Wow. Last week’s post about praying to saints really brought out more passion in people than I thought it would. Both here on the blog and on Facebook, here were some clarifying comments I left. By the way, this was the best comment on that post that challenged my thinking. I hope this helps.
First, here is my final, quick summary clarification of my position and why Evangelicals need not be freaked out about all this. If you read nothing else on this post, let it be this:
I really wish there was a different and better word than “prayer” for this. I agree that what most of us Protestants think of when we think of prayer really should only be directed at God.
Further, I’m simply advocating for this to be one more optional means of grace a Christian can participate in, depending on how they are wired. This shouldn’t take away from anyone’s participation in union with Christ or praying to him anymore than Bible memorization, fasting, listening to sacred music, or reading a devotional book does.
Everything critics have said they think should only be reserved for God, I absolutely agree with. I am certainly not suggesting we turn our affections, praise, adoration, or even our hearts towards those that have died. I just think we can talk to them, and they can intercede for us to God. I don’t think they talk back, that we experience their presence, or that they magically impart any more of God’s favor than asking a friend to pray with us would.
As Paul said, our outer selves are wasting away, while inwardly we’re being renewed day by day. Those that have died are, in a very real sense, just as “alive” as we are now, albeit absent from the body.
Therefore, all I think is (1) they can see and know what’s going on down here, and (2) they talk to God.
If those two things are true, then I don’t see the inherent evil, harm, or soul-destroying error it might be to simply “talk” to those that have gone before–not “commune with”, “worship”, or any of the other dimensions of “Godward prayer”. Just sending up some prayer requests to the part of the Body of Christ that is absent from the body, but present with the Lord.
What’s the harm in that?
Here were the first comments I left in response to some arguments:
I look at three things for this Saint-Praying idea:
1. This is a logical (not exegetical) conviction based on logical conclusions drawn from various strands in Scripture. Just like the Trinity, restrictions on pre-marital sex, slavery abolition, church buildings etc. aren’t explicit exegetical, proof-texted principles, but are deduced from various strands throughout various texts. This doesn’t make them less valid, but it does mean that the classic Systematic-Theological principles of biblical hermeneutics aren’t the best place to go for this.
2. I know this isn’t very Calvinist of me, but I lean more towards the “Normative Principle” in the Christian life, rather than the “Regulative Principle”. Crudely, the Regulative perspective says that we ought only employ in the Christian life those things that are explicitly endorsed in Scripture, whereas the Normative principle says that we can include anything as long as it’s not explicitly forbidden in Scripture and “as long as it is agreeable to the peace and unity of the Church”. The classic example here is musical instruments in worship. Neither the NT nor any early church writings endorse or indicate they were used in worship services, just voices. Or we then not allowed to use them?
3. To my knowledge, praying to (or rather “with” saints, as some people have corrected me) was the practice of the earliest Christians and most Christians throughout Church History. That’s not our ultimate authority, I know, but it’s not something that can be easily just written off. The earliest and first readers of the same Bible as us still felt absolutely free to pray to Saints without any problems.
The three points above do not represent my case “for” praying to saints in a dogmatic sense, as if this represents the fullness of spiritual experience and that people that don’t do it are sinning or missing out. Rather, I see these points as simply legitimizing this practice as a valid option for Christians who feel free to do it.
A lot of people of have responded to this post saying, more or less, “I have Jesus and living saints around me, why do I need dead saints?” In reply, I’d simply ask why we need any means of grace in our lives, then? If Jesus is “enough”, why take Communion? Why sing hymns? Why talk about God with anyone, if Jesus is “all we need”.
In His fullness, I believe he has filled this world with such a large kaleidoscope of ways he can give us grace. Everyone is wired differently, so different means of grace stir each of us differently. If praying to saints isn’t your thing, then that’s great! My only goal in writing this was to open up one more possible frontier wherein Protestants can seek God.
Others thought that I (and Catholics) think that praying to Saints means getting some of their grace, or that they give you grace. Saint-Praying is not worshipful praying, and you’re not asking anything of those saints other than to interceded for you. They ask God to give us his Grace, not their own. They don’t mediate their presence to us, they are not “conjured” into our lives or experience. We don’t really “engage” with them in this practice. We simply talk to them, asking them to talk to God for us as we would anyone else. I have found this powerful and soul-stirring. You might think it’s silly. That’s fine. Don’t do it. I’m only advocating for us to be open to those that do.
That is all.
Some people brought up other things found “throughout Church History” (like praying to Saints) that Protestants feel were wrong.
- What we usually think of as Indulgences were a very late addition to the church, coming into being around the 12th century, leaving only a few hundred years before Luther wrote against them.
- There was a long history of vernacular Bibles even before Luther. The problem was literacy, not translation availability (this is one of the biggest misconceptions about the Reformation).
- People do not “submit to the Pope” in general. He is only thought of as infallible in specific, doctrinal instances. In the whole history of the Catholic Church, there have only been around ten invocations of papal infallibility. I don’t agree with the idea, but it’s hardly an example of systemic, constant, sustained wrong-headedness on the part of the Church that would disregard a widely done practice.
- And asceticism and self-flagellation is not only only practiced in certain sects, we are encouraged to do it today in other forms (fasting). So, the idea, at least, is fully consonant with Scripture.
I don’t mean to play semantic games. My points are (1) history is not that simplistic, (2) Catholicism is not so flat and caricatured as many Protestants make it out to be, (3) the regulative principle is wrong and few actually follow it, and (4) we all ascribe to doctrines or make use of means of grace that God has said little or nothing explicitly in Scripture.
It’s way too easy to say “we make Scripture our authority and nothing else!” without actually thinking through what that means. Nowhere does the Scripture say that it is to be treated that way. The Bible is not our Authority, but the God who reveals himself through the Bible is. And the way God exercises his authority through Scriptures is not only a whole lot more complex than simply declaring you’re making the Bible your authority, but it is incredibly freeing and involves acts of “faithful improvisation” using the world around us and the Spirit within us. (See N.T. Wright’s classic essay on this topic.)
Lastly, and most importantly, I have explicitly refrained from saying this is something everyone needs to do to have the first experience of God. As said earlier, there is a diversity of thought and expression in our religious texts, and I think that offers us freedom to do as our consciences feel free to do.
We are each responsible for pursuing the fullest experience of God for how we’re each individually wired. I simply think praying to saints is one more option that people can take advantage of if they want. It’s like journaling, Bible-memorization, lectionary reading, following a prayer guide, silence, solitude, and meditation.
Depending on how you’re wired, take it or leave it. But don’t condemn or belittle those who take it.
[image credit: “Communion of the Saints” tapestry by John Nava]