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Monthly Archives: July 2007


Why I Don’t Pray to Saints

Pseudo-Polymath wants to know, “If you do not pray to saints, why not?” He summarizes some of the reasons those who pray to saints do so. Most centrally (if I’m reading him correctly), one prays to saints to ask them to pray to God for us. Those who accept the practice often compare it to asking for a trusted Christian friend or advisor’s prayers.

He also suggests the following additional reasons to pray to saints:

  • To keep alive the memory of one who proved by his or her life to be a holy person.
  • To honor the image of God revealed in that person.
  • To express hope that God’s image would be similarly manifested in oneself.

He concludes: “Is my [praying to saints] adiaphora or not for you!? If so, let’s talk about it.”

In fact, if this is an adequate summary of Ps-P’s practice, I have no objections to it. As I have written previously, I object to the wording of some traditional prayers to the saints that seem to grant them power in their own right to effect benefits that, properly speaking, only God through Christ can confer. As for Mary, Paul, Francis of Assisi—or Thomas Helwys or Lottie Moon!—joining their prayers with mine for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, I don’t see the big deal with that that many Protestants do.

My concerns are not christological but eschatological. Here is how I expressed it some time ago:

If we believe it is right to ask other believers to pray for us, the questions we need to settle with respect to the saints have nothing to do with the centrality of Christ or his role as God’s uniquely appointed mediator between God and humanity. Rather, the pressing questions are eschatological in nature. Do the righteous dead know what is happening on earth? Is their entire attention focused on a heavenly vision of God, so that earthly concerns are completely beyond them? Or do they exist in some sort of “twilight zone” or “time warp” in which there are no conscious thoughts at all between their death and eventual resurrection?

So, in answer to Ps-P’s question, first of all, I don’t pray to saints because I haven’t gotten my eschatology quite worked out. I suppose I probably should, but to be honest, systematic theology was never my strong suit. I’d much rather just read the Bible and believe in Jesus 🙂

Having said that, however, I should admit that I see no problem praying a litany of the saints such as this one of my composing. (I might even be persuaded to use the traditional refrain.) I don’t know if such a prayer does anything in terms of enlisting the intercessions of the saints, but it certainly makes me appreciative of how God has worked in the lives of these holy men and women and inspires me to try to be more like them.

Second, and this is at least as important as the first point, I don’t pray to saints because nobody ever taught me how. My family has been rural Appalachian Baptist for eight generations. It was never even on the radar in my spiritual upbringing to ask the departed saints for their intercessions, so it never occurs to me to consider the possibility. From my frame of reference, praying to saints is kind of like eating sashimi: it strikes me as very unusual thing to do. If you love it, more power to you. And if a knowledgeable friend would lead me along—and the place checks out with the health inspector!—I would probably give it a shot.

So, here is a question in reply for Pseudo-Polymath (and anyone else who wants to chime in): What advice would you give an open-minded Protestant about baby steps into the practice of praying with the saints?

technorati tags: communion of saints, devotion to saints, eschatology, intercession


I’m Not Crossing the Tiber, but My Toes Are in the Thames

If you’ve been a Christian for the past ten or twenty years, you don’t need a cutting-edge sociological study to tell you that denominational identity doesn’t mean nearly as much today as it used to. People attend the churches where they perceive a good “fit” with the values, beliefs, and ministry opportunities that are presented much more often these days than they look for a familiar name on the church sign. That is not in itself a bad thing, although it can (and, sadly, often does) lead to a consumerist mentality that only wants what will “meet my needs.”

I’m one of the odd ones who cares about things like theology and spiritual heritage. I may yet change brands, but only for the most significant of spiritual reasons, and only because the long tradition of the new brand was compelling—not just the attractions of a particular local expression of it.

Does that make sense? I’m saying that if I ever decided to join XYZ Lutheran church, I think it should be because I have come to appreciate Lutheranism as such and not just because XYZ Lutheran church is a great congregation. Every denomination has great congregations.

