Should Christians Pray for the Dead? (Cyril of Jerusalem and John Chrysostom)

I was invited to say a few words at a funeral recently. I was not very close to the family – which made it both an honor to be invited and also meant that I wast not involved in any of the planning of the ceremony. During the course of the service, many prayers were offered and many of them were directed towards the recently deceased. The helpless theologian I am, I couldn’t help but begin the mental conversation over this classic question:

Should Christians pray for the dead?

It’s vital to realize that this is a very personal and pastoral question, as well as a theological issue. While I was thinking this question over, I ran across the following thoughts about prayers for the dead from two classic Church Fathers:

Cyril of Jerusalem: “We pray for the holy fathers and bishops who have fallen asleep, and in general for all those who have fallen asleep before us, in the belief that it is a great benefit to the souls for whom the prayers are offered… In the same way, b offering to God our prayers for those who have fallen asleep and who have sinned, we offer Christ sacrificed for the sins of all, and by doing so, obtain the loving God’s favor for them and for ourselves.” [4th Century text on Eucharistic Liturgy]

John Chrysostom: “Let us help and commemorate them (the dead). After all, if the children of Job were purified by the sacrifice of their father (Job 1:5), why should we doubt that our offering for the dead bring them any comfort? … Let us not hesitate to help those who have died, and to offer our prayers on their behalf.” [Homily at the very end of the 4th Century]

What do you think about Cyril and John’s beliefs about the effects of prayers for the dead and the reasoning they offer for the practice?

What do you think: Should Christians pray for the dead?
Why or why not?


A Simple Case for Christian Nonviolence

[1] Jesus’ Direct Teaching

“Nonviolent resistance” might be a more accurate term for Jesus’ teachings: he commands a “third way” between doing nothing and responding to violence with violence, namely, returning evil with good; resisting with love.

  • Jesus clearly expects his followers to live nonviolently – rebuking them on many occasions where they stray from this expectation:
    Luke 9:51-56
    Luke 22:47-51

[2] Jesus’ Explicit Example

  • As the Incarnate God, Jesus’ nonviolent historical life is both: 

[3] Overall Narrative of the Bible – From Old Testament to the Kingdom of God

Despite the (divine and human) violence in the Old Testament, there is a promise of and clear trajectory towards a nonviolent community

  • Israel’s battles weren’t won with military prowess, but by simply obeying & trusting God
    Joshua 6:1-7
    Psalm 20:6-9
  • OT has clear promises of the Kingdom of God’s arrival calling God’s people to nonviolence
    Isaiah 2:1-5
    Micah 4:1-5

[4] The Early Church Thought It Was Obvious

  • The early church (from the time of Christ to the time of Constantine in the 4th century) was fully nonviolent. Here is a small sampling of quotes:

Justin Martyr (100-165 AD)
“We who were filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness, have each through the whole earth changed our warlike weapons—our swords into ploughshares, and our spears into implements of tillage—and we cultivate piety, righteousness, philanthropy, faith, and hope, which we have from the Father Himself through Him who was crucified.”

Tertullian (160-225 AD)
“Shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law?”
“If one attempt to provoke you by manual violence, the admonition of the Lord is at hand: To him,‟ He 
says, ‘who strikes you on the face, turn the other cheek also.’ Let outrageousness be wearied out by your patience.“
“Christ, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier…”
“And shall he apply the chain and the prison and the torture and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?”
“Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?”

Hippolytus (170-236 AD)

“The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God.”

Origen of Alexandria (185-254 AD)

“We have come in accordance with the counsel of Jesus to cut down our arrogant swords of argument into plowshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we formerly used in fighting. For we no longer take swords against a nation, nor do we learn anymore to make war, having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our Lord.”

Marcellus (298 AD)

“I threw down my arms for it was not seemly that a Christian man, who renders military service to the Lord Christ, should render it by earthly injuries.” “It is not lawful for a Christian to bear arms for any earthly consideration.”

Martin of Tours (316-397)

“I am a soldier of  Christ. To fight is not permissible for me.”

Book Review: Language for God in Patristic Tradition (Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism)

Mark Sheridan has truly given the world a gift with his51lXsMiBYDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ recent publication, Language for God in Patristic Tradition, published by IVP Academic. I’ve used the book as a resource for a previous post – Cassiodorus on the Violence in Psalm 137 – and am thrilled to now offer a full review. During my time as a graduate student, I became very interested in patristic theology and hermeneutics. I was always particularly interested in how they dealt with biblical “anthropomorphisms” which might conflict with a classical theist’s view of God as un-changing, all-knowing, and more. With this book, Sheridan expertly navigates the reader through the interpretive strategies of the early church Fathers as they wrestled with our sacred texts.

