Relics: A Reply to Trueman

Apr 16th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Carl Trueman is the Departmental Chair of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, a Protestant seminary in Philadelphia. This past January he posted an article titled “Reflections on Rome Part 1: Connecting the Mind and the Tongue” in which he shares some reflections he had after a trip to Rome (Part 2 can be found here).

The first half of the piece is an excellent and objective assessment of the undeniable dominance of the Catholic Church in nearly every area it would be possible to measure.

Trueman pays due honor to Catholicism’s unmatched contributions to theology, philosophy, architecture, liturgy, literature and science that he encountered first hand in Rome and encourages his fellow evangelicals to acknowledge these contributions in spite of our doctrinal differences.


St Anthony of Padua Healing a Youth
Sebastiano Ricci (c. 1690)
Musée du Louvre, Paris

In the second half of the article, Trueman notes another aspect of the Catholic faith that marks a sticky point between Catholics and Protestants and makes the thought of conversion unimaginable to him.

A reader asked for our thoughts on the article, so I thought I’d start with some of Trueman’s own words:

St Peter’s was not the only basilica I visited whilst in Italy. I also went to Padua and visited the famous Basilica of Saint Antony. Again, the architecture, internal and external, was impressive; but most striking of all were the remains of St. Anthony of Padua himself.

Most of him is actually contained in a large and mercifully opaque sarcophagus; but three particular bits are on display in clear glass jars in one of the side chapels. To be precise, there you will find his lower jaw (with definite signs of the saint having endured British dentistry), his vocal chords (most pleasant), and his tongue (some things are best left unsaid). They are easy to spot, being right next to a piece of the true cross, also on display.

What can I say about the shows of devotion and veneration which I witnessed around these cadaverous morsels? Frankly, I found them repellent, little more than a manifestation of the crassest kind of superstitious folk religion. This is what is so difficult to connect with Catholicism of the von Balthasar or Yves Congar or De Lubac variety. Great and brilliant as these men were, at ground level Catholicism looks like benighted old biddies doing homage before an amputated and pickled tongue.

It does not matter how many American evangelical leaders are wined and dined by the Roman See, or are taken by some cardinal to gaze upon Codex Sinaiticus, the tongue and its accoutrements remain as a silent testimony to superstition.

For those unfamiliar, St. Anthony was a powerhouse 13th century saint, called the “Hammer of Heretics” for his powerful preaching against the Cathares, Patarines and the Albegenses. Many miracles were wrought through him and he taught, preached and administered the sacraments in a powerful, albeit short, ministry. Anthony died at the age of 36 and his relics have been venerated and have produced miracles for these last 800 some odd years. For more, check out the Catholic Encyclopedia article on his life.

Now, I’ll leave aside the rude comments Trueman tosses at Catholic women who are his elders and of whom he ought not speak ill, especially behind their backs. But he is taking issue with something that many Protestants find very strange about the Catholic faith, namely our devotion to relics and other holy objects which our faith teaches possess some connection to the person from whence they came.

Could They Be Real?

I understand Carl’s trouble with this issue and I once shared it. It made no sense that these Catholics who are such intellectual giants could be taken in by what Carl sees and I saw as rank superstition. If they weren’t taken in by it, they were ignoring it which seemed somehow worse and like it would cause some awful cognitive dissonance.

The possibility that I never seriously entertained as a Protestant was that the Catholics might believe in things like relics not in spite of, but because of the incredible depth of the rest of their theology.

Trueman’s incredulity at the prospect of relics being genuine, to say nothing of miracle-working, comes through a bit further on, and I believe it’s that very possibility that makes it so difficult for Protestants, especially our Reformed brothers, to come to grips with the issue. It’s made even more difficult by the fact that the Reformed rarely even allow for the possibility that relics could be genuine, a true gift of God.

But the fact is that the historical record, the tradition of the Church and Sacred Scripture itself are full of examples of the very thing that Protestants decry as rank superstition.

Relics in Sacred Scripture

In the worldview presented to us by Sacred Scripture, we frequently see material objects take power from and serve as a connection to the person they came from—even the remains of those who have died. We see frequent examples of the importance of where remains lie and of marking the sites where those remains are laid.

In Acts 19:11-12, we see the following:

And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.

And in Acts 5:12-16:

Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.

And of course, miracles were also performed through Jesus’ own clothes, but lest foul be called on citing that this happened through the Godman uniquely, the examples above were performed through the agency of mere men and their clothes and shadows. So a biblical worldview must have room for inanimate objects as vessels of God’s power.

God of the Living and the Dead

Now, my Protestant brothers may raise the objection that these examples happened through living persons, not dead ones as is often the case with Catholic relics. Not so fast.

In 2 Kings 13:20-21, we read:

So Elisha died, and they buried him. Now bands of Moabites used to invade the land in the spring of the year. And as a man was being buried, behold, a marauding band was seen and the man was thrown into the grave of Elisha, and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet.

So now our Biblical worldview has to allow for healing through inanimate objects touched by holy people, as well as the healing power of the bones of the holy dead.

