Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Protestants III: Addressing saints

protestants and the rosary, part 3

As I've mentioned, Protestants have problems with the idea of praying the rosary, and the "explanations" offered by Catholics often don't answer their questions.

The biggest problem is the status of the Virgin Mary, and I hope I've explained here why she is not regarded as a "goddess" by Catholics (as Protestants sometimes believe). The next problem I think Protestants have with the rosary is the one pointed out in the Thirty-Nine Articles that defined the separation between the English and Roman churches that began with Henry VIII. Article 22 describes the invocation of saints as "a fond thing vainly invented and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the word of God." Is it really legitimate to address "prayers" to dead human beings (saints) and to ask them for favor?

Donors of the Gundelfinger family 7006328

(I decided these posts would be much nicer with photos, even if they're not strictly relevant photos. The three here are details of a painting commissioned from Herlin Friedrich by the Gundelfinger family southern Germany in about 1490. The family is shown kneeling at the foot of a Crucifixion scene, hence the bloody feet in the center. The skull and bone at the foot of the Cross represent Adam.)

"Invocation" really means "calling on," so this is really two questions: (1) Can saints in heaven hear requests addressed to them by living people? and (2) Is it legitimate for living people to ask saints for help? By and large, I think Protestants are taught that the answer to (1) is "No," rendering (2) rather pointless. Catholics, on the other hand, would answer "Yes" to both.

Question (1) is really about the different ways Catholics and Protestants see the doctrine called "the communion of saints" (as creeds usually call it). Both will tell you they believe in the communion of saints, but they mean different things by this statement. For Protestants, it means that living believers and dead believers together make up a single (though rather theoretical) body of believers -- but that the two are separated by the boundary of death. We may know that the dead live on in Heaven, but we have no contact with them, although God (of course) has contact with both. Only at the end of time will we all be truly united.

Gents of the Gundelfinger family 7006328

(By the way, he peculiar mark on the little shield by Papa Gundelfinger's knees is the family's "merchant's mark" or logo, telling you who they are.)

Catholics, on the other hand, tend to take the "communion" as a literal, present-day reality: although we don't generally see or hear dead saints, God has made the boundary between death and life porous, at least one way (from us to them) and occasionally both ways (living people having visions -- which Protestants profoundly distrust). This means we can address our thoughts to the saints and reasonably have faith that God will grant them the ability to hear us.

I personally don't think there is clear support for either view in the Bible, although I don't doubt that my evangelical friends can find some that satisfies their view. Both sides seem to believe what they believe simply because that's what they have always been taught.

In part, this reflects the inclination of Catholics to accept "tradition" as a source of truth along with the Bible. In the Catholic view, traditions of belief passed from person to person in the early Church contributed to and shaped what we now know as the Bible, so that if both are transmitted accurately, and correctly understood, they will not contradict each other. But one of the basic tenets of the Protestant Reformation is that tradition has been demonstrably wrong in the past, and is too easily twisted to support illegitimate authority, so only the Bible is reliable.

Ladies of the Gundelfinger family 7006328

I will readily grant, as a statement of fact, the part of Article 22 that says the invocation of saints is "grounded upon no warranty of Scripture," whether this is taken to mean that it doesn't originate in the Bible (true) or that it's not explicitly supported by the Bible (also true, I think). But I would point out that "a fond thing vainly invented" -- which in modern terms more or less means "a fantasy made up out of someone's head" -- and "repugnant to the Word of God" are both statements of opinion, and I think a thoughtful person may agree or disagree with those.

If you believe saints can hear us, it is a relatively short step to believing it's legitimate to ask them for favor -- at least for the favor of praying for us. Many Christians believe that praying for others is a Good Thing, even if we don't fully understand why such a thing would matter to an omniscient and omnipotent God. We ask people we love and admire on earth to pray for us; if we can make ourselves heard to the people we love and admire in Heaven, by asking them to pray for us we are not asking them for anything different or requiring "godlike" powers.

posts in this series:

Part I: Protestants and the Rosary
Part II: Worship, honor, and the Virgin Mary
Part III: Addressing saints
Part IV: Can Protestants hail Mary?

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