The Veneration of Relics
On Sunday November 23rd 2013, the bones of St Peter were presented to the world for the first time at a public Mass. According to the Catholic Herald it was ‘wonderful and almost unbelievable . . . a man from Argentina has reintroduced us to his predecessor, a Galilean fisherman born millennia ago’. Eight bone fragments, each two to three centimetres long, were nestled in an open bronze reliquary displayed to the side of the altar. However in spite of the Pope’s devotion these bone relics are not officially confirmed by the Catholic Church as being of the Apostle Peter.
The word relic is taken from the Latin reliquiae, meaning ‘remains’ or ‘something left behind’. According to Webster’s Dictionary it is an object (such as a piece of clothing or the bone of a saint) that is ‘considered holy’(Meriam Webster online Dictionary).
The veneration of relics is not just restricted to Catholicism but Hindus and Buddhists also indulge in it. In January 2015 the Pope visited Sri Lanka. During his stay, he attended a Buddhist temple where he was shown relics of two disciples of the Buddha.
In the Roman Catholic religion relics are a combination of items associated with our Lord and the apostles, and the remains of Catholic ‘saints’. These can include human bone, tissue, or even clothing. They also include artefacts allegedly associated with the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. This includes the pillars where he was scourged, the crown of thorns, the wood of the cross, and ‘the famous shroud of Turin’. This may seem very archaic to those of us in the 21st century. However the Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges the veneration of relics as a ‘form of piety and popular devotion among the faithful’ (Catechism para 1674 p.417). This devotion comes under the umbrella of works of supererogation. Meriam Webster defines supererogation as ‘the act of performing more than is required by duty, obligation, or need. The word comes from the Latin word supererogatio, from supererogare to perform beyond the call of duty’ (Meriam Webster online Dictionary).
The practice of relic veneration began in the early church when the Christian martyrs’ remains after burial became objects of reverence. In some places shrines were built over their graves. One example of this is Polycarp:
. . . we collected Polycarp’s bones, being more precious than the most exquisite jewels and more purified than gold, we interred them in a fitting place. There the Lord will permit us, as far as possible, to assemble in rapturous joy and celebrate his martyrdom – his birthday – both in order to commemorate the heroes that have gone before, and to train the heroes yet to come . . .1
Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the early church father who is revered by Catholics and Protestants, complains that ‘certain monks plied a vile and sordid traffic, by carrying the relics of martyrs about from place to place’. He even doubts the authenticity of their claims ‘if, indeed, they are relics of martyrs at all’.2
Then in the medieval age relics were at the heart of the worship and devotion of many religious people. Relics were not only venerated – they were traded, collected, lost, stolen, duplicated, and distributed throughout Europe. They became a point of issue with the reformers of the sixteenth century. Indeed John Calvin the Genevan Reformer wrote a tract ‘A Treatise on Relics Translated from the French’. He writes about the relics of the true cross.
There is no abbey so poor as not to have a specimen. In some places there are large fragments, as at the Holy Chapel in Paris, at Poitiers, and at Rome, where a good-sized crucifix is said to have been made of it. In brief, if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it.3
Today in Spain, Italy, and Austria one can find scores of relics exhibited in churches. These relics include bones and blood, or some object or piece of cloth that had touched a saint (though the authenticity of some of them is doubtful). In Ireland, as devout Catholics we were encouraged to kiss and touch them – the hope being that through them and the intercession of the saint (to whom the relics belonged) God would grant a grace, a healing, or even a miracle. Some of these relics are carried in solemn religious processions.
