On the Invocation of the Saints [Commentary on Browne: Article XXII (4)]

Much like image veneration, invocation of the saints has been justified by Anglo-Catholics on the basis of the purported ecumenical authority of the Second Council of Nicaea. The nature of the Council’s support for the practice has at times been a source of confusion, though—some have alleged that the Council outright anathematizes “the denial of invocation of the saints.”[1] In reality, the relevant anathema is part of the Council of Hiereia, which anathema the Second Council of Nicaea quotes as part of its refutation of this other council.[2] Nevertheless, it is argued that the Council sanctions invocation of the saints regardless. In the words of Mark Perkins, “The Seventh Council did not explicitly rule on invocation — because it was assumed by iconoclasts and iconodules alike! The Council practiced invocation, and it endorsed invocation as practiced by repentant heretics seeking restoration to the Catholic Church.”[3] But again, this argument fails if the Second Council of Nicaea is not in fact ecumenical. Indeed, Browne, having already cited the Council of Frankfurt against the practice of image veneration, cites it a second time on the subject of invocation of the saints: “During the Iconoclastic controversy, one of the canons of the Council of Frankfort forbade not only image-worship, but the invocation of saints (A. D. 794); which, however, had been upheld by the opposite party at the second Council of Nice (A. D. 787).”[4] Short of a quick and easy appeal to ecumenical authority, we must consider the matter further.

The expression “invocation of the saints” has historically carried two distinct meanings: “the simple request to a saint for his prayers, ‘ora pro nobis,’ or a request for some particular benefit.”[5] To elaborate on the second meaning, such requests for benefits ask the saints to “affect [sic] change through their ‘own power,’ almost as if they are demigods.”[6] In an attempt to distance themselves from this second meaning, some have suggested that the term “advocation” should be used in reference to the first meaning of merely requesting the saints’ prayers.[7] Having thus identified these distinct senses in which “invocation of the saints” can be understood, advocates typically argue—as with purgatory and image veneration—that the Article’s language of the “Romish doctrine” concerning this practice must refer to some older abuse, once again on the grounds that the Council of Trent had not made a formal pronouncement on the subject of invocation at the time this version of the Article was approved by Convocation in 1563.[8] Specifically, invocation as the request for benefits directly from the saints is said to be the object of the Article’s condemnation, leaving open the possibility that merely requesting their prayers is permissible.[9]

We have already seen in the case of purgatory that this logic, ironclad as it may seem, is not impregnable. This is also true with regard to invocation:

The Articles were revised in 1571 under the presidency of [Bishop Matthew Henry] Parker, who had also presided in 1563. It is quite clear that by that time the only Romish doctrine worth considering was that of Trent. If our Article had been intended only to condemn popular superstitions, the phrase could hardly have been retained. On the whole, then, we incline to the view that the Article condemns all kinds of invocation, though we allow that there is a loophole for maintaining the other view.[10]

Browne, for his part, has no issue identifying the “Romish doctrine” concerning invocation of the saints with “the decrees of the Council of Trent.”[11] The relevant portion of the Council’s proceedings reads as follows:

The saints, who reign together with Christ, offer up their own prayers to God for men;…it is good and useful suppliantly to invoke them, and to have recourse to their prayers, aid, (and) help for obtaining benefits from God, through His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who is our alone Redeemer and Saviour; but…they think impiously, who deny that the saints, who enjoy eternal happiness in heaven, are to be invocated; or who assert either that they do not pray for men; or, that the invocation of them to pray for each of us even in particular, is idolatry; or, that it is repugnant to the word of God; and is opposed to the honour of the one mediator of God and men, Christ Jesus; or, that it is foolish to supplicate, vocally, or mentally, those who reign in heaven.[12]

This formulation of the doctrine is, at least on the surface, a restrained endorsement for requesting the saints’ prayers.[13] Assuming the above excerpt is the sum and substance of Trent on the subject, it appears the Article’s rejection of invocation extends to this more modest practice as well, not being limited to requests for benefits.[14] Yet even if one continues to insist that the Council of Trent cannot be the referent for the “Romish doctrine” concerning invocation of the saints, it remains the case that the Prayer Book from 1549 onward omits “all invocations of saints”[15]—both requests for their prayers and for benefits—which indicates a similarly broad condemnation of the practice in the Article.[16] Furthermore, while it has been suggested that the Homily or Sermon Concerning Prayer rejects invocation only in the limited sense of requesting benefits,[17] this reading is undermined by the fact that the Homily identifies the ability to “hear our prayers”[18] as a requisite quality for those whom we would call upon. “God alone” meets this standard, the Homily continues, so it follows that if the saints cannot hear any of our petitions, then requests for both prayers and benefits will avail nothing, meaning the Homily rejects both kinds of invocation when it says, “Let us not therefore put our trust or confidence in the saints or martyrs that be dead. Let us not call upon them nor desire help at their hands.”[19]

