The Invocation of the Saints is Not a Neutral or Harmless Practice

I recently came across a Lutheran pastor (in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) who posted a picture of the Virgin Mary with the entirety of the hail Mary attached to it, including the request for Mary to “pray for us sinner now and at the hour of our death.” What was particularly troubling to me was the fact that a number of other LCMS pastors shared this prayer, and called it salutary. It seems rather odd that one should have to write on this issue in conversation with Confessional Lutherans who have vowed to uphold our Book of Concord, but since the issue seems to be popping up in various places, it would behoove us to review what it is that our Confessions teach concerning this topic.

The most extensive discussion of this issue comes from the Apology of the Augsburg Confession Article XXI. In this article, Melanchthon notes that there are three ways in which Christians are called to honor the saints: thanksgiving, the strengthening of faith, and the imitation of virtue. It is by these means, rather than invocation or veneration of their images, that the saints of God are truly honored. The Apology acknowledges the truth that saints do indeed pray for the church in general while in heaven, and this includes Mary. However, God has not commanded us to invoke the saints. Melanchthon writes: “Since the invocation of the saints does not have a testimony from God’s Word, it cannot be affirmed that the saints understand our invocation or, even if they understand it, that God approves it” (Ap. XXI.12). To argue that the saints can hear silent prayers is to assign them divine powers, which Scripture does not attribute to those in heaven (Ap. XXI.11). Melanchthon further argues that one cannot make a distinction between a mediator of intercession (the saints), and a mediator or redemption (Christ). This is traditionally the means by which the Roman church has argued that a certain kind of prayer can be offered to the saints, while another is offered to God. In the Apology, it is argued that any such distinction clouds the unique mediatorial role of Christ.

While Melanchthon deals gently with this issue, as is his usual manner, Luther is much more blatant about his rejection of the invocation of the saints. In the Smalcald Articles, Luther writes: “The invocation of saints is also one off the Antichrist’s abuses that conflicts with the chief article and destroys the knowledge of Christ” (SA II, II:25). This is not a statement made in passing, but Luther finds this issue important enough to devote an entire article to it. Thus, Confessionally, we are bound as Lutherans, not only to reject this idea as unnecessary, but as harmful to the integrity of the gospel.

Some argue that, because of this article, the final part of the hail Mary, requesting Mary’s intercession, is wrong, but that the beginning is an acceptable prayer. How is this any better? If the hail Mary is a “prayer,” who are you praying to? Is the text not spoken to Mary? Surely, we can’t simply take any words of blessing that God gives to a saint and then just convert them into a personal prayer toward a particular saint. If any of the hail Mary is used as a “prayer,” then it is a prayer to Mary, and not to God. When that happens, you are no longer a Confessional Lutheran. And, consequently, you are no longer Biblical.

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