Relics: A reply to Treuman

By Matt Yonke

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.

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.