15 June 2010

On the Intercession of the Saints

For good or ill, I’ve decided to respond to Jason Engwer’s remarks here on patristic support for the intercession of the saints. (He prefers to call it “prayers to the dead,” even though I’ve already made explicit that his definition of “prayers to the dead” is not in accord with Catholic teaching, because he includes in the phrase all sorts of things Catholics do not do, like worship saints, summon ghosts, etc.) This is the latest in a 100-plus comment thread over at his blog, but since I’m tired of breaking up my responses into four or five separate comments, I’m posting here. His words will be in red.

I had said earlier, "you extrapolate from silence that requesting saints’ intercession is therefore sinful."

Jason replied, "Quote me making that argument."

Avec plaisir! In his post on Origen, he gives a classic example of an argument from silence:

There are no examples of praying to the deceased in scripture, and Origen never advocates the practice in any of his many comments on related subjects…. Just as the lack of such prayers in scripture would be unexpected if the people of Biblical times believed in praying to saints and angels, the lack of reference to such prayers in Origen's many comments on related issues is unlikely if he believed in the practice.

Based on this, he claims that "[p]raying to the dead…is unbiblical [and] anti-Biblical." An “anti-biblical” practice is sinful, is it not? So I repeat,Jason extrapolates from silence that requesting saints’ intercession is therefore sinful.


Go back to my earlier post on Origen, which I linked above. You've ignored most of the passages I cited there. I discuss Origen further in my 2:17 P.M. post from June 13 here.

Maybe he missed my explanations the first time around. To prove I’m not ignoring anything: he raised the example of Origen’s use of the word “invoking” (he forbids “invoking angels”), using that word three separate times. I responded that one of the definitions of “to invoke” is “to call forth or upon (a spirit) by incantation,” i.e., to summon a spirit to manifest itself. No one should “invoke” the angels, if by that we mean summon them to manifest themselves. The only other language mentioned is Origen’s use of the word “propitiate,” which means “to appease.” Of course Catholics do not propitiate or appease saints when we request their intercession. Besides, when we learn the context of what Origen means by prayer (which I discuss below), we will see that nothing cited from Origen contradicts my position.

Earlier, Jason had cited a number of passages in Origen’s writings charging that Christians should pray to God alone (quoting, e.g., McGuckin and Konstaninovsky to support his assertion), as if this conclusively contradicts the practice of requesting the saints’ intercession.

His misinterpretation of these passages comes from his faulty understanding of what Origen means by “prayer”. When one quotes him out of context, one's case might seem convincing—but reading On Prayer in its entirety shows that Origen means by prayer worship, asking forgiveness, and contemplation in order to achieve divine union (anyone with a passing familiarity of Origen’s Neoplatonist influences would know this). Origin even states all these things explicitly--and so it makes sense that Origen would restrict “prayer” to God alone. But don't take my word for it:

"It [Origen’s On Prayer] is the first clear and thoroughgoing exposition, within the Christian tradition, of prayer as the contemplation of God rather than as a means of achieving material benefits." –J.W. Trigg

Prayer as worship

“In the beginning and opening of prayer, glory is to be ascribed according to one's ability to God, through Christ who is to be glorified with Him, and in the Holy Spirit who is to be proclaimed with Him.” On Prayer XX

Prayer as Asking Forgiveness
“Moreover, one must know that kneeling is necessary when he is about to arraign his personal sins against God with supplication for their healing and forgiveness, because it is a symbol of submission and subjection.” On Prayer XX

Prayer as Contemplation
“Pray then in this way:…to have communion with God.” On Prayer XII

“He ought thus to enter upon prayer with his soul, as it were, extended before his hands, and his mind intent on God before his eyes, and his intellect raised from earth and set toward the Lord of All before his body stands.” On Prayer XX

“[H]e who prays to obtain a word of knowledge and a word of wisdom will with propriety pray for them continually with the prospect of continually receiving fuller contemplations of wisdom and knowledge through being heard, although his knowledge of such things as he may be able in the present to receive is partial, whereas the perfect that annuls the partial shall then be manifested when the mind confronts its objects face to face without sensation.” On Prayer XV (Classic formulation of neoplatonic contemplative prayer)

These are only a few examples. I encourage anyone here to read Chapter XX—Formalities of Prayer, in which Origen gives precise instructions on how one ought to pray, and in what prayer consists. In fact, read the entire work! It very clearly sets forth a type of prayer that involves worship, asking forgiveness, and contemplation. None of these is relevant to requesting the saints’ intercession, since any Catholic will readily acknowledge that we do not worship, ask forgiveness from, or contemplate the saints. These are reserved for God alone, and Origen rightly notes that.


Jason then claims I’ve ignored his comments on Contra Celsum. One can hardly be accused of ignoring a comment one hasn’t even yet read.

Celsus criticizes Christians for their neglect of such practices, and Origen defends that Christian neglect. "Away with Celsus' advice when he says that 'we ought to pray to demons'. We ought not to pay the slightest attention to it. We ought to pray to the supreme God alone" (8:26).

