Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Is Article 21 Still Relevant to Lutherans?

By Larry Beane

Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us.  We "have all we want" is a terrible saying when "all" does not include God.  We find God an interruption."  As St. Augustine says somewhere, "God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full - there's nowhere for Him to put it."  Or as a friend of mine said, "We regard God as an airman regards his parachute; it's there for emergencies but he hopes he'll never have to use it."  Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him.

~ C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Perhaps the reason why so many modern men and women are having difficulty integrating their lives, and thereby finding meaning and satisfying relationships, is because they are confused about the roles which their work, their play, and their worship are playing in their lives.

~ Gordon Dahl (quoted in Leisure, Play, and Reflections on Recreation by David L. Jewell)

I think a lot of people have a tough time figuring out where to "put" God in their lives, how to integrate faith with their work and leisure time.  We see this in the culture that surrounds us.

This newspaper article not only deals with liturgy - if only in passing - it invokes (in a certain sense) Article 21 of the Augsburg Confession (The Cult of the Saints).  I'm obviously being a little tongue-in-cheek here, but only a little.  In our culture, entertainment, rather than worship, is what drives architects and builders to fashion magnificent towering structures, and is also what impels people by the thousands to fill them.

When do cultural phenomena cross that thin line from just having a little good clean fun, having an innocent distraction from the worries of the workplace, to being rank idolatry?  The question is especially poignant when popular culture intersects with Christ in the Church's worship and in the hearts and minds of believers?  In this sense, does Article 21 still have something to say to us Lutherans - especially here in America?

Article 21 is indeed about something good (the veneration of the saints) being corrupted into something bad (the worship of the saints).  At its core, Article 21 is really a practical application of Commandment 1.  And for modern Lutherans, I wonder if we make a good connection with Article 21 any more, or do we see it just as a hammer with which to bash our Roman Catholic brethren over the heads.  For though we might not pray to the Blessed Virgin or ask St. Anthony to help us find our car keys, I think we Lutherans (being poor miserable sinners) also must be careful that we don't "drop the ball" when it comes to raising veneration of creatures and creaturely luxuries - and even innocent distractions - to the status of worship.

And this phenomenon is not just a New Orleans thing - though we in this particularly Roman Catholic region of America often make explicit use of Christian terminology applied to sports - sometimes even blasphemously.

At its heart, Article 21 is about (as Luther said somewhere) letting "God be God," and not crossing lines that should not be crossed.  There is indeed much by way of pastoral wisdom to ponder on this topic.


  1. Pastor Beane,

    What do you make of the numerous requests for prayer addressed to departed Christians on the Catacomb walls of the 100's and 200's AD (well before the supposed great falling away post-Constantine)? Also, what do we make of the Sub Tuum Praesidum Prayer/Hymn to the Theotokos dated 250 AD in the Alexandrian Nativity Liturgy? If requesting Intercession of Departed Christians was an innovation in the Second to the Fourth Century, we would surely have record of a knock-down drag-out fight such as we have for Marcionism, Apollonarianism and Arianism.

    1. Daniel,

      The inscriptions at the San Sabastiano catacombs are a matter of some debate when it comes to the date. Originally a pagan burial space, they evidently did not come into Christian usage until the end of the third century and carried on into the sixth century (indeed, the only inscription that I know of which can be specifically dated by what the inscription says is AD 535).

      The Sub Tuum Praesidium prayer is certainly an example of what Lutherans would find unacceptable under Art. 21 of the AC. It has been found on one piece of papyrus which has been dated to AD 250. Of course, such dating is as much art as science.

      How much weight can we hang on the peg of the dating of one papyrus? Or the provenance considering the unique breadth of 3rd century Coptic Christianity?

      At any rate, none of this surprising nor troubling to the Lutheran. Men err. Even men in the Church. And there is simply no Biblical injunction to address prayers to the departed. Prayer is a matter of faith, and faith needs a promise to grasp. There is no promise given by God that the saints can hear our prayers.


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  3. Dear Daniel:

    You raise a good point, and I think Father Heath has addressed the historical issue.

    I would add the following:

    At some point, people began seeking intercession of the dead. It was some time after the New Testament - whether it was 101 AD or 1500 AD makes little difference.

    The history of the church - especially in the west - is telling. The saints took on the character of a pantheon - complete with assigned tasks (St. Anthony's job is to find my car keys, and St. Nicholas's job - one of them - is to look after pawnbrokers). They also have associated superstitions - such as burying a statue of St. Joseph so as to seek his aid in selling my house. This is silliness at best. But some people really think this is the essence of the Christian faith: some kind of shamanism or voodoo.

