What did the Early Church think of Prayer for the Dead?

Doubtless there were a variety of thoughts, but here is one (courtesy of Pastor David King):

Lactantius (260-330): But if it appears that these religious rites are vain in so many ways as I have shown, it is manifest that those who either make prayers to the dead, or venerate the earth, or make over their souls to unclean spirits, do not act as becomes men, and that they will suffer punishment for their impiety and guilt, who, rebelling against God, the Father of the human race, have undertaken inexpiable rites, and violated every sacred law. (ANF: Vol. VII, The Divine Institutes, Book II, Chapter 18.)

I think that in the full context, it is even more powerful:

I have shown that the religious rites of the gods are vain in a threefold manner: In the first place, because those images which are worshipped are representations of men who are dead; and that is a wrong and inconsistent thing, that the image of a man should be worshipped by the image of God, for that which worships is lower and weaker than that which is worshipped: then that it is an inexpiable crime to desert the living in order that you may serve memorials of the dead, who can neither give life nor light to any one, for they are themselves without it: and that there is no other God but one, to whose judgment and power every soul is subject. In the second place, that the sacred images themselves, to which most senseless men do service, are destitute of all perception, since they are earth. But who cannot understand that it is unlawful for an upright animal to bend itself that it may adore the earth? which is placed beneath our feet for this purpose, that it may be trodden upon, and not adored by us, who have been raised from it, and have received an elevated position beyond the other living creatures, that we may not turn ourselves again downward, nor cast this heavenly countenance to the earth, but may direct our eyes to that quarter to which the condition of their nature has directed, and that we may adore and worship nothing except the single deity of our only Creator and Father, who made man of an erect figure, that we may know that we are called forth to high and heavenly things. In the third place, because the spirits which preside over the religious rites themselves, being condemned and cast off by God, wallow [Roll themselves.] over the earth, who not only are unable to afford any advantage to their worshippers, since the power of all things is in the hands of one alone, but even destroy them with deadly attractions and errors; since this is their daily business, to involve men in darkness, that the true God may not be sought by them. Therefore they are not to be worshipped, because they lie under the sentence of God. For it is a very great crime to devote [Addico, “to adjudge,” is the legal term, expressing the sentence by which the prætor gave effect to the right which he had declared to exist.] one’s self to the power of those whom, if you follow righteousness, you are able to excel in power, and to drive out and put to flight by adjuration of the divine name. But if it appears that these religious rites are vain in so many ways as I have shown, it is manifest that those who either make prayers to the dead, [[Let this be noted.]] or venerate the earth, or make over [Mancipo. The word implies the making over or transferring by a formal act of sale. Debtors, who were unable to satisfy the demands of their creditors, were made over to them, and regarded as their slaves. They were termed addicti. Our Lord said (John viii. 34), “Whosoever committeth sin, is the servant of sin.” Thus also St. Paul, Rom. vi. 16, 17.] their souls to unclean spirits, do not act as becomes men, and that they will suffer punishment for their impiety and guilt, who, rebelling against God, the Father of the human race, have undertaken inexpiable rites, and violated every sacred law.

– Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, Book 2, Chapter 18 (editors’ footnotes placed in brackets)

6 Responses to “What did the Early Church think of Prayer for the Dead?”

  1. Mike Burgess Says:

    St. Jerome, whom you enjoy quoting when the occasion suits, said of Lactantius, "If only Lactantius, almost a river of Ciceronian eloquence, had been able to uphold our cause with the same facility with which he overturns that of our adversaries!" Lactantius was not a good theologian; indeed, he was, in the words of those who know his works best, a fine Latin rhetorician but woefully ignorant of the Scriptures and Christian doctrine. When one reads his writings, especially the Divine Institutes, this becomes quickly apparent. A fine theologian does not relate the story of Heracles/Hercules as though it were true. A fine theologian well studied and well versed in doctrine and systematic theology does not say "But let us leave the testimony of prophets, lest a proof derived from those who are universally disbelieved should appear insufficient. Let us come to authors, and for the demonstration of the truth let us cite as witnesses those very persons whom they are accustomed to make use of against us—I mean poets and philosophers. From these we cannot fail in proving the unity of God; not that they had ascertained the truth, but that the force of the truth itself is so great, that no one can be so blind as not to see the divine brightness presenting itself to his eyes. The poets, therefore, however much they adorned the gods in their poems, and amplified their exploits with the highest praises, yet very frequently confess that all things are held together and governed by one spirit or mind. Orpheus, who is the most ancient of the poets, and coeval with the gods themselves—since it is reported that he sailed among the Argonauts together with the sons of Tyndarus and Hercules,— speaks of the true and great God as the first-born, because nothing was produced before Him, but all things sprung from Him."Perhaps you and Pastor King ought to rethink the citation. And rethink the other Fathers, ones not eventually considered heretical as Lactantius was, as concerns their views on prayers through the faithful departed, starting with, say, Augustine.

  2. Reformation Says:

    Most excellent. As a qualified Anglican, constantly fighting this battle. Good stuff from Lactantius.

  3. Turretinfan Says:

    Mr. Burgess:Your comment has been fully addressed and adequately rebutted in a new post (here).-TurretinFan

  4. John Says:

    Is the issue prayers TO the dead or FOR the dead, because the title doesn't match the quote.

  5. Turretinfan Says:

    John:Ah yes, Mr. Burgess similarly attempted to make an issue of the for/to distinction in his second and third rounds of comments (you'll notice his first round of comments above doesn't mention that – in fact he mistakenly blunders off in the third direction of "through").To avoid confusion on the part of certain folks I probably should have adhered to the for/through/to taxonomy that I laid out in this previous post.Nevertheless, those who are familiar with the flexibility of the English language recognize that the term "For" can refer both to an intended recipient and to an intended beneficiary. The latter sense is the sense in my taxonomy in the linked post whereas the former sense corresponds with the "To" sense in my taxonomy and is the sense that Lactantius addresses in the post.I had hoped that sincere readers would be able to read the Lactantius quotation and easily see what kind of prayers relating to the dead are being addressed. Nevertheless, I realize that English is not everyone's first language.-TurretinFan

  6. Reformation Says:

    For Romanists and Anglo-Romewardizers, it is necromancy, prayers *to*, *for*m and *through* the departed. It is not just a prayer *about* the dead, e.g. "Lord may we follow in the goodly footsteps …" The first four forms, *to*, *for* and *through* the dead are Roman and Anglo-Romanist. Just saw one last night on a blog, "Lady Walsingham, pray for us sinners."

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