Treatise on Communion of Saints (Anthony Zarrella)

Treatise on Communion of Saints (Anthony Zarrella) June 9, 2016


The metaphor of Hebrews 12:1, referring to “witnesses” is comparing saints in heaven to spectators in an arena. This photograph is from StockSnap (taken on 30 May 2014) [Pixabay / CC0 public domain]


The following exchanges occurred underneath my post, Dialogue on Praying to Abraham (Luke 16). Protestant commenter Jim Drickamer (his words will be in blue) raised some issues that I briefly addressed (my words are in green). Catholic commenter  Anthony Zarrella (words in regular black), a lawyer who also has a BA degree in philosophy, then proceeded to provide a rather eloquent, comprehensive, and compelling analysis of the communion of saints, and engaged in several more back-and-forth dialogues with Jim. It was so good and insightful that I wanted to preserve it under its own post.

The exact chronological order is different, because of the highly confused nature of long comboxes, but all the words are here, and arranged in socratic, back-and-forth format as much as was possible. Readers may consult the original if there is any confusion about that. Someone may add more to the discussion, but there is more than enough already (8000 + words), so I will leave this as it is. It can be read in its original place if desired.


The problem with using this story as proof for the practice of praying to the dead is that it is not accompanied by a declaration to, “Go, and do thou likewise.” Christ makes no comment either commanding or permitting such prayers.

That’s irrelevant to the argument.

It is actually critically relevant. Without a command or permission from Christ, all there is in the story of the rich man and poor Lazarus is an example of a man making a request of another man who had no authority to grant what was being asked and who did not even pass that request on to the Lord. In some of Christ’s other parables, He refers to people who are committing sins. By your logic, Christ would be telling people to commit the same sins. Your whole argument is invalid. Praying to dead saints is nothing more than King Saul going to the witch of Endor to have her conjure up the ghost of Samuel.

I say again, it is irrelevant. But I will never convince you. Too many different premises to tackle in order to do that.

That makes no sense to me. How can you say it is irrelevant that you do not have a command to pray to the dead when one of the things you do is to pray to the dead? How can you say it is irrelevant that you do not have permission to pray to the dead when one of the things you do is to pray to the dead? You do not even have a promise from God that He will accept such prayers or give you a positive answer. You have no statement from Him that He finds such prayers pleasing.

Most true doctrines in the Bible that you and I both accept have no “command” in the Bible. Where is the “command” to accept all of the books of the Bible as canonical? Where is the command to believe that only the Bible is infallible (sola Scriptura) and the Church and tradition are not?

In fact, where does the Bible ever say that one must be “commanded” to believe something in order to properly believe it? You can’t find that. It’s a mere Protestant tradition of men. Sometimes things are commanded; other times they are not. They are simply presented and accepted as true.

I gave the biblical arguments in my paper, but you ignore them and simply spout arbitrary, irrelevant Protestant dogmas. I’m trying to make this a biblical discussion . . .

The “statement” you are looking for is the fact that Jesus told this story and did not correct the outrageousness (from your perspective) of praying to a man. Therefore, He accepted the practice, and there is no way you can escape or deny that fact.

The problem with what you are saying here is that you are treating things as though they are on a one way street instead of on a two way. For example, John 3: 16 is a two way. Your part is to believe. God’s part is to give you eternal life. But when talking about praying to the dead, your part is to pray to the dead, and God has no part, because He has not promised to answer such prayers. In fact, according to Deuteronomy 18: 10 and Ezekiel 12: 24, God forbids divination. And in the Bible there are examples of people praying to the dead, but there are not examples of God answering those prayers. I have read your paper on this topic and have found it proves nothing. Certainly physically dead saints are spiritually alive in Heaven. But it is too much of a leap to think this means it is okay to pray to dead people.

The communion of saints is not the same at all as divination. And as usual with Protestant polemics, the Catholic arguments are pretty much utterly ignored. Your choice, but it doesn’t impress anyone who wants to see actual replies to my arguments, instead of merely stating other stuff.

I asked you three direct questions in my last comment and you ignored all three.

I offer two papers of mine: “Witnesses” of Hebrews 12:1 and Invocation of the Saints = Necromancy?

No one can doubt that those mentioned in Hebrews 11 in what is sometimes called the “Hall of Faith” are witnesses. During their lives on earth, they witnessed many of the great works of God. However, that does not answer the question of whether or not they are still witnessing events which occur on earth. Your evidence fails to prove your point. Nor did you supply any passage from Revelation as evidence.

As to the difference between necromancy or divination and the invocation of departed saints, it is sufficient to note that the prohibitions against necromancy do not exclude the invocation of the saints.

