Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Why You Shouldn't Pray to Saints

Is praying to saints unbiblical? Yes it is, and I will start with a little history lesson.

In the ancient pagan world, certain gods and demigods had powers in specific areas. For example, Hermes (below) was the god of messengers, travel, and a few other things. So if you were preparing to take a long journey or to send an important message, you would want to invoke Hermes rather than, say, Demeter, who was goddess of agriculture and grain. But if you were going on a journey to buy grain, you might want to invoke both Hermes and Demeter, to increase your chances of a successful enterprise.
When the gospel originally permeated the polytheistic world, many common people began treating saints in the way they had previously treated their pagan gods and demigods. So different saints were seen to have different specialties, and by knowing the area each saint specialized in, one could more effectively evoke their blessing, favor and assistance. For example, Saint Joseph is the patron saint of travel while saint Saint Bernard (778 –842) is the patron saint of agriculture.

Over time, as legends accumulated about the different saints, their range of specialties increased, so that Wikipedia tells me that Saint Joseph is considered to be the patron saint, not only of travel, but also of doubt, hesitation, dying people, expectant mothers, happy death, holy death, interior souls, people in doubt, people who fight Communism, pioneers, pregnant women, travellers, and fetuses. (Wikipedia is not where we go to for theology, but it can be very useful in giving the popular view of things, which is what I’m concerned about right now.) One of my favorites is Saint Gertrude of Nivelles (626–659) who can be “invoked against fever, rats, and mice, particularly field-mice.” I like the “particularly field-mice” bit. If you have a house-mice problem, you might be better off with Saint Servatius from the 4th century, since he deals in all kinds of mice, in addition to rats and trouble with your feet.
It can be easy for Protestants to miss the actual problem inherent in these practices. They typically think that the whole issue can be settled simply by appealing to 1 Timothy 2:5, which says that “there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus.” The invocation of saints, therefore, subtracts from the mediatory role of Christ according to this argument. However, if you ever use this line of reasoning against a non-Protestant, they will simply reply, “How is asking a saint to pray for me any different than asking you to pray for me?” They will go on to point out that to “pray” simply means to petition, so to pray to a saint is simply to petition them to talk to God on our behalf. If I ask you to pray that my week goes well, does that mean that I am turning you into an idol? Did that mean that I was using you to replace the mediatory role of Christ? Certainly not. So why is it any different if I ask Saint Ignatius to pray for me? If we say that the difference is that you can hear me and Saint Ignatius cannot, then I can accept that. But although talking to someone who can’t hear me may be a waste of time, do we really want to call it idolatry? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that it is idolatry to talk to someone who cannot hear me. If it is, then am I guilty of idolatry every time I speak to my wife when I think she is in the same room but she really isn’t?

Of course, the above argument breaks down when we realize that petitioning a saint to pray for me is not like asking a living person to pray for me. Return to the analogy with pagan polytheism. On a grass-roots level, the invocation of saints has functioned very similarly to the invocation of pagan gods and goddesses, together with all the superstitions that went along with it. In fact, a good historical argument can be made that the former was the genesis of the latter.

Moreover, the devotional lives of many non-Protestants are testimony to the fact that in practice the saints function as a half-way house between us and God. Because the saints are holier than us, and because they are already in God’s presence, the assumption is often that it can be effective to ask them to put in a good word for us. Tom Wright describes how the dynamic works in his book For All The Saints:
Within this scheme, the saints, being in heaven and in the intimate presence of God, could pray directly to him on behalf of those still here on earth. The image in mind is of a medieval court. Here I am, let us suppose, in my village a hundred miles away from London. How can i get the king to take any notice of me? Well, there is a man from my village, an old friend of my father's, who is the chief pastry-cook at the palace. He will put in a word for me. I have, in that sense, 'a friend at court'. In the same way, the saints were thought of as being that much closer to God than we were; but since they were our own folk, humans like us, they could sympathize with us, see the problems we were facing, and present our case before the royal throne. To this end, we in turn could and should call upon them ('invoke' is the word normally used), asking them to pray for us, and sometimes simply asking them to do things for us directly. This aspect of belief in the saints, in their accessibility to us and usefulness on our behalf, was and is among the most popular features of piety for some Christians...
In this way, the invocation of saints has functioned to obscure the reality both of our direct access to the King, and of Jesus’ closeness to each and every one of us by virtue of His humanity. The problem is that our Heavenly Father is not some distant king that we can more effectively reach by going through someone else; on the contrary, each and every one of us should feel confident to approach Him directly through the blood of Jesus.

