Biblical Evidence and Reasoned Arguments for Relics

Biblical Evidence and Reasoned Arguments for Relics October 21, 2015
Relic of St. Clare of Assisi; photograph by Judy Flores Partlow, 18 April 2012 [Flickr / CC BY 2.0 license]
From my book: The Catholic Verses (2004).

2 Kings 13:20-21 [RSV]: So Elisha died, and they buried him. Now bands of Moabites used to invade the land in the spring of the year. 21 And as a man was being buried, lo, a marauding band was seen and the man was cast into the grave of Elisha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood on his feet.

As an introduction to the Catholic conception of matter as a conveyor of grace: the fundamental assumption behind things such as relics and sacramentals, I shall cite John Henry Newman, from his famous, profoundly influential work, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, written in 1845, while still an Anglican (but just before he converted to Catholicism):

Christianity . . . taught that the Highest had taken a portion of that corrupt mass upon Himself, in order to the sanctification of the whole; that, as a first fruits of His purpose, He had purified from all sin that very portion of it which He took into His Eternal Person, . . . It taught that the Highest had in that flesh died on the Cross, and that His blood had an expiatory power; moreover, that He had risen again in that flesh, and had carried that flesh with Him into heaven, and that from that flesh, glorified and deified in Him, He never would be divided. As a first consequence of these awful doctrines comes that of the resurrection of the bodies of His Saints, and of their future glorification with Him; next, that of the sanctity of their relics . . . (Part II, Chapter X, Section 1, 401-402)

Thomas Howard, also an Anglican on the verge of conversion to Catholicism at the time he wrote the following, picked up the same theme of the unbiblical Protestant tendency to pit matter against spirit:

By avoiding the dangers of magic and idolatry on the one hand, evangelicalism runs itself very near the shoals of Manichaeanism on the other – the view, that is, that pits the spiritual against the physical. (Evangelical is Not Enough, 35)

Catholic apologist Bertrand Conway elaborates:

The Catholic Church does not teach that there is any magical virtue or any curative efficacy in the relic itself. The Church merely says, following the Scriptures, that they are often the occasion of God’s miracles. In the Old Law we read of the veneration of the Jews for the bones of Joseph (Exodus 13:19; Joshua 24:32), and of the prophet Eliseus which raised a dead man to life (2 Kings 13:21) . . . (The Question Box, 373)

With this background, let’s examine some examples of how Protestants have interpreted 2 Kings 13:20-21. Adam Clarke, in his Commentary – somewhat typically, it seems – admits the validity of the principle involved but then immediately proceeds to irrationally mock the Catholic belief-system concerning relics which derives from it:

This shows that the prophet did not perform his miracles by any powers of his own, but by the power of God; and he chose to honour his servant, by making even his bones the instrument of another miracle after his death. This is the first, and I believe the last, account of a true miracle performed by the bones of a dead man; and yet on it and such like the whole system of miraculous working relics has been founded by the popish Church.

With this sort of mentality, I guess the examples from the Bible, and explicit biblical precedents and proof texts for any Christian belief or practice are irrelevant. Clarke’s hidden hostile assumption seems to be that the only criterion we have for knowing that a belief is false and implausible (regardless of the biblical data) is whether the “popish Church” espouses it. If it does do so, it must be false.

Presbyterian Matthew Henry, in his very well-known Commentary, manages to recognize the implications of the verse without adding the gratuitous swipe against the “papists”:

This great miracle . . . was also a plain indication of another life after this. When Elisha died, there was not an end of him, for then he could not have done this. From operation we may infer existence . . . Elijah was honoured in his departure. Elisha was honoured after his departure.

To conclude this discussion on relics, I would add that veneration is essentially different from worship or adoration (reserved for God alone); it is a high honor given to something or someone because of the grace revealed or demonstrated in them from God. The relic (and the saint from whom it is derived) reflects the greatness of God just as a masterpiece of art or music reflects the greatness of the artist or composer.