Of course they are witnesses. The metaphor was specifically of an arena with spectators observing the sports events. It couldn’t be any clearer than it is.

But if we don’t wanna believe something, we won’t (because of preconceived theologies), even if the Bible clearly teaches it.

I have much more stuff on these topics and related ones on my index page (just revised).

So the fact they are witnesses is not evidence that they are still in a heavenly state knowledgeable concerning earthly events. Even if they did not have such knowledge, they would still be witnesses due to the ways in which God worked through them while they were physically alive on earth.
I think the case against praying to saints and to Mary comes down to just a few points:

First, although Stephen and James were killed before the books of the New Testament were written, there is no command and no suggestion that prayers should be addressed to them.

Second, necromancy and other aspects of relating to the dead were forbidden in the Mosaic Law.

Third, we are commanded to pray to the Father and to Christ. Given the promises attached to such prayers, as well as having such open access to God that we are encouraged to call Him, “Abba,” or “Dad,” there is no need to pray to saints or Mary. In fact, if we reduce our prayers to God in favor of praying to saints and Mary, we would be contradicting Christ’s command.

Who says we do that? If you ask your friend, your mom, and your pastor to pray for you, does that mean you are going to pray any less?

You’re quite right that there’s no need to pray to Mary or any other Saint. There’s also no need to ask friends, relatives, and spiritual leaders to pray for you. But it helps.

Fourth, there is no reason to believe God changes His will in response to a prayer by a dead saint or by Mary in cases in which He would not change His will in response to a prayer of a living person who believes in Jesus Christ.

Really? So why ask anyone to pray for you at all? If the prayer of a Saint won’t accomplish anything that your own prayer can’t, then certainly the prayer of Grandma Lucy and Pastor Ken won’t either.

It would also mean that James’s reference to the prayer of Elijah was, again, either irrelevant (i.e., James dropped it in nonsensically) or wrong (i.e. James wrongly believed that the prayer of Elijah had effects that the prayer of an ordinary Israelite would not have had).

In one sense, of course, you’re right – God does not “change His will” in a literal sense. God is changeless. So, speaking of the effects of prayer (any prayer, including your own preferred methods) in a theologically precise way is always difficult. But to the extent that we can non-literally/metaphorically refer to God-directed prayer as “causing” God to do anything, I see no reason why the prayers of an additional mortal person would have an effect over-and-above the effect of your own prayer, but the prayer of a Saint in addition to your own would not.

Fifth, if a believer feels so distant from God that he cannot go to God directly but goes through a dead saint or through Mary, then he is weak and ignorant in his faith and needs to be instructed from the word of God, not encouraged to pray to saints who have died.


I know of no Catholic doctrine or sub-doctrinal teaching that has ever encouraged prayer to Saints (including Mary) as an alternative to praying to God directly. We pray to God and to the Saints (in different senses, as has already been discussed), not to the Saints instead of to God.

Oh, and by the way, if you take the Biblical instruction on prayer hyper-literally, then prayer to Jesus is also excluded – after all, He only ever commanded or encouraged His disciples to pray to the Father. Which would mean that the prayer of Stephen at his death (Acts 7:59) was heretical…

That is why I don’t take the Biblical instruction on prayer hyper-literally. The book of Revelation closes with these words, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” John, writing by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, prayed to Jesus.

But I think we have wandered off the main topic.

Basically, you and I would agree that prayer, as an act of worship, latria, may only be addressed to God. If prayer is given a wider meaning, such as making a request, then it may be addressed to anyone.

I see here a major teaching challenge for the Catholic Church. How do you teach people to make a difference in their prayers so that the ones which are latria are addressed only to God while prayers of simple request may be made to any of the saints who have died?


Nope, you’re right – no exception. So if you can prove that invocation of Saints is necromancy, then of course it is forbidden.

But that’s not what you’re saying – you’re saying that the fact that the prohibition on necromancy makes no exclusion for Saints itself proves that invocation of Saints is necromancy. That’s absurd.

The prohibition on felons owning firearms makes no exception for Nerf guns, therefore Nerf guns are firearms… Um, no.

As you admit, necromancy is a sin, because it seeks to call upon demons to effect changes on earth.

Actually, necromancy seeks power or knowledge from the dead. Invocation of demons is something else. But that’s a technical point – generally-speaking I suppose we can lump the two together.

Thus, the invocation of the saints and Mary is necromancy, because it seeks to call upon those who, like demons, are not the ones to whom we are commanded to pray.

