Reply to Dave Armstrong

by Ron Henzel

It is always a good thing when we stand corrected and are able to muster the humility and courage to admit that the correction is right. It is always a commendable thing when anyone is able to not only properly receive such correction, but to do so in a public forum where egos are vulnerable and—especially in these days—frequently subjected to merciless attacks. The value of such acts should not be minimized.

It is in this spirit that I gratefully acknowledge Dave Armstrong’s retraction of his assertion that “John Calvin Prayed to (Dead) Philip Melanchthon.” I commend him for changing the title to an unambiguous “John Calvin Did NOT Pray to Philip Melanchthon,” and I thank him not only for citing my blog post of May 2 as providing the reason that persuaded him to make that change, but for actually thanking me for that input.

I have been in Dave’s place before. I have made glaring misstatements of fact that others have called me on, and I have had to publicly retract them. I know how that felt for me, and that is why my admiration for his concession precludes any victory dance on my part. The victory here is his, not mine.

Having said that, however, I wish I could also say that this is where the whole matter was put to rest. If it were up to me, that is what would have happened. In such a circumstance, this blog post would now be ending with this paragraph, and I would be moving on to other things. But it seems that Dave cannot let the matter rest where I think it should.

He referred to “some significant ways in which [I] misrepresented [his] original argument,” and said, “In conclusion, I wish to clarify a few secondary things that Ron got wrong about my view: even my mistaken one.” (Italics his.)

So apparently, even when I’m right, I’m far more wrong than I am right, and Dave thinks I’m so significantly wrong about several things that he has gone to some trouble to call them to everyone’s attention. Since these all constitute objections to my previous post, I will enumerate them as such—at least the ones I think are worth mentioning, which is the majority of them—and respond to them in order.

Objection #1: I Exaggerated What Dave Actually Argued.

This objection comes in response to my claim that apostrophes can be distinguished from prayers with relative ease by the fact that the latter include requests and the former do not, which makes it a bit confusing, since that makes the exaggeration about something I wrote rather than something he argued.

In making this objection, Dave first appeals to the fact that that Calvin’s use of the word “appeal,” makes it sound like he’s offering a prayer. (Note: in case anyone wonders, the original Latin text of the sentence in view here reads: “O Philippe Melanchthon! Te enim appello, qui apud Deum cum Christo vivis, nosque illic exspectas, donec tecum in beatam quietem colligamur.”­­ Corpus Reformatorum 37 [Braunschweig, Germany: C.A. Schwetschke and Sons, 1870], col. 461. “I appeal” is a perfectly good translation of appello.) He goes on further to cite Matt. 26:53, where Jesus speaks of praying to His Father and the RSV and ESV both translate παρακαλέω (parakaleō) as “appeal.” Thus his point here seems to be that calling Calvin’s paragraph a “prayer” was not unwarranted given Calvin’s wording.

Again, the problem with this objection is that Dave has not shown how I have exaggerated anything he argued. If anything, he is simply reiterated my summary of his thesis, which was effectively summarized in the (former) title of his blog post: “John Calvin Prayed to (Dead) Philip Melanchthon.” How I exaggerated the meaning of this statement eludes me.

On the other hand, it seems that what Dave’s new point here actually argues is that I have exaggerated how easy it is to distinguish an apostrophe from a prayer. This would explain why he submits as evidence the use of the word “appeal” in other prayer-contexts.

Also, in apparent support of his “exaggeration” objection: based on comments he made after his original post, Dave’s revised post now argues that he “was not dogmatically declaring that it was necessarily prayer, and could see other possibilities.” But that does not change the fact that he was essentially arguing that Calvin prayed to Melanchthon, as the title of his post trumpeted across the Web. The word “possibly” was not in that title.

In any case, to the charge(s) inherent in this objection I confidently plead, “Not guilty.”

The word “appeal” does not automatically denote a request, and Calvin made the exact nature of his particular appeal clear in his subsequent text: viz., he was appealing not for present help from Melanchthon, but to Melanchthon’s prior example in dealing with the apostate Staphylus and his encouraging words to Calvin during his controversy with Nicolas Le Coq. This is consistent with Merriam-Webster’s definition 3a for the word “appeal:” “an application (as to a recognized authority) for corroboration, vindication, or decision.” In this case Calvin was making application to statements that Melanchthon had made while alive which corroborated what Calvin was now saying.

And even if Dave was being something less than dogmatic in his declaration (whatever that may mean), he was still declaring that Calvin prayed to Melanchthon.

