On the Intercession and Invocation of the Saints
by Reader Christopher Orr
Protestants often have a difficult time coming to terms with prayer to the
saints. It is condemned as a christianized paganism, an example of the corruption
of Christianity after the conversion of the Roman Empire under Constantine in
This issue falls under two broad headings: intercession and invocation. Most
Protestants would accept the fact that we are prayed for by the departed saints
and angels in heaven (intercession by the saints), just as our family,
friends, and clergy here on earth pray us for. The difficulty lies with our
asking (praying) the departed saints and angels for their prayers (invocation
of the saints). How do we know they can hear us? Some, High Church Anglicans,
would accept intercession and invocation, but not the Roman excesses
of this practice. The 1917 [Roman] Catholic Encyclopedia expresses succinctly
the position of the various traditional Protestant bodies:
the High Church Anglicans contend that it is not the invocation of saints
that is here rejected, but only the "Romish doctrine ", i. e. the
excesses prevailing at the time and afterwards condemned by the Council of Trent.
"In principle there is no question herein between us and any other portion
of the Catholic Church. . . . Let not that most ancient custom, common to the
Universal Church, as well Greek as Latin, of addressing Angels and Saints in
the way we have said, be condemned as impious, or as vain and foolish"
[Forbes, Bishop of Brechin (Anglican), "Of the Thirty-nine Articles",
The reformed Churches, as a body, reject the invocation of the saints. Article
xxi of the Augsburg Confession says: "Scripture does not teach us to invoke
the Saints, or to ask for help from the Saints; for it puts before us Christ
as the one mediator, propitiatory, high-priest and intercessor." In the
"Apology of the Augsburg Confession" (ad art. xxi, sects. 3, 4), it
is admitted that the angels pray for us, and the saints, too, "for the
Church in general"; but this does not imply that they are to be invoked.
The Calvinists, however, reject both intercession and invocation as an imposture
and delusion of Satan, since thereby the right manner of praying is prevented,
and the saints know nothing of us, and have no concern as to what passes on
earth ("Gall. Confess.", art. xxiv; "Remonst. Conf." c.
xvi, sect. 3).[i]
It was my contention as an inquirer into Orthodox Christianitywhich accepts
the intercession and invocation of the saintsthat if I was willing to
accept the testimony of the Fathers of the Church when it came to such abstruse
dogmas as that of the Trinity (three hypostases, one ousia) and Chalcedonian
Christology (two ousia, one hypostasis), as well as the final canon of
the New Testament Scriptures which was finally settled by St. Athanasius, then
I must also accept their testimony concerning the intercession and invocation
of the saints. That is, if they had ever said anything about it. If St. Athanasius
can fight for homoousios over homoiousios; and, in similarly abstract
language Sts. Gregory the Theologian and Basil the Great could fight for the
full divinity of the Holy Spirit, then certainly they would have commented on
the error of the intercession and invocation of the saints. That is, if it existed
in their day. I vaguely assumed that this pagan practice must have
developed later, or outside of the truly Christian spheres in which these basic
dogmas of our faith were formulated.
This led me to a study of the Patristic sources to find if there was, in fact,
early testimony one way or the other concerning the intercession and invocation
of the saints. Did major patristic figures such as Sts. Athanasius, Basil the
Great and Gregory the Theologian support or teach this practice? Was there only
isolated testimony to this practice in Rome, Palestine, Syria, Africa, or Asia
Minor separately, or was it widespread across the ancient world implying a common
I have compiled a less then exhaustive digest of patristic and scriptural citations
concerning both the intercession and invocation of the departed saints of God.
I have stressed texts referring to our invocation of the saints- of our asking
them for their prayers. I hate to admit it, but I actually didnt do this
research before I became Orthodox. I assumed there was no written testimony
to be had until many centuries after the Church came out of the catacombs in
313-14. I simply prayed my way into understanding that the saints can hear us.
I was shocked to find that there was, in fact, testimony in support of prayer
to the saints. And this testimony came not from some random, half-pagan saint
from the backwaters of Mesopotamia, Cilicia, or the Pentapolis but from the
defenders and promoters of the Nicene Creed: the Fathers who had suffered, struggled,
and died for the doctrine of the Trinity, the full divinity of Jesus and the
Holy Spirit, and who described this relationship in language too rarified for
me to fully comprehend to this day. These doctrines most Protestants, Catholics,
and Orthodox Christians still hold in commonin the face of all that we disagree
on. The witness, therefore, of these Christian giants must be taken as more
than simply the doctrine of men. They prayed to the saints without
considering them to be demi-gods; they asked the prayers of those who to whom
the Psalmist and Christ said, Ye are gods.[ii] Could the Church
Which Christ promised would withstand the Gates of Hades really
have apostatized within a generation of its freedom across the breadth of the
entire ancient world?
All ye saints, pray to God for us!