That’s quite a leap:

1) We are forbidden to call upon demons.
2) Demons are among the nearly infinite number of entities to whom we are not specifically commanded to pray.
Therefore, 3) the thing that is bad about calling on demons is that we would thus be praying to entities other than those we are specifically commanded to pray to. [Already dubious logic here]
4) We are also not specifically commanded to pray to saints.
Therefore, 5) praying to saints is no better than calling upon demons.

The problem with necromancy and/or demonolatry is not simply “invoking/petitioning something other than God” – if that were the case, then asking anyone for anything would be a problem (because why is it any better to ask a corporeal non-God entity for favors than to ask an incorporeal non-God entity? Does mere physical embodiment make the difference?).

The problem is that it is seeking power from a source other than God, for the purpose of asserting control over the material world.

But we don’t seek power from Saints. We seek only their prayers.

Why not simply pray to Jesus Christ as He explicitly invites and commands us to do?

As I keep saying (and you keep ignoring), do you ever ask a friend to pray for you? Why? Why not just pray to Jesus – why do you ignore His command?

Simple – because asking someone to pray for you is perfectly compatible with praying to Jesus directly, and because the Bible specifically endorses the idea of having Person A pray for Person B (and the fact that this is more efficacious than Person B simply praying alone). If you want citations, I can give you a laundry list, but I assume you’re entirely familiar with the concept, because you can’t really read any substantial portion of the Bible without coming across it.

So, we ask our brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for us. We’re just not picky about whether they have a pulse while they do so. It doesn’t replace praying to Jesus directly – it supplements it, so that even if I’m alone on a desert island, I can still have “two or three gathered” to pray with me.


You agree, “Certainly physically dead saints are spiritually alive in Heaven.”

Would you also agree that they are aware of events on Earth (as per Hebrews and Revelation)?

If they are alive, and can hear our petitions (let’s avoid the term “prayers” simply because Catholics use the term far more broadly than Protestants do, and I think it’s causing confusion), then surely they can take [some action that is within their normal power] in response to those petitions, right?

If the dead Saints are in Heaven, in the immanent presence of the Godhead, then surely they can (and do) pray to God, right?

So, if they are alive, and can hear our petitions, and are capable of praying to God, then they are capable of praying to God in response to our petitions, right?

And surely it is permitted, efficacious, and indeed virtuous to ask another Christian to pray for you (to God). Not only does James say so, but virtually every Protestant I’ve ever met will ask for prayers from friends and family when they are having difficulties. So that’s certainly okay, right?

And I take it to be uncontroversial that the prayers of a more-devout Christian are more efficacious (other things being equal) than those of a less-devout Christian, right?

So, we’ve got Saints in Heaven who can pray to God, and who can hear us if we ask them to pray to God, and it’s good to ask other Christians to pray for us, and the holier the better, and the Saints in Heaven are (by strict Biblical definition) more holy and devout than any earthly person (since they are perfected)… so what’s wrong with asking them to pray for us?

Is it just because we haven’t been specifically instructed to do so? But we have been instructed. St. James says, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much,” and he doesn’t say, “but only if that man is still alive in the flesh.”

And, more to the point (since you don’t seem to like arguments from Scriptural silence – that’s fine)… “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.” (James 5:14-15)

But… “Around the throne were twenty-four thrones; and upon the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white garments, and golden crowns on their heads.” (Revelation 4:4) Are these elders not “elders of the Church”? Given that the most common (Protestant) exegesis of this passage holds that they represent the Twelve Patriarchs and Twelve Apostles, I’d say they’re The Elders of the Church. They can’t physically anoint the sick person with oil (the earthly-living elders/presbuteroi/presbyters/priests must do that), but certainly they can join their prayers with those of their still-striving brethren here on Earth.

Admittedly, this particular exegetical technique is somewhat thin, and I wouldn’t bother with it if I were discussing with a Catholic-minded counterpart (largely because the previous argument would already have been sufficient), but it’s a form of scriptural reasoning I’ve seen many times in Protestant apologetics, so hopefully it will satisfy your desire for an express command to request the prayer of dead [according-to-the-flesh] Saints. And I think (correct me if I’m wrong) that every step of my argument is either expressly backed up by Scripture, or else guaranteed by basic and uncontroversial logical extensions of mutually-accepted facts (without reference to 2 Maccabees, either – which I know Protestants don’t accept as inspired).

Oh, and though Dave already linked you a detailed response, let me just add that there’s no divination involved – we are not seeking secret knowledge from the dead (or the alive-in-Christ), but merely requesting that they pray for us.

I do not agree that saints alive in Heaven are aware of events on earth. You reference Hebrews and Revelation, but I need to see the specific passages you are referencing before I can agree. 

