The Orthodox Church 2: Saints, Relics, and Tradition

Praying to and Communion with Saints

Eastern Orthodox ServiceIn the first article we looked at The Orthodox Church claims to apostolic succession, its teaching on baptism, confession, deification, and the Eucharist, and what it has to say about icons and Mary.

The Orthodox Church consider that since physical death is not the end for a Christian and that those who have passed away, do not cease to be a part of the church at death; they still pray to the departed saints, seeking their prayers in the sense that someone may request fellow Christians on earth to pray for them.i In praying to the saints and prayers for the dead this is in accordance with Roman Catholicism, though papal infallibility is rejected.ii Prayer may also be directed towards patron saints.

Following on from the above, Orthodox Christians extend the Eucharist to include the saints, since Hebrews 12:1 speaks of being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. To ignore the departed saints in their view would mean dismissing those individuals as part of the holy Church.iii

Timothy Ware writes…

In God and in His Church there is no division between the living and the departed, but all are one in the love of the Father. Whether we are alive or whether we are dead, as members of the Church we still belong to the same family, and still have a duty to bear one another’s burdens. Therefore just as Orthodox Christians here on earth pray for one another and ask for one another’s prayers, so they pray also for the faithful departed and ask the faithful departed to pray for them. Death can never sever the bond of mutual love which links the members of the Church together.’iv

Firstly, prayer should only be directed towards God and Scripture never encourages us to pray to anyone else other than God, let alone departed saints and neither should Christians attempt to contact the dead (Deut. 18:11; 1 Samuel 27:3-25). Whilst there is a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1), and it seems likely that those in heaven may be able to hear certain things on earth (Rev. 5:13), this doesn’t justify the practise of praying to them. Furthermore to do so, is close to assuming that they can hear simultaneous prayers. If it were possible for Mary or other saints to hear all prayers simultaneously this is perilously close to ascribing them with omniscient powers.


Again, similar to Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Church place great importance on relics as channels of God’s grace. St Justin Popovich explains…


St John Chrysostom’s Hand

‘By piously venerating the holy relics of the Saints, the Church reveres them as temples of the Holy Spirit, temples of the Living God, in which God dwells by Grace even after the earthly death of the Saints. And by His most wise and good Will, God creates miracles in and through these relics. Moreover, the miracles which derive from the holy relics witness also to the fact that their pious veneration by the people is pleasing to God.’v

Timothy Ware explains further…

Because Orthodox are convinced that the body is sanctified and transfigured together with the soul, they have an immense reverence for the relics of the saints. Like Roman Catholics, they believe in the grace of God present in the saints’ bodies during life remains active in their relics when they have died, and that God uses these relics as a channel of divine power and an instrument of healing. In some cases the bodies of saints have been miraculously preserved from corruption, but even where this has not happened, Orthodox show just as great a veneration towards their bones. This reverence for relics is not the fruit of ignorance and superstition, but springs from a highly developed theology of the body.’vi

Paul clearly didn’t hold this view. Concerning assurance of the resurrection, Paul spoke of being absent from the body. ‘We are confident, yes, well pleased to be absent from the body and present with the Lord’ (2 Cor. 5:8). Although believers who formerly bore the image of dust, will bear the image of the heavenly Man (1 Corinthians 15:49), Paul again draws a distinction between living on in the flesh and being with the Lord. ‘But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labour; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful to you’ (Phil. 1:22-24).