If attempts to read the Anglican formularies as allowing at least a more limited invocation seem strained, it must be remembered they spring from the belief that invocation of this kind is countenanced by church tradition in general and conciliar authority in particular. When such appeals are set aside, however, the lack of scriptural support for the practice is brought into sharp relief, a fact even its proponents acknowledge: “On the…subject of the invocation of saints there is no direct evidence in Holy Scripture.”[20] Moreover, as Browne points out, “nothing of the sort was permitted or endured in the first four centuries.”[21] This was in part because of the difficult question as to whether and how the saints are aware of our petitions. To reiterate, there is no point in making requests of any kind to those who cannot hear them: “Such invocations rest upon the assumption that the saints can hear them: otherwise they are utterly unreal. This is a very large assumption and certainly cannot be proved from Scripture.”[22] The traditional explanation that emerged for how the saints hear us is that they currently enjoy the Beatific Vision and, in this vision, come to know our petitions, as Aquinas proposed.[23] But Browne is skeptical of this notion:

This immediate beatification of the saints is the very foundation of saint-worship. That can be but a slender foundation for so vast a superstructure, which the first fathers and the greatest writers of antiquity (even our enemies being the judges) could not find in the word of God, and did not believe to be true.[24]

As discussed previously, it was commonly held among the church fathers that all the faithful departed are in the intermediate state of Paradise rather than Heaven, and that they will attain to the latter only after the final judgment. Notably, however, numerous defenders of invocation maintain that a belief in the saints’ present enjoyment of the Beatific Vision is not necessary to uphold the practice of invocation, reasoning that however God might wish to accomplish it, He is surely capable of making our prayers known to them:

The belief that the saints are aware of our invocations is merely a pious opinion. It is, however, a credible one, and the explanation usually given, that the saints become aware of earthly requests for their prayers through their contemplation of God in Christ, is not absurd. In any case, it is a reasonable supposition that the Lord will somehow make known these invocations to those to whom they are addressed.[25]

In short, if God can make our prayers known to the saints, then we should be confident that He does, even if we are not privy to the details. This way of thinking may have a certain air of plausibility to those who are already committed to the practice of invocation, but a moment’s reflection shows that such an “explanation” is really no explanation at all:

Now if [the Roman] Church could have taught us upon what grounds they are assured that the Saints do hear them, either this way or that way; or that God has in general revealed to us that they hear or know the prayers we make to them, one way or other, and therefore that it is profitable to pray to them, she had not been content to teach that the Saints do know them some way or other, though she knows not how or why. For what foundation that they hear us can be gathered from such uncertain and loose conjectures as these are? Can any man convince me that a thing is done by telling me that it might be done, by some way or other, for any thing he knows to the contrary? And is this kind of arguing a sufficient ground to establish so solemn a part of religion as the Invocation of Saints? I know it is possible for God to reveal to my friend in the East Indies what I say here in England; but am I sure that if I say to him an Ora pro nobis, at this distance, it reaches him forthwith? It were no difficult matter, if it were needful, to find them trouble enough to clear these very conjectures from absurdity; but as long as they are only conjectures, they can be no foundation of a certain persuasion.[26]

This persistent uncertainty on whether the saints can hear us weakens the attempt to analogize requesting the saints’ prayers to requesting prayers from our friends on earth. We know that our friends can hear us, but the same cannot be said for the saints: “Requests to the saints are not on a level with requests to our own living friends. The very fact of death removes the similarity and destroys the normal attitude of man to man.”[27] That said, lest there be any misunderstanding on this point, even if we were certain that the saints hear our petitions, it would not follow that we should request their prayers, for Scripture teaches us that Christ alone is our mediator:

Even granting (1) that some of the saints are already reigning with Christ, and (2) that the departed saints can hear and join in the prayers of the faithful upon earth, there is not a shadow of scriptural authority for addressing them in prayer. It is true that the Romanists defend the practice by the assertion that the saints are only invoked to pray for us, and not prayed to themselves. That to invoke the saints is simply “prier pour prier,” i. e. to ask the prayers of the holy dead, as we ask the prayers of the living. Yet even such invocation is wholly unauthorized, and even opposed to Holy Scripture, for St. Paul plainly says (1 Tim. ii. 5), “There is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.”[28]

Then, too, adopting such an attitude of reverence and supplication toward the saints invites a slide into idolatry, as Browne observes:

Who does not see the difference between joining our prayers with our brethren on earth, so through the one Mediator drawing nigh to God in common supplication for mercies and mutual intercession for each other, and the invocating saints above, with all the circumstances of religious worship, to go to God for us, and so to save us from going to Him for ourselves? If, indeed, we could be quite certain, that our departed friends could hear us, when we spoke to them, there might possibly be no more evil in asking them to continue their prayers for us, than there could be in asking those prayers from them whilst on earth, — no evil, that is, except the danger that this custom might go further and so grow worse. This, no doubt, was all that the interpellation of the martyrs was in the early ages; and if it had stopped here, it would have never been censured. But who will say that Romish saint-worship is no more?[29]

In sum, when the pillar of conciliar authority is removed, the supporting structure for invocation of the saints is weakened considerably, but the risk of corruption undiminished. Advocates are not unaware of their position, for they themselves grant that the practice can hardly be called essential to the Christian faith:

The invocation of saints is not mentioned at all in Holy Scripture, and has never been prescribed by the universal Church. Therefore, the practice is not to be described as of either Christian necessity or Catholic precept, and abstention therefrom does not necessarily imply the slightest deviation from Catholic doctrine concerning the saints and our communion with them. Whether we are free to practice invocation or not, we are certainly free as Christians and Catholics to omit the practice.[30]

None of this should be taken to mean we must turn our backs on the saints, having no regard for their prayers. That they pray for us has long been held by the catholic church, as Browne attests: “No doubt, the early Christians, believing in ‘the communion of saints,’ had a lively conviction that saints departed were still fellow-worshippers with the Church militant, and thought that those in Paradise still prayed for those on earth.”[31] What is more, we can rightfully avail ourselves of their prayers, not by asking the saints directly to pray for us, but by praying to God that He would bless us through their intercessions, a practice traditionally known as comprecation:

“Comprecation,” as opposed to “invocation,” is the practice of asking God Himself for a share in the prayers of the saints. This is a truly primitive and Catholic practice, found in the ancient Liturgies and open to no possible theological objection. It affirms the truth that the saints do pray for us, it meets the human need for active fellowship with the departed and it brings into the sphere of practical religion the communion of saints as including not only those on earth but those beyond the veil.[32]

A testament to comprecation’s ability to fulfill the same purpose as invocation—without any unnecessary theological baggage—can be found in Henry Percival’s book on invocation, where he quotes an Eastern Orthodox bishop to this effect: “You may forbear saying ‘Holy Mother of God, help us,’ and, instead of it, you may say, ‘O merciful and Almighty Lord, assist us by the intercessions of thy spotless Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and all thy saints.’”[33] In comprecation, therefore, we can remain mindful of that portion of the communion of saints already in Paradise, while simultaneously upholding the biblical principle that we are to address God alone in our prayers and petitions, avoiding altogether any creeping danger of idolatry.

