Under the broad topic of Mary and the Saints, Armstrong attempts to defend Rome’s doctrine of prayer to saints. Once again, we find no evidence that he is interested in responding to the strongest objections to his position, but only to the weakest. But despite this, even in responding to the weakest argumentation, the number of circular arguments and simply false assumptions is great indeed.
Armstrong rightly lays out the objection: “The Bible forbids communication with the dead. It also tells us there is only one mediator between God and men: Jesus.” Exactly, and, if he has taken the time to listen at all, he knows that the vacuous, yet nigh unto universal, argument of Roman Catholic apologists regarding asking a friend to pray for you (this is somehow taken as having relevance to Jesus’ role as the sole mediator between God and men). The fact that Jesus role as mediator is essentially and necessarily different is lost on those who use this facile argumentation, for Christ has a grounds upon which to stand as a mediator that no one, including Mary, possesses. This has been explained many times, but Roman apologists continue repeating their simplistic argument as if no one has ever responded to it.
Armstrong’s “one-minute” reply is that James 5:16-18 tells us that “the prayers of certain people are more effective than those of others.” Of course, what James 5 tells us is that “the prayer of a righteous man has great power.” From this, it seems, you can create a direct proportion statement, so that the saints, being perfected, have the greatest “prayer power co-efficient” possible. But please notice, there is nothing in James 5 about dead people praying for us. Nothing at all, in fact, just the opposite. The example Armstrong relies on specifically says, “Elijah was a man of like nature with ourselves.” Yes, he was…and that likewise means he was alive!
From this Armstrong recalls the examples of Abraham and Moses who interceded with God, which is, again, quite true. But it is likewise irrelevant since, obviously, they were both alive at the time of their intercession with God. Then we have the statement,
If, then, the Blessed Virgin Mary were indeed sinless, it would follow (right from Scripture) that her prayers would have the greatest power, and not only because of her sinlessness but because of her status as Mother of God. So we ask for her prayers and also ask other saints, because they have more power than we do, having been made perfectly righteous (according to James 5:16-18).
You will remember that back in the days of the Reformation a common complaint made by the Reformers was that Rome’s defenders were sophists, men who tried to look wise while promoting the most amazingly incoherent statements. Little has changed over the centuries. You take the statement that a righteous man’s prayers have great power, which is said only of the living, transport this into another context, attach it to Mary (assuming her alleged sinlessness), and then “follows” “right from Scripture” (!!) that her prayers would have “the most power.” Then, you throw in the other saints, who now have more power (because the prayers of a living righteous man have great power), and tie it all up with another reference to James 5, and voila! the Roman position. Not compelling? Of course not. It really isn’t meant to be. It is meant to have just enough appeal to it to keep the person who wants to believe it in a state of faith.
This is then followed by the constant false appeal to inter-Christian prayers as if they are relevant. “Most Protestants are quite comfortable asking for prayers from other Christians on earth; why do they not ask those saved saints who have departed from the earth and are close to God in heaven? After all, they may have passed from this world, but they’re certainly alive — more than we are!” That sounds so nice, but it is double-talk. Passed from this world = dead to us. Alive to God? Of course. Spiritually alive? Completely. But the prohibition of contact with the dead is specifically in the context of people living on earth seeking to have contact with those who have “passed from this world”! This kind of argumentation leaves the prohibition of contact with the dead meaningless and undefined. Further, there is a substantive, clear difference between asking a fellow believer to pray for you, and the prayers that are addressed to Mary and the saints. I have never asked anyone to save me from the wrath of Jesus, and yet that is what we read in this famous prayer:
O Mother of Perpetual Help, thou art the dispenser of all the goods which God grants to us miserable sinners, and for this reason he has made thee so powerful, so rich, and so bountiful, that thou mayest help us in our misery. Thou art the advocate of the most wretched and abandoned sinners who have recourse to thee. Come then, to my help, dearest Mother, for I recommend myself to thee. In thy hands I place my eternal salvation and to thee do I entrust my soul. Count me among thy most devoted servants; take me under thy protection, and it is enough for me. For, if thou protect me, dear Mother, I fear nothing; not from my sins, because thou wilt obtain for me the pardon of them; nor from the devils, because thou are more powerful than all hell together; nor even from Jesus, my Judge himself, because by one prayer from thee he will be appeased. But one thing I fear, that in the hour of temptation I may neglect to call on thee and thus perish miserably. Obtain for me, then, the pardon of my sins, love for Jesus, final perseverance, and the grace always to have recourse to thee, O Mother of Perpetual Help.
