A Non-Catholic’s Answer to Questions on Saints

As I mentioned yesterday, I wanted to take a stab at answering some questions that Jim West asked about the Catholic view on the communion of the saints, from the perspective of a non-Catholic.

1. What biblical or theological justification is there to pray for the dead?

This depends on the Bible. In a canon that has 2 Maccabees 12:40-45 the case is easy to make Observe:

Then under the tunic of each one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was the reason these men had fallen. So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been committed might be wholly blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened as the result of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead.  But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin. (2 Macc. 12:40-45 NRSV)

But what if 2 Maccabees isn’t in your Bible? Can you justify praying for the dead theologically or scripturally in such an instance? I think you can. We tend to equate prayers for the dead with the doctrine of purgatory. Why would we pray for someone who has died unless they were stuck in purgatory? What if we reject purgatory? What would be the point of praying for someone in heaven? Well, if we, along with Jesus, accept that God is the God of the living and not of the dead (Matt. 22:32), then we can assume that those who have died (physically that is) are still alive in/with Christ, and we can think of ways that praying for them could make sense. For example, have you ever prayed for God to continue to bless someone after learning that he has already blessed them? I have! Why not pray for God to continue to bless those saints in heaven who are enjoying life with him? That seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It’s theologically defensible on the basis that even dead saints are really still living.

2. What biblical or theological justification is there for believing that the dead pray for us?

Kevin Edgecomb mentioned in a comment on my post from yesterday that the command to love our neighbors as ourselves offers biblical and theological justification for the belief that the dead pray for us. I hadn’t considered that before his saying it, but it makes sense. I personally would have suggested that Revelation 5:8 and 6:9-11 offers the biblical and theological justification for believing that the dead can pray for us. In Revelation 5:8 the twenty-four elders fall before the Lamb holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. If they’re capable to presenting the prayers of the saints to the Lamb then it stands to reason that they’re aware of them. In Revelation 6:9-11 the saints cry out for vengeance for their being martyred and are told to wait until the full number of their brothers and sisters are martyred before their prayers are answered. The point is that they can pray in heaven.

3. How is ‘praying to a saint’ different from idolatry?

It would depend on the nature of the prayer I suppose. I understand prayer to saints as asking the saints to pray for or with us. This is no different than asking living saints to pray for or with us. Prayers of intercession and agreement are common amongst the saints on earth; why exclude the saints in heaven from participating in this practice? Now if one prays to saints in place of God then I think a strong case for idolatry could be made.

4. Isn’t it idolatrous to place your faith in any for salvation other than Christ?

It sure is. I’m not convinced that asking the saints (dead or alive) to intercede or agree with us constitutes placing faith in someone other than Christ for salvation.

5. Isn’t the entire notion of the invocation of the saints idolatrous and blasphemous?

I don’t think so. See answers to 3 & 4 above.

B”H

14 thoughts on “A Non-Catholic’s Answer to Questions on Saints

  1. Nick: Sadly, the practise in the Roman Catholic Church has been different, and even sometimes idolatrous! And I have no anti-Catholic axe to grind, I have family cousins and friends that are still RC. And even a few priest friends. But we simply must admit this! The whole Mediatorship of Christ is alone His: and from both His being: True God and true Man, a unity but not fusion really of the two natures. Our Communion with Christ comes from His Regeneration & Sanctification both in us, and for us. But we only pray in Jesus Name, and through His power and ability. Praying to another besides Christ, does not seem to measure this biblical standard! My simple thoughts anyway! :)

  2. Fr. Robert: I don’t think we can say that the practice of the Roman Catholic Church has been different. I think we can say that of individual Catholics though. And of course the mediatorship of Christ is his alone! No one, so far as I know, is claiming Christ’s mediatorial role as their own.

  3. Nick: Of course the RCC is somewhat ethnic, i.e. I mean where one might be at, Irish Catholic, Polish Catholic, South America, etc. I have noted that the English Catholics have perhaps some of the least aspects toward pagan ideas. But I am adverse to praying to the dead myself now. Of course I have come back to a Protestant view and vision of Christianity myself. And for sometime now. :) And the whole idea of the Roman priesthood, sharing in the priesthood of Christ, and renewing the sacrifice of Christ (unbloody), and forgiving sin in the sacrament of pentance is simply well beyond scripture! No, not for me! :)

  4. Fr. Robert: I don’t personally pray to the dead but I’m not opposed to it. It’s just not a practice that’s common the circles I travel so it’s not ingrained in me. I think all of the things you’ve objected to can be defended from Scripture. How persuasive someone finds each argument is another matter. We’ll have to save that discussion for another time.

  5. Nick: Yeah I somewhat agree, I have had a real Protestant and Reformed type of conversion after being Roman Catholic (this was years ago), and I have certainly ebbed and flowed in the High Church myself, being Anglican. So I cannot say I have not been affected at certain levels. But when I am pushed, I always turn to the Holy Scripture or Bible, for my final answers. I think too, you can see that I also favor a presuppositional approach to Scripture. But, yes we can leave it. :)

  6. Hmmm…dead or un-dead maybe that’s the question…I was watching a Catholic sister speak about Mary and the question of praying to the dead was raised. The sister simply smiled sweetly and said,”Mary’s not dead.” Then the question of speaking to or praying to the dearly departed in Christ comes up…are those given to this practice actually praying to the departed in Christ or merely sending postcards to a loved one in a far country? The questions just seem to open doors better left shut.

  7. Nancy: In one sense I can agree that Mary’s not dead since she’s alive in Christ and God is the God of the living, but Catholics believe in the bodily assumption of Mary, so they’d say she’s not dead in a different sense. And what fun is it when we only go through the doors we’re supposed to? ;-)

  8. And as Christ said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by (through) me.” (John 14:6) This must also include prayer! In “Jesus Name”. Amen!

  9. EDH: From the Catholic standpoint there’s a process of beatification and canonization whereby one is declared a saint. It involves the examination of a candidate’s life (e.g., what they taught, how they lived, good works they’ve done, if they died a martyr, etc.) and the investigation of miracles said to have been performed in their name by their intercession. If memory serves, one miracles will get you beatification and the right to be called “Blessed” while two miracles or more will get you canonization and the right to be called a “Saint” (you’ll probably want to double-check that). So if one has been canonized then it’s a safe bet that the one praying to them is praying to a saint.

    From a non-Catholic standpoint I’d say that all believers are saints and anyone who died in the faith is a saint. But then again, non-Catholics don’t generally pray to departed saints, even if some of us don’t have a problem with others doing it.

  10. Thanks for the quick response Nick!

    Also thanks for linking to that Catholic blog. I’m very happy to see that what I’ve always heard about Catholics believing a grace + works gospel seems to be a myth according to their official beliefs.

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