Within the Protestant tradition, prayers related to the departed are largely a rejected practice. This has not always been the case, however, and the Lutheran tradition explicitly affirms prayers with and for the faithful departed in the Book of Concord while condemning the Roman Catholic practice of prayers to the faithful departed. In the Moravian tradition, prayers for the faithful departed are in the Easter liturgy. In the Anglican tradition, the 1549 and 1979 Book of Common Prayer have prayers for the faithful departed in the communion liturgy and catechism respectively. In the Methodist tradition, John Wesley approved prayers with and for the departed in John Wesley and Highchurchmen (Ch. 13), and a short manuscript he wrote on liturgy cited in Chapters on the Early Registers of Halifax Parish Church. Whitley & Booth. (pg. 20). The exception to this practice is found in the Reformed tradition. John Calvin writes against prayers to and with the faithful departed in his Institutes (Ch. 20.20-27), arguing that the faithful departed neither hear us nor pray for us.
In this post, I’d like to define terms clearly to avoid confusion.
Prayers with the faithful departed: Prayers which recognize that the faithful departed pray also to God while they are in Heaven, IE the faithful departed pray with us.
Prayers for the faithful departed: Prayers which are offered to God that He deliver His promise of Paradise to the faithful departed.
Prayer to the faithful departed: Prayers which ask the faithful departed to pray on our behalf.
From the Lutheran Confessions:
And although the angels in heaven pray for us (as Christ Himself also does), as also do the saints on earth, and perhaps also in heaven, yet it does not follow thence that we should invoke and adore the angels and saints, and fast, hold festivals, celebrate Mass in their honor, make offerings, and establish churches, altars, divine worship, and in still other ways serve them, and regard them as helpers in need [as patrons and intercessors], and divide among them all kinds of help, and ascribe to each one a particular form of assistance, as the Papists teach and do. For this is idolatry, and such honor belongs alone to God.The Smalcald Articles, The Second Part, Article II: Of the Mass, 26
Now, as regards the adversaries’ citing the Fathers concerning the offering for the dead, we know that the ancients speak of prayer for the dead, which we do not prohibit; but we disapprove of the application ex opere operato of the Lord’s Supper on behalf of the dead. Neither do the ancients favor the adversaries concerning the opus operatum.Apology to the Augsburg Confession Article XXIV (XII): Of the Mass, 94
Scripture teaches not the invocation of saints or to ask help of saints, since it sets before us the one Christ as the Mediator, Propitiation, High Priest, and Intercessor. He is to be prayed to, and has promised that He will hear our prayer; and this worship He approves above all, to wit, that in all afflictions He be called upon, “If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, etc.” (1 John. 2:1). This is about the Sum of our Doctrine.Apology to the Augsburg Confession Article XXI: Of the Invocation of the Saints, 2-5
Prayers with the Faithful Departed
Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; Praise Him in the heights! Praise Him, all His angels; Praise Him, all His hosts! Praise Him, sun and moon; Praise Him, all you stars of light! Praise Him, you heavens of heavens, And you waters above the heavens!Psalm 148:1-4 (NKJV)
While not referring specifically to the faithful departed praying with or for us, it is clear that the angels, hosts, and heavens praise God.
Then the Angel of the LORD answered and said, “O LORD of hosts, how long will You not have mercy on Jerusalem and on the cities of Judah, against which You were angry these seventy years?” And the LORD answered the angel who talked to me, with good and comforting words.Zechariah 1:12-13 (NKJV)
This passage is explicit in that the Angel of the Lord prays for Jerusalem, and God responds with “good and comforting words.”
2 Maccabees 15:12-14
What he saw was this: Onias, who had been high priest, a beautiful and good man, of modest bearing and gentle manner, one who was well-spoken and had been trained from childhood in all that belongs to excellence, was praying with outstretched hands for the whole community of the Judeans. Then in the same fashion another appeared, distinguished by his gray hair and appearance, and of marvelous and most glorious dignity. An Onias spoke, saying, “This man is the one who loves his brothers, who prays much for the people and the holy city— Jeremiah, the prophet of God.”2 Maccabees 15:12-14 (NETS)
Judas Maccabeus saw both Onias (a long passed high priest) and the prophet Jeremiah praying for him in his dream. This is the only scriptural reference (albeit apocryphal) that refers to the faithful departed praying specifically for the church on Earth.
Greek Daniel (Prayer of Azariah) 3:58, 61, 86
Bless the Lord, you angels of the Lord; sing hymns, and highly exalt him forever…. Bless the Lord, you ever power; sing hymns, and highly exalt him forever…. Bless the Lord, spirits and righteous souls; sing hymns, and highly exalt him forever.Greek Daniel 3:58, 61, 86 (NETS, Theodotion)
While the above verses seem to show those on earth asking the hosts and the faithful departed to praise God, which would be a form of invocation, if this interpretation is followed, then those on earth are also invoking waters above the heavens (v. 60), the sun and moon (v. 62), fire and heat (v. 66), dew and snow (v. 68), etc. Since this practice is unfounded in both pre-Christian Judaism and Christianity, this seems a wrong interpretation. Invoking such things would also be directly contradicting Origen, Against Celsus V: XI, which is discussed later. The passage is similar to Ps. 148:1-4, but goes on much more extensively. This is closer to an example of prayers with the faithful departed than prayers to the faithful departed.