However in Great Britain relics were condemned as unscriptural by the reformers and Puritans. John Knox the Scottish Reformer preached against idolatry. After he preached one sermon in Perth we read of
mobs of people going into many of the monasteries and churches, and ripping down the relics, and the idols, and all the trappings of Roman Catholicism. Knox didn’t command this. It was a spontaneous movement of the people in response to the preaching of the Word to drive out false religion and idolatry from the land, in order that God’s wrath and anger might be removed from the land.4
To the Scriptures
Does the Bible validate relics? Catholic apologists argue that some well-known Scripture texts support the veneration of relics. The first is from the Old Testament. The other examples are from the New Testament. The first is concerned with Elisha’s dead body. In 2 Kings 13:20-21) we read, ‘and they cast the man into the sepulchre of Elisha: and when the man was let down, and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet’. In other words a dead man’s body is been carried to his burial. The Jews did not bury their dead in the ground but in caves or tombs. The pall-bearers are frightened and cast the man into the grave of God’s prophet. Elisha had been dead a while. However as soon as the body of the man touches Elisha’s body, the man is raised to life. Is this a scriptural proof for relic veneration? According to Catholic apologists it is. However, notice there were no prayers said near the body. This was not a religious ceremony. There was no intent on the part of the men carrying the body for their dead friend to be resurrected.
Also this shows that the prophet did not perform his miracles by any powers of his own, but by the power of God. God chose to honour his servant, by making his bones the instrument of another miracle after his death. According to the Commentator Adam Clarke ‘this is the first, and I believe the last, account of a true miracle performed by the bones of a dead man’.5
This miracle also demonstrates the certainty of the resurrection for the believer. The problem with the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching is that it diverts attention from the means of grace to false faith and power in lifeless objects. In the New Testament many sought to touch the hem of our Lord’s garments. In Matthew 14:36 we read that many ‘besought him that they might only touch the hem of his garment: and as many as touched were made perfectly whole’. The most well-known account of this is in Mark 5:25-34: the healing of woman with a flow of blood. She touched the hem of Christ’s garment and immediately the flow of blood ceased. There was no virtue in the clothing, but in the wearer. Note what Scripture records: ‘for I perceive that virtue is gone out of me’ (Luke 8:46). Jesus knew power had gone forth from him, not from his clothes.
In Acts, the shadow of Peter was thought to have healing powers. In Acts 5:15 Luke writes that at ‘least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them.’ Here is an instance of the people’s ill-founded belief that if one were under Peter’s shadow they might be healed. ‘This is a false faith in the power of Peter’s shadow. Indeed Luke does not say that any were healed in this way, nor that they were commanded to do this. He simply states the impression which was on the minds of the people that they might be healed.’ Clarke gives seven ‘disproofs’ of relics.6
None of these miracles in and of themselves vindicate the superstitions and veneration attached to relics. One can read of the bizarre far-fetched claims for certain healing and miraculous powers attached to relics. However, instead of condemning the practice the Roman Catholic Church condones it. Alas, many are locked in a cycle of superstition and false worship of articles that are worthless and doubtful as to their origins. There is also the tendency to venerate relics when viewing and handling them. Often a longing for relics leads to superstition and ultimately its parent, idolatry. John the Apostle in his first epistle warns the believers, ‘little children keep yourselves from idols. Amen’ (1 John 5:21).
For Bible believing Christians this practice diverts attention form the true Physician of souls. It also distracts true seekers from looking to Christ alone as our all sufficient Saviour. For Christ physical healing is not the greatest priority in his ministry. In his early ministry he is witnessing many healed but he says ‘he must go to other towns and preach there also Luke 4:43’. We have the scriptures to guide us into all truth.
Rather than venerate the possible human remains of martyred saints let us glory in Christ, the One who gave his body on the tree as a sacrifice for our sin. Only through his work alone we can be saved from the power and penalty of our sin – including idolatry. In the words of the apostle (Heb. 12:2) ‘Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God’.
- Online resource at www.christianhistoryinstitute.org.
- Augustine, ‘On the Labour of Monks’, quoted by John Calvin, Inventory of Relics (Still Waters Revival Books, Puritan Hard Drive, 2009), p.290.
- Ibid., p.302.
- David Murray, Lessons from John Knox, at Reformation Scotland.
- Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Bible (electronic library resource).
From Protestant Truth (March-April 2015) with permission.
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