Fair enough – I was referencing passages Dave had previously mentioned, but I’d be more than happy to cite more specifically:

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…” Hebrews 12:1

As the link Dave provided a couple days ago (in his response to your earlier comment) explains, even using only Protestant concordances and other interpretive aids, it is virtually unanimous that this word, μαρτυρων (martyron – “witnesses”), while it certainly refers to the testamentary sense (i.e., “witnesses” who testify to God’s glory – hence, “martyrs”), is also and indeed primarily used in the sense of people who perceive and observe, as in an amphitheater at a contest.

The Hebrews author is basically telling his readers, “Since we are being watched and cheered on [i.e., spectator sense of “witness”] by those who have gone before us and set an example [i.e., testamentary sense of “witness”]…”

“When He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. Revelation 5:8

Here, it is indisputable that the “elders” are once-mortal people (I think – if you think differently, feel free to explain). The term “saints” here is the broader term – that is, the term used to refer to all the faithful, living and dead, not the Catholic theological term (with a capital “S”) used to refer to the dead who dwell in the Presence of God.

So, these (bodily) dead Saints (i.e., the Catholic sense) are bearing the prayers of the saints (broader sense) to the throne of God.

That these saints are alive in Heaven does not imply that they do hear our petitions.

No, but the fact that they are “witnesses” to us does imply that they are (or at least can be) aware of our actions, which would presumably include petitions (just by ordinary common sense).

Nor does it imply they could take some action in response to those petitions.

It seems reasonable to think saints alive in Heaven do pray to God, but that does not mean we can influence the content of their prayers by asking them to pray for us. 

But if they do hear our petitions (as explained above), and if they retain free will and individuality, then surely they can react to what they hear. And if they can react freely, then they can react by doing anything that they ordinarily have the power to do. So, since surely prayer is within the ordinary powers of a Saint in Heaven, then they can react by praying.

Now, I suppose you could posit that they are stripped of free will, of individuality, or of both. But then “Heaven” resembles more of a Buddhist nirvana than anything described in the Bible – a self-annihilating sort of “oneness” with God, such that we (as individual beings) will effectively no longer exist, but simply be subsumed into God’s holiness. That’s not very much like any Heaven I’ve ever heard a Christian minister of any denomination preach.

I doubt that the prayers of more devout Christians are more efficacious than those of less devout Christians.

Really? I provided you with a direct quote from Scripture that says so.

“The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”

I admit I didn’t provide the cite, but I assumed it was well-known enough that I didn’t need to. It’s James 5:16.

If the prayer of a righteous man availeth much, then by implication, the prayer of a less righteous or unrighteous man availeth less or not at all.

Now, I suppose you could argue that anyone who is unrighteous is not a Christian, but that seems more than a bit extreme. The Bible certainly seems to allow for the possibility of bad Christians (that is, people bad at being Christians). In fact, a very large proportion of Paul’s letters are concerning fellow believers (i.e., not unbelievers or former believers) behaving badly and lacking faith – he still considers them Christians.

So if the prayers of a righteous man are more efficacious than those of an unrighteous man, and if both righteousness and efficacy are attributes that admit of degrees (i.e., something can be more righteous, or more efficacious – not merely righteous-or-not and efficacious-or-not), then it stands to reason that “greater righteousness = greater efficacy”.

And it is divination.

Divination (from Latin divinare – to foretell):

1: the art or practice that seeks to foresee or foretell future events or discover hidden knowledge usually by the interpretation of omens or by the aid of supernatural powers

2: unusual insight; intuitive perception

[From Merriam-Webster]

Now, I think we can fairly agree that neither one of us is discussing Definition #2. The Bible says nothing against “intuitive perception”, right?

So, based on Definition #1, a thing is divination if and only if:

1) It relies on omens or supernatural powers, and

2) It seeks some sort of special knowledge (either of the future or of unknown present facts).

Prayer/petition to the Saints fits neither of those criteria.

For one thing, it does not rely on any omens (clearly – when’s the last time you heard of a Catholic praying to a Saint while studying tea leaves or some such rubbish?), and it also does not depend on any supernatural power (except the power of God Himself, which is obviously permissible for a Christian to invoke). We are simply speaking, to people we believe are able to listen.

Sometimes we may phrase our prayers in a way that sounds like we’re asking the Saint to do something by his/her own power, but that’s only because we don’t write our prayers in the context of contra-Protestant apologetics (i.e., with the aim of ensuring that we avoid even the appearance of theological error). Every Catholic is taught (or at least, ought to be) that if we say, “St. Christopher, patron of travelers, please help me to have a safe drive home” we really mean, “St. Christopher, please pray to God on my behalf regarding my safety on the road,” or perhaps, “St. Christopher, please ask God to permit you, as His messenger/agent, to aid and protect me on my journey.” But because we know that’s what we mean, we feel comfortable praying in “short-hand” and just asking St. Christopher to help us.

