baptizing living believers on behalf of dead believers. He neither condemns nor even questions the practice in itself. He simply argues its futility if there is, after all, no resurrection of the dead.
Identification of ‘being’ seems to have been a constant problem for those limited by the human senses. In the biblical record, identification of being is not necessarily as clear-cut as Western, rationalistic minds would like to make out.
Perhaps an awareness of the cult of saint veneration among Muslims can provoke those of us who are Protestant and Western to reconsider our rather academic understanding of the ‘communion of saints’. Is there room within a high view of the Bible to re-evaluate the possibilities of such fellowship to include a more tangible involvement of the ‘saints’ with needy human beings of the Muslim world?
At the same time, recognized that much of the shrine visiting undertaken by ordinary Muslims happens as part of trying to manipulate the saints concerned. A missionary was left asking the question – was the baraka of the Muslim saint a blessing or a curse?