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Praying to the Saints

Craig Smith on January 10, 2012 - 11:12 am in Biblical Studies, Catholicism, Craig Smith, Theology, Tough Questions
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by Craig Smith, Ph.D.

One of the common theological conflicts between Protestant and Catholic Christians relates to the practice of praying to the saints.  Historically, Catholics have maintained that praying to the saints is a biblical practice while Protestants of averred that the practice cannot be justified biblically.

I am sometimes asked if there are specific biblical passages that speak against praying to the saints.  While it might be nice to have that kind of direct teaching on the matter, there are no such texts.  However, this does not mean that the issue is a gray area, open to debate and differing opinion.  On the contrary, I think I can say with some certainty that praying to the saints cannot be justified biblically.  The reason that there are no explicit statements against praying to the saints is simply that no biblical author had any need to address such a thing. This concept did not enter into the church until long after the canon of Scripture had been closed.  Consequently, no biblical text directly speaks against a practice that the writers could not imagine needing to address.

In the Old Testament, it was well understood that only God could receive prayers.  The concept of praying to the saints is, to the best of my knowledge, completely unknown in the Old Testament period.  You will occasionally find Catholic lists of OT verses which supposedly give justification for praying to the saints, but a quick glance at them will make it clear that these verses demonstrate the power of prayers made by the saints, but do not speak at all of making prayers to these saints.

Similarly, in the New Testament, prayers were directed to God alone, albeit with the understanding that Jesus was revealed to be God.  Remember that the first Christians were all Jews, so they would have brought their prayers-go-to-God-only theology into the New Testament period.  So again, no one wrote against praying to the saints simply because no one thought you could do so.

A related truth which must be kept in mind is that the Catholic view of what constitutes a saint is very difficult to square with the biblical evidence.  See, the Catholic view says, essentially, “saints are super-spiritual people who have attained a level of holiness that far exceeds the average Christian’s.  Consequently, they are favored by God in distinct ways and can function as intermediaries between God and the average Christian.”  I suppose, on a surface level, this makes sense, because after all, the Bible does say that the prayers of a righteous man accomplish much (James 5:16). So I can see how asking super-righteous people to pray for us would make a certain kind of sense. However, this thinking flies directly in the face of the clear biblical teaching that Christ is the only mediator between God and man (1Ti. 2:5).  But the real problem here is that this view of what constitutes a saint is flawed.  The Bible uses the word “saints” to refer to all Christians, because all who trust in Christ have been forgiven and are therefore righteous/holy before God. In essence, the word “saints” as used in the New Testament means “those who have been forgiven and set apart by Christ”.[1] It does not refer to particular practices of holiness or to achieved levels of daily righteousness but only to their position before God.[2] So the New Testament doesn’t even distinguish between Christians who are not saints and Christians who are saints.  All Christians are “saints”.  Setting apart some Christians as “saints” and praying to them therefore simply doesn’t square with the biblical teaching on this matter.

However, there are a few verses which have been thought to support the idea of praying to the saints.  Rev. 5:8-14 is perhaps the most-cited text, but as many scholars have shown clearly, this passage simply doesn’t teach that.  There are numerous good expositions of this text available online.  CARM has an excellent one available here.

Another oft-cited passage is Philemon 1:5 which, in some translations, seems to affirm faith in the saints:

KJV: Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints;

NAS: because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints;

On the surface, this does seem to affirm having faith in the saints, but on closer inspection we find that it doesn’t actually do so.  This verse is structured in a way that was very common to the ancient world but which is easily overlooked by modern readers.  The verse is in chiastic form, where the elements of the first half of the verse (here love and faith) correspond to the elements of the second half in reverse order (here Jesus and the saints):

A …your love

B and your faith

C which you have

B’ toward the Lord Jesus

A’ and unto[3] all the saints

And remember that “saints” refers to all Christians, not to some super-spiritual subset of believers.  This sentiment is paralleled in Eph. 1:15 where the word-order makes the connections more obvious to modern readers:  ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people… and in Col. 1:4:  because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people… What Paul is affirming here is the love of all Christians and faith in Jesus.