Revelation 5:8, 6:9-11, & 8:3-5
Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.Revelation 5:8 (NKJV)
When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.Revelation 6:9-11 (NKJV)
Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and threw it to the earth. And there were noises, thunderings, lightnings, and an earthquake.Revelation 8:3-5 (NKJV)
In these passages we see that angels take the prayers of the saints to God. It is clear from Revelation 4:1-5 that the above passages all take place in Heaven. Revelation 6:9-11 shows the faithful departed praying to God for matters about those on Earth. Revelation 8:3-5 shows that the prayer is answered by God as those on Earth are punished and the faithful departed are avenged.
Shepherd of Hermas
[The Shepherd said:] ‘But those who are weak and slothful in prayer, hesitate to ask anything from the Lord; but the Lord is full of compassion, and gives without fail to all who ask him. But you, [Hermas,] having been strengthened by the holy angel [you saw], and having obtained from him such intercession, and not being slothful, why do not you ask of the Lord understanding, and receive it from him?’The Shepherd 3:5:4 (80-120 AD)
Clement of Alexandria
In this way is he [the true Christian] always pure for prayer. He also prays in the society of angels, as being already of angelic rank, and he is never out of their holy keeping; and though he pray alone, he has the choir of the saints standing with him [in prayer].Miscellanies 7:12 (~208 AD)
But these pray along with those who genuinely pray—not only the high priest [Christ] but also the angels who “rejoice in heaven over one repenting sinner more than over ninety-nine righteous that need not repentance,” and also the souls of the saints already at rest.Origen, On Prayer VI.7 (233-234 AD)
Cyprian of Carthage, Letter 56
Let us remember one another in concord and unanimity. Let us on both sides [of death] always pray for one another. Let us relieve burdens and afflictions by mutual love, that if one of us, by the swiftness of divine condescension, shall go hence first, our love may continue in the presence of the Lord, and our prayers for our brethren and sisters not cease in the presence of the Father’s mercy.Letters 56:5 (~253 AD)
Quotes from the fathers on angels and saints praying with us and for us are abundant. One only need do a brief search in forums, blogs, and Catholic or Orthodox apologetics sites to find more, but the three above shall suffice to prove the early dating of the idea (though it is, moreover, in scripture as has already been seen).
Prayers for the Faithful Departed
1 Corinthians 15:29
Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?1 Corinthians 15:29 (NKJV)
Some, grasping at straws to find an example of ceremonies for the departed and link this to prayer for the departed, wish to cite this passage as support, though no definitive argument can be made. Tertullian in Adversus Marcionem (late second century) writes, “We will not be wanting (in some defense of the doctrine) even here, in consideration of such persons as are ignorant of that little treatise. ‘What’ asks he, ‘shall they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not?'” Didymus the Blind (313-398 AD) writes, “The Marcionites baptize the living on behalf of dead unbelievers, not knowing that baptism saves only the person who receives it.” Ambrosiaster in his commentary on 1 Corinthians (366-384 AD) writes, “It seems that some people were at the time being baptized for the dead because they were afraid that someone who was not baptized would either not rise at all or else rise merely in order to be condemned.”
John Chrysostom (349-407 AD) puts forward the Marcionite practice and interpretation stating that they baptize the living as a substitute for those who departed prior to baptism then continues, “As thus, if this was Paul’s meaning wherefore did God threaten him that is not baptized? For it is impossible that any should not be baptized henceforth, this being once devised: and besides, the fault no longer lies with the dead, but with the living. But to whom spoke he, ‘Unless you eat My flesh, and drink My blood, you have no life in yourselves?’ (John 6:53) To the living, or to the dead, tell me? And again, ‘Unless a man be born again of water and of the Spirit, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ (John 3:5) For if this be permitted, and there be no need of the mind of the receiver nor of his assent while he lives, what hinders both Greeks and Jews thus to become believers, other men after their decease doing these things in their stead?” An Old Irish gloss similarly comments on the verse, “For sinners who cause death: or, for those who are dead as to their wills.”
The interpretation, then, that this passage refers to a ceremony for the departed is not supported. The baptism is for the dead insofar as those who are unbaptized remain dead in their sin as Chrysostom and the Irish gloss interpret.
2 Timothy 1:15-18, 4:19
This you know, that all those in Asia have turned away from me, among whom are Phygellus and Hermogenes. The Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain; but when he arrived in Rome, he sought me out very zealously and found me. The Lord grant to him that he may find mercy from the Lord in that Day—and you know very well how many ways he ministered to me at Ephesus.
Greet Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus.2 Timothy 1:16-18, 4:19 (NKJV)
To quote Jay Twomey, “Beyond his speciﬁc role as a character in the Paul story, Onesiphorus has played a minor role in doctrinal controversies. Both because of the Pastor’s reference to ‘that day’ (v. 18) and because, at 4:19, ‘Paul’ sends his greetings to ‘the household of Onesiphorus,’ but not to the man himself, readers have frequently assumed that Onesiphorus was dead when this letter was written (Bassler 1996: 137). If this is the case, Collins claims, then ‘the prayer of verse 18 [is] one of the earliest examples of Christian prayer for the dead’ (2002: 217)” (Pastoral Epistles Throughout the Centuries, 2 Timothy 1, pg. 125). One historical commentary by Ishodad of Merv (mid ninth century), a bishop in the Church of the East, writes, “Phygellus and Hermogenes had been among the Believers, and had departed from the Faith.” 2 Timothy could, then, be an example of prayers for the faithful departed in the Protestant scriptural Canon.
