Title Page of Book of Concord (Dresden: 1580) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
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Rev. Jordan Cooper is a Lutheran pastor and theologian (I’m not sure which branch of Lutheranism he is part of). He has a blog here at Patheos (Just and Sinner) and has written what look like two extremely interesting books, on theosis (I’ve noted Luther’s views on theosis myself) and patristic soteriology and the new perspective on Paul. I will cite his entire blog post, The Invocation of the Saints is Not a Neutral or Harmless Practice (11-28-15), with his words in blue.
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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[s] 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.
It’s fascinating to hear about such practices in the LCMS. I’m delighted by your report! Perhaps they are drawing from the “pre-Concord” primal Lutheranism of Martin Luther himself. He wrote in 1520:
[W]hen we . . . pray the rosary and the Psalter, and all this not before an idol, but before the holy cross of God or the pictures of His saints: this we call honoring and worshiping God, . . . Of course, if these things are done with such faith that we believe that they please God, then they are praiseworthy, not because of their virtue, but because of such faith . . . (Treatise on Good Works, March 1520; tr. W. A. Lambert; in Works of Martin Luther, Volume I; Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Co.: 1915)
You inquire, venerable Father, as to my practice in beginning and ending a sermon; my usage is not the common one. Omitting wordy prologues I briefly say: “Invoke the divine grace, and say an inward Ave Maria or Paternoster, that the word of God may be fruitful to us and God accept us.” (To George Kunzelt, 15 June 1520; in Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Vol. I: 1507-1521; translated and edited by Preserved Smith; Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society: 1913)
He also wrote in his Magnificat in June 1521:
We ought to call upon her, that for her sake God may grant and do what we request. (tr. A. T. W. Steinhaeuser; in Works of Martin Luther, Volume III; Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Co. and The Castle Press: 1930)
We pray God to give us a right understanding of this Magnificat, an understanding that consists not merely in brilliant words, but I glowing life in body and soul. May Christ grant us this through the intercession and for the sake of His dear Mother Mary. (Ibid.)
Even as late as 1530 (when the Augsburg Confession was written and a year after his Small Catechism and Large Catechism; also in the Book of Concord) Luther could write:
For when I can speak to the virgin from the bottom of my heart and say: O Mary, noble, tender virgin, you have borne a child; this I want more than robes and guldens, yea, more than body and life . . . (Sermons I, ed. and tr. John W. Doberstein; Sermon on the Afternoon of Christmas Day, 25 Dec. 1530; in Luther’s Works, vol. 51)
[for many more of these sorts of “Catholic” Luther utterances, see my book that collects hundreds of them: available for as low as $1.99: instant download]
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. ). 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. ).
As to the latter point, this is a false dichotomy. Obviously, those in heaven are endowed with extraordinary powers. This doesn’t make them God, or in possession of God’s unique properties, anymore than angels (with all their remarkable powers) possess them. God gives them whatever abilities they have. Specifically, they are outside of time since they are likely in an atemporal state after death. We know that they are aware of earthly events, and I believe the Book of Concord acknowledges that, since they are praying for us. Hebrews 12:1 (closely examined) makes that clear. We also know that the 24 elders in heaven appear to be in possession of “the prayers of the saints” (Rev 5:8): implying their mediatorial intercession. An angel is also described as doing the same thing in heaven (Rev 8:3-4).
So Melanchthon claimed that invocation of the saints has no sanction or example in the Bible? With all due respect (he was a pious, thoughtful soul, but not infallible), he must not have read it closely enough. There are all sorts of indirect, deductive indications of invocation of both angels and saints in the Bible, that I have compiled. But let’s look at one very clear-cut case, right from the teaching of Jesus. It’s His story of Lazarus and the rich man, which is not a parable, according to many good commentators, but an actual account. Proper names do not occur, I believe, in parables. Here it is (RSV):
Luke 16:19-31 “There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.  And at his gate lay a poor man named Laz’arus, full of sores,  who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.  The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried;  and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Laz’arus in his bosom.  And he called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Laz’arus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’  But Abraham said, `Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Laz’arus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.  And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’  And he said, `Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house,  for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’  But Abraham said, `They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’  And he said, `No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’  He said to him, `If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.’”
