On Prayer with the Saints

Our root source for this essay is the booklet Prayer and the Departed Saints by David Ford, a defender of the position of the Orthodox Church concerning prayer, and appeal to the deceased in heaven. The Orthodox position offers the following points:

  1. Those who die in faith have eternal life that is conscious, and they remember all that has happened on earth.
  2. The Church is a living body composed of those now in Christ, whether dead or alive.
  3. Therefore, asking those deceased to pray on our behalf is no different than asking your living Christian neighbor down the street to pray for you as well. Ford stresses that under an Orthodox paradigm we ask those passed on to pray on our behalf -- we do not pray to them to help us themselves.

With point 1 few would disagree, other than the occassional adherent to the doctrine of soul sleep. Point 2 is not disagreeable either.

The crux of the matter is point 3. Ford's first defense is to note evidence that the departed are still involved in affairs on earth. He points to the example of Elijah and Moses at the Transfiguration, and then to an example of the martyr Ignatius (d. 110 AD) who appeared to other believers after his death.

In neither case, however, does the example show a parallel to the Orthodox teaching and neither encourages requesting intercessory prayer from the deceased. (Another example is given from modern times of a saint who reportedly has appeared "many times" to his flock.) Thus Ford offers no positive example of the Orthodox practice in either Scripture or history.

In a note he does appeal to the example of Judas Maccabeus, who offered a sin offering on behalf of deceased soldiers -- oddly enough this is the same passage used by Mormons to justify baptism for the dead. Thus our answer here is the same: This is no more an example of action on behalf of the dead than the scapegoat ceremony which paid for the sins of all the people over the past year, even people who had died in the last year.

Of course most would immediately think of Scriptural citations against summoning the dead (Lev. 19:31) and the example of Saul calling for Samuel (1 Sam. 28). Ford replies that "nothing in the Scriptures that would prohibit Christians from expressing love for and maintaining a sense of fellowship with those who have died. And what better way do we have to express our love than to pray for them?"

As expressed this does not seem objectionable (and Ford cautiously adds that if such persons as we pray for are actually in hell, one cannot pray for them to be removed from hell). However, Ford does not explain how these prohibitions react against the process of asking the deceased to pray for us (and one may note that one must speak in one's prayers "to" these people in order to communicate to them. One may certainly expresses love and maintain a sense of fellowship with those now gone, but it seems unlikely under these prohibitions that what Ford describes would be an approved method of doing this.

Ford further justifies the doctrine by arguing that "sanctification is a process which never ends." The cites he offers, however (1 Cor. 18, 2 Cor. 3:18) do not specifically state that the process of sanctification continues after death. The former he notes uses the term in Greek, "we who are being saved," but Paul is speaking here and in 2 Cor. to people who are still alive on earth. The idea that sanctification continues after death can be neither refuted nor supported by these texts.

Ford then argues that our prayers for the departed also help us, for it "keeps their remembrance alive in us, helping our hearts to stay warm and full of love towards them. It gives us a way to experience a sense of their presence, since prayer is far more than simply the making of requests." [12]

With the latter phrase we agree (see here); yet the point about keeping remembrance alive is expanded by noting that prayer on behalf of the departed allows us to have "living examples of Christian faith for us to emulate." (It is in this context that the Orthodox also venerate Mary.)

In this respect one might compare the Orthodox practice of using icons, which sees a distinction between veneration and worship. However, one need not pursue the Orthodox doctrine to emulate or respect the dead or to sense their "presence" in the way that seems to be implied (i.e., not actually, but in our memories). That may be done by keeping records and stories alive of those who have passed on. Ford's reasoning is a non-reason in context.

Ford also distances the Orthodox church from the Catholic idea of Purgatory.

What may be said in conclusion? Ford never really explains how Orthodox doctrine gets around OT prohibitions on seeking contact with the dead. Perhaps it could be argued that we are not seeking "contact" two ways, but such hair-splitting is an unwise procedure where silence and lack of direct example is our only counsel.

We conclude that there is neither direct support for the prayer doctrine of the Orthodox, in either Scripture or history, nor clear precedent against it, although prohibitions against dealings with the dead loom in the forefront. In that light our conclusion is that such prayer, for those who are prudent, is something best left aside.

