[This portion of the blog post The Witness of the Church Fathers With Regard to Catholic Distinctives is re-posted with permission of Dave Armstrong. This material is also found in his book: The Church Fathers Were Catholic: Patristic Evidences for Catholicism]
VI. History of the Doctrine of the Communion of Saints
In the Catacombs underneath Rome (which date back to the earliest Christian period), inscriptions are frequently found on tombs which appeal to dead Christians, such as: “Ask for us in thy prayers, for we know thou art with Christ.” Even the eminent Protestant church historian Philip Schaff, who is openly hostile to such practices, admits this. (110)
The oldest testimony in the Fathers for the veneration of saints occurs around 156 in The Martyrdom of Polycarp (17:3):
[Christ] we worship as the Son of God; but the Martyrs we love as disciples and imitators of the Lord; and rightly so, because of their unsurpassable devotion to their own King and Teacher.
In the same work (18:2), it is recounted how the Christians of Smyrna collected the bones of St. Polycarp, “more precious than the richest jewels and more tried than gold.” (111)
St. Jerome later defended the veneration of relics against the charge of idolatry, (112) and St. Augustine, (113) Theodoret of Cyr, (114) Pope St. Gregory the Great, (115) and St. John Damascene (116) also sanctioned this practice.
Around 204, St. Hippolytus, commenting on Daniel 11:30, addresses Daniel’s three companions with the invocation, “Think of me, I beseech you, so that I may achieve with you the same fate of martyrdom.” (117) This is the first attestation of invocation of the saints among the Fathers. Origen (d.c.254), believed that “the angels and the souls of the pious who sleep pray.” (118)
By the fourth century, the testimony is practically universal. St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote concerning “the patriarchs, prophets, Apostles, and martyrs” that “through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition.” (119) St. Hilary of Poitiers refers to “the guardianship of the saints,” and “the protection of the angels.” (120) St. John Chrysostom, in a sermon on two saints, Bernice and Prosdoce, said that, in their martyrdom, “they now bear the stigmata of Christ, and when they show these, they can persuade the King to anything.” (121) St. Basil the Great calls the forty soldiers who suffered martyrdom under Licinius in Sebaste around 320, “helpers of our prayers and most mighty intercessors with God.” (122)
St. Ephraem addresses the saints in general thusly:
Remember me, ye heirs of God, ye brethren of Christ, pray to the Saviour for me, that I through Christ may be delivered . . . (123)
St. Gregory of Nyssa invokes this same Ephraim:
Thou who standest at the holy altar, . . . remember us all, and implore for us the forgiveness of sins and the enjoyment of the eternal kingdom. (124)
St. Gregory Nazianzen addresses St. Cyprian as present and implores his favor. (125) St. Ambrose believed that:
The angels, who are appointed to guard us, must be invoked for us; the martyrs, to whose intercession we have claim by the pledge of their bodies, must be invoked. They who have washed away their sins by their own blood, may pray for our sins . . . We need not blush to use them as intercessors. (126)
In the fifth century (406), St. Jerome asked:
If Apostles and martyrs, whilst still in the flesh, and still needing to care for themselves, can pray for others, how much more will they pray for others after they have won their crowns, their victories, their triumphs? Moses, one man, obtains God’s pardon for six hundred thousand armed men, and Stephen prays for his persecutors. When they are with Christ will they be less powerful? . . . Shall [St. Paul] close his lips after death, and not mutter a syllable for those who throughout the world have believed in his gospel? (127)
St. Augustine, writing around 400, asserts:
We, the Christian community, assemble to celebrate the memory of the martyrs with ritual solemnity because we want to be inspired to follow their example, share in their merits, and be helped by their prayers. Yet we erect no altars to any of the martyrs . . . but to God himself, the God of those martyrs . . . What is offered is offered always to God, who crowned the martyrs . . .So we venerate the martyrs with the same veneration of love and fellowship that we give to the holy men of God still with us . . . But the veneration strictly called worship, or latria that is, the special homage belonging only to the divinity, is something we give and teach others to give to God alone. The offering of a sacrifice belongs to worship in this sense (that is why those who sacrifice to idols are called idol-worshippers), and we neither make nor tell others to make any such offering to any martyr, any holy soul, or any angel . . .
The saints themselves forbid anyone to offer them the worship they know is reserved for God, as is clear from the case of Paul and Barnabas (see Acts 14:8-18). (128)
St. Augustine inferred from the concern of the rich man in Sheol for his brothers (Luke 16:27), that those in heaven must have much more interest in human affairs, (129) and calls the saints our “intercessors.” (130) In a sermon he begs St. Stephen and St. Paul for their petitions, (131) and attributes miracles, even the raising of the dead, to Stephen’s prayers. (132) Pope St. Leo the Great stressed in his sermons the powerful intercession of the Apostles Peter and Paul, and also the Roman martyr Laurentius. (133) Pope St. Gregory the Great, at the end of the next century, upheld these doctrines to an even greater extent. (134)
Whatever one thinks about such practices, it is clearly not the case that those who developed and defended these views intended to lessen the veneration of God. The Protestant accusation of “idolatry” and so forth, betrays an utter noncomprehension of the rationale behind the communion of saints. Whenever and wherever truly idolatrous excesses occur among the common people, these are not in accord with the teaching of the Catholic Church, and must be thought of as aberrations, rather than sanctioned practices of Catholicism.