Therefore, in venerating it, God is being honored. The saint is being venerated only insofar as he or she is reflecting God’s grace and holiness. If such an item is worshiped, the person doing it is not following Catholic teaching, which fully agrees with Protestantism with regard to the evil of idolatry, or putting something besides God in the unique place of God.

In the passage above, matter clearly imparted the miraculous and grace from God. That is all that is needed for Catholics to reasonably and scripturally hold such items in the highest regard and honor (veneration). It wasn’t necessary for the whole doctrine to be present in the verse; only the fundamental assumption behind it (matter can convey grace), which is the basis for the Catholic belief and practice.

Many Protestants (including Martin Luther himself, Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, Churches of Christ) accept this principle with regard to the waters of baptism, which – so they hold – cause spiritual regeneration to occur, even in an infant.

As for the “graven image” of Exodus 20:4: what God was forbidding was idolatry: making a stone or block of wood God. The Jews were forbidden to have idols (like all their neighbors had), and God told them not to make an image of Him because He revealed Himself as a spirit. The KJV and RSV Bible versions use the term graven image at Exodus 20:4, but many of the more recent translations render the word as idol (e.g., NASB, NRSV, NIV, CEV).

Context makes it very clear that idolatry is being condemned. The next verse states: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (NIV, NRSV).

In other words, mere blocks of stone or wood (“them”) are not to be worshiped, as that is gross idolatry, and the inanimate objects are not God. This does not absolutely preclude, however, the notion of an icon, where God is worshiped with the help of a visual aid.

Idolatry is a matter of disobedience in the heart towards the one true God. We don’t always need an image to have an idol. Most idols today are non-visual: money, sex, lust for power, convenience, our own pride or intellects; there are all sorts of idols. Anything that replaces God as the most important thing in our life and the universe, is an idol.

Idolatry is also a “heart issue.” It’s all about what is going on interiorly, just as lust is. One can lust without having a person of the opposite sex right in their vision. The heart is always key in Christianity. Catholics and Orthodox worship Jesus through images (including crosses, crucifixes, and statues of Jesus), and we venerate saints via images.

The frequent Protestant objection and opposition to veneration of images or of relics (as in this case) is as silly as saying that a person raising their hands towards God in worship and praise during church is worshiping the ceiling. That person may not have an image of God in their mind, but they use the symbolism of “upwards” as being directed towards God (yet God is everywhere, so they could just as correctly stretch their arms downward or sideways).

We are physical creatures; God became man, and so by the principle of the Incarnation and sacramentalism, the physical becomes involved in the spiritual. Icons and relics are both based on these presuppositions.

2 Kings 2:11-14: “And as they still went on and talked, behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. 12 And Elisha saw it and he cried, ‘My father, my father! the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ And he saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and rent them in two pieces. 13 And he took up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 Then he took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’ And when he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other; and Elisha went over.”

Acts 5:15-16: “. . . they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and pallets, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. 16 The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.”

Acts 19:11-12: “And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.” (cf. Mt 9:20-22)

Elisha’s bones were a “first-class” relic: from the person himself or herself. These passages, on the other hand, offer examples of “second-class” relics: items that have power because they were connected with a holy person (Elijah’s mantle and even St. Peter’s shadow), and third-class relics: something that has merely touched a holy person or first-class relic (handkerchiefs that had touched St. Paul).

Surveying a few examples of Protestant commentary on these verses, we find again that no real substantive objection is raised, so that, therefore, the Catholic basis for relics, grounded in these passages, stands unrefuted.

Thus, Matthew Henry refers to Elisha taking up Elijah’s mantle “not as a sacred relic to be worshipped.” Catholics do not worship relics, but venerate them, because they represent a saint who in turn reflects the grace and holiness of God. Henry offers no essential disproof that this is indeed a relic, only a potshot against a straw man.