When Mr. Armstrong finds me bowing down in front of one of my fellow believers, rocking back and forth mouthing prayers while fingering a string of beads, and placing a lit candle before them, then we can talk about parallels.
But then we find the paragraph that drew my attention to this section. I quote it in full:
If it is objected that the dead saints cannot hear us, we reply that God is fully able to give them that power — with plenty of supporting biblical evidence: 1) the “cloud of witnesses” that Hebrews 12:1 describes; 2) in Revelation 6:9-10, prayers are given for us in heaven from “saints”; 3) elsewhere in Revelation an angel possesses “prayers of the saints” and in turn presents them to God; 4) Jeremiah is described as one who “prays much for the people” after his death in 2 Maccabees 15:13-14. The saints in heaven are clearly aware of earthly happenings. If they have such awareness, it isn’t that much of a leap to deduce that they can hear our requests for prayer, especially since the Bible itself shows that they are indeed praying. (p. 121)
Let’s examine this argumentation. First, the objection would be based upon a lack of biblical evidence, along with the positive biblical prohibition against contact with the dead. To reply, “Well, God is fully able to give them that power” is not, in fact a response. Of course God can do so. God has all power, and since that is not a point in dispute, this is a classic example of a red herring. If God had wanted to arrange things so that Mary is the mediatrix of all graces, and so that saints intercede on our behalf in a Christianized pantheon of gods in heaven, He could have done that. The question is not “does God have the power to do so,” the question is “has God done so?”
But what kind of supporting biblical evidence are we offered? I mean, if prayer, an act of worship in Scripture, is to be offered to anyone but God, surely there will be overwhelming evidence found in the normative practice of the Christian church, and in the writings of the early leaders of that church, the New Testament. But is that what we find?
The first text given is Hebrews 12:1, “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Armstrong assumes that the “great cloud of witnesses” refers to saints in heaven observing events on earth. However, given that this is a transitional statement following the chapter on the faithful men and women of old, it is far better to understand this text as referring to them and to recognize that a witness is not one who is observing events (as in Western thinking) but one who testifies, witnesses, by their life. The faithful of old are the ones who have witnessed to God’s faithfulness by their own lives, and, since we have their testimony, we are to run the race with patience and joy. There is no reason, in the context of Hebrews, to conclude that the writer was positively teaching that saints in heaven observe earthly events, a concept that would be completely irrelevant to his point.
Now, as I was working on this, I realized that in many ways, Armstrong’s book parallels Scott Hahn’s newest release, Reasons to Believe. Of course, Hahn’s costs $22 and is a hardback, while Armstrong’s is a paperback and costs significantly less. But text wise, they are similar, as Hahn’s is “puffed,” that is, smaller page size, thicker pages, less text on the page. And though Armstrong will probably faint when I say this, in some ways, his book is better than Hahn’s. As Steve Hays commented in his review of this book, “Considering Hahn’s experience and prominence in contemporary Catholic apologetics, one is startled by the quality of the performance, which is thin in more ways than one….Then we have Fr. Groeschel’s statement that this is “a flagship volume for contemporary apologetics. This book should be required reading for every Catholic college student and especially for every priest, seminarian, and deacon.”…Is this a flagship or a rubber ducky?” I have to agree with Hays’ sentiments. Outside of the considerable effort that must go into penning the cheesiest subtitles known to man, there is precious little of substance in this work.
So if I can expand the application of my review a bit by bringing in Hahn’s comments, I will. And it just so happens that in a chapter titled “Saints Alive” there is a section titled “Cloud Cover.” Yup, it is about Hebrews 12:1 (Armstrong doesn’t have a chance against Hahn when it comes to cheesy chapter titles and subtitles, but Hahn doesn’t have a ghost of a chance against Armstrong in tree climbing or leather jacket wearing).
