Recently, Preston and I have been discussing the intercession of the saints. While not convinced that it is illegitimate, Preston isn’t convinced that it is entirely legitimate yet either. This is my contribution of scriptural and patristic evidence in support of the notion.
The following passages illustrate various aspects of the intercession of the saints: that the angels and saints do intercede for us, that it is possible for them to know of our petitions, and that it is permissible to petition them.
So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
While at first glance, this passage seems to identify the mysterious figure as God, the traditional interpretation is that it was an angel.
If then there be for him an angel, one out of a thousand, a mediator, To show him what is right for him and bring the man back to justice, He will take pity on him and say, “Deliver him from going down to the pit; I have found him a ransom.” Then his flesh shall become soft as a boy’s; he shall be again as in the days of his youth.
2 Maccabees 15:11-16
When [Judas] had armed each of them, not so much with the safety of shield and spear as with the encouragement of noble words, he cheered them all by relating a dream, a kind of vision, worthy of belief.
What he saw was this: Onias, the former high priest, a good and virtuous man, modest in appearance, gentle in manners, distinguished in speech, and trained from childhood in every virtuous practice, was praying with outstretched arms for the whole Jewish community. Then in the same way another man appeared, distinguished by his white hair and dignity, and with an air about him of extraordinary, majestic authority.
Onias then said of him, “This is God’s prophet Jeremiah, who loves his brethren and fervently prays for his people and their holy city.” Stretching out his right hand, Jeremiah presented a gold sword to Judas. As he gave it to him he said, “Accept this holy sword as a gift from God; with it you shall crush your adversaries.”
O Lord Almighty, God of Israel, hear now the prayer of the dead of Israel and of the sons of those who sinned before thee, who did not heed the voice of the Lord their God, so that calamities have clung to us.
You sons of men, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever.
O Israel, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever.
Priests of the Lord, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever.
Servants of the Lord, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever.
Spirits and souls of the just, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever.
Holy men of humble heart, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever.
Hananiah, Azariah, Mishael, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever. For he has delivered us from the nether world, and saved us from the power of death; He has freed us from the raging flame and delivered us from the fire.
“[Raphael the Archangel said] I can now tell you that when you, Tobit, and Sarah prayed, it was I who presented and read the record of your prayer before the Glory of the Lord; and I did the same thing when you used to bury the dead.”
When you did not hesitate to get up and leave your dinner in order to go and bury the dead, I was sent to put you to the test. At the same time, however, God commissioned me to heal you and your daughter-in-law Sarah.
I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who enter and serve before the Glory of the Lord.”
And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.
Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.
And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people.
Mark 17:1-3 (and parallel passages)
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,
While the sense of the passages above seems to support the invocation and intercession of the saints, most Protestants will object that this is a misinterpretation. They may also reject the deuterocanonical passages as not a part of scripture. Nevertheless, the deuterocanonical passages do indicate understandings common in the early Church. And as for interpretation of the others, perhaps we should consult how the Fathers interpreted scripture on this point.
As heirs to the apostolic witness, the Church Fathers are especially important for understanding how we are to interpret scripture. It is from their councils that we take the dogmatic definitions of the Trinity and the Incarnation.
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 [A.D. 208]).
But not the high priest [Christ] alone prays for those who pray sincerely, but also the angels . . . as also the souls of the saints who have already fallen asleep
(Prayer 11 [A.D. 233]).
“Atticus, sleep in peace, secure in your safety, and pray anxiously for our sins”
(funerary inscription near St. Sabina’s in Rome [A.D. 300]).
“Pray for your parents, Matronata Matrona. She lived one year, fifty-two days”
“Mother of God, [listen to] my petitions; do not disregard us in adversity, but rescue us from danger”
(Rylands Papyrus 3 [A.D. 350]).
“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’”
(Oration on Simeon and Anna 14 [A.D. 305]).
Ephraim the Syrian
“You victorious martyrs who endured torments gladly for the sake of the God and Savior, you who have boldness of speech toward the Lord himself, you saints, intercede for us who are timid and sinful men, full of sloth, that the grace of Christ may come upon us, and enlighten the hearts of all of us so that we may love him”
(Commentary on Mark [A.D. 370]).
Gregory of Nazianz
“May you [Cyprian] look down from above propitiously upon us, and guide our word and life; and shepherd this sacred flock . . . gladden the Holy Trinity, before which you stand”
(Orations 17 [A.D. 380]).
Gregory of Nyssa
“[Ephraim], you who are standing at the divine altar [in heaven] . . . bear us all in remembrance, petitioning for us the remission of sins, and the fruition of an everlasting kingdom”
(Sermon on Ephraim the Syrian [A.D. 380]).
“He that wears the purple [i.e., a royal man] . . . stands begging of the saints to be his patrons with God, and he that wears a diadem begs the tentmaker [Paul] and the fisherman [Peter] as patrons, even though they be dead”
(Homilies on Second Corinthians 26 [A.D. 392]).
Ambrose of Milan
“May Peter, who wept so efficaciously for himself, weep for us and turn towards us Christ’s benign countenance”
(The Six Days Work 5:25:90 [A.D. 393]).
“You say in your book that while we live we are able to pray for each other, but afterwards when we have died, the prayer of no person for another can be heard. . . . But if the apostles and martyrs while still in the body can pray for others, at a time when they ought still be solicitous about themselves, how much more will they do so after their crowns, victories, and triumphs?”
(Against Vigilantius 6 [A.D. 406]).
“At the Lord’s table we do not commemorate martyrs in the same way that we do others who rest in peace so as to pray for them, but rather that they may pray for us that we may follow in their footsteps”
(Homilies on John 84 [A.D. 416]).
These selections are far from exhaustive. As with other teachings (Trinity, Incarnation) the Fathers clarified and expounded upon what had been revealed to the Apostles and Prophets. Their doctrine of the intercession of the saints was virtually unanimous until the Protestant Reformation, and all the pre-Reformation Churches (Catholic, Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox) continue to maintain it.
I don’t believe I need to point out the rich history of the doctrine in the Middle Ages. While there were abuses, abusus non tollit usum.
Rejection of this venerable (pun intended) and ancient tradition thus seems to me less like a legitimate development of Christian theology, and more like a rupture with the traditional teaching of the Church.
Is there something I’ve overlooked? Ambiguities that need clarifying? Let me know and I’ll try my best to answer.