Secondly, we are not seeking knowledge. We are seeking prayer. I don’t know that I can speak for every Catholic, but certainly I’ve never heard of a Catholic praying anything like, “St. Matthew, tell me if the Dow Jones will rise or fall in the next week,” or “St. Thomas More, what’s the answer to this bar exam question?”

Sometimes the prayer we request might be for God to help us discern the truth or the correct course of action in a given situation, but that doesn’t make it divination any more than it would be forbidden “divination” if you ask your pastor, “Please pray for me as I try to discern whether I have a missionary calling.” If we are allowed to ask God for info, then we can certainly ask someone else to pray to God to give us info.

Once again, I must ask you to provide me with a passage which shows that prayers of more devout Christians are more efficacious than those of less devout Christians. All you have supplied me with up to this point is James 5: 16, “”The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much,” which merely states that efficacious and fervent prayers of a righteous man avail much without saying that those prayers of less efficacious or fervent prayers of a less righteous man avail less. You are reading into the text.

It’s a basic canon of interpretive construction: expressio unius est exclusio alterius – “The expression [i.e., express statement] of the one thing is [i.e., implies] the exclusion of the other.” It’s most commonly seen in the context of exemplary lists, but it applies here as well.

If I say, “A patient would benefit from the care of a well-trained doctor,” then it implies that he would benefit less (or not at all) from a poorly-trained or untrained doctor. Why? Because if “well-trained” weren’t an important part of the statement, I wouldn’t have wasted my breath.

This sort of thing is commonplace in Scriptural exegesis.

Do you mean to suggest that it would be illegitimate and eisegetical for me to read, “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” and to conclude that those who are not merciful will receive less mercy, if any at all? What would be the point of saying “Blessed are the merciful” if Jesus didn’t mean to imply any contrast with the unmerciful?

By the same token, why would James bother to say that the prayer of a righteous man availeth much, if not to draw a contrast with the unrighteous?

Let me begin with Hebrews 12: 1, “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…” “Witnesses” obviously refers to people who have seen or heard something. They are spectators. At the same time, “witnesses” is a noun. It has no sense of time. In other words, the writer to the Hebrews is not expressing when these witnesses did their witnessing. They could be witnesses due to the works of God they saw during their lives on earth.

And the writer to the Hebrews does not say that these witnesses are now that they are in Heaven watching us. Instead, he says that we have a great cloud of witnesses. He is not saying that their witnessing is occurring at the present time. Instead, he is saying that our possession of these witnesses is at the present time regardless of when their witnessing occurred.

Hebrews 12: 1 simply does not prove the witnesses are witnessing now that they are in Heaven, since it is equally possible they were witnessing in the past while they were alive on earth. You need more evidence.

You’re ignoring two key words: “surrounding us”. When you say, “We have X surrounding us,” it doesn’t simply mean, “we are in possession of X” – it means, “X is/are arrayed all around us.”

Now, I agree, of course, that this doesn’t mean the saints are spatially located all around us, like ghosts in The Sixth Sense or something. But the wording implies proximity and interaction on some level, not simply “These witnesses exist, and we know that they do.”

Furthermore, if these witnesses are in Heaven and are completely isolated from those of us here on Earth, then what is the point of the passage, much less the metaphor?

The writer can’t be pointing to this “cloud of witnesses” merely as exemplars for us to emulate – because we have Christ to emulate, so any merely-human exemplar would be worthless (if offered solely as an exemplar).

If the writer is pointing to this “cloud of witnesses” as testimonial evidence of God’s glory, then I submit that it’s quite simply a shoddy argument on the part of the writer – the alleged testimony of anonymous dead people whose words are not preserved and available for perusal offers no evidence except that which can already be derived from the credibility of the writer himself. In other words, if we believe the testimony of the writer, then we can believe whatever he says these anonymous witnesses testify to, but if we’re not already inclined to believe the writer, then there is no reason to credit his claims about what the witnesses would say, if present, either. If that’s the writer’s aim, then it’s hearsay evidence in its purest form, and therefore utterly worthless – if we already believe the writer, then it’s unnecessary, and if we don’t, then it’s non-credible.

But, if this “cloud of witnesses” are observers of us as well, then it makes sense. They not only testify to God’s glory in our sight, but also testify to our lives before the throne of God. (Of course, God is omniscient already, but Jesus Himself speaks of testifying for us before the Father, even though the Father must already know, so there must be some value in this sort of “character witness”.)

