Why the Intercession of the Saints is a Dogma

Biblical interpretation and doctrine based on Scripture have certain parameters that anyone rightly handling the word of truth must observe. The particular rule that I have in mind in this posting is the simple avoidance of anachronisms. That is, if an idea did not exist at the time of the New Testament, or shortly thereafter, but is, in fact, a modern development, then, whatever the writer might have meant, he could not have meant something that wasn’t an idea until the modern period. This is a fairly simple rule. If it can be shown that an idea is uniquely modern, then, if it is used as an interpretation of Scripture, we can be sure that the interpreter is reading back into Scripture something that is not there nor can be there.

In no case is this sort of anachronism more flagrant nor more distorting of Christian doctrine, than the notion of the self – and thus of the nature of what it is to be human. The idea of what it means to be a person, or “the self”, etc., is not a given. It varies widely from culture to culture (particularly between ancient cultures). Evidence of this would be quite strong if one was comparing the Christian understanding of the self (in any form) and the Buddhist conception of the self (or the non-self).

But within Christianity, the self has undergone radical change in its definition and the cultural understanding of what it means to be a person. One of the most magisterial treatments of this topic was published in 1989, Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: the Making of the Modern Identity. For years, Taylor taught Moral Philosophy at Oxford and more recently at McGill University. He has his own philosophical agenda that is not of particular interest to me, but in the course of his work he offers one of the best descriptions of the evolution in Western thought of the conception of the human person.

He notes that a radical change took place at the time of the Reformation and the early Enlightenment. The arguments of the time succeeded in redefining what it meant to be a person – particularly a person in relation to God. At stake was the theological effort to undermine the traditional claims and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, many of which were simply the common inheritance of both Orthodoxy and Catholicism, the understanding and teaching of the early Church.

In a very insightful passage, Taylor has this to say about the Church and the change it underwent with regard to the emerging modern identity:

If the church is the locus and vehicle of the sacred, then we are brought closer to God by the very fact of belonging and participating in its sacramental life. Grace can come to us mediately through the church, and we can mediate grace to each other, as the lives of the saints enrich the common life on which we all draw. Once the sacred is rejected, then this kind of mediation is also. Each person stands alone in relation to God: his or her fate – salvation or damnation – is separately decided. [emphasis added]

As his description of this change develops he describes what happens to the Catholic Christian who is redefined by the Reformation (which happened throughout the Protestant world).

I am a passenger in the ecclesial ship on its journey to God. But for Protestantism, there can be no passengers. This is because there is no ship in the Catholic sense, no common movement carrying humans to salvation. Each believer rows his or her own boat. [emphasis added]

The great shift that occurred was to move from seeing a human being as a person participating in a common human nature – indeed whose existence and salvation are to be understood almost entirely in terms of participation (koinonia). The shift was a move towards the modern autonomous individual who is defined primarily by the choices made in his/her life. The modern individual, understood as consumer, is an almost perfect example of the evolution of this thought. Taylor’s book is a must-read for anyone who wants to follow this movement in the history of Western thought.

However, the modern conception of autonomous man is a concept not shared by Scripture. It does not undergird the thought of St. Paul or St. John, indeed it undermines both if it is wrongly brought into the realm of Scriptural interpretation. Its application in Christian doctrine has tended to shift the emphasis in modern Christian teaching away from a sacramental (participatory) understanding and towards a form of volunteerism where the decision of an individual for Christ is the sole defining characteristic of salvation.

Interestingly, Christ never said, “Except a man accept me as His personal Lord and Savior He shall not inherit eternal life,” even though many modern Christians would think that much of what He said means precisely that.

Christ does say, “Except a man be born again (or “born from above” the Greek is purposefully ambiguous) he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” But birth is not an autonomous act, nor does it ever involve a decision by the one being born. I am not arguing here that the role of the human will plays no role in salvation, for it does – but not in the way imagined by modern volunteerists. 

In the classical Christian understanding of what it means to be human – we do not exist alone – but as participants in a common nature – and though our fall from grace has left us damaged – so that we generally experience ourselves as autonomous individuals – this is not our proper end – salvation restores us to a place of proper communion with God and with other persons. There is an extension, an enlargement of the self, such that our life can no longer be defined simply by reference to the self, but must be seen as it exists in communion with God and others. Thus love becomes the defining act of our existence.

In no place does this participatory understanding of human existence play a greater role than in the life of the Church – both the Church that we see – and the Church that we do not see – the saints who surround us and pray unceasingly before the throne of God.

