What is a Saint?
by James Akin
Q: What is a saint?
A: The meaning of the terms for “saint” in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin is “holy one.” Thus the most basic meaning of “saint” is someone who is in some way holy, sanctified, or consecrated.
Q: That covers a lot of ground doesn’t it?
A: Yes it does, as does the range of the term “saint” in the Bible-a fact which is normally obscured in English translations and which we shall discuss below.
Q: What are some examples of how the term “saint” is used in Scripture?
A: In Scripture the term “saint” is used in the following ways:
- to refer (indiscriminately) to Jews
- to refer (indiscriminately) to Christians
- to refer to notably holy people
- to refer to those in heaven
- to refer to holy angels
- to refer to Jesus
- to refer to God
It thus has a very broad range of meaning. Often this makes it difficult to catch the precise nuance with which it is being used in a given passage, but the above usages can be positively verified in given passages.
Q: When is it used to refer “indiscrminately” to Jews, and what do you mean by that?
A: By referring to Jews “indiscriminately” I mean that it is referring to any member of the Jewish people — any Jew — as a saint, irrespective of whether or not that Jew behaves in a holy manner. In other words, it is used as a title accorded to the person on account of his membership in God’s holy people, irrespective of whether he himself is holy in his conduct.
There are many references of this sort in the Old Testament, where the Jews are contrasted as saints to their pagan neighbors, but a good New Testament example is in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
- “[R]emember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:12, 19).
Q: When is it used to refer “indiscriminately” to Christians?
A: There are many places in the New Testament where the term is used to refer to Christians “indiscriminately” — that is, without reference to whether they are personally holy as individuals, but by virtue of membership in God’s holy people.
This is most obvious in the addresses of Paul’s letters, where he applies the term to entire congregations of people, from the least holy member of the congregation to the most holy member. (That there were some whose holiness was deficient is indicated above all in the Corinthian church, to whom he also applies the term.)
- “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother. To the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia” (2 Cor. 1:1).
- “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are also faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:1).
- “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (Phil. 1:1).
- “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father” (Col. 1:1-2).
Q: When is it used to refer to notably holy people?
A: One place where we can verify this usage is in Matthew’s account of the Crucifixion:
- “[T]he tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matt. 27:52-53).
In this passage, Matthew is not concerned to stress the ethnic identity of the people being raised to life — we can infer that they were Jews since they were buried in the vicinity of Jerusalem. And since they had died before Christ, they were not of the Christian age and hence were not Christians (in the proper sense, anyway).
As a result, the sanctity to which Matthew wishes to call our attention must not be their membership in God’s holy people, but must be a personal holiness.
This means that, even within a people the Bible describes as “saints,” some individuals deserve the title “saint” more than others and have it applied to them in distinction from others in the same group.
Even though, in one sense, all Jews were saints in the sense that they were all members of God’s holy people, some Jews were (and some were not) saints in the sense of being holy individuals in their behavior. In the same way, even though, in one sense, all Christians are saints in the sense that they are all members of God’s holy people, some Christians are (and some are not) saints in the sense of being holy individuals in their behavior.
This validates the modern usage of referring to a specially holy person and saying “So-and-so is a real saint.”
Q: When is it used to refer to holy angels?
A: There are a number of passages in the Old Testament where the inhabitants of heaven are referred to as saints, and since saved humans were not yet in heaven, this means that they must have been angels. However, this is even more clear in the book of Daniel:
- “I saw in the visions of my head as I lay in bed, and behold, a watcher, a holy one, came down from heaven” (Dan. 4:13).
- “The sentence is by the decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men, and gives it to whom he will, and sets over it the lowliest of men” (Dan. 4:17).
- “And whereas the king saw a watcher, a holy one, coming down from heaven and saying, ‘Hew down the tree and destroy it, but leave the stump of its roots in the earth, bound with a band of iron and bronze, in the tender grass of the field; and let him be wet with the dew of heaven; and let his lot be with the beasts of the field, till seven times pass over him'” (Dan. 4:23).
Q: In the passages you just cited, the term “holy one” is used instead of “saint.” Why do you include these as examples of how the term “saint” is used?
A: Because it is the same term in the original Hebrew or Greek but which is being translated in two different ways in English. In Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and virtually every language except English, there is a single term that gets represented in English as both “saint” and “holy one.” When the Hebrew or Greek terms for “saint” appear in the Bible, sometimes the translators render it one way, sometimes the other.
Q: So is that why Catholics refer to “St. Michael the Archangel,” “St. Gabriel,” and so forth?
A: Yes. This biblical usage of referring to angels as saints is the reason. Angels, as God’s holy ones, are part of the number of the saints.
Q: When is the term “saint” used to refer to Jesus?