In short, while the New Testament does not have any direct statements denouncing prayers to the saints, this is because no one to whom the texts were written would have considered doing such a thing.  The texts which have sometimes been used in an attempt to justify prayers to the saints do so only when the original intent of those texts is misunderstood.

[1] The Greek term normally translated as “saints” in the New Testament is hagios which literally means something like “set apart for sacred purposes”.  It does not necessarily make any statement about the inherent quality of the object which has led to it being set apart but only speaks to the status of the object as set apart.  In other words, a sacred/holy thing didn’t become sacred/holy because it was better but became sacred/holy because it had been set apart for such purposes.

[2] Theologically, there is a difference between imputed holiness and practical holiness.  When a person trusts in the atoning work of Christ and is forgiven of their sins, they are declared holy on the basis of Christ’s work.  This is a forensic (legal) righteousness that is not directly linked to personal practice.  Following this initial transformation, the person grows in their personal righteousness and becomes, over time, progressively more and more holy in practice.  But it is on the basis of the initial, forensic, imputed righteousness that all Christians are called saints.

[3] These correspondences are somewhat more clear in the original Greek.  Most English translations translate here both the terms pros (“pros the Lord Jesus”) and eis (“eis the Lord Jesus”) as “toward” but the shift in terms, though they are often used synonymously, indicates that no element in the first half was intended to correspond to both elements in the second half.  Moreover, there do not seem to be any instances in the Greek NT where agape (love) or agapao (the verb form) take a pros to indicate the object of that love. Agape/agapao with an eis, however, is relatively common.

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  • November 1, 2011

    What is your view on Noah’s Ark?
    I have seen xrays of the Middle East concerning the Great Flood.
    I do not believe that the entire world was covered in water.
    Had there been an ark to save ALL of the animals, it would have
    been the size of a massive air craft carrier.
    I believe there was a man named Noah who did save some animals. But he could not have possibly saved two of every species of animals.

  • November 8, 2011

    Well, I do think the Bible is a reliable account of the historical events it describes and, in the case of the Noah account, this is supported by a number of different lines of evidence that come from outside the Bible. For starters, nearly every culture on the planet has an ancient story of a great flood that nearly destroyed all of humanity. I can’t help but think that there is a single story that gave rise to these common myths and the biblical account seems a likely candidate for the truth behind these other stories. The ark itself as described in the Bible was enormous, so could house a large number of animals. However, I tend to think that it’s a mistake to speak of “species”. The biblical term is “kinds” which doesn’t quite conform to the more technical description of “species” (though science has a hard time nailing down a definition of the term “species”). The biblical “kind” relates, I believe, to a category of animal from which emerged the various related “species”, not by evolution per-se, but be de-evolution…the gradual elemination of pre-existing genetic variety because of isolation and survival of the fittest. In other words, there was a dog “kind” which gave rise to the wolf, the coyote, the various breeds of domesticated dogs, etc. The original “kind” had a great deal more genetic variety than any of the descendents, so this isn’t Darwinian evolution but something else entirely. Given that, it may be that Noah didn’t need to have nearly as many animals on the ark as we tend to think would be required from the current bio-diversity on earth.

  • November 27, 2011

    I have a couple of thoughts on your address of this difficult issue. I was raised Lutheran, attended ORU (as a good Lutheran, of course ;)) and was a member of a non-denominational church for ten years before marrying my beloved who is a Lutheran. I believe I am a Christian (a follower of Christ) currently called to serve as He wills in the Lutheran church. Three out of four of my best (girl) friends are Catholics, one a more recent convert to Catholicism from being raised by a Lutheran pastor.
    I have not studied the Catholic traditions; I have no question to the fact that the children of God I have known to be Catholics are people I admire and love; I have absolutely 100% no question of their “Christianity” – that they are devout followers of Christ.

