On the Invocation of the Saints

Post 256 of 445

By Reader Christopher Orr

Protestants often have a difficult time coming to terms with prayer to the saints. It is condemned as a Christianized paganism, an example of the corruption of Christianity after the conversion of the Roman Empire under Constantine in 313 AD.

This issue falls under two broad headings: the saints’ intercession for the Church Militant and the Church Militant’s invocation of the saints.

Most Protestants would accept the fact that we are prayed for by the departed saints and the angels in heaven (intercession by the saints), just as our family, friends, and clergy here on earth pray us for.

The difficulty lies with our asking (praying, literally “to make earnest petition to or entreaty for”) the departed saints and the angels for their prayers (invocation of the saints). How do we know they can hear us? Some, High Church Anglicans, would accept intercession and invocation, but not the Roman “excesses” of this practice. The 1917 [Roman] Catholic Encyclopaedia expresses succinctly the position of the various traditional Protestant bodies:

the High Church Anglicans contend that it is not the invocation of saints that is here rejected, but only the “Romish doctrine “, i. e. the excesses prevailing at the time and afterwards condemned by the Council of Trent. “In principle there is no question herein between us and any other portion of the Catholic Church. . . . Let not that most ancient custom, common to the Universal Church, as well Greek as Latin, of addressing Angels and Saints in the way we have said, be condemned as impious, or as vain and foolish” [Forbes, Bishop of Brechin (Anglican), “Of the Thirty-nine Articles”, p. 422].

The reformed Churches, as a body, reject the invocation of the saints. Article xxi of the Augsburg Confession says: “Scripture does not teach us to invoke the Saints, or to ask for help from the Saints; for it puts before us Christ as the one mediator, propitiatory, high-priest and intercessor.” In the “Apology of the Augsburg Confession” (ad art. xxi, sects. 3, 4), it is admitted that the angels pray for us, and the saints, too, “for the Church in general”; but this does not imply that they are to be invoked.

The Calvinists, however, reject both intercession and invocation as an imposture and delusion of Satan, since thereby the right manner of praying is prevented, and the saints know nothing of us, and have no concern as to what passes on earth (“Gall. Confess.”, art. xxiv; “Remonst. Conf.” c. xvi, sect. 3) [2]

It was my contention as an inquirer into Orthodox Christianity—which accepts both the intercession and invocation of the saints—that if I was willing to accept the testimony of the Fathers of the Church when it came to such abstruse dogmas as that of the Trinity (three hypostases, one ousia) and Christology (two ousia, one hypostasis; Mary as Theotokos and not Christokos; dyoenergism and dyotheletism over monoenergism and monotheletism) as well as the final canon of the New Testament Scriptures, then I must also accept their testimony concerning the intercession and invocation of the saints (and on other matters of daily piety and practice, in the main if not each detail.)

That is, if they had ever said anything about it, if it even existed in their day.

I vaguely assumed that this ‘pagan practice’ must have developed later, or outside of the truly Christian spheres in which these basic dogmas of our faith were formulated.

However, as I read further into Church History and the history of Christian doctrine[3] and the surviving works of these Fathers, these great defenders of the grand doctrines of traditional Christianity held to and practiced many decidedly contrary to “the Bible”.

How could I gauge the worth and reliability of these Fathers? How could their greatness, their contributions to the true Faith, be retained while covering their nakedness?[4] How could we learn from them without making their mistakes? Could the Fathers even be counted as trustworthy?

…At what point do these fallen men cease being quotable and citable and become unreliable and heretical? Can we hold the Fathers in high esteem as reliable ‘recognizers’ of the true Faith? Or, are we just using them as window-dressing for perfunctory, imposing and academic sounding dogmatics? Do we flee ‘cafeteria Christianity’ by way of ‘cafeteria patristics’ and ‘cafeteria history’?

