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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Baptists and Holy Relics: A Response to Brantly Millegan

I recently posted a response to an article written by Brantly Millegan concerning his spurious accusation that “most” evangelicals don’t agree with the necessity of baptism. My interest in that article was the profound misunderstanding of Protestant theology on Mr. Millegan’s part and the reminder of just how far apart our two traditions are.

Mr. Millegan has posted another article that condemns a Protestant theological position, this time on the importance of relics. His argument is that the veneration of Christian relics is something from of old, reaching back into Scripture and practiced in the era of the Fathers. He argues that the Reformation rejection of the importance of relics is the “new” development rather than the supposed development of relic veneration in the generations just before Luther. He says, “Catholics insist they are honoring Jesus' servants and in doing so are honoring Jesus. But to many Protestants, the whole practice seems at best very strange, at worst idolatrous, and, either way, in the very least, easily dismissed as just another late medieval corruption of the Catholic Church.”

Mr. Millegan cites five examples of relics and their veneration in Scripture and Church history. He refers to the miraculous resurrection of the man whose corpse touched the bones of Elisha,[1] the healing of the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak,[2] the use of objects belonging to Paul for healing,[3] a citation from The Martyrdom of Polycarp, and a quotation from a letter of St. Jerome. These examples do indeed support Mr. Millegan’s case that Christians throughout history have believed in the miraculous power of the bodies and objects associated with Elisha, Jesus, and Paul. Polycarp and Jerome are a bit more of a stretch since they are non-Biblical.

I do not wish to challenge these examples of veneration of relics. There are valid interpretations of these Biblical examples that do not lead to the historic treatment of garments, bodily fluids, and other trappings of the saints, though.[4] As for the Fathers, while there is certainly a developing tradition of physical veneration of relics in this body of literature, there is hardly a monolithic position. For example, St. Jerome wrote, “"We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order to better adore Him whose martyrs they are.”[5] Cyril of Alexandria wrote, “"We by no means consider the holy martyrs to be gods, nor are we wont to bow down before them adoringly, but only relatively and reverentially."[6]

The fact that the relics of the saints have been venerated since ancient times is not up for dispute. What Mr. Millegan wants to point out is that “The Catholic beliefs and practices surrounding relics are based firmly on Scripture and the practices of the early Church. Catholics venerate relics today just as Christians have been doing since the earliest times of the faith. Ironically, this means the Protestant rejection of relics is the late corruption of the faith, while the Catholic practice is in fact representative of original Christianity.”

It is not the veneration of icons that bothered Luther or Calvin or any Protestant. It is Mr. Millegan’s “beliefs and practices surrounding relics.” He admits that these beliefs and practices are based upon Scripture, but this foundation alone is not enough to justify the often-ridiculous historical beliefs and practices actually endorsed by the Catholic Church.[7]

The Protestant rejection of the veneration of relics was certainly influenced by the abuses of that system in the 15th and 16th centuries. Baptists further rejected the pilgrimages associated with holy sites and reliquaries as requirements for good standing and the forgiveness of sins. Mr. Millegan acknowledges this corruption, saying, “No doubt, as with anything good, the veneration of relics can be abused, but the wholesale rejection of it by Protestants is an overreaction, “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” Catholics, on the other hand, should confidently carry on with their good and holy veneration of relics - and perhaps reintroduce their Protestant brothers and sisters to the ancient Christian practice.”

Unfortunately, Baptists (again I will not presume to speak to all of Protestantism) will not return to the traditions and beliefs of the veneration of relics. Our tradition relies on the principles known as the “solas:” sola Scriptura, sola fide, solo gratia, solo Christo, soli Dei Gloria. The beliefs and practices surrounding the veneration of relics in the Roman Catholic tradition fall outside of these fundamental stances on Christian faith, and therefore we cannot and will not adopt them.

Baptists often venerate icons (such as the cross) to the level of sacrilege. However, for the Baptists the Christian life is based upon faith and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ the precludes the need for external relics for healing or veneration. Mr. Millegan is correct in pointing out the long-standing tradition of icon veneration in Christianity.  Not every ancient practice is worthy or re-introduction, though, especially when those practices tend to put external objects or the people they represent between the believer and the one true Mediator.

[1] Cf. 2 Kings 13:20-21.
[2] Cf. Mark 5:25-34.
[3] Cf. Acts 19:11-12.
[4] See, for example, Frederick J. Gaiser, “In Touch with Jesus: Healing in Mark 5:21-43.” Word and World 30 no 1, 5-15. See also John W. Olley, “2 Kings 13: A Cluster of Hope in God.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 36 no 2, 199-218.
[5] Quoted in Road to Emmaus 7 no 2 (Spring 2006), 63-71.
[6] Ibid.
[7] There are too many examples to cite to reinforce my use of the word “ridiculous.” Luther himself found the proliferation of relics in Germany to be ludicrous, several churches claiming to have the same relic at the same time. 

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