Objection #2: I Accused Dave of Saying That Calvin Engaged in a Completely Roman Catholic Practice.

As Dave himself put it (the italics and bold are his):

Too often, Protestant debaters or apologists assume without proof (i.e., begging the question) that the Catholic must be equating some noted Protestant similarity of belief or practice with the Catholic counterpart, as if the two are absolutely identical in all respects and aspects.

This is a classic case of this error.

This is in response to what I wrote here:

Armstrong essentially alleged that he found an instance of Calvin practicing (perhaps a Protestant version of) what Roman Catholics call “the intercession of the saints,” in which requests are made to dead Christians who in turn pass them on to God based on (a) the belief they can hear us and (b) the belief that their righteousness will help the request to prevail with God.

The first thing I would point out in response is that I anticipated this objection, and it was because I did that I included my parenthetical qualification: “perhaps a Protestant version of.” This was my way of allowing for the possibility that Dave was not saying that Calvin’s alleged prayer was “absolutely identical in all respects and aspects” to the Roman Catholic intercession of the saints. I thought the qualification was sufficient to head off this objection, but apparently not. And yet, why not? I would think it is obvious that “a Protestant version of” a Roman Catholic teaching would be assumed to differ in at least some respect or aspect from the aforementioned Roman Catholic teaching. After all, versions are, by definition, forms or variants that automatically differ from each other at various points.

Therefore, I once again enter a plea of “Not guilty.” I was not saying what he was accusing me of saying about him.

Objection #3: I Contradicted Myself When I Characterized His Quote from Calvin as Being Made with “Cynical Brevity.”

In order to understand this objection, one has to understand how Dave has chosen to represent my assertion that his allegation that Calvin prayed to Melanchthon is comparable, at least on some level, to Roman Catholicism’s intercession of the saints. He initially characterizes my remark as a reference to “an imaginary argument that I never made,” later implying that I viewed it as “an elaborate argument of the intercession of saints.” He further declares that this “elaborate argument” is a “fanciful myth” that I “dreamt up.”

Now, if anyone reading my previous post is confused because they can’t find the place where I posited that Dave had made any kind of “elaborate argument” in his original post, the reason for that is simple: I never said any such thing. In fact, as Dave himself points out, I followed up my “cynical brevity remark” by noting that his post essentially consisted of his Calvin quote “with no substantive comment.” Where is there room for an “elaborate argument” in a post that has “no substantive comment?” I never said there was, and so to this off-the-wall charge I also plead, “Not guilty.”

Objection #4: It Was Unfair of Me to Suggest that He Should Have Checked His Source’s Introduction Before Making His Allegation.

Now, Dave did not actually use the word “unfair,” but I don’t believe there is any other way to understand point when he feels compelled to defend himself by writing that “it was not obvious that Reid would have mentioned this one citation in the Introduction.” And, of course, he’s right about that: it’s not obvious. You never know what an introduction is going to cover and what it is going to omit. But how does that excuse his failure to check it?

Besides, not only did Dave miss the fact that Reid called his quote from Calvin an “apostrophe,” he also missed Beveridge calling it the same thing in his index to the other source that he cited. Checking introductions and indices is one of the things that separates thorough research from sloppy research.

“Not guilty!”

Objection #5: I Committed a Straw Man Fallacy by Critiquing the Doctrine of the Intercession of the Saints.

This little pearl of rhetoric deserves a full citation:

Ron goes on to an extended exposition / critique of the full Catholic notion of intercession of saints. But since I never claimed that Calvin engaged in that, all of it is an extended version of the straw man fallacy; perfectly irrelevant to the present dispute.

[Italics and URL link his.]

I would hardly characterize what I wrote about the intercession of the saints either “an extended exposition” or a “critique.” I only mentioned the term three times.

In my first reference to it I wrote:

Armstrong essentially alleged that he found an instance of Calvin practicing (perhaps a Protestant version of) what Roman Catholics call “the intercession of the saints,” in which requests are made to dead Christians who in turn pass them on to God based on (a) the belief they can hear us and (b) the belief that their righteousness will help the request to prevail with God.

Here I simply defined it; I did not at all expound on it (let alone extensively expound on it) or critique it.

In my second reference to it I wrote:

In the third book of those Institutes, Calvin referred to the intercession of the saints as “the height of stupidity, not to say madness,” something that was invented by man and had “no support in God’s word,” …and which had progressed to “a manifest disposition to superstition” …

There is more, but it’s all from Calvin, not from me. It includes no exposition, but only critique, and I did not include it in order to make a case against the intercession of the saints, but simply to show the absurdity of saying that Calvin would have prayed to a dead person.