A World Shot Through with Magic

We do not live in a world that is qualitatively different than the world in which these things took place. In fact, you could support the idea that we should still expect these things to take place by the same logic as Reformed Christians rightly argue that it would be strange if 1st century Christians didn’t baptize their children. The truly odd occurrence would be if miracles through the agency of the bones and belongings of God’s people stopped happening.

Catholics don’t have a blind spot when it comes to relics, Catholic theology simply reads and accepts what Sacred Scripture teaches, what the evidence of history bears out and the obvious implications of the incarnation.

Truly, the implications of the incarnation are what the Church’s teaching about relics really point to. The fact is that God uses physical matter to transmit his power and to do his work in the world. We live in a world shot through with magic. God has become man, and in doing so has charged the world with spiritual power. Even shadows can perform miracles! What wondrous enchantment is that?

I truly appreciate Mr. Trueman’s perspective and his attempt to speak with gusto about the parts of Catholicism he appreciates. But this aspect of Catholic theology cannot be understood without understanding the depth of Catholic theology when it comes to the relationship of human being after death and his body which remains on earth till the resurrection. Bryan Cross goes into this in a comment on a earlier post here at CtC:

Not only do the saints in heaven see God (as I explained above), but they retain a relation to their body. It is an ontological relation (i.e. a relation of being—this body does not merely belong to that saint, as he might have possessed a book or a cloak; this body is that saint, not the entirety of the saint, of course, but nonetheless his bodily component). The relation of the saints in heaven to their bodies is also an eschatological relation. They wait patiently to be reunited to their bodies, at the resurrection. To stand before the body of a saint is to stand before a part of someone who is presently enjoying the Beatific Vision, and is presently related (by an ontological relation of identity and an eschatological relation) to this body; it is to stand before something that we know (by the authority of the Church) will be in heaven forever. (We do not know that, with the same certainty, about any other material object, including our own bodies, because “that I [insert your own name] will persevere in faith until death” is not part of the deposit of faith.)

So we see the strong connection between the spiritual and the material that permeates Catholic theology. The body of a saint doesn’t cease to be “his” merely because he has gone to be with God in the spirit for the time being. To abandon the bones of a holy man of God like St. Anthony or like the prophet Elisha would be unthinkable to people who truly believe in the incarnation, which united humanity with the Godhead, and who believe in the resurrection of that actual body that lies in the crypt in the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua.

The “benighted biddies” worshiping a pickled tongue as Mr. Trueman puts it above are the ones who truly understand the nature of the universe and the miracles beyond comprehension that God has wrought and promises to accomplish in the future. They don’t hope for resurrection in some abstract sense. They know that St. Anthony’s tongue is really and truly his and will be put back in the mouth from whence it came one day by God’s glorious power. Remembering the saint and asking his intercession now, in the presence of his earthly remains, is the work that puts faith in the resurrection into action.

In closing, Mr. Trueman heads off what he perceives to be one way intelligent Catholics deal with the phenomenon of relics, which is to disavow relics as antiquated superstition and not really a part of the Catholic religion, Mr. Trueman says:

. . . it will not do simply to say that the practices of such [“superstitious” Catholics] are not significant; they are significant, at least for anyone who takes seriously their Catholicism.

Indeed they are. Just not in a negative way. I used to cringe at the site of a reliquary. In fact, my parish has a relic of St. Ambrose, my eldest son’s namesake, which I ignored for a long time. I had trouble believing that it was really a piece of St. Ambrose or that it could really do any good.

But time, experience and the Biblical and theological evidence have all played a role in helping me embrace what the Church teaches about relics. That relic in particular has since become a real touchstone in my interaction with the saints in heaven and my son’s patron.

I invite our Protestant brothers to truly consider the nature of the world we live in, the implications of the incarnation and the weight of the words of Scripture on the subject before tossing relics into the dustbin with all the other perceived superstitions and Romish aberrations.

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23 comments
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  1. Matt

    The pr0blem I see with this analysis is that these scripture passages don’t really support Catholic teachings:

    1) The people involved are limited. The biblical examples include Jesus, the apostles and an OT prophet. There’s no indication that this extends beyond this limited sample to anyone else. At most you could claim that these passages teach that the relics of OT prophets and NT apostles might have this power, nothing more.

    2) The time/instances are limited. There are no visitations to Elisha’s tomb on an ongoing basis that we have any record of. Paul’s’ miracles of this type are called “extraordinary” by the NT and occur in Ephesus, the center of Artemis worship, a place of great spiritual opposition and don’t seem to be normative. And we see a great deal of miracles by the Apostles early on in Acts when Christianity is just getting started in Jerusalem and their message is being confirmed by “signs and wonders”.

    3) The “shadow” passage in Acts doesn’t support the idea of “inanimate objects” healing (though I don’t think a shadow is really an object anyway). In ancient times, shadows were considered a part of a person’s body. In Jewish law if a person’s shadow touched a corpse it was the same as if they had touched the corpse, they were ritually unclean. So in their worldview, to touch one’s shadow was to touch that person.

