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]