It should be made clear that the discussion we are having has been brief on both sides. His initial post was not intended by him to be an extensive critique or challenge to the communion of saints; as he mentioned, he has debated this doctrine and tackled it more fully in those venues. Likewise, my response to his brief blog post was also brief and was to clarify what the communion of saints is and is not, and he conceded that his comments were “meant to use irony with a dash of sarcasm” rather than accurately portray the Catholic doctrine.
Further, his direct response to my post, though more extensive, was still relatively brief, as this post will be; he pointed me to listen to certain debates he has done which covered this issue, and I in turn will also point Mr. White to certain posts I have made which more fully challenge positions he takes as he tries to refute that this doctrine is true.
What is the Communion of Saints?
The communion of saints is the spiritual solidarity which binds together the faithful on earth, the souls in purgatory, and the saints in heaven in the organic unity of the same mystical body under Christ its head, and in a constant interchange of supernatural offices. The participants in that solidarity are called saints by reason of their destination and of their partaking of the fruits of the Redemption (1 Corinthians 1:2 — Greek Text).
In an article titled “More Heat But No Light from James White,” a Roman Catholic (former atheist) named “Devman” (might the URL indicate his name is Devin Rose?) commented on this single paragraph.
Yes, my name is Devin Rose; when I first created the blog, I chose the user name “Devman” which was a nickname some people used for me back in the day, and I never bothered to change it, so it shows up as the author of the posts.
Mr. White in his post then embedded a video of some (presumably Catholic) church where they were having a procession with a statue of a saint held up on a platform but then they lost control of the platform and it tilted, knocking the statue onto the floor and breaking it. The congregation of course was dismayed. It was funny to watch and certainly makes Catholics look silly, but it does not help us know whether the communion of saints is true or not.
Mr. White continues:
In today’s culture you are not allowed to speak the simple truth about this kind of activity: it is idolatry, plain and simple, and no amount of truth-twisting and word-smithing is going to change that.
I can see how it would appear idolatrous to Mr. White, carrying a statue of a saint around in a procession. However, processing a statue into a church is only idolatrous if the people themselves are worshiping the statue or the saint represented by the statue as if it or he were God. Catholic doctrine rejects the worship of any being but God, so if a Catholic were worshiping the saint (or even worse, a statue), then they are acting against the Church’s teaching. But instead what Catholics do is honor or venerate the saints, and statues are made to draw our minds and hearts to the saint’s life and both how God worked in them to show forth His glory and love and how they accepted God’s grace to become the saint He wanted them to be. Mr. White’s claim of idolatry here is just an indirect way of begging the question.
My Evangelical friend John went to Mass one time to see what Catholics do at church, and he saw someone kneeling before a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In John’s mind, you only kneel when you are praying to or worshiping God, so he assumed that this woman was worshiping Mary. However, I explained to him that she was only asking for Mary to pray for her; the act of kneeling itself can be done for veneration and honor and not just worship, though the common piety of Protestants holds kneeling for worship alone (generally).
So, the only way Mr. White could know this was idolatry would be if he knew the innermost disposition of the hearts of the people in the video, which he does not. The question of whether it is right to venerate a saint in such a way is one of the questions under discussion here, so it cannot simply be begged in such a way. (I again acknowledge here that Mr. White is replying briefly and that he has discussed these matters elsewhere as he points out.)
In any case, before responding to his actual claims, I would like to thank him for setting himself apart from Jimmy Akin, Tim Staples, Mark Shea, Steve Ray, and the whole host of lesser-known Roman Catholic apologists by referring to me as a “Refomed Baptist Protestant apologist.” Unlike the large majority of his compatriots, Devman has chosen the high road, skipping past the mind-numbing cavil of “anti-Catholic.” In fact, in an earlier post he actually suggested people compare Shea’s book with mine, Scripture Alone! Congratulations are in order.
I was happily surprised by Mr. White’s congenial comment on this blog and by his respectful tone on his blog post responding to me. I hope that, whatever further correspondence we have, it can be done in a mutually respectful way.
Quoting me: “We ask a saint in Heaven to pray for us, and by God’s Providence and facilitation, they can hear us and respond by praying to our Father. It is not much different than asking a fellow Christian to pray for you.”
