Friday, June 04, 2010

Patristics and prayers to the dead

When Catholic and Orthodox apologists appeal to church fathers or ancient liturgies to establish the propriety of prayers to the dead, they illustrate the irrationality of their mindset. They’re so used to defaulting to tradition that they don’t stop to ask themselves some elementary questions, or draw some rudimentary distinction.

In matters of theology, the first question a Christian ought to ask himself is what was somebody in a position to know. Now it’s possible that some well-placed church fathers had independent information concerning certain details of NT history. That would at least involve ordinary channels of information.

But when we’re talking about prayers to the dead, we’re talking about the nature of the afterlife. Yet the only direct method of acquiring accurate information on the nature of the afterlife is to die and return from the dead. But, of course, death is normally a one-way street. None of the church fathers spent a week in heaven, hell, or “Purgatory,” then came back to tell the story.

In theory, what sources of information about the afterlife are even possible? And more to the point, what sources of information are reliable? The only reliable source of information is divine revelation.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with Philip Blosser a few years ago. He cited the testimony of Augustine to establish the perpetual virginity of Mary. In reply, I made the common sense observation that Augustine was not an eyewitness to the conjugal arrangements of Joseph and Mary. How would Augustine be privy to the details of their sex life?

But even though Blosser is a philosophy prof., it never occurred to him to consider the obvious. He is so conditioned to default to the church fathers that he doesn’t pause to ask practical questions regarding the competence of his sources.


  1. Um, obviously Augustine was citing someone else citing someone else citing someone else who WAS privy to Joseph and Mary's (non-)sex life.

    Do I have to do all your thinking for you?

  2. Perhaps we can arrange a body-swap.