A Laymen’s Commentary on the Augsburg Confession: Worship of the Saints

This is part 22 of 24 in the series A Layman's Commentary on the Augsburg Confession

Article XXI: Of the Worship of the Saints.

1] Of the Worship of Saints they teach that the memory of saints may be set before us, that we may follow their faith and good works, according to our calling, as the Emperor may follow the example of David in making war to drive away the Turk from his country. 2] For both are kings. But the Scripture teaches not the invocation of saints or to ask help of saints, since it sets before us the one Christ as the Mediator, Propitiation, High Priest, and Intercessor. 3] He is to be prayed to, and has promised that He will hear our prayer; and this worship He approves above all, to wit, that in all afflictions He be called upon, 1 John 2:1: 4] If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, etc.

Saints serve as great examples of faith.  We should learn from them. The Lutheran Church today celebrates many saints days (see Lutheran Service Book xi-xiii).  However, we do not pray to the saints for help.  We have no promise that they will hear us or aid us.  We do, however, have the clear Word of God that Christ hears our prayers and does answer them (1 Timothy 2:5-6, John 14:1-14).

We can be confident that Christ is our advocate (1 John 2:1-6).  Saints are not gods, there is only one God and He alone is to receive worship.  The saints do not want our worship, rather they want us to worship Christ.

The Confutation disagrees with this article.  The argument made by the Confutation, in brief, is basically the question: Since those who are alive can pray for us, why not the dead?  Christ is the sole mediator for redemption but there are many mediators of intercession.  The Apology responds thusly:

1] The Twenty-first Article they absolutely condemn, because we do not require the invocation of saints. Nor on any topic do they speak more eloquently and with more prolixity. Nevertheless they do not effect anything else than that the saints should be honored; likewise, that the saints who live pray for others; as though, indeed, the invocation of dead saints were on that account necessary. 2] They cite Cyprian, because he asked Cornelius while yet alive to pray for his brothers when departing. By this example they prove the invocation of the dead. They quote also Jerome against Vigilantius. “On this field” [in this matter], they say, “eleven hundred years ago, Jerome overcame Vigilantius.” Thus the adversaries triumph, as though the war were already ended. Nor do those asses see that in Jerome, against Vigilantius, there is not a syllable concerning invocation. He speaks concerning honors for the saints, not concerning invocation. 3] Neither have the rest of the ancient writers before Gregory made mention of invocation. Certainly this invocation, with these opinions which the adversaries now teach concerning the application of merits, has not the testimonies of the ancient writers.

4] Our Confession approves honors to the saints. For here a threefold honor is to be approved. The first is thanksgiving. For we ought to give thanks to God because He has shown examples of mercy; because He has shown that He wishes to save men; because He has given teachers or other gifts to the Church. And these gifts, as they are the greatest, should be amplified, and the saints themselves should be praised, who have faithfully used these gifts, just as Christ praises faithful business-men, 5] Matt. 25:21, 23. The second service is the strengthening of our faith; when we see the denial forgiven Peter, we also are encouraged to believe the more that grace 6] truly superabounds over sin, Rom. 5:20. The third honor is the imitation, first, of faith, then of the other virtues, which every one should imitate according to his calling. 7] These true honors the adversaries do not require. They dispute only concerning invocation, which, even though it would have no danger, nevertheless is not necessary.

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession Article XXI (IX) 1-7

The Confessors point out that they honor the saints as well but do not invoke them.  We are to see them as models of the faith and to thank God for their service.  However, as to the prayers of the saints and their invocation:

8] Besides, we also grant that the angels pray for us. For there is a testimony in Zech. 1:12, where an angel prays: O Lord of hosts, how long wilt Thou not have mercy on 9] Jerusalem? Although concerning the saints we concede that, just as, when alive, they pray for the Church universal in general, so in heaven they pray for the Church in general, albeit no testimony concerning the praying of the dead is extant in the Scriptures, except the dream taken from the Second Book of Maccabees, 15:14.

