Friday 3 August 2012

Prayers for the dead


There is a Protestant idea that Christians ought not to pray for the dead.

I am not entirely sure of the history, but as I understand it the theological basis for this prohibition is that once somebody is dead their salvation-status is fixed and cannot be affected by the living.

Prayers for the salvation of the dead are for this reason excluded from public worship. And this even applies to the Church of England in its traditional (Book of Common Prayer) form.


Yet I believe this exclusion is an error - and one with potentially damaging ramifications.

The error comes from over-reaction against Roman Catholic abuses of prayers for the dead - and (as too often at the Reformation e.g. with respect to veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saints, and monasticism) rather than reform the abuses, the response was to reject the practices lock, stock and barrel - leaving the residue incomplete and unbalanced.


Prayer for the dead is a natural thing for humans, including Christians - and since prayer is the primary Christian activity, I would hazard that most Protestant Christians (both in the past and now) have prayed for the dead in their private devotions, even when such prayers were prohibited by or excluded from communal worship.

And indeed prayer for the dead is a connection between generations, and supports the sense of tradition necessary to Christianity.

But what is the use of it? Surely, goes the argument, the condition of the dead is established (either saved or damned) and cannot be affected by our prayers?


We live, on earth, in Time - where things happen in linear sequence - but in Heaven dwell in eternity; and there is, necessarily, a transition between these states.

It is at this transition that we may suppose prayers for the dead to act.

Prayers are addressed to eternity and operate via eternity; they cannot affect what has already happened in the past, but prayers now can have-affected what already happened in the past.

It seems reasonable, and fits with much traditional teaching, to suppose that at the moment of choice for the soul (Heaven or Hell), all prayers (past, present and future) come together (from eternity) to sustain the choice.


Since prayer comes from eternity, it is never too early, nor too late, to contribute prayer - that is, to contribute love - to this moment of transition and choice.

Indeed, it may be necessary for the salvation of that soul - indeed, perhaps it is usually necessary for the salvation of a soul that it be sustained in its choice by prayer of, love of, others - since our wills are corrupt, sinful; and otherwise we would almost surely choose wrong.


So prayers for the dead are very important indeed - and if they don't happen in public devotions at church, then they ought to happen in private devotion.



Nathan said...

I was raised Lutheran, and I always wondered why we could not pray for the dead. Its rather odd how pedantic pastors can be on this matter, almost as if it were the crux of the faith. I remember when I was much younger and my grandfather passed, my father (who is a Lutheran pastor) made sure that we did not pray for him since he is no longer living. The terminology holds in the church prayers as well - one can pray for someone while he is alive, but once he passes the prayers are always solely for his family and friends. Of course there is some reasoning here (which you pointed out), but there has always been something which rubbed me the wrong way about it and its enforcement.

Apart from your thoughts on prayers and eternity (which I think are quite interesting), I've always thought that, at the very least, praying for the dead is beneficial for the one doing the praying. To argue otherwise would be to categorize prayer as something which is only good for its results and not something which is good in and of itself, which I think is quite erroneous.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nathan - thanks for this, it is *exactly* what I was getting at.

Such prohibitions seem non-trivially harmful to me - indeed they are wicked - despite what may be genuinely good intentions.

Anonymous said...

I consider myself a Protestant, but I have always prayed for the dead - it always just seemed so obviously the right thing to do, that I never really thought about it. I'm not sure how it works (although your explanation is certainly logical) abd I don't really need to. It just seems like the right thing to do.

Wurmbrand said...

Nathan, the question for a Lutheran should be: How did it come to pass that Lutherans do not pray for the dead, given that the Lutheran Confessions expressly permit it?

See The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, one of the "Symbols" or doctrinal confessions of The Book of Concord, the definitive Lutheran expression of faith. In Article 24, on The Mass, we read: "We know that the ancients spoke of prayer for the dead. We do not forbid this, but rather we reject the transfer of the Lord's Suppeer to the dead ex opere operato."

The Lutherans were rejecting the state of things that had developed, whereby "the Mass was used almost exclusively for the dead although Christ intended the Sacrament for the living alone" (Smalcald Articles, Part 2, Article 2 The Mass; the Smalcald Articles is another symbol of the Book of Concord).

Nevertheless, a knowledgeable Lutheran pastor of my acquaintance wasn't able to cite for me a Lutheran liturgical prayer for the departed. In my own church (in rural North Dakota, USA!), we prayed a Litany during Lent 2011 from the old Book of Common Prayer, with this:

"That it may please Thee to grant to all the faithful departed eternal life and peace,

We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord."

But this was an exception to usual Lutheran practice -- again, despite what the Book of Concord says.

Lutheran pastors typically promise to preach and teach according to the Book of Concord because it is a true exposition of the doctrines of Holy Scripture. And Lutherans believe that "the Word of God shall establish articles of faith and no one else, not even an angel."

We Lutherans also accept that "nothing has been commanded or enjoined upon us concerning the dead" in the Bible. Therefore, one Christian should not automatically censure another because he does (or does not) pray for the departed.

So, to answer the question with which I started, the "bottom line" is that the Lutheran Confessions permit, but do not require, public or private prayer for the dead. There is also the implication that public Lutheran prayer for the departed, at least, would be restricted to Christians. Finally, there is an implication that a pastor will deal with the question "pastorally." A pastor may hesitate to introduce prayer for the faithful dead into the liturgy, because it could upset the people under his pastoral care.

I was unaware of any conflict arising in my church when the Litany mentioned above was prayed, but perhaps someone expressed discomfort with it to him privately, as we did not pray the Litany during Lent this year.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - the Church of England is divided on this and has been since (I think) the mid 19th century Anglo-Catholic (Tractarian) movement reintroduced prayers for the dead.

My evangelical Anglican church has never had prayers for the dead (at least not when I was present), my A-C church has a strongish emphasis on them, and the old-fashioned middle way BCP-using church has them after the formal Eucharist service, after the dismissal - when the priest comes down the aisle and says a few quiet prayers for the dead, with a sense of its being optional whether the congregation say Amen or not.

But there is something rather horrible (and spritually arrogant) about prohibiting prayers for the dead - it is not a neutral thing (nothing is).

I regard it as one of the corruptions of the Reformation (which was certainly a mixed bag), introduced from ignorance and bad motives.

Wm Jas said...

Prayers for things that are already fixed are commonplace -- as when the doorbell rings and you pray "Please don't let that be John." Since God knows the end from the beginning, even retroactive prayers could have some effect.