Dialogues on Objections to the Communion of Saints

Dialogues on Objections to the Communion of Saints March 10, 2017
Photograph by Dr Dawn Tames (3-9-04) [Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 license]




My friendly dialogical opponents were evangelical Protestants. Their words will be in blue.

We have the historical fact that Christians prayed to the dead, and Dave says they did this because the apostles told them to.

1. We have no evidence of even one apostle praying to the dead, nor of any apostle teaching others to pray for the dead.

Au contraire! There is, I believe, some evidence of prayers for the dead in the New Testament: 1 Corinthians 15:29 as cf. to 2 Maccabees 12:44 may be one such case (I believe it is). 2 Timothy 1:16-18 is perhaps another (confusion in Protestant commentaries as to whether Onesiphorus is dead or not and what Paul is doing related to him, is, I think, telling). The standard passage of 2 Maccabees 12:39-45 reflected Jewish practice and it was included in the Septuagint, which was the Bible of the Apostles. All other biblical indications of purgatory (which are many, and I’ve compiled them in my book) also support the practice of prayers for the dead, which presupposes some sort of intermediate state, neither heaven nor hell.

Intercession of the saints is indicated in Revelation 5:8 and 8:3-4; 6:9-10 and also somewhat suggested by the appearance of long-dead figures on the earth once again (1 Sam 28:12-15; Mt 17:1-3; 27:50-53; Rev 11:3). The saints are alive, observe us (“cloud of witnesses”), pray for us (Rev 6:9-10), and hence it follows logically that they can hear our intercessory requests, as can guardian angels (which many Protestants such as Billy Graham accept). It’s really quite straightforward and sensible. But Protestantism “cut the umbilical cord between heaven and earth,” as Lutheran sociologist Peter Berger has insightfully stated.

It seems common for people to support strange doctrines with notoriously difficult passages.

Or none whatsoever: e.g., sola Scriptura and the Canon of the NT (which isn’t even a “strange” doctrine).

To use the example of baptism for the dead [1 Cor 15:29] is really stretching it.

Do you think I was expecting Protestants to readily accept this possible evidence? :-) We think that this saying indicates the practice of early Christians of praying and performing penance for departed souls (the two being synonymous in a pragmatic, efficacious sense, in Catholic theology). “Baptism” in Scripture is often a metaphor for afflictions and penance (Mk 10:38-39; Lk 12:50; cf. Mt 3:11; 20:22-23; Lk 3:16). There is a strong-enough similarity between 1 Corinthians 15:29 and 2 Maccabees 12:44 (scriptural or not: that’s irrelevant vis-a-vis the similarity) to give even a Protestant hostile to prayers for the dead pause. The “penance” interpretation is supported contextually by the next three verses, where the Apostle speaks of being “in peril every hour,” and dying “every day.” Paul certainly doesn’t condemn the practice, whatever it may be deemed to be. In any event, what is the alternative Protestant explanation? [My opponent] offers none (an argument from silence?). I asked an Assembly of God pastor (trained at Dallas Seminary!) this publicly a while back, and the question stopped him dead in his tracks.

Maccabees doesn’t mean much to me because its canonicity is questionable,

Of course; I’m basically giving you our perspective, and we do accept the deuterocanonicals. But, besides that issue, it does show us what the historical practice of the Jews was, and this should never be altogether irrelevant for a Christian, particularly all who are not dispensationalists.

I’ll get to purgatory in a minute.

You’re not leaving our earthly sphere that soon, are ya? :-)

But that the saints are alive and pray for us does not at all imply that they can hear our intercessions. (This would include any souls in purgatory.)

So you flat-out deny that the saints in heaven (or, alas, purgatory) are aware of earthly affairs, including “hearing?” On what scriptural basis? Are they not glorified in some sense by the mere fact of being with God in heaven?

My sister is alive and prays for me, but she can’t hear my prayers.

That’s the whole point; she is “alive” (i.e., on the earth). Thus, the analogy is improper. Saints are, in all likelihood, out of time and also out of space if they have not yet received their glorified bodies. Even then, our glorified bodies will not be in accord with the present laws of physics, if the example of Jesus’ walking through walls after His Resurrection is any indication of our own future abilities.

But let me lend you a hand on this one. I think it would not be unreasonable to argue from Heb. 12:22 ff. that the “spirits of righteous men made perfect” can join in our intercessions in corporate worship. I wouldn’t be against asking the saints to pray with us in corporate, public prayer.

Glad to hear it. You’ve just conceded, however, in my opinion, the lion’s share of the argument (I believe C. S. Lewis took a similar approach to this).

(so long as it was limited to that and didn’t spill over into road-side chapels and holy medals and all that silliness). But the idea that St. Whoever can hear what I think is completely unsubstantiated, and is in my opinion mere superstition.