Important, paradigmatic comments (for me, as a traditional, confessional Lutheran) were made by Martin Chemnitz in his Examination of the Council of Trent:

1. There is a very great difference between the primitive church, which was at the time of the apostles

2. and of apostolic men testifying with regard to the books of the Holy Scripture,

3. and the papal church, which is foisting its fictions as apostolic traditions on us without proof.[5]

This comment by Chemnitz places the Fathers in time and defines when the Fathers were still trustworthy, “apostolic” men: that is, when the church testified “with regard to the books of the Holy Scripture.”

Chemnitz here and elsewhere[6] in his Examination refers to the greater trustworthiness of these men whose more ancient and clear-sighted understanding of the truly Apostolic Faith allowed them to testify to (witness to) truly Apostolic traditions such as the inspired canon of Holy Scripture. These “apostolic men” had greater authority than the institutional Roman Catholic Church of Luther and Chemnitz’s day with its innovative (pejorative) ‘traditions of men’[7] – quite similar, actually, to the Orthodox allergy to ‘innovation’.

I had unreflectively assumed that this church of “apostolic men” was limited to either the Apostolic Church of the 1st Century, the generation immediately following the Apostles or perhaps to the Ante-Nicene Church prior to Constantine (à la Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code).

Chemnitz notes that after the self-authentication of Scripture’s inspiration by the Holy Spirit and the ‘sure and special testimonies’ of the Scriptural authors, Scripture:

has its authority from the primitive church as from a witness at whose time these writings were published and approved. This witness of the primitive Church concerning the divinely inspired writings was later transmitted to posterity by a perpetual succession from hand to hand and diligently preserved in reliable histories of antiquity in order that the subsequent church might be the custodian of the witness of the primitive church concerning the Scripture.[8]

The Lutheran definition of the reliability of the “primitive church” put forward by Chemnitz was that its witness was trustworthy at the time of the recognition of the inspired canon of Holy Scripture.

The Christian canon of Holy Scripture, i.e., the 27 Books of the New Testament, “were decreed by the Synod of Laodicea in 381, and later officially [i.e., universally] ratified by the Sixth Ecumenical Synod of the Church in 680” [9] – the Council that anathematized Monotheletism.

By 680 AD [10] we already see all sort of other quite un-Lutheran and ‘un-biblical’ teachings and practices such as the invocation of the saints, the veneration of relics, etc.

‘Early’ and ‘late’ are in the eye of the beholder; how we define ‘early’ and ‘late’ has (or should have, if we are to be consistent) a significant effect on whether and how we hold to the orthodox, catholic doctrines of the Trinity and the Person of Christ. That is, again, if we are willing to accept the testimony of the Fathers of the Church when it came to such abstruse dogmas as that of the Trinity (three hypostases, one ousia) and Christology (two ousia, one hypostasis; Mary as Theotokos and not Christokos; Dyoenergism and Dyotheletism over Monoenergism and Monotheletism) as well as the final canon of the New Testament Scriptures, then we must also accept their testimony concerning matters of daily piety and practice (e.g., invocation of the saints) up to at least 680 AD!

In this post I have compiled a less then exhaustive digest of patristic and scriptural citations concerning our invocation of the departed saints of God through only the fifth century.

I hate to admit it, but I actually didn’t do this research before I became Orthodox. I assumed there was no written testimony to be had until many centuries after the Church came out of the catacombs in 313-14. My own understanding of the invocation of the saints came from praying to them, from praying my way into an understanding that the saints can and do hear us.

I was shocked to find that there was, in fact, comparatively early patristic testimony in support of “prayer to the saints”. And this testimony came not from some random, half-pagan “saint” from the backwaters of Mesopotamia or the Pentapolis (or Ireland, Frigia, Scythia, etc) but from the defenders and promoters of the Nicene Creed: the Fathers that had suffered, struggled, and died for the doctrine of the Trinity, and the full divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, those who described this relationship in language too rarified for me to fully comprehend to this day. Most Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians still hold these doctrines in common—in the face of all that we disagree on. The witness, therefore, of these Christian giants must be taken as more than simply “the doctrine of men”. They prayed to the saints without considering them to be demi-gods; they asked the prayers of those who to whom the Psalmist and Christ said, “Ye are gods.”[11]

Could the Church Which Christ promised would withstand the “Gates of Hades” really have apostatized within a generation of its freedom across the breadth of the entire ancient world?

