Should Christians Worship Relics?
IT HAS been said that “the most precious treasures” of the Roman Catholic Church are its large collections of relics, which are highly esteemed and on which much veneration and honor are bestowed by the faithful. Such devotion was particularly manifest when the right forearm of St. Francis Xavier, the first Jesuit missionary to go to Japan, 400 years ago, was recently displayed.
In the cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris, is “the reputed true Crown of Thorns worn by Christ”, and at Bruges, Belgium, is a “relic of the Most Precious Blood of Our Lord”. (Denver Catholic Register) A small piece of the “True Cross” sold at auction in London for £600 in 1945, and a couple of months before that the London Catholic Herald told how the supposed relics of Timothy, the apostle Paul’s companion, had been found in a church along the Adriatic coast of Italy. In Prague, Czechoslovakia, there is a church decorated with the bones of 10,000 persons, arranged in the form of shields, crowns, crucifixes, etc. Other churches in Bohemia and Italy are decorated with relics of dead men’s bones, which are worshiped. As the Roman Catholic Hierarchy catalogues this vast collection of antiques, they are aware of the fact that the bones of the apostle Peter are missing. Hence, their fanatical zeal in flooding the public press with stories about how they “suppose”, “assume,” “fancy,” and “suspect” that “perhaps”, “maybe,” or “possibly” Peter’s bones have been found in the pagan cemetery upon which the Vatican is built.
But why are such old bones, blood and other objects worshiped? The Catholic Encyclopedia (vol. 12, p. 734) says: “The teaching of the Catholic Church with regard to the veneration of relics is summed up in a decree of the Council of Trent (Sess. XXV), which enjoins on bishops and other pastors to instruct their flocks that ‘the holy bodies of holy martyrs and of others now living with Christ—which bodies were the living members of Christ and “the temple of the Holy Ghost” (1 Cor., vi, 19) and which are by Him to be raised to eternal life and to be glorified are to be venerated by the faithful, for through these [bodies] many benefits are bestowed by God on men’.” The writings of early “church fathers”, as Ambrose and Augustine, were cited as justification for the Council’s decree.
As for Scriptural support, the Catholic Encyclopedia says: “Turning to Scripture analogies, the compilers [of the “Roman Catechism” produced by the Council of Trent] further argue: ‘If the clothes, the kerchiefs (Acts xix, 12), if the shadow of the saints (Acts v, 15), before they departed from this life, banished diseases and restored strength, who will have the hardihood to deny that God wonderfully works the same by the sacred ashes, the bones, and other relics of the saints?’”
It is not a matter of having bravery or pluck to defend a theological dogma, right or wrong. Instead of hardihood, who has the honesty to examine God’s sacred and infallible Word of truth on the matter? Those who have will find that the Scriptures do not support the relic-worshiping practice at all. In the particular cases mentioned in Acts 5:15 and Acts 19:12 there is no question that God performed great miracles by the hands of Peter and Paul. Nevertheless, those men did not allow other creatures to bow down to, worship or venerate them as long as they were alive. Why, then, would anyone want to worship their bones after they are dead? (Acts 10:25, 26) The account at 2 Kings 13:21 tells how a dead man came to life after coming in contact with the bones of the prophet Elisha, but there is no record that Elisha’s bones were worshiped either before or after that miracle. It was God that performed that miracle, not the bones; so it was proper that all veneration, worship, glory, honor and praise be given to God and not to the lifeless bones.
LET GOD’S WORD GIVE FURTHER ANSWER
In addition to the above-cited scriptures, the distinguished Jesuit theologian Bellarmine cites 2 Kings 23:16-18, Isaiah 11:10 and Matthew 9:20-22 as “proof” for relic worship. Examination of these texts, however, shows them to be of no weight or consequence. In the first instance, Josiah showed respect for the prophet of the Lord by leaving his bones undisturbed. But he did not bow down to, venerate or worship those bones, nor did he command or allow any religious homage to be bestowed on them by others. Josiah made it his business to clean out pagan idolatry and demonic practices from the land, and he would not defeat his purpose by instituting the worship of dead men’s bones in place of the pure worship of Jehovah.—2 Kings 23:16-18.
Textual examination reveals that the Catholic Douay Version has grossly mistranslated Isaiah 11:10 when it says concerning “the root of Jesse” that “his sepulchre shall be glorious”. The original Hebrew word here rendered “sepulchre” has the thought of “rest” or “resting place” and has no reference to the tomb or grave. Out of the 21 places where the word occurs the Latin Vulgate as shown by the Douay Version translates the word this way only once. In most other occurrences it properly translates the word. For example, look up Ruth 1:9 and see how the Latin Vulgate did not dare to mistranslate the word as “sepulchre” instead of “rest”. The eminent Catholic authority, Msgr. Ronald Knox, in his 1950 translation of the Hebrew Scriptures corrects the mistake in Isaiah and then apologizes for the Vulgate’s blunder. In a footnote he says that “the Latin understands this of resting in the tomb, but this is not suggested by the Hebrew text”. So Isaiah 11:10 in no way supports tomb worship.