Moreover, the writer chooses to use a sporting metaphor (very Pauline, in this particular spot). Unlike Paul, this isn’t simply part of a big, extended sports metaphor – he raises it in this verse, then drops it immediately.

What is the point, if not to evoke the notion of spectators at an event? It’s the equivalent of telling an Olympic athlete, “The eyes of the world are upon you, so get out there and show them what you can do.” Except the writer is saying, “The eyes of Heaven are upon you – the eyes of all those who have gone before you in faith.”

As to Revelation 5: 8, “When He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” This verse does not mean the elders heard the prayers any more than it means they made the harps. The simple fact is they were each holding a bowl that contained prayers of the saints. The text does not tell us how the prayers got into the bowls or if the elders heard them.

Sure, okay, I’ll bite. Let’s say you’re right – that the elders are simply schlepping these “bowls of prayers” up to the throne without being aware of the contents, like heavenly bellhops carrying luggage.

The fact remains that the saints would still have a role in bringing our prayers before the Lord.

So, if you want to insist that when I say, “St. Thomas More, please help me to be a good lawyer,” (and remember what I’ve already explained about Catholic “saint-prayer” language), all I’m really doing is handing St. Thomas More a sealed envelope to deliver to God, with a note inside saying, “Please help me to be a good lawyer,” then that’s okay with me. It’s not what Catholics actually believe we’re doing, but even if praying to [i.e., petitioning] Saints is only the equivalent of sending a note to the King via a well-placed courtier rather than via the Royal Mail Service, it still seems worth doing.

That being said, I have to ask again – given your interpretation, what is the point of that particular passage? Why would John have been shown the elders “delivering” the prayers to God, if their role was simply as “heavenly functionaries” and if this had absolutely no bearing on our life here on Earth? It can’t be merely a foretaste of what heavenly life will be like, because A) we won’t all be among the 24 elders, and B) by the time the eschaton is complete (that is, by the time God’s plan is finished, the Final Judgment passed, and the New Heaven and New Earth established), there will be no “prayers of the saints” to be delivered because everyone will either see God face-to-face (and therefore have no need for anyone else to bring their prayers before Him) or will be in Hell (and therefore eternally excluded from all access to God).

As to James 5: 16, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much,” you suggested “expressio unius est exclusio alterius” as an interpretive principle. If it is true that the expression of one thing implies the exclusion of the other, then would it not be true that the command to pray to God and in Jesus’ name would exclude prayer to anyone else? If praying effectually and fervently to God avails much, then prayers to others would not be as effectual or fervent and would accomplish less or nothing at all.

A common mistake, actually, in applying that principle.

The expressio unius canon (no relation to “canon” law) applies only when the language employed has a natural “limiting” or “narrowing” sense. What kind of man? Not just any man, a righteous man.

On the other hand, there is no comparable language regarding prayer to God (if you disagree, feel free to cite passages – I’d be happy to analyze them). On the other hand, I do agree with the “in Jesus’s name” part – certainly praying in any other name would be ineffectual. But Catholics never do pray “in the name of” anyone other than Jesus – even when we address petitions to Saints, we often close the prayer with, “in Jesus’s name. Amen.” or “through Christ Our Lord. Amen.” The only time we pray “in the name of” anyone but Jesus is when we deviate from that principle in exactly the way He Himself told us to: we pray “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Now, of course, if we were “praying to” Saints in the same sense that we are taught to “pray to” God, then absolutely, it would be less effectual, if it accomplished anything at all (and in some cases it would be outright idolatry). If we were “praying to” Saints in the hopes that they would grant us blessings and aid by their own power (in the way that we ask God for blessings and aid by His own power), then it would accomplish precisely zilch, and would be a grave theological error (and a grave moral error if we did it while understanding the theological error).

But we don’t do that. We don’t expect our petitions (“prayers”) to the Saints to accomplish the same things that can be accomplished by praying to God. We expect to accomplish the same thing that can be accomplished by saying, “Jim Drickamer, please pray (to God) for me.” Except that the capital-S Saints are considerably more righteous than you are (which is not meant as a commentary on you – they’re more righteous than anyone alive on Earth).

Furthermore, as Dave noted (in response to me, not you – just to clarify), the context of James 5:16 is a reference to Elijah praying for rain or lack of rain. During the drought, do you imagine that no other Israelite prayed for rain? I imagine almost all of them did so. But rain only came when Elijah prayed for it.

