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Though the October 15 issue of the Standard Bearer is commonly considered our Reformation issue, we trust November 1 comes close enough to Reformation Day (October 31) to justify another editorial dealing with an aspect of our ongoing controversy with Rome.

The title of this editorial is occasioned by an article recently written by the well-known Dr. Mouw in The Christian Century Magazine, the May 15, 2007 issue, entitled “Communion with the Saints.” It is an article that, though presented in a somewhat whimsical, lighthearted fashion, deals with the weighty and historically divisive issue of Rome’s practice of praying to the saints.

Dr. Mouw’s delightful articles are almost always a good read. He has a way with words. So in this article, beginning already with his title. It is what one might call a double entrée. As becomes clear in his article, Dr. Mouw is not so much interested in “communing with the saints” (namely, praying to various saints in glory), as he is concerned with the “communion of the saints,” namely, relationships between ‘Christians’ living now on earth. And so the ‘saints’ that Dr. Mouw primarily has in mind are we Protestants and our Roman Catholic counterparts. What has happened to our communion on earth? Is it not regrettable that such a secondary matter as prayers to the saints should stand between good saints on earth all these years?

What becomes plain from the article is that you can add the name of Dr. Mouw to the pile of Protestants of ‘name’ who are set upon renewing ecclesiastical relationships with Rome. Dr. Mouw has decided to lend his considerable charm, writing ability, and place of influence (President of Fuller Theological Seminary) to this common cause, thereby adding his considerable weight to doing his ‘little part’ in working towards reunification between ‘estranged brethren.’ Not that he expects this to take place all at once, of course. That would be unrealistic. Dialogue must take place first, suspicions must be allayed (knowledgeable church leaders taking the lead here), and things that have sadly divided us as Protestants and Roman Catholics must be addressed one by one, so that in time they can be laid to rest. This the good Doctor sets about to do in the matter of prayers to the saints. And he does so in the most irenic of spirits, as you might expect, which simply makes the article that much more troubling as far as we are concerned.

In a most disarming manner Dr. Mouw suggests that perhaps praying to departed saints is not so unspiritual (and evil) as we Protestants have tended to view it. Dr. Mouw briefly traces his own development in learning to appreciate this long-standing Romish practice. Early on in his career he firmly opposed it, viewing it as bordering on idolatry. And, be assured, even now he still worries “that focusing on the saints in heaven can draw attention away from the God who alone is worthy of worship.” Still, over the years, his judgment has softened. Perhaps, as an astute Romish theologian pointed out, it is really a case of differing perspectives: Protestants tend to think more in terms of soteriology (salvation), while Catholics tend to think in terms of ecclesiology (the church); and so the one group of Christians turns naturally in prayer to Jesus our only Savior, while the other group turns to thoughts of fellowshipping with the saints. Primarily it is a matter of perspective. As a result we tend to talk past each other. So simple!

But even more, consider the following argument: is praying to (or striking up a conversation with) the saints in glory to intercede for us really all that different from our practice of asking various friends to pray for us when we are “facing some special sort of crisis?” We Protestants do so regularly. “Well then . . . what is wrong with also asking friends who are already in heaven to take up our cause before the divine throne?”

An interesting perspective. Almost I am persuaded!

The trouble is, there is this one ‘minor’ difference between the two approaches, namely, the one is the practice of asking a fellow saint to pray for oneself, while in the other, the Romish, one prays to a fellow saint for blessing and grace. And this is no small difference. Prayer, after all, is an evidence of trust. And that implies that notto pray to a certain God-ordained Mediator, but to try another avenue instead, betrays a lack of trust in Him! Cut it any way you will, what the congenial Doctor is suggesting is that it is all right to put one’s trust in the departed saints; but not only that, he implies as well that praying to dead saints may in some instances be more effective than addressing one’s living Lord.

Upon further reflection, I hereby recant!

In distinction from Dr. Mouw’s perspective (a perspective increasingly popular among contemporary Protestants) is that of the old Reformers, men who left Rome behind, fully familiar with its abominations. John Calvin comes to mind. His assessment of the practice of calling upon the saints is of an altogether different caliber from that which Dr. Mouw offers for our consideration. A few quotes from Calvin’sInstitutes are sufficient to indicate what he thought of the whole practice, as well as of those who recommended such. The following quotes come from Book III, Ch. XX, which chapter is devoted to the subject of Prayer (H. Beveridge edition):

In regard to the saints who having died . . . , if we attribute prayer to them, let us not imagine that they have any other way of supplicating God than through Christ who alone is the way, or that their prayers are accepted by God in any other name. Wherefore, since the Scripture calls us away from all others to Christ alone, since our heavenly Father is pleased to gather together all things in him, it were the extreme of stupidity (sic!—KK), not to say madness, to attempt to obtain access by means of others, so as to be drawn away from him without whom access cannot be obtained (Art. 21, p. 168).

A little further down the page, Calvin adds,

But if we appeal to the consciences of all who take pleasure in the intercession of saints, we shall find that their only reason for it is, that they are filled with anxiety, as if they supposed that Christ were insufficient or too rigorous. By this anxiety they dishonor Christ, and rob him of his title of sole Mediator, a title which being given him by the Father as his special privilege, ought not to be transferred to any other.

