In a 15 May essay in The Christian Century, Richard Mouw argues that we Protestants should perhaps re-think the question of praying to deceased Christians. He confesses that he wasn’t really well acquainted with the Roman doctrine of prayer and the intercession of saints. It seems pretty clear from this essay, however, that he might want a refer course in the confessional Reformed doctrine that Jesus is the only Mediator.
A “mediator” is a go-between. A mediator communicates between two parties. A mediator represents two parties to each other. A mediator creates and sustains relations between two parties. The Apostle Paul was quite familiar with this notion and said, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man* Christ Jesus….” (1 Tim 2:5).
The Roman Church confesses (in the Catechism of the Catholic Church) that there are other mediators, namely Christians who have died and been glorified. Further, Rome confesses that the merit these believers accumulated in this life are eligible for transfer from the treasury of merit.
The Reformed Churches are well acquainted with this doctrine. They rejected it not out of ignorance or fear but out of principle and conviction. In Belgic Confession Art 26 We confess:
…Although he was “in the form of God,” he nevertheless “emptied himself,” taking the form of “a man” and “a servant” for us; and he made himself “completely like his brothers.” Suppose we had to find another intercessor. Who would love us more than he who gave his life for us, even though “we were his enemies”? And suppose we had to find one who has prestige and power. Who has as much of these as he who is seated “at the right hand of the Father,” and who has all power “in heaven and on earth”? And who will be heard more readily than God’s own dearly beloved Son?
So then, sheer unbelief has led to the practice of dishonoring the saints, instead of honoring them. That was something the saints never did nor asked for, but which in keeping with their duty, as appears from their writings, they consistently refused.
We should not plead here that we are unworthy–for it is not a question of offering our prayers on the basis of our own dignity but only on the basis of the excellence and dignity of Jesus Christ, whose righteousness is ours by faith….
The argument here should not be missed. Though it might seem pious, inclusive (and a bit of naughty rebellion against one’s fundamentalist past) to call on glorified fellow Christians for help, the Belgic reminds us that it is none of these things. It is, in fact, dishonoring to them! As mere humans, glorified but still human (glorification is not deification), they would not and do not want us to call upon them for help.
The Heidelberg Catechism is even more pointed:
29. Why is the Son of God called JESUS, that is, Savior?
Because He saves us from our sins, and because salvation is not to be sought or found in any other.
30. Do those also believe in the only Saviour Jesus, who seek their salvation and welfare of saints, of themselves, or anywhere else?
No, although they make their boast of Him, yet in deeds they deny the only Saviour Jesus, for either Jesus is not a complete Saviour, or they who by true faith receive this Saviour,must have in Him all that is necessary to their salvation.
The line in Q. 30, “for either Jesus is not a complete Savior, or they who by true faith receive this Savior, must have in him all that is necessary to their salvation” is quite striking.
There it is. Do not imagine that these lines were written easily or cheaply. Ursinus, Olevianus (and with the Belgic, de Bres) all had family and friends who remained in the Roman communion. These declarations weren’t made in a vacuum. They knew what they were saying. They had a good deal more personal knowledge about Rome and the cult of saints than most of us. Nevertheless, when it came to the uniqueness of Christ as our Mediator, they did not flinch.
First, there is no evidence that anyone but God can hear us when we pray. Just because one is glorified doesn’t mean that one is now ubiquitous. God is ubiquitous. To state the obvious but important: we are not God. Second, even if glorified believers could hear us there is no evidence that they can act on our prayers. They’re still only human. They are still finite. They are still local. Being glorified doesn’t give them divine power to effect changes in history; glorification doesn’t mean that now, somehow, God must do whatever they ask.
The real problem lurking behind all of these questions is that of Christology. What happens to Jesus when we consider praying to human, glorified mediators who are not also God the Son? The Reformed Churches confess that we have one Mediator, one God-Man, one Savior, one Lord: Jesus Christ the Righteous.
It is not surprising that both Paul in 1 Tim 2 and the writer to the Hebrews (whom I take not to be Paul) focus so on Jesus’ humanity. He has been tempted in every respect as we are, yet without sin (Heb 4:15). He is able to hear our prayers. He is able to answer. These things cannot be said of mere Christians.
It is a consistent problem in the history of the church to confuse the Christ with Christians, but this confusion, coming, as it does from a leading evangelical theologian with Reformed roots, is surprising. Does this essay, along with his appearance in Salt Lake City with the Mormons and his recent comments in the PBS documentary about Mormonism—where he seemed most reluctant to query the Mormon claim to revelation; is putting one’s head in a hat to find gold or translate plates too close to popular evangelical piety?—signal some shift toward a sort of universalism? Are evangelicals losing any sense of antithesis whatever?