All ye saints, pray to God for us!

Patristic and Scriptural Testimony

Book of Tobit (~ 200 – 100 BC)

When thou didst pray with tears… I [Archangel Raphael] offered thy prayer to the Lord.[

St. John the Evangelist (+101)

And another angel came, and stood before the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given to him much incense, that he should offer of the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar, which is before the throne of God. And the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God from the hand of the angel.[13]

Egyptian Liturgy for the Nativity of Christ (200s)

This sung prayer was included in the 3rd-century, Orthodox, Coptic (Egyptian) Liturgy for the Nativity of Christ:

Beneath thy tenderness of heart
we take refuge, O Theotokos,
disdain not our supplications in our necessity,
but deliver us from perils,
O only pure and blessed one.

St. Ephraim the Syrian (+373)

Remember me, ye heirs of God, ye brethren of Christ, supplicate the Saviour earnestly for me, that I may be freed though Christ from him that fights against me day by day.[

Ye victorious martyrs who endured torments gladly for the sake of the God and Saviour; ye who have boldness of speech towards the Lord Himself; ye 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 that so we may love him.[15]

Letter of the Second Ecumenical Council to Emperor St. Theodosius the Great (Constantinople, 381 AD)

May God by the prayers of the Saints, show favour to the world, that you may be strong and eminent in all good things as an Emperor most truly pious and beloved of God.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (+386)

We then commemorate also those who have fallen asleep before us, first, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, that God, by their prayers and intercessions, may receive our petitions.[16]

George Bebis on the Cappadocian Fathers

“In one of his letters, St. Basil (+379) explicitly writes that he accepts the intercession of the apostles, prophets and martyrs, and he seeks their prayers to God. (Letter 360) Then, speaking about the Forty Martyrs, who suffered martyrdom for Christ, he emphasizes that they are common friends of the human race, strong ambassadors and collaborators in fervent prayers. (Chapter 8)

“St. Gregory of Nyssa (+395-400) asks St. Theodore the Martyr …to fervently pray to our Common King, our God, for the country and the people (Encomium to Martyr Theodore).

“The same language is used by St. Gregory the Theologian (+390) in his encomium to St. Cyprian. (Gen. 44: 2 and Encomium to Julian, Iuventinus and Maximinus, 3).”[17]

St. Basil the Great, of Caesarea in Asia Minor (+379)

According to the blameless faith of the Christians which we have obtained from God, I confess and agree that I believe in one God the Father Almighty; God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost; I adore and worship one God, the Three. I confess to the oeconomy of the Son in the flesh, and that the holy Mary, who gave birth to Him according to the flesh, was Mother of God. I acknowledge also the holy apostles, prophets, and martyrs; and I invoke them to supplication to God, that through them, that is, through their mediation, the merciful God may be propitious to me, and that a ransom may be made and given me for my sins. Wherefore also I honour and kiss the features of their images, inasmuch as they have been handed down from the holy apostles, and are not forbidden, but are in all our churches.[18]

We beseech you, O most holy martyrs, who cheerfully suffered torments and death for his love, and are now more familiarly united to him, that you intercede with God for us slothful and wretched sinners, that he bestow on us the grace of Christ, by which we may be enlightened and enabled to love him.[19]

O holy choir! O sacred band! O unbroken host of warriors! O common guardians of the human race! Ye gracious sharers of our cares! Ye co-operators in our prayer! Most powerful intercessors![20]

St. Gregory the Theologian, Patriarch of Constantinople; of Nazianzus in Asia Minor (+389-390)