Moreover, even supposing that the saints pray for the Church ever so much, 10] yet it does not follow that they are to be invoked; although our Confession affirms only this, that Scripture does not teach the invocation of the saints, or that we are to ask the saints for aid. But since neither a command, nor a promise, nor an example can be produced from the Scriptures concerning the invocation of saints, it follows that conscience can have nothing concerning this invocation that is certain. And since prayer ought to be made from faith, how do we know that God approves this invocation? Whence do we know without the testimony of Scripture that the saints perceive the prayers of each one? 11] Some plainly ascribe divinity to the saints, namely, that they discern the silent thoughts of the minds in us. They dispute concerning morning and evening knowledge, perhaps because they doubt whether they hear us in the morning or the evening. They invent these things, not in order to treat the saints with honor, but to defend lucrative services. 12] Nothing can be produced by the adversaries against this reasoning, that, since invocation does not have a testimony from God’s Word, it cannot be affirmed that the saints understand our invocation, or, even if they understand it, that God approves it. Therefore 13] the adversaries ought not to force us to an uncertain matter, because a prayer without faith is not prayer. For when they cite the example of the Church, it is evident that this is a new custom in the Church; for although the old prayers make mention of the saints, yet they do not invoke the saints. Although also this new invocation in the Church is dissimilar to the invocation of individuals.

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession Article XXI (IX) 8-13

While the saints do pray for the Church, in general, there is no promise that they hear our prayers and answer them (Revelation 6:9-11).  We are given no command or promise to invoke them. Even worse though the Roman Catholic attribute the power of removing sins to the saints.

14] Again, the adversaries not only require invocation in the worship of the saints, but also apply the merits of the saints to others, and make of the saints not only intercessors, but also propitiators. This is in no way to be endured. For here the honor belonging only to Christ is altogether transferred to the saints. For they make them mediators and propitiators, and although they make a distinction between mediators of intercession and mediators [the Mediator] of redemption, yet they plainly make of the saints mediators of redemption. 15] But even that they are mediators of intercession they declare without the testimony of Scripture, which, be it said ever so reverently, nevertheless obscures Christ’s office, and transfers the confidence of mercy due Christ to the saints. For men imagine that Christ is more severe and the saints more easily appeased, and they trust rather to the mercy of the saints than to the mercy of Christ, and fleeing from Christ [as from a tyrant], they seek the saints. Thus they actually make of them mediators of redemption.

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession Article XXI (IX) 14-15

Here is a specific example regarding Mary the Mother of our Lord and the blasphemies done in her name:

25] Here and there this form of absolution is used: The passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of the most blessed Virgin Mary and of all the saints, be to thee for the remission of sins. Here the absolution is pronounced on the supposition that we are reconciled and accounted righteous not only by the merits of Christ, but also by the merits of the other saints. 26] Some of us have seen a doctor of theology dying, for consoling whom a certain theologian, a monk, was employed. He pressed on the dying man nothing but this prayer: Mother of grace, protect us from the enemy; receive us in the hour of death.

27] Granting that the blessed Mary prays for the Church, does she receive souls in death, does she conquer death [the great power of Satan], does she quicken? What does Christ do if the blessed Mary does these things? Although she is most worthy of the most ample honors, nevertheless she does not wish to be made equal to Christ, but rather wishes us to consider and follow her example [the example of her faith and her humility]. 28] But the subject itself declares that in public opinion the blessed Virgin has succeeded altogether to the place of Christ. Men have invoked her, have trusted in her mercy, through her have desired to appease Christ, as though He were not a Propitiator, but, only a dreadful judge and avenger. 29] We believe, however, that we must not trust that the merits of the saints are applied to us, that on account of these God is reconcile d to us, or accounts us just, or saves us. For we obtain remission of sins only by the merits of Christ, when we believe in Him. Of the other saints it has been said, 1 Cor. 3:8: Every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labor, i.e., they cannot mutually bestow their own merits, the one upon the other, as the monks sell the merits of their orders. 30] Even Hilary says of the foolish virgins: And as the foolish virgins could not go forth with their lamps extinguished, they besought those who were prudent to lend them oil; to whom they replied that they could not give it because peradventure there might not be enough for all; i.e., no one can be aided by the works and merits of another, because it is necessary for every one to buy oil for his own lamp. [Here he points out that none of us can aid another by other people’s works or merits.]

