Wednesday, 27 April 2011

What Would Luther Say?

The following report came across the wires to the old manse this morning:
"VATICAN CITY Blood taken from Pope John Paul II during his final hospitalization will be used as the official relic for veneration after he is beatified.

The Vatican made the announcement Tuesday, putting to rest questions about what relic would be presented during Sunday’s beatification.

In a statement, the Vatican said four small vials of blood had been taken from John Paul during his final days for a possible transfusion, but were never used. Two of the vials were given to John Paul’s private secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, and another two remained at the Vatican’s Bambin Gesu hospital in the care of nuns.

One of the hospital vials will be placed in a reliquary and presented Sunday; the other will remain with the nuns.

John Paul died April 2, 2005.

The Associated Press"
What would Luther say? No doubt something like this:
"the Word of God is the holy of holies; in fact, it is the only holy thing we Christians know and have. Even if we had the bones of all the saints and all holy, blessed objects heaped together, we would be none the better for the collection. All these relics are lifeless objects that can sanctify no-one. God's Word, however, is the treasure that sanctifies everything. By it all the saints themselves were sanctified."
Martin Luther, The 3rd Commandment, The Large Catechism

Thank God for Martin Luther!


Anonymous said...

Ineed, the Word of God is itself a "relic" and "sacrament."

Pr Mark Henderson said...

It is indeed "living and active"!
Good to hear from you again, Frank (you've commented before, if I remeber rightly?)

Anonymous said...

Yes, I have. I very much like your blog. I've added to my blogroll on my own blog.

The Rev. Donald V. Engebretson said...

For those who believe that Roman Catholicism has fundamentally changed in the post-Vatican II era, events such as this only prove that their theological essence remains the same. Princes may not collect rooms full of relics any longer, but the concept continues relatively unchanged, with the possible exception that at least now they can have some authentication of the element as opposed to fanciful items like angel's wings and Mary's milk.

Thanks for keeping us up-to-date on the latest developments in Rome!

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Rome will never change in its essential nature, I'm convinced of that, Donald.

Frank, I'll check your blog out!

Schütz said...

Of course not, Pastor Mark. Of course not!

Actually, on this, as on so many other things, I fear that you are mistaken. Martin Luther's own logic provides the necessary basis for the veneration of relics. In his polemic, he is certainly rightly pointing out that the relics of saints are not "in themselves" holy, but since the word of God sanctifies not only our souls but also our bodies, the bodies of the departed saints are not mere dross and rubbish but the very building stuff of the once and future temple of the Holy Spirit. Derived sanctity can still be a conduit of that sanctity which has its source in God alone.

See my own blog for futher comment.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

I don't think Luther (or I) would say the bodies of the departed saints are dross or rubbish, David, unless in the sense of exaggerated piety of the "I am a worm and no man" variety, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" and all that. Lutherans are not Manichaeistic Presbyterians - I'm thinking of the story of the wounded Scottish warrior who crawled across hill and dale to find an Episcopalian minister (as Anglican ministers are known in Scotland), to whom he cried, "I dinna (do not) want ta be buried like a dog", making reference to Presbyterian burial customs, or lack thereof!

But in regard to the bodies of the departed saints being conduits of sanctity, Word of God please David. Prescriptive for the church, not merely descriptive, of course. Failing that the practice is at best a pious custom but at worst a superstition.

Then there is also the even bigger question of the theology of merit which lies behind the cult of saints, not to mention the accuracy of Rome's declarations of sanctity...Padre Pio, who apparently is more popular than Christ with Italians, comes immediately to mind. Which Pope was it who, because he had evidence that Pio had broken all his ordination vows, came to regard him as a charlatan of the worst kind and prayed that his influence upon ordinary folk would be curtailed?

Anonymous said...

Of course, whatever Luther would say the Scriptures say this:

"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." Acts 19:11-12.

Perhaps lifeless objects do sanctify after all.

Pr Mark Henderson said...


Please identify yourself. If you wish to use a psuedonym fine, just e-mail telling me who you actually are. Thanks. Just this once I'll make an exception, though, since you have raised a good point.

That is an interesting verse, to be sure. Firstly, I do not doubt the truth of it because it is God's Word. Interestingly, though, the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, written by leading Roman Catholic exegetes and published with a declaration of 'nihil obstat' regards the accounts of these healings as "legendary", so evidently doubting the truth of God's Word is something Roman Catholics are permitted to do!

Nevertheless, if we accept the truth of the account, the question is, does it prove the Roman Catholic claims about saints' relics? Well, firstly it is purely descriptive, not prescriptive - it doesn't authorise the practise described, Luke just tells us what happened on this particular instance. And he certainly doesn't say that any such powers attached to the body of Paul, or the other apostles, after his/their deaths!