    Lastly, even if I agreed with you on these passages, they don’t go far enough. Catholics don’t just believe relics have some sort of power but they put them on display and venerate/adore them (or choose whatever term the Catholic Church prefers). Where in scripture is the glass case in the temple with Elisha’s body? Where are the OT pilgrimages to see his body and venerate it? Where in scripture are the NT house church reliquaries holding the handkerchiefs and aprons that touched the Apostle Paul? Where in scripture are people found marveling over the reliquary of the executed Apostle James, the pilgrimages to the Tombs of John the Baptist or the Deacon Stephen to venerate their bodies? Of course the answer is nowhere – none of this is found in either the OT or NT.

    Sorry, but I have to agree with the professor.

  2. Around the time of Mr. Trueman’s post I read of it on a friend’s page. My friend is Reformed and wrote approvingly of it. At first my reaction was a bit emotional as, in my mind, Mr. Trueman was doing a bate and switch.; Nice Church but full of superstitious fools. After I calmed down I went through the biblical and logical reasons why this was not superstition. Where I ran into a brick wall though surprised me. I tried to use the example of a prayer group and someone praying for you and God intervening. My Reformed friend replied that revelation was done and that God did not interact with man in that fashion any more. This point for him was dogma though he conceded that it was not acepted by all Reformed or any Evangelical. I was flabergasted and “walked away” muttering. My point here though is that if Mr. Trueman shares the same perspective, that God does not actively intervene in response to man’s requests (post apostlistic) then discussing this point would be more basic than even discussing what dead Saints can and cannot do.

    Just the other day Paul Hoffer made (another) brilliant post about Mariology and, indirectly, the Saints. If I were to choose one money quote to get you to look it would be this,
    Applying the same sort misguided logic that used by Calvinist apologists when fulminating their Marian misogyny, we would have to wonder whether Protestants actually worship God at all given their vehement rejection of the sacrifice of the Mass, the highest, truest form of worship that man may direct to God.
    http://capriciousness.blogspot.com/2010/04/managing-marian-misogyny.html

  3. Steve — Thanks for the comments. Let me try to address your thoughts one by one (thanks for the numbering, btw. Makes responding easier.)

    1) The people involved are limited. The biblical examples include Jesus, the apostles and an OT prophet. There’s no indication that this extends beyond this limited sample to anyone else. At most you could claim that these passages teach that the relics of OT prophets and NT apostles might have this power, nothing more.

    You’re right, the examples provided in my post don’t conclusively prove that the power of relics extends to post-apostolic saints. But that wasn’t so much my point. Trueman and most other Protestants seem to write off relics as something out of the realm of possibility—just rank superstition for which there is no Biblical support.

    My point was to show that Sacred Scripture clearly shows that we live in a world where these things do happen and serve the kind of God who works this way. As I cited in the post, the Biblical argument in support of relics is similar to the argument for infant baptism, that is, an argument largely based on tradition and passing references, but no less sound.

    I think, meaning no disrespect, that Trueman’s skepticism is reflected in your use of the language that the passages I cited might prove that these things happened via the Apostles and Elijah. But that’s just the thing, they prove that these things most certainly did happen. The Tradition of the Church (and “small t” tradition) claim that these things continued to happen. The burden of proof is on the skeptic to show that they did not or that the Church’s witness is false.

    We did see the Church begin to set up shrines and venerate relics and make pilgrimages. The fact that it didn’t happen or wasn’t recorded within the short timespan in which the Scriptures were written is no more of an indictment of relics than the fact that infant baptism or women receiving communion aren’t specifically mentioned in Scripture. We know these things happened from other valid sources.

    2) The time/instances are limited. There are no visitations to Elisha’s tomb on an ongoing basis that we have any record of. Paul’s’ miracles of this type are called “extraordinary” by the NT and occur in Ephesus, the center of Artemis worship, a place of great spiritual opposition and don’t seem to be normative. And we see a great deal of miracles by the Apostles early on in Acts when Christianity is just getting started in Jerusalem and their message is being confirmed by “signs and wonders”.

    Again, the lack of record doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Also, prior to the resurrection, the situation between the living and the holy dead was different. They were in Hades awaiting the resurrection, not in Heaven bringing the concerns of the Church militant to God as we see in Revelation 6:9-11.

    Also, according to Church history, miracles hardly ceased in the post-apostolic era. The records of the progress of the gospel are chock full of miracles performed by the hands of all manner of saints.

    3) The “shadow” passage in Acts doesn’t support the idea of “inanimate objects” healing (though I don’t think a shadow is really an object anyway). In ancient times, shadows were considered a part of a person’s body. In Jewish law if a person’s shadow touched a corpse it was the same as if they had touched the corpse, they were ritually unclean. So in their worldview, to touch one’s shadow was to touch that person.

    You know, I actually considered whether or not to use the shadow passage since I wasn’t sure whether or not to consider it “material,” so thanks for the OT references on that. But since we do know that the Apostles blessed handkerchiefs could perform miracles, the shadow isn’t really necessary to the argument, I just think it’s super cool. I also like the phenomenological implications of the shadow as a part of the body. Good stuff.