Update: A reader helpfully passed me this from Lactantius, an early church writer: "it is manifest that those who either make prayers to the dead, or venerate the earth, or make over their souls to unclean spirits, do not act as becomes men, and that they will suffer punishment for their impiety and guilt, who, rebelling against God, the Father of the human race, have undertaken inexpiable rites, and violated every sacred law." (The Divine Institutes, 2:18) They also noted that Tertullian writes of "Paradise, the place of heavenly bliss appointed to receive the spirits of the saints, severed from the knowledge of this world" (The Apology, 47). The implication seems to be that deceased believers wouldn't be able to receive our prayers.

And now an update. A reader with an interest in Orthodoxy offered some comments on the above; here they are, with our thoughts.

In Orthodox thought, back then Heaven was not opened up yet: everyone was in Sheol, which is just the place of the dead. So everyone there is dead. But in the New Testament, when Jesus is rebuking the Sadducees for not believing in the Resurrection, He says, "You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 'I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not God of the dead, but of the living." (Matthew 22:29-32) If God is the God of the living, and not the dead, then those in Heaven would be living, since this is not the place of the dead but of those experiencing eternal life.

The explanation here seems ingenious, but is, I must say, a rather forced argument based on the assumption that when the OT spoke of the "dead" it excluded certain persons who would now be called the "living". In this case, one must note that at the time YHWH spoke at the burning bush, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would be among those "living" and not dead; yet we see no evidence that the law, some years later, gave exceptions to talk to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob or any other faithful person.

Our reader next questions the use of Lactantius, as offered by another reader. I cannot speak for the first reader and what his defense would be, so I will offer no response myself, leaving it to the prior reader, if desired, to offer a response.

I think the quote you gave from The Divine Institutions is also not being read in context. Here's more text to put around it.
"In the third place, because the spirits which preside over the religious rites themselves, being condemned and cast off by God, wallow(3) over the earth, who not only are unable to afford any advantage to their worshippers, since the power of all things is in the hands of one alone, but even destroy them with deadly attractions and errors; since this is their daily business, to involve men in darkness, that the true God may not be sought by them. Therefore they are not to be worshipped, because they lie under the sentence of God. For it is a very great crime to devote(4) one's self to the power of those whom, if you follow righteousness, you are able to excel in power, and to drive out and put to flight by adjuration of the divine name. But if it appears that these religious rites are vain in so many ways as I have shown, it is manifest that those who either make prayers to the dead,(5) or venerate the earth, or make over(6) their souls to unclean spirits, do not act as becomes men, and that they will suffer punishment for their impiety and guilt, who, rebelling against God, the Father of the human race, have undertaken inexpiable rites, and violated every sacred law."
So this could be seen as talking about the saints, too, but let's see what this guy really means by prayers to the dead by looking earlier in the chapter:
"I have shown that the religious rites of the gods are vain in a threefold manner: In the first place, because those images which are worshipped are representations of men who are deadand that is a wrong and inconsistent thing, that the image of a man should be worshipped by the image of God, for that which worships is lower and weaker than that which is worshipped:"
The full thing can be found here: http://www.synaxis.org/ecf/volume07/ECF00004.htm
Anyway, this deals with idolatry, in my opinion. Now the Orthodox and Catholic Churches do use statues and icons, but they do not worship the saints in the same way they worship God. Also, he's dealing with the religious rites of the "gods", so he could be dealing with Pagan beliefs.
The other quote I've looked at in context, too, but there is a part of it I don't understand.
"And if we threaten Gehenna, which is a reservoir of secret fire under the earth for purposes of punishment, we have in the same way derision heaped on us. For so, too, they have their Pyriphlegethon, a river of flame in the regions of the dead. And if we speak of Paradise,70 the place of heavenly bliss appointed to receive the spirits of the saints, severed from the knowledge of this world by that fiery zone as by a sort of enclosure, the Elysian plains have taken possession of their faith."
Does this fiery zone mean Hell, and if it does, what does it mean? Heaven is surrounded by Hell?

And now we return to where I feel I can comment:

Anyway, I do think there's evidence from the Bible that the saints hear us, and are aware of us, and pray for us.
"And when he 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." (Revelation 5:8)
Which saints pray this? If it is the saints in Heaven, what could they be praying for in Heaven? There's nothing but things that occur on earth that they would need to pray for, so they intercede. But if this is the prayer of the saints on earth, then the saints in Heaven offer up the earthly prayers, again making intercession for them. It appears to me that the saints then still are aware of the earth, because they are connected to it by prayer.

