Today is All Saints’ Day; it is a day to celebrate all of the saints, both known and unknown. The Tradition of All Saints’ Day started in the western church in the sixth century and became a canonized holiday in the early seventh century. For the Catholic Church it was a way to venerate all of the saints in one day. In that tradition, the saints carry an important role within the church. A Saint, something which is bestowed upon a person after their human death, proved throughout their life to possess a special connection to God. To some Catholics, the Saint even becomes a mediator between God and their needs. For example, there is St. Jude who is the saint of “The Saint for the Hopeless and the Despaired,” which is used as the name for one of the largest children’s hospitals in the country.
Heinrich Bullinger, the successor to Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich and one of the key theologians of the protestant reformation, drafted a theological treatise that would come to be known as the Second Helvetic Confession, one of the confessions found in our Book of Confessions. While the second Helvetic Confession is not something that was followed in the same vein as the Westminster confession or Heidelberg Catechism, the Second Helvetic is like a Cliff Notes version of Calvin’s institutes and teaches us about where and what was going on in the early protestant movement and why the changes were felt so necessary.
One big issue that the Protestants had with the Roman Catholic Church was the comingling of the sacred and the divine. This comingling of the sacred and divine often elevated individuals to a super-human status and often brought people to think of the saints as Gods. It is interesting to see how Bullinger:
THE FESTIVALS OF CHRIST AND THE SAINTS. Moreover, if in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly. But we do not approve of feasts instituted for men and for saints. Holy days have to do with the first Table of the Law and belong to God alone. Finally, holy days which have been instituted for the saints and which we have abolished, have much that is absurd and useless, and are not to be tolerated. In the meantime, we confess that the remembrance of saints, at a suitable time and place, is to be profitably commended to the people in sermons, and the holy examples of the saints set forth to be imitated by all. 5.226
The distinction that underlies this is that when we see good people it is right and good to take note and follow their example. But we have to do so in a way that does not elevate them to a godlike status. This is why as Protestants we still observe All Saints’ Day as a day of remembrance for those who have come before us. Often in All Saints’ services we remember and witness to those among us who have passed, witnessing to the gifts and understandings that they brought and thanking God that he gave them to us.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen