Many Christians today believe the practice of praying to the saints is as bizarre as it is blasphemous; at the very least something condemned in Scripture. However, it would shock many to know that prayers to the saints, in particular Mary, has always been a standard practice in the Christian faith. I only assume this is shocking for a majority of Christians due to the fact that today most have, at best, an elementary knowledge of the faith, or so the statistics would have us believe. This is sad, but true.
Protestants, and especially modern day Evangelicals, from which I hail, absolutely deny the validity of prayers to the saints regardless of the fact that it is a thoroughgoing historical Christian practice. How is this possible? From my experience Protestant Christians have three basic arguments against praying to saints that override any sense of allegiance to the historic Church and her tradition, and I will do my best to present them in succinct fashion and discuss them in turn. Here they are:
- The Bible clearly says that God alone is to be worshiped; hence prayer to anyone or anything else is idolatry.
- The Bible says Christ is the only mediator between man and God and therefore prayers to saints for help is a direct contradiction to Scripture.
- The saints have no power to save; only Christ can save. Therefore to call on saints to save is blasphemous.
I’m sure there are more arguments against prayers to the saints, but these should do as a broad representation of the basic Protestant view. For those who hold the doctrine of Sola Scriptura these may seem like convincing arguments, and in order to hold to Sola Scriptura one must, on some level, supplant Holy Tradition in order to make room for this doctrinal innovation. But one need not argue against Sola Scriptura to make the case for praying to saints, in fact, and this might be quite bold, one need not argue from Holy Tradition either. I’ll attempt to do so with only two sources: Scripture and logic.
And let’s be honest, if this article is to have any relevance, if it is to have any hope of persuasion, for the Protestant then the argument cannot be made from Holy Tradition. Holy Tradition is persuasive for those initiated into its life, but until that time comes for the individual, appealing to the authority of Holy Tradition is about as convincing to the Protestant as appealing to the authority of Scripture is to the atheist. So instead, let me argue from a point of view that Protestants might be more willing to hear and perhaps even take a second listening to.
1. The Orthodox Church (as well as other high-churches like Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism) draw a strict separation between veneration and worship. There can be no serious attempt to condemn Orthodox Christians of worshiping the saints any more than there can be a serious attempt to condemn Southern Baptists of promoting gay marriage. The strict worship of God and God alone is the hallmark of Orthodoxy and has been defended at the price of bloodshed, torture, and death for 2 millennia. Anyone interested in investigating the difference between veneration and worship should do a quick internet search to get some grounding on the topic (I’m choosing not to rehash such rudimentary things here as it has been done in depth elsewhere).
But the second issue on this objection is the idea of prayer being synonymous with worship. Orthodox Christians take the Biblical teaching of the fellowship of the saints very seriously. When the Bible speaks of the great cloud of witnesses, we believe those witnesses are alive and deified in Christ. Thus when an Orthodox Christian talks to a saint who has ended his or her earthly journey, and is now in the presence of God, he is not talking to the dead but the living; however, this “talk” is prayer, since the saint is not present in the body (in this sense prayer simply denotes communication taking place on a heavenly plain). Therefore, praying to the saints is not to be conflated with worshiping the saints.
2. Christ is the only mediator between God and man, but since when did that stop a Protestant from asking his pastor to pray for him? Indeed, why ask anyone to pray for you if Christ alone is the mediator? Could it be that both the Protestant and the Orthodox understand that there is a difference between Christ as the sole mediator and fellow believers as intercessors? St. Paul certainly did. Just before he said, “There is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” (1Tim 2:5), he exhorts Christians to make “supplications, prayers, and intercessions… for all men” (1Tim 2:1). Therefore, when the Orthodox Christian prays to a saint asking for his or her intercessions he is merely following Scripture and believing what Scripture says about the power of the intercession of the saints.
3. As far as the saints having no power to save, this argument is a hard sell for those who believe Scripture. Hear St. Paul once again:
“For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them.” (Rom. 11:13-14)
For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife? (I Cor. 7:16)
…to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. (I Cor. 9:22)
Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you. (I Tim. 4:16)
Or St. James:
“And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” (James 5:15)
Or St. Peter:
“There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism…” (I Peter 3:21)
Or St. Jude:
“And on some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh.” (Jude 1:22-23)
The Orthodox Christian is not calling on saints to provide the salvation that only Christ accomplished, rather they call on them in the same spirit found throughout the New Testament. The saints are not only faithful believers, but, according to Orthodox doctrine of salvation, have experienced theosis (deification) and intercede on a level far less limited than one’s pastor intercedes, or friends, or family, or anyone alive for that matter. And this is anything but pejorative towards one’s pastor, family, and friends, God forbid, my point is only that the intercession of the saints is absolutely imperative for the Christian life, and we neglect them to our own detriment.