2 Maccabees 15:39-45
On the next day, when the need for it had arisen, Judas’ men went to recover the bodies of those fallen earlier and to bring them back to lie with their kindred in their ancestral sepulchres. Then under the tunic of each one of the dead they found sacred token of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Judeans to wear. And it became clear to all that this was the reason these men had fallen. So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous judge; who makes visible the things that are hidden, and they turned to supplication, imploring that the sin that had been committed might be wholly blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened as the result of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Hierosolyma to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead so that they might be delivered from their sin.2 Maccabees 15:39-45 (NETS)
In the apocrypha, we see the most clear example of prayers for the departed. Notable in this passage is that Judas expects that these individuals died in the faith (“expecting that those who had fallen would rise again”), albeit in sin, that they may have the “splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness.”
Acts of Paul and Thecla
…after the exhibition, Tryphæna again received her. For her daughter Falconilla had died, and said to her in a dream, “Mother, you shall have this stranger Thecla in my place, in order that she may pray concerning me, and that I may be transferred to the place of the just.”
And when, after the exhibition, Tryphæna received her, at the same time indeed she grieved that she had to fight with the wild beasts on the day following; and at the same time, loving her as much as her daughter Falconilla, she said, “My second child Thecla, come and pray for my child, that she may live for ever; for this I saw in my sleep.” And she, nothing hesitating, lifted up her voice, and said, “God most high, grant to this woman according to her wish, that her daughter Falconilla may live forever.”Acts of Paul and Thecla, 17-18
The Acts of Paul and Thecla is a pseudepigraphal work from early Christianity that documents Thecla’s life and encounters with the Apostle. While we must be skeptical of pseudipigraphal works, they do give insight into Christianity at the time of authorship. Even in the possible case of a non-Christian author, the author would attempt to make the document seem Christian. The Acts of Paul and Thecla was fairly well received in the early church for a time, but was later rejected as inauthentic. While many have dated the document to ~190 AD, an analysis of the doctrine and language of the story shows it is likely from 100-117 AD (cit. Dr. Peter Dunn, Acts of Paul and the Pauline Legacy). The quote above gives an example of prayer for the faithful departed in Christianity, perhaps the earliest example outside of scripture.
Tertullian, De Exhortatione Castitatis
For (in that case) the shame is double; inasmuch as, in second marriage, two wives beset the same husband— one in spirit, one in flesh. For the first wife you cannot hate, for whom you retain an even more religious affection, as being already received into the Lord’s presence; for whose spirit you make request; for whom you render annual oblations. Will you stand, then, before the Lord with as many wives as you commemorate in prayer; and will you offer for two; and will you commend those two (to God) by the ministry of a priest ordained (to his sacred office) on the score of monogamy, or else consecrated (thereto) on the score even of virginity, surrounded by widows married but to one husband?Tertullian, De Exhortatione Castitatis Ch. 3 (early third century)
This excerpt from Tertullian is perhaps the earliest reference in the church fathers of prayer for the faithful departed in a positive light. Tertullian also writes of prayers and sacrifices for the departed various other writings (De Monogomia, De Anima, De Corona, Passio SS Perpetuae et Felicitatis). It should be noted that all of these writings came from the latter part of Tertullian’s life, at which point he had fallen into Montanist heresy, so his writings must be taken with suspicion.
Hippolytus, Against Plato
…to those who have done well shall be assigned righteously eternal bliss, and to the lovers of iniquity shall be given eternal punishment. And the fire which is un-quenchable and without end awaits these latter, and a certain fiery worm which dies not, and which does not waste the body, but continues bursting forth from the body with unending pain. No sleep will give them rest; no night will soothe them; no death will deliver them from punishment; no voice of interceding friends will profit them. For neither are the righteous seen by them any longer, nor are they worthy of remembrance.Hippolytus, Against Plato, On the Cause of the Universe Ch. 3 (early third century)
This fragment from Hippolytus is perhaps the earliest reference in a non-heretical church father of prayer for the departed. Hippolytus speaks negatively of the practice here, though it cannot be said whether he is applying the negative connotation broadly or only for this particular situation. What he says is not out of line with that of 2 Maccabees and Tertullian in that prayers for the departed are only for the faithful departed. As for the unfaithful, “no voice of interceding friends will profit them.”
Cyprian, Epistle 33(39)
Moreover, his paternal and maternal uncles, Laurentius and Egnatius, who themselves also were once warring in the camps of the world, but were true and spiritual soldiers of God, casting down the devil by the confession of Christ, merited palms and crowns from the Lord by their illustrious passion. We always offer sacrifices for them, as you remember, as often as we celebrate the passions and days of the martyrs in the annual commemoration. Nor could he, therefore, be degenerate and inferior whom this family dignity and a generous nobility provoked, by domestic examples of virtue and faith.Cyprian, To Clergy and People, Epistle 33(39), Ch. 3 (~250 AD)
Cyprian in Epistle 33 is perhaps the earliest positive mention of prayers for the faithful departed by a non-heretical church father. While the excerpt is not explicit about prayer, it does speak of sacrifices for them and commemoration. A more explicit quote can be seen in Epistle 56(60), which was already cited above in the section on prayers with the faithful departed.
Prayers to the Faithful Departed
1 Enoch 9:1-3
Then Michael and Gabriel, Raphael, Suryal, and Uriel, looked down from heaven, and saw the quantity from heaven, and saw the quantity of blood which was shed on earth, and all the iniquity which was done upon it, and said one to another, It is the voice of their cries; the earth deprived of her children has cried even to the gate of heaven. And now to you, O you holy one of heaven, the souls of men complain, saying, Obtain Justice for us with the Most High.1 Enoch 9:1-3 (tr. Laurence, 1883)
This is perhaps the earliest example in which angels (specifically archangels) are invoked. 1 Enoch is generally dated to 300-200 BC, with some later sections being dated to 100 BC. While 1 Enoch is not canonical among Judaism (lest the ancient Essene sect) nor Christianity (lest the Ethiopian Orthodox), it demonstrates that invoking angels is present in pre-Christian Judaism at least in the Essene tradition, which was known for its unusual beliefs and mystical/cosmological emphasis. It is notably absent from mention from other Jewish texts until post-Christian texts such as the Genesis Rabbah (300-500 AD) and absent from Christian texts until the 4th century AD. Furthermore, descriptive texts are not to function as prescriptive texts. The mention of invoking archangels does not necessitate its command.
