Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Significance Of Later Patristic Support For Prayer To The Dead

I've been posting a lot about praying to the dead lately. I've done that largely because it's a topic that isn't addressed often, and it's rarely addressed in much depth when it does come up. I'm still discussing the subject with Christine, a Roman Catholic, in another thread. We're still discussing Deuteronomy 18:10-12, Isaiah 8:19, Isaiah 19:3, Origen's view of prayer, and some other issues. Anybody interested can read that thread. What I want to do here is repost my comments on the significance of the later patristic support for prayer to the dead, as well as what I said about some other topics. I hope these recent exchanges on prayer to the dead will help people in thinking through these issues.

You [Christine] write:

"It is indeed a refutation if you accept later development of doctrine on the Trinity, the nature of Christ, the nature of the Holy Spirit, etc. by the very same church fathers who also support requesting the saints’ intercession."

I've documented examples of your disagreements with the theology of those later fathers. Again, see here. You need to ask yourself whether your objection to my position is consistent with your own position. If you're not consistent with your own reasoning, why do you expect anybody else to be?

I don't get Trinitarianism from the later church fathers. I get it from scripture. The fact that the later fathers were correct on such issues doesn't prove that I should agree with them about everything else. You don't agree with them about everything else.

You write:

"If it was so clearly a heresy, then at least ONE of the fathers should have said something against it—but instead, you find widespread support."

You haven't given us any example of an early father who "said something against" the early opposition to prayer to the dead. Or the early opposition to the sinlessness of Mary. Or the early opposition to some other Roman Catholic doctrines. If the earlier fathers disagree with you, but the later fathers agree with you, it doesn't make sense for you to reject the view of the earlier fathers (or irrationally deny that they disagreed with you) while asking me why I disagree with the later fathers. If I think the earlier fathers contradict the later fathers, then I have to choose between them. Why would it be unreasonable to side with the earlier fathers?

And I don't make the same claims about early church history that Catholics have made. I believe that widespread error can occur, much as we see in Biblical times (2 Kings 22:8-13, Nehemiah 8:13-17). And I don't just look to the men commonly classified as church fathers today in order to judge what beliefs were held historically. Vigilantius opposed prayer to the dead in the post-Nicene era, and he was himself a presbyter. As Jerome acknowledged (Against Vigilantius, 2-3), Vigilantius had the support of bishops and other church leaders and laymen. And others opposed prayer to the dead after Vigilantius' time and prior to the Reformation. Prayer to the dead was popular, but it wasn't universally accepted. The unpopularity of my view in later patristic centuries isn't as bad as the absence and contradiction of your view in scripture and in the earlier patristic centuries.

You write:

"The fact is, you cannot offer a reasoned justification; you can only selectively quote and ignore what you wish from their writings. That is precisely what Luther and Calvin did, and it’s a practice that has continued on since the time of the Reformation."

Is that why your own denomination's scholars keep giving up ground in their historical disputes with Protestants? Why do you think appeals to doctrinal development have become so popular among Catholics in recent times? I've already linked you to posts in which I document Catholic scholars' acknowledgment of the early absence and widespread contradiction of Catholic doctrine (Klaus Schatz on the papacy, Ludwig Ott on the veneration of images, etc.).

You write:

"Your argument basically goes like this: Scripture says nothing about requesting the saints’ intercession, therefore, it didn’t happen then/it is forbidden. The ante-Nicene fathers say nothing about requesting the saints’ intercession (although, as noted above, I do believe Origen does), therefore, it didn’t happen then/it is forbidden. One can see why this is wrong: it’s an argumentum ex silentio, and is classified among the logical fallacies. In fact, the argument from silence is precisely what credobaptists use to argue against infant baptism, as the New Testament does not anywhere explicitly make the case for infant baptism."