    Prayers to the Blessed Virgin have also taken on a redemptive character - and it goes well beyond a rationalized explanation of prayers thus addressed are addressed proleptically to Christ. In some circles, she has become nearly deified as a goddess - far different than the Blessed Virgin of scripture who always pointed us to her Son ("Do whatever He tells you..."). Indeed, there was a Queen of Heaven cult in the Old Testament.

    This is why Article 21 was adopted - to counter this rank idolatry - especially as it had evolved by the time of the Reformation. It had gotten pretty bad. This is because the practice is not centered on Christ. The Reformation was about returning the Church to Christ - away from riches and superstition and corruption.

    Even Moses's bronze serpent - a true gift of God for healing and repentence - became an object not of appropriate veneration of of idotatrous worship - and it had to be destroyed.

    I can't imagine that anyone can find a way to justify praying to St. Apollonia to get rid of a dental problem (just because she was cruelly martyred by having her own teeth drilled out) if one truly treats holy scripture as normative. What's the point of doing so? This goes well beyond the idea of asking another person to pray for you.

    I understand that in Christ, the dead saints are not truly dead, but are with Christ. But so are we. Why should we think that just because their bodies are separated from their spirits that they have more "stroke" with God than we do? Is Heaven a bureaucracy where we need to shoot our memo up the right chain to get to the Boss? Aren't we already well-connected by virtue of Christ? Why do we think we need to "grease the wheels"? In fact, in the middle ages, the "greasing" included outright bribes.

    Of course, those of us still attached to our admittedly-fallen (for the time being) flesh are also saints. To consider the living as less worthy intercessors than the dead (whom we don't know if they can hear us or not) is to show disrespect to the physical world made holy by Christ's incarnation, and thus is to disrespect Christ. It borders on a kind of Gnosticism, if not necromancy to look for dead people to pray to. Are we afraid that God won't listen to us?

    We confess in Article 21 something like this: Let's just leave our departed brethren alone to praise God in peace, and if we need something, let us "ask, seek, and knock" in the way our Lord taught us to do.

    Thanks for your comments! Peace in Christ!

  4. St. John of Damascus makes the argument that through the Holy Eucharist we are not only united with Christ, but also with each other. That in and through the Eucharistic union, the commingling of the Divine nature with ours, that we are also in union with all the Saints both on earth and those also with Christ in paradise and thus have access to them, through Christ Jesus. Not access to 'worship' them, as was erroneously stated. St.John would be the first to recognize the difference between worship and veneration, I mean, that was the basis of this defense of icons. But rather, access to the Saints through Christ Jesus, within the Body of Christ that is realized most fully in the Eucharist.
    You also see this clearly in the communion prayers written by St John Chrysostom who speaks so eloquently of the union with Christ found in the Eucharist ("As You condescended to lay in a cave, in a manger of speechless animals, so now deign to enter into my defiled body ...") and then links that with our asking the Saints (in Christ Jesus), for their intercession (St. John Chrysostom continues..."through the prayers and intercessions of Your all-pure Mother, of the angelic powers and all the saints who have been pleasing to you throughout the ages. Amen.")

    Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees, reading the writings and prayers of so many of the Church Fathers, you see the 'asking the Saints for their prayers' interwoven with their understanding of "become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) and their understanding of the Eucharist. Again, you can certainly argue these men (many of whom you celebrate on your calendar) are wrong, which is fine, but I think its important to understand this interconnection between these teachings of Eucharist, 2 Peter 1:4 and asking the saints for their intercession.

    Blessed Lent,

    Trent Sebits

  5. Dear Trent:

    You write:

    "and then links that with our asking the Saints (in Christ Jesus), for their intercession (St. John Chrysostom continues..."through the prayers and intercessions of Your all-pure Mother, of the angelic powers and all the saints who have been pleasing to you throughout the ages. Amen.")

    This is not a prayer *directed to* the Blessed Virgin, the other saints, and the angels, but rather an acknowledgement that they are interceding for us. Notice this prayer is directed to Jesus (mentioning "*Your* all-pure mother." The most ancient liturgical prayers are directed to the persons of the Trinity - even when they mention the saints and their intercessions.

    This is exactly what the Lutheran confessions say. This is also why our confessions express that the old collects that mention saints by name are just fine. It is when the prayers are addressed *to* them that this deviates from the ancient church.