A: Whenever he is referred to as “the Holy One of God.”
- “[A]nd he [the demoniac] cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God‘” (Mark 1:24).
- “Ah! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Luke 4:34).
- “Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God‘” (John 6:67-69).
Q: When is it used to refer to God?
A: Whenever God is referred to as “the Holy One of Israel.”
- “I will also praise thee with the harp for thy faithfulness, O my God; I will sing praises to thee with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel” (Ps. 71:22).
- “They tested him again and again, and provoked the Holy One of Israel” (Ps. 78:41).
- “For our shield belongs to the LORD, our king to the Holy One of Israel” (Ps. 89:18).
- “Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, sons who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the LORD, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged” (Is. 1:4).
- “Summon archers against Babylon, all those who bend the bow. Encamp round about her; let no one escape. Requite her according to her deeds, do to her according to all that she has done; for she has proudly defied the LORD, the Holy One of Israel” (Jer. 50:29).
Q: Since “saint” and “holy one” are the same term and concept in the biblical languages, why do English translations of the Bible sometimes render the term one way and sometimes the other?
A: Partly because English has an unusually rich vocabulary, meaning there are more options to choose from when you are translating a word. This is due to the unique history of the English language.
In 1066 the Germanic-language speaking inhabitants of England were invaded (and then conquered) by the Romance-language speaking inhabitants of France (Normandy, to be precise). The result of this was that the ordinary people continued to speak Middle English, while the royal court spoke Middle French. Over time, the two vocabularies mixed, and so contemporary English has a vocabulary composed of both terms based on German language stock (such “holy,” “holy one,” and “holiness”) and a parallel set of terms for the same concepts, only based on Latin language stock (respectively, “sacred,” “saint,” and “sanctity”).
Thus English translators of the Bible have the option of picking from two terms “saint” and “holy one” to represent the same term in Hebrew or Greek. In other languages, which do not share the double-vocabulary feature of English, there is only one term, and so it gets rendered consistently, making the full range of the term obvious to readers of the Bible in those languages.
|Germanic-derived||holy||holy one||holiness||making holy|
Q: Is there a pattern to how Bible translators use “saint” and “holy one”?
A: Yes. Traditionally, English translators tend to used “saint” rather than “holy one” in the New Testament and the Psalms and “holy one” rather than “saint” in the Old Testament and when referring to angels, Jesus, or God.
Q: How far back does that tradition go?
A: At least to the main English Protestant Bible, the King James Version (KJV), which was first published in A.D. 1611.
Q: Do you have any numbers documenting the pattern?
A: Yes. There are 36 occurrences of the word “saint” (or “saints”) in the KJV Old Testament, compared to 62 occurrences of it in the New Testament. Of those in the Old Testament, 21 of them occur in the book of Psalms, which was sung by the congregation in Church of England services. This is significant because congregations would sing the Psalms in reference to themselves, identifying with the people spoken of in the Psalms and making these prayers their own, applying these passages to themselves directly, as with the New Testament (the rest of the Old Testament being “Old Covenant” and thus only indirectly applicable to New Testament believers).
That means that, when the modern Christians were expected to directly apply a passage of Scripture to themselves-either in the New Testament, because it governs the Christian age, or in the Psalms, because Christians prayed these in church-the overwhelming preference was for the term “saint,” with a total of 83 occurrences (the New Testament plus Psalms), compared to only 15 when the audience was not expected to directly apply the Scripture to themselves (the rest of the Old Testament).
The mirror image of this occurred with the term “holy one” (or “holy ones”). This occurred 46 times in the KJV Old Testament compared to only six in the New Testament. Of the Old Testament occurrences, only six were in the book of Psalms, and every one of those was a reference to God or the Messiah, except for one reference to David. Of the six occurrences in the New Testament, five were references to Jesus and one was a reference to God.
The term “holy one” was thus never used when the audience was expected to apply it directly to themselves; “saint” was always used instead.
The rule was thus: If the audience is expected to apply the passage to themselves, use “saint,” otherwise use “holy one,” and if it is a reference to God or Christ be especially sure to always use “Holy One” instead of “Saint.”
Q: Do modern Protestant Bibles also follow this tradition?
A: Yes. This tradition is still present in modern Protestant Bible versions. The Revised Standard Version and the New International Version have very similar term counts.
Q: Why does this tradition exist?
A: The obvious explanation is that it a result of the controversies over the term “saint” following the advent of Protestantism. The tendency displayed in the above rule is to eliminate talk of saints in Scripture except in connection with living Christians, and to insist upon it there. It is thus a deliberate manipulation of the translation of the biblical texts in order to take a slap at the Catholic view of and language concerning saints.
Q: What is the Catholic usage that was being attacked by the translators of Protestant Bibles?