Patristic and Scriptural Testimony
Righteous Job the Long-Suffering (1000 300 BC)
If there shall be an angel speaking for him . . . He shall have mercy on him,
and shall say: Deliver him, that he may not go down to corruption" (Job
Book of Tobit (~ 200 100 BC)
When thou didst pray with tears
I [Archangel Raphael] offered thy prayer
to the Lord. (Tobit xii, 12)
St. John the Evangelist (+101)
And another angel came, and stood before the altar, having a golden censer;
and there was given to him much incense, that he should offer of the prayers
of all saints upon the golden altar, which is before the throne of God. And
the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God
from the hand of the angel. (Apoc., viii, 3, 4)
St. Cyprian of Carthage (+258), writing to Pope Cornelius of Rome
Let us be mutually mindful of each other, let us ever pray for each other,
and if one of us shall, by the speediness of the Divine vouchsafement, depart
hence first, let our love continue in the presence of the Lord, let not prayer
for our brethren and sisters cease in the presence of the mercy of the Father.[iv]
St. Hilary of Poitiers (+368)
To those who would fain stand, neither the guardianship of saints nor the defences
of angels are wanting.[v]
St. Ephraim the Syrian (+373)
Remember me, ye heirs of God, ye brethren of Christ, supplicate the Saviour
earnestly for me, that I may be freed though Christ from him that fights against
me day by day.[vi]
Ye victorious martyrs who endured torments gladly for the sake of the God and
Saviour; ye who have boldness of speech towards the Lord Himself; ye saints,
intercede for us who are timid and sinful men, full of sloth, that the grace
of Christ may come upon us, and enlighten the hearts of all of us that so we
may love him.[vii]
St. Athanasius the Great, Patriarch of Alexandria (+373)
Christ became man that men might become gods[viii]
In one of his letters, St. Basil [the Great] explicitly writes that he
accepts the intercession of the apostles, prophets and martyrs, and he seeks
their prayers to God. (Letter 360) Then, speaking about the Forty Martyrs,
who suffered martyrdom for Christ, he emphasizes that they are common friends
of the human race, strong ambassadors and collaborators in fervent prayers.
St. Gregory of Nyssa asks St. Theodore the Martyr
to fervently pray
to our Common King, our God, for the country and the people (Encomium to
The same language is used by St. Gregory the Theologian in his encomium to
St. Cyprian. St. John Chrysostom says that we should seek the intercession and
the fervent prayers of the saints, because they have special "boldness"
(parresia), before God. (Gen. 44: 2 and Encomium to Julian, Iuventinus
and Maximinus, 3).[ix]
St. Basil the Great, of Caesarea in Asia Minor (+379)
According to the blameless faith of the Christians which we have obtained from
God, I confess and agree that I believe in one God the Father Almighty; God
the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost; I adore and worship one God, the
Three. I confess to the oeconomy of the Son in the flesh, and that the holy
Mary, who gave birth to Him according to the flesh, was Mother of God. I acknowledge
also the holy apostles, prophets, and martyrs; and I invoke them to supplication
to God, that through them, that is, through their mediation, the merciful God
may be propitious to me, and that a ransom may be made and given me for my sins.
Wherefore also I honour and kiss the features of their images, inasmuch as they
have been handed down from the holy apostles, and are not forbidden, but are
in all our churches.[x]
We beseech you, O most holy martyrs, who cheerfully suffered torments and death
for his love, and are now more familiarly united to him, that you intercede
with God for us slothful and wretched sinners, that he bestow on us the grace
of Christ, by which we may be enlightened and enabled to love him.[xi]
O holy choir! O sacred band! O unbroken host of warriors! O common guardians
of the human race! Ye gracious sharers of our cares! Ye co-operators in our
prayer! Most powerful intercessors![xii]
Liturgy of St. Basil the Great
By the command of Thine only-begotten Son we communicate with the memory of
Thy saints . . . by whose prayers and supplications have mercy upon us all,
and deliver us for the sake of Thy holy name which is invoked upon us.[xiii]
St. Cyril of Jerusalem (+386)
We then commemorate also those who have fallen asleep before us, first, patriarchs,
prophets, apostles, martyrs, that God, by their prayers and intercessions, may
receive our petitions.[xiv]
St. Gregory the Theologian, Patriarch of Constantinople;
of Nazianzus in Asia Minor (+389)
Mayest thou [Cyprian] look down from above propitiously upon us, and guide
our word and life; and shepherd [or shepherd with me] this sacred flock . .
. gladdening us with a more perfect and clear illumination of the Holy Trinity,
before Which thou standest.[xv]
St. Gregory of Nyssa in Lower Armenia (+395-400)
...I wish to commemorate one person who spoke of their noble testimony because
I am close to Ibora, the village and resting place of these forty martyrs' remains.
Here the Romans keep a register of soldiers, one of whom was a guard ordered
by his commander to protect against invasions, a practice common to soldiers
in such remote areas. This man suffered from an injured foot which was later
amputated. Being in the martyrs' resting place, he earnestly beseeched God and
the intercession of the saints. One night there appeared a man of venerable
appearance in the company of others who
said, "Oh soldier, do you want to be healed [J.167] of your infirmity?