Oh, but it most definitely is different, and that is the whole point. The common Roman Catholic assertion that praying (note the word, it is important) to saints is “not much different than” asking a fellow Christian to pray for us is simply fallacious. I am not “praying” to my fellow Christian. Prayer is an act of worship. Roman Catholic practice has robbed prayer of its exalted position (by allowing it to saints, angels, and in particular, to Mary), and we have successfully debated this topic in the past.
It is true that, colloquially, Catholics say that they “pray to saints”, which immediately sets off alarm bells in the minds of Protestants, but the clearer way of saying it is that, as I mentioned, we “ask the saints to pray for us”. Hinging an argument on the colloquial phrasing that Catholics often use as a shorthand way of saying the more precise phrase makes for a weak argument.
Mr. White’s basis for this argument is on his definition of the word “pray”, that he says is “an act of worship”. But “pray” can mean other things, for example and more simply, “to entreat or implore”. “Pray tell me what you think of this matter.” Read a Jane Austen book and watch for the word pray–it usually doesn’t mean praying to God or to someone else to worship them. So, even with the colloquial usage of “praying to a saint”, it is well within the accepted definitions of the word and it usage for hundreds of years in the English language to mean “entreating a saint” for help (which he or she can only obtain by asking God to act).
There is this little problem of the fact that just announcing the idea of the “communion of saints” does not amount to a valid way around the fact that there is a fundamental separation between those who are alive in this world, and those who are alive in the next. The “communion” part is due to our union with Christ, not due to some kind of ease of communication! You simply do not find the saints on earth communicating with the saints in heaven (and no, my Roman Catholic friends, having the prayers of the saints in bowls in apocalyptic language does not provide you a foundation for such a concept). So, you can try to gloss over the fundamental problems with such a non-apostolic practice by mere analogy to my asking a fellow believer to pray for me will not do.
The root of this objection resides in the nature of Christians’ communion with each other through Christ and what communication Christ makes possible between them (in particular those who have died and those who are alive).
God has made our bodies and made the air such that living persons can talk to each other and pray for one another. He further decides to hear those prayers and actually (if it is His will) do something about them. Does God allow something similar with saints who have died? Can we ask them to pray for us? That is the question under discussion, but I think Mr. White would agree that God could make possible our communication with those saints in Heaven with Him–it would not be difficult for him, no more so than making the air and our vocal cords. What closer union can we have with someone than through our common union with Christ? And if we have such a close union, it is reasonable that we can communicate with each other through that union.
Mr. White claims that the practice is non-apostolic, but his basis for that assertion is what he sees as an absence in the Bible of an explicit approval of the practice. There are many apostolic practices (for instance, the Mass) which are not explicitly spelled out out in the Bible, which is why today there are many Protestant churches which have diverged widely from any liturgy or altar or even the giving out of communion. But if we look at the early history of the Church, we can often see more clearly what practices were apostolic, and the Mass is right there. The Bible contains imprecise allusions to it (“the breaking of the bread”) but nowhere explicitly says “This is how the weekly Christian liturgy is to be conducted: Step 1…”
Quoting me: “It is not “magical” when you pray for me and God hears and answers by giving me grace–it is wonderful and amazing and beautiful, but it is not some kind of conjuring; rather, it is how God has created the world and us and made it possible for us to be in communion with one another.”
So, does this mean that Devman is offering the following answer to my question? That when person X prays to saint Y for me, that saint Y then prays to God and God is then convinced to give grace to person X?
I am beginning to like being called the Devman. 🙂
Yes that is the answer I am giving. This is how it works when my friend prays for me or I ask him to pray for you; people (with God in Heaven or here on Earth) can pray to God and He graciously answers.
Is this grace that God would not have given otherwise? And what does this grace do? Does it help person X convert me? Is that the idea?
Whether God decides to give grace in answer to one or two or two hundred peoples’ prayers is part of the mystery of God’s will–sometimes He answers the prayer in the way we hope for and sometimes He doesn’t. The grace of God could, for instance, open up your heart and mind to errors you have in your faith, or it might show you some fault which grieves our Lord, etc. As Mr. White knows, God’s grace can do any good thing.
Biblical dots. Thus the infallible Church creates her dogmas? Not clear hermeneutical conclusions based upon careful handling of the text, but “biblical dots”?
As White prefaced his own comments with the word “brief”, I also mentioned at the beginning of this post that my response to him was brief. I brought up these two Biblical examples to counter White’s reference to a few Biblical examples–support can be found for and against the communion of saints in the Bible depending upon which tradition or interpretation one chooses.