Hahn notes the context of Hebrews 12, which is, of course, the preceding chapter and its list of the faithful. He writes,
Now, with Christ’s redemption, the promise has been fulfilled, the heavenly city given to the faithful. They are there, says the Letter to the Hebrews, and yet they are also with us; for they surround us as “so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1).
Why did the inspired author recall these great figures from long-ago history? I believe he has several reasons. First, he wanted to inspire his readers–who were then facing persecution–to imitate the patriarchs’ virtuous principle. He presents the ancestors as “witnesses,” and witnesses given testimony. Israel’s patriarchs continued to testify as the Church remembered their earthly deeds. The bright lights of salvation history had kept the faith, even though it had cost them everything….As Christians heard the testimony of the lives of these witnesses, they were fortified for their own trials.
Up to this point, I agree completely. The writer’s point is to encourage the beleaguered Christians to press onward in light of the supremacy of Christ. There is nothing to go back to, and their own history contains example after example of the faithful who, though they had not received the promise, saw it from afar, pressed on. Did they literally “see” the promise? No, surely not, but they saw it with the eye of faith. Keep that in mind. If I might quote Marcus Dods on this text from The Expositor’s Greek New Testament:
ne,foj used frequently in Homer and elsewhere, as “nubes” in Latin and “cloud” in English to suggest a vast multitude. martu,rwn, “witnesses,” persons who by their actions have testified to the worth of faith. The cloud of witnesses are those named and suggested in chap. xi; persons whose lives witnessed to the work and triumph of faith, and whose faith was witnessed to by Scripture, cf. xi. 2., 4, 5. This cloud is perikei,menon, because, as the writer has just shown, look where they will into their history his Hebrew readers see such examples of faith. It is impossible to take ma,rturej as equivalent to qeatai,. If the idea of “spectator” is present at all, which is very doubtful, it is only introduced by the words tre,cwmen … avgw/na. The idea is not that they are running in presence of spectators and must therefore run well; but that their people’s history being filled with examples of much-enduring but triumphant faith, they also must approve their lineage by showing a like persistence of faith. (IV: 365).
There are other commentators, such as Philip Edgecumbe Hughes, who derive “observation” from the metaphorical language. But the point that must be seen is that for the Roman Catholic usage of this text to stand, an equivalency must be drawn between “witness” and “spectator.” It is not enough, in light of the context lacking any emphasis at all upon communication with the dead, the observation of living people by the dead, or exhortation based upon such concepts, to merely say it is “possible” to read the text in this fashion. Something much stronger, much more compelling, must be provided than the mere suggestion that “witness” can be taken in such a fashion. And I hardly think I need to point out, yet again, that Rome has not officially defined the meaning of this text. In fact, some would argue Rome has not officially defined the meaning of any text at all, so for the Roman Catholic who constantly decries “private interpretation,” consistency would demand they recognize that their own interpretations do not have dogmatic sanction from their own ultimate authority.
Keeping these things in mind, I continue with Hahn’s commentary:
But witnesses do more than testify. Witnesses also observe. And the author of Hebrews wanted his readers to know that Christians were not alone in their struggles, that the bygone heroes were with them, watching from a homeland that would one day belong to everyone who persevered in the faith. Nor are the saints waching from a distance. They “surround” the faithful on earth.
At this point he goes on to talk about clouds and make connections that I truly don’t find useful or compelling. In any case, Hahn does not provide us with any compelling exegetical, contextual reasons to accept his views. He claims to know what the writer to the Hebrews “wanted” his readers to know, but he does not explain how he comes to this conclusion. Why doesn’t the author make the connections Hahn does? Where is the textual foundation for these conclusions? Is it possible, even probable, that Rome’s external dogmatic authority is in the background here, as it so often is? I would think so.
Both Armstrong and Hahn address the same text in Revelation 6:9-11 next, so I will address their comments as time permits.