There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
“Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’
“Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’ ”Luke 16:19-31 (NKJV)
Luke 16:19-31 is a most mysterious passage and, perhaps, the only possible scriptural defense for invocation of the faithful departed (IE asking them to pray for us). If this notion were to be accepted, we would expect it to appear in commentaries in the early church, especially in periods where invocation of saints is well attested. Among the fathers who comment on this passage are Cyril, Ambrosiaster, Ambrose, Theophylact, Bede, Eusebius, Chrysostom, Pseudo-Chrysostom, Pseudo-Basil, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Theophilus, Ephrem the Syrian, Peter Chrysologus, Cyprian, Jerome, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Methodius, Athenagoras, Augustine, Hippolytus, and Gregory the Great. The entirety of these commentaries is more than a couple hours of reading, yet only small pieces of the last three writers relate in any way to invocation of saints.
Hippolytus (170-235 AD) writes, “No sleep will give them rest; no night will soothe them; no death will deliver them from punishment; no voice of interceding friends will profit them.”
Interestingly, we see here that the intercession is of no avail; furthermore, this seems rather to be speaking of prayers of friends to God, not invoking saints.
Augustine (354-430 AD) writes, “For it is shown by the unchangeableness of the Divine sentence, that no aid of mercy can be rendered to men by the righteous, even though they should wish to give it; by which he reminds us, that in this life men should relieve those they can, since hereafter even if they be well received, they would not be able to give help to those they love. For that which was written, that they may receive you into everlasting habitations, was not said of the proud and unmerciful, but of those who have made to themselves friends by their works of mercy, whom the righteous receive, not as if by their own power benefiting them, but by Divine permission.”
This passage seems to directly contradict the nature of many prayers to the faithful departed. Many such prayers ask for protection, mercy, grace, or comfort, yet Augustine says that they can do nothing but receive the righteous when they come (as Abraham did here), not by their own power, but by Divine permission
Augustine also writes, “But some may say, ‘If the dead have no care for the living, how did the rich man ask Abraham, that he should send Lazarus to his five brethren?’ But because he said this, did the rich man therefore know what his brethren were doing, or what was their condition at that time? His care about the living was such that he might yet be altogether ignorant what they were doing, just as we care about the dead, although we know nothing of what they do. But again the question occurs, How did Abraham know that Moses and the prophets are here in their books? Whence also had he known that the rich man had lived in luxury, but Lazarus in affliction. Not surely when these things were going on in their lifetime, but at their death he might know through Lazarus’ telling him, that in order that might not be false which the prophet says, ‘Abraham heard us not.’ The dead might also hear something from the angels who are ever present at the things which are done here. They might also know some things which it was necessary for them to have known, not only past, but also future, through the revelation of the Church of God.”
Here we see quite clearly that Augustine stands against the notion that the saints in Heaven are aware of what occurs on Earth outside that which is brought to them by those who departed after them, what angels tell them, and what is revealed in the Church of God. The departed are not concerned with what goes on here so much as they are concerned with the church as a whole, just as we are not concerned with what goes on after death so much as we are concerned with those who have departed.
Gregory the Great (540-604 AD) writes, “When the two men were below on earth, that is, the poor and the rich, there was one above who saw into their hearts, and by trials exercised the poor man to glory, by endurance awaited the rich man to punishment. Hence it follows, The rich man also cried. Now if Abraham sate below, the rich man placed in torments would not see him. For they who have followed the path to the heavenly country, when they leave the flesh, are kept back by the gates of hell; not that punishment smites them as sinners, but that resting in some more remote places, (for the intercession of the Mediator was not yet come,) the guilt of their first fault prevents them from entering the kingdom. And this rich man forsooth, now fixed in his doom, seeks as his patron him to whom in this life he would not show mercy.”
The only mention of a mediator in this passage and intercession in this passage is The Mediator, IE Christ, who came later to “proclaim to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19). With such a great volume of commentary, yet no implication of invoking saints being tied to this passage, it can be concluded that this is not of what this passage speaks.
The earliest example of invocation of the faithful departed in Christianity is from one of four sources depending on how you date and interpret them: The Martyrdom of Paul (98-180 AD), The Autun Inscription (162-600 AD), Ryland’s Papyrus P470 Egypt (250-500 AD), or Methodius of Olympus’ Oration on Simeon and Anna (305 AD).
Martyrdom of Paul
And while they yet spake thus, Nero sent one Parthenius and Pheres to see if Paul were already beheaded; and they found him yet alive. And he called them to him and said: Believe on the living God, which raiseth me and all them that believe on him from the dead. And they said: We go now unto Nero; but when thou diest and risest again, then will we believe on thy God. And as Longus and Cestus entreated him yet more concerning salvation, he saith to them: Come quickly unto my grave in the morning and ye shall find two men praying, Titus and Luke. They shall give you the seal in the Lord.Martyrdom of Paul V (98-180 AD)
Then Paul stood with his face to the east and lifted up his hands unto heaven and prayed a long time, and in his prayer he communed in the Hebrew tongue with the fathers, and then stretched forth his neck without speaking. And when the executioner (speculator) struck off his head, milk spurted upon the cloak of the soldier.