A: The custom of referring to people in heaven as saints, in contrast to people on earth.
Q: In this usage was it implied that nobody on earth was a saint?
A: Not at all. The Church has always acknowledge the Bible passages we looked at above in which people are referred to as saints. The usage of referring to people in heaven as saints does not imply that people living are saints. It simply calls attention to the fact that those in heaven are saints in a special sense of their own.
Q: What sense is that?
A: Because nothing unclean ever enters the heavenly city (Rev. 21:27) and because God cannot bear to look on anything sinful, those in heaven will not be sinful, even in the slightest. This means that their process of sanctification will be complete. Between death and glory comes the final rush of sanctification.
But sanctification is saintification. It is the same concept, just a different spelling. Sanctification is the process of being made holy, the process of becoming sanctified or saintified. It is the same thing, just spelled differently. To be sanctified is to be made a saint, and to be progressively sanctified is to be progressively made a saint. Those who have had their sanctification completed are thus those who have had their saintification completed. They have been made saints in the fullest sense since they have been made holy (sainted) in every possible way.
Those who are in heaven thus have a special sense in which they are saints-they are saints in the fullest sense. Everyone who is in any sense holy is a saint in one sense, but since those in heaven have been fully sanctified, they have the greatest claim to this title.
Q: Does the Bible refer to those in heaven as saints?
A: If we set aside the angels of heaven, one place where we can document it referring to humans in heaven as “saints” is the book of Revelation:
- “The nations raged, but thy wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, for rewarding thy servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear thy name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth” (Rev. 11:18).
- “Rejoice over her, O heaven, O saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!” (Rev. 18:20).
The question is whether in these passages the term “saint” is being used for those in heaven in contrast to those on earth. While this is possible, it is not at all certain and a good counter-argument can be made.
Q: If these passages are not contrasting those in heaven as opposed to on earth as saints, does that mean we cannot use the term “saint” for those who have had their sanctification completed?
A: Of course not. It is some kind of linguistic legalism to suggest that words can only be used the senses which we can prove Scripture is using them.
First, the Biblical languages are real, human languages, and Scripture does not exhaust their flexibility. Terms that appear in the languages of the Bible had all kinds of senses which in which they were not used in Scripture. They were picked and used in Scripture because they had certain denotations and connotations that the biblical authors wanted, but once used in Scripture, this did not prevent them from still being used in their other senses.
It would have been absurd to go to a first century Greek-speaker and say, “Ah ha! I know that in regular Greek the term you just used can mean either A or B, but since Paul used it in sense A, you can no longer use it in sense B, even though it has that meaning in regular Greek and it is logical to use it in that way!” That would be ridiculous.
Paul was in no way attempting to prevent one from using terms in one sense when he used them in another. He was not conducting some slash and burn campaign through the Greek language, destroying senses in which everyone was using terms or might use terms and prohibiting Christians from using words in any way other than those he wrote in his epistles. He himself, in his ordinary, everyday speech, used terms in different senses than those recorded in his epistles. So long as one would be using a term in a logical sense, Paul wouldn’t have a problem with it. So as long as those in heaven are saints in a special sense, Paul would have no problem with us calling them saints in that special sense.
In fact, he specifically warns people against getting into quarrels over words (1 Timothy 6:4, 2 Timothy 2:14).
Furthermore, the fact is that human language is flexible and grows over time. If it didn’t, there would be no need to update Bible translations, and for that matter there would be no modern languages into which to translate the Bible.
English as we now understand it is less than 1,000 years old (an average speaker of contemporary English could not understand Old English-the language in which Beowulf was written just before the turn of the last millennium; neither could he have any grasp of the Middle English in which the Canterbury Tales were written after then turn of the millennium; and he has trouble with the language of the King James Bible and Shakespeare, both of which are classified by linguists as Modern English), and English didn’t exist at all in the time when the Bible was being written.
One can scarcely clamp down on terms, fossilize the language, and say that no term may ever be used in a new sense after the canon of Scripture was closed.
And finally, if we were going to get into a fight over using terms in ways other than how they were used in the Bible, anti-Catholics are going to be the first ones with problems, as standard Protestant language has completely mutilated the senses of numerous biblical terms and modes of expression (see, for example, my pieces “Resisting and Cooperating with God,“ “Temporal and Eternal Salvation,” and “Faith versus Works: Philosophy versus Exegesis” for examples).
In any event, since it is logical that the term “saint” be applied in a special sense to those who have had their saintification completed, one cannot object to this use of the term even if it cannot be shown to be used in Scripture. The Bible clearly applies the term “saint” to those who are holy members of God’s people as opposed to those who are unholy members (see above), and thus there can be no objection to using it in a special way for those who are the most holy of all-those who are totally holy.