It is this proper understanding of human salvation that is safeguarded in the Church’s teaching of the communion and intercession of the saints. And it is the self understood in its modern, autonomous form that makes the doctrine of the intercession of the saints seem so foreign to many modern believers. Saints for them simply get in an individual’s way when he seeks to relate to God.

But if the human person and his salvation are understood in a proper participatory sense – nothing could be more normal than the intercession of the saints. It is simply a description of what it means to actually share a common life – the life of God. How can those who share in the common life of God not care for and pray for one another? How can they not solicit each other’s concern? Far from distracting from God – it draws us towards a right understanding of God – who is the Lord of Hosts – not the God of the autonomous individual.

Thus St. Paul when looking for ways to describe proper Church life will use images such as the body to describe how we are to relate to Christ and to one another. We cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you.” We cannot say to the saints, “I have no need of you.”

In classical Christian teaching we are told, “No one is saved alone. If we fall, we fall alone. But no one is saved alone.”

Our will has its role. Orthodoxy strongly teaches the importance of asceticism (acts such as fasting and prayer, almsgiving, etc.). But the purpose of asceticism is not self-improvement, but simply to learn cooperation with the communion of grace that is saving us. In fasting and prayer we learn that our life depends not on ourselves but on others – God who is the Source of all life – and our proper communion with the rest of creation.

The Church never teaches a doctrine or dogma simply for the sake of teaching. Such proclamations are always about the truth as revealed to us in Christ – particularly as it relates to our salvation. The intercession of the saints is one such dogma. For it safeguards the revealed teaching concerning what it means to be a human created in the image of God and the very nature of our salvation. Human beings are created such that we are meant to share and live a common life – the life of God. The Communion of Saints is simply a dogmatic expression of that reality – a verbal icon of the truth of our being.

41 Responses to “Why the Intercession of the Saints is a Dogma”

  1. Theodora Elizabeth Says:

    Fr. Stephen – where is this mural icon from? Virtually the same mural icon is on one of the walls of Holy Trinity Cathedral (OCA) in Chicago – built in 1903 under the leadership of St. John (Kuchurov) of Chicago and consecrated by St. Tikhon.

  2. C L Says:

    Great Post Father,
    I often wonder if some of the disconnect with the Saints and “modern” christians does not stem, especially in much of the western world, from our lack of what I would consider true suffering, martyrdom, or even persecution. We sit in our cubicles, or in our vehicles, and the most we suffer is a bad view or a bad commute. The early christians and also many christians in the modern east have seen true persecution, martyrdom, and suffering.
    I consider what it would be like to worship in the catacombs, on the very bones of those who gave their lives so that we, here and now, could recieve the gospel, and I can almost grasp a proper understanding of thecommunion of the Saints, but I have a long way to go.

  3. Carl Says:

    I agree with what you wrote here, but I think it’s also worth point out that the intercession of the saints is also a scriptural tradition, not “merely” an oral tradition or a philosophical point of view. For example, it is mentioned in Tobit and 2 Maccabees (books that the Protestants cut out for whatever reasons of their own), and Revelation strongly implies its existence when it talks about the offering of the incense of the prayers of saints before the throne of God. There are other similar references elsewhere if one looks.

    The key text cited against the intercession of the saints is 1 Timothy 2:5, “For [there is] one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” However this is immediately preceded by 2:1, “2:1 I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, [and] giving of thanks, be made for all men;” and followed in 2:8 by “I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.” Hence, the unique mediation of Christ is clearly not meant to rule out the intercession of the saints.

  4. Ian Says:

    Thank you Father; this was exceedingly helpful. It may sound odd, but unshackling the “me and my Bible” and “me and my thoughts” of my Protestant past can be a very difficult thing — and something I still struggle with as I attempt to live and grow in the Orthodox Church. It has been a great corrective for me, but it is so hard often to get in the mindset of “the ecclesial ship on its journey to God”. May God in His mercy help me.

  5. David Bryan Says:

    Thank you, Father, for this.

    It can indeed be difficult, as Ian said. One bit of the epistle reading from yesterday’s liturgy that stuck out to me was at the beginning of Hebrews 12, where we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” Christ is surrounded by the cloud on Mount Tabor, and we read in the Old Testament of when the cloud of God’s glory descended upon the temple. The cloud of witnesses who have gone on — what other cloud could they be said to inhabit but this cloud of glory which is the presence of God? How could we say that we enter the presence of the Living God and not also enter the presence of those who are with Him, and who, therefore, are always with us in this one “storey”?