This is the first text in which the faithful departed specifically are invoked. Dating the text is challenging as it could be as early as the reign of Trajan (98-117 AD) or as late 180, which is when we first see it mentioned in outside sources. The strange part about this text is that Paul seemingly “communes” (or some translations “converses,” original Greek reads “ekoinonesen”) with the fathers (the patriarchs, perhaps) in Hebrew (often an idiom for Aramaic in this period). It’s unclear if Paul is talking with them in a special manner (IE vision, trance, etc.) or if this is simply prayer, but it seems to be a connection between the himself and the recipient of the prayer. The text is further complicated in that it is unclear whether this is meant to communicate that Paul had a particular spiritual gift that allowed him to do this or if this is seen as normal. The authorship of the text is unknown, though the Acts of Paul (of which the Martyrdom is a subsection) is well received in its time. Much of the story is thought to be hagiography in scholarship. The unusual nature of the text, unknown authorship, and hagiography hurt the use of this text as support for invocation of the faithful departed, but it is a notable text nonetheless.
The Autun Inscription
Offspring of the heavenly ICHTHYS, see that a heart of holy reverence be thine, now that from Divine waters thou hast received, while yet among mortals, a fount of life that is to immortality. Quicken thy soul, beloved one, with ever-flowing waters of wealth-giving wisdom, and receive the honey-sweet food of the Saviour of the saints. Eat with a longing hunger, holding Ichthys in thine hands.
To Ichthys … Come nigh unto me, my Lord [and] Saviour [be thou my Guide] I entreat Thee, Thou Light of them for whom the hour of death is past.
Aschandius, my Father, dear unto mine heart, and thou [sweet Mother, and all] that are mine … remember Pectorius.The Autun Inscription, translated with some conjecture by Marriott (162-600 AD)
The Autun Inscription is from either an old hymn or epitaph; it is unclear. There is very little to use to date the inscription aside from the use of the Ichthys (Jesus fish) symbol. The last sentence is the only relevant part of the text for discussion in this post. If the inscription is from an epitaph, it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary, and it can be interpreted not as a prayer but a common request as many would make today, writing in epitaphs as if the departed can still hear us. If it is from a hymn, the request is more out of place and is more easily read as a prayer to the faithful departed. Unfortunately, dating it accurately is challenging, so we cannot know if this is an early or later example of invocation. Perhaps another problem with using The Autun Inscription as support for invocation of saints is that the author is unknown. It could be from a Christian author or heretical sect, layman or clergyman, etc. This inhibits its use as an authoritative text.
Rylands Papyrus P470 Egypt
Under thy compassion we take refuge, O Theotokos. Do not despise our petitions in the time of trouble, but from dangers ransom us, singularly holy, singularly blessed.Rylands Papyrus P470 Egypt (250-500 AD)
This is an explicit example of invocation of saints, Theotokos here referring to Mary. The papyrus is challenging to date as it hardly has any content. We are left to lexicographic (handwriting analysis) methods to date it. Some papyrologists note that characters seem similar to the Letter of Subatianus Aquila which puts the P470 papyrus at 250 AD, but others note that P470 seems rather unique in style, making dating to hard to pin down. Some estimate the dating could be as late as the fifth century. P470 also suffers from the same issues seen in The Autun Inscription regarding authorship.
Methodius of Olympus, Oration on Simeon and Anna
Hail to you for ever, Virgin Mother of God, our unceasing joy, for to you do I turn again. You are the beginning of our feast; you are its middle and end; the pearl of great price that belongs to the kingdom; the fat of every victim, the living altar of the bread of life. Hail, you treasure of the love of God. Hail, you fount of the Son’s love for man. . . . You gleamed, sweet gift-bestowing Mother, with the light of the sun; you gleamed with the insupportable fires of a most fervent charity, bringing forth in the end that which was conceived of you . . . making manifest the mystery hidden and unspeakable, the invisible Son of the Father—the Prince of Peace, who in a marvelous manner showed himself as less than all littleness.Methodius of Olympus, Oration on Simeon and Anna 14 (305 AD)
Therefore, we pray [ask] you, the most excellent among women, who glories in the confidence of your maternal honors, that you would unceasingly keep us in remembrance. O holy Mother of God, remember us, I say, who make our boast in you, and who in august hymns celebrate the memory, which will ever live, and never fade away.
And you also, O honored and venerable Simeon, you earliest host of our holy religion, and teacher of the resurrection of the faithful, do be our patron and advocate with that Savior God, whom you were deemed worthy to receive into your arms. We, together with you, sing our praises to Christ, who has the power of life and death, saying, “You are the true Light, proceeding from the true light; the true God, begotten of the true God.”
With certainty, we can say that invocation of saints was in Christian practice by 305 AD as the example from Methodius shows here, but explicit examples become more common slowly over time, showing widespread use by the fifth the century. This is the first extant example of a church authority invoking the faithful departed, making support for prayer to the faithful departed much less supported than prayer with and for the faithful departed in the early church.
Prayers to the Faithful Departed – the Counterargument
One Mediator, Christ
The Greek word for “mediator,” “mesitēs,” appears six times in the New Testament in five passages (Galations 3:19-20, 1 Timothy 2:5, Hebrews 8:6, Hebrews 9:15, and Hebrew 12:24). The Galatians passage is not relevant to the discussion, but the others are helpful.