In my third and final reference to it I wrote:

Prayers are not merely addresses; they are petitions. That, in fact, is the whole purpose of the doctrine of the intercession of the saints.

Again, here one finds neither extended exposition nor critique of the intercession of the saints, but simply a reference to its purpose. For Dave to object that he himself never equated what Calvin did to the doctrine of the intercession of the saints is a red herring. The doctrine in view here is flawlessly summarized as the Roman Catholic church’s teaching that Christians should pray to dead saints so that they might intercede on their behalf. In the church’s own words:

Their intercession is their most exalted service to God’s plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world.

[Catechism of the Catholic Church §2683, (New York, NY, USA: Doubleday, 1997), 707.]

So in point of fact, instead of referring to “the whole purpose of the doctrine of the intercession of the saints,” I could have simply written, “the whole purpose of the church’s teaching about praying to dead saints,” and it would have meant precisely the same thing. There was no need to explore the details of the doctrine, and I did not explore them. Its purpose is that the saints pass our requests on to (i.e., intercede for us before) God.

An extended exposition is by definition a discourse, and I gave no such thing. I merely gave a simple, two-point definition. And while I did pass on some very select details of Calvin’s critique of the doctrine in question, it was (a) not mine, (b) hardly a full-blown critique, and (c) only for the purpose of establishing Calvin’s position.

“Not guilty!”

Summary Judgment

I have been accused of exaggeration, misrepresentation, self-contradiction, imposing an unfair requirement, and committing an informal (straw man) fallacy. I believe that my replies to each of these objections has demonstrated the same pattern that I noted in the title of my previous post: “jumping the gun.” Each objection is a shoot-from-the-hip overreaction to a cursory reading of what I wrote. He is simply treating me the way he originally treated Calvin.

Granted, Calvin’s prose in the article Dave cited is rather involved. It requires that the meaning of his sentences and paragraphs be assembled from his broader context. Thus it rewards thorough, careful reading while penalizing any “parachute drop” method that presumes to understand isolated statements. And that’s exactly where I think Dave went wrong from the outset of his original post. If one cannot exercise the care requisite for plodding through the writings of 16th century authors (and Calvin is among the more lucid of them), one has no business commenting on them.

“No; I Pray Thee, Speak in Sober Judgment.”

Thus said Claudio to Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, (Act 1, Scene 1, Line 171, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, William George Clark and William Aldis Wright, eds., [New York, NY, USA: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1911], 136).

No doubt most of us know that the word “pray” can refer to a question, request, or plea made by any given person to any other given person. It does not have to be a question, request, or plea addressed to God. (Although according to the Oxford English Dictionary, such usage is now rare. See its definition 2.)  And most of us also know how to distinguish the horizontal, human-to-human prayer from the vertical human-to-God prayer in everyday speech. As someone once spoofed, it’s not rocket surgery.

And so with all due respect, I have to say if there is ever a point in Dave’s rebuttal where he seems to be making much ado about nothing, it comes when he launches into his (according to Microsoft Word) 1,054-word critique of “the typical Protestant conception of the word prayer” (italics his). I shall do my best to charitably summarize it as follows:

  1. Dave asserts that “confusion” has been generated by the fact that Protestants typically limit the concept of prayer to petitions and intercessions made to God.
  2. Dave then asserts that Roman Catholics are justified in expanding the definition of prayer to include dead saints because not all prayer must be addressed to God.
  3. Dave further expands the definition of prayer to include “something as simple as communication.”
  4. So Dave concludes that “when I stated in my title that Calvin ‘prayed to Melanchthon’ all it had to mean was that he communicated with him. Period! He could have said, “Hi Phil! Wish I were with ya. I miss all our old Lutheran vs. Reformed fights . . .” and that could be called a “prayer” in this larger meaning of the term. It’s that simple.
  5. Not content with his own conclusion, Dave feels the need to cite an online dictionary which confirms that “prayer” can refer to requests made to human beings, as well as nine biblical examples designed to show the same thing (Isa 5:3; Mk 5:23; Lk 14:18-19 (twice); Acts 8:34; 24:4; 27:34; 2 Cor 5:20; Lk 16:27—the first from the RSV, the rest from the KJV). The New Testament examples of these are in turn compared to three references (Jn 14:16; 16:26; 17:9) that establish that (at least in the case of the New Testament) the same word that applies to prayer to God and also apply to requests to men.

