Sunday, June 04, 2023

Doubts About Prayer To The Saints In The Late Patristic And Early Medieval Eras

A little over a decade ago, Matthew Dal Santo published a book about skepticism of the cult of the saints in the late patristic and early medieval eras (Debating The Saints' Cult In The Age Of Gregory The Great [United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2012]). Here's an abstract of the book:

This book argues that the Dialogues on the Miracles of the Italian Fathers, Pope Gregory the Great's (590–604) most controversial work, should be considered from the perspective of a wide-ranging debate about the saints which took place in early Byzantine society. Like other contemporary works in Greek and Syriac, Gregory's Latin text debated the nature and plausibility of the saints' miracles and the propriety of the saints' cult. Rather than viewing the early Byzantine world as overwhelmingly pious or credulous, the book argues that many contemporaries questioned and challenged the claims of hagiographers and other promoters of the saints' miracles. From Italy to the heart of the Persian Empire at Ctesiphon, a healthy, sceptical, rationalism remained alive and well. The book's conclusion argues that doubt towards the saints reflected a current of political dissent in the East Roman or early Byzantine Empire, where patronage of Christian saints' shrines was used to sanction imperial autocracy. These far-reaching debates about religion and authority also help re-contextualize the emergence of Islam in the late ancient Near East.

The book discusses opposition to various aspects of the cult from rationalists, Jews, Muslims, Christians, and other sources. As the abstract above mentions, the book is useful in demonstrating that people weren't as credulous about the supernatural as they're often made out to be. In that context, both Christian and non-Christian sources are relevant. The book addresses the cult of the saints in general, but my focus here is on prayer to the saints.

Advocates of praying to the saints sometimes cite Jewish support for the practice. I wrote a response to that argument several years ago, which you can read if you do a Ctrl F search for "post-Biblical Judaism" here. Dal Santo's material on Jewish criticism of the cult of the saints is relevant in that context.

He mentions some of the Christian opponents of prayer to the saints who I've mentioned before. However, he largely addresses unnamed individuals to whom Gregory the Great, Eustratius of Constantinople, and other defenders of the cult of the saints purportedly were responding. Dal Santo documents that there was a large amount of concern for responding to objections to the cult of the saints, including objections to praying to them. However, there's often significant ambiguity about the nature of those objections. Were they just potential objections that were anticipated without having been articulated by anybody, or were they objections that had been raised by people experiencing doubts? And if they were objections that had been brought up by doubters, what was the nature of the doubt involved? Were these people who rejected something like praying to the saints? Or were they people who accepted such things, but wanted answers to certain concerns they had? In other words, was it a matter of responding to skeptics or a matter of increasing the confidence of believers? We know that there were skeptics, including Christian skeptics, of the cult of the saints and prayer to the saints in particular during this timeframe. I've documented some examples, and Dal Santo discusses some. But a big percentage of what he discusses in his book involves a lot of ambiguity along the lines of what I've just outlined. You often can't tell whether the material Dal Santo is citing is about potential or actual objections and whether the material he's citing is meant to address the questions of believers in the cult of the saints or the questions of skeptics. Sometimes you can't determine much about who's raising the objections, whether they're Christian or non-Christian and what type of Christian or non-Christian. Still, there's some significance in documenting that there were such questions circulating and that there was such a high degree of concern for addressing those questions. That sort of atmosphere increases the plausibility of a larger rather than smaller degree of opposition to the cult of the saints and prayer to the saints specifically.

Some patristic and medieval Christians believed in soul sleep, and Dal Santo spends a large part of the book discussing their views. If an advocate of soul sleep believed in praying to the saints, what form would that take? One view was that the prayers offered to the saints wouldn't be heard or answered by the saints until after they were resurrected. So, not only was there some opposition to praying to the saints during the late patristic and early medieval eras, but there also was some significant disagreement about the practice among those who accepted it. Praying to the saints could take on a substantially different form among the proponents of soul sleep. Dal Santo goes as far as to use terms like "radical" (308) and "profound" (315) to describe the difference between how the cult of the saints was viewed by proponents of soul sleep and how it was viewed by those who rejected soul sleep. And there were variations among the soul sleep advocates, depending on whether they had thought through the issues involved, what they concluded about particular issues, and whether they were consistent.

In an article about Eustratius' defense of the cult of the saints in the late sixth century, Nicholas Constas wrote:

Eustratius’ work, and the arguments of his opponents, which have never been the focus of a major study, are here considered in detail, and this paper suggests that the views of both parties anticipate respectively the iconophilic and iconoclastic theologies of later centuries….

The nature of the soul, its relation to the body, and its fate after death are subjects that, despite their importance, were never authoritatively defined or systematically organized in the late antique period. This lacuna provided an opportunity for the free play of the imaginative, the visionary, and the superstitious, as a result of which one may find any number of psychologies and eschatologies strewn about somewhat carelessly across the late antique religious landscape….In addition to the bewildering diversity of the available philosophical paradigms, advances in the studies of medicine and physiology, as we shall see below, further complicated received opinions about the interaction of soul and body, leaving late antique Christians with a confusing and contradictory collection of texts and traditions from which to draw….

The inherited apparatus of cult, however, did not preclude the emergence of alternative schools of thought which frequently contested and contradicted the practices of the official church. Based on a more unitive, materialist notion of the human person as irreducibly embodied, critical voices denied that the souls of the dead could involve themselves in the affairs of the living, or intercede on their behalf in heaven, or be affected by the intentions and activities of the church on earth. On the contrary, with the death and dissolution of their corporeal frames, the souls of the dead (sainted or otherwise) were said to be largely inert, having lapsed into a state of lethargy and oblivion. Still others argued more radically for the outright death of the soul which was said to perish with the body, although not without the hope of being called back into existence together with the body on the day of resurrection. These rival eschatologies variously eliminated the need for prayers, liturgies, and memorial offerings for the dead. By the same token, they nullified the cult of saints and the efficacy of relics, effectively debasing the church’s agency in the earthly economy of the afterlife.

Variations on these themes existed alongside the views of the official church until the sixth century when they were resoundingly denounced and rigorously refuted by Eustratius. While it is difficult to assess the arguments of Eustratius’ opponents, which survive only as fragments in the context of his refutation, it is clear that they denied any kind of activity or agency to the souls of dead saints. However, what makes their position so peculiar is that, rather than reject the reality of saintly apparitions as such, they sought instead to account for them on the basis of an entirely different explanatory model. Both sides accepted the phenomenological surface, as it were, of saintly apparitions, but whereas Eustratius saw such apparitions as having their direct ontological source within the persons of the saints themselves, his opponents argued that they were more like visual metaphors the latent content of which was not the soul of a dead saint, but the absolute power of divinity itself.

("An Apology For The Cult Of Saints In Late Antiquity: Eustratius Presbyter Of Constantinople, On The State Of Souls After Death", Journal Of Early Christian Studies, Vol. 10:2 - 2002, pp. 267, 269-71)

It needs to be kept in mind that Eustratius was responding to multiple groups simultaneously (see, for example, n. 14 on p. 273 in Constas' article cited above). And those groups don't represent the beliefs of everybody who was opposed to the cult of the saints or prayer to the saints in particular. Just as opponents of the saints' cult held a wide variety of views, including some that Evangelicals and other modern critics of prayer to the saints disagree with, the patristic and medieval advocates of praying to the saints likewise held a wide variety of views, including ones that modern advocates of praying to the saints disagree with.

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