This is the Abraham of the Bible: long dead by that time, being asked to do something (i.e., invoked or “prayed to”) by a “rich man” (16:19, 22), traditionally known as Dives (which is simply a Latin word for “rich man”). His answer was, in effect, “no” (16:25-26). Thus failing in that request, he prays to him again for something else (16:27-28). The KJV even renders 16:27 as, “I pray thee therefore, father”. His request is again declined (16:29). So, like any good self-respecting Jew (Moses even “negotiated” with God), he argues with Abraham (16:30). But Abraham states again that his request is futile (16:31).
If we’re told that we can’t “pray to” or request intercession from a dead man, or anyone but God, and/or that such practices are not in the Bible, we need to show folks this passage. It also shows (in a fascinating way) that not only can dead saints hear our requests, they also have some measure of power to carry them out on their own. Abraham is asked to “send” a dead man to appear to Dives’ brothers, in order for them to avoid damnation (yet another [potential] instance of dead men — like the prophet Samuel to Saul — communicating to those on the earth). Abraham doesn’t deny that he is able to potentially send Lazarus to do such a thing; he only denies that it would work, or that it is necessary (by the logic of “if they don’t respond to greater factor x, nor will they to lesser factor y”).
Therefore, it is assumed in the story that Abraham could have possibly done so on his own. And this is all told, remember, by our Lord Jesus. It is disputed by some whether it is a parable (several textual factors suggest that it is not), but even if it is, it nevertheless cannot contain doctrinal principles or practices that are untrue or sinful, lest Jesus be guilty of leading people into heresy by means of false illustrations or analogies within His common teaching tool: the parable.
Whether Dives was dead or not is also irrelevant to the argument at hand, since standard Protestant theology holds that no one can make such a request to anyone but God. He’s asking Abraham to send Lazarus to him, and then to his brothers, to prevent them from going to hell. That is very much, prayer: asking for supernatural aid from those who have left the earthly life and attained sainthood and perfection, with God.
Quibbling about whether it was a parable (an argument that fails, anyway, as shown) or whether the requester was dead does not allow Protestants to escape their internal difficulties in this instance. Protestant theology (I believe, including Lutheran) teaches that we can’t even talk to anyone who is dead, let alone make intercessory requests to them. Yet Saul talked to the dead Samuel, Moses and Elijah appeared at the Mount of Transfiguration (I visited the spot a year ago), the “Two Witnesses” of Revelation come back to life again (and talk to folks), etc.
Protestant theology, generally speaking, forbids asking a dead man to intercede (thus, a dead man asking this is part of the larger category that remains forbidden in that theology), and makes prayer altogether a matter only between man and God. Abraham is functioning as a mini-mediator. He is being asked to accomplish certain things. An intercessory request was made of him, not God.
In fact, God is never mentioned in the entire story (!!!); whereas according to Lutheranism / Protestantism, He certainly ought to have been, because it is claimed that there is no mediatorial function for dead saints helping us get to God or to fulfill any (moral / good) request of ours. So why on earth (granting those assumptions for a moment) did Jesus teach in this fashion? Why did He teach that Lazarus was asking Abraham to do things that Protestant theology would hold that only God can do? And why is the whole story about him asking Abraham for requests, rather than going directly to God and asking Him: which would seem to be required by Protestant theology?
But instead, God is not mentioned at all in the story.
It’s also untrue that such invocation is the equivalent of necromancy. Even if it were, we would have the impossible scenario of Jesus teaching rank sin to His followers.
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.
Well, it’s essentially the case that we are asking saints to intercede. Even when a Catholic (who knows his Church’s theology) uses the terminology of “praying to saints” it is understood in an intercessory fashion: of asking the righteous one (“The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects”: James 5:16) to intercede to God on his or her behalf. It’s presupposed always that God is the ultimate answerer of any prayer request; that the power comes from Him, whether “through” a saint or not. We don’t think in terms of “either/or” and false dichotomies, as many Protestants habitually do. If we ask someone on earth to pray for us, they are mediating. Likewise, we can ask a saint in heaven to do so, since he or she is more alive, saintly, and powerful, than anyone on earth.
This quite biblical notion of “mini-mediation” is apparently not grasped by Melanchthon, or many Protestants. But the Bible has much to say about it:
1 Corinthians 7:16 Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?
1 Corinthians 9:22 I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. (cf. Rom 11:13-14)
Ephesians 3:2 assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you.