    I personally do not agree with the teaching of “praying” to the saints, but at the ripe old age of 41 have come to the conclusion that I could possibly somehow (albeit infathomable to me) might be wrong in my understanding and conclusions of scripture in some areas. When GOD speaks – as was so incredibly taught at the past Word Conference, the single best Word Conference I have EVER been to (I’ve been to quite a few conferences) – HE is pretty darn clear on things. Humans however, tend
    1. My friend informs me (so this is third party info) that the term “praying to the saints” comes from the Old English “I pray Thee” – to ask someone to do something for them. The Catholics, from my understanding believe that there is one body on heaven and on earth, that those who are gone on before us can still pray to God for us. So, like I sometimes ask my mom to please “pray for me” they are just asking the saints in heaven to “please pray for us.” I don’t feel comfortable with the teaching personally and prefer to pray to God myself, but perhaps it is correct. There is no true Biblical proof, I believe, against the concept. My only arguement is that I believe death is mentioned as “entering into rest” and I can not at all see it restful for Daniel, or the saints gone on before us if they are constantly having to carry the burden of prayers before the Father for us. I hurt emotionally and sometimes physically when I carry those prayers for a friend to the Father. It does say however in th Bible that Christ is always intercedeing for us, but I would think that if those gone on before were there interceding too, God would have mentioned that a bit more clearly. The only concern I would have would be if such praying would hinder prayers being heard, but I can not think so as I believe my friends’ prayers (Catholic prayers) to be of much value to me, though only God can judge such things. I would say, let those who believe this is right do so and do not judge them and let those who believe it is right to just pray to God and not ask those dead by human terms to also do so and both trust God to unite those prayers by His grace and bring healing and forgiveness to His precious church.

    2. Regarding being holy, forgive my tiredness, I am not up to looking it up, I believe it is Paul to says to clean out the vessel of impure things that we might be used by God for set apart purposes. So while it is only God who makes us holy, we have the choice to remove wickedness from our lives to allow ourselves to be set apart for His purposes. Also, if you study the line of the Levites in the Old Testament, those who were “set apart” to be priests of God, you will see that those first Levites chose to kill their own brothers (other Israelites) in zeal for God and were so awarded the “call” to be set apart at that time. So the first Levites’ works and actions in loving and believing God allowed them to be “set apart” or “holy” to God. Those Levites who chose to not obey God in later years, such as Eli, were removed from the priesthood, so being “chosen” or “set apart” has human will and actions involved, though it is God who makes us holy. Much as a man and a woman must come together in physical agreement for there to be a child, so the work of God in our lives can not be accomplished without God’s initiative and love and desire for us, but if we, like the female, refuse to receive the seed of God’s Word planted in us, nothing can be born. We must act upon our faith or it is not faith (it is dead.) If you believe your boss will pay you, you will most likely work for him/her. If you are told they are no longer paying their employees, yet the boss says that he/she will pay you, what you believe will be evident from whether or not you show up for work. It is to believe God that is important. Belief has actions. Not make-believe. Believe. 🙂 We don’t serve a fairy god-mother God. We serve the risen Christ who is proven, as so well was shown in the Word Conference, to have died on the cross and resurrected from the dead. What we choose to now do with that knowledge (quite a scary thing; we hold in our possession a knowledge far greater than the cure for cancer ever will be) will be seen on the Day the Lord returns and the world, including ourselves, are judged.

    Last quick thought, Paul rebuked one of the churches because they were saying “I follow Paul and I follow Apollos.” I personally believe 🙂 all such divisions are wrong. “I follow Peter. I follow Luther. I follow….” Christ’s body is to be diverse, not divided. But He will bring it to pass and it is time, I believe, for the walls that divided us once to be torn down. For theology to submit to agape love and for our doctrines to be submited to Christ’s truth in the Word. That we make a doctrine when it is infallible in scripture and be honest when we seek to call our conclusions facts and admit we were wrong.

    If we make doctrinal boxes where God did not create doctrinal boxes (walls meant to keep others who believe differently out), we will find in the Day He comes, those boxes will be as effective as a beautifully decorated cardboard box containing a nuclear bomb. God’s Word is truth. You can not contain Him in theories or doctrines, but amazingly as the Glory of God resides in temples of flesh, so He is the Word that is made Flesh. I do not know if I can say He is “contained” there, but He is.

    Prayers this ministry continues and continues in God’s grace and love. The conference was an immense blessing to me.
    God’s peace and joy be yours in Christ Jesus – Christa 🙂