Flashes, Thunders, and Shakes: The Bible on Prayers to Saints

I was having a discussion recently with a Reformed person about the Catholic doctrine of the communion of saints. It’s this doctrine that informs the Catholic practice of venerating and praying to saints, especially to Mary. But this Reformed person insisted, as Reformed people all insist, that this practice is unbiblical.

I aim to show here that this simply isn’t the case. But first, what does it mean that something is “unbiblical”? Or what does it mean that something is “biblical”? It is certainly true that the Bible never commands us to seek the intercession of Mary and the saints. The Bible says very little about what to think about the faithful departed at all. Yet the Catholic Church teaches that this practice is indeed biblical; and what’s more, it’s a practice that Christians since the early Church, including the Church Fathers, believed was biblical. So, what do we mean by the word, “biblical”?

My Reformed conversation partner also brought up the topic of children who die in infancy. According to Reformed teaching, believing parents whose children die in infancy, regardless of whether those children are baptized, can be certain that those children are in heaven. However, the Bible does not say this. In the same way that you will search in vain for a Bible text that teaches that we ought to pray to Mary, so you will search in vain for a Bible text that teaches that believing parents of unbaptized children “ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in their infancy” [Canons of Dort, I.17]. The reason Reformed people believe this, though, is because of what they believe about the covenant. They draw conclusions from Scripture about the covenant, and from those conclusions they infer that children of believers who die in infancy, regardless of baptism, will go to heaven.

I mention this because of its significance for the meaning of the word, “biblical.” The Catholic Church teaches that prayers to saints are biblical for the same reason that Reformed people believe that canon I.17 is biblical. That is, while there is no text that commands praying to saints, from everything the Bible says about the communion of saints the Catholic Church infers that the saints in glory hear our pleas for their intercession and bring those intercessions before God. That’s how the Catholic Church has always understood the word “biblical” – as referring to a teaching that isn’t necessarily mentioned in Scripture, but that nonetheless follows from, and is in perfect accord with, everything that is mentioned in Scripture. Just like Reformed people believe about canon I.17.

I. On the word, “prayer.”

Before looking at the biblical evidence, I should say something about the verb, “to pray.” It often causes confusion in these discussions, and no discussion can be successful without defining our terms. When Catholics use the verb “to pray” with regard to saints, they are using it the way it was once always used in the English language, back when people might have said to each other, “Please pass the pottage, I pray you.” That is, the word “pray” in English means “ask,” or, “petition.” You can find this usage of “prayers” in J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Hobbit:

“But help came swiftly; for Bard at once had speedy messengers sent up the river to the Forest to seek the aid of the King of the Elves of the Wood. . . But the king, when he received the prayers of Bard, had pity, for he was the lord of a good and kindly people. . .”[1]

That’s the meaning Catholics use when they talk about prayers to saints. I realize that prayer can also mean much more than petitioning. Time spent in prayer with God is often a time of worshipping Him and basking in His love. But my point here is that the word “pray” doesn’t necessarily entail worship – it has (or had) a much more pedestrian use in the English language, and that’s the use that is relevant to this discussion.

II. The unbreakable communion of divine love.

Christ the True Vine, Athens, 16th c.

Okay, so how is praying to saints biblical? The first piece of the puzzle comes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love [Ep.4:15-16 ESV].

Each person who is in Christ is a part of a single body. Just as your finger is related to your foot by being part of the same body, so one Christian is related to another by being part of Christ’s body. But while your body is held together by muscles and sinews, the body of Christ is held together by love. Your body is strengthened by food and exercise, but Christ’s body is strengthened by love. When we love Christ and each other, we are exercising the muscles of this spiritual body, and the whole body is strengthened.

The key word here, then, is “love.” But this love is not among the earthly loves that come naturally to us. This love is not the love of a parent for a child, or the love of a husband for a wife, or the love of one friend for another. It certainly isn’t the sentimental crap that passes as “love” in so much of our popular culture. Those are the loves of this world, loves that are by nature available to any human being, whether Christian, Hindu, atheist, or Muslim. But the love that binds together the body of Christ is not available to us by nature. Rather, it is a supernatural love that “has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” [Ro.5:5]. We are not born with this love, nor can we discover this love through any kind of earthly experience. It must be given to us from above.

That’s because this love is God’s own life. The Apostle John teaches, “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” [1Jn.4:16]. The love that the Holy Spirit pours into our heart is the divine love that is the very definition of life. To live is nothing other than to love and to be loved by God, for God is love.

I point this out to show that the thing that binds Christians together is something that is far greater than death. It’s the thing that conquered death. The muscles and sinews that hold your body together are subject to death. They will weaken and eventually fail, at which point your body will waste away in the grave. But the muscles and sinews that hold together Christ’s body are not subject to death. That’s because what unites that spiritual body to the one Head, Jesus Christ, is the divine love of God.