And it is no good to say, “Well, it was because Elijah was a prophet,” because that’s not what James says. He doesn’t say, “The fervent prayer of a prophet availeth much,” and then cite the example of Elijah. He says, “The fervent prayer of a righteous man,” and then cites Elijah as an example. The reason Elijah’s prayer was answered (according to James) was not that he was a prophet and all the other people praying were not – it was that he was righteous and all the other people were not. Except, we know that it’s essentially impossible for it to have been literally true that no other Israelite was righteous at all, so it must be that Elijah was more righteous.

I suppose, since the example of Elijah comes after the “righteous man” bit, and isn’t expressly labeled as an example, you could pull your hyper-literalism card and say, “But James never says the rain came because Elijah was righteous – we only know A) that the prayer of a righteous man availeth much, and B) that Elijah prayed for rain and the rain came. Anything else is reading into the text.”

But if that were the case, then your argument would basically be that James is a bad writer – he has this theme going about prayer, and then, out of the blue, he just decides to relate this Old Testament anecdote (that all his readers would have known already) for no discernible purpose and with no explanation.

The only natural reading of the Elijah verses is that they are examples of the principle James has just outlined – that the prayer of a righteous man (and not just anyone or any believer) has great effect.

And the context was Elijah praying for rain and lack of rain, which is pretty extraordinary answered prayer. It illustrates powerfully how effective an exceptionally righteous person’s prayer can be.

No, I am not ignoring the key words “surrounding us.” The Greek is literally, “we have around us.” The present tense refers to the time, right now, when the witnesses are around us. It does not tell us when they witnessed the works of God. The text simply does not fit the interpretation you are trying to force into it.

You ask, “What is the point?” The point is that, given the cloud of witnesses listed in Hebrews 11, we should take action. Specifically, we should get rid of every impediment and the sin that snares us so easily. We should run the course mapped out for us with our eyes on Jesus. The witness or testimony we receive from the saints of Hebrews 11 should motivate us to follow God faithfully, knowing that God Himself is faithful.

As to Revelation 5: 8, you ask what I think the point of the passage is. I have to notice that as far as the elders are concerned the only thing said about them is that each has a harp and is holding a bowl full of incense which is the prayer of the saints. No where in Revelation is it recorded that the elders received the prayers and passed them on to God. The elders are shown to be worshipping God and the Lamb. One of the elders does interact with John. So communication between them is possible when one is receiving special revelation from God. It is not normative, however.

As to the expression unius canon, you wrote that it only applies when the language employed has a limiting or narrowing sense. What kind of man? A righteous man. In the same way, what kind of prayer? A prayer to God. Natural limitation or narrowing.


Again, — typically of many Protestant replies to Catholic arguments — , you are not seriously interacting with what I and Anthony have given you. You simply repeat your claims, as if that makes them stronger. We have answered what you are saying, and it is your task now to counter-reply to us. But you don’t. You just repeat.

Therefore, I regard your ignoring of our arguments and the needless repetition, as your concession that you have no argument, and/or your tacit acknowledgment that our arguments are superior.

I don’t see how you can say I was ignoring your and Anthony’s arguments. I did respond by pointing out that the mere fact there are witnesses does not declare that their witnessing is taking place in Heaven. Thus, the evidence you provide from Hebrews 12: 1 is unfounded. If you need more, then let me point out that “witnesses” in Greek here is a noun, not a verb. It says nothing about the time during which the witnessing occurred. Yes, the verb for “have” is present tense, we have so great a cloud of witnesses, but that tense refers to the time when we have the witnesses, not to the time they witnessed or perceived something or were spectators. This is simple grammar. Your arguments are far inferior.

You hardly scratched the surface of the arguments we both made: especially his. I was talking about direct interaction: showing exactly how they are wrong and providing a superior alternative.

But look at your arguments. The rich man prayed to Abraham. So what? In telling that story, Christ does not mention that such a prayer is pleasing to Him or that He is willing to answer such prayers. The story does not even include Abraham’s approval that the rich man was praying to him.
We have a great cloud of witnesses. The time at which we have those witnesses is right now. But the text says nothing about whether in calling them witnesses the writer is referring to the things they observed during their lives on earth or things they are observing now. This part of your argument proves nothing.

You argue that saints in Heaven are aware of what is going on down here on earth. But what is your proof? Your proof is that the elders are holding bowls of the prayers of the saints. The text does not say those prayers were addressed to the elders, nor does it say that the only way for prayers to reach Christ’s ears is through the actions of the elders.

Then, Anthony comes along with his exclusion argument. Apparently, he did not realize that since we have been commanded to pray to God, prayers to others are excluded which is exactly what the exclusion principle states.