    And I think I dealt with your final paragraph in the earlier section about the absence of pilgrimages and reliquaries in the NT failing to prove that they didn’t exist. But regardless, the clearly formulated doctrine of the Trinity didn’t exist in the Apostolic era like it does now. The Canon of Scripture didn’t exist like it does now. Cathedrals didn’t exist like they do now. But none of those things means that their existence now is improper.

    Thanks again for the comments. I look forward to further discussion!

  4. You’re right, the examples provided in my post don’t conclusively prove that the power of relics extends to post-apostolic saints. But that wasn’t so much my point. Trueman and most other Protestants seem to write off relics as something out of the realm of possibility—just rank superstition for which there is no Biblical support.

    Well, I still don’t see any Biblical support for relics as defined by Catholicism. No offense but what I see is something I see quite frequently when it comes to many Catholic/Protestant differences – whole dogmas for which the only scriptures in support are what you call “passing references”, what I see as obscure isolated verses which offer little basis for the dogma they are cited in support of. As for showing “possibilities”, that’s not much of a hurdle – many things are “possible”, much fewer are “probable. On that basis you’d have to admit that it’s also “possible” that Protestants are correct, no?

    As I cited in the post, the Biblical argument in support of relics is similar to the argument for infant baptism, that is, an argument largely based on tradition and passing references, but no less sound.

    The problem with this comparison is that we both agree that Christians should be baptized, only the who/when might be at issue. It’s a totally different thing to conjure up an entire dogma around such scant evidence and tell someone that have to believe in it. That’s much more significant difference.

    I think, meaning no disrespect, that Trueman’s skepticism is reflected in your use of the language that the passages I cited might prove that these things happened via the Apostles and Elijah. But that’s just the thing, they prove that these things most certainly did happen.

    I think you misunderstand my use of the term “might”. As a Christian takes the Bible seriously, I do believe these things happened, I just question whether every piece of clothing touched by an Apostle has magical, mystical powers such that it should be venerated in some way by future generations of Christians.

    The Tradition of the Church (and “small t” tradition) claim that these things continued to happen. The burden of proof is on the skeptic to show that they did not or that the Church’s witness is false.

    Whoa, here. I thought you were the one making the case for relics and their related dogma. I’m the one you need to make the case to here.

    We did see the Church begin to set up shrines and venerate relics and make pilgrimages. The fact that it didn’t happen or wasn’t recorded within the short timespan in which the Scriptures were written is no more of an indictment of relics than the fact that infant baptism or women receiving communion aren’t specifically mentioned in Scripture. We know these things happened from other valid sources.

    And the question is when do we see these things happening? The first historical citation I find used by Catholics is from about 156 AD and mentions Polycarp. But that doesn’t establish veneration of relics at all. His friends gather his bones after his martyrdom and place them in a tomb, and there they gather there to commemorate his martyrdom and those of others who gave their life for the faith. As Protestant I have no problem with this. But this is not the same as the veneration/worship seen of relics IMO. Beyond that most of the citations I find date to the 300’s, well after the NT/Apostolic times. It seems to be a later development, not something taught by the Apostles.

    Also, prior to the resurrection, the situation between the living and the holy dead was different. They were in Hades awaiting the resurrection, not in Heaven bringing the concerns of the Church militant to God as we see in Revelation 6:9-11.

    I don’t see that this explains why Elisha’s body wasn’t move to the temple as a relic and venerated given it’s powers. Instead it more points to this being in isolated incident and not normative else we’d have seen a train of OT pilgrims to his tomb.

    I’ll close with a few other comments in another post.

  5. A few further comments:

    1) Even Catholicism admits that many, if not most, of the relics it has today are of dubious origin as noted in the Catholic Encyclopedia:

    Nevertheless it remains true that many of the more ancient relics duly exhibited for veneration in the great sanctuaries of Christendom or even at Rome itself must now be pronounced to be either certainty spurious or open to grave suspicion . . .

    Still, it would be presumptuous in such cases to blame the action of ecclesiastical authority in permitting the continuance of a cult which extends back into remote antiquity. On the one hand no one is constrained to pay homage to the relic, and supposing it to be in fact spurious, no dishonour is done to God by the continuance of an error which has been handed down in perfect good faith for many centuries. On the other hand the practical difficulty of pronouncing a final verdict upon the authenticity of these and similar relics must be patent to all. Each investigation would be an affair of much time and expense, while new discoveries might at any moment reverse the conclusions arrived at. Further, devotions of ancient date deeply rooted in the heart of the peasantry cannot be swept away without some measure of scandal and popular disturbance. To create this sensation seems unwise unless the proof of spuriousness is so overwhelming as to amount to certainty. Hence there is justification for the practice of the Holy See in allowing the cult of certain doubtful ancient relics to continue. Meanwhile, much has been done by quietly allowing many items in some of the most famous collections of relics to drop out of sight or by gradually omitting much of the solemnity which formerly surrounded the exposition of these doubtful treasures. Many of the inventories of the great collections of Rome, or of Aachen, Cologne, Naples, Salzburg, Antwerp, Constantinople, of the Sainte Chapelle at Paris etc., have been published. For illustration’s sake reference may be made to the Count de Riant’s work “Exuviae Constantinopolitanae” or to the many documents printed by Mgr. Barbier de Monault regarding Rome, particularly in vol. VII of his “Oeuvres complètes”. In most of these ancient inventories, the extravagance and utter improbability of many of the entries can not escape the most uncritical.

