It is a general, if unstated, assumption among moderns that whatever the causes of the Reformation might have been, they must be long past. Often, however, that assumption is ill-founded. In fact, the fundamental causes for the Reformation (e.g., the Roman denial of the perspicuity, and of the final and unique authority of Holy Scripture; the Roman corruption of grace, and the Roman denial of the unique office of faith in salvation) still remain. Rome still sells indulgences. She also still has relics. Despite what people may assume about Vatican II and despite the appearances created by documents like Evangelicals and Catholics Together and the agreement on justification between Rome and the Lutheran World Federation (not exactly a bastion of Lutheran orthodoxy) and despite the appearance created by a socially and theologically “progressive” pontiff, Rome has not changed her dogma.
Neither has she changed canon law (confessional Protestants might think of church orders or books of discipline on steroids) on fundamental errors such as relics:
§1 It is absolutely wrong to sell sacred relics.
§2 Distinguished relics, and others which are held in great veneration by the people, may not validly be in any way alienated nor transferred on a permanent basis, without the permission of the Apostolic See.
§3 The provision of §2 applies to images which are greatly venerated in any church by the people.
Rome regulates relics but she has never abolished them. What are they? The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines them thus:
material remains of a saint after his death, as well as…sacred objects which have been in contact with his body; the most important relic, however, has been that of the True Cross (or fragments of it), according to tradition discovered by St Helena during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 326.
St Helena was Constantine’s mother. Dissatisfied with the divinely instituted means of grace (the preaching of the Holy Gospel, the administration of the Holy sacraments, and prayer), she wanted “the” cross as a religious relic. Of course, 300 years after our Lord’s crucifixion nothing remained of the original cross. There is not a shred of evidence from the 1st or 2nd century that the earliest Christians (most notably the Apostles themselves) had any interest in let alone veneration toward our Lord’s cross. Further, it seems likely that the original narrative of Polycarp’s martyrdom was corrupted with a bit about veneration of his remains. Polycarp himself (Epistle to the Philippians) showed no interest in relics. Neither did Ignatius nor did the treatise To Diognetus, Irenaeus, or Justin. We do not see a real turn to relics until the 4th century when Christianity was legalized and when it began to become the state religion. It is then that we see the rise of hymns (not without controversy) and corruptions of Christian piety and practice as the visible church began to mirror the prevailing culture. E.g., only in the 4th century does the Bishop of Rome begin to assert the primacy of his episcopacy. It was one of Constantine’s relatives who, in this same period, began to ask for a picture of Christ, which she was denied.
It is fitting in 2017 that we remember the Roman cult of relics, their veneration of alleged (fictitious) remains of our Lord, of the Blessed Virgin, of the Apostles, and of other deceased Christians. This comes to mind because I mentioned in passing today, in class, Calvin’s wonderful 1543 Inventory of Relics. This treatise is translated into English and found in volume 1 of his Tracts and Letters. The Inventory is a good reminder that Calvin had a sense of humor, albeit dry. It reminds us that he was a humanist. It also reminds us of what happens when we abandon the “rule of worship” that we confess from God’s Word: we do that in worship only what is commanded in his Word explicitly or by good and necessary inference. As Calvin notes, the rise of the cult of relics in the 4th century shows how our hearts are, as he says elsewhere (Institutes) idol factories. Our natural, fallen inclination is to trade the Creator for the creature. Calvin notes how God hid Moses’ body so that the Israelites would not venerate it. To that we might add the case of the brass serpent.
We cannot survey the whole treatise. It is easily available online (via CCEL) but it is worth touching on some highlights. According to Calvin, were we to catalogue all the various claims about the remains of the Apostles, there must be 4 bodies for every apostle. In Geneva they were supposed to have a relic of St. Anthony. When examined, however, it turned out to be a bone from a stag. One church claimed to have St Peter’s brain. It turned out to be a pumice stone. The head of Mary Magdalene turned out to be a bit of pitch attached to a wax eye. Frauds all, of course.
Calvin begins with the body of our Lord, which, you will remember, is ascended and glorified. Nevertheless, various Roman parishes claimed to have a tooth, hair, and even the holy prepuce (you can look that one up for yourself). More than 100 places claimed to have vials or drops of our Lord’s blood. Then there is his manger, his swaddling clothes (of course), his cradle, nightshirt etc. You see how this goes. Calvin counted no fewer than 14 nails alleged used to affix our Lord to the cross and 4 spears with which his side was pierced. Calvin catalogues claims about the fish eaten after resurrection, his burial linens and so on.
There were no shortages of claims about blessed virgin. Perhaps the most bizarre were those about her breast milk. I kid you not. Calvin wrote:
As to the milk, it cannot be necessary to enumerate all the places where it is shown. Indeed, the task would be endless, for there is no town, however small, no monastery or nunnery, however insignificant, which does not possess it, some in less, and others in greater quantities; not that they would have been ashamed to have it in hogsheads, but they thought the lie might be more plausible if they had only a small, quantity,—as much, for instance, as could be contained in a small gallipot or phial [vial]; for in this form it can be kept back from minute inspection. But had the breasts of the most Holy Virgin yielded a more copious supply than is given by a cow, or had she continued to nurse during her whole lifetime, she scarcely could have furnished the quantity which is exhibited. Again, I would fain know how that milk, which is at present almost everywhere exhibited, was collected, so as to be preserved until our time.
We laugh at the absurdity but evangelical and Reformed folk should not think that it cannot happen to us. We are not any less gullible than those fourth-century Christians who began to look for relics. One of the reasons Reformed folk leave Geneva, as it were, for Alexandria and Rome is for a sense of connection to the past. I have heard “evangelical” radio preachers hawk faux relics on the radio. There is a market for these things. I recall one notorious preacher selling coins “like they put on Jesus’ eyes” and “bowls like they ate out of at the last supper.” Do you think that if a leading evangelical scholar returned from “the holy land” with a certified relic of our Lord’s or of the apostles that evangelicals would not set up a display to admire it? How long before admiration turned to veneration?
The relics are frauds, of course, but the reason that people turn to them still today is because our hearts are corrupt. We want what God has not given and we ignore what he has given. The existence of relics is good reason to rejoice in God’s grace to idolaters and to redouble our determination to adhere to the rule of worship as Christ has given it to us.