Actually, my level of appreciation of several denominational families has grown to the point that I am almost persuaded to join them. Perhaps top on the list is the Anglican Communion. (My apologies to anybody who lost money betting on Rome.) Here are some of the things that draw me down the Canterbury Trail:

1. Deep Roots

Although the Protestant Reformation was spark that made the Church of England what it is today, Anglicanism has a deep sense of connection with its pre-Protestant roots. We see this in its forms of spirituality and worship, in the heroes they celebrate. Pick up a Book of Common Prayer and you’ll see commemorations of numerous saints from the ancient church, and especially ancient Britain.

2. Via Media

Part of the genius of Anglicanism is to try to find a middle way (Latin, via media) between Catholicism and Protestantism. Protestantism is at its best when it is thoroughly catholic. In fact, Protestantism is is grave danger of devolving into a cult when it is let loose from its catholic moorings (Jim Jones, anyone?) At the same time, Catholicism needs the scriptural critique Protestantism can provide.

3. Spiritual Inclusiveness

That is the terminology used on the Anglican Communion website to describe Anglican spirituality. It describes an attitude of openness to the possibility that God could be at work outside of conventional church structures:

Gregory advised his missioners … to conserve whatever they possibly could of pre-Christian—pagan, as some would label them—customs and beliefs. In other words, don’t anathematize: baptize! …. This involved more than a kind of cultural courtesy. Gregory the Great had grasped a principle ever since known to Anglican spirituality—even before there was such a thing as Anglicanism proper: that the Holy Spirit is not confined by or to various churches, but rather “blows where it listeth” (John 3.8). The pre-Christian religion of the Angles and the Saxons was not, then, a species of demon-worship to be destroyed and forgotten. It was, in its own way, a preparation for the Gospel.

I appreciate Anglicanism for trying to contextualize the gospel message over a thousand years before the first “seeker-friendly” church was started.

4. Ecumenical Engagement

The Anglican Communion has been an active ecumenical partner with Rome. They have also opened lines of communication with Baptists, Lutherans, Old Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Oriental Orthodox. They are, in fact, in full communion with many Old Catholic churches as well as the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of India. This is in part the fruition of Launcelot Andrewes’ famous dictum, “One canon, two Testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries, and the series of fathers in that period determine the boundaries of our faith.” To the extent that these efforts are centered on core gospel convictions and the earliest Christian practice as Andrewes enumerated, I applaud them all.

5. Liturgical Balance

Here, I want to make two brief comments. First, although Anglican worship is indeed liturgical, there does not seem to be much formalism, i.e., the sense that it must be done “just so” in order to be valid or proper. There is a degree of freedom in how the liturgy is performed, from Anglo-Catholics all the way to low-church Anglican Evangelicals. There are even charismatic Anglican churches, such as Holy Trinity Brompton, home church of the Alpha Course.

Second, the liturgy itself is both simple and (at least in the US and the UK) eclectic. Anglicanism maintains the simplicity and sobriety that has always epitomized the best of the Western/Latin tradition, while also looking Eastward for inspiration. (I’ve heard it said that every revision of the Book of Common Prayer has brought it in some sense closer to the practice of the Eastern Orthodox Church). The 1979 American BCP has half a dozen Eucharistic prayers in two Rites, with instructions for adding even greater variety into the order of service. There are also six forms for the Prayers of the People. I believe the new Common Worship resource of Church of England has at least as many options. While some of these are deemed unsatisfactory by some Anglicans, the Baptist in me appreciates the leeway given for diversity in worship styles.

6. The King James Bible

Yes, it has since been surpassed in accuracy by the discovery of far more reliable Greek texts, but the King James Version of the Bible is still a masterpiece of the English language. I’m not, however, listing the KJV for its literary excellence but for its approach to Scripture itself. The 1611 KJV included all the books found today in Roman Catholic Bibles, although it set apart those not found in the Hebrew canon (Tobit, Judith, 1-2 Maccabees, etc.) in a separate section labeled “Apocrypha.” It was, in fact, a crime to publish a King James Bible in England that did not include these additional books! By including them, the King James translators maintained a link to their Catholic spiritual heritage; by setting them off in a separate section, they followed the lead of early translators such as Jerome who considered them “deuterocanonical.” They are there for our edification and, as the lectionary calls for it, they are read in Anglican churches to this day; but it is still admitted that they are of a different character than the books of the Jewish canon.

For an interesting take on the ecumenical challenges posed by the diversity of Christian Old Testament canons, see “On the Confusion of ‘Canon’” by Kevin P. Edgecomb.