  6. Pseudo-Polymath » Blog Archive » Monday Highlights Says:

    […] Eastern style … dogma. A prior not unrelated post […]

  7. Selena Says:

    Father, I share Ian’s thoughts regarding the “it’s all about me” mindset, from which I am trying hard to escape. I understand what you are saying in this post, but I just can’t naturally think this way all the time. Do you have any ideas about how converts to Orthodoxy can grow to have this communal mindset?

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Photo: The mural is by Vasnetsov, and is in St. Vladimir’s Cathedral in Kiev. I did not know that about the Cathedral in Chicago. Interesting.

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    As to how to nurture such a mind – the Church will nurture it in you. Pray daily as an Orthodox Christian, not forgetting the saints who are included in our intercessions, and praying before the holy icons as you can. It takes time but it will grow. Also reading lives of the saints (particularly ones that interest you, and contemporary ones as well). After several years of such I found it impossible to think otherwise.

    A Protestant friend asked me several years after my conversion if I ever thought of returning to Protestantism. He didn’t mean any harm by the question. But I probably looked very alarmed and said, “No! I could never think of leaving my Mother and my friends (the saints).” The thought of prayer without their company was the loneliest thing to cross my mind in years.

    When St. Herman was asked about the loneliness of Spruce Island he said, “Oh no. I have the angels.” I think he was walking in a reality beyond most of us.”

    The presence of the saints are never distractions from God, I notice. As the Psalm says: “God is wonderful in His saints, the God of Israel.”

  10. ron Says:

    My thoughts on God not that anyone asked but I like the article…

    Prayer is an interesting phenomenon. Some say the pathway to truth begins with conjuering up a feeling or emotion or vision in ones head while the person’s eyes are closed. Some would look at that and say they don’t need to get on their knees to prove their belief to God. Some say that God is good and God is a reason to submit to government. I’ll go with this…Its not easy for a once a week church goer to get down on two knees and beg for God’s forgiveness, that must be practiced and skillfully at that. Vision within is another pathway to truth, honor is the best way to get back to it. In the end though, that vision shows who jesus was and what he meant to the world, through honor can one maintain that level sight. And when the churchgoers rule the world with their fascist agenda and fear mongering, it may be the opposite who an intelligent person wishes for.

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    Atheists have, of course, never committed atrocities or murdered millions over the course of the 20th century? Not all Christians are fundamentalist Americans. Most of us are something else.

  12. Fr. James Early Says:

    And what is more, most Christian fundamentalists have no desire whatsoever to “rule the world.” Moreover, their agenda is hardly “fascist.” The latter term is much overused today. If you can’t defeat your “enemies” via discussion and debate, then demonize them. Anyone who thinks that fundamentalist Christians (of which I am not one) are fascists needs to take a course in 20th century European history and learn what a fascist really is.

  13. Fr. James Early Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    I am unaccustomed to non-Byzantine icons, and as a result, I do not recognize all the saints in the picture. I do recognize St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, St. Nicholas, and St. Gregory the Theologian. Who are the other two?

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    I think they are Russian Hierarchs.

  15. Robert Says:

    This former protestant has found praying the daily prayers (such as those found in “A Manual of Eastern Orthbodox Prayers”) to be very instrumental in “connecting” with the Saints. I find myself longing for their prayers and identifying with them, the witness of their lives and deaths. I then feel challenged to be a saint in my life, to be a living witness in this place and at this hour.

  16. Robert Says:

    FYI – In my above post, the smiley face inadvertently appeared in stead of a closing bracket.

  17. Rebecca Says:

    I have been very much enjoying your articles, Father.

    I too was wondering about the identities of those in the mural. I asked my husband, who speaks Russian, and is working with several Ukrainians, and I humbly submit the possibility for the following:
    Basil the Great, Athanasius of Alexander, Gregory the Theologian, John the Chrysostom, Clement of Rome, and Saint Nikolas, Wonderworker, of Myra.

  18. Tracy Says:

    An older Greek lady from our parish was driving across town to visit someone, to an area of town she did not know well. I asked her if she would be ok, if she had a map/directions, etc., and she replied, “Oh yes, I have Jesus and the saints and the angels. They will help me get there.” And they did.🙂

  19. Patrick Says:

    “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls…”

    How sad that modern Christianity walked away from such thoughts.