You both talk about effectual, fervent prayers of a righteous man availing much. But you have not shown that righteous elders in Heaven are praying or are aware of conditions on earth. For that matter, you leave out an important consideration or two. Even if the more effective and fervent prayers of a more righteous man who is alive on earth accomplish much, it is not evidence that a saint in Heaven is praying. And please note that these prayers are said to accomplish “much,” not “more.” It is not implied here that they accomplish more than the prayers of less sanctified people.

You say I have only scratched the surface. I agree, but in scratching the surface, I have shown that your arguments do not prove what you are trying to prove. There was no need to go any deeper. Is there a part of your argument I have not yet addressed? Please point it out to me.

You’re essentially advocating what constitutional lawyers call a “strict constructionist” reading (and let me note that this is pretty much universally an accusation when lawyers use the term – it’s not a respected alternative interpretive scheme).

You’re saying that the only doctrines we can glean from Scripture are those that are explicitly stated – that any contextual, syntactical, or literary inferences are illegitimate eisegesis (“reading into” the text). Your entire argument is basically, “Yeah, but it doesn’t precisely say that.” In other words, your interpretive heuristic is… no interpretation at all.

Not only is this contrary to pretty much every accepted interpretive methodology in the modern world (Protestant, Catholic, non-Christian, and even secular lawyers interpreting non-religious texts), but it’s also contrary to the way Christ and the Apostles interpret Old Testament Scripture.

Look at Acts 1:15-22 and tell me that Peter isn’t making a huge interpretive leap, taking much more out of Psalms 69 and 109 than their express text can possibly warrant – and yet his interpretation is authoritative. Or will you tell Paul that he read too much into Deuteronomy 25:4 when he interpreted a command about oxen to be a rule about contributing to the support of missionaries (1 Cor 9:9 and 1 Tim 5:18)?

Now, I’m not suggesting that modern exegetes can justify interpreting as loosely as the Apostles did – after all, the Apostles were being divinely inspired. But clearly, the idea that a Scripture passage stands for only what it clearly and expressly says is not supported by Scripture itself.

And here I thought “strict constructionist” was a description of Antonin Scalia. Thank you for calling me that. I am proud to be in his company.
Actually, doctrine should be stated explicitly, but in many cases no one Scripture passage contains explicitly every part of a doctrine.

For example, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ is not supported by a single passage explicitly stating that Jesus was born of a virgin. Instead, it is gleaned from the prophecy in Isaiah, the statements in Matthew and Luke that this prophecy is now fulfilled, the identification of Mary as being a virgin, the statement that Mary and Joseph were betrothed, not married, Mary’s question, “How can this be seeing I know not a man?” and the statement that Joseph kept Mary a virgin till after the Child was born. The logical, reasonable conclusion is that Jesus was born of a virgin.

The Trinity is another such doctrine. Passages explicitly state that God is one. Other passages just as explicitly state that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each fully God when considered separately. The doctrine is a combination of what all of these passages teach explicitly. There is no explicit passage stating the Trinity as a doctrine. But the combination of many passages proves it beyond doubt.

So, yes, I do require explicit statement of a doctrine, and let’s ask the question of how else we could ever arrive at a doctrine. We will have to start with an explicit passage so as to have a solid foundation for the doctrine. Then, since we do not have explicit passages with which to build on the foundation, we turn to what is implicit. In doing so, we must be prepared to prove that the implications we draw are actually implied by one or more passages of Scripture.

For example, consider the immaculate conception of Mary. No passage or combination of passages teaches such a thing explicitly. Instead, it is based on what is implied. And what is implied? The sinlessness of Christ shows that nothing stained Him with sin while He was in Mary’s womb. The fact of his sinlessness is taken to imply that Mary was a virgin of extraordinary purity which, in turn, implies she was immaculately conceived. Sounds like a good argument, until we factor in the explicitly taught truth that Jesus is God. His deity would have been sufficient to preserve Him sinless in Mary’s womb. There is no reason to believe a doctrine which is devoid of Scriptural and reasonable proof when a well supported and reasonable doctrine accomplishes everything the unsupported doctrine is meant to teach.


Meta Description: Fabulous exposition on various aspects of the communion of saints, in dialogue with a Protestant, by guest writer Anthony Zarrella.

Meta Keywords: afterlife, angel of the Lord, angels, asceticism, communion of saints,  Hades, intercession, intercession of angels, intercession of saints,intermediate state, invocation of angels, invocation of saints, mortification, penance, penance for the dead, Prayer, Prayer for the dead, prayers for the dead, purgatory, Sheol, veneration of angels, Veneration of saints

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