    It’s quite clear from history that people/churches developed an obsession with relics. Much of this is a product of the abuses of the Middle Ages. Bodies of saints were split up, this church getting a toe, this one a hand, etc. (A practice since stopped by the church but the point remains). Knights coming back from Crusades likely sold all sorts 0f items as relics to the people back home. Much was also hauled back to Western Europe when Constantinople was captured in 1204. It has to be admitted that the history of relics is replete with abuse, and in some sense, because so many relics are fakes, the abuse continues today. For even if the adoration/veneration of relics is correct, isn’t it wrong to allow the veneration of false relics?

    The problem is the attitude expressed in the quote above. Catholicism know many relics are fake or likely to be fake but it avoids the truth just so it won’t upset people. And I thought Christians were supposed to “worship in spirit and truth” and that “truth shall set you free”. Instead Catholicism continues to allow if not encourage the veneration of relics that it knows likely to be frauds.

    2) Lastly, I close with a citation of a OT relic that doesn’t seem to get a lot of press. It seems that in times of King Hezekiah, the people developed an undue devotion to the “serpent of Moses”, the bronze serpent that God commanded Moses to make. What was Hezekiah’s response? Was it to urge the people to desist, tone down their devotion so as not to upset them? Did he take it off display for a while perhaps? No, he destroyed it. (2 Kings 18:4) I think that speaks volumes about the problems associated with relics and perhaps even the proper response.

  6. Martin said:

    Applying the same sort misguided logic that used by Calvinist apologists when fulminating their Marian misogyny, we would have to wonder whether Protestants actually worship God at all given their vehement rejection of the sacrifice of the Mass, the highest, truest form of worship that man may direct to God.

    But the prophet Samuel says:

    But Samuel replied: “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.

    And St. Paul says:

    Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship,

    I’ll take Samuel, Paul and the scriptures over Paul Hoffer any day :)

    And I really don’t think we want to go down the path that the quote you cited will take us down, unless you want this conversation to rapidly degenerate.

  7. Hey Matt,

    Great article. I haven’t seen anything this concise that makes such a compelling case for relics. You write, “Truly, the implications of the incarnation are what the Church teaching about relics really points to.” This is gold. To point out to reformed folk that the implications of the resurrection are even more extensive than they might have considered is certainly a disarming and fruitful way to go about apologetics. During my time as a Reformed Christian I was always amazed at all the signs in Christendom which “point” to Christ. It is a step towards unity for us to see that relics do the same.
    Peace in Christ, Jeremy

  8. I would just add that Jewish antecedents go a long way to explaining many of the distinctive features of the Christian cult of saints. Matt Yonke already cited Elijah’s bones as Biblical precedent for the notion that relics were agents of miraculous powers (2 Kings 13:21).

    In the postexilic period, it appears that Jews considered that the holy person himself was in the grave with his bones, continuing to work miracles (Sirach 48:12-14) (see Joseph Fitzmeyer, “Biblical Data on the Veneration, Intercession, and Invocation of Holy People,” in The One Mediator, the Saints, and Mary, p. 140).

    I’ve also seen Matthew 2:18 cited as evidence of this tradition: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.” That is, Rachel herself was thought to be weeping in her tomb.

    In the time of Jesus, we know that the Jews venerated at least the tombs of the Maccabees, the tomb of Zechariah, the tomb of the Davidic dynasty and Rachel’s tomb. These “graves were visited and held in respect.” (id. at 138). Hence, we have the historical material from which Catholic pilgrimages to holy shrines and tombs would later arise (e.g., the pool of Bethesda, where the ill came in order to be healed by miraculous waters – Jn. 5:2-7). Monuments were built by the Jews in honor of the heroes of Israel’s faith, often in the form of cenotaphs, pyramid structures with caps in imitation of Egyptian styles (4 Maccabees 17:9-10). In the Gospels, Jesus mentions similar structures, stating that the Pharisee and scribes “build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous” (Matt. 23:28-29). Of course, Jesus here is not rebuking the practice, as if honoring the dead was illicit. Rather, he is rebuking the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.

    Christians, then, were simply following established Jewish practices in honoring the bodies and graves of the martyrs, though for Christological reasons they attribute a greater honor to the martyrs than the Jews ever had.

  9. Thank you for this article, it is a very confusing topic to reformed thinkers. One of the reasons I think relics are so confusing to reformed folks stems from a difference in the way the Christian life is understood.