My expression of course was just an expression; the Catholic Church’s teaching on the communion of saints is built upon solid theological and historical support, the surface of which we are barely scratching here in our brief interchanges.
Of course the saints in heaven are alive. No one has said otherwise. But where is the evidence that Christians are to pray to them? Sure there are lots of emotional stories, but how about some biblical evidence? And notice the equivocation of terms, “death does not end communication (or communion) between them and God and living persons.” Where is there any communication inherent in recognizing that the saints are alive in God’s presence? Are we seriously to believe that the unique, one-of-a-kind event of the Transfiguration itself is a meaningful foundation for communication with those who have passed from this life? Do I really need to point out that there is actually no example of communication between the apostles and Moses and Elijah, that it is limited to Jesus, and hence would not, even if it was pressed far out of its meaningful context, support such a concept?
Communication and communion are related terms.
It is a stingy god (and not a loving Father) who would isolate those whom have given their lives for Him from everyone else once they died and joined Him in Heaven. Angels are in Heaven, too, and yet can influence people and events here on Earth. How? Shouldn’t they, too, be isolated from any communication or communion with people on Earth? Obviously not. God makes it possible for His angels (and allows the fallen angels) to interact with us. His angels protect us from spiritual and physical harm, and as Mary spoke to the Archangel Gabriel, we can ask our angels to help us.
Similarly, the souls of the just who have died and met God and whom He has saved, are alive (as Mr. White concedes), and so there is good reason to believe that they, too, full of love for God and for all of His children, can pray for us. There is no Biblical proof text for this, but there is no Biblical proof text for many true doctrines, otherwise we wouldn’t have the sad schisms from Christ’s Church that we do and the continuing fractures of Protestant churches over differences in interpretation of the Bible.
As for the Transfiguration, on what basis does Mr. White exclude it from consideration? How does Mr. White know that we cannot draw theological conclusions from this event?
Mr. White demonstrates here a problem with sola Scriptura: He personally decides on his own authority to dismiss reasonable implications about the communion of saints from the appearance of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration based on, what? Based on his own personal interpretation of a passage which must be made to fit his particular filter: the Protestant tradition that there can be no communion of saints.
What if we used his same idea on, say, Acts 15 and the Council of Jerusalem? Future Ecumenical Councils are based on this Biblical precedent, including ones he accepts the decisions of like the first one at Nicaea in 325 AD (where Jesus and the Father were declared to be one in being, refuting the Arians). But if White’s theories are applied to Acts 15, then it is a unique, one-of-a-kind event and cannot be used as the foundation for the Church to hold similar authoritative Councils, therefore all future Councils held by Christ’s Church can be declared null and void on the basis of (his erroneous personal interpretation of) Scripture.
Many years ago I listened to a tape by Scott Hahn where he connected the “cloud” that brought Moses and Elijah with the “cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12:1, which refers to the litany of Old Testament heroes called out for their faith in Hebrews 11. That is another Biblical connection, and calls to my mind an Evangelical friend from college, who was instrumental in my coming to know Christ for the first time, and who is the pastor of a Reformed Baptist church near Houston, and was given a painting describing this exact thing for his future ministry! This is the painting:
This painting looks eerily like a representation of the communion of saints to me! Yet it was considered an appropriate, Biblically-based gift for a future Reformed Baptist pastor.
(For the sake of argument, I have been leaving out any references within the Biblical books of Maccabees and Tobit since I assume that Mr. White rejects them as canonical.)
Seventh century? Who has ever denied that by the seventh century all sorts of unbiblical traditions were as popular as popcorn? What I had written was, “but it is still striking to ponder how far from the mindset of the inspired writers modern Roman Catholicism truly is.” I had used as my example…what? An example from modern Roman Catholicism. So why change the subject of what I was addressing?
Mr. White implied with his statement that the communion of saints was an invention of “modern Roman Catholicism”, and so my example was relevant, pointing out that it was held even by a church weakly influenced by Rome as early as the 7th century, a time long before anyone’s definition of “modern”, so his implication of this being a recent invention is refuted.
I find his first statement more interesting, however. He believes that by the 7th century all sorts of unbiblical traditions were prevalent. He implies by this statement that the Church’s teachings had become corrupted by the 7th century. When did, in his opinion, corruption enter the Church’s teachings and on what basis does he make the claim (besides an ad hoc basis)? Was it in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, or 6th centuries? Which one? He has apparently not read my blog page posing this question to fellow Christians, and I would ask that he read that blog page and take the time to try to answer the questions I pose there and refute the arguments I make.