God ultimately performs all miracles by His power, but in this case and many others He uses physical objects to do so (e.g., Moses’ staff, a Temple made of stone and wood). Belief that God can use something in His creation for a miraculous purpose does not in any way, shape, or form imply that God is not responsible or the cause. Adam Clarke cynically comments on St. Peter’s shadow, offering seven “disproofs” of relics:

A popish writer, assuming that the shadow of Peter actually cured all on which it was projected, argues from this precarious principle in favour of the wonderful efficacy of relics! . . . Now, before this conclusion can be valid, it must be proved: 1. That the shadow of Peter did actually cure the sick; 2. That this was a virtue common to all the apostles; 3. That all eminent saints possess the same virtue; 4. That the bones, &c.;, of the dead, possess the same virtue with the shadow of the living; 5. That those whom they term saints were actually such; 6. That miracles of healing have been wrought by their relics; 7. That touching these relics as necessarily produces the miraculous healing as they suppose the shadow of Peter to have done . . . no evidence can be drawn from this that any virtue is resident in the relics of reputed or real saints, by which miraculous influence may be conveyed.

I shall briefly reply to Clarke’s seven points of contention:

1) That St. Peter’s shadow was instrumental in healings is at least as reasonable and plausible an assumption from the text as its denial.

2) and 3) Whether all the apostles and saints possessed this characteristic is logically irrelevant to the fact that it occurred with Peter and thus sets a biblical precedent for Catholic belief in second-class relics.

4) This is a non sequitur. The evidence for bones also potentially having such power is proven from the example of Elisha.

5) Whether a person was a saint is a matter of rigorous historical inquiry in the Catholic Church (usually taking many years).

6) Whether miracles have occurred historically as a result of relics is also a matter of historical substantiation. They certainly have, but proof of that is beyond our purview here.

7) Catholics are not saying that healing necessarily follows from contact with a relic, only that it may, and that this is one legitimate means that God may in some instances use to heal and otherwise bestow grace upon sinful men.

Clarke’s case against relics based on this Scripture passage is nonexistent (and mostly merely declarative, to the exclusion of substantive rational argument): a combination of irrelevancies, straw men, wrongheaded analogies, conclusions that don’t follow, unwarranted demands, and outright skepticism of the occurrence of the supernatural (many Protestants – called cessationists — believe that all miracles ceased with the apostles). Matthew Henry, in his commentary on Peter’s shadow, is not nearly so skeptical as Clarke:

[I]f such miracles were wrought by Peter’s shadow, we have reason to think they were so by the other apostles, as by the handkerchiefs from Paul’s body (ch. xix. 12), no doubt both being with an actual intention in the minds of the apostles thus to heal; so that it is absurd to infer hence a healing virtue in the relics of saints that are dead and gone.

This is excellent and no different from the Catholic view, except for the last clause, which does not at all logically or biblically follow. Rather than recognize this instance as a clear proof of the principle of relics, Henry belittles relics as “absurd” with one portion of a sentence – itself containing an altogether unproven assumption: that in order for a healing to occur, it must be the intention of a person performing it (thus ruling out miracles as a result of relics, by definition).

But whence comes this “criterion”? To the contrary, Elisha was dead but his bones still raised a man from the dead. He certainly had no intention of healing that person (unless he did so from heaven). By Henry’s reasoning, then, that clear biblical example would be absurd. He himself grasps the implication when commenting on Elisha’s bones, but contradicts himself here and can’t bring himself to admit anything that might have a “Catholic odor” to it.

Catholics, however (like the overwhelming number of those in the early Church), are not limited by this bias against matter as a purveyor of grace and the notion of relics itself, and so can accept the Bible’s teaching, wherever it leads.

Likewise, John Calvin’s “argument” against relics in his commentary on Acts 19:11-12 contains plenty of mockery, straw men, and sophistry:

[T]he Papists are more blockish, who wrest this place unto their relics; as if Paul sent his handkerchiefs that men might worship them and kiss them in honor of them; as in Papistry, they worship Francis’ shoes and mantle, Rose’s girdle, Saint Margaret’s comb, and such like trifles. Yea, rather, he did choose most simple things, lest any superstition should arise by reason of the price or pomp.

But Calvin’s exegesis does not overthrow the fundamental principle illustrated by these texts, which form a strong biblical basis for the Catholic conception of relics – which belief suffers no harm whatever from all the above Protestant commentary.

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