This means that two believers who are bound together by God’s divine love are not separated at death. They remain in communion with each other for the simple reason that what binds them together is the very thing that has conquered death.

III. The activity of the saints in heaven.

So, if the saints in glory remain in communion with the saints on earth via a bond stronger than death, how do they contribute to the body of Christ? Scripture doesn’t tell us much about the saints in heaven – but neither is it silent. The next piece of the scriptural puzzle comes from the book of Revelation:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been [Rv.6:9-11].

In this passage, we see the martyred saints bringing their petitions to God. That’s the first important fact: the saints in heaven continue to petition the Lord. But the saints are also aware of what’s happening on earth. They are aware that justice has not yet come to the persecutors of the Church. Beholding God in His incomprehensible glory does not mean being tucked away in a corner of heaven with earth out of view and forgotten. On the contrary, the saints in glory know what’s happening here, and those happenings in turn prompt them to petition God.

Another important passage is Revelation 5:8:

And when [the Lamb] had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

In this passage we read of “the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders” offering to Jesus Christ “the prayers of the saints.” The word “elders” indicates that these are the souls of human saints, not angels. And this passage shows metaphorically that somehow, in some way, these saints are involved in presenting to God the petitions of the saints on earth. In other words, this is a picture of heavenly intercession.

This is true of angels as well, as we see a couple chapters later in Revelation 8:

And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake [Rv.8:3-5].

That is an awesome picture of answered prayer. Our prayers rise up before God, mixed with heavenly incense, and an angel throws that flaming mixture of prayer and incense onto the earth with all the violence of an earth-quaking thunderstorm. (Ever feel like your prayers are doing nothing? Meditate on this verse!) But the prayers are brought to God by an angel, again showing metaphorically that angels are involved in intercession on our behalf.

This very thing is taught by Jesus in the gospels, too:

See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven [Mt.18:10].

This is a threat, a threat based on the fact that there are angels in heaven who watch out for the little children. Should those children be troubled, these angels will go to God on behalf of those children – they will intercede for them.

If we are looking for an answer in Scripture to the question, “How are the saints in heaven contributing to the body of Christ?” the glimpse we are given is of a heavenly host, saints and angels alike, aware of events on earth, praying about those events, and bringing our prayers before the throne of grace. It is through this intercession that they continue to love us and strengthen the body of which we are all a part.

IV. Can the saints hear us?

The Court of Heaven, 14th c.

Even if the saints in heaven continue to contribute to the body of Christ by interceding for us, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we can address them directly. But the next piece of the puzzle is that Scripture is not silent on this point, either. In Psalm 103 we read:

Bless the LORD, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, hearkening to the voice of his word! [Ps.103:20-21]

And in Psalm 148:

Praise him all his angels, praise him, all his host! [Ps.148:2]

In fact, Reformed people directly address those in heaven all the time, whenever they sing:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow,
Praise Him all creatures here below,
Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!

In each of those examples, people on earth are directly addressing those in heaven. If the heavenly hosts cannot hear us, then these imperatives are meaningless blurbs of noise floating away into empty space. But Scripture does not contain meaningless blurbs of noise. Scripture contains the truth of God, and according to the truth of God we may – we ought to! – directly address those in heaven.

Working with Scripture alone, then, we can discern that God’s people on earth are bound to God’s people in heaven by virtue of being united to the same body – Christ. We can discern that they share a love for each other that is not broken by death, since it is God’s own love. We can discern that God’s people in heaven know what’s going on in the world, that it causes them to petition Him, and that they, along with the angels, work to bring our prayers before God. And we can discern that God’s people in heaven can hear us when we address them directly.

One objection to all this comes from 1 Timothy 2:5 in which Paul states that there’s only one mediator between God and men, Jesus Christ. If you’re interested, I answered that objection in my post about Mary and in the ensuing comments. In short, we ask people to intercede for us all the time. What’s more, only a few verses earlier, in 1 Timothy 2:1, Paul commands us to intercede for others. Intercession is a regular part of the love Christians show for each other and for the world. Catholics simply believe that this intercessory activity continues in God’s presence.

V. Opposition among the heretics.

In the writings of the Church Fathers we have many explicit references to the practice of seeking saintly intercessions, and not a single voice of opposition. In fact, the only opposition to this teaching came from teachers who were plainly heretical. The fourth-century Church Father Jerome, in a scathing letter to the heretic Vigilantius, writes:

You say, in your pamphlet, that so long as we are alive we can pray for one another; but once we die, the prayer of no person for another can be heard, and all the more because the martyrs, though they cry for the avenging of their blood [Rv.6:10], have never been able to obtain their request. If Apostles and martyrs while still in the body can pray for others, when they ought still to be anxious for themselves, how much more must they do so when once they have won their crowns, overcome, and triumphed? A single man, Moses, oft wins pardon from God for six hundred thousand armed men; and Stephen, the follower of his Lord and the first Christian martyr, entreats pardon for his persecutors; and when once they have entered on their life with Christ, shall they have less power than before?[2]

