Thursday, September 26, 2019

Hasty Thoughts on 'Praying to the Saints'

First, A Defense
There's a great deal to be said in favor of 'praying to the saints,' and a fair-minded Evangelical should be able to take that into account.  (I'm focusing just on an understanding of 'praying to the saints' in which the 'prayer' is actually just a request for a saint - or, to use a more precise term here, a 'heaven-located believer' - to pray for you: "St. Such-and-Such, pray for us (ora pro nobis)."  'Prayer to the saints' in the sense of asking the saint, as an independent heavenly figure, to personally intervene in earthly affairs - e.g., "St. Such-and-Such, perform this act for us" - is not within my purview in this post.)

Too many of my fellow Evangelicals, I think, raise this objection (O-1): Given that each and every earth-located believer has a direct line to God through Jesus Christ (for "through him we [all] have access in one Spirit to the Father" [Ephesians 2:18]), nothing is gained by asking for the intercession of a heaven-located believer.  And not only is the practice a needless distraction, but it risks diluting the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the "one mediator between God and men" (1 Timothy 2:5).  For this reason (they might say), 'praying to the saints' is an insult toward Christ; and, since believers should do all things to "honor Christ the Lord as holy" (1 Peter 3:15), no believer should ask the intercession of heaven-located believers.

But I don't think this objection holds as much water as we're prone to think.  By way of answer (A-1), if this objection holds up, it would undermine not only 'prayer to the saints' but also requests for prayer each other!  If your intercession for your believing friend avails nothing more than her own prayers for herself do, then why pray for her?  And if you're the one in need of prayer, then asking your friend to pray for you would - according to this objection's logic - be just as much an offense against the unique mediation that Christ offers: you would be, in the objection's usual phrasing, placing your friend as a secondary mediator between yourself and Christ.

But this is absurd!  We're encouraged to pray with our fellow earth-located believers and to pray for our fellow earth-located believers: "Pray for one another" (James 5:16).  Our exemplars in the faith, like the Apostle Paul, clearly prayed for others: "We pray for you" (Colossians 1:3), "we have not ceased to pray for you" (Colossians 1:9), "we always pray for you" (2 Thessalonians 1:11).  The Apostle Paul also did not hesitate to ask other earth-located believers to pray for him and for his mission-team: "Brothers, pray for us" (1 Thessalonians 5:25; 2 Thessalonians 3:1).  The same is true for the author of Hebrews (which I personally think was likelier Apollos than Paul): "Pray for us" (Hebrews 13:18).  This practice is not useless: "The prayer of a righteous person avails much" (James 5:16).

So, if we know that the prayer of a 'righteous person' is valuable to other believers, and if we are told to pray for one another, and if we have apostolic example both for praying for others and for asking others to pray for us, then seeking someone else's intercession cannot be inherently threatening to the mediatorial role of Christ and cannot be inherently distracting from our own access to the Father through the Son in the Spirit.  The objection (O-1) is defeated (A-1), so long as there is no crucially relevant distinction between heaven-located believers and earth-located believers that would render seeking the intercessory prayer of heaven-located believers unacceptable while that of earth-located believers stays acceptable.

Many of my fellow Evangelicals do seem to find such a reason, and raise it as a second objection (O-2): Heaven-located believers are dead, and attempts to communicate with the dead are scripturally prohibited: "There shall not be found among you ... a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord" (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).  

By way of answer (A-2), the simplest response is that biblical theology does not view heaven-located believers as dead.  When asked a question about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - the great patriarchs whose tombs were present in Judaea - Jesus stressed that "God is not the God of the dead, but of the living" (Matthew 22:32).  In other words, the patriarchs should not be seen as dead.  Rather, they are living in anticipation of their resurrection.  God's use of the present tense ("I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" [Matthew 22:32, quoting Exodus 3:6]) is taken by Jesus to demonstrate that the patriarchs, as Moses' "fathers," are "the living."  If that is true (and Jesus tells us it is), then we may fairly apply this to other believers of prior generations: they are still "alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Romans 6:11).  If heaven-located believers are alive, then there is no further need to investigate contemporary applications of Deuteronomy 18:11, because no one 'praying to a saint' can be considered as "inquiring of the dead," from a biblical perspective.  Hence, the objection (O-2) fails.

I know that many of my fellow Evangelicals are not satisfied.  Granting that heaven-located believers are as alive as earth-located believers and that intercession may be requested from earth-located believers, they may develop a third objection (O-3): We can ask intercession from earth-located believers because they are here and we can see them and have fellowship with them, but asking intercession from heaven-located believers is more spiritually dangerous because they are unseen.