Except for a sizable minority faction within Anglicanism (and perhaps tiny factions here and there), the communion of the saints, as understood in the Catholic Tradition, has been rejected outright by Protestantism, on grounds that it is either idolatrous, unbiblical, unnecessary, or quasi-occultic. But even in recent times, an “icon” of sorts among evangelical Protestants, C.S. Lewis, maintained that the invocation of saints had a legitimate theological rationale behind it, even though he himself did not completely agree with this viewpoint. (135)
In doctrine and practice, Eastern Orthodoxy entirely concurs with the Catholic Church with regard to the communion of saints. (136)
FOOTNOTES (The Communion of Saints)
110. Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976 (orig. 5th ed., 1889), vol. 2, chapter 7, section 86, 302-3. In his treatment of patristic views on the saints, Schaff writes:
In the numerous memorial discourses of the fathers, the martyrs are loaded with eulogies, addressed as present, and besought for their protection. The universal tone of those productions is offensive to the Protestant taste, and can hardly be reconciled with evangelical ideas of the exclusive and all-sufficient mediation of Christ and of justification by pure grace without the merit of works. But . . . the best church fathers, too, never separated the merits of the saints from the merits of Christ, but considered the former as flowing out of the latter.(vol. 3, chapter 7, section 84, 438; emphasis added).
This is a very valuable testimony from a decidedly hostile witness. Concerning the Fathers’ views on relics, Schaff concludes forlornly:
The most and the best of the church teachers of our period, Hilary, the two Gregories, Basil, Chrysostom, Isidore of Pelusium, Theodoret, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Leo, . . . gave the weight of their countenance to the worship [i.e., veneration] of relics, which thus became an essential constituent of the Greek and Roman Catholic religion. They went quite as far as the Council of Trent.(vol. 3, chapter 7, section 87, 456; emphasis added)
111. From Jurgens, William A., ed. and tr., The Faith of the Early Fathers (FEF), 3 volumes, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1970, vol. 1, 31 (17:3), and Schaff, ibid., vol. 3, ch. 7, sec. 87, 453 (18:2).
112. Epistle 109, 1.
113. City of God (c.426), 1:13.
114. The Cure of Pagan Maladies (b.449), 8.
115. Letter to Empress Constantina Augusta (June, 594), 4:30.
116. The Source of Knowledge (c.743), 4:15.
117. In Ott, Ludwig, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, tr. Patrick Lynch, Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, 1974 (orig. 1952 in German), 319.
118. Ott, ibid.
119. Catechetical Lectures, 23:9-10. In the immediate context he also condones prayer for those in purgatory, and the Sacrifice of the Mass. From Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 363.
120. Commentaries on the Psalms, 124. From Conway, Bertrand L., The Question Box, NY: Paulist Press, 1929, 370.
121. Opp. tom., 2, 770. See also Orat., 8, Adv. Jus., 6. Citation from Schaff, ibid., vol. 3, ch. 7, sec. 84, 439.
122. M. Hom. 19 in Forty Martyrs. From Schaff, ibid., vol. 3, ch. 7, sec. 84, 438.
123. In Schaff, ibid., vol. 3, ch. 7, sec. 84, 438.
124. The Life of St. Ephraem, tom. 3. From Schaff, ibid., 439.
125. In Schaff, ibid., 439.
126. De viduis, c.9. Schaff, ibid., 440. Schaff comments on the same page that in this passage, “Ambrose goes farther than the Council of Trent, which does not command the invocation of saints, but only commends it, and represents it not as duty, but only as privilege.”
127. Against Vigilantius, 6. From Conway, ibid., 369.
128. Against Faustus, 20-21. From Schreck, Alan, Catholic and Christian, Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1984, 157-158.
129. Epistle 259. Schaff, ibid., 441.
130. Sermon 285. Schaff, ibid.
131. Sermon 317. Schaff, ibid.
132. Sermon 324. Schaff, ibid.
133. Sermon 85. Schaff, ibid., 442.
134. In Schaff, ibid., 442.
135. Lewis, C.S., Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly On Prayer, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964, 15-16. This is one of Lewis’ last works. He also makes an overt reference to the communion of saints in his famous Screwtape Letters, NY: Macmillan, 1961, 12. Other notable Protestants who stressed a sense of the “aliveness” of the saints in heaven and their inclusion in the Body of Christ (excluding their invocation) include John Wesley, the founder of Methodism (Letter to a Roman Catholic, Dublin: 1749), and A.W. Tozer (“The Communion of Saints,” in A Treasury of A.W. Tozer, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980, 168-70). The Lutheran creedal Augsburg Confession (1530), which was sanctioned by Luther himself, in its Article 21, recommends that “saints should be kept in remembrance so that our faith may be strengthened . . . Moreover, their good works are to be an example for us” (From Leith, John H., ed., Creeds of the Churches, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1963, 77). Luther, although eschewing invocation of saints, certainly venerated the Blessed Virgin Mary, since he held to virtually all the Catholic Marian dogmas, including the Immaculate Conception.
136. See Ware, Timothy (Archbishop Kallistos), The Orthodox Church, NY: Penguin, rev. ed., 1980, 258,261.