Communion of Saints: Biblical Introduction & Overview

Written in 1995; published in The Catholic Answer (Nov / Dec 1998).

[Bible passages: KJV]

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The Mystical Body of Christ, according to Catholicism and universal Christian Tradition before the arrival of Protestantism in 1517, has three levels of existence, and communication and cooperation (in differing degrees) occurs between all of them. Those on earth invoke the prayers of the saints in heaven, honor them as glorified Christians and seek to imitate them. They also pray for the souls in purgatory. Those in heaven pray for the saints on earth and in purgatory. Those in purgatory can invoke the saints in heaven and pray for us struggling with the world, the flesh, and the devil. Protestants are inclined to think that scriptural evidences for the Communion of Saints are entirely lacking, but such is not the case.

1) The “Apocrypha”

Perhaps the clearest proofs of this doctrine exist in the books known to Protestants as the “Apocrypha” (called “Deuterocanonical” by Catholics), which Protestants removed from the Bible (the first time this had happened in the history of Christianity). In 2 Maccabees 15:11-16 Jeremiah the prophet prays for the Jews centuries after his death (compare Jer 15:1), along with the deceased high priest Onias. Likewise, Tobit 12:1-22 (especially 12,15) presents Raphael the angel as one of the “seven holy angels, which present the prayers of the saints.” Tobit 12:15 is apparently referred to in Rev 5:8 and 8:3-4, which speak of the “prayers of the saints” being offered to God, and in Rev 1:4, which mentions the “seven Spirits.” There is plenty of proof, however, in Protestant Bibles, too:

2) Revelation 1:4 

“John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace {be} unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne.” (cf. Rev 3:1; 4:5; 5:6)

The seven angels participate in the giving of “grace” and “peace” by God, a principle anathema to Protestants. Some Protestant commentators, aware of a certain difficulty here for their position, seek to redefine the “seven Spirits” as the Holy Spirit, but a check with the cross-references above (inc. Tobit) make this implausible. Other commentators accept these spirits as the seven archangels of Jewish angelology, as indeed they appear to be.

3) Revelation 5:8 and 8:3-4 

“And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four {and} twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints.”

“And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer {it} with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. (4) And the smoke of the incense, {which came} with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.”

The saints (the 24 elders are usually regarded as dead Christians) and angels lay the prayers of the Christians on earth at the feet of God; that is, they are praying for them and acting as intercessory intermediaries. Thus, the propriety of invoking them logically follows from the plain fact of their intercession. This is identical to the Catholic teaching. Protestant commentaries scramble to come up with some alternate version of what is taking place here, straining at gnats, rationalizing, and splitting hairs. It is amusing to find that often these Protestant works will vehemently maintain that the Catholic view is definitely not taught in a particular Bible verse, while rarely offering a plausible or coherent alternate explanation!

Protestantism accepts the superior knowledge of angels and their ability to understand and influence our thoughts (see 1 Cor 4:9), yet illogically deny that we could ever ask them for their aid, since they construct a false dichotomy whereby invocation of any being beside God is somehow always and necessarily idolatrous. Here, in these passages, dead saints are also exercising the same function as the angels. Yet, if we can’t ask either type of being for their intercession, it seems that we could not pray for each other either, since the “invocation” of a saint or angel simply means asking them for their prayers to God, not as beings who are capable of answering the prayers in and of themselves. The Protestant argument, then, proves too much and must be discarded.

4) Revelation 6:9-10 

“And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: (10) And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” {cf. Zech 1:12}

These dead Christian martyrs are uttering what are known as “imprecatory prayers,” pleas for God’s judgment of the wicked and vindication of the righteous (e.g., see Ps 35; 69; 79; 109; 139; Jer 11:18 ff.; 15:15 ff.; 18:19 ff.; Jesus in Mt 26:53). Thus, dead saints are praying for Christians on earth, and, by logical extension, can be asked for prayers. They are aware of earthly events (Heb 12:1), and are more alive, unfathomably more righteous (Jas 5:16), and obviously closer to God than we are.

They need not be omniscient to hear our prayers, but merely out of time. It makes no less sense to ask for their prayers than to request those of any person on earth. In fact, the prayer above was answered by God who hastens the end of the age (8:1-5). Therefore, if the prayers of the Christians in heaven is so important in this instance, one can only imagine their immense weightiness in the overall scheme of things.

5) Matthew 18:10 

“Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.”

The notion that every person has their own guardian angel, who has direct access to God, is strongly implied. If Jesus said He could have asked for the assistance of an angel (Mt 26:53) – and He certainly would not have been worshiping them in so doing – then we, who need their help infinitely more than He, can do the same without necessarily engaging in idolatry (anything can become an idol if we let it). Nor will it do for Protestants to equate the Intercession of the Saints with the communication with evil spirits by means of a medium or other occultic techniques. This is nonsense. The Communion of the Saints is nothing more than the recognition that saints after death (and angels) are more alive than us, aware of happenings on earth, desirous of aiding us, and able to be asked for help and to assist us with their prayer and intercession.

6) Dead Saints Appear on Earth to Interact With Men

Not only does God not want a prohibition of contact between saints in heaven and on earth, but He goes so far as to allow, on several occasions as recorded in the Bible, dead saints to return to earth for this very purpose! These are instances accepted by Protestants, but their implications are only fully developed within Catholicism. We find, for example, Moses and Elijah appearing on the Mount of Transfiguration to talk to Jesus, while Peter, James, and John were present (Mt 17:1-3 / Mk 9:4 / Lk 9:30-31).

