Monday, May 9, 2011

Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (3): Praying to Saints

Below is the third installment in the series I'm publishing on behalf of a friend entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George." Before reading and responding with comments, please be sure to read my introduction and the author's introduction to this series at the first posting entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (1): The Via Media." And also read "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (2): Catholic Protestants."

Dear Geneva George,

Alright, I concede that I equivocated on my definition of “catholic” and “catholicity.” And certainly I do agree that not all the problems in Roman Catholicism can be reduced to Rome simply not going far enough. Keep in mind that I was merely responding to the areas you had specifically addressed.

You ask whether I would use this same rubric for areas of clear excess rather than neglect, such as prayers to saints and the use of images in worship. If you don’t mind, I’d like to just reply to the issue of saints in this letter, and address the question of images in the next. As you may know, the high Anglican tradition leaves a great deal of freedom in both these areas.

I’ll be straight-forward with you George, I don’t pray to the saints. In N.T. Wright’s book For All the Saints? he goes into the origins and motivations behind prayers to the saints, and the book convinced me that such a practice is an unhelpful distraction.

Having said that, I want to point out that my reason for not praying to the saints is very different to yours. You say we shouldn’t pray to saints because it is “first degree idolatry” and you go on to say that “there is no clearer sign [than praying to saints] to prove that Rome is an apostate church.” From here you go on to argue that a Protestantism which seeks to emphasize its continuity with Rome is “seeking to build bridges with idolatry.”

It all seems very clear in your mind, yet a problem with your basic argument is that, if true, it proves too much. If what you say about 1 Timothy 2:5 is correct, then it would not only exclude us asking the saints to pray for us, but the same logic would also have to exclude us even asking our friends to pray for us.

When we were at the conference and I asked you to pray that my job interview went well, did that mean that I was 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 you say that the difference is that you can hear me and Saint Ignatius cannot, then I can accept that. I don’t ask the saints to pray for me because I don’t see any Biblical grounds for thinking that they can hear us. In order to hear everyone who is praying to them simultaneously in all the different time zones, the saints would have to be virtually omnipresent. But although talking to someone who can’t hear me may be a waste of time, do we really want to call this 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 a living person that fails to hear me?

One final thing. Regardless of whether the saints can hear us when we talk to them, we do know that they intercede for us. In the book of Revelation the martyrs in heaven are interceding for justice to be done on the earth (Rev. 6:10). Is it too much to hope that maybe some of them are also interceding for me?

Blessings in Christ,

Canterbury Chris

P.S. By the way, George, I’m currently reading The Catholicity of the Reformation, edited by Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson. It’s highly relevant to some of the issues we’ve been discussing and I recommend you try to get yourself a copy.


carl said...

The idolatry in praying to saints involves attributing to creatures the attributes of God. Too often I do not see examples of requests for intercession. I see requests for assistance and intervention. This is trivial to prove in terms of prayers to Mary. Marian devotion is chock full of her function deification. In addition, there is the whole issue of communicating with the dead.

I am enjoying the series and appreciate that you are doing it. After three rounds I would score it 10-9 / 10-9 / 10-9 for Geneva George. Oh, and a cut has been opened over your left eye. ;)

totally objective carl

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Carl. The author of this series is keen for thoughtful feedback and hopes to receive even more.

BC said...

I do have a lot of respect for the position outlined in the Letter - it is, after all, the position CS Lewis took in 'Letters to Malcolm'.

Then, however, I think of the Creed: "I believe ... in the communion of saints". As Lewis - and the Letter - affirm, the saints pray with us. Which means, surely, that the communion is of such a nature that they are not absent friends, ignorant of our circumstances.

The traditional petition associated with the intercession of the saints - 'ora pro nobis'/pray for us - is surely far removed from many of the more questionable aspects of the cultus of the saints that has been evident in popular expressions of Christian faith. (Does the 'Left Behind' series mean that all eschatology is to be rejected?)

Perhaps ARCIC indicated the way forward here: asking the saints for their prayers is not a communion-breaking issue.