Thus, when the issue is fleshed out a bit, we see that the common Protestant objection - that saints subtract from Christ’s mediator role - is essentially a sound objection provided that it is filled in a bit in the way I am doing with attention to what happens on ground level.

Still, someone might rejoin, as long as one avoids the above tendencies, is it idolatrous to ask saints to intercede? Given that idolatry is fundamentally a state of the heart, it is impossible to answer a question like this in the abstract. Yet even if one avoids the errors mentioned above, and even if one has not turned the saints into idols, there are still good reasons not to invoke their intercessions.
One such reason is that it is far from certain that the saints can actually hear us (I can think of no Biblical evidence suggesting that they can hear us), so speaking to them may be a waste of time. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the saints do hear us when we speak to them. That would mean that popular saints, such as Mary, would have to be virtually omnipresent to process all the requests simultaneously occurring at any one point of time. To assume that Mary can hear and deal with the requests of her votaries is to assume that she has transcended certain limitations of being a creature. Now in principle this is not problematic, since we know that sanctification involves taking up many aspects of the divine nature. But unless we have evidence for thinking it is probable that Mary has indeed been endowed with these sort of abilities, talking to her may be an exercise in futility. Some have suggested that when we talk to the saints, God picks up our requests and ‘delivers’ those requests to the saint in question. In that scenario, what is happening is this: I am asking Mary to pray for me; God picks up my request for Mary and delivers it; Mary receives my request and then delivers it back to God. Apart from the problem that this is all pure speculation, my immediate question would be: why not just streamline the process by going directly to God in the first place? (I am not, of course, implying that those who pray to saints do not also pray to God.)

One final problem arises from the fact that in practice petitions to saints function very much like prayer to God and even (dare I say it) like worship. Would you talk to another human being like the Eastern Orthodox talk to Saint Nicholas in the following prayer? (I’ve picked on Saint Nicholas because he was being specially venerated at a service we attended a few years ago):

With divine myrrh the divine grace of the Spirit anointed thee,
who didst preside as the leader of Myra,
and having made the ends of the world fragrant with the myrrh of virtues,
thou holiest of men,
through the pleasant breathings of thine intercessions
always driving away the evil stench of the passions.
Therefore, in faith we render thee great praise,
and celebrate thine all-holy memory, O Nicholas.
O blessed Nicholas,
show compassion to me who fall down praying to thee;
and enlighten the eyes of my soul, O wise one,
that I may clearly behold the Light-Giver and Compassionate One.
The truth of things revealed thee to thy flock as a rule of faith,
an icon of meekness and a teacher of temperance;
therefore, thou hast achieved the heights by humility, riches by poverty.
O Father and Hierarch Nicholas,
intercede with Christ God that our souls be saved.

Saint Nicholas
While it might be hard to isolate any one aspect of the above prayer and label it as idolatry, let’s consider the whole package. This is a prayer being offered up to Nicholas in a service devoted especially to him in which there are icons of Nicholas that the priest can bow down to while offering the prayer. Moreover, the prayer itself shows that there is more going on than merely asking a saint to pray for me and praising God's work in his life. The assumption seems to be that Nicholas himself has power to grant our requests (“show compassion to me…enlighten the eyes of my soul”), including helping us in our salvation (“intercede with Christ God that our souls be saved”). Given this whole package, I think it seems appropriate to question the legitimacy of it.
Now I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In the book of Revelation the martyrs in heaven are interceding for justice to be done on the earth (Rev. 6:10). Thus, I have no problem affirming that the saints in heaven are interceding for us. But this is something very different to evoking their help or assuming they can help us in a way that requires levels of functional divinity.

One final point before I leave the subject of saints. One of the saddest things about the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox misuse of saints is that many Protestants are afraid of giving our mothers and fathers in the faith their due honor. This is once again a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Protestant approaches to Mary. Though Mary said herself that future generations would call her blessed, there are many Protestants who hate Mary with a passion, while others simply ignore her altogether. This is quite sad and we Protestants have a long way to go to recover a proper and balanced Maryology. 

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