By way of answer (A-3), this objection always struck me as somewhat odd.  Geographical proximity and mutual physical sight were never thought essential for having communion.  Certainly, Paul knew that most believers in the church at Corinth and most believers in the church at Jerusalem would never physically see each other in this lifetime.  But Paul clearly believed that the Corinthian and Jerusalemite churches were in communion with each other - that's the whole point of his collection for the Jerusalem church, after all!  Biblical writings discuss 'fellowship' and 'communion' in ways that don't depend on geographical proximity or physical sight.  John writes to a church he's away from and says, "you too many have fellowship with us, and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3).  And when Paul wrote letters asking a church to pray for him, that church was geographically distant and physically unable to see him.  The church has always confessed "the communion of the saints" - that just as physical distance doesn't break the fellowship between Christians, neither does physical demise break it.  Sharing a physical location (even on earth) and the ability to physically see each other don't seem to play much role in a biblical understanding of Christian fellowship.  This undermines the objection (O-3).

Now, I know some of my fellow Evangelicals will have a misgiving here, which we might phrase as a fourth objection (O-4): Heaven-located believers cannot be presumed to see and hear us; hence, asking their intercession is quite possibly a waste of time, and hence bad stewardship.

By way of answer (A-4), it suffices to say that, while there may be unresolved questions about the status of heaven-located believers, we are told that "we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1).  This verse is using an athletic image, in which we are to "run with endurance the race that is set before us," while the faithful believers of past generations - now heaven-located believers - constitute the audience in the stands of the stadium.  The exhortation takes its force from the notion that the Hebrews 11 believers, now in heaven, are (from heaven) watching us "run" our "race" now, here on earth.  I would say that most Evangelical preachers would apply Hebrews 11 as being open-ended, and the same then for the "cloud of witnesses" in Hebrews 12:1 - that it would now include, say, the apostles and the martyrs and the confessors and other Christian leaders like C. H. Spurgeon and Billy Graham, as well as the faithful departed known more locally.

Picking up this theme, no less a theologian than Jonathan Edwards (whose Protestant credentials are impeccable) wrote that heaven-located believers are "surely not unacquainted with the affairs of that part of the same family that is on earth.  They that are with the King and are next to him, the royal family, that dwell in his palace, are not kept in ignorance of the affairs of his kingdom."  So heaven-located believers - of whom those deemed 'saints' are accepted as exemplars, sure to be "next to... the King" - are "not kept in ignorance" of our own Christian lives here on earth.  In this thought, as backed up by Hebrews 12:1, we may presume that heaven-located believers are able to see and hear us, at least generally.  Therefore, the objection (O-4) falls flat.

So thus far, it's looking like there's a great deal to be said for the practice of 'praying to the saints.'

But Then, Some Lingering Concerns
Even with those four stock objections examined and overturned, I can quickly think of three concerns that may fairly deter many from the practice of 'praying to the saints,' which for brevity I'll call 'saint-invoking' or 'saint-invocation' in this section.  And when I mention a 'saint-invoking community,' it refers to a church organization where saint-invoking is a normative and even mandated practice, such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and others.

The first concern (C-1) picks up a bit where the last two objections (O-3, O-4) left off.  Biblically, it is incontrovertible, it seems, that heaven-located believers are to be considered alive, and that they can in principle see and hear the earth-located church as a whole.  (Some Protestant theologians may not fully be on board with this.)  But even assuming this to be true, many more propositions need to be stipulated in order to make sense of saint-invocation.  For a heaven-located believer to hear the earth-located church and for a heaven-located believer to hear each earth-located believer individually - well, those are two distinct things, and the latter would be a more demanding task.  If ten thousand earth-located believers are offering up diverse prayers (requests for intercession) to a specific 'popular' saint at the same moment, then that saint requires more than what we know as human capabilities in order to hear them all and repeat them distinctly to God.  (Indeed, I've known some Roman Catholic believers who have sought to pray to more 'obscure' saints, specifically with the hope of having less 'competition' in securing the saint's attention.  This is understandable folk theology.)

This requires the assumption that God gives the saints a special gift, a sort of participation in his own omniscience, in order to catch them all.  An Evangelical may fairly question if we really know that God has, in fact, given such a gift to each and every heaven-located believer to whom each saint-invoking community accords the title of 'saint.'  (Which further raises questions of saint-invoking communities that disagree about who is a saint: Mark of Ephesus receives no veneration by the Roman Catholic Church but does from the Orthodox Church, while Robert Bellarmine receives no veneration from the Orthodox Church but does from the Roman Catholic Church, while John Wesley is in the 'calendar of saints' of some Protestant groups although saint-invocation is less likely to be practiced there.  What happens, from a Roman Catholic perspective, when an Orthodox man or woman asks for the intercession of "St. Mark of Ephesus"?)