31] Since, therefore, the adversaries teach us to place confidence in the invocation of saints, although they have neither the Word of God nor the example of Scripture [of the Old or of the New Testament]; since they apply the merits of the saints on behalf of others, not otherwise than they apply the merits of Christ, and transfer the honor belonging only to Christ to the saints, we can receive neither their opinions concerning the worship of the saints, nor the practise of invocation. For we know that confidence is to be placed in the intercession of Christ, because this alone has God’s promise. We know that the merits of Christ alone are a propitiation for us. On account of the merits of Christ we are accounted righteous when we believe in Him, as the text says, Rom. 9:33 (cf. 1 Pet. 2:6 and Is. 28:16): Whosoever believeth on Him shall not be confounded. Neither are we to trust that we are accounted righteous by the merits of the blessed Virgin or of the other saints.

32] With the learned this error also prevails, namely, that to each saint a particular administration has been committed, that Anna bestows riches [protects from poverty], Sebastian keeps off pestilence, Valentine heals epilepsy, George protects horsemen. These opinions have clearly sprung from heathen examples. For thus, among the Romans, Juno was thought to enrich, Febris to keep off fever, Castor and Pollux to protect horsemen, etc. 33] Even though we should imagine that the invocation of saints were taught with the greatest prudence, yet since the example is most dangerous, why is it necessary to defend it when it has no command or testimony from God’s Word? Aye, it has not even the testimony of the ancient writers. 34] First because, as I have said above, when other mediators are sought in addition to Christ, and confidence is put in others, the entire knowledge of Christ is suppressed. The subject shows this. In the beginning, mention of the saints seems to have been admitted with a design that is endurable, as in the ancient prayers. Afterwards invocation followed, and abuses that are prodigious and more than heathenish followed invocation. From invocation the next step was to images; these also were worshiped, and a virtue was supposed to exist in these, just as magicians imagine that a virtue exists in images of the heavenly bodies carved at a particular time. In a certain monastery we [some of us] have seen a statue of the blessed Virgin, which moved automatically by a trick [within by a string], so as to seem either to turn away from [those who did not make a large offering] or nod to those making request.

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession Article XXI (IX) 25-34

It is clear that they are treating the saints as if they had earned their own justification and can apply their works to others.  Only Christ can do this. The saints have no ability or promise to do so. Not even the Blessed Virgin. We must fully condemn and fight this paganism in the Church as it robs Christ of His glory and destroys justification.  Melancthon goes on to discuss this more but we will leave it at that for now.

We are done with the first section of the Augsburg Confession, which the Reformers sum up as follows:

5] This is about the Sum of our Doctrine, in which, as can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers. This being the case, they judge harshly who insist that our teachers be regarded as heretics. 6] There is, however, disagreement on certain abuses, which have crept into the Church without rightful authority. And even in these, if there were some difference, there should be proper lenity on the part of bishops to bear with us by reason of the Confession which we have now reviewed; because even the Canons are not so severe as to demand the same rites everywhere, neither, at any time, have the rites of all churches been the same; 7] although, among us, in large part, the ancient rites are diligently observed. 8] For it is a false and malicious charge that all the ceremonies, all the things instituted of old, are abolished in our churches. 9] But it has been a common complaint that some abuses were connected with the ordinary rites. These, inasmuch as they could not be approved with a good conscience, have been to some extent corrected.

As you can see from the previous 21 articles that the faith of the Reformers is based on sound interpretation of clear Scripture.  This is the catholic, historic, apostolic faith which the Church has always held.  However, the Lutheran rites and practices are not the same as the Roman Catholic.  As made clear in Article VII on the Church, rites and practices need not be the same everywhere.  The Reformers point out that they use the ancient liturgy only rectifying errors.

ARTICLES IN WHICH ARE REVIEWED THE ABUSES WHICH HAVE BEEN CORRECTED.