That raises the important point that Paul was an apostle, an office that God used mightily with signs and wonders to establish the church, but an office which no longer exists. But you might say Roman bishops are successors to teh Apostles...but then you'll understand if I say that probably claims too much, since I'm sure not even the most pious Sydney Catholic touches Cardinal Pell's body with a hanky or tea-towel and rushes away expecting to heal someone with it.

So if Luke's description of what happened isn't an attempt to set forth a church practice, what is it? Given that the Ephesians were known to be at the whim of magicians and exorcists (as indeed was most of the ancient world, and even some parts of the world even today), it seems probable that God simply condescended to their level to testify with power to the Gospel preaching of Paul.

As you say, "perhaps lifeless objects do sanctify"; indeed, thaumaturgy is known in virtually all religions. It's difficult to say whenere the magic stops and the self-suggestion begins in such cases. But the episode recorded in Acts 19 is clearly a singular happening from which we cannot responsibly draw much beyond the expectation that at any time God may and can condescend to heal a human being out of pure compassion and for the purpose of testifying to the Gospel, particularly in a missionary situation. There is nothing there about relics of the dead, though.

Tony Bartel said...

Dear Pastor Mark,

My apologies for the anonymous post. I fully intended to sign my name, as the form below said I could log into my google account once I had submitted my comment. However, I was never given that opportunity. I will know better next time. I will respond to your comments above in a separate comment.


Tony Bartel

Tony Bartel said...

Dear Pastor Mark.

I am sorry that you mistake me for a Roman Catholic. I am an Orthodox Christian. So any arguments about the "nihil obstat" are lost on me.

I do not believe it matters too much whether the passage in Acts is descriptive or prescriptive. If we take it as descriptive, it describes how the Holy Spirit acted through the inanimate clothing of Saint Paul. Surely, if the Holy Spirit can act that way in the past, he can continue to act that way in the future. We must at least be open to the possibility, and indeed it will be likely that this will be so. It is not at all evident form the text that this is a one-off never to be repeated event,

Neither do I think it matters too much that the items that were vehicles of healing were clothing and not relics of the saint. If the clothing which was worn on the outside of the body can be a vehicle of healing, then how much more can the body of the departed saint, which was a temple of the Holy Spirit, be a vehicle of healing.

Indeed you are quite right to say that there is no mention of the clothing of Saint Paul being venerated. However, the argument of Luther, which you quote, is that inanimate objects cannot sanctify, relics are inanimate objects, therefore relics cannot sanctify. From this there appears to be a corollary argument that only items which sanctify should be venerated, relics to do not sanctify, therefore relics should not be venerated.

Of course, the whole argument falls to bits on its premises if inanimate objects can sanctify.

We know that from earliest times Christians have venerated the relics of saints, as the Martyrdom of Polycarp witnesses:

"We took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom."

From an Orthodox perspective, by taking on a material human body Christ redeemed the whole of material creation. Therefore, all of material creation is capable of being a bearer of the activity of God. It was on this basis that iconoclasm was overcome, but the arguments that secured the restoration of icons would similarly secure the veneration of relics.

None of this, from an Eastern perspective, is magic or self-suggestion, but the power of the Holy Spirit working through the bodies of the saints which have been redeemed in Christ.

I know how strange this sounds to those raised in the Protestant tradition. But it is not an "error of Rome" but a part of the faith of the Church, East and West, from earliest times.

With the greatest respect, it is really not the case that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches must justify the practice, but those such as Luther, who would seek to forbid it, who must show why it is not permissible and clearly forbidden. as noted above, I do not believe that the arguments of Luther stand up on this point.

Kind regards,

Tony Bartel

Pr Mark Henderson said...

I think you've side-stepped the issue of what in the Bible is descriptive and what is prescriptive. It is, of course, a short-hand way of saying that not everything in the Bible is set down as a pattern to be followed, and when such a pattern is set down, it is done so clearly, so that the church is given divine authorisation to do something. So, for e.g., in today's Gospel in the Western lectionary from John 20 we hear of Jesus commissioning the apostles to forgive sins. Elsewhere the mandate to baptise is recorded and the mandate to repeat the Lord's Supper. What I don't find is a mandate to venerate relics, to carry them around, to bless people with them, etc. That God may, in his power, use inanimate objects to heal is not under question - the question is whether the church is authorised to use relics as 'sacramentals' or conduits of grace and holiness. With respect, we Lutherans don't need to prove anything, we simply ask for the divine authorisation for the practice - without such it is dangerous and presumptuous to claim the practice is a means of grace as the RC and Orthodox do. The age of the practice is no argument for its truth; as Cyprian wrote: antiquity without truth is simply the antiquity of error.