Notes

  1. Wesley Walker, “Ora Pro Nobis, Pt. 2: A Defense from Scripture and Tradition,” Earth & Altar, https://www.earthaltar.org/post/ora-pro-nobis-pt-2-a-defense-from-scripture-and-tradition. See also Wesley Walker, “Ora Pro Nobis: A Response to Rev. Ben Jefferies’ ‘Reformed Litany of the Saints,’” Earth & Altar, https://www.earthaltar.org/post/ora-pro-nobis-a-response-to-rev-ben-jefferies-reformed-litany-of-the-saints, and Mark Perkins, “A Digression on Ecumenical Councils,” Earth & Altar, https://www.earthaltar.org/post/a-digression-on-ecumenical-councils.
  2. Richard Price, trans., The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787) (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2018), 431, 534‒35. Perkins later acknowledged that he and Walker had erred in claiming that the Second Council of Nicaea itself issued such an anathema, in “On the Seventh Council,” Earth & Altar, https://www.earthaltar.org/post/on-the-seventh-council.
  3. Perkins, “On the Seventh Council,” https://www.earthaltar.org/post/on-the-seventh-council, italics original.
  4. See also William Beveridge, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (London: James Duncan, 1830), 447‒48.
  5. E. J. Bicknell, A Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, 2nd ed. (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1925), 367. On the first meaning, see also Darwell Stone, The Invocation of Saints, 3rd ed. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1916), 2.
  6. Walker, “Ora Pro Nobis,” https://www.earthaltar.org/post/ora-pro-nobis-a-response-to-rev-ben-jefferies-reformed-litany-of-the-saints.
  7. See, e.g., William Forbes, Considerationes Modestæ et Pacificæ, Bk. II, De Purgatorio, Invocatione Sanctorum, Christo Mediatore, et Eucharistia (Oxford: J. H. Parker, 1856), 213; Walker, “Ora Pro Nobis,” https://www.earthaltar.org/post/ora-pro-nobis-a-response-to-rev-ben-jefferies-reformed-litany-of-the-saints; and Walker, “Ora Pro Nobis, Pt. 2,” https://www.earthaltar.org/post/ora-pro-nobis-pt-2-a-defense-from-scripture-and-tradition.
  8. See Henry R. Percival, The Invocation of Saints Treated Theologically and Historically (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896), 37.
  9. See G. F. Maclear and W. W. Williams, An Introduction to the Articles of the Church of England (London: Macmillan and Co., 1895), 276; B. J. Kidd, The Thirty-Nine Articles: Their History and Explanation (London: Rivington’s, 1899), 201; Darwell Stone, Outlines of Christian Dogma, 3rd ed. (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903), 259‒60; E. Tyrrell Green, The Thirty-Nine Articles and the Age of the Reformation, 2nd ed. (London: Wells, Gardner, Darton & Co., 1912), 159; Stone, Invocation, 38‒48; Walker, “Ora Pro Nobis,” https://www.earthaltar.org/post/ora-pro-nobis-a-response-to-rev-ben-jefferies-reformed-litany-of-the-saints; and Walker, “Ora Pro Nobis, Pt. 2,” https://www.earthaltar.org/post/ora-pro-nobis-pt-2-a-defense-from-scripture-and-tradition.
  10. Bicknell, Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, 368.
  11. See also Beveridge, Exposition, 443.
  12. J. Waterworth, ed. and trans., The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Œcumenical Council of Trent (London: C. Dolman, 1848), Twenty-Fifth Session, “On the Invocation, Veneration, and Relics, of Saints, and on Sacred Images,” 234, italics original.
  13. Bishop Burnet objects that, in actuality, Trent “made use of words that will go as far as superstition can carry them” rather than truly confining themselves to “a bare Ora pro nobis” (Gilbert Burnet, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, ed. James R. Page [New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1842], 327).
  14. It might be supposed that the Council of Trent’s position on invocation of the saints is also articulated in the Twenty-Second Session, Chapter III, “On Masses in honour of the Saints,” as argued by Bishop John Wordsworth in The Invocation of Saints and the Twenty-second Article (London: SPCK, 1910). Stone takes great pains to rebut this claim in Invocation, 41‒46.
  15. Stone, Invocation, 37.
  16. On the Prayer Book’s omission of all invocations, see also Percival, Invocation, 20; Edgar C. S. Gibson, The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen and Co., 1898), 572; Kidd, Thirty-Nine Articles, 201‒202; Stone, Invocation, 51; and Bicknell, Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, 370.
  17. Kidd, Thirty-Nine Articles, 201.
  18. Gerald Bray, ed., The Books of Homilies: A Critical Edition (Cambridge, UK: James Clarke and Co., 2015), 333.
  19. Bray, Homilies, 337.
  20. Stone, Invocation, 8. See also Forbes, Considerationes, 213; Gibson, Thirty-Nine Articles, 569; Stone, Outlines, 258; and Bicknell, Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, 368.
