Facts of the Matter: Relics & the Spirit of God


In the historical fiction book, Trunk of Scrolls, there is a character, Marcellus, who challenges the developing Byzantine view of relics.  His view is a precursor to the debate that started the Iconoclastic Controversy.  In the book, Marcellus wonders what it is that makes relics more ‘powerful’ than consecrated Christians.  According to John Chrysostom, what makes a saint’s bones powerful, is that the Spirit abides in them with power.  But is it not also the case that real living Christians equally have the Spirit abiding in them?

St. Augustine on Relics:

Anti-relic: “Augustine on the Holy Corpse” citations

Pro-miracle: City of God recounting of Miracles at Shrines

Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians today find special meaning in relics.  Their view is quite different than the Protestant view.  A very good explanation, by Eastern Orthodox Christians, of the difference between veneration and worship of relics is found at this site, Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries.

At the Council of Nicaea in 787 AD, bishops and church leaders present confirmed what the church had been believing regarding icons. This council brought the Iconoclastic Controversy to a close.  The conclusive statement they prepared regarding this states:

We declare that we defend free from any innovations all the

  • written and
  • unwritten ecclesiastical traditions that have been entrusted to us.

One of these is the production of representational art; this is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as it brings us a similar benefit. For, things that mutually illustrate one another undoubtedly possess one another’s message.

Given this state of affairs and stepping out as though on the royal highway, following as we are

  • the God-spoken teaching of our holy fathers and
  • the tradition of the catholic church —
  • for we recognize that this tradition comes from the holy Spirit who dwells in her–

we decree with full precision and care that,

  • like the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross,
  • the revered and holy images,
  • whether painted or
  • made of mosaic
  • or of other suitable material,
  • are to be exposed
  • in the holy churches of God,
  • on sacred instruments and vestments,
  • on walls and panels,
  • in houses and by public ways,

these are the images of

  • our Lord, God and saviour, Jesus Christ, and of
  • our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of
  • the revered angels and of
  • any of the saintly holy men.

The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration {latria} in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult objects. Further, people are drawn to honour these images with the offering of incense and lights, as was piously established by ancient custom. Indeed, the honour paid to an image traverses it, reaching the model, and he who venerates the image, venerates the person represented in that image.

  • So it is that the teaching of our holy fathers is strengthened, namely, the tradition of the catholic church which has received the gospel from one end of the earth to the other.
  • So it is that we really follow Paul, who spoke in Christ, and the entire divine apostolic group and the holiness of the fathers, clinging fast to the traditions which we have received.
  • So it is that we sing out with the prophets the hymns of victory to the church: Rejoice exceedingly O daughter of Zion, proclaim O daughter of Jerusalem; enjoy your happiness and gladness with a full heart. The Lord has removed away from you the injustices of your enemies, you have been redeemed from the hand of your foes. The Lord the king is in your midst, you will never more see evil, and peace will be upon you for time eternal.

The Debate regarding relics, and icons of saints, is alive still.  Martin Luther and John Calvin were adamantly against relics.  But Catholics and Orthodox today equally venerate relics and icons.  They point to historical tradition, back to the earliest days of Christianity, of venerating the bones, symbols and items connected to saints.  Called to Communion has an article related to this.  Take a look at the comments for a lively discussion.   Additionally, Catholic Champion has a posting about the current debate.  And Catholic Encyclopedia has a historical lesson on relics.

As the Trunk of Scrolls states, two opposites cannot both be correct at the same time in the same relationship.  So the question out there is: does the Holy Spirit reside with miracle power in the bones of departed Christians?   The answer has to be either yes or no.  And how do we ‘prove’ our point?

To answer this question, we need to ask ourselves how we know what we know. We need to know what are the presuppositions behind a thesis on relics.  We need to understand the cultural and religious background of the time, particularly understanding Gnosticism and non-Christian/pre-Christian views on relics.

Acts 3:16 says:

By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see.

Thomas Aquinas said that it was God, not the relic, that performs any miracle.  But that it is in the presence of the relic.  For more information on Talismans, see World Mysteries.  For an interesting parallel in the Hinduism sector, see these “genie-possessed” Relics.  Additionally, read about the “indwelling power” of the Hindu shrines in healing the sick.

How do we know something is true?  Do we know because someone claims a causal relationship? Do we know because we have reasoned through possibilities? The three possibilities are these:

1) Is it possible the relic, or the saint through his/her bones, brought healing?

2) Is it possible that hindu gods healed people at the Hindu shrine?

3) Is it possible that God healed people next to the relic or the shrine?

Miracle (noun) A surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.

There are no other gods that can heal. Demons cannot heal, since healing requires creative/regenerative power, and demons are creatures themselves, not able to create life. They destroy and kill and deceive.  But only God can bring healing, either by phenomenal methods or through the self-mending properties of our bodies.

“He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Matthew 5:45

It is not beyond Him to do good to his creation, even to those who do not believe. He will receive glory for it, regardless.

So you see, if a miracle ever occurs, God is the cause, by definition.

He must receive the credit.  Not idols or relics or anything else in all creation.