It’s misleading for Jason to quote this in his favor, since these chapters in Book VIII specifically deal with Celsus’ call for Christians to join in sacrificial offerings to demons. Origen clearly defines what is meant by “demons” here:
Celsus says that the demons belong to God, and are therefore to be believed, to be sacrificed to according to laws, and to be prayed to that they may be propitious. Those who are disposed to learn, must know that the word of God nowhere says of evil things that they belong to God, for it judges them unworthy of such a Lord.... Since, then, among men some are good and others bad, and the former are said to be God's and the latter the devil's, so among angels some are angels of God, and others angels of the devil. But among demons there is no such distinction, for all are said to be wicked.

Then follows the phrase Jason quotes: “Away with Celsus' advice when he says that 'we ought to pray to demons'. We ought not to pay the slightest attention to it.” And Origen would be absolutely right. We should never pray to demons. “We ought to pray to the supreme God alone.” Refer to my comments above, and Origen’s understanding of what it means to pray. Origen doesn’t limit prayer to requesting the saints’ intercession--he includes worship, adoration, giving glory, etc. And all these things indeed belong to God alone.

A noteworthy passage is VIII:64:
And if he would have us to seek the favour of others after the Most High God, let him consider that, as the motion of the shadow follows that of the body which casts it, so in like manner it follows, that when we have the favour of God, we have also the good-will of all angels and spirits who are friends of God. For they know who are worthy of the divine approval, and they are not only well disposed to them, but they co-operate with them in their endeavours to please God: they seek His favour on their behalf; with their prayers they join their own prayers and intercessions for them. We may indeed boldly say, that men who aspire after better things have, when they pray to God, tens of thousands of sacred powers upon their side. These, even when not asked, pray with them, they bring succour to our mortal race, and if I may so say, take up arms alongside of it
The fact that Origen would make the disclaimer that the saints and angels in heaven even when not asked pray with us on earth means that other situations exist in which we do ask them to pray with us. This is the natural import of a phrase like “even when not asked,” which denotes an extraordinary circumstance, or something out of the ordinary. For instance, if I say, “My children make their beds even when I don’t ask,” I'm suggesting that this is an exception to the rule, in which I do ask.

You've ignored my recent posts on Lactantius (here and here). Earlier in this thread, I posted some comments you ignored concerning Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Cyprian. See my three posts on June 4 at 11:18 and 11:19 P.M.

Let’s deal with Tertullian first. Jason's quote of Tertullian is irrelevant, as it speaks nothing of prayer. He argues, Just as a Christian in England wouldn't expect a Christian in Russia to hear his thoughts, you have no good reason to expect a deceased person to hear your prayers. As I’ve answered multiple times already, of course one doesn’t “pray” to a living member on earth, as that is not the means of communication in this world. We have to pick up a phone or write a letter. But what is the means of communication once one has passed over? We can direct our interior thoughts to Jesus, and he hears us (and do not counter with the claim that He is God--he is both fully God and fully Man, as the First Council of Ephesus decreed, and it’s heretical to claim that only his divine nature hears us); Jason denies, though, that we can do the same with the saints in heaven, and even requires empirical verification to prove this latter point. What tosh! As if the truths of the faith must be subject to empirical verification in order to prove their veracity! Try doing that with the doctrine of the Trinity. If that is what Jason is saying, then he's quite muddled with regard to proofs of the natural and the supernatural.

Justin Martyr mentions the evoking of departed spirits among other pagan practices Christians reject (First Apology, 18). Athenagoras suggests that prayers shouldn't be addressed to created beings (A Plea For The Christians, 15, 20). Hippolytus comments, "And in them [the Psalms] we have 'prayer,' viz., supplication offered to God for anything requisite" (On The Psalms, 1:8)

Jason quotes Justin Martyr out of context. In chapter 18, Justin argues for the immortality of the soul, and says even pagan practices offer proof of the soul’s immortality:
For let even necromancy, and the divinations you practise by immaculate children, and the evoking of departed human souls, and those who are called among the magi, Dream-senders and Assistant-spirits (Familiars), and all that is done by those who are skilled in such matters — let these persuade you that even after death souls are in a state of sensation.
First Apology, Ch. 18

The definition of evoke is "to call up; cause to appear; summon: to evoke a spirit from the dead." This is not what Catholics do when they request the saints' intercession--we do not summon a spirit to appear--and therefore Justin Martyr's quote here is utterly irrelevant.

As to Athenagoras, the only mention of prayer in ch. 15 is the prayer of pagans to manmade idols of gold or silver. Again irrelevant. As to ch. 20, after listing a litany of Greek gods--Zeus, Demeter, Persephone, Kronos, Ouranos, Koré, etc.--he asks, How, then, I ask, can we approach them as suppliants, when their origin resembles that of cattle, and they themselves have the form of brutes, and are ugly to behold? Again, anyone can see this has nothing whatsoever to do with requesting the saints’ intercession. The fact that Jason would even compare the saints in heaven with mythical Greek gods boggles the mind.

Don't take my word for it. I would encourage anyone here to read these works themselves to understand these quotes in context.

Jason's quote from Hippolytus says absolutely nothing in reference to, much less against, requesting the saints’ intercession. Frankly, I’m not even sure how he thinks this is evidence in his favor.

