My friend, Wes Callihan, of Schola Tutorials fame, an avid historian, appreciative student of Eastern Orthodoxy, and a thankful Protestant writes in comment on my recent post on the invocation of the dead in Christ:
“I was just reading your post of last Monday on invocation of the dead in
Christ and your reference to Hebrews 12.1 and the “great cloud of
witnesses.” It seems to me that the proper sense of this phrase and
especially of the word “witness” is almost universally missed — almost
everyone takes it as meaning that all the old saints (the “hall of faith”)
in Hebrews 11 are witnessing, or watching, *us*. But the sense of the verse
seems rather to be that they are witnesses, as in a court trial, to the
validity of *faith*. That’s the whole point of chapter 11 — that they are
called, one by one, to the witness stand to testify to faith, and so we are
to imitate that faith.
The verse does not at all say that they are watching us. And this seems to
weaken even further the case for invoking the dead in Christ.”
I think Wes’s point is really well taken. And it actually fits better with the beginning of chapter 11 where faith is described as the ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.’ They are “witnesses” and thereby provide the “evidence” for our faith. And their “evidence” is all their acts of faithfulness during their lives. Their good “testimonies” are their faithful lives.
The sense of the passage is that they are not presently “watching/witnessing” our lives so much as their lives in the flesh which were lived “by faith” were themselves witnesses/evidence/testimonies for our benefit. It was what they did when they were alive in the flesh that is a witness for us, and not something they are currently doing in heaven primarily.
Matthew N. Petersen says
This relates more to my post on the previous one of this topic, but here too.
I think Catholic and Orthodox apologists run into hot water when they try to find a proof text for prayers to the saints. There isn’t one.
But I think the situation is somewhat similar to a paedobaptist trying to find a proof text to refute Baptists. There isn’t one.
Now don’t get me wrong. I think the Baptist position an unscriptural innovation.
But it’s precisely the fact that the Baptist position is an innovation that convinced me it’s wrong. If we presuppose Evangelicalism, the paedobaptist is impossible to prove. But if we assume the Church’s position, the Baptist position is impossible to prove.
And it seems that invocation is in a pretty similar position. If we assume the Protestant innovation that invocation is wrong, it is nearly impossible to prove the catholic position that it is good and proper. But we shouldn’t assume the Protestant innovation, we should assume the catholic position, and need proof to overturn it.
Traditionally invocation was condemned because it is idolatrous, and because Christ is sufficient. And if these objections held, they would be sufficient to overthrow invocation.
But of course, invocation is not idolatrous. It is no more idolatry for me to pray to a saint than it is for a wife to have sex with her husband on earth. It is not idolatrous because the saints are Christ. And it isn’t adultery because her husband is her Husband.
Similarly, Christ is sufficient, but Christ is sufficient precisely as the Church, precisely as the saints.
And Protestants know both these points. We call it the priesthood of all believers. But when someone wants to take a Chestertonian turn with the priesthood of all believers and extend it to the priesthood of the dead, we rush back, absurdly, to the charge of idolatry.
So, based on the doctrine of priesthood of all believers (including the priesthood of the dead), the objection that invocation is idolatrous fails.
This should give us some pause, and make us reconsider the catholic position. Our weighty arguments against invocation are unProtestant. And invocation is catholic.
But still there is the objection that invocation is completely unfounded. But even if we ignore the fact that it is founded because it is the position of the catholic Church (at least by the time of St. Monica invocation was common), there are good, though not waterproof, reasons to accept it.
I rehearsed two of these in the previous post: The ability to hear and answer prayer belongs to our glorified humanity. And second, if the fact that the whole Church, including the Church in heaven, is the Body of Christ cannot be reflected in our lex oranda, it has no business being in our lex credenda. Or to say that another way, if the fact that the whole Church is the Body of Christ is part of the lex credenda, it must also be part of the lex oranda.
And there are, I believe, other good arguments that give us reason to believe that we can invoke the saints (though this post is already too long). They of course are not waterproof. But faith does not need a waterproof argument. Faith does not need rational assurance. We aren’t children, and sometimes we need to take steps on our own based on reasonable supposition.
Johannulus de Silentio says
Though I’m not necessarily going to endorse invocation of the saints, I like what you say about refusing to assume the innovation–“we should assume the catholic position, and need proof to overturn it.” Fits exactly with the way I’ve been thinking about sola Scriptura lately: it’s not a question of whether Scripture is the final authority, but it’s a question of where the burden of proof is when you appeal to Scripture as a witness. Is the catholic teaching guilty until proven innocent by Scripture? Or is it innocent until proven guilty by Scripture?
Obviously an oversimplification (not least because it’s rarely cut-and-dried what the “catholic teaching” is and what the “innovation” is), but perhaps a useful starting-point.
In general I agree that we ought to approach issues hoping to go along with our fathers and mothers in the faith. Our stance should be one that expects that God has already blessed us with a rich heritage. So count me in on that. The problem is that history must also be taken into account. How did we get from St. Monica invoking the saints to burning the saints at the stake for not calling on the dead? How did we get from wise and humble pastoral leadership under Gregory the Great to the wicked and godless popes who celebrated the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, gave blessing to the torturous inquisition, and repeatedly lied and cheated Reformer types during the 15th and 16th centuries?