The explicit goal of the book is to show how ancient Christian theologians understood the problem of certain presentations of God that attributed human characteristics and emotions to the divine and to detail how they dealt with it. To accomplish this task, Sheridan provides the reader with plenty of primary texts from patristic writers along with detailed expositions of their interpretations. He continually draws on authors such as the Alexandrians, Clement, Origen, Didymus, Chrysostom, and more. The heart of his discovery: there is a widely used double-criterion for interpreting the difficult texts of Scripture: 1] It must be useful to humans (since it was written by God and preserved by the Spirit for the spiritual maturity of the church) and 2] it must be “worthy of God” – that is, it must be read in light of certain truths about God that were already known. The early Christians drew some of their criteria for what is worthy of God from Plato and other Greek philosophers but also, and primarily, from the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

Three case studies are offered in the book to illustrate how ancient authors used this hermeneutical strategy:
A. The Creation Story (saturated with anthropomorphisms)
B. The Story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar (which seems to condone adultery)
C. The Conquest Narratives of Joshua (which seems at odd with Jesus’ life and teachings)

The case studies show that the early Christians were not shy about addressing the problem of the divine nature as presented in problematic texts. I particularly enjoyed the way that the Church Fathers interpreted the violent conquest stories in light of the divine love of humanity revealed in Jesus Christ. The two criterion led them to allegorical interpretations – readings that would not be considered appropriate to a historical-grammatical exegete. However, these theological readings (interpretations made in light of their understanding of the nature of God) are often beautiful and perhaps more faithful to the overall narrative of Scripture than modern alternatives. Sheridan also offers a chapter on how the Church Fathers read the many disturbing images in the Psalms – an interesting and incredibly fruitful exercise.

I’ve been an outspoken proponent of theological exegesis for years now and found myself encouraged by the data presented in this book. I was happy, and a little surprised, to see just how much the patristic writers used the revelation of Jesus as an interpretive tool – something I have advocated for as well. Sheridan has clearly mastered this material and the result is an interesting, engaging, and convincing presentation of the interpretive strategy of the early church writers when it came to problematic texts in the Scriptures. Lastly, his very precise and brief appendix on the presuppositions, criteria, and rules employed in Ancient Christian Hermeneutics is worth the price of the book itself. It will be standard reading for all of my classes that discuss the different methods of interpretation throughout Christian history.

I highly recommend this book for:
– courses on the patristic writers or on hermeneutics in general
– those interested in patristics or hermeneutics
– those troubled with “problem texts” in the Scriptures
– those interested in the way we use language to speak about God
– preachers
(In his foreword, Thomas C. Oden writes, “This book will keep the preaching pastor out of a whole lot of trouble. Constantly in biblical teaching we use human language to speak of God, knowing very well that God transcends human speech. We may stumble over the Bible’s words if we are unaware of how profoundly the classic Christian tradition has examined this question. This book gives the ordinary reader access to that wisdom.” I couldn’t agree more.)

Note: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for an unbiased review.

Cyril of Alexandria’s “Canon within the Canon” – What is yours?

Cyril of Alexandria was the church father who argued tirelessly for an orthodox Christology which could genuinely call Mary the Theotokos. He struggled against Nestorius, who allegedly attempted to inappropriately distinguish between the actions and experiences of the divine Son of God and the human Jesus. Against this teaching, Cyril fought to the death to preserve the unity of the divine and human in the Incarnation. For Cyril, the perfect union of God and Man in the Incarnation was the heart of soteriology – the truth of how God has saved humanity.

When one reads Cyril they find that he has a collection of “pet texts” that he references often in order to explain key passages of Scripture or to defend certain doctrines. For Cyril, his “go-to” texts consisted of John 1:14, Philippians 2:5-11, Hebrews 2:14-17, and (as I argued in my thesis) Romans 5:14. It’s not hard to see why – all of these verses emphasize the Incarnation of the eternal Word of God and its salvific implications. Thus, no matter what text or doctrine Cyril is dealing with, a quick and steady reference to these texts helps put the issue in his overall theological context. As an example, see my post on Cyril’s theological reading of Luke 10:23-24.  

I wonder if this practice, of developing a “canon within the canon” of sorts, is a helpful example for Christians wishing to faithfully interpret Scripture and understand key doctrines. In fact, I would suggest that most Christians already (perhaps subconsciously) interpret Scripture and various theologies in this fashion.

I know that I have a few “go-to texts” that I immediately think of when pondering exegetical or theological issues: John 1:14-18, Hebrews 1:1-4, Galatians 1:3-4, and Philippians 3:20-21. Those who know me can easily see why/how these texts work in my thinking: I consistently emphasize Jesus as the clearest and fullest picture of God (John 1:14-18 and Hebrews 1:1-4), I also have a fairly apocalyptic eschatology (Galatians 1:3-4), and I think Christians should focus more on the future resurrection of the dead (Philippians 3:20-21). Thus, one of my first questions when thinking through an exegetical or theological issue is often: “How does this fit with an understanding of the life and teachings of Jesus as the perfect revelation of God’s character and will?”

I’m interested in whether you have some “pet texts,” what they say about your theology, and whether you think that this practice is ultimately helpful or harmful. So:

 Do you have “key texts” which function for you as a “canon-within-a-canon”? 
What do you they say about your theology?
What dangers are there to employing such an approach to exegesis/theology?