For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time1 Timothy 2:5-6 (NKJV)
For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices. Therefore it is necessary that this One also have something to offer. For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law; who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle. For He said, “See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” [Ex. 25:40] But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises.Hebrews 8:3-6 (NKJV)
For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.Hebrews 9:13-15 (NKJV)
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.Hebrews 12:22-24 (NKJV)
The first and final quotes are the most relevant to discussion. 1 Timothy 2:5-6 is explicit that there is solely one mediator between God and men, and that is Christ. Hebrews 12:22-24 goes as far as mentioning the company of angels and the first born of the saints, yet it is clear that Jesus is the Mediator of the new covenant. If there were ever an opportunity to write of the angels and saints in Heaven acting as mediators, surely it would have been here, though this is an argument from silence.
Apologists for invocation of saints make the appeal that we ask others to pray for us on Earth, we ask the faithful departed to pray for us in Heaven, so they aren’t professing saints and angels as mediators, but let not this deceive you. To quote the examples above, “Under thy compassion we take refuge, O Theotokos. Do not despise our petitions in the time of trouble, but from dangers ransom us, singularly holy, singularly blessed.” “Hail to you for ever, Virgin Mother of God, our unceasing joy, for to you do I turn again.” In what situation does one say these things to a fellow Christian on Earth? These themes of turning to departed saints for refuge are common in these prayers, progressively becoming stronger over time.
The Early Patristic Witness
Nor does she [the church] perform anything by means of angelic invocations, or by incantations, or by any other wicked curious art; but, directing her prayers to the Lord, who made all things, in a pure, sincere, and straightforward spirit, and calling upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, she has been accustomed to work miracles for the advantage of mankind, and not to lead them into error.Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2:32:5 (174-189 AD)
Irenaeus is one of the most respected church fathers of the second century, and a very influential writer. The topic he is discussing is not related to prayer in particular, but the performance of miracles. Nonetheless, in such situations, he is against angelic invocation.
If, again, we mention Paradise, a place of celestial delight, appointed for the reception of the spirits of the saints, and separated from the knowledge of the world in general by a kind of partition formed by that fiery zone.Tertullian, Apology XLVII.13 (~200 AD)
Tertullian writes here that the faithful departed are separated from knowledge of Earth, so how could they receive our invocations? This matches what Augustine says in the commentary above on Luke 16 that the faithful departed do not know what occurs on Earth lest an angel or later faithful departed tells them or it is revealed by God. It is unclear if Tertullian’s apology is from his pre-Montanist or Montanist (heretical) writings.
Now request and intercession and thanksgiving, it is not out of place to offer even to men—the two latter, intercession and thanksgiving, not only to saintly men but also to others. But request to saints alone, should some Paul or Peter appear, to benefit us by making us worthy to obtain the authority which has been given to them to forgive sins—with this addition indeed that, even should a man not be a saint and we have wronged him, we are permitted our becoming conscious of our sin against him to make request even of such, that he extend pardon to us who have wronged him…. It remains, accordingly, to pray to God alone, the Father of All, not however apart from the High Priest who has been appointed by the Father with swearing of an oath, according to the words He hath sworn and shall not repent, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” In thanksgiving to God, therefore, during their prayers, saints acknowledge His favors through Christ Jesus.Origen, On Prayer Ch. X.1,5 (233-234 AD)
Here Origen says that it is not out of place to request intercession to men, but he is clear in the manner of requests. He says to request of them, if they appear, absolution, as they received the office of the keys from Christ in Matthew 18 and John 20, and if we have sinned against someone, even if they are not Christian, to ask for pardon. It is clear then, that this should only occur if the one being invoked is present with us (as we invoke friends to pray for us), not to those who have departed. He then follows this saying that we are to pray to God alone.
Having thus learned to call these beings “angels” from their employments, we find that because they are divine they are sometimes termed “god” in the sacred Scriptures, but not so that we are commanded to honor and worship in place of God those who minister to us, and bear to us His blessings. For every prayer, and supplication, and intercession, and thanksgiving, is to be sent up to the Supreme God through the High Priest, who is above all the angels, the living Word and God. And to the Word Himself shall we also pray and make intercessions, and offer thanksgivings and supplications to Him, if we have the capacity of distinguishing between the proper use and abuse of prayer. For to invoke angels without having obtained a knowledge of their nature greater than is possessed by men, would be contrary to reason.Origen, Against Celsus V: IV-V (248 AD)
Origen is clear here that angels are not to be employed for honor, worship, or invocation. He then says that every prayer, supplication, intercession, and thanksgiving be sent to the Father through Christ the High Priest (a clear reference to the Hebrews passages above).
And being persuaded that the sun himself, and moon, and stars pray to the Supreme God through His only-begotten Son, we judge it improper to pray to those beings who themselves offer up prayers (to God), seeing even they themselves would prefer that we should send up our requests to the God to whom they pray, rather than send them downwards to themselves, or apportion our power of prayer between God and them…. And although one may not be so exalted (as the sun), nevertheless let such an one pray to the Word of God (who is able to heal him), and still more to His Father, who also to the righteous of former times ‘sent His Word, and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction.’Origen, Against Celsus V: XI (248 AD)
In this passage, Origen is writing against the pagan practice of prayer to heavenly bodies (such as the sun and moon), and condemns it, saying that we should instead pray to God. It is noteworthy, for the sake of honesty to the reader, that Origen was declared a heretic centuries after his death for his views on pre-existence of souls; however, Origen was well-respected and very influential in his day, and his anathema was not related to the topic at hand.