Ah, this is where the Protestant bias comes in (and you were getting my hopes up in that last admission!). I disagree that it is superstition. I think all the biblical data we can muster regarding the afterlife deductively lends itself more readily to the viewpoint that these souls both see and hear what is going on on earth. For example, it sure seems that they are at least observing us closely in the scenes in heaven in Revelation. I fail to see why it is so great of a stretch for you to move from “observation” to “hearing.” The saints are perfected in love, being as they are, with God. Love always by definition leads to a concern for others (still in this vale of tears). Therefore, is it not altogether reasonable to expect these saints to pray for us, and if so, why wouldn’t God make it possible for them to hear our intercessory requests? You call much of the intercession of saints “superstition.” I call the Protestant denial of the same mere prejudice, based on misunderstandings (e.g., the idolatry and spiritism charges), a misplaced and exaggerated horror of abuses, and an incomplete grappling with all the scriptural information which can be brought to bear.

2. Even if an apostle did pray to the dead, we have no guarantee that he was right to do so! When Paul wrote Scripture, he was “carried along by the Holy Spirit.” There is no guarantee of accuracy on prayers.

We have a guarantee by your (and the Protestant) criterion if indeed the above scriptural proofs are valid.

3. We know for certain that the apostles did wrong things. E.g., Peter rebuked Jesus, Thomas doubted Him, etc. And even after Pentecost, Peter led the Antiochian Jews into hypocrisy. There’s an apostolic practice for you.

So the Apostles, like us, sinned? This is supposed to be a compelling argument against apostolic tradition? What am I missing? Bible writers sinned, too, but Protestants and all Christians believed they were prevented from committing errors when writing Scripture. We merely extend the analogy to Christian tradition, councils, and the papacy, even to a large extent to the sensus fidelium (“sense of the faithful”). And you guys do the same in at least one instance, making a tacit exception in the case of the NT Canon.

St. Paul was a sinner. I do not believe his writings because he was impeccable, but because he wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In that circumstance his religious judgments are entirely trustworthy. That does not mean that all his sermons were theologically correct, or that every practice he instituted in the churches was right and proper. He made mistakes, but not when he wrote (or spoke) under inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Substitute tradition, popes, and ecumenical councils for Paul, and the guarantee of infallibility for inspiration and you have our notion of Church authority stated fairly precisely. Many of the dynamics are the same.

St. Peter illustrates this for us in Antioch. His personal sin led the rest of the Jews into sin in such a way that an essential doctrine was compromised. Here is an apostolic practice that leads (according to St. Paul) to false doctrine.

In God’s Providence this sin didn’t last for long, did it?! :-) And it was indeed hypocrisy, not doctrinal error here. But I still think that this has no bearing on the apostolic tradition which was passed down, preserved from error by God Himself, guided by the Holy Spirit.

You can argue all you want about whether St. Peter himself was guilty of doctrinal error or only personal sin, but it is unquestionable that the “doctrinal development” of his actions was leading the church into doctrinal error. Maybe St. Peter was infallible in faith and morals, but his personal sin was leading his flock into damnably false doctrine.

But this is always the case; hence, your argument proves too much. Sin is always present, and scandal, sadly, is also far too often present. When this occurs, some people will be led astray. But one must always “look at the books.” And what we find in Church history is consistent (i.e., the orthodox stream of history which is centered in Rome) with the Catholic take on things, not Protestantism, which must hold its beliefs in the teeth of history, thus leading to a-historicism.

4. There are other explanations for the development of the practice. Ancestor and/or hero worship is very common. Even today, it is very common for people to go to the graveyard and speak to their dead relatives. Given this common human tendency, there is no reason to invoke apostolic teaching to explain the phenomenon.

This is about as convincing and silly as the search for Babylonian precedents for so-called Catholic “paganism” (e.g., the papal tiara). The cogent point here (besides the issue of the alleged biblical proofs above) is: why did the practice develop in the first place among Christians of the first generation, or (in a more skeptical view) in the second generation, right around John’s death? Is this yet another instance of the “train” of the early Church de-railing before it even got up any speed into the journey through Church history, over the rails of God’s Providence (forgive the clumsy analogy!)? Why, if this practice is wrong and un-apostolic, do we find no protest among the early Christians and Fathers against it? Would you really have us believe that such prayer is impermissible, despite the fact that no Father or bishop can be found who understood the truth of these matters and rebuked the poor, ignorant souls who stupidly participated in them? I challenge you to produce for me one authoritative figure who does rebuke such prayers (and if you are right, there ought to be many more than just one). Until you do, I say that your view is utterly implausible, and that these practices can only be deemed apostolic due to their earliness and widespread use, and the biblical indications.

If you don’t know the weakness of an argument from silence, I suggest you argue that way yourself.

It is beyond me how you could not find it strange that there is no protest to be found in history against all these “Catholic corruptions” right after the apostolic period. You guys claim that all the “Catholic distinctives” aren’t apostolic. But we produce historical evidence to the contrary. If these “corruptions” are not apostolic and Christian and are derived from the whole cloth ofpaganism, why is it incredible to expect there to be a massive protest from Christian leadership against these pagan encroachments (as there is today, with whole “ministries” dedicated to the extirpation of such “grave errors”)? It is clearly an inadequate response to dismiss this issue as an “argument from silence” and go your merry way. I want to hear a plausible reinterpretation of this “silence” from all the good ol’ “evangelicals” and “on-fire, saved” Christians in the early Church who managed to successfully avoid and maneuver around all this “Catholic” error which somehow, some way, was smuggled into Christianity from the very earliest periods. I myself have never heard such an explanation. That’s not to say that no one has attempted it. I just want to hear from someone here, or else a reputable historian, from a citation recommended by someone here.