  20. Evening Prayers, part 2, The Saints « Shawn Ragan’s Weblog Says:

    […] For a really good perspective on this, better than anything I could explain, read this post by Fr. Stephen Freeman, “Why the Intercession of the Saints is a Dogma” […]

  21. Individuality Explained « Time+Events = Life Says:

    […] https://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/2008/06/22/why-the-intercession-of-the-saints-is-a-dogma/ Blogroll […]

  22. Joel Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Almost thou persuadest me to stop reading your blog. While taking issue on some points, this Lutheran loves the Orthodox Church, her saints, her liturgy, her theology and spirituality. I am open to the insights of my Eastern brethren in Christ.

    But I am grieved to see yet another post slamming Protestants and ascribing to them attitudes that are foreign to me and to many of my fellow Protestants. Are there no Orthodox with deficient attitudes? Can Orthodox insights be conveyed without demeaning fellow Christians? Mote, beam, first stone.

  23. William Says:

    Joel,

    I’d hardly describe Fr. Stephen’s words and quotations as “slamming” or “demeaning” anybody or as making a claim that no Orthodox people hold deficient attitudes. It looks far more like he has traced an aspect of the development of thought that has contributed to some of the disagreements that exist today among Christians. It is wonderful if you and many other Protestants do not hold the attitudes described in this article, but experience (I come from the evangelical world) tells me that a great many other Protestants in America do hold such views or similar ones. How can Orthodoxy be clearly communicated, especially in a society that hardly understands it, if it is unable to contrast itself with Christian understandings that it deems off the mark? It is necessary to make such distinctions and to articulate which understanding one believes to be correct and which one considers to be askew. Every Christian is obligated to do this inasmuch as he or she is obligated to hold to sound doctrine. This is not casting stones or pointing out motes in the sense of condemning other Christians.

  24. Robert Says:

    Joel,

    This post is hardly a slam to Protestants. Demeaning? Pray tell, how so?

  25. Wonders for Oyarsa Says:

    Here here – I have at times been slightly offended by Father Stephen’s offhanded remarks against Protestantism (me being, well, “Protestant”, and all) – though never offended enough to want to do anything other than continue listening to and be taught by his wise insights and kind goodness. But in this case I really didn’t notice anything to be offended by.

  26. fatherstephen Says:

    Joel,

    Forgive me if my words gave offense. I do not mean to give the impression of writing from a position of “we have it and you don’t.” I believe the Orthodox faith is not a competition to Protestantism or Catholicism, but simply a faithful preservation of the faith that was once and for all delivered – a treasure for us all. If I write with observations about our common cultural history, I recognize that Orthodox in this culture need to think about these things as much as any other Christian and not think that the label of Orthodox will give us anything of itself.

    But, to use the example in this article, my source, Charles Taylor, is not Orhtodox, or even Christian for all I know. But his excellent historical treatment of the history of the modern concept of the self stands fairly well on its own. I could only point to an Orthodox interpretation of Scripture to counter this modern view, because I don’t know what else to point to. But I pray God that any Protestant or otherwise who reads can take what is good, and, I beg, forgive me for the rest.

    I really do want to be kind in my writing, and if I fail at that it is my own fault.

    May God bless you for your candor and your Christian exhortation.

  27. Joel Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    thank you kindly for your courteous reply. You are the Lord’s anointed servant and I am humbled. Really there is nothing to apologize for.

    I do wonder sometimes how much effort it takes others to criticize Protestants. I think we are like John Candy’s character Del Griffith in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: easy targets. And hopefully as loveable.

  28. Robert Says:

    To bring us back to original message of the post, this former Protestant thanks God that the Church in her wisdom has made the intercession of the Saints a dogma. It shows me the importance of the Saints, and our need for their prayer. This is not an after thought. This is not for the superstitious among us. This is for all. I am thankful for the Saints, for the Church, for this dogma, and above all, for God!

  29. moretben Says:

    Father bless!

    What would I do without you? Reading pieces like this is like wiping the mist from a window pane.

    (St Paul on the left, St Peter on the right).

  30. JLW Says:

    I have just been reading the Essential Writings of Mother Maria Skobtsova, where she says some things very similar to what you are saying here. She criticizes a spiritual path that isolates the human individual, as if they stand alone before God, journey through the world alone, carry their cross alone. She calls this “Protestant mysticism,” which is a term I’ve never heard used, but which I found interesting and helpful. She also discusses the idea of “sobornost” and defines it much the same way you are describing it here. I became Orthodox ten years ago and I do feel that this inner shift from Protestant mysticism to sobornost is a very gradual and ongoing process, but I am so grateful to be moving away from such an isolated sense of self.