Likewise, the two “witnesses” of Rev 11:3-13 are saints who had come back to life, thought by many commentators to be, again, Moses and Elijah, and by others, Enoch and Elijah. Thirdly, the prophet Samuel (not just a demon impersonating him) appears in 1 Sam 28:7-20, as the great majority of commentators hold (the “Apocryphal” book Ecclesiasticus makes this clear – 46:13,20). “Many bodies of the saints” came out of their graves after Jesus’ Resurrection and went into Jerusalem, appearing to many (Mt 27:50-53). Lastly, Jeremiah returns to earth (2 Maccabees 15:13-16).

All of these occurrences involve long-dead figures (as opposed to other resurrections such as Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter), and demolish the notion of Protestantism that there is an unbridgeable gulf between heaven and earth – a sort of spiritual “Berlin wall.” There is no such bridge, according to the Bible, because there is only one Church and Mystical Body of Christ, and death cannot affect the communion between its members of whatever estate. It’s interesting to note that Moses and Samuel, who together appear in two and perhaps three of the five examples above, are renowned among Jews and Christians for their powerful intercession (Ex 32:11-12; 1 Sam 7:9; Ps 99:6; Jer 15:1: implied after-death prayer).

In all cases, much communication takes place with people on earth. Samuel talks to Saul and Saul replies; Peter, James, and John may have heard Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus (it’s unclear); the two witnesses prophesy for three and a half years (obviously including conversation), the resurrected saints of Mt 27 “appeared unto many,” presumably talking with them as did Jesus in His post-Resurrection appearances; and Jeremiah spoke to Judas Maccabeus.

In light of these scriptural facts, how could anyone contend that God forbids such interaction, allowing only that between man and God, and men with men on earth? God could easily have disallowed any of these occurrences if they were indeed “contrary to the unique mediatorship of Jesus Christ.” In conclusion, we find, then, that all the elements of the Catholic doctrines of the Communion of Saints are undoubtedly found in the Bible, and not just in the Deuterocanonical books, for all to see.

7) The Veneration of Saints 

Devotions to angels and saints no more interfere and corrupt the incommunicable Glory of the Eternal God and Creator than does the love we have towards friends and relatives. A tender and healthy attachment to the saints will give vent to feelings in the language of hyperbole, just as human lovers wax eloquent in their romantic praises of each other, never intending to literally worship the object of love and affection.

If we honor the memory of political heroes (e.g., Jefferson, Lincoln) with statues, and war heroes with monuments (e.g., the Vietnam Memorial), why can we not honor the great Christian saints and the towering righteous men and women of the Old Testament? We address judges as “Your Honor” and are commanded to “honor thy mother and father” in the Ten Commandments. The saints are still alive and able to influence and assist us.

Thus, the Veneration of Saints is more than merely mental inspiration (although it includes that aspect as well). God somehow takes up into Himself the whole creation and `lives in it,’ ‘moves’ in it, and in it ‘is’ (cf. Acts 17:28). The veneration given to angels and saints is essentially different from the worship offered to God. To God alone belongs the adoration of the whole man. But God’s glory is also reflected in His children. They are dewdrops in which the sun’s radiance is mirrored. They are venerated because God is present in them.

A sound biblical basis for Veneration of Saints can be found in the Pauline passages where the Apostle exhorts his followers to “imitate” him (1 Cor 4:16; Phil 3:17; 2 Thess 3:7-9) as he, in turn, imitates Jesus Christ (1 Cor 11:1; 1 Thess 1:6). Also, we are told to honor and imitate the “heroes of the faith” in Heb 6:12 and ch. 11, and to take heart in the examples of the prophets and Job, who endured suffering (Jas 5:10-11). It has been said that the painter is most honored when his masterpiece is complimented, because he knows that such praise reflects back upon himself (see 2 Cor 3:18).

8) Summary of Biblical Evidences 

A. Prayers for the Dead

Tobit 12:12; 2 Macc 12:39-45; 1 Cor 15:29; 2 Tim 1:16-18.

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B. Dead Saints Are Aware of Earthly Affairs 

Mt 22:30 w/ Lk 15:7,10 & 1 Cor 4:9; Heb 12:1.

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C. Dead Saints Intercede For Those On Earth 

Jer 15:1; 2 Macc 15:14; Rev 6:9-10.

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D. Intercessory Mediation of Saints and Angels 

Tobit 12:12-15; Rev 5:8 and 8:3-4.

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E. Dead Saints Appear On Earth to Interact With Men 

1 Sam 28:12-15 with Ecclesiasticus 46:20; 2 Macc 15:13-16; Mt 17:1-3 and 27:50-53; Rev 11:3.

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F. Guardian Angels 

Ps 34:7; 91:11; Mt 18:10; Acts 12:15; Heb 1:14.

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G. Angels Are Aware of Our Thoughts 

Lk 15:10; 1 Cor 4:9.

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H. Angels Participate In the Giving of God’s Grace

Rev 1:4.

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The great Anglican writer and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, in one of his last books, wrote:

[D]evotions to saints . . . There is clearly a theological defense for it; if you can ask for the prayers of the living, why should you not ask for the prayers of the dead? I am not thinking of adopting the practice myself; and who am I to judge the practices of others? (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly On Prayer, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964, 15-16)

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Photo credit: Landauer Altar (1511), by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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