Nothing makes Protestants balk more at Orthodoxy than the practice of praying to the saints, particularly to Christ’s mother. This is not without reason. In short, the objections to the practice may be summed up as both practical and theological.
Practical Objections. The practical objection can be summed up as, “Why waste my time praying to Mary when I can just pray to God.” In short, it is an efficiency-based argument which presumes we should be maximizing our prayer utility.
There are several obvious errors with this way of thinking–namely the presupposition that God desires our prayer life to be very efficient. If we should not be asking the saints for their prayers because it “wastes time,” then why ask anyone to pray for us? Or better yet, why even bother praying? God already knows what we need before we ask.
So, let’s dismiss the efficiency-based objections to prayers-to-the-saints because they are not serious objections. Let’s focus on the theological objections.
Theological Objections. The first objection Protestants usually put forward is that asking the saints for prayers is necromancy. As we have discussed previously, this is not a strong objection because 1. necromancy has a specific meaning which is obviously ignored by people who raise such an objection and 2. prayer and veneration do not meet the Biblical standard of worship.
The second objection is much more compelling and it can be summed up as follows: prayers to the saints are not in the Scriptures nor are they prominent in early Church history.
The preceding is a serious objection which cannot be hand-waved away with an unthinking “sola scriptura is false” sort of counter-argument. Think about it for a moment–if the practice is not in the Scriptures, then we lack a first century attestation. If it is not in the writings of the church fathers, then we lack historical evidence of the practice. This being the case, what historical basis would we have to reject the assertion that the practice is a later innovation? We would be forced to appeal to the infallibility of the Church, but this appeal is only convincing to those who have already drank the Koolaid. It does not appeal to those who are making an honest inquiry into the truth.
To answer the previous objection, I will make three points:
First, we will show that it is reasonable to trust the Church.
Second, we will briefly review the earliest historical evidence we have for prayers to the saints.
Lastly, we will offer our most compelling evidence of all–that we do not have evidence of early Christians rejecting the practice (with the exception of an outlier named Vigilantius.)
Trusting the Church. Fathers, with a high view of the Scriptures, saw no contradiction between believing that the Scriptures were materially sufficient (i.e. they contain all necessary Christian doctrine) and petitioning the saints for prayers.
Let’s take Saint Athanasius for example. After all, he wrote that “divine Scripture is sufficient above all things” and discounted novel Arian doctrines because “in the divine Scripture nothing is written about them.”
Yet, Saint Athanasius has a Marian prayer ascribed to himself and almost certainly was petitioning Mary in the anapohras of the Egyptian liturgy and praying the sub tuum praesidium. Obviously, he believed there to be no contradiction between such prayers and the Scriptures (which states all generations will bless Mary in Luke 1:48 and exalts the prayers of the righteous in James 5:16).
Why cannot Protestants simply write off Saint Athanasius (and Ambrose, Jerome, and pretty much every single saint that we have writings from after the fourth century) as being misguided in this one respect?
The reason Protestants cannot is because it creates epistemological mega-problems for Christianity. The modern doctrine of the Trinity, Christology, soteriology, and the Biblical Canon itself were all formulated in the fourth century. Why would we depend upon Saint Athanasius, Jerome, Ambrose, or whomever to understand what books are actually in the Bible if they were glorified polytheists, praying to Mary as if she were a demigod?
It would seem that if these men were outright heretics in their prayer life, then they would not be trustworthy authorities for anything. It would be like trusting the Mormons to tell us which books are in the Bible.
In reflecting upon this issue, I cannot help but think of Saint Augustine’s way of grappling with the question of the Bible’s trustworthiness. He wrote:
I felt that it was with more moderation and honesty that it commanded things to be believed that were not demonstrated (whether it was that they could be demonstrated, but not to any one, or could not be demonstrated at all)…After that, O Lord, You, little by little, with most gentle and most merciful hand, drawing and calming my heart, persuaded taking into consideration what a multiplicity of things which I had never seen…I believed of what parents I was born, which it would have been impossible for me to know otherwise than by hearsay — taking into consideration all this, You persuade me that not they who believed Your books (which, with so great authority, You have established among nearly all nations), but those who believed them not were to be blamed…For now those things which heretofore appeared incongruous to me in the Scripture, and used to offend me, having heard various of them expounded reasonably, I referred to the depth of the mysteries, and its authority seemed to me all the more venerable and worthy of religious belief, in that, while it was visible for all to read it, it reserved the majesty of its secret within its profound significance (Confessions, Book VI, Paragraphs 7 and 8).