10] Inasmuch, then, as our churches dissent in no article of the faith from the Church Catholic, but only omit some abuses which are new, and which have been erroneously accepted by the corruption of the times, contrary to the intent of the Canons, we pray that Your Imperial Majesty would graciously hear both what has been changed, and what were the reasons why the people were not compelled to observe those abuses against their conscience. 11] Nor should Your Imperial Majesty believe those who, in order to excite the hatred of men against our part, disseminate strange slanders among the people. 12] Having thus excited the minds of good men, they have first given occasion to this controversy, and now endeavor, by the same arts, to increase the discord. 13] For Your Imperial Majesty will undoubtedly find that the form of doctrine and of ceremonies with us is not so intolerable as these ungodly and malicious men represent. 14] Besides, the truth cannot be gathered from common rumors or the revilings of enemies. 15] But it can readily be judged that nothing would serve better to maintain the dignity of ceremonies, and to nourish reverence and pious devotion among the people than if the ceremonies were observed rightly in the churches.

Now that they have given their confession of faith, the Reformers go on to defend their changes to Church practice.  Notice that the Reformers feel the need to defend these, they have a reason why they changed what they changed.  These changes are not made on a whim, or to suit the needs of the pastor or parish. Rather the changes were only made after due deliberation and in view of God’s Word.  This is the way changes should always be made in the Church. One should always have a good reason, from Scripture if possible, why a change is needed.

1 For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

2 Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might,
Thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true light.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

3 Oh, may Thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold!
Alleluia! Alleluia!

4 Oh, blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

5 And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

6 The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

7 But lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

8 From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

(LSB 677)

About Dr. Paul Edmon

Dr. Paul Edmon is from Seattle, Washington and now resides in Boston, Massachusetts. He has his B.S. in Physics from the University of Washington in 2004 and Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the University of Minnesota in 2010. He is professional staff at Harvard University and acts as liaison between Center for Astrophysics and Research Computing. A life long Lutheran, he is formerly a member of Messiah Lutheran Church in Seattle and University Lutheran Chapel in Minneapolis. He now attends First Lutheran Church (FLC) of Boston where he teaches Lutheran Essentials. He sings bass in the FLC choir and Canto Armonico. He was elected to the Concordia Seminary St. Louis Board of Regents in 2016. He is single and among his manifold interests are scotch, football, anime, board games, mythology, history, philosophy, and general nerdiness. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent Harvard University or Concordia Seminary. Twitter: @pauledmon

Comments

A Laymen’s Commentary on the Augsburg Confession: Worship of the Saints — 3 Comments

  1. “Neither have the rest of the ancient writers before Gregory made mention of invocation.”

    This, at least in the case of the BVM, is manifestly and demonstrably untrue.

    The ancient Sub Tuum Praesidium is a prayer of most ancient origin to the Theotokos, dating to the year 250, which is 400 years BEFORE Gregory, who reigned from 590 to 604. You can find the facts regarding it at many sites, but Wikipedia gives a good, unbiased description: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sub_tuum_praesidium

    This fact of course doesn’t address the issue of whether prayer to the Blessed Mother or the saints is sanctioned in Scripture, but it certainly illustrates that prayer to the Mother of God was liturgically common from very early times. Sadly, Luther and Melancthon didn’t have the historical resources we know possess. If they had, I wonder how it would’ve affected their theology?

    And to be fair and so you know, yes, I am a Catholic. An admirer of the LCMS to be sure, but a Catholic.

  2. @Jon #1

    Thank you for the correction. If Melancthon had known of that I’m sure he would have mentioned it. I doubt it would have impacted the theology though as the argument doesn’t hinge on whether prayers to the saints are ancient or not (though Melancthon certainly is trying to use that to strengthen the argument). The core remains undisturbed though, Christ is our sole mediator and the only one from whom we have promises that He will hear our prayers and answer them. Thus all prayer should go to God and not to the saints, though certainly we should honor them including the Virgin Mary, and most certainly as Theotokos.

  3. Thank you, Dr. Edmon! This is really great stuff. I don’t know if you’re already planning on doing this or not, but I really think you should compile all of these articles into a book through Amazon or Lulu or some other self-publishing site. Thanks for your great work.

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