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The Church Fathers and the Intercession of the Saints

Introduction

Recently, I have watched two videos that have argued, from the Fathers, against the practice of the intercession of the saints. The first is from New Kingdom Media's video Sola Fide, Regeneration, Saint's Intercession, and Dr. Jordan B. Cooper's Video A Critique of Prayer to the Saints. Before I begin, since this is a critique, I would like to emphasize that in my interactions with both of these men they have been learned, charitable, and Godly. I have grown as a result of both of their ministries, and am eternally grateful for them.

This article is going to be much less detailed and concerned more with the locus of Prolegomena than many of you would like, but this critique, I believe, serves much more than just answering the question of the intercession of the saints. It applies to many arguments that I have encountered across the spectrum where the fathers are (ab)used. Further, to grasp this hermeneutic that I am presenting for Patristic data makes us much more able expositors of the fathers, quells many struggles we may have with the prevalence of heresy with earlier fathers, and allows us to appreciate the work of the Holy Spirit through the Holy Fathers.

The Central Error

As in many of these types of videos, the factual data which is being presented is not necessarily wrong. Oftentimes there is an honesty on the part of the opposition about the Patristic data, where they are in support of their position, and where they are in support of my position. The problem is not facts, the problem is the interpretation and synthesis of the Patristic data and its application into the larger scope of one's dogmatic theology.

The general argument of these type of videos run thus:

M: Fathers before x year either make no mention of y practice or even oppose y practice,
m1: In order for it to be Catholic it must align with the Vincentian Canon,
m2: To be opposed or absent before x year fails the Vincentian Canon,
ERGO: The practice is not Catholic.

This is a common method of argumentation. I have seen it applied in every topic from Intercession of the Saints to Credo-Baptism to Iconography to Anti-Augustinianism to (yes) Anti-Trinitarianism. To those in the Latin, Greek, and Protestant churches who pride themselves in being Catholic, the Vincentian Canon is vital, therefore this argument is applied. Further, this argument is leveled against those who are Catholic all the time to show an internal inconsistency (one needs only to see James White argue for Patristic Credo-Baptism).

The problem with this mode of argumentation is that when any Catholic, whether they be Reformed, Anglican, Lutheran, Latin, or Greek, uses this argument they shoot themselves in the foot. With this argument, the Reformed, Anglican, and Lutheran's Augustinianism withers. With this argument, the Greek's Iconography must be broken. With this argument, the Latin's Marian dogmas flop. In fact, with this argument, Orthodox Trinitarianism itself is put into jeopardy.

The realization of what I have just pointed out has caused many to fall into various unhealthy responses, some are in denial, vainly quoting forgeries (such as many of the Latin and Greek church do) or wildly taking certain fathers out of context (which has been the cardinal sin of many Protestants). Others have embraced the heresy (such as many Anti-Trinitarians, Universalists, and Pelagians). Still, others have thrown their hands in the air and given up on any sort of coherence and use of the Fathers. There is a better way, and it involves abandoning the naive reading of historical theology present above. By that strict and rigid reading of the Vincentian canon, quite literally nothing is Catholic.

The Solution Stated

The solution to this problem is to recognize a development of doctrine. There is the Apostolic deposit of doctrine which every generation guards and defends. This is unchanging and eternal, but the implications of that Apostolic deposit are ever-growing. Catholic theology has, for the last 2 millennia, been reflecting on the Apostolic deposit, drawing out all the implications of a cohrent system.

Although these later developments were not explicitly stated in earlier ages, they are implicitly contained in it. It is like an acorn. An acorn will one day grow into a tree. Although the latter is much fuller and more developed than the former, the former contains everything the latter does in a different mode of being. It is the difference between reading the Nicene creed and the prologue of John's Gospel. The same doctrine is expressed in both, the former is much more developed, yet is contained in the latter.

Therefore, the question we should be asking ourselves isn't "Did the Fathers explicitly state y doctrine before x year?" This will leave your system of theology in shambles. Rather, the question that needs to be asked is "Does this doctrine I am affirming have a valid growth in the tradition leading back to the Apostolic deposit, or is it an innovation?"

This is, in fact, how we see doctrine historically grow. It never happens that there is a fully formed dogma handed down with no debate (except perhaps in Baptism and Christ's Messiahship). Rather, we see a battle going on. The Apostolic deposit is written about and debated over, with certain invalid developments squashed and the deposit cleaned from it only to repeat this process with new conclusions. One only needs to look at the 3rd-7th ecumenical councils to see this play out in real-time. We go from debates over Nestorianism to debates over Monothelitism rapidly. This process is the implicit truths of the Apostolic Deposit being made more explicit until it flowers into its fullness.

Applying this standard to the question of the intercession of the saints we see that the intercession of the saints is a rational and valid outgrowth from the Apostolic deposit. When one looks at the early witness to the cult of the saints, the collecting of relics, and the visiting of tombs, it makes perfect sense that the intercession of the saints would develop from this because the Communio Sanctorum was something believed in and practiced strongly. One can easily extrapolate from the Communio Sanctorum the intercession of the saints. "I to pray for them, and they to pray for me" makes perfect sense if we are one body in Christ. Even if this practice took some time to fully develop, one cannot argue that it isn't a valid application and extension of this doctrine. For, it became universally accepted among those who stated Credo in Communio Sanctorum.

Orthodox Trinitarianism

For those who scoff at what I wrote as some wild-eyed attempt at salvaging an obviously unbiblical and uncatholic doctrine, I would like to look at 2nd century Trinitarianism to see which theory is able to defend Nicene Trinitarianism better.

The Christology of the 2nd-century fathers is often described as "Logos Christology." They stated that Christ was the universal reason which was implanted in them (λογος σπερματικος). Originally Christ was the reason in God (λογος ενδιαθετος) and this reason proceeded out of the essence of God according to a decision God had made. For 2nd-century Christians trying to explain the nuances of how Christ is God, yet the Father and Son are distinct, this is pretty good with its obvious faults. The major issue with this theory is that it denies eternal generation and affirmed that there was a time when the Son was not.

Now, could the Arians of the 4th century have pointed back to the 2nd-century fathers and claim catholicity? Perhaps in some views of the relationship between history and dogma. I would argue that with a denial of the development of doctrine one must allow the Arians in the 4th century to say this. They would be right to claim historical pedigree.

Under the hermeneutic of the development of doctrine, they could not claim such a position. We see through the 2nd-century and 3rd-century fathers a development and sharpening of the deposit of faith that culminates in the debates of the 4th century. The Arians had taken false developments which had occurred in earlier fathers and worked off of them, rather than clearing them and continuing the development of dogmatic theology in the direction of truth.

Conclusion

This is a brief overview of a large topic that could be taken in many directions. In this, I pray that I highlighted an aspect of this debate that I believe has been ignored. The fundamental question of how we view the Fathers. To those who desire to be Catholics do not do historical theology in such as way that Arius could be a Catholic, or Pelagius, or Nestorius.

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