    For a long time, as a protestant, I really understood that being a Christian was mostly about what I thought. And, a lot of my well being hung on how deeply I believed the gospel. By that I mean primarily how deeply I believed the doctrine of justification: that I was, in all my sin, full accepted by God on account of Jesus. I am still an advocate of doctrine and faith, but I struggled with how to understand the rest of my life: being a husband and father, doing my job. These things just seemed to be the stage where the real question of what I believed was worked out.

    After a long time of stuggling with this inability to find meaning in the callings and stuff of my life I began to consider the incarnation and its implications for the meaning of my lived life. This was a long period of questioning, but eventually lead me to Catholicism (with other issues as well). This has been a big change in my thinking to consider my life and the stuff of my life as the place that God’s purposes are worked out, rather than a Christian life that is really lived out somehow above the earth. I don’t want to transfer my misunderstandings to any other Christian, but I do not think I was alone in having difficulty finding meaning in the stuff of my life. Nor do I think that understanding that this life is the place that God’s purposes unfold makes you Catholic. But, it has implications as to the nature of the Church and what the incarnation means for the visible, institutional Church.

    But, so long as being a Christian is lived suspended above this life I could not find any way to understand relics (or the mass, or confession, or sacramentals) other than superstition and idolatry. But, when my life as a Christian is lived in this life – infused with divine life – then relics do not seem so foreign. It still seems there is room for superstition and idolatry, but there very existence does not require that understanding.

  10. Steve (#5):

    Abusus non usum tollit.

    Best,
    Mike

  11. Hey Steve,

    What Mike said.

    Also, you said,

    Well, I still don’t see any Biblical support for relics as defined by Catholicism. No offense but what I see is something I see quite frequently when it comes to many Catholic/Protestant differences – whole dogmas for which the only scriptures in support are what you call “passing references”, what I see as obscure isolated verses which offer little basis for the dogma they are cited in support of.

    Sounds like you’re saying the strongest basis for Doctrine X is the largest pile of Scriptural proof texts that convince you; is that right?

    That may not be the best approach to responding to Matt’s use of Scripture. It’s probably a poor analogy on my part but I’ll roll with it: for the earliest Christians, Scripture = Hebrew Bible, right? So I’m reading your response to Matt and imagining how this same encounter must have played out in the early Church, where, say, Peter (or any of the others, you pick) is attempting to show a fellow (and devout) Jewish brother, call him Man—to show Man by way of text citations—that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, was also divine, and in fact is alive not dead, and… and… you get it.

    Man’s response? I see this a lot in various sects that try to use obscure references from the Scriptures as support for conjuring up doctrines that, while maybe possible are, as reflected in the scant evidence you’re citing, not probable.

    Does that analogy throw any light on your approach? I don’t expect it to be overwhelming, but I do hope it helps clarify why an individual’s skeptical approach to the Church’s witness only pushes us back to the nature of the Church and her witness—ie, does the authenticity of the Church and her doctrine depend on whether or not her interpretation of Text seems convincing to me? It may be worth it to go back to the basics.

    sincerely,
    wilkins

  12. Hey Steve,

    I just re-read my comment and the last line sounds like I’m being a complete jerk or something, or might sound like that; anyway, I don’t mean it like that at all and thought it best just to say so. What I should have said is something more like “go back, with so many of us, to the basics.” That’s certainly where I spend all my time. Peace, bro.

  13. Matt, This is an excellent article and explanation of the practice of relics. Thank you. I find it pretty interesting that some question the practice of venerating the resting place of forefathers and saints when the tombs of the Patriarchs and the tomb of Joseph the Patriarch are places of pilgrimage in Judaism and have been for millenia. As for veneration of relics, it is not required for any Catholic. We’ve seen the reliquaries at the Basilica in Padova of St Anthony and I have to admit, that I don’t mind the sarcophagus with his remains, but I do think the jawbone and tongue are icky. I also visited the Cathedral in Valencia, Spain where San Luis Obispo is interred, also incorrupt in a glass casket. His arm which was amputated in a battle for the liberation of Spain, is interred under the high altar. In the “Sound of Music” Church, the Stiftskirche, Mondsee, Austria, where my daughter was married, the remains of 5 abbots, some of whom are saints are interred in glass caskets over the high altar. These practices are common in Europe. Could Mr Trueman’s problems with the practices come as much from an American cultural aversion to the issue of death as much as what he calls “superstition”? Thanks, Anne G in NC

  14. When I first read Mr. Trueman’s article, I was angered by his accusation that the veneration of relics is superstition. But the more I thought about it, he is only operating in the “Spirit Good, Body Bad” paradigm that has plagued protestantism since the reformation (and the gnostics even before them)
    As was touched on above, historic Christianity is fully incarnational. God works his grace through the “stuff of earth” as Rich Mullins used to say. Blood, wine, bread, mud, spittle etc.
    Mr. Trueman’s revulsion is a reflex and based on his de-sacramentalized, non-incarnational paradigm of Christianity. He can’t help but think otherwise. But let us not under-estimate the ability of the saints behind these relics to intercede for Mr. Trueman!

