Blogger Template by Blogcrowds

Rethinking Prayers to the Saints

Our attendance at an Anglo-Catholic Church on the Feast of the Assumption last Sunday, and the dramatic (to me, at least) displays of Marian devotion that we saw there, jarred me into thinking about prayers to Mary and to the saints in general in a more systematic way than I yet have. No doubt any Catholic reading this will be shocked at my dullness (“Well, duh…did that really never occur to you before?”) and any Protestant will be shocked at my brazenness (“Are you serious? How could you even venture to think that?”) but here it is, all the same.

On what basis do Protestants object to prayers to and for the saints?
Now, of course, there have been terrible abuses; the Reformers were right to protest against devotion to the saints that bordered on (or plunged headlong into) idolatry, and on the whole system of indulgences that grew up around prayers for the dead. God alone is God, Jesus alone is our Saviour, and any teachings or practices that exalts or overemphasizes human beings so that they come to compete with God is justly condemned. Medieval Catholicism, and much modern Catholicism, I think, is easily critiqued on these lines. But on what basis do we condemn, not the abuses, but the whole concept, in principle? Prayers for the dead are pretty easily defended: the dead have a long way yet to grow in glorification (it does not occur all in one moment), and we can therefore pray that God will bless them in that and mature and glorify them further. It doesn’t work to argue that the prayer is pointless, since we know God will do that in any case; whenever we pray, we are praying for the inevitable; but our prayers are nonetheless part of how God works according to his will.

What about prayers to the saints? Here, perhaps, our vocabulary gets in the way—prayers are for God alone, we say. That is a recent linguistic development in English, so let’s clarify. What is wrong with beseeching the saints to pray for us? This is different from beseeching the saints to do things for us, as Catholics often have—that seems to me to attribute to them a status that doesn’t make sense in a Biblical understanding of God and man. I should not pray, “Saint Peter, help me to excel in my studies”; but what about praying, “Saint Peter, please pray to God to help me in my studies”? This is the kind of prayer that we see in the Hail Mary (“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of death.”) and in many Catholic “prayers to the saints.” It is this kind of prayer that I am no longer sure how to condemn. If I went to my father and said, “Dad, please pray to God for me, that he would help me in my studies,” would anyone complain? Hardly—we do this all the time. Since “the prayer of a righteous man availeth much,” I might want to go to a pastor, or someone of great spiritual maturity, and ask them to pray for me. Would anyone complain about this? Perhaps if I did this as a substitute for praying to God myself, there would be a problem, but if it was a supplement—“I’m really praying about this; could you pray for me too?” would anyone object? Certainly not. But what about if the pastor or righteous man was dead? Whoa…hold on a minute!

In principle, though, it’s no different, except that there is considerable doubt on the question of whether or not the dead can hear us. Even if the dead cannot hear us, it would seem that the worst that can be said about “prayers to the saints” is that they’re a waste of time, not that they’re blasphemous or idolatrous. And this, it seems, is important to establish in increasing understanding between Protestants and Catholics.

But can the dead hear us? Is there any contact between the dead in Christ and living saints? Certainly, at a popular level, we often tend to feel there must be, that we can be seen and heard in some way by loved ones that have passed on, and throughout the Christian age, literature has often encouraged us to believe that this is the case. But clear Biblical evidence seems lacking for the idea that I could successfully speak to a friend or relative who has passed on, and ask him to pray for me (though again, is there harm in trying?).

However, it seems that there is clear Biblical evidence (or at least, I have always understood in the theology I’ve been taught) that, when we gather for corporate worship, we are worshipping together with those who are dead in Christ; that they witness our worship and join together with us in praising God. It would seem, then, that when we gather together as a body for worship, that we can speak to the saints, can ask them to pray for us, at least on the basis of this line of reasoning. There may well be other objections, and I am eager to hear them, but there is certainly a strong prima facie case for much of Catholic practice on these issues. I still have a gut sense that something's wrong with this, but am not sure how to justify it. I look forward to some feedback.


I believe Aquinas says that in the beatific vision, the saints' desire to continue to pray for their fellow Christians would not end. Therefore, to fulfill that desire, Christ can make our concerns known to them.

Rev 5:8 speaks of elders offering bowls of incense to God, which are the "prayers of the saints". Not sure that's a knock-down argument of their awareness of our specific prayers, but it definitely shows cooperation in the whole prayer process between those on earth and those in heaven.

And there is at least one example in the Psalms of speaking to the angels in heaven and exhorting them to praise God.

Great post, btw.

August 21, 2009 at 6:56 PM  

Brad, you're a squat little caterpillar rolled up in your Anglo-Catholicism, right on your way to becoming a beautiful commie-Catholic butterfly. I can't wait until you pupate.

August 22, 2009 at 4:18 PM  

That wasn't exactly what I meant by "feedback," Donny. :-p

August 22, 2009 at 5:52 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

August 25, 2009 at 6:53 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

August 25, 2009 at 6:55 PM  

I know this wasn't specifically about Mariology, but it seems natural to take the discussion that direction.

Roman Catholics ascribe four titles to Mary, two of which are advocate and mediatrix. Now, there is plenty of scripture to support the idea that Jesus is the mediator, high priest, and intercessor between God and man (Hebrews 7, Romans 8, 1 Tim 2, etc.)

So to avoid idolatry, it would seem that we need to imagine an economy of intercession where Jesus is found at the pinnacle. In other words, we understand our "prayers" to saints in the context of the life, death, resurrection, and (especially) ascension of Christ.

Is that biblical? Well, it certainly isn't unbiblical. And therefore I'd probably declare adiaphora on the issue.

August 25, 2009 at 6:56 PM  

Just so you know, I'm currently preparing feedback for you. I disagree with you...but not as strongly as you might expect. I've been thinking and reading about it for a few days, and it's proven to be a more subtle matter than I had realised. In what sense are the dead saints "with" us? Can they see us? Do they pray for us? (If they know about us, then why wouldn't they pray for us?) Can they hear us? And in what sense are angels with us? My conclusions are still firming up.

August 30, 2009 at 8:49 AM  


I met you at the Anglican conference trip to Dallas with Eric Mabry a couple of years ago. Great to discover your blog. I would recommend the Anglican scholar C.B. Moss on this issue. He delineates three approaches to the invocation of saints. 1. Comprecation: we participate in the prayers of the blessed dead. 2. Invocation: a request for a saint to pray to God for aid. 3. Invocation for benefits: prayers that ask the saint to directly intervene in our lives. For instance some Orthodox liturgies invoke saints to aid in our sanctification. Moss argues: #1 is to be embraced by all Christians. #2 is speculative as we don't know if the saints can hear us, but that it cannot be categorically ruled out. #3 is clearly problematic. See his comments here:

Jonathan Trebilco

August 31, 2009 at 5:17 PM  

Hey Brad,
I look forward to your comments, though I doubt if you "disagree" with me, since I don't know that I have a position, merely an argument that I formulated and was unable to refute. All those questions you are exploring I would certainly like to know answers to.

Jonathan T.,
Great to hear from you again. That threefold distinction sounds good to me, and the whole "1 is good, 2 is unsure, and so can't be condemned, and 3 is wrong" fits with where I'm strongly leaning.

September 3, 2009 at 3:22 PM  

Newer Post Older Post Home