I should say first that I certainly have no beef with the idea that people in heaven are aware of, and pray for, people here; however, this doesn't open the road in the other direction as Orthodox doctrine requires. Nor does Rev. 5:8 help even if the prayers are from saints on earth, because there is nothing to tell us what the content of the prayers are, or to or with whom they are directed.

Also, the early church did have ideas of praying with the saints. First, Clement of Alexandria-
"So is he always pure for prayer. He also prays in the society of angels, as being already of angelic rank, and he is never out of their holy keeping; and though he pray alone, he has the choir of the saints121 standing with him." Miscellanies 7:12, AD 208
This text is counter-Gnostic, and he speaks of the true Christian as the true Gnostic, so if you read more of this book, this is why Gnostics seemed to be praised and all.

And once again, this does not validate the very specific Orthodoix practice of prayer with these saints. Clement speaks of the saints as an invisible force behind the living believer -- not of us asking the deceased to pray on our behalf. Indeed, it suggests that this is unnecessary, for they already pray on our behalf without being asked.

I find other quotes offered no more specific or helpful in this regard, but shall provide them:

From Cyprian of Carthage - "We earnestly exhort as much as we can, dearest brother, for the sake of the mutual love by which we are joined one to another, that since we are instructed by the providence of the Lord, who warns us, and are admonished by the wholesome counsels of divine mercy, that the day of our contest and struggle is already approaching, we should not cease to be instant with all the people in fastings, in watchings, in prayers. Let us be urgent, with constant groanings and frequent prayers. For these are our heavenly arms, which make us to stand fast and bravely to persevere. These are the spiritual defences and divine weapons which defend us. Let us remember one another in concord and unanimity. Let us on both sides always pray for one another. Let us relieve burdens and afflictions by mutual love, that if any one of us, by the swiftness of divine condescension, shall go hence the first, our love may continue in the presence of the Lord, and our prayers for our brethren and sisters not cease in the presence of the Father's mercy. I bid you, dearest brother, ever heartly farewell." Letters/Epistles 56:5, AD 253
Origen - "Yet there is a certain helpful charm in a place of prayer being the spot in which believers meet together. Also it may well be that the assemblies of believers also are attended by angelic powers, by the powers of our Lord and Savior himself, and indeed by the spirits of saints, including those already fallen asleep, certainly of those still in life, though just how is not easy to say." Origen on Prayer XX, AD 233

And again: In neither case is a need to seen to ask the departed to pray for us -- for it is assumed that they already do, or are thought to.

Our reader closes: "So I think the early church accepted that the saints pray for us, and the Bible shows this as well, and to me it is apparent that the early church believed that the living and the dead prayed together." This, however, gives no justification for the very crucial distinctine laid out by Ford: asking those deceased to pray on our behalf. Rather, it would suggest that the body of Christ is a continguous organism, which workd together; but we no more need to ask the saints to pray for us than we need to tell our heart to beat or our lungs to breathe.


And now, the reader who previously offered feedback has some more on our recent comments.

As you explained in your response, none of the quotes are even relevant to the issue at hand....

...I want to emphasize a point: To ask a deceased person to pray for you is to pray to that person. You can't ask somebody something without directing communication to that person. Why do Orthodox (and Catholics) so often refer to asking the dead to pray for them, trying to avoid any reference to praying to those deceased people? Probably because they know that praying to the dead is problematic, even if they don't want to admit it. You may be interested in reading some examples of Eastern Orthodox prayers to the dead, which involve more than just asking people to pray for you:


More specifically:


They aren't just asking Mary to pray for them.

In your article, you cited two of my passages from the fathers, one from Tertullian and the other from Lactantius. There's much more that can be cited, and I'll be including some examples later.

But let me comment on Tertullian and Lactantius first.On whether Tertullian thought that Heaven was surrounded by Hell: How does asking such a question refute my use of the passage? Tertullian held a complex view of the afterlife that doesn't completely align with any of the mainstream views today. If Tertullian was mistaken about Paradise being surrounded by a fiery region, that can be taken up with Tertullian. Disputing it doesn't refute my citation of the passage. I do think that the passage I cited can be interpreted in other ways, but asking whether Tertullian viewed Heaven as being surrounded by Hell doesn't make the case. Later in this letter, I'm going to give further context from Tertullian supporting my conclusion that he didn't believe in praying to the deceased.