And Augustine responds to Faustus the Manichean’s claim that venerating the saints is a form of idolatry:

As to our paying honor to the memory of the martyrs, and the accusation of Faustus, that we worship them instead of idols . . . It is true that Christians pay religious honor to the memory of the martyrs, both to excite us to imitate them and to obtain a share in their merits, and the assistance of their prayers. But we build altars not to any martyr, but to the God of martyrs, although it is to the memory of the martyrs. No one officiating at the altar in the saints’ burying-place ever says, “We bring an offering to you, O Peter! Or O Paul! Or O Cyprian!” The offering is made to God, who gave the crown of martyrdom, while it is in memory of those thus crowned.[3]

In the early Church, opposition to seeking the intercession of the saints came from men like Vigilantius and Faustus, men who were enemies of Scripture, the Church, and the faith; and support for the practice came from the men who loved Scripture, the Church, and the faith. This is especially evident in the rest of Jerome’s letter to Vigilantius, which I highly recommend that you read. It was a turning point in my own study of Catholicism to discover that the Reformed walls in my heart against praying to saints were walls found only among the ancient heretics, not among the ancient Christians. They were found only among those who hated the Church, not among those who loved her.

This isn’t surprising, either, if we consider the great interest the devil would have in corrupting this teaching. If he can get the part of Christ’s body on earth to believe that the part of Christ’s body in heaven cannot hear them, does not know what is going in their lives, and does not intercede on their behalf, then he is depriving the body of the exercise that makes it strong. He ensures that those on earth are not devoted in love to those in heaven; and ensures that those in heaven do not come to the aid of those on earth, since those on earth do not seek that aid. In this way, he ensures that the body does not work properly, and is not building itself up in love.

VI. Conclusion.

Christ Glorified, by Fra Angelico, 15th c.

Back in, “With Faces Thitherward,” I’d written, “All I had seen before was a religion corrupted by human inventions. I had not seen how the whole Catholic faith holds together in Christ, that its unity, energy, and glory are found in the nature of God Himself.” One of the things I had in mind when I wrote that was the Catholic doctrine of the communion of saints. The mystery at the heart of this doctrine, the mystery of a supernatural fellowship of love, is the mystery at the heart of God Himself – for God is a Triune Fellowship of Love.

That’s why the communion of saints is an article of faith in the Apostles’ Creed. A fellowship that transcends the physical world, that transcends death, a fellowship whose mode of life is the Spirit of the living God, is not a fellowship we’d discover by the power of our reason, or by the reach of our imagination, or through some kind of social experiment. Rather, we receive the truth of this fellowship by faith. And by faith we enter into a communion that revolves history-wide around the supermassive spiritual gravity of our risen and ascended Lord, Jesus Christ, a communion that by faith becomes no less a lived reality than living with your own family.

Although personal testimonies are no grounds on which to establish the truth, they do have a place in illustrating the value of a given truth – thus Paul repeatedly testifies to his experience on the Damascus road. I could give the example of how on the last day of a novena prayer (a prayer repeated for nine days, patterned on the nine-day period of prayer between the ascension of Christ and the descent of the Holy Spirit) to St. Joseph for his intercession regarding a job, my little daughter was given a church bulletin on our way out of Mass, a bulletin that we otherwise wouldn’t have grabbed, and how in that bulletin was posted the teaching position that I applied for and eventually received.

But while that answer to prayer was a great blessing, it was also an earthly blessing. And while no doubt the saints in heaven are pleased when we are blessed in this life, just as we are pleased when those we love are so blessed, their deepest desire is that we be ever more conformed to Jesus Christ in holiness. And that’s where the true value of their intercession lies. It lies in the deepening of our love for our Triune God, for His Word, for our neighbour, for righteousness, justice, and truth. It lies in the victories over sin that we so desperately need. And it lies in receiving humble and thankful hearts that are ever more effortlessly in tune with God’s will. Anyone who regularly prays in the company of the heavenly host can attest to the profound richness of their intercession in our progress toward loving Christ with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

And I pray for the day when all Christians will once again be united in seeking the glorious intercession of those in the presence of God, that we may fall down in worship of the Lamb as the earth around us flashes, thunders, and shakes.

You are welcome to leave comments, but please abide by the following rules:

1. No personal attacks against anyone.
2. Address the topic of the post.
3. Be substantive; that is, offer more than one-liners and unexplained quotes.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, illustrated by Jemma Catlin, (London: HarperCollins, 2013), p.311.
[2] Jerome, Against Vigilantius 6, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3010.htm, accessed July 20, 2017.
[3] Augustine, Against Faustus 20:21, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/140620.htm, accessed July 20, 2017.


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