[This post first appeared, on the HB, in 2007]
John 3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
Many like Mouw who make “evangelical” coalitions with Arminians who teach that Jesus Christ died for everybody will also find ways to appreciate Mormonism and Roman Catholicism. It’s difficult to see a connection between regeneration and orthodoxy with those who have particular redemption as only their “shelf doctrine” ( Mouw in his Calvinism in Las Vegas book).
Of course some “evangelicals” believe in the importance of the truths
of election and regeneration before faith , but they tend to think these doctrines are “options” they work on to make their relationship with Jesus Christ stronger, not something indispensable for the relationship in the first place.
There is a difference between growing in faith, and growing into the
faith. If Mormons can grow into orthodoxy without ever repenting of
being Mormon, if ex-Mormons can say that they already knew Christ when they were Mormons, why can’t ex-Arminians also “get smarter than other Christians” without ever repenting of having been Arminians? And why get picky about an antithesis about the idolatry of Rome?
I am reminded of these good words from Mike Horton (from his review of Rob Bell): “A lot of us were raised in backgrounds where we
expected to be saved from “the late, great planet earth” instead of
with creation. Salvation was “going to heaven when you die”—that is,
the real you—the soul, sloughing off its mortal coil. In spite of
apparent disembodiment, heaven was like winning the national
sweepstakes: your own mansion, streets of gold, jewels in your crown,
and so forth…There are two “Gentile” ways of misreading the biblical plot with respect to the dawn of the kingdom of God.”
“The first is to think of salvation as the liberation of the soul from the body. As we see especially in Plato, there is an “upper world” of eternal spirit or mind and a “lower world” of mere appearances, the prison-house of the body, chained to the ever-changing realm of historical flux. So the soul strives to ascend upward, away from the lower world.”
“The second Gentile misreading of the kingdom is to imagine that it’s a perfection of human society from below, something that we can bring about gradually through our own activity. At least according to orthodox Jews, the kingdom of God is not an ethereal “other world,” but this world re-created. Yet it is also something that comes to earth from heaven, through God’s Messiah, not something that human beings can bring about.”
Untethered from the Reformed confessions – churches drift. Seminaries such as Fuller (Mouw) come on the scene to clarify and refocus Christianity. These seminaries being untethered from Reformed confessions also drift. Add in any number of non-confessional para-church organizations that rise up to supply their own unique new wine to re-invigorate the watered-down wine of the unthethered. So many Nadab’s and Abihu’s offering strange fire in order to reinvent the wheel – teaching relationship models as a better means of grace, rediscovering medieval methods of prayer as supposed more effective paths to God , reincorporating medieval rituals into church worship in order to bring heaven down to earth – by re-owning doctrines and practices long discarded by the Reformation and unauthorized by Scripture.
Thanks, and keep on contending, Dr. Clark.
Jack Miller, I appreciate your comments.
I do not know all of the details of what Roman Catholicism teaches regarding this doctrine, but from what I understand the Orthodox Church sees “praying to saints” as being no different than us asking living people to pray for us. For example, if I give you a prayer request I am not praying TO you, I am simply asking you to pray for me. They would say the only difference is that the person we are giving the prayer request to happens to be dead and that we are asking them to pray for us simply because we know that they know how to pray according to God’s will.
Is the Orthodox Church’s understanding of this issue different from the RCC’s?
How do the Reformed Churches respond to a claim like this?
I have a friend who is an Orthodox priest and that’s the argument he makes…making the distinction of asking to pray for vs. praying to. My response has been Dr. Clark’s first point against the RCs…we have no evidence that departed saints can hear us.
Willie Mixon, I agree with you. There is no evidence in Scripture to support the idea that dead saints can hear our prayers. A lot of the points Dr. Clark brings up in this blog post still hold up against the Orthodox Church’s understanding. But it does seem to challenge the idea that Mary and the dead saints are additional mediators.
Although this may sound random, in a lot of ways I can’t help but see this issue as a by-product of the RCC and Orthodox Church’s semi-Pelagian understanding of salvation. It’s as though these types of things natural arise out of theology that does not teach that Christ’s atonement was/is efficacious. Is that an accurate statement?
Is there no end to the zaniness?
I think it’s because deep down we don’t really believe Christ alone is enough. In other words, unbelief.
We don’t put all our trust in Him alone- His active and passive obedience. Instead, we run to other hiding places:
Our Spirit wrought works (NPP),
“Reign” emphasis over atonement (New Covenant Theology),
Transformation emphasis over justification (“Check your fruit, move to the big town, stop emphasizing the forensic”),
I sure as hell hope that when I die, and, by God’s grace, make it to Heaven…that I won’t have to keep a foot in this world, also.
I don’t think God needs our help in mediating for people in need.
“I don’t think God needs our help in mediating for people in need.:
‘After we are dead’.
I should have added.