TUTELARY DEITIES AND SAINTS

Properly speaking, Orthodox Christians do not hold to a Roman Catholic doctrine of "merits" of the saints, either those (still living here, and there) or those departed (living there, and here). Not a fund of accumulated "merits" need be present in the intercessory prayers of the saints, but the "power" that may result from living pleasingly "close to God". Prayerful saints have come to "know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, having become like Him in His death" (Philippians 3:10). Their prayers ultimately can be nothing less than a participation in the intercessory prayers of the Lord, the Spirit, our One and Only Mediator through Whom alone we all have direct access to the Father (Romans 8:26; I Timothy 2:1-6; Hebrews 9:24).

We need neither doubt nor worry (too much) that a "pantheon" of intercessory saints was permitted by the early Church to replace the multitude of angels, daemons, gods, and goddesses of the pre-"Judeo- Christian" religions. Certainly the Bible does not deny the reality and importance (for a time) of these denizens of the "imaginal" world (Galatians 3:19-4:11). Nowhere does the Bible deny the "relative validity" of the angel at the pool of Bethesda, quite likely the healer- god, Asclepius, or the equivalent, in the pagan shrine which Jesus entered, thereby breaking a Hebrew taboo. [Imagine!--not the usual "tutelary deity', but the Great Physician , Himself, manifests in this ancient therapeutic centre and performs a miracle! See Jerzy Klinger, Bethesda and the University of the Logos, St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 27(3):169-185(1983).]

Here, Jesus assimilates or assumes healing functions previously attributed to a lesser, intermediary deity. A most excellent study of this monotheistic tendency of the Judeo-Christian tradition to marginalize the functions of all the intermediaries, gods and goddesses, etc., et al., by assuming them to the activity of the One God is Tikva Frymer-Kensky, In the Wake of the Goddesses *Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth* (The Free Press [Macmillan], 1992 / Fawcett Columbine [Ballantine Books], 1993). The ancient Goddess religions were simply subsets of the ancient, extra- Biblical, patriarchal religions, and in Hebrew religion, the functions of the pantheons came to be taken up into the powers of God, with many functions of the goddesses becoming assimilated to the human powers of (wo)mankind in relationship with God. There is a truly Biblical sense in which we human beings ARE the pantheon (John 10:34-36)! Therefore, the intermediaries must be marginalized and stripped of any semblance of absolute power (Colossians 2:15-23; Hebrews 1, 2).

This being the case, we can now understand more clearly how the Early Church could so seemingly laxly allow the ancient horde of daemons, gods, and goddesses, fauns, sprites, and satyrs, and what have you to be diverted into a seemingly so similar pantheon of saintly intercessors. Here, the human quality of the rudiments and elements, the principalities and powers, was being made more and more apparent, and these saints were not ends in themselves (absolutes, mini-deities in their own right), for, properly speaking, they were Christologically defined, as in the case of the Theotokos magnifying her Son and Lord, to whom the attention of the people was first diverted from Diana in a formal way at Ephesus. Mind you, there was always, one might say, a calculated ambiguity in using intermediary "transitional forms" in this ecumenical, missionary way, reaching out to people emerging from idolatry with forms ALMOST seemingly idolatrous at times, yet at best certainly drawing back into a very thoroughly Christological framework.

Sadly to say, the Protestant Reformation may never have really grasped the meaning of this missionary method by which the Early Church sometimes attempted (not always consistently) to partially fuse or "mesh" the Orthodox paradigm with pre-"Judeo-Christian" paradigms, not for accommodation nor for syncretism but for the communication of the Gospel. Nevertheless, some major deficits and excesses in the pre-Reformation, Western Church were exposed, and for this we must be eternally grateful, even though Protestant polemics must be constantly critically tested. For a better, more scholarly understanding of missionary meshing with magic than the Reformers were wont to present, for example, see Valerie I.J. Flint, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe (Princeton University Press, 1991).

If there has been a shift in the way that the invocation of the saints is justified, this may simply be the product of a more mature recognition of what the Bible (and perhaps even the Church) has been attempting to communicate all along. In order to reach the largest audience, why not let interpretations continue to shift along a sliding scale from the sub-"Judeo-Christian" and the near-idolatrous to the Gospel Truth? Why not accept that the Theotokos and the other saints are quite willing to adapt themselves to almost any of the levels of understanding at which they are invoked? Would it be a high level or a low level of understanding that would consider the saints and their invocation to be superfluous? Or both, or neither?

Can "transitional forms" be Biblically justified? It seems to me that they do have their relative validity as *artifacts of cross- cultural communication* working from within to transfer affections from the old ways to the New Way. To some degree, they may reflect mythologizing modes of consciousness as fictions containing genuine moments of truth. Some of these forms, such as the old Angelomorphic Christology, or the presentation of the Gospel in the language of the sun, moon, and stars, have almost completely vanished from the memory of the Christian community. Others, such as Latin, or Old Church Slavonic still retain varying degrees of support. They are not to be derived from the Bible in the manner of "Special Revelation" and, when pushed too hard, take on the character of that which they are attempting to leave behind, i.e., of a "natural religion". Let them simply remain *options* --adiaphora-- suited to tastes and to cultural situations. They have become "dead languages" for many Reformed Christians.

To get an Early Church "feel" for the saints please be sure to read Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (The University of Chicago Press, 1981). Note that St. Augustine had a place for the saints as intermediaries (pp.60-61), and that "the late fourth-century cult of the saints as practiced in North Africa and elsewhere provided Augustine with the solid ground course on which he raised his dizzying doctrine of predestination" (p.71).

1994, 2005

See VIRTUTES DEI / ANGELS.

See PARALLELS TO THE BYZANTINE-HESYCHAST, DIVINE ESSENCE/ENERGIES DISTINCTION.

mmm

  • Index