Now this is truly an elaborate argument, especially as we see how it unfolds! I will not take as long in replying to it as Dave took in making it.

Turning this into a semantic issue is a red herring. Even so, regarding the semantics:

  1. The meaning of “prayer” depends on the context in which it is used, not on whether one is assuming an allegedly “Protestant” or “Roman Catholic” meaning of the term. (Though perhaps someday Dave will share the raw data on which he bases his thesis that a “typical Protestant” doesn’t use the word “pray” to refer to human-to-human requests.)
  2. The precise meaning of the original title of Dave’s post is not ambiguous. No verbal can of worms was opened at any time to cause “confusion” among Protestants readers. Praying to the dead is naturally understood as a living human praying to a dead human. The example of the dead Rich Man pleading with the dead Abraham is not relevant to this discussion.
  3. It is ironic that after defending his original error that Calvin was praying to Melanchthon on the basis of the word “appeal,” since he obviously mistook his appeal to Melanchthon’s writings as an appeal for something from him (he said it seemed to imply “some sort of petition”), that Dave is now strenuously arguing that a prayer does not have to include a petition, and that all his previous title “had to mean” was that Calvin “communicated” with Melanchthon. (“All it had to mean?” Notice how these words skirt the issue of what he actually meant!) So what he previously granted with his right hand (that it looked like a petition and therefore a prayer) he has removed with his left (it didn’t have to be a petition to be a prayer).
  4. Even according to the dictionary definitions Dave has supplied, prayer always involves requesting or asking for something. A specific prayer can include other things, but even in the Lord’s prayer, everything after “Hallowed be Thy Name” is a request for something specific.

The bottom line here is that now that Dave has conceded that he was wrong for accusing Calvin of praying to Melanchthon, not only does it strain credulity for him to now assert that he was not talking accusing Calvin of something similar to the intercession of the saints, it is utterly beside the point. He accused Calvin of praying to the dead Melanchthon, and he admits to being wrong about that. Now he wants to deny that such an accusation is sufficiently equivalent to saying Calvin was petitioning Melanchthon and seeking his intercession, but he’s wrong about that, too.

So Is the Intercession of the Saints Really Irrelevant?

Once Dave finished responding to my post, he addressed a response I gave in the comments following my post. I was replying to a reader who asked about my view of the communion of saints, and I indicated that the Reformed teaching on this subject certainly includes spiritual communion between believers on earth and in heaven, but (quoting from volume 4 of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics) I stressed that this does not include praying to believers in heaven, since that would be impossible. After quoting Bavinck, I wrote the following:

Even though saints who have died are included in the communion of saints, one of the “dividing walls” that remains to be leveled is the fact that their physical deaths prevent them from communicating with the living. Bavinck does not mention it here, but he goes into it at length in 4:620-627. His position is that “Scripture consistently tells us that at death all fellowship with this earth ends,” (ibid., 625).

Dave’s response to my post came the next day (about four and a half hours prior to his retraction), and the first thing he homed in on was this paragraph from my comment. He quoted the first sentence of it back to me and then wrote:

Really? Why, then, did Moses and Elijah appear at the Transfiguration? Why did Samuel appear to Saul and tell him he was to die the next day? What about the Two Witnesses of Revelation (commentators think they may be Moses and Elijah, or maybe Enoch and Elijah)?

The physical deaths of all these men did not prevent THEM from “communicating with the living.”

Yet you claim that this is not possible and forbidden by God. So what gives? I go with Scripture, whenever traditions of men contradict it.

[Note: this version is slightly edited to include a correction to a typographical error that Dave supplied in a follow-up comment.]

I had to ask a question at this point: why would someone committed to Roman Catholic doctrine be so quick to challenge the assertion that the dead cannot hear the prayers of the living? If the intercession of the saints is “perfectly irrelevant to the present dispute” (emphasis Dave’s), then why is it that the first thing he did was attempt to provide counterexamples of this particular point from Scripture? Is there some other Roman Catholic doctrine that requires that the living be able to communicate with the dead?

No. Roman Catholicism is just as much opposed to séances and other forms of conjuring up the dead as are Protestants (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church §2117, ibid. 570). There is no reason to cite these counterexamples other than to defend the doctrine of the intercession of the saints. And yet if that was not the issue to begin with, why did Dave choose that as his first field of battle?