  15. Hi Matt,
    Very interesting post but freaky for me. I had no idea that Catholics had actual pieces of human bodies that they used in worship/healing. What exactly do you do with the bone of a Saint? It does on face of it seem quite superstitious and not something that would draw me into the arms of Christ. If a priest were holding a human bone I’d really wait until he put it away before I’d want to come and be with him. Also, I know that if someone were to touch a dead body in the OT he was unclean – how does that work into the Catholic view of this topic?
    I share my thoughts with Eph 4:29 in mind with the true hope that there will be some benefit for you to understand how someone outside sees this but also that I might deal with my Catholic brothers in a more understanding way. Thanks for your time!
    Grace & peace, Andrew

  16. Andrew, I know that Matt can reply much better than I, but just a couple of points: I have never, ever seen a priest hold up a human bone or other body part. What I have seen are relics in decorated containers called reliquaries, made specifically for holding the item. The practice is to look at the relic and even touch the reliquary. We know that the Lord works through the prayers of the saints because He has in the past, in their lives and after their joining Him in Heaven. The relic is a tangible, visible reminder of the saint’s earthly life, closeness to God and closeness with God in Heaven. We ask them to pray for us. As someone said, we have a visible, tangible faith. Relics are not a sign of superstition, but a sign of belief in the Incarnation and the physical resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Please, somebody, correct anything where I am wrong. One more thing, Catholics do not have to venerate relics or practically anything else that are not sacraments.

  17. Thanks for this, Matt.

    I like this language: “So a biblical worldview must have room for inanimate objects as vessels of God’s power.”

    There are a number of passages in the NT that Catholics use to validate their claims about certain practices (I am thinking also of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in John 20 as supporting the institution of the sacrament of confession). Protestants say Catholics misappropriate these verses; yet they don’t offer a compelling alternative vision based on these verses.

    That is why your language hits the nail on the head. Protestants can argue that you’ve misused these passages in Acts or Kings; but they show no way of incorporating these passages into their biblical worldview.

  18. In his section on the adoration of Christ in His human nature and its implications, St. Thomas treats in his Summa Theologica the following question: “Whether any kind of worship is due to the relics of the saints?” The objections, his response, and his reply to the objections are worth posting in full, and are sufficiently clear that they need no explanation:

    Objection 1. It would seem that the relics of the saints are not to be worshiped at all. For we should avoid doing what may be the occasion of error. But to worship the relics of the dead seems to savor of the error of the Gentiles, who gave honor to dead men. Therefore the relics of the saints are not to be honored.

    Objection 2. Further, it seems absurd to venerate what is insensible [i.e. unable to sense]. But the relics of the saints are insensible. Therefore it is absurd to venerate them.

    Objection 3. Further, a dead body is not of the same species as a living body: consequently it does not seem to be identical with it. Therefore, after a saint’s death, it seems that his body should not be worshiped.

    On the contrary, It is written (De Eccles. Dogm. xl): “We believe that the bodies of the saints, above all the relics of the blessed martyrs, as being the members of Christ, should be worshiped in all sincerity”: and further on: “If anyone holds a contrary opinion, he is not accounted a Christian, but a follower of Eunomius and Vigilantius.”

    I answer that, As Augustine says (De Civ. Dei i, 13): “If a father’s coat or ring, or anything else of that kind, is so much more cherished by his children, as love for one’s parents is greater, in no way are the bodies themselves to be despised, which are much more intimately and closely united to us than any garment; for they belong to man’s very nature.” It is clear from this that he who has a certain affection for anyone, venerates whatever of his is left after his death, not only his body and the parts thereof, but even external things, such as his clothes, and such like. Now it is manifest that we should show honor to the saints of God, as being members of Christ, the children and friends of God, and our intercessors. Wherefore in memory of them we ought to honor any relics of theirs in a fitting manner: principally their bodies, which were temples, and organs of the Holy Ghost dwelling and operating in them, and are destined to be likened to the body of Christ by the glory of the Resurrection. Hence God Himself fittingly honors such relics by working miracles at their presence.

    Reply to Objection 1. This was the argument of Vigilantius, whose words are quoted by Jerome in the book he wrote against him (ch. ii) as follows: “We see something like a pagan rite introduced under pretext of religion; they worship with kisses I know not what tiny heap of dust in a mean vase surrounded with precious linen.” To him Jerome replies (Ep. ad Ripar. cix): “We do not adore, I will not say the relics of the martyrs, but either the sun or the moon or even the angels”–that is to say, with the worship of “latria.” “But we honor the martyrs’ relics, so that thereby we give honor to Him Whose martyrs [The original meaning of the word ‘martyr,’ i.e. the Greek martys is ‘a witness’] they are: we honor the servants, that the honor shown to them may reflect on their Master.” Consequently, by honoring the martyrs’ relics we do not fall into the error of the Gentiles, who gave the worship of “latria” to dead men.

    Reply to Objection 2. We worship that insensible body, not for its own sake, but for the sake of the soul, which was once united thereto, and now enjoys God; and for God’s sake, whose ministers the saints were.