Saint-invoking communities, in response to this concern, are likely to retort that they have alternative authority mechanisms that assure them that saint-invoking 'works,' and that therefore whatever assumptions are necessary for it to 'work' are true.  But, to the extent that Evangelicals (and other Protestants) consider themselves justified in viewing those 'alternative authority mechanisms' with a more critical eye, Evangelicals will also retain the freedom to question the basis for making those assumptions.  As such, a perfectly fair Evangelical verdict on 'praying to the saints' is: "Assumes facts not in evidence."  A fuller case needs to be made for the feasibility of the practice.  The questionable standing of such a fuller case is the first concern.  (But Evangelicals and others should understand that saint-invoking communities with alternative authority mechanisms will fail to be bothered by this concern, and fairly so.)

The second concern (C-2) is somewhat like the first objection (O-1).  But it applies not so much to the practice itself in its theoretical pure form as to what the practice looks like in, well, practice.  In practice, certain forms of folk theology have justified 'prayer to the saints' by portraying Christ as a more distant figure and a less favorable and human figure, whose heart must be turned to us in order for his favor to be secured; and thus more familiar 'saints' are introduced who can accomplish this task.  This instinct does denigrate Christ and his mediatorial role.  Jesus himself is our "great high priest" who can "sympathize with our weaknesses" (Hebrews 4:14-15).  If the forms of honor being shown to saints require rendering Jesus more alien from us, then those forms of honor are gravely wrong, and that instinct must be corrected.  And yet just such a 'folk theology' does seem to have played a role in promoting the practice of saint-invocation in some medieval texts (and perhaps earlier and later); and so it may be difficult - at least for Western Christians - to disentangle the practice in its modern popular form from that disturbing and perhaps Christ-denigrating instinct.  To put it mildly, if actual practice (not necessarily 'ideal practice') tends to deform one's thoughts of and feelings toward Jesus Christ, then that actual practice has become a practical problem.

Similarly, certain saints may loom so large in the popular imagination of the saint-invoking community that Christ becomes obscured.  That is not the way it ought to be, on their best theological accounts; but in practice, that may become the way it is.  For instance, in listening in on some online discussions among a certain subset of Roman Catholics, I've noticed Mary being mentioned vastly more than Jesus - when it should go without saying that Mary herself would much prefer things to be the other way around!  (And while I don't accuse that community of 'worshipping Mary' per se, I do have this question: If there were a community that did worship Mary, what exactly would look different in practice from what's already being said and done?)  If, in practice, Mary and various saints loom so large in a saint-invoker's thought, heart, piety, and speech that Christ is less in focus, then that is a major practical problem, insofar as Christian piety requires "keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus" (Hebrews 12:2). 

Further, while asking for a saint's intercession does not need to distract us from enjoying our own access to God, there certainly are cases I've known of where a person may ask a saint to pray for him (or her) in lieu of himself (or herself) praying to God.  That would be a dereliction of responsibility, since each of us really is invited and commanded to "confidently draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16). To 'outsource' that action to a saint, in lieu of drawing near oneself, would be a major practical problem.

Now, all that doesn't in itself render 'prayer to the saints' as impermissible.  After all, it's entirely possible to make the same mistakes, in practice, with earth-located believers.  There have been plenty of people who have seen a pastor or an especially devout friend as a necessary intermediary between themselves and Christ.  That does not mean you shouldn't ask your pastor or a devout friend to pray for you!  But as you do, you should guard against (1) an instinct that distances Christ to make room for that pastor/friend, (2) focusing more on that pastor/friend than Christ, and (3) 'outsourcing' your prayer life to that pastor/friend. And if you can't or won't avoid problems (1)-(3), then maybe it would be relatively healthier not to ask that pastor or that friend to pray for you.

And just the same, if a prospective saint-invoker is going to engage in saint-invoking, then that prospective saint-invoker must guard against (1)-(3).  These 'practical problems' in fact amount to abuses.  And if that prospective saint-invoker can't or won't avoid abuses (1)-(3), then maybe it would be relatively healthier for him or her not to 'pray to the saints.'  (After all, abuses led Hezekiah to break the bronze serpent that God himself had directly ordered Moses to make [2 Kings 18:4] - so abuses can be a valid reason to jettison something, even jettison a thing good-in-itself, if reform should prove unviable and if the abuses outweigh the good of the thing's or practice's benefit.)  Likewise, the authorities of saint-invoking communities have a responsibility, when teaching and endorsing saint-invocation, to explicitly warn against abuses (1)-(3) and to help prospective saint-invokers guard against those abuses.