“To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant” — Cardinal Newman (That’s largely what happened to me!)

So Dave wants us to accept as an infallible rule something that is readily explainable on a human level and which has no demonstrable ties to inspired apostolic teaching.

No I don’t, because I’ve just demonstrated how they are indeed both biblical and apostolic. The real problem is: why do these “Catholic” practices (two of many such examples) pop up so early and with no protest against them? And if so, what becomes of historical continuity, for those Protestants who care about mundane matters such as the perpetuity of the Church and orthodoxy?

* * * * *
For one thing the Bible expressly forbids contact with the dead:

When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? (Isa 8:19) . . . Let no one be found among you . . . who consults the dead (Deut 18:10-11). . . The Egyptians . . . will consult the idols and the spirits of the dead, the mediums and the spiritists (Isa 19:3).

So I’m reminded again of 1977 in my own life, when I figured out — thanks to God’s completely undeserved grace — that I ought to give up my ESP, Ouija Board and other weird occultic practices and follow Jesus. As for the subject at hand, this prohibition, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with it, since what is forbidden is spiritism and sorcery, not intercession among the mystical Body of Christ. I ask you: if God wants no contact with dead saints whatsoever (not just a prohibition of occultism, which is a branch of magic and sorcery), why did Moses and Elijah appear on the Mount of Transfiguration? And why would a bunch of dead saints run around Jerusalem after the Crucifixion, “appearing to many”? (Mt 27:53) And why should Samuel truly appear, even in the midst of a forbidden practice (a seance)? Strange indeed, unless God doesn’t follow the rules He supposedly gives us.

Second, in order for the saints to hear our prayers, one must postulate that they not only hear us, but even more, they must be either omniscient or omnipresent (or both). Suppose Dave is praying to Mary at exactly 10pm EST; let’s further assume that Dave is in New York at this time. Suppose further that someone else decides that he is going to pray to Mary at that exact same time (10pm EST), only he is doing it from Waukegan, IL. Let us further suppose that on the other side of the world, every Catholic church in China is also praying to Mary at that same instance. Whom does she hear? She cannot hear all of the at once without ascribing omniscient or omnipresent (or both) to her.

The obvious fallacy here is to assume that for a created being to hear more than one request for intercession at once, he or she must have all knowledge and be present everywhere or both, when in fact all that is necessary is that they are out of time and are enabled to observe and hear what is going on in the earth (which is expressly indicated in Scripture – at least the observing. The “hearing” is a valid deduction.

Yet omniscient and omnipresent is clearly a distinctive attribute of God–it is part of what makes Him infinite rather than finite.


Yes, we will be in a glorified state in heaven; but the glorification of the saints does not entail assuming divine attributes.


Now, please Dave, try to resist Keating’s argument that since in heaven there are not the kind of limitations we find on earth, then God could grant some special ability to the saints to hear everyone at one time without also granting them omniscience or omnipresence.

Oh? You would have me presume to say what God can or can’t do? This argument is well beneath your capabilities. Please (in all sincerity) take a deep breath and ponder what fallacies you are asserting. It is clear enough. The logic is evident wholly apart from whatever theological side one comes down on. Being out of time is more than sufficient to overcome the standard “million prayers at once” polemical objection.

Why stop there?

Because there is no logical necessity to postulate any further granting of supernatural attributes.

What is to prevent us from postulating that God has also granted them omnipotence?

The fact that the Bible sez only God is omnipotent (e.g., Mt 19:26).

After all, how many Catholics would hesitate to run to St. Jude in times of trouble?

Beats me. Am I supposed to know that?

Perhaps the reason he is able to help them is because he is all-powerful.

Or, that the “prayers of a righteous man availeth much.”

It is completely meaningless to speak of the distinctive attributes of God if we are allowed to transfer those same attributes to mere creatures (which is one of the reasons we must reject such Marian beliefs as Mediatrix of all Grace).

Of course. Mary’s role as Mediatrix has absolutely no bearing on God’s prerogatives or attributes, since it is wholly derivative and secondary in nature, just as all graces granted to mankind are. It does not flow from inherent necessity, but rather, from God’s decision to utilize Mary in such an extraordinary way. If you want to say God absolutely could not act in such a fashion, then go ahead: I will not make such improper and illogical judgments. You may deny that He in fact did do so, which is another logical and theological issue.

This is the exact same tactic as the Jehovah’s Witnesses use when they assert that Jesus is a god, but not God. The imply that Jesus can have all the divine attributes of God without actually being god (creator, etc.).

Being created is an attribute of God? [scratching head] “Exact same tactic”? Methinks your language and logic ought to be more “exact.”

No, Dave, we must draw the line when it comes to those attributes that define God; a line no creature may cross over.

As do we, so there is no dispute here.

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