If the saints are physically dead, then you need to explain why Lactantius' condemnation of praying to the physically dead doesn't apply to praying to those physically dead saints.

I’ve explained it once, but here we go again. Jason quotes from The Divine Institutes 2:18. The title of that chapter reads, Of the Patience and Vengeance of God, the Worship of Demons, and False Religions. Lactantius proceeds to condemn the worship of idols and adoration of images of the dead, and concludes,
But if it appears that these religious rites are vain in so many ways as I have shown, it is manifest that those who either make prayers to the dead, or venerate the earth, or make over their souls to unclean spirits, do not act as becomes men, and that they will suffer punishment for their impiety and guilt, who, rebelling against God, the Father of the human race, have undertaken inexpiable rites, and violated every sacred law.
Lactantius uses the phrase “prayers to the dead” in reference to “inexpiable rites” that “violate[] every sacred law.” Jason seems to have a very difficult time making the distinction between the practice of worshipping the dead through prayer and requesting the prayers of the saints in heaven; for him, it is all of a piece. Read in context, Lactantius is clearly referring to prayers to the dead with regard to pagan worship—-not with regard to the Christian practice (explicitly approved by all the later fathers and of the Church Herself) of turning to the Christian saints in heaven to request prayers. The burden is on Jason to show that Lactantius means it in this way (and it’s a burden he will not be able to meet).

After Jason quoted Vigilantius in his favor, and I noted that Vigilantius is a heretic, he asked: Why does Jerome get to decide who's a heretic?

It is a historical fact that the majority of the Church came to view Vigilantius as a heretic, and on this basis, he remains. It wasn’t Jerome’s lone opinion. A few renegade bishops may have supported Vigilantius, but that proves nothing--no more than the fact that a few renegade bishops who supported Arius somehow frees Arius from the stigma of heresy.

You're begging the question about what is and isn't fundamental. You cited the example of Protestant disagreement over credobaptism. You haven't given us any reason to consider that issue a fundamental one. I consider Presbyterians fellow Christians, even though I disagree with them on infant baptism. Why are we supposed to believe that my disagreement with Presbyterians over infant baptism is more significant than your disagreements with liberal Catholic theologians, Catholics who disagree with you about the salvation of non-Catholics, sedevacantists, etc.?

First, one can consider someone a fellow Christian while still disagreeing with fundamentals. I would even consider Protestants Christians, although we radically depart in basic doctrine. That isn’t the point. Would Jason claim that the sacraments are not fundamental? What about the nature of Holy Communion, or marriage, divorce, abortion? If he does not consider these fundamentals, then he implies that there is wiggle room in Scripture to interpret these in contrary ways.

Jason made a point once that I wanted to address. To paraphrase (I can’t remember the exact wording), he said that I don’t agree with everything the later fathers say, so why should he with regard to the saints’ intercession? I assume he acknowledges that all the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers support the practice of requesting the saints’ intercession.

My answer: There is a big difference--all the fathers were of one voice when it came to requesting the saints’ intercession. (He mentioned Vigilantius, but he is no more counted among the church fathers than Pelagius.) They may have had disagreements as to other aspects of church teaching--for instance, the precise relationship of each Person in the Trinity--and these were issues that were argued and debated and hammered out. But they were all in accord with regard to the efficacy of requesting the saints’ intercession. In the end, Protestants cannot explain why they would reject the fathers’ teachings on this. Unless one quotes out of context, there is no early patristic support for rejecting the practice of requesting the saints’ intercession; neither is there any scriptural prohibition (as Jason & I have already extensively discussed); and the fact that the practice became so well-established by the 4th century and was incorporated in the liturgy, and it finds widespread and explicit support among all the Nicene and post-Nicene fathers, show that Protestants, though well-intentioned, are simply mistaken when they claim it is wrong to seek the help of the saints. As shown, Jason's citation of early fathers in no way contradicts the practice of requesting the saints' intercession, and instead demonstrates a lack of understanding of the very texts he claims as support.

Those persons think impiously who deny that the Saints, who enjoy eternal happiness in heaven, are to be invoked; or who assert either that they do not pray for men, or that the invocation of them to pray for each of us is idolatry, or that it is repugnant to the word of God, and is opposed to the honour of the one Mediator of God and men, Jesus Christ. --Council of Trent, Sess. XXV

I had considered the possibility of dealing with Jason's debate on the sinlessness of Mary, but if it's going to involve the same misquoting of Scripture and the church fathers as this present debate has (coupled with all the insults), then I'm not sure it's worth my time to engage with him any longer. This will probably be my last post on this subject, as I've conclusively demonstrated that Protestants do not have a leg to stand on here. Jason has brought out all the big guns, and they turn out to squirt water. No doubt he'll (for lack of a better term) whine that I've "ignored" his points once again, but if I've failed to mention something specifically, it is because (1) it's irrelevant, (2) it would involve repeating many of the same arguments as before, or (3) I frankly don't think it's worth it. I wish Jason the best, and will gladly ask the saints, whose very help he rejects, to join me in interceding on behalf of his soul.

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