I don’t bring up the Reformation out of bitterness; I bring up the Reformation because it happened. And it just won’t do to pretend that it didn’t. And for all its attended problems and shortcomings, it was overall a bursting of light into an otherwise dark church. This being the case, we need to approach these issues with similar respect for that great work of God. I agree that antiquity is part of our assessment of the Scriptural basis for practices, but so did the Reformers. It’s just not as simple as asking what has the church taught. The Reformation is itself part of the “catholic position” and those of us sons who were reared under her kindly care ought not be so quick to dismiss our Mother’s love.
Matthew N. Petersen says
But I was raised Anabaptist. And I attended All Souls (Evan’s church) for three years after highschool. Should I accept his and Pr. Busby’s anabaptist teaching as catholic and in my rejection of it not consider the fact that though Busby is now passing on tradition the tradition he is passing on was once an innovation?
But perhaps I’ve sounded hostile. I’m really not trying to simply reject the Reformation. I’m in a bit of a weird position, and I think Dr. Leithart could explain that to you, but more or less I’m still here and working with Trinity. I’m not rejecting my mother, but rather I think that in the heat of battle some positions were rejected that should have (in a theoretical sense) been accepted, but understood very differently, and applied pastorally very differently.
I think you’re right about the Reformation being a great good, and I think invocation had become something bad by then. Even Catholics like Erasmus agree with that.
As far as I can tell, the Catholic position (or the popular Catholic position) had become something of an Eccleastical Arianism. God Himself is too distant, so we need good creatures to go between. We can’t get to the Father, but we can get to His son, and he has his Father’s ear. We can’t get to Christ, but His mother is more accessible, and we can get to her. And she has her Son’s ear.
Both are highly problematic.
But abusus non tollit usus. And I think in the heat of battle against the abuse the Reformers were not quite able to see the use.
I certainly appreciate where you’re coming from. And I would heartily agree that we need to constantly go back and improve upon what our fathers have passed down to us. And yes, there have been and will continue to be places where our fathers over-corrected, and faithfulness will mean steering back into a more orthodox practice or belief. Absolutely.
A good deal of my concern is that we tend to dismiss the Reformers too quickly without listening to them carefully, without honoring those immediate fathers sufficiently. As long as there is a willingness to listen to those fathers, carefully consider their concerns, and learn from them, then I’m all for asking the difficult questions and re-thinking assumptions that have been made.
The other side of this question has to do with loving the saints right in front of us. We may indeed come to the conclusion that there are some practices, doctrines, etc. that need to be corrected, but we need to go about correcting those errors in a catholic way. We need to show care and love and honor for our parents, our friends, our pastors, elders, and have an appreciation for how certain doctrines, practices, etc. will be viewed, understood, and perceived by those around us. This is not a call for inaction, but it is a call for patience, love, tactfulness, and prayerful service in the meantime.
I hope that makes sense.
One other thing, Matthew:
On the issue of invocation of the dead in Christ: what the practices had become and what the Reformers delivered us from need to be a significant part of the conversation.
And if Scripture doesn’t encourage, suggest, or imply this practice, shouldn’t that at least give us pause, especially considering what it lead to?
Matthew N. Petersen says
Regarding the first comment, that makes a lot of sense, and I agree. Again, I’d encourage you to talk to Dr. Leithart a bit to see where I’m comming from. My situation is rather odd. And I’m relatively confident I don’t fall into the “first time dad heard she was seeing this guy was when they asked him about marriage” category.
Regarding the more recent comment: I think that there were clearly Catholic abuses. But I’m not sure those abuses ever arose in the East. Certianly there are great differences today between Orthodox and Catholic practices, and it’s easier for me to see how the Catholic ones had a shady past than the Orthodox ones.
But I think that with respect to invocation the Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation was something like a community that foolishly embraces courtship, so that there can be even more domineering parents and as a cover for perpetuating familial spats.
And I do think there are pastoral reasons for prayers to the saints. It’s not just theoretical. First, as I said, the fact that the saints in heaven are the body of Christ ought to be reflected liturgically in prayer. “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi”
But second, hebrews tells us that the reason that Christ became incarnate is that he could be a high priest who shares in our weakness.
But we shouldn’t take this passage in Hebrews to mean that Christ became incarnate that He could understand our weakness (for He can understand everything in Himself), but rather that He became Incarnate that we might have one with us who understands our weakness. In Himself, the Father understands and sympathizes just as much as His Son does. But no man has seen the Father, and we cannot see that the Father sympathizes. We can only see this by seeing the Son.
But as the Father has chosen to reveal Himself only in the Son, so the Son has chosen in humility to partially hide Himself, and reveal Himself in His Church.