    Reply to Objection 3. The dead body of a saint is not identical with that which the saint had during life, on account of the difference of form, viz. the soul: but it is the same by identity of matter, which is destined to be reunited to its form. (source)

    I have also written about the theology of relics in comment #7 of the “A Catholic Reflection on the Meaning of Suffering.”

  19. On Monday, in one of his last acts as pope, Pope Benedict XVI presided over a public consistory for the canonization of certain blesseds, among which were the 800 martyrs of Otranto in eastern Italy, who were martyred in 1480 by decapitation, for refusing to convert to Islam. They were led by a tailor named Antonio Primaldo, who heroically exhorted the men to remain true to Christ. The narrative of their martyrdom can be read here. Their bones are preserved in the reliquary at the Cathedral of Otranto, as show in the photo below:

    Martyrs of Otranto, pray for us.

  20. I haven’t seen a response to the passage in 2 Kings 18 where Hezekiah destroys the bronze serpent because it had become an object of worship. DOes anyone have an explanation for that?

    It’s interesting to note that the passage expressly says that “Hezekiah did what was right in the eyes of the Lord”

  21. Peter Leithart recently wrote an article titled “Idolatry and the Reformation.” In it he claims that idolatry was at least one of the problems the early Protestants attempted to address, and that they sought to address it through high sacramentalism, among other ways. The allegedly idolatrous practices to which Leithart refers (e.g. veneration of relics, icons, saints) are not, from a Catholic point of view, idolatrous, for reasons explained in comment #18 above. So this disagreement shows that we need to step back and not just compare respective definitions of idolatry, but compare the basis and authority of these respective definitions, and make sure that our criticisms of the other’s practices do not beg the question [in the presuppose-the-truth-of-our-own-position sense].

    But it is also worth considering whether the very sacramentalism to which Leithart appeals is what lies behind and under the Catholic practices Leithart considers idolatrous. From my own perspective, in light of Matt’s article above, it seems to me that the veneration of saints, relics, and icons, is all based on the understanding that what participates in Christ points to Christ by that very participation. We honor the saints not because of who they are in themselves but because of who they are in Christ, because of Christ’s living and working in them, as they journeyed to Christ, and are now with Christ in glory. And the same sort of reasoning applies to relics and icons — they have a non-competing relation with that from which they come, and to which they point. Honoring the icon of a saint does not detract from the honor due to the saint, but precisely the opposite — is a way of honoring that saint, and, still more, is a way of honoring Christ Himself who saved and sanctified that saint, and who is honored as the source and agent underlying the goodness exemplified by the heroic life of that saint. The painted image of a saint is an icon of the saint, and by the work of grace and the Holy Spirit within the saint, the saint is an icon of Christ.

    So likewise, in the very same sacramental perspective, we approach the sacraments not as objects that distract from Christ, or compete with Christ, but as coming from Christ, as being given to us by Christ, as being the instruments by which Christ comes to us and unites us to Himself and deepens our union with Himself. For this reason, again from my perspective, it would be ad hoc to embrace and applaud that sacramentalism in baptism and the Supper, while condemning it as idolatrous as it is applied to the members of Christ’s Mystical Body, to their physical members, and to physical images of their sacred bodies, bodies made sacred by the same Holy Spirit who makes holy the water of baptism, and comes down upon the bread and wine at the consecration. What is needed, then, in my opinion, in order to make progress in resolving this longstanding disagreement, is not only a discussion of the basis for our different definitions of idolatry, but also a principled distinction (not merely an arbitrary stipulated distinction) between what makes sacramentalism good in baptism and the Supper, and bad in the communion of the saints, and the veneration of relics and images.

  22. Yet, what is more, the grace of God so fills the souls of the saints that their very bodies become living temples of God, tabernacles of the Holy Spirit. This should come as no surprise, for it was in this body that the soul received grace, especially through the sacraments, ought this same body not to become the temple of the Holy Spirit through the grace bestowed upon the soul?

    Consider the body of the Angel of the Schools: It was in that body that Thomas was baptized, confirmed and received communion. It was in that body that he won the angelic virtue of purity. In that body he prayed and fasted. In that body he was forgiven his sins. In that body he was consecrated as a priest of God. In that body he studied and labored. And in that body he was strengthened for the particular judgment with the sacrament of the sick. Ought not this body to participate in some measure in the grace bestowed upon this angelic soul through a body so angelic?

    Yes, it must be so! Surely, the bodies of the saints which were so well subjected to the dictates of the soul must truly be temples of the Spirit who dwelt in their soul. The bodies of the great saints were themselves consecrated to God, dedicated to his service, and thus are rightly called temples of the Almighty.

    It is for this very reason that the church venerates the remains of these bodies as holy relics.

    Fr. Erlenbush “What’s with Catholics and bones? Why we venerate the relics of saints

  23. Gabe Martini, subdeacon and catechist at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church in Bellingham, Washington, has written a helpful article related to Matt Yonke’s above, titled “An Orthodox Response to John Calvin on Icons: Icons and Idolatry.”

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