Friday, September 17, 2010

Lutherans and Praying for the Dead

Rudolf Otto, in the liturgy for Holy Communion that he used as a Lutheran pastor, publicly prayed for the dead alongside his congregation, as, for example, in these petitions:
Remember, O Lord, in mercy our brethren N.N., whom thou hast called to thyself before thy throne —
* Lift up thy countenance upon them and be gracious unto them.
Remember, O Lord, our sisters N.N., who have returned to their heavenly home —
* May they rest in peace, and may light perpetual shine upon them.
Remember, O Lord, the souls of our children N.N., whom thou hast so soon bid return unto thee —
* Grant them in thy light to see light and comfort them that mourn their loss.  Amen.
(Quoted from his Religious essays: A supplement to The Idea of the Holy, p. 64f.  The asterisks mark the congregation's responses to the pastor's prayers; a footnote explains that the first of these petitions commemorates those who have died since the last celebration.  Pretty obviously, the congregational responses allude to, respectively: the latter part of the Aaronic blessing – very dear to Lutherans – in Numbers vi, 24-26; the usual Catholic prayer for the dead Requiem æternam and Requiescant in pace; and to both Psalm 35(36):10(9) and St Matthew v, 5 – one of the Beatitudes.  It is pathetic in the true sense to see the need then felt, even in a First World country, to have special commemoration made of the many who died as children.) 

Now Otto (1869-1937) was no oddity, but a famous theologian in his day, most well-known for his book The Idea of the Holy (first published in German in 1917, and in English in 1923); while I was in Tanunda, I perused, but didn't buy, an edition of his essays, including the form he used when celebrating the Lutheran Communion service (Religious essays: A supplement to The Idea of the Holy, London 1931).  A quick consultation of Google Books turned up the above quotations, thus saving me having to go back and buy it!

So, what of all this?  Well, I mentioned in an earlier post that a Lutheran pastor explained to me that, while Lutherans do not in general pray for the dead, the practice (as opposed to, say, a very overtly Roman Catholic view of purgatory with all that entails in the way of indulgences, etc.) is not outlawed by the Lutheran confessions, as contained in The Book of Concord: for while the documents contained therein certainly inveigh against the offering up the Mass as a sacrifice for the faithful departed, very notably it is stated that the Lutherans do not fall into the error of Arius, for "Epiphanius writes, that Arius maintained that prayer for the dead is useless.  Now, we do not speak of prayer, but of the Supper of Christ, whether this is an offering, ex opere operato, benefiting the dead." (Apology to [sic; lege of] the Augsburg Confession, XII.)

Luther himself, in his usual racy style (did he have Tourette's?), wrote that:
As for the dead, since Scripture gives us no information on the subject, I regard it as no sin to pray with free devotion in this or some similar fashion: 'Dear God, if this soul is in a condition accessible to mercy, be thou gracious to it.' And when this has been done once or twice, let it suffice. For vigils and requiem masses and yearly celebrations of requiems are useless, and merely the devil's annual fair.
—Martin Luther, "Confession Concerning Christ's Supper" (1528), in Luther's Works, vol. 37, p. 369.

(Of course, Scripture does give us information on this subject:  Catholics know that II Machabees is truly among the inspired books, and it tells us "It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins" – II Mach. xii, 46; Luther, following the Jews, dismissed this book, alas.  In any case, St Paul prays for Onesiphorus, writing "The Lord grant unto him to find mercy of the Lord in that day" – II Tim. i, 18a – and it is most strongly implied that Onesiphorus was dead, seeing as, in verse 16, St Paul prays for God's mercy for "the house of Onesiphorus", that is, for his family, and goes on to speak of all Onesiphorus did for him in the past tense throughout.  The Nonjurors, to refer to my favourite Continuing Anglicans of yester-year, certainly believed in prayer for the dead and justified it by reference to this text of the Apostle.)

Hence, it would appear that, while Lutherans are not generally engaged in praying for the dead, to do so would not be, strictly speaking, against their doctrines; and indeed, while in Australia such prayers are not used in public worship, they were in Germany, and by a noted Lutheran theologian, too.


Fraser Pearce said...

Nice work, Joshua.

Joshua said...

Thanks, Fraser - it was you I was quoting!

Joshua said...

I see that Pastor Weedon of the LCMS also tends to this view, as he explains in a post on his blog.

Joshua said...

Weedon also mentioned this at length several years ago in a post on his blog.