Give me your foot that I may touch it." When he awoke from the dream, his
foot was completely healed. Once he awoke from this vision, his foot was restored
to health. He roused the other sleeping men because he was immediately cured
and made whole. This men then
began to proclaim the miracle performed by the martyrs and acknowledged the
kindness bestowed by these fellow soldiers
. We who freely and boldly enter
paradise are strengthened by the [martyrs'] intercession through a noble confession
in our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.[xvii]
Do thou, [St. Ephraim the Syrian] that art standing at the Divine altar, and
art ministering with angels to the life-giving and most Holy Trinity, bear us
all in remembrance, petitioning for us the remission of sins, and the fruition
of an everlasting kingdom.[xviii]
St. Ambrose of Milan (+397)
May Peter, who wept so efficaciously for himself, weep for us and turn towards
us Christ's benignant countenance.[xix]
St. Jerome, b. Dalmatia, d. Palestine (+419)
If the Apostles and Martyrs, while still in the body, can pray for others,
at a time when they must still be anxious for themselves, how much more after
their crowns, victories, and triumphs are won! One man, Moses, obtains from
God pardon for six hundred thousand men in arms; and Stephen, the imitator of
the Lord, and the first martyr in Christ, begs forgiveness for his persecutors;
and shall their power be less after having begun to be with Christ? The Apostle
Paul declares that two hundred three score and sixteen souls, sailing with him,
were freely given him; and, after he is dissolved and has begun to be with Christ,
shall he close his lips, and not be able to utter a word in behalf of those
who throughout the whole world believed at his preaching of the Gospel? And
shall the living dog Vigilantius be better than that dead lion?[xx]
St. John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople; b. Antioch, Syria (+407)
When thou perceivest that God is chastening thee, fly not to His enemies .
. . but to His friends, the martyrs, the saints, and those who were pleasing
to Him, and who have great power [parresian, "boldness of speech"].[xxi]
He that wears the purple, laying aside his pomp, stands begging of the saints
to be his patrons with God; and he that wears the diadem begs the Tent-maker
and the Fisherman as patrons, even though they be dead.[xxii]
St. Augustine of Hippo, in North Africa (+430)
At the Lord's table we do not commemorate martyrs in the same way that we do
others who rest in peace so as to pray for them, but rather that they may pray
for us that we may follow in their footsteps.[xxiii]
[i] Catholic Encyclopedia, 1917. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08070a.htm.
[ii] St. John 10:34.
[iii] "De Oratione", n. xi, in P. G., XI, 448.
[iv] Ep. lvii, in P. L., IV, 358.
[v] "In Ps. cxxiv", n. 5, 6, in P. L., X, 682.
[vi] "De Timore Anim.", in fin..
[vii] "Encom. in Mart.".
[viii] "De Incarn.", n. 54; cf. St. Augustine, "Serm. De Nativitate
[ix] Bebis, George. The Saints of the Orthodox Church (Greek Orthodox
Archdiocese of America, http://www.goarch.org/en/resources/saints/).
[x] Letter 360, Of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the invocation
of Saints, and their Images.
[xi] Homily on the Forty Soldier Martyrs of Sebaste, quoting St.
Ephrem the Syrian, Homil. in SS. Martyres, Op. Gr. and Lat. ed.
Vat. an. 1743, t. 2, p. 341.
[xii] "Hom. in XL Mart.", P. G., XXXI, 524.
[xiii] Cf. the Liturgy of Jerusalem, the Liturgy of St. Chrysostom, the Liturgy
of Nestorius, the Coptic Liturgy of St. Cyril, etc..
[xiv] "Cat. Myst.", v, n. 9 in P. G., XXXIII, 1166.
[xv] Orat. xvii according to others, xxiv "De S. Cypr.",
P. G., XXXV, 1193.
[xvi] Catholic Catechism, 1917. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08070a.htm.
[xvii] Second Letter Concerning the Forty Martyrs.
[xviii] "De vita Ephraemi", in fin., P. G., XLVI, 850.
[xix] "Hexaem.", V, xxv, n. 90, in P. L., XIV, 242.
[xx] "Contra Vigilant.", n. 6, in P. L., XXIII, 344.
[xxi] Orat. VIII, "Adv. Jud.", n. 6, in P. G., XLVIII, 937.
[xxii] "Hom. xxvi, in II Ep. ad Cor.", n. 5, in P. G., LXI,
[xxiii] "In Joann.", tr. lxxxiv, in P. L., XXXIV, 1847.
Reader Christopher is the creator of the Web site Lutheran inquirers into Orthodoxy: Orthodoxy for Lutherans. It is the companion site to the Lutherans Looking East list on Yahoo! Groups, which is a forum for asking questions of Orthodox converts from Lutheranism. Posted 6 Dec, 2005.