This is quite evident in our relations with other (living) people. Because we have been comforted by the Holy Spirit, we are able to be the Holy Spirit present for someone. We have eaten the Bread and have become Him. He may not be able to see Christ’s sympathy, or feel Christ’s arm on his sholder, but he can see Matt’s sympathy, and feel Matt’s arm on his sholder, and Matt’s arm is Christ.
And when we are the hurting one, and see our priest (whether it is Christ the high priest, or a priest in his image) the natural, the nearly unavoidable response is to cry out to our priest for comfort. Thus a wife will turn to her husband for comfort. Thus a man will turn to his wife for comfort. Thus a friend will turn to a friend for comfort. I could give specific examples, but I imagine as a pastor you know what I’m talking about and I don’t need to get personal.
But Christ has not only hidden Himself to be revealed by living saints, He has also hidden Himself to be revealed as dead saints. He has hidden Himself that the priest who sympathizes with our weakness may be not Christ and not a living Christian, but a dead Christian.
Let me give two examples. About a year and a half ago, a friend of mine asked me to pray for her because whe was very tempted to believe Christ was not God–which to her is tantamount to atheism. While I was praying for her, Christ in Himself was little comfort. He did not sympathize with this. (Or rather, he is like the Father, able to sympathize, but hiding himself behind others.) His priesthood was meaningless. But St. Therese of Lisieux had been tempted with atheism. The last nine months of her life the fact of God’s existence was completely hidden from her feelings and intellect. Now she remained faithful throughout, calling on Him and loving Him anyway. But He remained completely hidden. And her priesthood–or rather Christ’s priesthood, present as her–was a comfort. Whereas Christ was not touched with this feeling of her infirmities; was not in this point tempted like as my friend was, St. Therese was, yet without sin. But as it isn’t sufficient to merely think “my wife cares” but we must actually call out to the wife who cares, as it isn’t enough to think “Christ cares” but we must actually call out to Christ, so too merely contemplating St. Therese’s faithfulness was insufficient. Only if a prayer to St. Therese could be uttered could she, and in her Christ, be a priest who shared my infirmities, and was tempted as was I, yet without sin.
Similarly, last April (sometime between Easter and the Orthodox Easter) I participated in the relay for life at the Kibbie Dome. In a sense it was a very good program as it raised a lot of money for cancer research.
But, half way through they had a really striking service honoring people who had died of cancer. Striking because it almost turned the relay into an Easter Vigil service. We went in in the dark of night, and would remain till the light morning, in anticipation of the day when cancer (and seemingly death) would be defeated. The hope in a cure was strikingly similar to the Christian hope in Easter. And even the liturgy was strikingly similar.
During this false (but very moving) Easter liturgy, they put up on a screen pictures and names of loved ones who had died of cancer, and lit luminaries spelling out the words “hope” and “cure”. It was profoundly moving. But it also strongly set the gospel of science and the cure at odds with the gospel of the Resurrection of Christ.
“Christ is Risen from the dead trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life” is the gospel not “science shall trample down death by research.”
Part of me wanted to grab the microphone and tell everyone that even should science find a cure, yet all shall die. And even should we eventually defeat death, yet these loved ones would stay dead. Death reigns, and cannot and shall not be overcome by science. But It was a strange and dreadful strife When Life and Death contended; The victory remained with Life, The reign of Death was ended; Holy Scripture plainly saith That Death is swallowed up by Death, His sting is lost forever. Hallelujah!”
But I don’t think this would have been well received. So all I could do is walk back and forth in the back praying to the God who died and rose again that he would overthrow such superstitous nonsense. But also (for I too was moved by the liturgy) that He would swallow up this death.
And this was good, and a comfort, but it wasn’t completely sufficient. Christ died, but unlike these people here, his Cross was not to watch another suffer and die a hopeless and pointless death. That blessing belongs to the Theotokos and the other women along with the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the Cross. These people here needed a priest to comfort them, but they needed a priest who had suffered the loss of her beloved, not a priest who had been the beloved lost. They needed the priestly love of the Theotokos, not of Christ. (Or more accurately, they needed the priestly love of Christ present as the love of the Theotokos.)
And again, merely thinking about the Theotokos and the loss of her Son was not sufficient. As I needed to call out to her Son and not merely abstractly think of Him, so too I needed to cry out to her, and not merely think of her. She was the priest who had shared in the weakness and longing of these people here. And she was the priest who had seen her hopes realized—her love the Crucified hath sprung to life this morrow! I, feeling the grief and sadness of the liturgy needed a priest who had suffered their loss, and seen the true Resurrection. I needed the Theotokos. But as Christ as a mere model is insufficient, so the Theotokos as a mere model was insufficient. As a wife needs more than to merely contemplate the fact of her husband, but needs to go to him in pain, I needed to cry out to the Theotokos.
C. S. Lewis said that prayers for the dead was such a natural reaction to loss that only the strongest of doctrinal objections could overcome it. At least in my experience, something similar is going on here. In both cases, Christ the priest was present only in the priesthood of dead believers. But just as it would be insufficient to merely think of Christ—he would really be a priest if we could merely think of Him—so it wouldn’t have been sufficient to merely think of these saints. They wouldn’t be priests if that was all that was possible.