Calvin’s point here is that praying to the saints betrays a lamentable lack of confidence in Christ Jesus, our Elder Brother and Lord, as if others might well be more sympathetic and compassionate than He. How insulting, then, to God the Father Himself, who gave His only begotten Son for this very purpose.

But even beyond that, Calvin warns of the idolatry that is sure to follow and has been part and parcel of Rome’s practice since ancient times. Having just spoken of litanies in which “every kind of honor is paid to dead saints, [but] there is no mention of Christ,” Calvin writes:

But here stupidity has proceeded to such a length as to give a manifestation of the genius of superstition, which, when once it has shaken off the rein, is wont to wanton [excess] without limit. After men began to look to the intercession of saints, a peculiar administration was gradually assigned to each, so that, according to diversity of business, now one, now another, intercessor was invoked. Then individuals adopted particular saints, and put their faith in them, just as if they had been tutelar deities. And thus not only were gods set up according to the number of the cities . . . , but according to the number of individuals [praying] . . . . At length vast numbers have fallen into the horrid blasphemy of invoking them not merely as helping but presiding over their salvation. See the depth to which miserable men fall when they forsake their proper station, that is, the word of God (Art. 22, pp. 169, 170).

Words such as “stupidity,” “superstition,” “gods set up,” and “blasphemy” from the pen of Calvin ought to cure any Reformed man from minimizing the scope of evil inherent in Rome’s practice of praying to the saints. It ought to give every sober man pause before suggesting that it really is not so terrible as you have been told. “Here! Take a bite! Not so bad tasting as you were led to believe, is it? Now, why don’t you run along and try to persuade others of your suspicious relatives to give this harmless practice a try too.”

Where, and from whom, have we heard words like that before!

No, we find no delight in what the congenial Dr. Mouw suggests in connection with prayers to the saints.

Recently, I came across something preached by the late Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in Toronto in the mid-1970s. He knew well the movement afoot in his own British Isles and in North America to work towards ecumenical relations once again with Catholicism. He was alarmed. The following words are lifted from a sermon based on Ephesians 6:11, dealing with the wiles of the Devil:

There are certain things happening at the present time which make it imperative that every intelligent Christian should know something about Roman Catholicism. There are movements afoot, and meetings taking place which are trying to bring a kind of rapprochement between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism: and there are people who rejoice in this and say that it is a wonderful thing that we are beginning to draw together again, and that we can cooperate in certain respects, and that this is a wonderful manifestation of the Christian spirit . . . .

My contention is that the increase in Roman Catholicism is due to one thing only, and that is a weak and flabby Protestantism that does not know what it believes. That is why I spend my time in giving positive teaching. But my text compels me to deal with this—the ‘wiles of the devil’—the activities of the principalities and powers, the world rulers of this darkness, the spiritual wickedness in high places . . . .

What, then, are we looking at? We are looking at a system; and I would not hesitate to assert that this system, known as Roman Catholicism, is the devil’s masterpiece! It is such a departure from the Christian faith and the New Testament teaching, that I would not hesitate with the Reformers of the sixteenth century to describe it as “apostasy”. . . as a kind of total departure from the Christian truth. 

You remember that the apostle has told us that it is one of the characteristics of the devil himself that he can transform himself into an angel of light. So can this Church. There is no limit, there is no end to the various ‘guises’ in which she can appear. Here in this country she appears as highly intellectual and encourages her people to read the Bible; in other countries she prohibits their doing so, and is not only not intellectual but is deliberately encouraging to superstition . . . . Here she seems to be tolerant, ready to listen and to argue and to concede and to be friendly; in other backward countries she is utterly intolerant, vicious and vile in her persecuting zeal—but still the same body, the same institution, the same people. That is my evidence for saying that [Rome] is surely the devil’s masterpiece.

Words forever timely. They ring as true today as they did when first spoken. If marking the Reformation means anything, it should mean thanking God for delivering us from Rome’s stifling and deadly embrace. Suggesting a return, as if Rome has changed, is folly itself. The only ones who are changing are Protestants.

As for the sub-title to this editorial, Have You Hugged a Roman Catholic of Late, it is occasioned by Dr. Mouw at the end of his article remarking how St. Francis has taught him how an unexpected hug can make a big difference at times. The implication is that a few more hugs, and a few less harsh words towards Rome, would go a long way in making everyone’s day (and future) brighter.

Well, coming from rather affectionately demonstrative stock myself, I have no principle objection against hugging a Roman Catholic, or their sympathizers, for that matter. But with what words? These—”My friend, I am praying for your immortal soul. But not to Mother Mary, St. Peter, or St. Paul, I assure you. That would be worse than useless. May you be delivered from such nonsense. Rather, I am praying to that one only Mediator between God and man, the Lord Jesus. His intercessions have power with God. No one else.”

That is the spirit of the Reformation. We still count God’s enemies as ours. Rome has not changed. She is still the mother of harlots (Rev. 18:4-6). We pray for acquaintances within her membership, not with them.