What’s the problem with praying to saints?

Protestants get really uptight about the Roman Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) practice of praying to the saints. Generally, Protestants think prayer is communication with God. Catholics have a broader understanding of prayer. While it can be communication with God, prayer can also be simply asking for something. For Catholic apologists, praying to saints is merely asking dead Christians to do something for you, namely interceding with God on your behalf. They see this as essentially the same thing as asking living Christians to pray for you with the exception that the saints are perfectly righteous. The perfected righteousness of the saints is what makes their prayers on our behalf more effective than our own prayers. Protestants have a hard time getting past the fact that the saints are dead and therefore out of the reach of the living. (They also have a problem with the Catholic concept of “saint”, but we’ll leave that alone for now.)

Both groups appeal to the Bible to support their positions, so who’s right? On this issue, I’m going to side with the Protestants, but with some reservation. While I think Protestantism’s objection to praying to the saints is correct, I don’t think all of its arguments are sound . For example, I heard a well-known Evangelical apologist argue that praying to the saints is forbidden because it is analogous to consulting the dead, which is prohibited in Deuteronomy 18. I was very disappointed by his reasoning. Instead of seeing the prohibition of contacting the dead in its immediate context (divination and necromancy), this Evangelical generalized and stated that God doesn’t want any communication with the dead of any kind. The folks over at Catholic Answers stick with the context saying that there is a big difference between performing necromancy in order to get secret information from the deceased and asking a departed Christian in heaven to pray to God on your behalf. I have to agree. Deuteronomy 18 is not a good proof text for the Protestant position.

Is there a good proof text for the Protestant position? I don’t think that there really is. As they correctly point out, there’s not a single example of anyone praying to a saint found anywhere in the Scripture. How can there be a proof text when the subject simply isn’t ever addressed? At this point, Catholic apologists will likely disagree, saying that there are examples of praying to saints in Scripture and cite a passage from Revelation.

Revelation is a complicated bit of Scripture. It belongs to that unique genre called apocalyptic”. The book’s highly symbolic rhetoric makes it unwise to approach it as though John were a foreign correspondent on assignment in a far away land giving his eye-witness report of historical events. So when Catholic Answers turns to Revelation 8 and points at the angel offering the “prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar”, we should slow down and think this image through. Let’s begin by dealing with the image itself without addressing its meaning. In the image, there is no saint offering prayers to God, but rather an angel. Consequently, this text doesn’t illustrate dead saints praying on behalf of living saints and therefore doesn’t justify its citation. Then there are the prayers themselves. We don’t know the content of those prayers, so how do we know if they are addressed to God or to a saint? We know that the prayers come from “all the saints” but what does that mean? It might mean both the living and the dead ones, or it might mean only the dead ones (depending on what one means by the word “saint”.) The image alone, that is without interpretation, fails to do the job for which the Catholic apologist has employed it. The same applies to Revelation 5 where we see “the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” Who are these “elders”? Are they saints themselves? (If so, would that mean that there are presently only twenty-four saints in heaven?) Again, what is the content of these prayers? The Protestant claim that there is no example in the Bible of people praying to saints is justified.

Without a good proof text, is there a good Protestant argument against praying to the saints? I think there is but I’m not exactly sure how to make it. Since Catholics see Tradition as equally authoritative as Scripture, I would have to know a lot more about Tradition to make a complete argument. However, I think I could put together a good argument from Scripture. My argument would include the simple fact that the Bible isn’t perfectly clear about what happens to Christians when they die. This would probably upset some Catholics and Protestants because they are so sure of what they believe the Bible says. For example, they are sure that the Bible says Christians go to heaven when they die, but does it really? Where? The Bible is clear that Jesus returns at the end of history, that the dead are raised and that there is both reward and punishment. The Bible is not clear about what happens between death and resurrection. In the Bible, we find Jesus telling the thief on the cross that he would be with Jesus in Paradise on that very day. Yet, we also find Paul saying that the Christians who had died before the return of Jesus were “asleep”. (I suppose the thief could be asleep in Paradise, but I don’t’ think anyone on either side is willing to say that.) We read in the Psalms that “the dead can not praise the Lord”. When Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, Moses (who died) and Elijah (who did not die but was “taken”) were there with him. So what’s going on with the dead? Where are they really? What are they doing? Are they conscious, unconscious or semi-conscious? The Bible simply isn’t clear, so why should we believe that the saints are in heaven, hearing our prayers and presenting them to God? Without Tradition, there simply isn’t a good reason to believe this. I suppose that the Catholic response would be “Thank God we have Tradition,” which brings up a different problem Protestants have with Catholics.

I have heard a Protestant apologist argue against the Catholic distinction between “latria” and “dulia”. Catholics say that “latria” is worship which is only due to God, while “dulia” is service which can be given to both God and man. Therefore, prayers to saints are “dulia” while prayers to God are “latria”. I think that the Biblical case he presented was sound, but unfortunately he got very close to being ungracious in presenting it. I would probably want to work that into my argument.

The problem with praying to saints from the Protestant perspective is that it appears too much like worship which is only due to God. Catholics deny that praying to saints is worship. Either way, it’s enough for me that there’s no good Biblical support for the practice, which means that my Protestant roots are showing.

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