Is Praying to the Saints Blasphemy or a Genuine Christian Practice?

cloud of witnesses

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:

  1. The Bible clearly says that God alone is to be worshiped; hence prayer to anyone or anything else is idolatry.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

 

 

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10 thoughts on “Is Praying to the Saints Blasphemy or a Genuine Christian Practice?

  1. “The Birmingham News – published an article critical of Catholics and their devotion to the saints. The article suggested that we don’t really need the saints. It argued that Christians should pray to God on their own and not ask the saints for prayer. As a convert to Catholicism, I thought the article really missed the point of devotion to the saints. I would now like to explain why.

    In the Bible (especially in the book of Ephesians) we learn that God wants to do more than save individuals. He wants to create a new human community, a family of God. We call this family the Church. This community is not like a normal human society. It is a supernatural community that transcends time and space. It encompasses everyone who is joined to Christ through faith – those on earth as well as those in heaven. It is a communion of love. In it, we support one another especially through prayer. As St. James says, “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another.” (James 5:16)

    We find a beautiful picture of this community in the Book of Revelation. The biblical writer depicts angels and saints in heaven, “elders” who have already passed through death. These saints are praying and worshipping God and offering up the prayers of those still on earth. (Revelation 5:8; Revelation 8:3) It is a picture of the next life we also find reflected in Jewish literature from before the time of Christ. (2 Maccabees 15:12-16; Tobit 12:12-15)

    This biblical picture of the Church explains why the earliest Christians found no difficulty asking for the prayers of the saints. This wasn’t a distraction from Christ. It was proof that the faithful on earth and the faithful in Heaven are still joined through Christ in holy friendship. Nor was devotion to the saints something that medieval Catholics made up. Even Protestant historians like Joachim Jeremias and secular historians like Peter Brown recognize that the practice is of Jewish origins. It reflects a thoroughly Hebraic, biblical, and communal picture of salvation. (Passages like 2 Kings 13:20-21 show how old these attitudes are.)

    Peter Brown also notes that pagans in Rome were perplexed by Christian devotion to the saints and their relics. Early Christians worshipped in cemeteries, catacombs, and among the dead. This was something pagans did not do. But the pagans failed to grasp why Christians did this. The earliest Christians believed in resurrection: the dead in Christ will rise again. Devotion to the saints and their relics witnessed to this faith. For Catholic Christians, death does not have the last word.

    Again, devotion to the saints is not something that appeared in the middle ages. It’s been part of Christianity from the beginning. Nor is it simply a Roman Catholic practice. Wherever you look in the ancient Christian world – Latin, Greek, Syriac, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Malabar (Indian), Assyrian (Persian), Catholic or Orthodox – we find devotion to the saints. Consistent opposition to the practice arose only in the Protestant Reformation – some 1500 years after the resurrection of Christ.

    Some non-Catholics wonder, “Why bother praying to saints? Why not just pray directly to God?” This objection simply doesn’t do justice to Catholic belief and practice. Of course Catholics pray directly to God! But biblical religion is a corporate affair. We pray directly to God, but we also pray and suffer for one another. St. Paul says we are Christ’s co-laborers. (2 Corinthians 6:1) He could even say, “I fill up in my own flesh whatever is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” (Colossians 1:24)

    The Bible says the church is “a mystery.” (Ephesians 5:32) One great mystery is why God would use men to accomplishes his purposes. God can give grace and forgiveness to each one directly, of course, but he also chooses to use human instruments. Christ told his apostles, “Whoever sins you forgive are forgiven.” (John 20:23). “What you bind on earth is bound in heaven.” (Matt. 18:18).”

    http://calvin2catholic.com/?p=300

  2. Very interesting indeed. Maybe a clarification on who a saint is would really help us here. By just reading the introduction of most of the letters in the new testament it is clear that all those who believe and have accepted the message of the cross are called saints, if this then is true, I cannot pray to but pray for or with period, since the person is right here in this earth with me. I also believe that following the great example of those saints who were before us will most definitely help in further clarification of this matter….you will never find anyone directing their prayers to a created being, but, they always to the only God of those saints but never to the saints. Lastly, I believe Jesus left us with a model prayer that if understood and followed correctly would bring a great clarity to this matter…He says, we must say, our Father, who is in heaven… I therefore conclude that prayers belong to God alone and therefore should be addressed to him alone, praying for other living people or praying with them is biblical and very logical. Once a person dies whether a saint or sinner, the is no relationship between the dead and the living, so, praying to them even if they are still alive spiritually is simply idolatrous and umbilical.

