The Scripture is eerily silent on a practice that is held by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Churches: praying to departed saints. How can a practice be so widespread if there was absolutely nothing to it?
Some Protestants simply accuse the churches of selling out to pagan religions and in fact taking part in idolatry. However, this sort of claim does not appear to be warranted if we go by the historical evidence. There is nothing written down by anyone, ever in the ancient church that gives the impression that praying to the dead was part of some sort of compromising of doctrine in the early church. In fact, the practice is ancient, with its first written mention by Tertullian in the early third century…far before the post-Nicene period where the Church became the state religion of Rome.
In fact, the unbiblical doctrines among Protestants such as soul sleep or “the saints are too busy enjoying heaven to pray about what is going on among the living” appear to be as popular as they are unsubstantiated. We at least have one prayer from the dead to God in the Scripture: “[T]hey cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth'” (Rev 6:10)?
So, we know for a fact that they pray about people on Earth. But, what’s the whole idea behind praying to Saint Anthony or Saint Mary, and they get something done for you? The idea is not Biblical and they are not gods, so they cannot answer prayers. However, Catholics and the others feel that if you pray to them, they will then take your petitions and pray them to God, and God will answer their prayers. In effect, it is a really-extended prayer chain.
For this reason, I think Protestants need to be careful about outright calling the practice idolatry. Doctrinally, the practice is not supposed to be idolatry. However, Protestants should be prepared to give a Biblical account as to why we do not adhere to the practice. Further, we should be aware that the practice of praying to specific saints with specific petitions is not ancient. The vast preponderance of the Church Fathers that believed in the practice only spoke of generalized prayers. As we know from Rev 6:10, we already know this to be the case and do not reject this.
Only one ancient prayer in the first 500 years of the church even remotely fits the bill of the modern practice of praying to saints as far as I know. It is the Sub Tuum Praesidium. Probably written some time in the late 4th or early 5th century according to the scholar that actually found and published it, the prayer says, “We fly to your patronage, O holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin.” Other prayers, such as St. Methodius in the Oration on Simeon and Anna among others are much more generalized with petitions such as “unceasingly keep us in remembrance” (Chapter 14). So, while prayers to the dead existed, they did not seem to attribute to the Saints superhuman powers to hear everyone’s specific prayer on Earth.
So, on a post at Shameless Popery that gave some pretty good dating advice for courting couples, this whole issue came up. I mentioned in passing that the advice the article gave to find a patron saint for one’s relationship and pray to him was “a tad superstitious.”
When three people took issue with the comment I wrote:
My apologies, I wanted to spare others here a debate on the topic. I don’t mind debating it, I just didn’t want to hijack Joe’s post as the vast majority of my reply pertained to his post (even the saint part technically.)
To very briefly rehash what I have said previously on the topic of saints:
1. Yes, the saints pray for the church. There is no evidence that they hear our prayers (the angels present our prayers to God in the Scriptures, not to saints.) So, I believe their prayers are more generalized and less situational.
2. To suppose a saint can hear the prayers of millions of people, internalize them, and then pray about them attributes to him super-human if not divine abilities. When the dead have come back in the Scripture, they do not exhibit super-human intellect or perception, which would be necessary for the whole thing to work.
…[S]eek the prayers and intervention (and chaperoning) of living saints. One of the best things for my wife and I was when a great grandmother in her church took us in on the weekends and gave us a lot of guidance. God bless her patience!
As one can see, my reply is Biblical and it actually fits the bill of the ancient practice which was not in the habit of going to saints for specific things like relationship help.
A commenter there named Al made a reply that is worthy of a meme:
Regarding points 1 and 2 above:
Know you not that the saints shall judge this world? And if the world shall be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters?
(1 Corinthians 6:2)
How are the above mentioned saints going to ‘judge the world’ if they have no intimate knowledge of it? Even the most intimate and hidden of sins of the entire population of the world?
You are about to see that when we go through the Scripture in a sensible and simple way, we can address his concern. When I do this, two other commenters took issue with my reply, butnot with its content. Apparently, I was guilty of using “private interpretation” because I disagreed with the Catholic Church. Arguing with Catholics can seem a lot like this:
I replied as follows:
“How are the above mentioned saints going to ‘judge the world’ if they have no intimate knowledge of it?”
Good question, and it requires a much more thorough answer than I will give. In short, God judges and has all the intimate knowledge, while the Saints judge along with Him in approval.
I base this upon the following:
1. Jesus Christ judges the world. “God judges” (1 Cor 5:13), and “Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead” (2 Tim 4:1).
2. The Saints will come to know of every detail on the day of judgement, because “I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment” (Matt 12:36).
3. Lastly, the details are revealed when on the day of judgment several books are opened in which contain the recording of the wicked people’s deeds: “the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds” (Rev 20:12).
So, I think your assumption is because the dead judge the world, they must be privy to even our secret thoughts right now. However, there is no Biblical merit for this inference AND the Scripture actually offers us a valid means in which the Saints know what we have been all up to all these years…all the details are divulged on the day of judgment. In fact, they are written down for all to see. So, when Christ judges, the Saints will judge along with Him in approval of His perfect judgment.
This reply resulted in my first accusation of private interpretation: “All you seem to have is your personal opinion. As for me, I have the Church, Tradition and Sacred Scripture telling me that the Saints listen to my petitions.”
I ignored this and awaited Al’s reply. Al wrote:
Saints in Heaven have knowledge of things passing on Earth, according to this saying of the Lord:
“I say to you, that even so there shall be joy in heaven upon one sinner that doth penance, more than upon ninety-nine just who need not penance.” (Luke 15:7)
For this saying to make sense, those in Heaven must have intimate knowledge of both the sins of those on Earth, as well as the virtues of the 99 “just who need not penance”. That there is MORE JOY over the repentant sinner proves that they are very aware of what is passing here on Earth. On the other hand, those ‘buried in Hell’ seem not to have this gift from God.