Since I've repeatedly argued that scripture condemns attempts to contact the dead, citing passages in Deuteronomy and Isaiah, why would you claim that I just appeal to silence? Likewise, when I cite passages from the ante-Nicene fathers that seem to oppose prayer to the dead in some manner, why would you claim that my approach is to appeal to silence?

But even if I did only appeal to silence, whether such an appeal is fallacious depends on the context. If there's silence in a context in which we would expect something to be mentioned under the conditions in question, then there's nothing fallacious about appealing to silence. I've explained why prayer to the dead should have been mentioned where it wasn't. You need to address what I said instead of continuing to ignore it.

And if you think that credobaptists just appeal to silence, then credobaptism is another position you're criticizing without knowing much about it. I'm a credobaptist, I've argued for the position on this blog, and I didn't just appeal to silence. See my two articles on the subject on the page I linked you to earlier, here, and you can find a lot of other material I've written on the subject in the archives. You could also read some credobaptist scholars, like the ones who contributed to Thomas Schreiner and Shawn Wright, edd., Believer's Baptism (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group, 2006). They don't just appeal to silence. Neither do the paedobaptist scholars I've cited in my articles elsewhere on this blog, who acknowledge some of the early evidence for credobaptism.

You keep telling us about your Oxford education. So, why do you keep arguing at a Catholic Answers level?


  1. The rise of the cult of saints is quite comparable to the rise of monasticism. Both of them became very much associated with medieval church life, and by the time of Reformation it was hard for conservatives to even imagine Christianity without these phenomena.

    And yet, neither of them really arose until the 4th century.

    This loss of true historical perspective occurred quite quickly. For example, the scholarly article below describes the rise of the worship of (non-existent) saints Sergius and Bacchus, and points out how 5th century Christians no longer understood that monks had not always been a part of Christian faith:

    "A final anachronism lies in the claim that monks recovered the body of Bacchus thrown outside Barbalissus and buried it in one of their caves.64 There is no other evidence to support the existence of monks living near the middle Euphrates during the early 4th century. In all fairness, however, there is little evidence in this matter for the mid-4th century either, and it would be wrong to attempt to use this anachronism to bolster the present interpretation of the passion of Sergius and Bacchus, that it relates to the reign of Julian rather than of Galerius Maximianus. The important point here is that this anachronism occurs in the latter half of the passion which includes all the miracles also. The rapid decline in the quality of the narrative from the point where the emperor decided to send the martyrs to Antiochus is significant, I believe, because it marks the complete departure of the author from whatever historical source he had been using previously. In the absence of this source, the author sought increased refuge in the stock themes of hagiographical literature, which include not only miracles, but monks also. The monks who buried Bacchus ought to be compared, for example, to the implausibly early Palestinian monks who joined in the dedication of a shrine to the martyr Varus, or so his passion (BHG 1862) would have us believe.65

    Figments of the imagination both, by authors who could not really comprehend that there had ever been an age when the countryside did not overflow with monks."

  2. Christine:

    "One can see why this is wrong: it’s an argumentum ex silentio, and is classified among the logical fallacies."

    Could be, but there is still such a thing as "deafening silence".

    There is a deafening silence in the lack of prayers to saints in the Book of Psalms, for example.

    There is also a striking silence about Mary in the New Testament after the Gospels, considering how a huge part she would later play in the RC theology.

    In apostle John's depiction of heavenly court in Revelation, we do not see Mary anywhere, let alone in her supposed RC role of supreme intercessor - the "Queen of Heaven" is not seen in heaven.

  3. To add to what Viisaus has mentioned about the lack of prayer to the dead in scripture, it should be noted that it's not enough for somebody to assert that such prayers only became possible or acceptable after the resurrection of Christ or at some other point later in history. That sort of conclusion needs to be argued, not just asserted. Why should we think that prayer to the dead would become possible or acceptable at some later point in time, such as after the resurrection? People were justified prior to the cross and resurrection, so why couldn't Christ's redeeming work be applied in earlier generations in order to allow for prayer to the dead as well? Why think that prayer to the dead didn't become possible or acceptable until later? And even if we accept such an assumption, why does the practice continue to be absent in the post-resurrection New Testament era and the earliest patristic generations?

