Friday, December 10, 2010

Relics of Saints and the Early Church

If anything is distinctive of the devotional practices of the Catholic Church in relation to those of evangelicals, it's the Church's practices surrounding relics.

Relics are the remains of those recognized as saints, whether it be a part of their body or something they owned*. Catholics carefully preserve relics, give a great deal of honor to relics, and even sometimes claim miracles in connection with relics. Catholic say that they are honoring Jesus' servants and in doing so are really honoring Jesus. But to evangelicals, the whole practice seems at best very strange and at worst idolatrous. It would be unsurprising for an evangelical to dismiss the whole thing as just another late medieval corruption of the Catholic Church.

Such an assumption, however, would be wrong. In actuality, the practice comes from the Holy Scriptures and from the early Church.

First, here is an example from the Holy Scriptures in which God works a miracle through the dead remains of one of his holy servants:

2 Kings 13.20-22:
Elisha died and was buried. Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring. Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.

Next, here are two examples from the Holy Scriptures in which God works through objects belonging to holy people (in the first case, belonging to the most Holy One, Jesus our Lord):

Mark 5.27-29:
When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.

Acts 19.11-12:
God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.

Regarding the practice of preserving and honoring relics, here are two (of many) records of what the early Church believed:

Martyrdom of Polycarp**, 17; events took place A.D. 155, written soon after:
[After Bishop Polycarp was martyed in a Roman stadium] But when the adversary of the race of the righteous, the envious, malicious, and wicked one, perceived the impressive nature of his martyrdom, and [considered] the blameless life he had led from the beginning, and how he was now crowned with the wreath of immortality, having beyond dispute received his reward, he did his utmost that not the least memorial of him should be taken away by us, although many desired to do this, and to become possessors of his holy flesh. For this end he suggested it to Nicetes, the father of Herod and brother of Alce, to go and entreat the governor not to give up his body to be buried, lest, said he, forsaking Him that was crucified, they begin to worship this one. This he said...being ignorant of this, that it is neither possible for us ever to forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of such as shall be saved throughout the whole world (the blameless one for sinners ), nor to worship any other. For Him indeed, as being the Son of God, we adore; but the martyrs, as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love on account of their extraordinary affection towards their own King and Master, of whom may we also be made companions and fellow disciples!

Notice that it is the pagan Roman official, at the suggestion of the Devil, who doesn't want the Christians to take relics because the Christians might end up worshiping Polycarp instead of Jesus. And it is the Christians who, while fully conscious of the fact they worship God alone, still honor His servants by honoring their relics, which is the stance of Catholics today, 1900 years later.

St Jerome, Letter 109, 1; written ~A.D. 400:
We, it is true, refuse to worship or adore, I say not [just] the relics of the martyrs, but even the sun and moon, the angels and archangels, Cherubim and Seraphim and every name that is named, not only in this world but also in that which is to come. For we may not serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Still we honour the relics of the martyrs, that we may adore Him whose martyrs they are. We honour the servants that their honour may be reflected upon their Lord who Himself says:— he that receives you receives me."

The Catholic practices surrounding relics was not a later invention of the Catholic Church. It is based on the Bible and has been passed on from the early Church.

*These are called first and second class relics respectively. Third class relics, unmentioned here, are objects that have been touched to a first or second class relics (usually something like a prayer card).

**Author unknown

Monday, December 6, 2010

Those "Extra Books": Who Really Changed the Bible

Evangelicals are very suspicious of "those extra books" that Catholics have in their Bible, and often make the accusation that Catholics "added them to the Bible". Evangelicals are confident that they are using the true, original Bible. These claims, however, simply do not stand up to historical facts.

In the first three centuries of the Church, there was no total consensus as to what books should be in the Bible. Few people doubted the canonicity of the four gospels and parts of the OT like the Pentateuch. But regarding other parts of the Old Testament or the rest of the New Testament there was much dispute.

For example:
Origin accepted what's today called the Catholic canon, but minus James, 2nd Peter, 2nd John, and 3rd John, and plus the Shepherd of Hermas.

Athanasius compiled a list of 66 books he considered to canonical in A.D. 367. Since his Old Testament, like Protestants today, had 39 books, Protestants often cite his list as evidence that the Protestant canon existed in the early the Church. It is true that Athanasius' Old Testament indeed had 39 books, but not the same books as Protestants. He rejected Esther and included Baruch.

Books whose inspired status (or the lack thereof) was disputed at one point or another in the early Church include: EstherHebrews, James, 2nd Peter, 2nd John, 3rd John, RevelationTobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus), Baruch, 1 Maccabees, 2 MaccabeesShepherd of Hermas, 1st Clement, and the Didache.

So how was the canon eventually settled?

Around 383, Pope Damascus I commissioned Jerome to make what we now call the Vulgate translation of the Bible in Latin. The canon he instructed Jerome to translate was the same as the Catholic canon today.

In 393, the Synod of Hippo, a local council of north African bishops led by St. Augustine, affirmed a canon list that's the same as the Catholic canon today. This list was reaffirmed at the local councils of Carthage in 397 and 419.

In other words, the question was eventually settled by the Church authorities - the same way the questions were settled regarding the Trinity and the person of Christ.

But where was the Protestant canon of Scriptures? Not a single person or group in the early Church believed the Biblical canon to be what is now the Protestant canon. The Protestant canon, though many evangelicals believe it to be the original canon, did not exist yet and wouldn't for a long time.

For the next 1000 years in the West*, all Bibles were comprised of the Catholic canon. Whether the book was Genesis or Tobit, it was revered as Scripture, read in church, and quoted as an authority.

It wasn't until the 16th century that we finally find the Protestant canon, when the Reformers chose to remove books from the Bibles that everyone already used.

(And so it was in response to this attack on the Holy Scriptures that at the Council of Trent the Catholic Church re-affirmed once and for all as dogma what the biblical canon was. Catholics were not creating their canon for the first time or adding books to the canon at the Council of Trent, as is too often ignorantly charged by evangelicals.)

Catholics have a bigger Bible than evangelicals. But this is because Protestants removed books from the Bible, not because Catholics added "extra books".

*I say "in the West" because some groups in the East continued to dispute the book of Revelation, as well as accept a few books that Catholics reject. In any case, they don't lend any support to the canon used by evangelicals, which is the focus on this post.