Mayest thou [Cyprian] look down from above propitiously upon us, and guide our word and life; and shepherd [or shepherd with me] this sacred flock . . . gladdening us with a more perfect and clear illumination of the Holy Trinity, before Which thou standest.[21] [“In like manner does Gregory pray to St. Athanasius (Orat. xxi, “In laud. S. Athan.”, P.G., XXXV, 1128).][22]

“…we should here bear in mind Bellarmine’s remarks: “When we say that nothing should be asked of the saints but their prayer for us, the question is not about the words, but the sense of the words. For as far as the words go, it is lawful to say: ‘St. Peter, pity me, save me, open for me the gate of heaven’; also, ‘Give me health of body, patience, fortitude’, etc., provided that we mean ‘save and pity me by praying for me’; ‘grant me this or that by thy prayers and merits.’ For so speaks Gregory of Nazianzus (Orat. xviii — according to others, xxiv — “De S. Cypriano” in P. G., XXXV, 1193; “Orat. de S. Athan.: In Laud. S. Athanas.”, Orat. xxi, in P. G., XXXV, 1128); in “De Sanct. Beatif.”, I, 17. … In like manner does Gregory pray to St. Athanasius (Orat. xxi, “In laud. S. Athan.”, P. G., XXXV, 1128).”[23]

St. Gregory of Nyssa in Lower Armenia (+395-400)

…I wish to commemorate one person who spoke of their noble testimony because I am close to Ibora, the village and resting place of these forty martyrs’ remains. Here the Romans keep a register of soldiers, one of whom was a guard ordered by his commander to protect against invasions, a practice common to soldiers in such remote areas. This man suffered from an injured foot which was later amputated. Being in the martyrs’ resting place, he earnestly beseeched God and the intercession of the saints. One night there appeared a man of venerable appearance in the company of others who said, “Oh soldier, do you want to be healed [J.167] of your infirmity? Give me your foot that I may touch it.” When he awoke from the dream, his foot was completely healed. Once he awoke from this vision, his foot was restored to health. He roused the other sleeping men because he was immediately cured and made whole. This men then began to proclaim the miracle performed by the martyrs and acknowledged the kindness bestowed by these fellow soldiers…. We who freely and boldly enter paradise are strengthened by the [martyrs’] intercession through a noble confession in our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.[24]

Do thou, [St. Ephraim the Syrian] that art standing at the Divine altar, and art ministering with angels to the life-giving and most Holy Trinity, bear us all in remembrance, petitioning for us the remission of sins, and the fruition of an everlasting kingdom.[25]

St. Ambrose of Milan (+397)

May Peter, who wept so efficaciously for himself, weep for us and turn towards us Christ’s benignant countenance.[26]

St. John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople; b. Antioch, Syria (+407)

When thou perceivest that God is chastening thee, fly not to His enemies . . . but to His friends, the martyrs, the saints, and those who were pleasing to Him, and who have great power [parresian, “boldness of speech”].[27]

He that wears the purple, laying aside his pomp, stands begging of the saints to be his patrons with God; and he that wears the diadem begs the Tent-maker and the Fisherman as patrons, even though they be dead.[28]

“[St. John] says that we should seek the intercession and the fervent prayers of the saints, because they have special “boldness” (parresia), before God. (Gen. 44: 2 and Encomium to Julian, Iuventinus and Maximinus, 3).”[29]

St. Jerome (+419)

If the Apostles and Martyrs, while still in the body, can pray for others, at a time when they must still be anxious for themselves, how much more after their crowns, victories, and triumphs are won! One man, Moses, obtains from God pardon for six hundred thousand men in arms; and Stephen, the imitator of the Lord, and the first martyr in Christ, begs forgiveness for his persecutors; and shall their power be less after having begun to be with Christ? The Apostle Paul declares that two hundred three score and sixteen souls, sailing with him, were freely given him; and, after he is dissolved and has begun to be with Christ, shall he close his lips, and not be able to utter a word in behalf of those who throughout the whole world believed at his preaching of the Gospel? And shall the living dog Vigilantius be better than that dead lion?[30]

St. Augustine of Hippo, in North Africa (+430)