The preceding is a mouthful, but it is important. Let me sum up Augustine’s argument as follows:
- The Scriptures require us to believe things that must be accepted by faith and lack demonstration.
- God gave him the conviction that we accept things all the time on good authority without demonstration, such as who our parents are.
- Hence, on good faith, Augustine accepted the Scriptures because when he heard them “expounded reasonably” he saw that they made sense.
- This gave him confidence that whenever he personally could not understand a certain Scripture in a reasonable way, he withheld judgement against the Scriptures because they were overall trustworthy.
- In such situations he would embrace the mystery of what he did not understand on the authority that whenever he had tested the Scriptures they were found trustworthy.
The preceding is an extremely compelling argument for the Scriptures–we accept them to be true, even when they may seem confusing, because whenever they are put to the test they have always proven themselves to us. If we can apply this epistemological argument to the Scriptures, then surely we would trust the authority of the Church, who has proven Herself correct with the Canon of the Scriptures, the preservation of their manuscripts, the defense of Christological doctrines from them, and all other things.
It would seem that the Church has earned the benefit of the doubt. So, if she preserved the practice of petitioning the saints, it is eminently reasonable that even if we do not fully understand their Scriptural basis, we would take it on good authority that it is there and embrace the mystery.
Early Historical Evidence of Petitions to the Saints. Many assert that prayers to the saints are a very late innovation. After all, the fourth century is 300 years after the time of Christ. A lot can change. For example, the USA was a collection of British colonies and Indian tribes three centuries ago!
That being said, it would be untrue to say that the earliest we see Marian veneration is in the fourth century. We have compelling historical evidence, accepted also by Protestant scholars, that we have third century Marian prayers (the above referred anaphoras and the sub tuum praesidium.)
These were preserved in Egypt. This was probably due to the climate which helps preserve very old manuscripts, the wealth of the Church of Alexandria which helped the proliferation of written documents (which increases the chance of their preservation for posterity), and the relative hands-off policy Rome treated their wealthy Egyptian province.
How do we know that Marian veneration was not some sort of Egyptian practice that later spread like a cancer? First, the sub tuum praesidium exists in slightly altered forms in all parts of the eastern and western church. This makes it less likely that it spread from Egypt itself. Rather, the document we have in Egypt was merely a prayer written down that was already widely disseminated.
Second, the contemporary liturgies copied in the fourth and fifth centuries (Liturgy of Saint James, Saint Basil, Saint Chyrsostom, etcetera) have invocations of the saints and requests for petitions. This is extremely unlikely without the practice being widespread, being that the creedal statements and sections of these liturgies have corroboration in second century (Saint Ignatius’ and Saint Irenaeus’ quoting of creeds) and third century (Saint Hippolytus’ Apostolic Constitutions) documents. We have are good grounds for believing, being that the fourth and fifth century liturgies agree ad verbatim with second century documents, that the later liturgies are simply the earlier liturgies in full written form.
Third, we potentially have second century evidence of Jewish prayers to the saints. One passage of the Talmud, dated between the second and third centuries, serves as an example:
Caleb held aloof from the plan of the spies and went and prostrated himself upon the graves of the patriarchs, saying to them, ‘My fathers, pray on my behalf that I may be delivered from the plan of the spies’ (Sotah 34b).
In light of the preceding, we must ask ourselves: what is the chance that both the second and third century Christians and Jews prayed to saints, over a large geographic spread, and that this does not represent a pre-Christian practice that was continued during the Apostolic age?
Early Christianity’s Allergic Reactions Against Innovations. In light of all of the preceding evidence, someone who rejects petitions to the saints may argue that the practice might have been a Jewish syncretistic holdover that latched somewhere onto the first or second century Church . Thereafter, it spread like cancer to the point it was common everywhere in the third and fourth centuries.
Yes, this is an argument from silence and obviously a conspiracy theory, but is it at least a sensible one? I think anyone who has studied early Church history and understands the culture of early Christianity and its successor, the Orthodox Church, would realize such a conspiracy theory is not workable.