Lactantius discusses idolatry in the larger context and is addressing pagans. How do such facts refute my use of the passage? When the early Christians criticize pagans for aborting their children or committing fornication, do we conclude that things like abortion and fornication are sinful only if you're a non-Christian? Should we think that it's acceptable for Christians to engage in such behavior? The argument adds qualifications to Lactantius' comments that Lactantius himself doesn't include. The most natural reading of the passage is that praying to the dead is sinful, without the arbitrary qualifications.

I want to give some further context regarding the fathers' view of praying to the dead. As with all historical questions, different pieces of evidence carry different weight. But I think that the overall balance of the evidence is strongly against praying to the deceased. Even if some of these passages from the fathers could possibly be interpreted in other ways, not all of them have a reasonable alternate interpretation, and the general thrust of the data is clear.

First, I want to briefly address Revelation 5:8. Early patristic commentators on Revelation 5:8 refer to the prayers as being offered to God, not to the elders. We see this in Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 4:17:6-4:18:1), Origen (Against Celsus, 8:17), and Methodius (The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, 5:8). If other beings are involved in the transmission of our prayers, but aren't the recipients of those prayers, how does that situation support the Eastern Orthodox practice of having dead people as an object of prayer? It doesn't.

Athenagoras suggests that prayers shouldn't be addressed to created beings:

"Because the multitude, who cannot distinguish between matter and God, or see how great is the interval which lies between them, pray to idols made of matter, are we therefore, who do distinguish and separate the uncreated and the created, that which is and that which is not, that which is apprehended by the understanding and that which is perceived by the senses, and who give the fitting name to each of them,-are we to come and worship images?...For if they differ in no respect from the lowest brutes (since it is evident that the Deity must differ from the things of earth and those that are derived from matter), they are not gods. How, then, I ask, can we approach them as suppliants, when their origin resembles that of cattle, and they themselves have the form of brutes, and are ugly to behold?" (A Plea for the Christians, 15, 20)

Irenaeus wrote:

"Nor does she [the church] perform anything by means of angelic invocations, or by incantations, or by any other wicked curious art; but, directing her prayers to the Lord, who made all things, in a pure, sincere, and straightforward spirit, and calling upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, she has been accustomed to work miracles for the advantage of mankind, and not to lead them into error....The altar, then, is in heaven (for towards that place are our prayers and oblations directed)" (Against Heresies, 2:32:5, 4:18:6)

Clement of Alexandria defines prayer as communication with God. He refers to Christians "passing over the whole world" in order to commune with God alone in prayer. He describes it as a form of worship to God. Apparently, he had no concept of praying to the dead:

"But if, by nature needing nothing, He delights to be honoured, it is not without reason that we honour God in prayer; and thus the best and holiest sacrifice with righteousness we bring, presenting it as an offering to the most righteous Word, by whom we receive knowledge, giving glory by Him for what we have learned....For the sacrifice of the Church is the word breathing as incense from holy souls, the sacrifice and the whole mind being at the same time unveiled to God. Now the very ancient altar in Delos they celebrated as holy; which alone, being undefiled by slaughter and death, they say Pythagoras approached. And will they not believe us when we say that the righteous soul is the truly sacred altar, and that incense arising from it is holy prayer?...Prayer is, then, to speak more boldly, converse with God. Though whispering, consequently, and not opening the lips, we speak in silence, yet we cry inwardly. For God hears continually all the inward converse. So also we raise the head and lift the hands to heaven, and set the feet in motion at the closing utterance of the prayer, following the eagerness of the spirit directed towards the intellectual essence; and endeavouring to abstract the body from the earth, along with the discourse, raising the soul aloft, winged with longing for better things, we compel it to advance to the region of holiness, magnanimously despising the chain of the flesh. For we know right well, that the Gnostic [believer] willingly passes over the whole world, as the Jews certainly did over Egypt, showing clearly, above all, that he will be as near as possible to God." (The Stromata, 7:6-7)

Tertullian takes The Lord's Prayer to be representative of all prayer. The object of all prayer, then, is God:

"God alone could teach how he wished Himself prayed to. The religious rite of prayer therefore, ordained by Himself, and animated, even at the moment when it was issuing out of the Divine mouth, by His own Spirit, ascends, by its own prerogative, into heaven, commending to the Father what the Son has taught." (On Prayer, 9)

Notice that Tertullian refers to "the religious rite of prayer", meaning that he's referring to all prayers, not just some. All prayers are "commended to the Father", following the pattern of The Lord's Prayer, according to Tertullian.