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.[31]



[1] The LCMS Lutheran internet radio show Issues, Etc. aired a segment on the Roman Catholic and Orthodox practice of “Invocation of the Saints” recently (4/22/10); I have been asked to re-post “On the Intercession and Invocation of the Saints” in response. It is presented here with additional material from “Solum Corpus Christi: The Authority of Scripture in the Orthodox Church, for Lutherans”, parts 6 – 8 of which were delivered on September 10, 2007 at Faith of Our Fathers: A Colloquium on Orthodoxy for Lutherans sponsored by St. Andrew House – Center for Orthodox Christian Studies, Detroit, MI.

[2] Catholic Encyclopedia, 1917. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08070a.htm.

[3] E.g., Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vols. 1-5: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600); The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700); The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300); Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700); and Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700). (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975-91).

[4] Genesis 9.

[5] Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, p. 228. (formatting mine)

[6] Cf. “…we confess that we are greatly confirmed by the testimonies of the ancient church the true and sound understanding of the Scripture. Nor do we approve of it if someone invents for himself a meaning which conflicts with all antiquity, and for which there are clearly no testimonies of the church” (Ibid., p. 208-9); and, “There is therefore a great difference between (1) the witness of the primitive church which was at the time of the apostles and (2) the witness of the church which followed immediately after the time of the apostles and which had received the witness of the first church and (3) the witness of the present [Roman Catholic] church concerning Scripture. For if the church both that which is now and that which was before, can show the witness of those who received and knew the witness of the first church concerning the genuine writings, we believe her as we do one who proves his statements. But she has no power to establish or to decide anything concerning the sacred writings for which she cannot produce reliable documents from the testimony of the primitive church (Ibid., p. 177).

[7] Mark 7:8.

[8] Chemnitz, Examination, p. 176-177. (italics mine)

[9] Mastrantonis, George. A New Style Catechism on the Eastern Orthodox Faith for Adults (St. Louis, MO: The OLOGOS Mission, 1969), p. 30. See Canon 2 of St. Athanasius and Canon 85 of the Apostles.

[10] Ibid., p. 30. St. Athanasius of Alexandria in the 39th Festal Letter (367 AD) and the Synod of Laodicea in Phrygia in 381 had only locally decreed on the list of canonical books.

[11] St. John 10:34.

[12] Tobit xii, 12

[13] Apoc., viii, 3, 4

[14] “De Timore Anim.”, in fin..

[15] “Encom. in Mart.”.

[16] “Cat. Myst.”, v, n. 9 in P. G., XXXIII, 1166.

[17] Bebis, George. “The Saints of the Orthodox Church” (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, http://www.goarch.org/en/resources/saints/).

[18] Letter 360, “Of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the invocation of Saints, and their Images”.

[19] “Homily on the Forty Soldier Martyrs of Sebaste”, quoting St. Ephrem the Syrian, “Homil. in SS. Martyres”, Op. Gr. and Lat. ed. Vat. an. 1743, t. 2, p. 341.

[20] “Hom. in XL Mart.”, P. G., XXXI, 524.

[21] Orat. xvii — according to others, xxiv — “De S. Cypr.”, P. G., XXXV, 1193.

[22] Catholic Encyclopedia, 1917. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08070a.htm.

[23] Ibid.

[24] “Second Letter Concerning the Forty Martyrs”.

[25] “De vita Ephraemi”, in fin., P. G., XLVI, 850.

[26] “Hexaem.”, V, xxv, n. 90, in P. L., XIV, 242.

[27] Orat. VIII, “Adv. Jud.”, n. 6, in P. G., XLVIII, 937.

[28] “Hom. xxvi, in II Ep. ad Cor.”, n. 5, in P. G., LXI, 581.

[29] Bebis, “The Saints of the Orthodox Church”.

[30] “Contra Vigilant.”, n. 6, in P. L., XXIII, 344.

[31] “In Joann.”, tr. lxxxiv, in P. L., XXXIV, 1847.