News is circulating that Jason Stellman has finally made official what many surmised — converted to Roman Catholicism. The link to his piece is now dead, which may suggest a vast right-wing Protestant conspiracy. But various bloggers — eager beavers that they are — have offered extensive comments on various quotes from Stellman’s first public statement. These in turn give a feel for some of his reasoning. (My own knowledge of Stellman’s reflections come from the anonymous ghost of Reformed orthodoxy past.)
If the quotations are accurate, Stellman offers nothing really new so far. He still thinks sola scriptura will not yield an authoritative interpretation of Scripture (which Rome seems to do). He also questions the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura.
The alleged deficiencies of Protestant soteriology deserve some comment. At one point Stellman writes:
Having realized that I was using a few select (and hermeneutically debatable) passages from Romans and Galatians as the filter through which I understood everything else the New Testament had to say about salvation, I began to conclude that such an approach was as arbitrary as it was irresponsible. I then sought to identify a paradigm, or simple statement of the gospel, that provided more explanatory value than Sola Fide did. As I hope to unpack in more detail eventually, I have come to understand the gospel in terms of the New Covenant gift of the Spirit, procured through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, who causes fruit to be borne in our lives by reproducing the image of the Son in the adopted children of the Father. If love of God and neighbor fulfills the law, and if the fruit of the Spirit is love, having been shed abroad by the Spirit in our hearts, then it seems to follow that the promise of the gospel is equivalent with the promise of the New Covenant that God’s law will no longer be external to the believer, but will be written upon his mind and heart, such that its righteous demands are fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. And again unsurprisingly, when I turned to the early Church fathers, and especially Augustine, it was this very understanding of the gospel that I encountered over and over again.
What is striking about Rome’s teaching in Stellman’s account is its consequence for how we think about sainthood. According to Protestantism, I (all about me) am a saint already here and now by virtue of faith in Christ and the imputed righteousness and holiness that come by through saving faith. This is why most Reformed creeds and catechisms teach about the communion of the saints. Believers who gather for worship, are members of the church, baptized, and participate in the Lord’s Supper are saints. This is also the language of the New Testament. Paul addresses that sad sack of believers in Corinth as saints (2 Cor 1:1), as well as the believers in Ephesus (1:1).
Roman Catholics, in contrast, reserve the language of sainthood for those Christians who have been canonized. At one (of many) Roman Catholic websites, the process by which a believer becomes a saint receives the following description:
Canonization, the process the Church uses to name a saint, has only been used since the tenth century. For hundreds of years, starting with the first martyrs of the early Church, saints were chosen by public acclaim. Though this was a more democratic way to recognize saints, some saints’ stories were distorted by legend and some never existed. Gradually, the bishops and finally the Vatican took over authority for approving saints.
In 1983, Pope John Paul II made sweeping changes in the canonization procedure. The process begins after the death of a Catholic whom people regard as holy. Often, the process starts many years after death in order give perspective on the candidate. The local bishop investigates the candidate’s life and writings for heroic virtue (or martyrdom) and orthodoxy of doctrine. Then a panel of theologians at the Vatican evaluates the candidate. After approval by the panel and cardinals of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the pope proclaims the candidate “venerable.”
The next step, beatification, requires evidence of one miracle (except in the case of martyrs). Since miracles are considered proof that the person is in heaven and can intercede for us, the miracle must take place after the candidate’s death and as a result of a specific petition to the candidate. When the pope proclaims the candidate beatified or “blessed,” the person can be venerated by a particular region or group of people with whom the person holds special importance.
Only after one more miracle will the pope canonize the saint (this includes martyrs as well). The title of saint tells us that the person lived a holy life, is in heaven, and is to be honored by the universal Church. Canonization does not “make” a person a saint; it recognizes what God has already done.
Though canonization is infallible and irrevocable, it takes a long time and a lot of effort. So while every person who is canonized is a saint, not every holy person has been canonized. You have probably known many “saints” in your life, and you are called by God to be one yourself.
To move from membership in a Protestant church into fellowship with the Bishop of Rome (i.e., the Pope), then, is to lose one’s status as a saint. In fact, the Protestant convert could likely never recover his former status, given the requirements for canonization and beatification.
This difference may not be enough to give Stellman former saint’s remorse, but it does underscore an important difference between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. We view sainthood and sanctity differently, and the basis for that difference has much to do with the sole sufficiency of Christ’s righteousness for any Christian who might claim to be a saint.
This may also be an important perspective on those old debates about the priority of justification. Sanctification, imperfect as it is in this life, is not sufficient to make one a saint, at least not according to the communion that regards justification, according to Stellman, as a life-long process of having the love of God written on the believer’s heart. But justification (of the Protestant variety) is enough for sainthood since I personally receive all of Christ’s righteousness in faith and that is the only qualification in which I could take comfort for sanctity.