Christians must not forsake the Church of God, and go away and invoke angels and gather assemblies, which things are forbidden. If, therefore, any one shall be found engaged in this covert idolatry, let him be anathema; for he has forsaken our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and has gone over to idolatry. Whoso calls assemblies in opposition to those of the Church and names angels, is near to idolatry and let him be anathema.Synod of Laodicaea Canon XXXV (363-364 AD)
At first sight, this canon may seem to prohibit invocation of angels entirely, but the translation can be deceptive. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers by Philip Schaff notes the following:
Whatever the worship of angels condemned by this canon may have been, one thing is manifest, that it was a species of idolatry, and detracted from the worship due to Christ. Theodoret makes mention of this superstitious cult in his exposition of the Text of St. Paul, Col. ii. 18, and when writing of its condemnation by this synod he says, “they were leading to worship angels such as were defending the Law; for, said they, the Law was given through angels. And this vice lasted for a long time in Phrygia and Pisidia. Therefore it was that the synod which met at Laodicea in Phrygia, prohibited by a canon, that prayer should be offered to angels, and even to-day an oratory of St. Michael can be seen among them, and their neighbours.” In the Capitular of Charlemagne a.d. 789 (cap. xvi.), it is said, “In that same council (Laodicea) it was ordered that angels should not be given unknown names, and that such should not be affixed to them, but that only they should be named by the names which we have by authority. These are Michael, Gabriel, Raphael.” And then is subjoined the present canon. The canon forbids “to name” (ὀνομάζειν) angels, and this was understood as meaning to give them names instead of to call upon them by name. Perchance the authors of the Capitular had in mind the Roman Council under Pope Zachary, a.d. 745, against Aldebert, who was found to invoke by name eight angels in his prayers. It should be noted that some Latin versions of great authority and antiquity read angulos for angelos. This would refer to doing these idolatrous rites in corners, hiddenly, secretly, occulte as in the Latin. But this reading, though so respectable in the Latin, has no Greek authority for it.”Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Synod of Laodicaea Canon XXXV
What is translated as “invoke” (ὀνομάζειν) means “name” or “call.” The word is used in both manners in the New Testament. While Theodoret of Cyrus suggests that this is referring to prayer to angels, the Capitular of Charlemagne suggests that it is referring to naming angels. What’s clear is that worship of angels is prohibited, though past this, the Synod of Laodicaea is ambiguous.
All things considered, a clear-cut and bullet-proof argument against the practice of invoking saints using scripture and the early church cannot be made, but something can be said for its seemingly late origins in the 4th century (lest the 1 Enoch passage on invoking archangels) and writings that seem to be against it in the the first three centuries, including scripture. The Lutheran view accounts for this, however.
The Book of Concord speaks of invoking the faithful departed four times: Augsburg Confession XXI, Apology XXI (IX), Smalcald Articles II 25-29, and Of the Power and Primacy of the Pope 47. What is condemned in these passages is invoking saints being taught as the following: it is from scripture or the early church (AC XXI); it is required or binding on consciences; it works propitiation from sins; the saints mediate redemption (Apology XXI (IX)); it is commanded or counseled; it includes festivals, offerings, devoted churches/altars, or worship; the saints offer help in distress; individual saints are for particular situations; it is part of the divine service (SA II); it is idolatrous (Power and Primacy).
While SA II.25 calls the practice “a most harmful thing,” it is possible that this only refers to the practice as it was done in the Roman Catholic church. This is a common occurrence in the Book of Concord, so it is not an unlikely reading, and Lutheran scholastics disagreed on how to read these passages in the Book of Concord, particularly in regard to church history, which shows widespread invocation of saints from the 4th century onward. The primary focus in the Book of Concord is that it is not mentioned in scripture nor the early witnesses. Invoking saints, then, is not entirely forbidden, but it must be done as one would ask another saint on Earth, outside of a liturgical setting, and not to a particular saint for a particular situation. Even this practice, however, is called into question in the Apology since it has no support in either scripture or the early witnesses; instead we are pointed to pray to God, who we know indeed hears our prayers.
Prayers with and for the faithful departed have scriptural support and early witnesses to testify for the practice. Prayers to the faithful departed are not supported by scripture nor can be found confidently among the early witnesses. Scripture and early writers seemingly testify against the practice of invoking saints and angels, instead pointing us to pray to God alone. The Lutheran position stand then, that prayers with and for the faithful departed are of the church catholic, while prayers to the faithful departed are not of our doctrine.
Of the Worship of Saints they teach that the memory of saints may be set before us, that we may follow their faith and good works, according to our calling, as the Emperor may follow the example of David in making war to drive away the Turk from his country. For both are kings. But the Scripture teaches not the invocation of saints or to ask help of saints, since it sets before us the one Christ as the Mediator, Propitiation, High Priest, and Intercessor. He is to be prayed to, and has promised that He will hear our prayer; and this worship He approves above all, to wit, that in all afflictions He be called upon (1 John 2, 1). If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, etc. This is about the Sum of our Doctrine, in which, as can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers.Augsburg Confession Article XXI: Of the Worship of Saints
Appendix – Guardian Angels
Guardian angels are a topic mentioned throughout scripture, perhaps, with less certainty in some spots than others. What’s notable about guardian angels is that they are appointed to watch over us, meaning they certainly do hear us just as others do on Earth. This makes them different from the faithful departed, and does not contradict the views of Tertullian, Origen, and Augustine regarding the inability of the faithful departed to know what occurs on Earth. Guardian angels are claimed to have Biblical support in the following passages: Job 33:23, Daniel 10:10-13, Psalm 34:7, Psalm 91:11, Psalm 103:21, Matthew 18:10, Acts 12:7,12-15, Hebrews 1:14, and Tobit as a whole. While the patristic witness supporting such interpretations is not found in Job 33:23 (where Christ is interpreted as mediator) or Psalm 103:21 (where the idea of guardian angels isn’t mentioned by commentators), each of the other passages have commentary from the fathers that affirm that the passages refer to guardian angels.
