Denney on prayers for the dead

Recent days have seen a turning of my attention towards James Denney who was a good mate of PT Forsyth’s and an extraordinary NT scholar. One thing that impressed me today in my reading were his comments on praying for the dead. While Forsyth defends the practice on christological grounds, Denney does so on grounds creational and experiential.

I do not think it is any use telling people not to pray for the dead; you might as well teach them not to think of them or love them, or indeed tell them roundly that after death there is nothing at all. I think most people who pray at all do pray for the dead … Certainly the absence of any example of it from the Bible is remarkable, especially taken with the life and death urgency of all the Bible does say: but a great many things must be lawful that the Bible says nothing about – things covered by the word of Jesus, “If it were not so, I would have told you” – a saying which always seems to me to justify yielding … to any instinct of the nature which is made in God’s image, and cannot be simply delusive in the things of God.

It seems to me odd that the long-held practice of praying for the dead has all but disappeared in Protestant circles (or at least in the circles in which I move). No doubt there are decent historical reasons for such abandonment, but understanding history never justifies history’s poor actions. [As an aside, recall that Denney’s comments – ‘I think most people who pray at all do pray for the dead’ – were not only made by a staunchly-Reformed Protestant, but were written just over a hundred years ago].

What both Denney and Forsyth are seeking to urge is that in Jesus Christ, the living and the dead remain unforgettably and indestructibly united in love for each other, and in a common hopeful sharing. It is not anthropology, therefore, that holds the communion of saints together on both sides of death, but Jesus Christ as Lord of both the living and the dead. Therefore, do not the saints on earth have an obligation in the gospel to pray for those who have died, and who indeed form the largest part of the race? Such prayer helps to bear witness to the Church’s unity and catholicity, and indeed to the theo-organic unity of the race itself under its new Head, himself risen from the dead. To pray for the dead signals a refusal to believe the lie that the state of a person remains fixed at death, and functions as a sign of hope in the God who raises the dead to life. To pray for one who is dying, and then to continue praying after they die – without missing a beat – is not to deny the reality of their death so much as it is to faithfully trust in the God who knows his way out of the grave.

5 comments

  1. Hello Jason
    Hmmn, not sure what this is about.
    As you know I admire both men as very fine theologians. But these comments make little sense to me. Except they seem to minimise the urgency of proclaiming the gospel. Not enough light and truth breaking forth from the Word here.
    Hope the study is going well!

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  2. Trevor,

    Thanks for posting the comment on Denney’s and Forsyth’s encouragement for us to remember the dead in prayer. I’m curious that you consider such a practice as minimising ‘the urgency of proclaiming the gospel’. Certainly neither Denney nor Forsyth saw it as so. Can I invite you to tease out more how you understand that remembering the dead in prayer undermines the imperative in the gospel itself to proclaim the gospel with with all earnestness and confidence? It is unclear to me how one action necessarily excludes the other, while I can see how one could take it as so. Is there no good news for the dead?

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  3. Also, remember God exists outside of time and uses our prayers in the same way. So not only can we pray for the dead if the Holy Spirit should so move us, but we can also pray for things that have all ready happened as well as things to come. He uses them all and fore knew our prayers as well as us!

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  4. I enjoyed this thoughtful attending to the issue.

    A thought that occurred to me from a highly pragmatic viewpoint; there is an unhelpful temptation for folk to become bound by their focus on those who have passed, to the extent that they stop living in the present and for the future.

    To theologically and practically affirm our presence among the ‘cloud of witnesses’ (Heb 12:1) is great as long as we affirm in the fullest sense that Jesus is the God ‘of the living’ (Matt 22:32) – which includes those who are living now, and those who will soon be living in the future.

    To become locked in our favourite past-time is a temptation we are all susceptible to. Praying for those who have died needs to be accompanied by living for those who are alive as well.

    =) B

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