One other idea. Why would the ancient serpent, and his legion of demons, have knowledge, power and influence here on earth, and not the Saints of God, also? And, how can this statement from the Book of Revelation be possible, without this knowledge of the intimate and hidden prayers of those here on Earth? :
“And when he had opened the book, the four living creatures, and THE FOUR AND TWENTY ANCIENTS fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours,which are the PRAYERS OF THE SAINTS.” Apocalypse (Revelation) 5:8
Pertaining to Luke 15:7, it is in reference to angels, not departed saints:
“In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).
Pertaining to Rev 5:8, this I believe is a reference to the angels, not departed saints. Tobit 12:15 states, “I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels, which present the prayers of the saints, and which go in and out before the glory of the Holy One.” Further, Rev 8:4 speaks specifically of an angel presenting prayers to God. I do not think it is wise to infer purely upon speculation that the 24 elders are departed saints, or that they were specifically the ones presenting the prayers (instead of just the angels doing so), when it is explicit in Tobit that the angels present prayers.
The quote I cited (15:7) indicated only “Heaven”…but still Jesus does refer to Heaven as though He means ‘those who are in Heaven’. That Moses and Elias appeared to Jesus is strong evidence that Saints indeed can appear to and communicate with humans here below…
Regarding the ‘four and twenty ancients’ in Revelations, they clearly refer to humans, because angels do not have age as humans do on Earth. Not do angels have ‘crowns’ in Sacred Scripture….
And then as another witness that the resurrected dead can communicate with others here on Earth we have the proof from the Gospel of Matthew 27:52-3: …the graves were opened: and many bodies of the saints that had slept arose…AND APPEARED TO MANY. ”
…And then, does it say anywhere in the Gospel that the same power [of appearance] was later taken away from them?
So we have:
1. Moses and Elias appearing to Jesus before the Resurrection on the Mount of the Transfiguration.
2. Bodies of saints that slept ‘rose’ from their ‘sleep’ and communicated to other saints AFTER the resurrection.
3. Four and twenty ancients/elders (human saints)…
Sounds like pretty conclusive evidence to me.
My point is that you are drawing an inference that “those in heaven” by necessity includes people. Your logic is “heaven has people, so those is heaven includes people.”
I’m not saying this is completely irrational, but a few verses later the Bible explicitly describes who in heaven is rejoicing. Interpretatively it is unwise to go with an inference over an explicit reference, especially when proof texting.
Pertaining to the post death appearances of saints, sure they can appear if it’s God’s will, no one debates that. The question is that they are privy to what is going on in the heart of every man throughout the earth for all of history in which to judge them in the sense you speculate is possible. There is simply no Biblical evidence of this. However, the Scripture has a perfectly reasonable way in which the Saints judge the world without superhuman abilities in the perception department…when every idle word is read out of the book during the final judgment they hear and they condemn those who have been condemned by God.
Concerning the 24 elders in Revelation, when judging who presents the prayers you are making to presumptions which we don’t have solid proof of:
1. The Elders are specifically people, and not angelic (as Victorinus speculates) or metaphors.
2. That the explicit references of angels having a connection with prayer in 1 Cor 11, Tob 12:15, Rev 5:8, Rev 8:4 are not sufficient to say that angels are simply presenting prayers.
It appears to me you are taking the less likely, more convoluted interpretation. It may be correct, but I do not think this is a good way to interpret Scripture. We should be looking for the easiest, most consistent and self-apparent explanations.
“Sounds like pretty conclusive evidence to me.”
I hope you understand, because of the preceding that it is not conclusive. You invoked non sequiturs concerning the dead communicating with the living, but that is not relevant to the conversation. Then, you took the more convoluted explanation of Rev 5:8 by the drawing of inferences when Tob 12:15, 1 Cor 11, and Rev 8:4 are explicit that it is angels that present the prayers.
I hope that my response has been thoughtful and at least helps give your greater respect for the Protestant position.
Finally, I was accused of private interpretation again: “Having read much of what you’ve said, you follow your own interpretations of text rather than those of explicit authority.”
[A]s far as I know Bishops were not taking the Scriptures Al did and interpreting them as Al did. Al made the positive point that the Saints are aware of the private thoughts of everyone on earth, then HE cited Scriptures that came to his own mind. So, the burden is ON HIM, not on the Pope, a Church Father, or on me.
What’s the point of this long article? None of us can understand the Scripture, or worship rightly and truthfully apart from the grace of God. For this reason, it is very important to avoid private interpretation. However, as we can see in the replies, Catholics in their apologetics employ private interpretation in order to argue that extra-Biblical doctrines are in fact Biblical. This, is clearly dishonest and we can see that this is the case as when they are shown that their hermeneutics are convoluted and inaccurate, they then accuse me of doing precisely what they were doing themselves!
Ultimately, we are by faith accepting an authority that is not ourselves. Us Protestants accept the Bible alone with the responsibility of showing that our Biblical interpretations are from the Scripture and not contradictory. The Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox) has to prove that not only the Bible is not contradictory, but that their extra-Biblical doctrines do not contradict one another, or Scripture. Obviously, if the Bible contradicts itself, its inerrancy is questionable. Likewise, if Catholic Tradition contradicts Scripture, its inerrancy is immediately put into question.
It almost appears to me that Catholics are bordering on employing what Aqunias fought so hard to disprove: the double truth theory. You cannot have two, different and contradicting truths but at the same time have them be true.
Catholic apologetists must keep this in mind when debating any issue. Just because they have a Pope, it does not mean we take logic, history, Scripture, and our brains and throw them out the window.