But in practice, the authorities of certain saint-invoking communities shirk that responsibility, and in practice there are saint-invokers who correspondingly fall into those abuses.  All of this seems to be more dreadful than the notion of just not 'praying to the saints' in the first place.  In other words, it is fair to look in at a saint-invoking community and see the spiritual harm of the abuses among a percentage of practitioners (and the relative silence of irresponsible teachers) as outweighing the spiritual benefit of the practice; and so it is fair to think that, even granting the validity of the practice, there may be strong reason to avoid saint-invocation (and saint-invoking communities).  That is the second lingering concern (C-2).

There is, lastly, a third lingering concern (C-3): All abuses of the practice aside, saint-invoking communities typically present saint-invocation as a normative and expected practice, through its inclusion in corporate liturgical life.  (That assessment should, I think, be uncontroversial).  And yet it is a practice where, it would seem, there should be greater liberty of conscience.  Not everything that is permissible is universally beneficial, if it sits ill at ease with a believer's conscience.  Paul, as we see in Romans 14, did not enforce all his views of spiritually beneficial practices on each and every church.

When it comes to saint-invocation, we know it is possible to lead a thoroughly flourishing Christian life without its practice.  How do we know that?  Because the first generations of Christians did not engage in it.  We have no record whatsoever of the Apostle Peter ever asking the Prophet Ezekiel to pray for him.  We have no hint of Polycarp asking Peter to pray for him.  Saint-invocation was just not a feature of the liturgical life of the apostolic-era church or even the immediately post-apostolic-era church.  (We know it was in at least private practice by the late third century, judging from Roman catacomb inscriptions like "Paul and Peter, intercede for us all"; but before that, the practice's inception is a bit harder to trace, and its incorporation into corporate worship is perhaps harder still.)  It may still be a wise and beneficial practice, but it is not a practice that is inherent to Christianity.

It might be wise for me to ask my bishop to pray for me, but it is not incumbent upon me to do so.  In much the same way, it cannot be incumbent upon me to ask St. Nicholas to pray for me.  The moment what is potentially beneficial is treated as being mandatory (especially salvifically mandatory), we encounter a problem.  We are, after all, "not under law but under grace" (Romans 6:14).  If we speak of the 'law' for Christians, it must be "the law of liberty" (James 2:12).  Martin Luther said in his Lectures on Titus:
To us all things are holy, even sins committed against human traditions. ... Unless I do something out of deference to you, there is no command except the command of love, which is the freedom of the Spirit and does not reject the truth. ... If the abbot permitted me to wear my cowl voluntarily, this would not conflict with sound faith.  But he says: "Unless you wear it, you will be damned."  Then everything must be torn up, because it conflicts with sound faith.  Christian righteousness says: "I know nothing except Christ."  I serve my brother through love, but I do not want to be saved through it.  I do so out of free deference to him, but I shall not be either saved or damned and lost on that account.
Like or dislike Luther, but he raises a real concern.  If even a beneficial practice is enforced as though mandatory for salvation, it spoils.  And one may legitimately ask if this has happened in the case of saint-invocation.  If it would have been foreign to Peter and Polycarp, is it really a practice in which every Christian believer today must engage?

If it is, then some explanation is needed of why this is so - why every believer now must add such a mandate to Christian living when Peter and Polycarp seem to have flourished in its absence.  (One suspects a saint-invoking community would here give reply by appealing to the binding authority of the edicts of some figure or body - a pope, a council, etc. - as authorized to add conditions to the life of faith, and to render the wise/beneficial as mandatory.  This answer will, fairly, be deemed inadequate by Evangelicals, for whom it will not measure up to the apostolic example.)  But if it is not, then saint-invoking communities need to become communities where saint-invoking is welcomed, perhaps even encouraged, but not mandated - and so space should then be made within those communities for believers who decline to engage in the practice.  If there is not, the risk is that the practice will be treated as a condition of salvation and hence in "conflict with sound faith."  And that covers the third lingering concern (C-3).

The three concerns, in brief: (C-1) that questions remain about the assumptions required for saint-invocation to make sense; (C-2) that practical abuses make the practice dangerous to teach, unless saint-invoking communities are going to do better; and (C-3) that the place of saint-invocation in the corporate liturgies of saint-invoking communities sits ill next to liberty of conscience, apostolic and post-apostolic practice, and the purity of 'sound faith.'  (To me, C-2 is the greater concern.)

I wonder what would look different in, e.g., Protestant-Catholic or Protestant-Orthodox dialogue if less time were wasted with (O-1)--(O-4) and more discussion revolved around (C-1)--(C-3)....

These have been... some of my hasty thoughts.

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