  31. Alison Says:

    “I am a passenger in the ecclesial ship on its journey to God. But for Protestantism, there can be no passengers. This is because there is no ship in the Catholic sense, no common movement carrying humans to salvation. Each believer rows his or her own boat. [emphasis added]”

    I am a convert from Protestantism and I too struggle with acquiring an “Orthodox mind”. One of the ways I’ve been able to understand the difference between the individualism of Protestantism and koinonia is to imagine the Orthodox Church being the Ark vs Protestantism as a flotilla of individual ships with lone passengers, each struggling to survive the tumultuous seas alone.

    The mercy of God is that He knows I can’t pull myself up by my bootstraps!

  32. Lucias Says:

    Father Stephen,

    I found this to be a very thought provoking post. I come at things with the perspective of the west and as a protestant by birth.

    I’ve often pondered the impacts of “The Enlightenment” and reached the conclusion that, in many ways, it was anything but elightened. The up shot was the rejection of the Church placing man himself as the arbiter of all things. And that today we are seeing the culimination of that as overal the culture that persisted for hundreds of years is drastically changing.

    This is the first time though that I’ve thought about it from the perspective of “Self”. I’m intrigued by the idea that even that very concept changed.

    I enjoy your writings and usually stop by at least weekly. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.

    Have a Blessed day.

  33. fatherstephen Says:

    Lucias,

    I heard an Orthodox monastic abbot say recently that the Enlightment was an unmitigated disaster spiritually, resulting in a very deep spiritual darkness from which we have yet to emerge. The understanding of man was particularly re-defined in such a way that we no longer understood correctly what it is that must be healed in us (in Christ’s teaching).

    I heartily recommend C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man as a good meditation.

  34. house of blair » Blog Archive » To share the common life Says:

    […] a recent post from Father Stephen: In the classical Christian understanding of what it means to be human – we do […]

  35. Praying to Saints « Castle of Nutshells Says:

    […] it was exactly that. So I decided to look into it, asking around at an Orthodox blog (here and here) and browsing around some sites, as well as looking it up in some books I have that address the […]

  36. rpm Says:

    Father Stephen,
    I am faced with this situation with my wife wherein we occasionally debate about various issues and find myself ill-equipped to answer certain questions.

    While I am and have been orthodox, my wife, due to familial influences (protestant / pentecostal) has pentecostal leanings. While there is no hostility, I would like to be equipped when questions arise about the biblical support of issues such as the veneration of St.Mary and the Saints, prayers for the departed, need for intercession, relevance of icons…etc.
    I do not try to enforce my form of expression at home, partly because I am presently unequipped to answer convincingly and partly because I know that Orthodoxy speaks for itself to those who seek to learn of it. I would greatly appreciate if I could be pointed to some resources in this context.

  37. fatherstephen Says:

    Reblogged this on Glory to God for All Things.

  38. Robert Says:

    I wonder if the church is at all at fault in this. I often get the feeling that there is a fear of oppression, that freedom to express oneself, to be oneself is not welcomed, or it is discounted. Organization, authority, pressure to conform in thought and in deed. There is a fear about this. This may be real, or it may be perceived, either way it is not good. What can be done about it?

  39. fatherstephen Says:

    The Church should not be confused with ecclesiastical organizations or the Church as political entity. I’m not entirely certain how to state this – I suppose I’ll have to think much more about it. But the Church as organization/institution is something of a late-developing idea, and I think that such things are, at best, para-church. They are often confused with the Church and do great harm, and lead people to make very wrong decisions (thinking they are saving the “Church” or silliness like that).

    Thus, our existence as “self-in-communion” is not an enemy of the self-as-freedom. They must co-exist, and cannot exist without each other. Freedom is essential for the existence of personhood. There can be no coerced communion.

    I’m not sure how to understand Sergieyes’ statement. Is he saying that Rome cannot be in heresy? I’m Orthodox, and I think that Rome can indeed be in heresy. But that’s not the same thing as saying that the “Church” is in heresy. The Church does not exist in heresy (heresy, by definition, severs one from the Church). But I don’t see where I said that the Church was in heresy…. hmm.

  40. Robert Says:

    Yes Father Stephen I think you are right, the Church should not be confused with ecclesiaslitcal organizations. But it has and it is of course, and I am wondering if we don’t do enough to ‘distance’ ourselves, to make clear the difference. It sure seems to strike the wrong cord in people. It is a difficult subject, as we must organize ourselves, we do live in communion. And of course the Church is not entirely a-politcal. Perhaps a topic for another post?

    I am not sure about Sergieyes’ point, I don’t understand the
    comment at all.

  41. Andrew Says:

    “…we do live in communion”.

    Hugely — well put indeed.

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