  3. I come an evangelical/charismatic background. Thank you for explaining this- it makes complete sense.
    So you pray to saints (saint-status is determined by the church?), but what about regular believers who have passed on? For instance, if you had a close relationship with a grandfather who was a devoted Christian who helped teach and guide you in the faith- can you pray to him once he has died? Just curious as to the traditional/Orthodox view of that.

  4. Good question, Grace. We venerate only those who have been acknowledged by the Church as saints. A saint is one who has experienced theosis, which means they have become united with Christ. Praying to anyone who has not been is necromancy and forbidden.

    Update: Just wanted to add something that I read from Timothy Ware’s book, “The Orthodox Church” which contradicts the last thing I said. He writes: “In private an Orthodox Christian is free to ask for the prayers of any member of the Church, whether canonized or not… In its public worship, however, the Church usually asks the prayers only of those whom it has officially proclaimed as saints.” (P.256). I would go with Ware’s understanding, rather than mine. 🙂

  5. Sikelea, My reply is quite long but I wanted to answer your whole post, so here it goes:

    You said,

    “Very interesting indeed. Maybe a clarification on who a saint is would really help us here. By just reading the introduction of most of the letters in the new testament it is clear that all those who believe and have accepted the message of the cross are called saints, if this then is true, I cannot pray to but pray for or with period, since the person is right here in this earth with me.”

    So, a few things here. By “saints” the article is specifically speaking of those saints that have been canonized by the Orthodox Church (and/or Roman Catholic prior to the great schism in the 11th century). Of course all who are united to Christ, whether alive or passed on, are saints. The difference here is the universal acknowledgement of those particular saints whose legacy/life has been recognized as that of a true saint by the Church. For example, you may know that your grandmother is a saint, but the Church doesn’t know her. If the Church did know her because her life made that great of an impact that it took notice and canonized her, then we would all know she is a saint and could therefore also venerate and ask for her intercession. As I noted in response to the post just above, one is free to privately ask for the prayers of any member of the Church.

    “I also believe that following the great example of those saints who were before us will most definitely help in further clarification of this matter….you will never find anyone directing their prayers to a created being, but, they always to the only God of those saints but never to the saints.”

    This point seems a bit lacking. You note that we should look to the example of those saints who were before us and we will find a complete lack of prayers to the saints (or as you put it, created beings). I have to assume that you mean only those saints spoken of in Scripture, which leaves almost 2000 years of a gap. If one has any familiarity of Church history they know that prayers to the saints has literally always been normative in the Church, which was a point made in the article. So, yes, all the saints we know of – canonized and members of the Church historic – directed petitions (prayers) to the saints before them for their intercessions/prayers to Christ. But if you simply mean that the Bible lacks these examples then that leads us to a different sort of problem. You seem to be saying that in Scripture silence is prohibition. In other words, we don’t read of, say, Peter praying to saints thus it is prohibited. This is a dangerous way to do theology when one considers the myriad of practices all Christians everywhere are involved in which are not specifically commanded in Scripture. There is no prohibition through silence. In fact, if the 24 elders in heaven fall down before Christ with “golden vials full of odors, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev 5:8) then the opposite is demonstrated in Scripture: the saints in heaven do receive the prayers of living saints and offer them before Christ.

    “Lastly, I believe Jesus left us with a model prayer that if understood and followed correctly would bring a great clarity to this matter…He says, we must say, our Father, who is in heaven… I therefore conclude that prayers belong to God alone and therefore should be addressed to him alone, praying for other living people or praying with them is biblical and very logical.”

    You made a very telling admission in this section. You stated, “I therefore conclude…” This is a very Protestant way of thinking about Scripture and theology. I gave this up when I became Orthodox and it has been a well of endless peace (no exaggeration). I no longer look to myself for the wisdom and brilliance needed to interpret the deepest and most spiritual book ever produced in heaven or on earth. I trust the ministry of the Holy Spirit active in the Church through the council of the saints to reveal the hidden things in Scripture for what they are. And what they have revealed is contrary to your main thesis on prayer to the saints. Plus, the argument you are making from the Lord’s Prayer is the same error I just covered above, i.e., the idea that silence is prohibition.