    We acknowledge, confess, and benefit from all intercessory prayer - from the church militant and the church triumphant. And through the intercessions of members of my my congregation (who pray for me) and the intercessions, say, of my departed mother - I benefit.

    The church benefits from the prayers of Blessed Mary, the saints, and the angels. And there is nothing wrong in acknowledging this.

    But there is a difference between that and praying *to* the saints, seeking favors and benefits *from them* - as if they have been bestowed with divine power to carry out their own wills on our behalf, in the manner of some kind of demi-gods. St. Anthony may well pray for the church - but I doubt that he is aware of my lost thumb-drive - and furthermore, just because he has been declared a patron saint by a church bureaucrat, I don't believe that it has become his job to manage millions of lost car keys, pocket combs, and reading glasses. Ditto with St. Joseph and the housing bubble.

    The ancient Church prayed - as did our Lord and the apostles - to the Holy Trinity.

    1. Well said, Fr. Beane. And what is most interesting in this regard is that the Lutheran Confessors placed this in Art. XXI - the first part of the Confession in which they expected general agreement from the papal party, not in the second part in which they expected conflict.

      This is most interesting because it shows that the Lutherans' thinking was along these lines: "Come on, guys, we all know this has gotten out of hand. It's time to reign this in." Post-Trent, of course, this kind of wishful thinking is impossible. In both Rome and the Eastern churches, the invocation of the saints - directly to them asking for miracles - is a matter of mandated faith; sadly devoid of Scriptural backing or precedent in the "purer Church" of the Great Fathers of the Late Antique era.

      Where are the prayers to the saints in the works of Ambrose? Augustine? Athanasius? You might find an apostrophe here or there - as still occur in Lutheran hymns - but nothing even remotely in the same ball park as St Jude's Novena.


  6. Pr. H.R., It appears we historically are in agreement on the San Sabastiano catacombs in that you affirm that they are from the late 200's AD. Thus they pre-date the supposed great falling away post-Constantine.

    Regarding your response to the Nativity Hymn to the Mother of God, dated 250 AD, the Church of Alexandria spoke and worshipped in Greek. It was hardly in the outskirts of "Coptic Christianity". It was a Roman city whose Christian population was still largely composed of Greeks, Jews, and others besides ethnic Copts.

    Importantly, none of you have answered the question as to how such a supposed change could have taken place from not requesting prayers from those who have gone before us unto the mainstreaming of such a piety WITHOUT a knock-down, drag out fight recorded in the writings of the Fathers of the Church of the first four centuries.

    To claim that these practises slowly crept in does not answer the question, for many other heresies took more than a few years to fester before they were exposed and denounced in the Ecumenical Councils. And while I mention it, why didn't any of the Ecumenical Councils denounce this supposed "novel" practice?

    Finally, lest I sound like a know it all; forgive me during this Holy Season of Lent for my sins. Pray for me to the Lord that I may be found worthy of His mercy on the Day of Judgement. And even if you still do not see the clear truth as I see it, know that I speak in love. Lutheranism has unravelled in Germany, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and in its earliest form (ELCA)in the United States. I contend this is because despite many of its great strengths, because of its lack of vital battle armaments such as monasticm, fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays (see the Didache),asking intercession of Saints, named Liturgies with Patron Saints to protect them, belief in patron Saints of parishes that pray for them (this is why most new LCMS parishes are named "Destiny"), belief in Guardian Angels to name a few; the LCMS and WELS are like little children who survive but a short time due to their deficiencies. My heart goes out to you. I pray you attach yourself to the Living Vine that alone is able to sustain you. The Church which two hundred years from now will be using the same Liturgy, praying the same prayers, singing the same hymns, with a Eucharist presided over only by Presbyters or Bishops, venerating Saints and their Icons (thus perpetuating their memory even in a culture collapse causing illiteracy). If this sounds like triumphalism, forgive me. But in this life we must make choices, all I have done is described the Orthodox Church.

    Have a Blessed Holy Week and Easter.

  7. "Where are the prayers to the saints in the works of Ambrose? Augustine? Athanasius? You might find an apostrophe here or there - as still occur in Lutheran hymns - but nothing even remotely in the same ball park as St Jude's Novena."

    Father, if you read more modern Orthodox writers such as Schmemann, Meyendorf, even Pelikan post-conversion, you are not going to find alot of addressed prayers requesting intercession of Saints. But this does not mean that they do not on a weekly or even daily basis request such prayers. Likewise not only regarding Ambrose, Augustine and Athanasius, but also with Peter, Paul and John; their writings do not necessarily lay out in detail their prayers or liturgical piety.



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