  4. Yet another sort of strong "silence" is that pagan anti-Christian polemicists of ante-Nicene era (like Celsus or Porphyry) did not yet mock Christians for praying to saints or worshipping them.

    Like this old "Preservative against Popery" puts it:

    pp. 175-177

    "From Constantine's coming to the empire, to the reign of Julian, there passed above fifty years; and, in this time, the reverence of the martyrs was grown to some excess beyond primitive examples: for it was not only thought reasonable to build churches over the sepulchres, but it should seem there were many that thought their prayers would speed the better for being made over the tombs of the martyrs; and not content with this, they began at length to search for their bones: and it grew to be the piety of this age to disturb the ashes of the dead, which it was the piety of the former ages to leave in their graves without disturbance. But as yet their prayers were directed to God only; we have yet no examples of calling upon saints and martyrs. Julian himself, who aggravated the respect given to the martyrs to the utmost, could not charge them with this; and he very well understood their practice. But, says he,* "since Jesus has said, that sepulchres are full of uncleanness, why do you call upon God over sepulchres?"

    It is true he also charged them with worshipping the martyrs, and upbraided them, that having forsaken the religious rites of the Gentiles, they had gone over to the Jews, aud yet had not kept to their religion neither, which had been something. For, "then," says he, "you would have worshipped one God instead of many, and not one man (Jesus), or rather many miserable men;" meaning the martyrs. But this was only a spiteful construction of the custom of Christians, in paying their devotions to God over the sepulchres of the martyrs.

    Not long after Julian comes Eunapius, a most bitter wretch; by whose censures we may easily observe, that the devotion of Christians towards the martyrs was still growing to a greater height. I perceive he is cited both by Protestants and Papists; by Protestants, to shew the beginnings of that superstition we complain of; by Papists, to shew that the invocation of saints, and the worship of relics, was at least so ancient.

    A malicious enemy always says the worst that he has any colour or pretence to say: and if such occasions and pretences had been afforded by the ancient Christians, as by these, we should certainly have heard the same objections from Lucian or Celsus, or some one Pagan writer of those times, who were as able, as spiteful, and vigilant adversaries as Julian and Eunapius."

  5. Pagans like Celsus generally slung anything at Christians they thought might stick, but not the accusation of worshipping Mary and the saints:

    pp. 155-157

    "Thus did that accursed villain (Celsus) blaspheme the blessed Virgin, in despite to Jesus her most holy Son; I say, in despite to him, because he was worshipped the Christians. By bringing forth the execrable stories of Jews concerning the mother, the impious infidel designed to make the Church of God ashamed of worshipping her Son; whom he sought to disparage this way, as well as by objecting the poverty of his life, and the ignominy of his death.

