NT Wright on Prayer and the Saints

With All Saints’ Day fast approaching, I’ve found myself getting into discussions with Orthodox and Roman Catholic brothers and sisters about what we’re doing as we celebrate this important day in the church calendar.

I’ve found myself returning to NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope, a book which re-lit the smouldering embers of my faith back in 2013. 

One of things that All Saints does is to remind us of our part of a church across space and time. It reminds us of the church small-c catholic. This is a reality that has great attraction to Protestants, like me, whose ecclesiology or experience of church was not always in touch with the creeds and full sweep of church history. From this angle, All Saints speaks deeply to the isolated and atomised condition of late-modernity. 

But this is all secondary, I would argue, to the central animating reality that lies behind this feast day—the resurrection. And this is what NT Wright captures so well by making the main thing the main thing. Wright’s thesis in a nutshell is that heaven is not the end of the world and is not the final state of the Christian; rather, the goal that God works towards is bringing heaven to earth, destroying death and the enemy, in part now, through Christ’s death and resurrection and in full, at the final resurrection. As he puts it:

…all churches are rightly concerned, at least from time to time, with addressing the questions of what happens immediately after death as well as the ultimate future. Without some reflection on these matters, which have been so central and contentious within the tradition, our discussions will be impoverished and run the risk of repeating old mistakes. The important thing is that we grasp the central hope of the ultimate resurrection, set within the new creation itself, and that we reorder all our thinking and speaking about every other after-death question in that light (p.175). 

In light of the centrality of the resurrection, what are we to make of the secondary and subsidiary question of the practice of prayer, especially in relation to the saints? As Wright notes, we touch here on a “sensitive nerve within the devotional habits of many Christians”, and yet it is a question that is important insofar as it touches on our understanding of the resurrection and, therefore, the life and mission of the Church.

Wright’s views on this matter split into three separate strands of argument, one positive, two negative: we may pray for the saints, for those who have passed on, in a specific and limited sense (i.e. for their refreshment, that they might “rest in peace and rise in glory”); we do not pray to the saints since Christ is our only mediator; and the saints do not pray for us (and we do not ask them to do so), since only Christ functions as our mediator in heaven. We might add an additional positive to balance this out which Wright touches on briefly—the saints pray with us as we celebrate in Word and Sacrament. 

To be sure, there is a logic to praying to the saints. Aren’t we simply speaking to those who are alive and with Christ? Wright picks up this point:

Since both the departed saints and we ourselves are in Christ, we share with them in the “communion of saints.” They are still our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we celebrate the Eucharist they are there with us, along with the angels and archangels. Why then should we not pray for and with them? The reason the Reformers and their successors did their best to outlaw praying for the dead was because that had been so bound up with the notion of purgatory and the need to get people out of it as soon as possible. Once we rule out purgatory, I see no reason why we should not pray for and with the dead and every reason why we should—not that they will get out of purgatory but that they will be refreshed and filled with God’s joy and peace. Love passes into prayer; we still love them; why not hold them, in that love, before God? 

…It is true that if the Christian dead are conscious, and if they are “with Christ” in a sense that, as Paul implies, is closer than we ourselves are at the moment, there is every reason to suppose that they are at least, like the souls under the altar in Revelation, urging the Father to complete the work of justice and salvation in the world. If that is so, there is no reason in principle why they should not urge the Father similarly on our behalf. Or if, from another point of view, they are indeed “with Christ,” and if part of the work of the ascended Christ is indeed to be ruling the world as the agent of his Father, we might indeed suppose that the dead are somehow involved in that, not merely as spectators of that ongoing work.

And yet, early tradition and Scripture would appear to rule out such moves:

I do not, however, find in the New Testament or in the earliest Christian fathers any suggestion that those at present in heaven or (if you prefer) paradise are actively engaged in praying for those of us in the present life. Nor do I find any suggestion that Christians who are still alive should pray to the saints to intercede to the Father on their behalf…this is very important for those who, like me, believe that it’s vital to ground one’s beliefs in scripture itself—I see no evidence in the early Christian writings to suggest that the Christian dead are in fact engaged in work of that sort, still less any suggestion that presently alive Christians should, so to speak, encourage them to do it by invoking them specifically. 

I don’t think it’s too dramatic to say that what’s at stake in the issue of the saints and prayer, is our conception of Christ’s work as our saviour and mediator. As Wright puts it:

In particular, we should be very suspicious of the medieval idea that the saints can function as friends at court so that while we might be shy of approaching the King ourselves, we know someone who is, as it were, one of us, to whom we can talk freely and who will maybe put in a good word for us. The practice seems to me to call into question, and even actually to deny by implication, the immediacy of access to God through Jesus Christ and in the Spirit, which is promised again and again in the New Testament. In the New Testament it is clear: because of Christ and the Spirit, every single Christian is welcome at any time to come before the Father himself. If you have a royal welcome awaiting you in the throne room itself, for whatever may be on your heart and mind, whether great or small, why would you bother hanging around the outer lobby trying to persuade someone there, however distinguished, to go in and ask for you? To question this, even by implication, is to challenge one of the central blessings and privileges of the gospel. 

The issue of All Saints (and All Souls) is also bound up with our understanding of the Church. Wright argues against the tripartite division of the church held in the medieval period in favour of a twofold one:

… instead of the three divisions of the medieval church—triumphant, expectant, and militant—I believe that there are only two. The church in heaven or paradise is both triumphant and expectant. I do not expect all my readers to agree with this conclusion, but I would urge them at least to search the scriptures and see whether these things be so. And in particular I urge those whose churches, like my own, have revived the practice of All Souls commemorations, not least those who find them pastorally helpful, to think seriously about the theology they are implicitly embracing and teaching. The two appropriate times for remembering the Christian dead, and for doing so in a way that expresses genuine Christian hope, are Easter and All Saints. To add other commemorations detracts from the meaning of those great festivals. Here, as in some other points of theology and liturgy, more is less.

There is a third core doctrine that is thoroughly re-worked as we attempt to interweave our celebration of All Saints’ Day with the reality of the resurrection. Not only do we see Christ and the church afresh; we also come to a deeper understanding of Christian discipleship.

After all, what is a saint? Secular notions of saints paint them as men and women who pulls themselves up by their bootstraps and perform grand acts on the global stage for all to see. The resurrection upends all of this. A saint is one who wholly depends on God in life and death, for creation, salvation and…recreation. Who is able to raise himself? Only God can do that. The saint recognises that the only criterion for sainthood is a radical, complete and utter dependence on God. 

Source: N. T. Wright. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (pp. 172-175). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Image Credits: Kindle and Unsplash (Ben White)

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