The only answer can be that at that point in time, four hours prior to his retraction, that was what he believed to be at stake here because that was his motivation for writing his hit-piece on Calvin to begin with. It’s the only explanation that makes any sense. Only after Dave realized that his original position (that Calvin had prayed to Melanchthon) was untenable did he seek to deny the implicit premise of that original post (that Calvin’s “prayer” constituted a practical endorsement of the intercession of the saints) in order to salvage whatever remaining coherence for that post that he could. Unfortunately, that ship had sailed.

So What About Samuel, Moses, and Elijah, etc.?

The most obvious problem with Dave’s counterexamples is that none of them are examples of prayer to the dead. That’s what this has been about from the moment he gave the title “John Calvin Prayed to (Dead) Philip Melanchthon” to his original post.

Now, I anticipate that Dave may object that he provided his counterexamples not as specimens of prayer, but in response to my comment that physical death is a “dividing wall” that prevents the dead from communicating with the living. But such an objection depends on an obfuscation designed to confuse the occasion of Dave’s counterexamples with the contextual reason for them. The occasion was my remark; the reason was that he was defending praying to dead saints.

I can hardly believe that I feel compelled to say this to literate people who are familiar with the Transfiguration account, but it is more than obvious that the appearance of Moses and Elijah was a miraculous event (Matt 17:1-9; Mk 9:2-9; Lk 9:28-36), and that miraculous events are, by definition, exceptions to natural norms. There is nothing in the Synoptic accounts to suggest that either of these prophets from heaven were even aware of the presence of Peter, James, and John while on the mount with Jesus, much less that they regularly heard the prayers of those living on earth.

As for Saul consulting with the medium from En-dor (1 Sam 28:7-20) in violation of the same Mosaic laws (Lev 19:31; 20:6, 27; Dt 18:10-12) that he was supposedly enforcing (1 Sam 28:9): it is obvious from the text that the medium was shocked that she had actually brought up a spirit (28:12), and so this is another miraculous account, similar to the Transfiguration event, in which God overrode the normal order for His purposes. Outside of such divine intervention, the Lord Himself forbade attempts to communicate with the dead (cf. previous references in Lev and Dt).

Meanwhile, Dave’s counterexample of the two witnesses in Rev 11:3-12 is purely speculative. They are introduced suddenly and prophesy for 1,260 days (Rev 11:3) during which time they work miracles of judgment (11:5-6) until they are killed by “the beast from the bottomless pit” and their bodies lie in public as the world celebrates (11:7-10). Then God resurrects them and they ascend into heaven (11:11-12). None of this provides support for the practice of praying to dead saints.

The Biblical Teaching

Not only is there no reference anywhere in Scripture to praying to the dead, let alone authorizing it, but Scripture contains clear and repeated declarations that a dead person is “cut off” from “the earth” (Ex 9:15), from “among his people,” (Ex 31:14), and from “the land of the living” (Isa 53:8; Jer 11:9), and no longer shares any knowledge with those who remain in this “under the sun” plane of existence:

For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun….for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

[Ecc 9:5-6, 10b, ESV]

When a man dies, he loses all contact with the world of the living: “His sons come to honor, and he does not know it; they are brought low, and he perceives it not,” (Job 14:21, ESV). He is no longer aware of the things that happen to his people or his home (2 Ki 22:20) because the dead dwell in “the land of forgetfulness” (Ps 88:11-12).

Texts such as these demonstrate the futility of praying to the dead, but other texts demonstrate its presumptuousness. “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” (1 Ti 2:5, ESV). No one other than the Second Person of the Trinity incarnate can intercede on our behalf before God. It is foolish to pray to any dead saint, because “No one comes to the Father except through” Christ (Jn 14:6, ESV), and “since he always lives to make intercession for” us (Heb 7:25, ESV).

We have many commands and directions concerning prayer in Scripture. None of them direct us to pray to another human being, much less to a dead human being, even when premised on the notion that we are simply asking such departed people to pray for us, as if they could even hear us, when in fact they cannot.

3 Comments

  1. Kevin said,

    May 12, 2016 at 8:52 am

    Very well done. If the most intimate union on earth, marriage, is no longer in death, then we can add this as an example in support of the theme that dead saints arent in communication with those on earth. Mary hasn’t heard a prayer since the day she died, nor any other saint.

  2. Ron Henzel said,

    May 12, 2016 at 10:06 am

    It appears that Dave Armstrong is declaring victory and withdrawing from the field of battle:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davearmstrong/2016/04/john-calvin-prayed-to-dead-philip-melanchthon.html#comment-2670932100

    “That’s all I have to say, about that.” —Forrest Gump

  3. greenbaggins said,

    May 12, 2016 at 6:17 pm

    Tightly reasoned, Ron. Well done.


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