1 Timothy 4:16 Take heed to yourself and to your teaching: hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
James 5:20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
1 Peter 3:1 Likewise you wives, be submissive to your husbands, so that some, though they do not obey the word, may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives
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.
I like early Luther better. He regressed as time went on, on this issue. I know that Lutherans are only bound to the Book of Concord; no need to inform me of that. I’m merely noting what early Luther believed. He wrote:
Thus, too, I would solve the question about adoring and invoking God dwelling in the saints. It is a matter of liberty, and it is not necessary either to do it or not to do it. (To Paul Speratus, 13 June 1522; in Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Vol. II: 1521-1530; translated and edited by Preserved Smith and Charles M. Jacobs; Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society: 1918)
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?
The first part is not technically a prayer (certainly not a request), but an honoring of Mary:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
It’s essentially simply citing Scripture, so those who argue that it is in perfect harmony with Lutheran teaching are, it seems to me, correct. The very first part repeats what the angel Gabriel said to Mary at the Annunciation (Luke 1:28). Many translations now have “highly favored one” instead of “full of grace”; but the latter is a perfectly acceptable (and I would argue, more literal) rendering of kecharitomene as well. I noted in my book, The Catholic Verses (2004; full source info. added presently):
The great Baptist Greek scholar A.T. Robertson exhibits a Protestant perspective, but is objective and fair-minded, in commenting on this verse as follows:
“Highly favoured” (kecharitomene). Perfect passive participle of charitoo and means endowed with grace (charis), enriched with grace as in Ephesians. 1:6, . . . The Vulgate gratiae plena “is right, if it means ‘full of grace which thou hast received‘; wrong, if it means ‘full of grace which thou hast to bestow‘” (Plummer).
(Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. II, 13)
Kecharitomene has to do with God’s grace, as it is derived from the Greek root, charis (literally, “grace”). Thus, in the KJV, charis is translated “grace” 129 out of the 150 times that it appears. Greek scholar Marvin Vincent noted that even Wycliffe and Tyndale (no enthusiastic supporters of the Catholic Church) both rendered kecharitomene in Luke 1:28 as “full of grace” and that the literal meaning was “endued with grace” (Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, Vol. I, 259).
Likewise, well-known Protestant linguist W.E. Vine, defines it as “to endue with Divine favour or grace” (Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vol. II, 171). All these men (except Wycliffe, who probably would have been, had he lived in the 16th century or after it) are Protestants, and so cannot be accused of Catholic translation bias.
The second clause of the first part of the Hail Mary (“blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”) is from Elizabeth. mother of John the Baptist (“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”: Lk 1:42, RSV). Thus, the entire first part of the hail Mary is straight from Holy Scripture, and amounts to honoring or venerating Mary, but not asking her intercession. Since we were informed by Rev. Cooper’s article that Melanchthon and the Book of Concord sanction the notion that “Christians are called to honor the saints,” I don’t see what difficulty the first part would cause any Lutheran. I think it probably comes down to an emotional argument (rather than a biblical, confessional Lutheran, or logical one): that the hail Mary from beginning to end is too associated with “Catholic stuff”.
The second part, however, is indeed inconsistent with Concordian Lutheran theology:
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of death. Amen.
I would argue that it is not at all inconsistent with the teachings of Scripture, as I think I have shown in various ways, in many papers, collected on my Saints & Purgatory index page, and in my book on the same topics. But even ol’ John Calvin (who thought Luther was a eucharistic idolater and “half-papist”) slipped in a moment of weakness and prayed to his good friend Melancthon after the latter had died. He momentarily lapsed into fuller biblical, Catholic truth.
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.
Not to nitpick, but the words of veneration came from the angel Gabriel and Elizabeth, not God. But they are part of inspired Scripture now, so in that sense they are “God-breathed.” As just shown, the first part isn’t a prayer (at least not an intercession or petition); it’s veneration / honor, and Lutherans are allowed (encouraged!) to do that, minus invocation.
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.
I’d say that is half-correct. One may not be a confessional Lutheran, but they are certainly being “biblical” in doing so, since nothing in the Bible precludes it, and there is much that indicates it deductively or indirectly; some (like Luke 16) even directly and explicitly. When the Bible and the Book of Concord conflict, I go with the former.
Thanks for the opportunity to defend Catholic views on these matters. It’s been a pleasure.