Suddenly, a hand touched me, which made me tremble on my knees and onthe palms of my hands. And he said to me, “O Daniel, man greatly beloved, understand the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for I have now been sent to you.” While he was speaking this word to me, I stood trembling. Then he said to me, “Do not fear, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand, and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard; and I have come because of your words. But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days; and behold, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I had been left alone there with the kings of Persia.Daniel 10:10-13 (NKJV)
Michael here is interpreted to be the archangel Michael, and the princes to be other angels. It is notable that they govern a particular country as angels, which Clement of Alexandria (~195 AD) points out. Hippolytus (170-235 AD), Jerome (347-420 AD), and John Cassian (360-435 AD) all note that that Michael had been appointed as the overseer of Israel.
The angel of the LORD encamps all around those who fear Him, and delivers them.Psalm 34:7 (NKJV)
This passage could be interpreted as referring to guardian angels or Christ as he is sometimes referred to as the angel of the Lord in the Old Testament, which is Augustine’s interpretation here.
For He shall give His angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways.Psalm 91:11 (NKJV)
Augustine suggests this means that angels keep watch over what we do, writing, “If You shall cast yourself down, angels shall receive you” in his commentary.
Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven.Matthew 18:10 (NKJV)
This is the most explicit reference to guardian angels in scripture. Clement of Alexandria (~195 AD), Origen (184-253 AD), Hilary of Poitiers (310-368 AD), Chrysostom (349-407 AD), Chromatius of Aquileia (<407 AD), Jerome (347-420 AD), Augustine (354-430 AD), Gregory the Great (540-604 AD), Anselm (1033-1109 AD), and Theophylact (1050-1107 AD) all comment on this passage saying it’s referring to guardian angels, though they differ on whether or not only Christians have guardian angels and on whether they are assigned at birth or at baptism. Chromatius also says these angels carry our prayers to Heaven.
Now behold, an angel of the Lord stood by him, and a light shone in the prison; and he struck Peter on the side and raised him up, saying, “Arise quickly!” And his chains fell off his hands…. he came to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together praying. And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a girl named Rhoda came to answer. When she recognized Peter’s voice, because of her gladness she did not open the gate, but ran in and announced that Peter stood before the gate. But they said to her, “You are beside yourself!” Yet she kept insisting that it was so. So they said, “It is his angel.”Acts 12:7,12-15 (NKJV)
Chrysostom, in his commentary on Acts 12, says, “This is a truth, that each man has an Angel.” In Acts 12:15, those speaking to Rhoda also assume that Peter has an angel of his own. Cassiodorus Senator (485-585 AD) refers to the angel that assists Peter as “his angel” in his commentary on Acts 12.
Are they [angels] not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation?Hebrews 1:14 (NKJV)
Chrysostom comments on this, “See how he lifts up their minds, and shows the great honor which God has for us, since He has assigned to Angels who are above us this ministration on our behalf.”
When you and your daughter-in-law Sara prayed, I brought the memorial of your prayer before the Holy One, and when you would bury the dead, I was likewise present with you. And when you did not hesitate to get up and leave your dinner to go out and bury the dead, the good deed was not hidden from me, but I was with you. So now God sent me to heal you and your daughter-in-law Sara. I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the holy ones and enter before the glory of the Hold One.Tobit 12:11-15 (NETS, GI)
Augustine notes, “Prayers may be made known also to the angels that are in the presence of God, that these beings may in some way present them to God, and consult Him concerning them, and may bring to us, either manifestly or secretly, that which, hearkening to His commandment, they may have learned to be His will, and which must be fulfilled by them according to that which they have there learned to be their duty; for the angel said to Tobit.” And in another spot, “The angels are said to oﬀer up our prayers to God. Not that they instruct him what we do, or what we ask; for he knows all things exactly as they are, even before they are: And therefore cannot possibly be ignorant of them afterwards. But they attend his pleasure upon these occasions, execute his orders, and what they knew God has decreed, are sometimes instruments of accomplishing, and sometimes messengers too to give the parties concerned, notice of. Thus, the angel tells Tobit, ‘That he brought the remembrance of his prayer before the holy One’, and that there are some spirits, whose oﬃce it is, to present the prayer of the saint, and to go in and out before the Throne of God.”
Origen (184-253 AD) repeatedly refers to guardian angels in other writings apart from commenting on particular scriptural passages, and Gregory Thaumaturgus (~255 AD) and Methodius of Olympus (~290 AD) also make note of them outside of commentary.
While there is no mention in the Book of Concord of guardian angels praying for us, both the Apology to the Augsburg Confession (Article XXI) and Smalcald Articles (Article II) affirm that angels pray for us, and the Morning and Evening prayers mention what seems to be a guardian angel.
I thank Thee, my Heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Thy dear Son, that Thou hast kept me this night from all harm and danger; and I pray Thee to keep me this day also from sin and all evil, that all my doings and life may please Thee. For into Thy hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Thy holy angel be with me, that the Wicked Foe may have no power over me. Amen.Small Catechism, Appendix I.2
I thank Thee, my Heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Thy dear Son, that Thou hast graciously kept me this day, and I pray Thee to forgive me all my sins, where I have done wrong, and graciously keep me this night. For into Thy hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Thy holy angel be with me, that the Wicke Foe may have no power over me. Amen.Small Catechism, Appendix I.5