(A side note: I really wish those who insist that the “1611 King James Bible” is the only English Bible of which God approves would be consistent and preach from a Bible that has all the books actually found in the 1611 KJV!)

7. And Finally…

A final point in Anglicanism’s favor is barely deserving of mention, but since seven is such a good, biblical number, perhaps I should include it. Before they found their way to America, Anglicanism was my family’s religious heritage. In fact, several of my forebears (back when they still spelled their name Percivale) were baptized at Manchester Cathedral in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Even multiple-great-grandfathers can be wrong, of course, and if I really wanted to practice the religion of the vast majority of my ancestors, I would undoubtedly have to become a pagan! Still, there is a personal connection with the Church of England that might help make it feel more like coming home than abandoning my roots.

Since the purpose of this post is to praise Anglicanism, not critique it, I’ll stop here. I’ll refrain from sharing the reasons I prefer not to join the local Episcopal or Continuing Anglican church. Suffice it to say that, for the foreseeable future, Spitalfields remains preferable to Canterbury.

technorati tags: anglican communion, anglicanism, book of common prayer, canon, church of england, ecumenism, king james version, liturgy

Who’s Going to Tell the Kurganists?

It looks like original sin predates the rise of Western civilization. The Ice Man was a murder victim. Christian theology would have predicted that any society composed of humans has dark, unpleasant aspects, but those who hold romanticized notions about “Old Europe” before the Indo-Europeans came and mucked everything up might need to clarify their views.

Actually, if memory serves I even read something similar in Walter Wink‘s Engaging the Powers. The book is in a box in my attic right now, so someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I seem to remember an early chapter in which Wink traces the rise of what he calls the “domination system” in human societies and comes within a hair’s breadth of implying that these early, pre-Indo-European cultures were untainted by the Fall.

No, that’s not quite the way it works. “There is no one who is righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10). Not the bronze-age warriors who gave me my linguistic and cultural heritage, and not the neolithic farmers who provided the lion’s share of my DNA.

That’s why all of us need God’s grace.

(Also, on a somewhat related note, Native Americans didn’t always care for the natural environment, either.)

technorati tags: ice man, marija gambutas, old europe, ??tzi, walter wink

My Church In the News!

Well, sort of. The First Baptist Church of Macon, Georgia was featured in this satirical feature: “TULIP VBS Brings Shocking Response from Parents.” If you knew anything about the “real” First Baptist Church, you’d bust a gut at the very possibility that Calvinism would take hold around here!

Actually, my wife ran the craft room at VBS, and I don’t remember her saying anything about total depravity or limited atonement. But then again, when they lock you away in the craft room, you don’t really know everything that’s going on elsewhere in the building…

I’m sure there will be a lot of FBC members suing the makers of Calvinix over this.

Christian Reconciliation Carnival: Submissions?

I will be hosting the upcoming Christian Reconciliation Carnival, but I’ll be doing it at the group blog Connected Christianity of which I am a contributor. The call for submissions is now posted.

This month’s special topic is “Almost Persuaded.” I’m challenging Carnival participants to confess something they admire about a different Christian group or denomination so much they they would almost consider changing churches. Let it be stipulated that we are all very happy in our own faith communities and that our deepest theological convictions would keep us from going anywhere else. But whom do you see doing something so right that, if other more crucial matters could be resolved, you’d likely find yourself drifting their way?

If you have written (or intend to write) a blog post on this or any other topic pertinent to reconciliation among Christians, let me know.

Free Agia Sophia

This effort will almost certainly fail, which may well be the most compelling reason to make the attempt, as visibly as possible. It is the kind of thing people should link to every time there are stories of mosques opening with great fanfare in Rome or other important historically Christian areas and speakers go on about “religious freedom and tolerance.”

(H/T: David Koysis)

A Theology of Laughter

Check out Kim Fabricius’ “Ten Propositions on Faith and Laughter” over at Faith and Theology. Be sure as well to check the comments. Along with Jesus Creed, Faith and Theology has some of the most astute commenters in the godblogosphere.

For the record, I’m in total agreement with Michael (must be at least three times this year!): “Never trust any preacher or theologian without a sense of humor.”