Scripture and Tradition

Unlike Martin Luther’s affirmation of Sola Scriptura, (Scripture alone), the doctrine of the Orthodox Church stems from both Scripture and tradition. The Orthodox Church carefully maintains continuity from the church throughout the past by adherence to the traditions.vii The three most authoritative ‘traditions’ are the Bible, the seven ecumenical councils and the creed. viii

Timothy Ware comments on Scripture and Tradition…

Orthodox are always talking about Tradition. What do they mean by the word? A tradition is commonly understood to signify an opinion, belief or custom handed down from ancestors to posterity. Christian tradition, in that case, is the faith and practise which Jesus imparted to the Apostles, and which since the Apostles’ time has been handed down from generation to generation in the Church. But to an Orthodox Christian, Tradition means something more concrete and specific than this. It means the books the Bible; it means the Creed; it means the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Fathers; it means the Canons, The Service Books, the Holy Icons-in fact the whole system of doctrine, Church government, worship, spirituality and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages. Orthodox Christians of today see themselves as heirs and guardians to a rich inheritance received from the past, and they believe that it is their duty to transmit this inheritance unimpaired to the future.’ix

Scripture is inspired by God (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20-21) although some traditions may have some practical value, they are neither infallible, nor received by direct revelation from God. The apostles had authority since they had seen the risen Lord and had received apostleship for obedience to the faith and performed the signs of the apostles (Acts 1:21-22; Rom 1:1-6; 1 Cor. 9:1-2; 2 Cor. 12:12). Claimed apostolic succession does not have the authority that the apostles had and in addition, they were involved in writing Scripture. We should therefore appeal to the Bible and the teachings of the apostles contained within the Bible for our doctrine rather than a wider scope of traditions throughout the ages, by means of apostolic succession.

Scripture itself warns of adherence to tradition, especially when it conflicts with Scripture. In Matthew 15 and Mark 7, Jesus openly rebuked the Scribes and Pharisees concerning the tradition of the elders. It is ultimately a question of both authority and obedience to God and His Word. Jesus taught that the misuse of the tradition of the elders effectively nullified their apparent adherence to the sixth commandment, “then he need not honour his father or mother.’ Thus you have made the commandment of God no effect by your tradition’ (Matt. 15:6).

In Mark 7:6-7 Jesus also quoted Isaiah 29:13, again in relation to the tradition of the elders, ‘He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophecy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honours Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’”.

Creeds can be extremely useful to clarify truth and refute heresy, but neither the councils nor the creeds, writings of the Fathers or the Service Books should be the lens to interpret Scripture; nor should dependence upon apostolic succession or the teachings of the Church stand above or on a par with Scripture. Jesus said to the Jews who opposed His teaching, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life, and these are they which testify of Me” (John 5:39).

Reaching Out…

The way we share our faith is crucial. Our motives should be to lead someone to the Lord, out of genuine concern for their soul, rather than merely attempting to falsify a particular argument.1 Peter 3:15 and Colossians 4:6 are classic texts endorsing the use of apologetics in a Christian manner. We need to be prepared to give a reason for the hope within us so that we can answer others as individuals in a gracious and respectful way with reverence. Our conversation needs to be constructive, not destructive. Rather than initially highlighting differences and making a case that one party must be in the wrong, it is more helpful to examine the Scriptures and determine what the Bible says, rather than emphasising the gulf between what particular churches disagree on. Try to steer the conversation towards obedience to God as opposed to adherence to an official church position on a subject.

We need to keep the main thing the main thing. Whilst ten subjects have briefly been examined, in the context of a dialogue, it would probably be more helpful to take one or a few issues and look at them in detail carefully, rather than jumping from one area to the next. Primary or salvation-related issues are both more important and more productive in conversation, than less significant issues, so avoid foolish and unnecessary disputes or questionable areas of far lesser importance (2 Tim. 2:23; Titus 3:9).

Prayer is vital and not only accompanies the work of evangelism but should be considered an integral part of it. As we pray, we petition God to help us and work through us and we recognise our need to increase our reliance upon Him. It is God who saves but uses us as His instruments to speak the truth in love. Lastly, be prepared and willing to create an opportunity for follow up conversation, which also allows others time to search the Scriptures in the same way that the Bereans did (Acts 17:10-12).

iAMG, p61

iiDouglas, p325

iiiAMG, 60

ivWare, p254

vSt Justin Popovich The Place of Holy Relics in the Orthodox Church Orthodox Christian Information Center

viWare, p234

viiDouglas, p324

viiiIbid, p324

ixWare, p196