It is told in Matthew 9:20-22 how a sickly woman had faith so strong that when she touched the garment of Jesus she was cured. Undoubtedly she, like the others that were miraculously cured by Jesus, gave praise to Almighty God, not to the garment or the one wearing it. (Matt. 9:8; Acts 3:8, 9) There is nothing in the record to the contrary.—Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:43-48.
The Israelites kept certain things, as the pot of manna, Aaron’s budded rod, the stone tablets of the Law, but these were kept as a court record, as a testimony or witness before the people, and on no occasion were they dragged out, worshiped and used to cure ailments of the people. (Heb. 9:4; Ex. 25:10, 16; Num. 17:10; Deut. 31:26, 27) Then there was the mighty sword of Goliath, that had been wrapped up and kept in the Lord’s house as a witness of what Jehovah had done to that proud and haughty boaster. But none of Israel worshiped or venerated that bloodstained relic.—1 Sam. 21:9.
That such “souvenirs” were not to be venerated is shown by what happened to the brazen serpent that Moses raised up. It was kept for many years as a symbol of Jehovah’s saving power, but when the nation turned away from God and began showing devotion and homage to that relic, good king Hezekiah, with God’s full approval, had it destroyed. This is a case bearing directly on the question of relic worship, and it positively, irrefutably and unquestionably condemns such form of idolatry.—Num. 21:8, 9; 2 Ki. 18:4-6.
Furthermore, God’s law at Numbers 19:11-13 clearly defines dead bodies as unclean, not “holy”. The bones of Jacob and Joseph, in due respect to their wishes in the matter, were buried in the land of promise rather than in Egypt. Be it noted, such bones were not hung up in the tabernacle or used to decorate Solomon’s temple or enshrined in some niche in the hope that they would cure ills of those making pilgrimages to see them. No, their bones were buried in the ground. (Gen. 50:5-13, 25, 26; Ex. 13:19; Josh. 24:32; Acts 7:15, 16) How the Devil would have liked to get hold of the bones of Moses! But the Lord God took care of that matter and buried them in a place no one knew, lest His chosen people should stumble and fall into the heathen practice of worshiping relics of Moses. (Deut. 34:5, 6; Jude 9) Likewise, in the case of Jesus’ human body, it was disposed of by the Lord in such a way the relic collectors never got their hands on it.—Matt. 28:5, 6; Mark 16:6; Luke 24:1-3.
There is not a particle of evidence that the body of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, or the bones of the martyr James, were distributed around or sent on a tour as relics by early Christians. To the contrary, the scripture definitely states that Stephen was buried in the ground. (Acts 8:2) These Scriptural facts, therefore, give no comfort or support to those who teach that the bones of “saints” and martyrs should be revered and worshiped, and hence the Hierarchy appeals to tradition and heathen customs for support.
PAGAN ORIGIN OF RELIC WORSHIP
In addition to what God’s holy Word the Bible says on the matter there are other very good reasons why true Christians should not venerate or worship religious relics. The practice and custom did not originate with Christ or his apostles or with God’s chosen nation of Israel. It is clearly a pagan invention and hence of the Devil, pure and simple, and the Catholic Encyclopedia admits as much. It says that the veneration of relics is “a primitive instinct” and is associated with many other religious systems besides that of Catholicism. It goes on to tell how the ancient Greeks superstitiously worshiped the bones and ashes of their heroes, how the Persians “treated with the deepest veneration” the remains of Zoroaster, and how “relic-worship amongst the Buddhists of every sect is a fact beyond dispute”.
Other authorities have shown that the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians likewise venerated the relics of their lords and princes. “In the realms of Heathendom the same worship had flourished for ages before Christian saints or martyrs had appeared in the world. . . . From the earliest periods, the system of Buddhism has been propped up by relics, that have wrought miracles at least as well vouched as those wrought by the relics of St. Stephen, or by the ‘Twenty Martyrs’ [mentioned by Augustine].” (Alexander Hislop’s The Two Babylons, pages 177,178) In Kandy, Ceylon, a 400-year-old temple contains what is said to be Buddha’s tooth, “venerated by many millions of people.” (The Ceylon Daily News, April 1, 1950) Into the presence of this relic the British foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, was brought on January 1, 1950, in the hope it would miraculously cure his ailments.—New York Times, Jan. 16, 1950.
The heathen idea of attributing magical powers to bones, skulls, teeth and skins is so much older than Christianity, the above Catholic authority chooses to call it “a primitive instinct”. In reality it is nothing more than fetishism, concerning which the Encyclopedia Americana (1942 ed., vol. 11, p. 158) says: “It is the lowest of the unsystematic forms of worship found among uncivilized tribes, and exists especially among the Negroes of Africa, but also among the natives of both Americas, the Polynesians, Australians, and Siberians.” When Catholic Portuguese mariners sailed down the west coast of Africa they could see little difference between the worship of “sacred” bones, skulls and charms by the natives, and their own worship of religious relics and amulets which they called feitiços, and from which we get the name fetish.
M’Clintock & Strong’s Cyclopœdia (vol. 8, p. 1028) well sums up the whole matter when it says: “There is no doubt that the worship of relics is an absurdity, without the guarantee of Scripture, directly contrary to the practice of the primitive Church, and irreconcilable with common-sense.”