    But suppose, I beseech you, that the Church in those days had honoured the mother of Jesus, little less than Jesus himself; that she had been called the Queen of Heaven: that the story of her assumption had been then invented: that she had been worshipped as the Lady of the World, and served with prayers, and vows, and incense, and with all, or with any of those religious rites, that she is now served with? Would that spiteful wretch have failed to reproach the enemies of his gods with so plain a matter of reproach? Did he think they had son to be ashamed of making so helpless and so unfortunate man, as the Pagans took Jesus to be, the object of a most excellent worship;* and would he not have thought it a greater shame, if they had given a superexcellent worship to so helpless and so scandalous a woman, as the false miscreant reckoned the mother to be? Did they insult over the Christians for making a God of the Son of such a mother? What would they have said, if the Church had given them the least occasion to suspect, that it had made a goddess of the mother herself? But of this not one word is to be met with, in all the reproaches of the infidel; no, nor of Trypho or Caecilius, or any the most bitter enemies of the Christian name, for the three first ages; where it lay as fair to be taken up, as argument and occasion could make it. What account then is to heaven of this omission? It was no omission of theirs at all; the Church had not yet given them this handle against itself: no such things as these were known amongst Christians, and therefore their enemies did not lay them to their charge: their enemies, I say, who falsely accused them, as to other matters, upon the most slight and frivolous occasions. They accused them of worshipping an ass's head; of killing a child at their solemn assemblies; and of adultery and incest, as you may see in Minutius Felix, and elsewhere; and all this upon the must ridiculous grounds imaginable. But it seems the Christians paid religious worship to the Virgin, and to dead men and women; and their watchful enemies were content to say never a word of it. Alas! these wise men did not know, that the Christians derided them for such things as these; perhaps they were always deaf when it was told them that the Christians did the same things themselves; or they had quite forgotten it, when it was most proper to remember it; or were so silly, as not to discern the advantage they were make of it; or so imprudent, as to accuse them of other things, which could be easily disproved, rather than to accuse them of those things which could not be denied. The children this world were now grown fools in their generation. He that can believe these things, let him believe them!

    I shall add this only, that when the least occasions were once given to suspect that the martyrs were worshipped by the Church, the heathens immediately laid hold on the pretence, especially Julian* and Eunapius, who urged the accusation with all the stings of malice; as their predecessors in this cause against Christ would certainly have done, had there been the least colour for it."

  6. Celsus criticizes Christians for their neglect of angels and other beings lower than God (Origen, Against Celsus, 8:63). Origen mentions prayer in his response to Celsus (8:64), so he seems to think that Celsus was referring at least partially to prayer. Elsewhere, he specifically mentions that Celsus included prayer in his criticism (8:25). Origen comments that though lesser beings like angels pray with us, we're only to "pray to", or "invoke", God (8:64). (For confirmation that the "demons" Celsus wanted Christians to pray to included good angels, see Origen's comments to that effect in 5:5. Celsus didn't define the term "demons" as we commonly do today.) Origen repeatedly says that Christians pray only to God. We pray "even" to Jesus (5:4), but not to created beings (5:12). It's sufficient to imitate the angels' devotion to God without invoking them (5:5). We should pray only to God, so that all answers to prayer come from Him (5:11). For the Christian, "every prayer" is offered to God (7:51).

    And it can't be argued that Origen was merely using terms like "pray" and "prayer" in an unusual way, so that Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox prayers to the dead and to angels wouldn't be included. Origen uses a variety of terms to make these points I've just mentioned, not merely terms like "pray" and "prayer". And the comments of Celsus that he's responding to don't suggest that some unusual definition of prayer would be in mind.

    Neither Celsus in the second century nor Origen in the third seems to think that mainstream Christianity prayed to the dead or to angels. Celsus criticizes Christians for their neglect of such practices, and Origen defends that Christian neglect. "Away with Celsus' advice when he says that 'we ought to pray to demons'. We ought not to pay the slightest attention to it. We ought to pray to the supreme God alone" (8:26).

  7. I've responded to every single one of your points in this post. I doubt you'll be posting my responses anytime soon, though...

  8. Christine wrote:

    "I've responded to every single one of your points in this post."

    That's false. You're remarkably careless in the claims you make, if not dishonest. Your responses to me have been highly selective. You didn't "respond to every single one of my points".

    You write:

    "I doubt you'll be posting my responses anytime soon, though"

    They're posted in the other thread, which I linked above. As I explained at the opening of this thread, my purpose here is to focus on some particular issues, not reproduce the discussion in the other thread. And since your responses to me there were so selective and ridiculous, why would I want to reproduce them here?

  9. Viisaus: "And yet, neither of them really arose until the 4th century... and points out how 5th century Christians no longer understood that monks had not always been a part of Christian faith"

    So you never heard of the desert fathers then.

    Probably never heard of a monk called Jesus either.