Monday, May 16, 2022

Today on the Almanac, we head to the mailbag to answer a question about praying to the saints in the history of the church, Christian theology, and English literature.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 16th of May 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.

In the past few weeks, I have received a group of emails that circle a similar topic- the prayer to or invocation of the saints. So here is a mailbag primer on thinking about church history and praying to or invoking saints. (The distinction there is important).

To answer the question/s, I will focus on the Reformation era and look at the major branches of the Church after the big split. We’ve got Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and then variations on Reformation doctrine.

The first question is: what’s a saint? In one sense, it is a Christian, living or dead. But, we also recognize particularly “sainted” people. Maybe the language gets tricky- but if you add the word “exemplary” to the kinds of saints more often invoked, whose stories are told, who are imitated, etc.

That distinction aside- it might also help to remember that “praying to the dead” would be a distinctly pagan practice as Christians don’t believe that the faithful die. Yes, I get its semantics- but let the whole topic and idea breathe.

Secondly, when we look at especially Reformation doctrines, they deal with a particular medieval understanding of “praying for the dead,” which had more in common with pagan cultural practice than anything distinctly Christian.

Where Reformation Christians might do well would be in contextualizing is seeing their confessional doctrines as, sometimes, a corrective to a medieval theology that doesn’t always exist today.

OK- first, no one in any significant tradition teaches that Jesus needs help and that these saints are doing the same work that Jesus does.

Hear the Orthodox:

“What means of communion has the Church on earth with the Church in heaven?

The prayer of faith and love. The faithful who belong to the Church militant upon earth, in offering their prayers to God, call at the same time to their aid the saints who belong to the Church in heaven; and these, standing on the highest steps of approach to God, by their prayers and intercessions purify, strengthen, and offer before God the prayers of the faithful living upon earth, and by the will of God work graciously and beneficently upon them, either by invisible virtue, or by distinct apparitions, and in divers other ways.”

So- they amplify and might help “invisibly” or by an apparition.

Hear the Roman Catholic Church from the church’s Catechism:

Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness. . . . They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus . . . . So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped."

Ah! Merit talk! This gets interesting… but it is merited through the “one mediator”…

Here’s a Reformed position- from the Heidelberg Catechism:

Do such then believe in Jesus the only Saviour, who seek their salvation and welfare of saints, of themselves, or anywhere else?

  1. They do not; for though they boast of Him in words, yet in deeds they deny Jesus the only deliverer and Saviour; for one of these two things must be true, either that Jesus is not a complete Saviour, or that they who by a true faith receive this Saviour must find all things in Him necessary to their salvation

So- this is punching back at the Roman Catholic Church and the idea that anyone or anything else is necessary….

And finally- the Lutheran position would change- or at least be debated in the earliest years of the Reformation- The Apology to the Augsburg Confession proclaims:

“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”

However, the author of that- Philip Melanchthon, did think that recognizing the lives of saints- for thanksgiving, the strengthening of faith (kind of like the “invisible virtue” of the Orthodox Church), and the imitation of virtue.

Of course- these are the major highways, but you need to search the scriptures, pray, and ask friends and fellow Christians…

And of course, the place of Mary, in particular, will be a specific Western debate between Catholics and the Protestants…. But this show is already way over time….

The Last Word for today comes from the lectionary for today, which conveniently lets us read from Psalm 133:

1-3 How wonderful, how beautiful,
 when brothers and sisters get along! 
It’s like costly anointing oil
 flowing down head and beard, 
Flowing down Aaron’s beard,
 flowing down the collar of his priestly robes. 
It’s like the dew on Mount Hermon
 flowing down the slopes of Zion.
 Yes, that’s where God commands the blessing,
 ordains eternal life.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 16th of May 2022, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man whose favorite Satins include French composer Camille Saint Saens, Kate and Allie’s Susan St. James, and Defensive End Cameron Jordan—Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who, if we’re talking Saints… I’ll never explain Taysom Hill’s contract… what does he do? What secrets does he know? I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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