13 September 2006

Prayer for the Dead

The Lutheran Symbols are unequivocal on the topic:

"Regarding the adversaries' quoting the Fathers about the offerings for the dead, we know that the ancients speak of prayer for the dead, *WHICH WE DO NOT BAN.*" Apology XXIV:94

"Epiphanius declares that Aerius maintained prayers for the dead are useless. He finds fault with this. *WE DO NOT FAVOR AERIUS EITHER...*" Apology XXIV:96

Read the whole in context and you'll see what the Lutherans unabashedly condemned was the notion that the Mass could be offered for the dead in such a way that it operated ex opere operato and so justified the dead, but they do not believe that this is at all what the fathers intended by "offering for the dead" and demonstrate as much by citing (favorably) the canon from the liturgy of the Greek Church.

Nor is it the case that our Churches fail to pray for the dead. For at every funeral liturgy, this intercession is offered:

"Give to your whole Church *in heaven* and on earth, Your light and Your peace."

We do not pray for the blessed dead to change their state, to get them out of Purgatory, or for any such thing. We pray for the blessed dead because we love them and we wish for them every good thing from God - and we know that those who die in the Lord are not in fact dead, but live in Him, and from His presence receive joys abounding. Just as with the words of the Small Catechism: "God gives daily bread without our prayers" yet we pray for daily bread that we might learn to receive these gifts with thanksgiving, so we pray for the dead that we might be comforted in the promises of God about eternal life in Christ and rejoice that such life has been given and will be given to those who die in the faith.

"Rest eternal grant them, and let light perpetual shine upon them!" - that's the ancient prayer for the dead of the Western Church and it very much lives on in the intercessions of the Lutheran liturgy for a funeral: "Give to your whole Church in heaven and on earth Your light and Your peace." Amen!


Anonymous said...

What is the difference between the ex opere operato justification of the dead and the fact that the Fathers expected that a 'change of place', of some kind, was possible. Prayers were not offered solely for those in heaven, but for all the reposed, including those in Hell.

Stories of the Fathers speak of our prayers 'helping' those in hell, and even of somehow moving them from torment to blessedness - though not in the defined sense of the Latin construction of Purgatory. This last point underlines the non-final character of the state of the soul after death prior to the Last Judgement.

I'm just not sure if the Lutheran refusal to ban the practice of prayer for the dead, and the simple commemoration of or love for the reposed, is what the practice of the Church was - apart from whatever 'excesses' had developed in the West, which are always a bit hazy to me. What does the denial of ex opere operato justification of the dead really mean? was this the understanding of the early Church on prayers for the dead?

Dan @ Necessary Roughness said...

Pastor Weedon, thanks for this interesting article.

I am curious as to the utility of prayers for the dead. Am I making a false assumption in thinking that once a person is dead, that person's fate is decided and cannot change? If a believer is in paradise immediately after they die, like the thief on the cross, how much more can they benefit from prayer?


Rose said...

Just a thought on this. Don't we frequently ask of God the things He already gives us and thereby already benefit from? Do we not pray "Lord have mercy" even though our Lord is always merciful? Do we not pray for daily bread even though the Lord already provides it?

In essence, our prayers are an affirmation of what the Lord gives. So...when we pray "Lord have mercy", "May he rest in peace", "May his memory be eternal" we simply pray what we know about God and what He has promised for His people...plus it is a comfort to those left behind in this world to hear those promises in conjunction with their loved ones.

William Weedon said...


Exactly! Just have a minute, but will get back to this thread later, God willing. What I find is that many people have a rather static picture of heaven - you know, you're there and you're "perfect" and that's that. But I don't think that's how the Lutheran Symbols understand the Scriptures. A most intriguing passage in this regard is from the Large Catechism:

"We pray that the kingdom may come to those who are not yet in it, and, by daily growth that it may come to us who have received it, *both now and hereafter in eternity.*" LC III:53

The picture of eternity is here not static perfection, but of daily growth. Indeed, how could we ever come to an end of loving God and growing in love for Him? When the Church on earth prays for the departed and specifically asks for them "light and peace" she is asking for an ever increasing growth in the same.

Gotta run!

William Weedon said...

Dear Anon (is that Christopher?),

The evidence that the early Church prayed for the dead is beyond dispute. But I am not familiar with any place where the Church has ever taught that it is possible for those who die without repentance to be given repentance in response to the prayers of the pilgrim Church. Are you familiar with examples of this? I know that individual monastics at points speculated about the possibility, but that is a far cry from the Church teaching it, no? The condemnation of Origen's speculations about universal salvation might come into play. I think the key is that the church intercedes for the blessed dead that they might grow in the love of God - that their blessedness might increase.

christopher3rd said...

Drats, is my prose that identifiable.

I would have to go back and do a little digging on that one. I don't think there are examples of some gaining repentence, or at least in those terms. There are many examples of the easing of suffering for those in Hell, and of greater glory for those in Heaven, but I do seem to remember stories of those in sort of a "border region" that got kicked up to Heaven. It is not that there is a 3rd place, Orthodox teaching on the matter is that heaven and hell are all an experience of God's love, experienced truly either as blessedness or condemnation, as fire and brimstone or the fiery coal in Isaiah.

There is an interesting post concerning this very issue, "Bishop Kallistos on Orthodox 'Purgatory' at:


Fr. Seraphim Rose also has a very good book, 'The Soul After Death", that deals with a lot of these questions. I always found the "controversy" over him and the toll-houses to be a tempest in a teapot - he is very balanced in his presentation of the primary texts, and thoroughly acknowledges the 'metaphorical' nature of these images, as does Bp. Kallistos.