Finally, this reference to my (Reformed Protestant) friend’s post about this 7th century practice was just one that I had seen recently and should not be inferred to be the first historical reference by any stretch, but merely a convenient one. I have not even mentioned the Apostle’s Creed, which speaks of the communion of saints (all Catholics who pray the Rosary know this of course).
Yes, avoid that guy! It looks like that memo went out a few years ago to all the Roman Catholic apologists. They would like to tell you that is because I’m such a mean, terrible, horrible, nasty person: but that would require that you not actually watch any of the nearly three dozen debates we have done over the years with Roman Catholic apologists. Oh, but wait, here’s one: let’s see who the mean “polemical” apologist is here:
I would invite Devman to examine all five debates I have done with Mitch Pacwa and then defend this words in light of the reality of the record.
I have been pleasantly surprised by Mr. White’s interactions with me in this interchange. (I also retracted the statement that he is referring to here.)
I have listened to or read multiple debates that Mr. White has held with Catholic apologists. I cannot find the 5 with Fr. Pacwa that he mentioned, however, except for one he mentions about the priesthood which there was a clip of, but I am not sure if that is one of the ones he means; two others he said were not extant, but I don’t know if those are included in the 5 he mentioned or not. If Mr. White could direct me to where I could download those debates or read them, I am willing to do so.
The communion of saints is what I would call a “leaf” issue in ecumenical discussions, in contrast with the root issue of authority, which all of these leaf issues inevitably lead back to. It is even secondary to sola Scriptura and the canon of Scripture, but it is still worthwhile to explore.
Mr. White is a professional Protestant apologist, and I am a lay Catholic who works as a professional Software Engineer. I mention this to explain that I understand if Mr. White does not want to re-hash similar points with me which he has discussed with professional Catholic apologists. I don’t think he should be expected to, nor am I necessarily expected to purchase multiple books and tapes from his online store, listen to every debate, and then provide an exhaustive reply covering Scriptural and historical arguments. We can interact with each other with what we each have said in these interchanges and offer food for thought to readers on both sides.
End note on the history of the Protestants’ differing objections to this doctrine (from the Catholic Encyclopedia):
The cause of the perversion by Protestants of the traditional concept of communion of saints is not to be found in the alleged lack of Scriptural and early Christian evidence in favour of that concept; well-informed Protestant writers have long since ceased to press that argument. Nor is there any force in the oft-repeated argument that the Catholic dogma detracts from Christ’s mediatorship, for it is plain, as St. Thomas had already shown (Suppl., 72:2, ad 1), that the ministerial mediatorship of the saints does not detract from, but only enhances, the magisterial mediatorship of Christ.
Some writers have traced that perversion to the Protestant concept of the Church as an aggregation of souls and a multitude of units bound together by a community of faith and pursuit and by the ties of Christian sympathy, but in no way organized or interdependent as members of the same body. This explanation is defective because the Protestant concept of the Church is a fact parallel to, but in no way causative of, their view of the communion of saints.
The true cause must be found elsewhere. As early as 1519, Luther, the better to defend his condemned theses on the papacy, used the clause of the Creed to show that the communion of saints, and not the papacy, was the Church: “non ut aligui somniant, credo ecclesiam esse praelatum . . . sed . . . communionem sanctorum”. This was simply playing on the words of the Symbol. At that time Luther still held the traditional communion of saints, little dreaming that he would one day give it up. But he did give it up when he formulated his theory on justification.
The substitution of the Protestant motto, “Christ for all and each one for himself”. In place of the old axiom of Hugh of St. Victor, “Singula sint omnium et omina singulorum” (each for all and all for each–P.L., CLXXV. 416), is a logical outcome of their concept of justification; not an interior renovation of the soul, nor a veritable regeneration from a common Father, the second Adam, nor yet an incorporation with Christ, the head of the mystical body, but an essentially individualistic act of fiducial faith. In such a theology there is obviously no room for that reciprocal action of the saints, that corporate circulation of spiritual blessings through the members of the same family, that domesticity and saintly citizenship which lies at the very core of the Catholic communion of saints. Justification and the communion of saints go hand in hand. The efforts which are being made towards reviving in Protestantism the old and still cherished dogma of the communion of saints must remain futile unless the true doctrine of justification be also restored. (emphasis mine)