Being that none of us can time-travel into the past, one way a modern Protestant can understand ancient Christian culture is by simply stepping foot into a modern Orthodox Church. Here, one would find when speaking to many Orthodox, particularly clergymen, an obvious stubbornness to compromise over matters that appear disputable (i.e. terminology, worship practices that are not doctrinal, etcetera). It seems to many that Orthodox are curmudgeons unwilling to level with us and just have a normal conversation.
Here is an example: I once asked the Deacon in my church why they watered down the blessed wine (what people drink after communion) with water instead of grape juice. He gave me a stare, thinking I was talking about the Eucharist, and then said coldly, “Because we only use water, and that’s all we have ever done.” Pertaining to the Eucharist, he is correct, as even in the third century Christians were already strict about mixing only water with wine (Cyprian, Letter 62, Par. 9). In fact, not mixing water with the wine was a major no-no (an interesting fact in that the Scriptures do not explicitly mention this practice).
To non-Orthodox this seems to be overly-scrupulous. Over-scrupulous or not, this sort of mentality prevents people from getting rid of things easily. It may be difficult to understand the preceding without firsthand knowledge of Orthodox worship and regular interaction with Orthodox. Nonetheless, I think the concept is helpful to have some familiarity with when discussing the conspiracy theory that prayers to saints were an innovation that somehow “snuck” into the Church somewhere and then spread like wildfire.
Why? Because we have examples of regional practices and innovations in the early Church. Likewise, we have examples of how Christians responded to them. The following early Church disputes have been recorded for us, showing that even small and seemingly trivial things did not go unnoticed without extensive debate:
- The date of the Easter celebration in Ephesus differed with the whole Christian world, resulting in councils and even an excommunication (mid to late second century)
- The Roman Church’s custom of accepting the baptisms of Christological heretics likewise resulted in councils and an excommunication as well (mid third century)
- Paul of Samosata, the Bishop of Antioch, taught that Jesus Christ was not the Word made flesh–resulting in his universal condemnation (mid third century)
- Saint Dionysus of Alexandria, in response to Paul of Samosata, used theologically imprecise language and as a result described Jesus Christ as a created being. The Egyptian and Roman Church rejected this teaching, and Dionysus recanted (mid third century)
- As part of the preceding debate, the term “of the same substance” was rejected due to Paul of Samosata’s usage of the term in denying the Trinity.
- The Council of Nicea described Jesus Christ as “the same substance as the Father.” This language was used previously by Paul of Samosata and so its connotations were disagreeable to many. Almost the whole Church later rejected the Council of Nicea over the meaning of this word and only four decades later did the doctrine of Christ’s same substance and essence gain wide acceptance. The reason for the debate ultimately was not because Bishops disagreed with Nicene doctrine but that they were distrustful of Nicea’s terminology. Only when the world’s Bishops were convinced that the terminology more accurately presented Trinitarian doctrine than any other options did the Arian controversy end. (early to late fourth century)
- Saint Jerome translated the Book of Jonah from the Hebrew and riots (Augustine, Letter 75, Par 22) broke out because he replaced the word “gourd” with “ivy” (late fourth century)
The preceding is not an exhaustive list, but this much is clear–if the Church experienced tumult over the day of Easter, the usage of an extra-biblical Greek term to describe Christ’s divinity, and even the inclusion of the word “gourd” into the Book of Jonah, it seems unthinkable that Marian prayers would start somewhere and then spread without notice. The intellectual atmosphere in early Christianity would have not permitted it. Yes, this is an argument from silence, but as they say, “the silence is deafening.”
Conclusion. In short, we may conclude the Orthodox pray to the saints on good authority in that:
- It being “a waste of time” is a baseless argument.
- Prayers to the saints is not “necromancy,” because necromancy has nothing to do with prayer.
- It’s widespread acceptance and huge importance in historic Christianity for 1500 years, the same Church that bequeathed us the Scriptures and all things Christian, cannot be ignored.
- Solid historical evidence exists that the practice existed during the centuries of Christian persecution by the Roman Empire and that it likely began as a pre-second century Jewish practice.
- If praying to the saints was antithetical to Christianity, it is almost unthinkable that it would have passed by without debate–when Christians even found the time to riot over the removal of the word “gourd” from the Book of Jonah.
In light of the preceding any reasonable person would conclude that without definitive grounds to object to the practice of praying to the saints, that they must be accepted. To not do so ultimately belies an unreasonable approach to Christianity itself.