Tony Bartel said...

Dear Pastor Mark,

I am sorry if I appear to have sidestepped the descriptive/ prescriptive distinction.

Most probably the real issue here is whether the Church may only do those things prescribed in the Scriptures (clearly she must do those things which are prescribed) or whether she may do things which are consistent with the Scriptures. Clearly Orthodox and Catholic Christians believe that the veneration of relics is consistent with the Scriptures.

The antiquity of a practice is not in itself a guarantee that it is correct However, when a practice has been observed since ancient times in the Church everywhere and by all, it does have considerable weight. At this point, to use a legal metaphor, the burden of proof shifts from those who carry on the practice to those who would seek to deny it.

Kind regards

Tony Bartel

Lvka said...

And he [Luke] certainly doesn't say that any such powers attached to the body of Paul, or the other apostles, after his/their deaths!

No. But 2 Kings 13:21 seems to do just that.

Pr Mark Henderson said...


You wrote, "the real issue here is whether the Church may only do those things prescribed in the Scriptures (clearly she must do those things which are prescribed) or whether she may do things which are consistent with the Scriptures."

Yes, that's the underlying issue. But I think we need to be evenmor eprecise - can the church say that divine grace attaches to practices where there is no Word of God to authorise that belief? Lutherans have no problem with many things being present in worship which are not explicitly commanded, provided they are consisten with scripture (i.e. we have a place for adiaphora, things neither commanded nor forbidden, we are not Puritans). The problem comes when the promise of grace is attached ot those practices without divine institution.

Schütz said...

It may be worth considering, Mark, if we are in fact using the word "grace" in the same way. A one-size-fits-all meaning of the word is not quite sufficient. Catholic theology distinguishes between kinds of God's grace.

For instance, there is "sanctifying grace" - or "the grace of justification" that comes through baptism. (cf. CCC 1266). And then there is "habitual grace", the help that God gives a person to live in this sanctification. Then we speak of "sacramental graces", those gifts of God that are specific to the specific sacraments. Then there are "special graces", particular charisms etc. Interestingly, the term "means of grace" does not appear anywhere in the Catholic Catechism, perhaps for this reason. God can give his graces through many different instruments, although we would grant that "sanctifying" or "justifying" grace properly speaking can only come through faith and baptism (and is renewed by repentance and absolution).

Of "sacramentals" the catechism says: "They prepare men to receive the fruit of the sacraments and sanctify different circumstances of life." So you see, we are not holding up the "sacramentals" on the same level as the "Sacraments".

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Granted, David, but then you _are_ holding sacramentals up as "preparing to receive the fruit of the sacraments" without divine warrant. In Biblical theology, it is the preaching of the Word that prepares men to receive the grace of the sacraments (pardon the non-inclusive terminology).

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Blogger is being very contrary at the moment, so I've had to cut and apste Christine's comment below from my e-mail...thanks Christine.

"Of course Catholic theology distinguishes between the "kinds" of grace. It can never simply and clearly proclaim what God has given us in Christ Jesus.

It took me two tries to detoxify from all this but it finally took and my Lutheran memory has been restored.

Sacramentals, relics, all of it do a great job of keeping the Catholic laity from knowing that it is the Holy Spirit working through the Word that creates faith that is pleasing to God and that grace comes from Him in a very specific manner.

Nor is it surprising that syncretism is a perpetual plague in the Catholic church, as is evidenced by how comfortably animism and Catholicism live together in so many parts of the world.


Schütz said...

Granted, David, but then you _are_ holding sacramentals up as "preparing to receive the fruit of the sacraments" without divine warrant. In Biblical theology, it is the preaching of the Word that prepares men to receive the grace of the sacraments (pardon the non-inclusive terminology).

Come now, Pastor, that's a bit sloppy. Even Luther's Small Catechism acknowledges that fasting is a profitable preparation for the sacrament - and if that doesn't mean preparation "to receive the grace of the sacrament", what does it mean? In addition to that, not only the preaching of the word, but baptism itself - and indeed perhaps even confirmation - are regarded by Lutherans as a proper preparation for the Sacrament of the Altar. As is confession of sins, for that matter... So, plenty of things, and not just "the preaching of the word", prepare us to receive the Grace of the Sacraments even in Lutheran theology. Sharpen up, old chap.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

But, David, the point of difference under discussion is whether 'sacramentals', defined broadly, are actual means of grace or tantamount thereto, as Catholicism and Orthodoxy seem to make them. Lutherans would never make such a claim about fasting or other 'bodily preparations' for receiving the sacrament of the altar, while both Baptism and Absolution are forms of the ministry of the Word, are they not?