Thursday, March 25, 2010

ATP: Prayers for the Dead

If it doesn’t do any good to pray for the dead, does it do any harm?

When the Lutheran reformers argued against prayers for the dead, what they were contending against is the false hope that because of our prayers, God might posthumously forgive those who had been impenitent. Also, while there is ample evidence in the early church of prayers for the dead, this practice had become so entwined with the Roman Catholic belief in purgatory that the Lutherans found these nearly inextricable.

And yet, the Lutheran Confessions say, “"We know that the ancients spoke of prayer for the dead. We do not prohibit this. . . .Epiphanius testifies that Aerius believed that prayers for the dead were useless. This he rejects. We do not support Aerius either" (Ap. XXIV.94, 96).

So may we pray for the dead? We teach and confess against the Roman Catholic error. And yet, there is Christian prayer for the dead, even as we pray for all the Church in heaven and on earth. The first prayer in the Prayer of the Church in the Funeral Service is “Almighty God, You have knit Your chosen people together into one communion in the mystical body of Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Give to Your whole Church in heaven and on earth Your light and Your peace.” We do not pray so that God would grant to the faithful departed some new or extra light and peace. They already have His light and peace in the fullest. As one Lutheran pastor explained, “to extrapolate the Small Catechism: God certainly gives his light and peace to those who rest with him, even to those for whom no one prays, but we pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would lead us to realize this and receive this gift with thanksgiving.”

The Christian Cyclopedia notes, “Luther's position is best summarized: ‘Nothing has been commanded or enjoined upon us concerning the dead. Therefore all this may be safely omitted, even if it were no error and idolatry’ (SA-II II 12). He inclines to a cautious toleration of the practice, points out that we have no command to pray for the dead, inasmuch as those who are in heaven do not need prayers, and those who are in hell cannot be helped thereby, and suggests that Christians make their prayers conditional (WA 10-III, 194–195, 409 to 410; 11, 130; 12, 596; 26, 508; 44, 203).”

We do not pray for the damned, those who died impenitently, without faith in Jesus. But, as long as we do not hope falsely like Roman Catholics that God might change the already-declared verdict on the dead, we may pray for the faithful departed, as we do in the liturgy and in hymns.


jWinters said...

Very interesting point here. I'm being a pain about prepositions these days. Would this not more correctly be deemed a prayer "upon" or "about" or even "concerning" the dead rather than "for"? "For" gives the sense of an intercessory nature of us "for" them.

Thanks for this one!

in Christ,

Pastor Hemmer said...

I don't have a Triglotta, so I don't know the prepositions in the German or Latin, but I suspect they're closer to "for the dead" than anything else, especially since the reformers are dealing with the Roman practice of prayers for the dead. It's this practice that they "do not condemn," all while condemning the false hope of our prayers being able to change the state (blessedness or condemnation) of the dead.

I like the comparison to the Lord's Prayer. We pray for things that already are all the time, we just ask that God would cause us to realize this and receive it with thanksgiving.

So whom do prayers for the dead affect? The living, the one praying. That's perhaps the critical distinction between Roman prayers for the dead (which are supposed to affect the dead) and Lutheran ones. Someone replied via email and mentioned the funeral service is the same way: it's not for the dead; it's for the living. The dead aren't guaranteed a safe passage to heaven by having a proper funeral (contra pagan funeral rites); their eternal fate is already decided. The funeral is to give comfort tho those of us who still grieve.

jWinters said...

Yeah, I absolutely loved the paraphrase of the explanation of the Lord's Prayer. My trigolatta is at work right now (not home), but I'll try to look it over tomorrow.

in Christ,

Anonymous said...

Since the passing of my son there was a turmoil inside of me, I started questioning and seeking for answers as I had never did before - I compare this to an earthquake within. Until that point I was following all I was taught at home and the schools were I studied. Suddenly I sense there is something new coming from inside out. I am been the witness of my own rebirth I truly see myself as a co-creator.