  21. On the absence of invocation in the first three centuries of the church, see also Forbes, Considerationes, 231; A. P. Forbes, An Explanation of the Thirty-Nine Articles, 2nd ed. (Oxford and London: James Parker and Co., 1871), 405; John Macbeth, Notes on the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., 1894), 115; Gibson, Thirty-Nine Articles, 565, 571; Stone, Outlines, 258; Stone, Invocation, 7‒8; Bicknell, Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, 368; and Herbert Thorndike, An Epilogue to the Tragedy of the Church of England, in Paul Elmer More and Frank Leslie Cross, eds., Anglicanism (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2008), 351.
  22. Bicknell, Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, 370. See also Gibson, Thirty-Nine Articles, 570; Kidd, Thirty-Nine Articles, 202; Joseph Hall, The Old Religion, in More and Cross, Anglicanism, 348; and Jeremy Taylor, A Dissuasive from Popery, in More and Cross, Anglicanism, 353.
  23. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Supplementum Tertiæ Partis.72.1 co., trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Benzinger Brothers, 1920), https://www.newadvent.org/summa/5072.htm#article1. See also Stone, Outlines, 261‒62, 265; Stone, Invocation, 21; Bicknell, Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, 371; and Walker, “Ora Pro Nobis,” https://www.earthaltar.org/post/ora-pro-nobis-a-response-to-rev-ben-jefferies-reformed-litany-of-the-saints.
  24. See also Gibson, Thirty-Nine Articles, 570‒71.
  25. Francis J. Hall, Anglican Dogmatics: Francis J. Hall’s Dogmatic Theology, ed. John A. Porter, vol. 2, Bk. X, Eschatology (Nashotah, WI: Nashotah House Press, 2021), 611. See also Forbes, Considerationes, 185; Percival, Invocation, xv; and Stone, Outlines, 262, 265.
  26. William Clagett, A Discourse Concerning the Worship of the Blessed Virgin and the Saints, in More and Cross, Anglicanism, 355. See also Burnet, Exposition, 325.
  27. Bicknell, Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, 372. See also Clagett, Discourse, in More and Cross, Anglicanism, 354‒55.
  28. William Baker, A Plain Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Rivington’s, 1883), 129‒30. See also H. C. O’Donnoghue, A Familiar and Practical Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (London: Taylor and Hessey, 1816), 194.
  29. See also Maclear and Williams, Introduction to the Articles, 277‒78, 278n2; Bicknell, Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, 373; and Thorndike, Epilogue, in More and Cross, Anglicanism, 352.
  30. Hall, Anglican Dogmatics, 611. See also Hall, Anglican Dogmatics, 612n4; Forbes, Considerationes, 187; Forbes, Explanation, 423; Percival, Invocation, xvi‒xvii; and Kidd, Thirty-Nine Articles, 202.
  31. See also Forbes, Considerationes, 157‒61; Forbes, Explanation, 382; Gibson, Thirty-Nine Articles, 564, 569; and E. Tyrrell Green, The Thirty-Nine Articles and the Age of the Reformation, 2nd ed. (London: Wells, Gardner, Darton & Co., 1912), 160.
  32. Bicknell, Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, 373‒74. See also Burnet, Exposition, 325; Percival, Invocation, 205‒206; Gibson, Thirty-Nine Articles, 564, 569‒70; Kidd, Thirty-Nine Articles, 199; Stone, Invocation, 3, 7; Thorndike, Epilogue, in More and Cross, Anglicanism, 349‒50; and Hall, Anglican Dogmatics, 610. Walker uses “comprecation” as a synonym for “invocation” and “advocation” in “Ora Pro Nobis, Pt. 2,” https://www.earthaltar.org/post/ora-pro-nobis-pt-2-a-defense-from-scripture-and-tradition, but this appears not to align with older usage of the term.
  33. Correspondence between Easterns and British Bishops, quoted in Percival, Invocation, 21.

 


James Clark

James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Cranmer Theological Journal, Journal of Classical Theology, and American Reformer, as well as other publications.


'On the Invocation of the Saints [Commentary on Browne: Article XXII (4)]' has 1 comment

  1. June 10, 2024 @ 9:36 pm Fr. Howard Giles

    From the Liturgy of St. James “Especially we perform the memorial of the Holy and Glorious Ever-Virgin, the Blessed Theotokos. Remember Her, O Lord God, and by Her pure and holy prayers spare and have mercy on us.” From the Liturgy of Jerusalem: “Then we also commemorate (in offering the Bloodless Sacrifice) those who have previously departed: first of all, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, so that by their prayers and intercession God might receive our petition.” And from St. Luke, chapter 7: “28 About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. 31 They spoke about his departure,[a] which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. “

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