He explains that prayer is a sacrifice to God, which would exclude praying to anybody else:

"We are the true adorers and the true priests, who, praying in spirit, sacrifice, in spirit, prayer,-a victim proper and acceptable to God, which assuredly He has required, which He has looked forward to for Himself! This victim, devoted from the whole heart, fed on faith, tended by truth, entire in innocence, pure in chastity, garlanded with love, we ought to escort with the pomp of good works, amid psalms and hymns, unto God's altar, to obtain for us all things from God." (On Prayer, 28)

Hippolytus comments:

"And in them [the Psalms] we have 'prayer,' viz., supplication offered to God for anything requisite" (On the Psalms, 8, http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/ANF-05/anf05-17.htm#P3322_1045069 )

Origen comments that Christians pray only to God:

"For every prayer, and supplication, and intercession, and thanksgiving, is to be sent up to the Supreme God through the High Priest, who is above all the angels, the living Word and God. And to the Word Himself shall we also pray and make intercessions, and offer thanksgivings and supplications to Him, if we have the capacity of distinguishing between the proper use and abuse of prayer. For to invoke angels without having obtained a knowledge of their nature greater than is possessed by men, would be contrary to reason. But, conformably to our hypothesis, let this knowledge of them, which is something wonderful and mysterious, be obtained. Then this knowledge, making known to us their nature, and the offices to which they are severally appointed, will not permit us to pray with confidence to any other than to the Supreme God, who is sufficient for all things, and that through our Saviour the Son of God, who is the Word, and Wisdom, and Truth, and everything else which the writings of God's prophets and the apostles of Jesus entitle Him....And being persuaded that the sun himself, and moon, and stars pray to the Supreme God through His only-begotten Son, we judge it improper to pray to those beings who themselves offer up prayers to God, seeing even they themselves would prefer that we should send up our requests to the God to whom they pray, rather than send them downwards to themselves, or apportion our power of prayer beetween God and them....Celsus forgets that he is addressing Christians, who pray to God alone through Jesus" (Against Celsus, 5:4-5, 5:11, 8:37)

Cyprian wrote a treatise on The Lord's Prayer, a treatise that addresses prayer in general, even though it focuses on that one prayer in the gospels. He describes prayer as something done "in God's sight", something directed to God, not to people:

"Let us consider that we are standing in God's sight. We must please the divine eyes both with the habit of body and with the measure of voice. For as it is characteristic of a shameless man to be noisy with his cries, so, on the other hand, it is fitting to the modest man to pray with moderated petitions." (On the Lord's Prayer, 4)

Later in the treatise, he explains that The Lord's Prayer addresses "all our prayer", which implies that we're to pray only to God, since The Lord's Prayer is addressed only to God:

"What wonder is it, beloved brethren, if such is the prayer which God taught, seeing that He condensed in His teaching all our prayer in one saving sentence? This had already been before foretold by Isaiah the prophet, when, being filled with the Holy Spirit, he spoke of the majesty and loving-kindness of God, 'consummating and shortening His word,' He says, 'in righteousness, because a shortened word will the Lord make in the whole earth.'" (On the Lord's Prayer, 28)

In other words, Cyprian considers The Lord's Prayer to be an outline for all prayer, which necessarily excludes praying to anybody but God.

Later, Cyprian tells us that we pray to "nothing but the Lord", to "God alone":

"Moreover, when we stand praying, beloved brethren, we ought to be watchful and earnest with our whole heart, intent on our prayers. Let all carnal and worldly thoughts pass away, nor let the soul at that time think on anything but the object only of its prayer. For this reason also the priest, by way of preface before his prayer, prepares the minds of the brethren by saying, 'Lift up your hearts,' that so upon the people's response, 'We lift them up unto the Lord,' he may be reminded that he himself ought to think of nothing but the Lord. Let the breast be closed against the adversary, and be open to God alone" (On the Lord's Prayer, 31)

Throughout the treatise, Cyprian instructs the reader how to pray to God, and he repeatedly says that he's addressing all of our prayers in this treatise, yet he says nothing of praying to Mary, praying to Joseph, praying to Jude, or praying to anybody else other than God. Rather, he describes prayer as an act of worship and reverence to God, something addressed to God alone. An angel might bring our prayers to God, as we see in the book of Revelation, for example, but the prayer is to be addressed only to God. That's the Protestant view of prayer, it's the Biblical view, and it's the view of the earliest church fathers.