    “Once a person dies whether a saint or sinner, the is no relationship between the dead and the living, so, praying to them even if they are still alive spiritually is simply idolatrous and umbilical.”

    This statement reflects a very thin understanding and relationship with the Body of Christ. Of course we have relationship with the saints that have passed on. Have they ceased to be the Body of Christ? Is Christ’s body annihilated in death? God is not the God of the dead but the living. Recall the mount of transfiguration when Christ meets with Moses and Elijah. These are not dead saints, they live. This is actually the gospel message in a nutshell. Far from idolatrous, the Christian who treats the heavenly cloud of witnesses as “friends” treats them exactly in the manner that Christ spoke of them (He called them friends). If asking one of Christ’s friends to pray for you is idolatrous then there is simply no body of Christ. The Church is a myth.

    I covered a lot of this in the article, my hope is that you read it and missed it rather than not read it and responded based simply on the title. But regardless it’s a pleasure interacting with you. Cheers.

  6. Sikelela, I’m going to chime in a bit here as well. Do you ask people on earth to pray for you? Perhaps your friends or family? The Holy Scriptures admonish us to pray for one another (James 5:6, 1 Timothy 2:1, Ephesians 6:18..you get the picture). To

    We see in Luke 16:19-31 that the dead are conscious and still concerned with those of us on earth. Abraham who is in paradise hears the rich man who is not. The rich man is praying for his family and their salvation.

    In Revelation (4:4, 10, 11; 5:8-10, 13; 6:9-11; 7:9-12) we see the saints are ever before the throne of God and that they cry out to him, offering their prayers to Him. One verse, in particular, Revelations 5:8 is worth quoting directly here, “The four living creatures and the *twenty-four elders* fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the *prayers of the saints.*”

    On Mount Tabor (Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-10; Luke 9:28-36), Moses and Elijah appeared with Christ and conversed with Him. They are still alive, and we see the living and the dead able to communicate, not just with Christ, but the disciples knew what was going on and offered to build a tabernacle!

    Perhaps one of the greatest examples to show our connection with those who have gone before us is found in Hebrews 12:1. After a litany of Old TEstament saints who showed great faith, the writer tells us that we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” We aren’t told that they are somewhere far away and disconnected from us, but that they surround us. The Church has always interpreted this, along with other verses, to show a connection between the Church militant and the triumphant. The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius, an early second-century document, details a vision seen by Christians of St. Ignatius, newly martyred, continuing to pray for them.]

    The intercessions of the saints is, as Eric noted, contingent upon their relationship with God. We are not asking them to grant our prayers, but that they join us in interceding before God with us. St. Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 9:22 and Romans 11:14 that he “saves.” Do we understand this to mean that St Paul himself is responsible for the salvation of those of whom he is talking? No, not of his own accord, but through Christ. The same is the case for the intercessions of the saints.

    I know this is a bit disconnected, but I’m writing this with a 17 month in my lap and that makes cohesiveness a little difficult. I hope this helps.

  7. I get your reasoning for why its not bad to pray to saints, and since reading the article have considered changing my view on prayer to saints (although not quite yet, I try to do my own research before changing my mind on something). But the small paragraph you give defending why pray to saints in the first place seems less that satisfactory, can you further elaborate on that? As a Christian you live and talk and commune with other christians, so prayer to saints isn’t neccessary to converse and suffer along side fellow christians. From my knowledge the bible never instructs believers to prayer to anyone but God, so why do something that is purely tradition and not founded in the bible? Thank you for any answers!

  8. Hi Anon, sorry for the long delay in responding. Good questions. If you look back to the reply made by Thom Crowe just above your post you’ll find some excellent examples from Scripture that justify asking the saints for their prayers in heaven (rather than copy and paste or rewrite it I point you there instead). These Scripture references make the case that its not just a matter of tradition outside of Scripture but is a practice fully in line with both, which is why it has literally always been a normative practice in Christianity from the earliest time of the Church in which we have records of.

  9. Thank you, Eric. This is beautifully explained. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, of which I am a member of, has always drawn a clear line that delineates “worship” from “veneration”. Its sad to see many misunderstand that distinction.

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