Pastor Mark asks: “What Would Luther Say?”

At his blog, Glosses from an Old Manse, Lutheran Pastor Mark Henderson writes in reaction to the report in The Telegraph that “blood taken from Pope John Paul II during his final hospitalization will be used as the official relic for veneration after he is beatified.”
Pastor Mark asks the question which only a Lutheran could ask:

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!

Well, Luther’s point, shorn of its polemic, is not actually an argument against the veneration of relics of the saints. We Catholics readily grant that all holiness has its source in God alone. It is useful to consult the new translation of Eucharistic Prayer II on this score. Before the consecration, the priest says:

You are indeed Holy, O Lord,
the fount of all holiness.
Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray,
by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall,
so that they may become for us
the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

By the action of Christ in his Word and by the Power of the Holy Spirit, the Father consecrates the bread and wine to make them the “Holy Things” of the Sacrament. Apart from God’s Word and Spirit, they would be just bread and wine. Once God has sanctified the gifts, however, they become a source of sanctification for us too.

Now, I am not going to claim an exact parallel between the transformation of the bread and wine in the Eucharist and the transformation of the human body through the sanctifying power of God’s Word and Sacraments, but I think there IS an analogy to be made. After all, does not St Paul himself call the bodies of baptised Christians the “temple of the Holy Spirit”? (1 cor 6:19). That is a big statement. The Temple in Jerusalem, sanctified by the presence of God’s Holy Name, was where the Jews were told by Sacred Scripture to seek sanctification. By analogy, the bodies of the saints are likewise places where sanctifying power may be found. Granted, the holiness is not theirs by nature, but by gift. Yet unless we are to become spiritualist Gnostics, we must say that God sanctifies not only the souls but the bodies of his people.

I was struck by this soon after I became a Catholic, when the relics of St Therese of Liseux came to our parish here in Melbourne. As Director of Music at the time, I had the duty of preparing all music for all the services of that 24 hour period. I was therefore confronted directly with the very concrete devotion of Catholics to their saints. And I have come to see that it is a good thing, an expression of the sacramentality of our faith, and of the real and concrete hope of redemption, not only of our souls, but also of our bodies.

As Luther said in Pastor Mark’s quote: “God’s Word…sanctifies everything. By it all the saints themselves were sanctified.” And thus the mortal remains of the saints ARE, even by Luther’s own logic, sanctified. Anything that is sanctified by God’s Word can itself become a conduit for that sanctity. Hence the veneration of relics.

Well. That’s what Schütz has to say on the matter. As if anyone would care about that, either!

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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10 Responses to Pastor Mark asks: “What Would Luther Say?”

  1. Tony Bartel says:

    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.

  2. Thanks kindly for the publicity, David!

    No offence intended, but I’m not with you on the bits of dead bodies as “conduits of sanctity” thing. As I responded to your comment over at “the old manse”, give me a Word of God please, prescriptive not descriptive of course. Otherwise its a pious custom at best or, when prayers to the dead are attached, superstition.

    Tony, you must be the anonymous commenter at “the old manse” on this post. Although I usually don’t allow anonymous comments, I posted yours with my response because a lot of people will think of that passage. To sum up my response, that’s a huge leap you’re making from the Paul’s apostolic thaumaturgy to the Roman Catholic practice of venerating relics. Go to the old manse to see the de3tail of my argument, which I admittedly wrote rather quickly, having mor eimmediately pressing things to attend to on a Saturday afternoon, like polishing off my sermon! Perhaps I’ll post a more detailed response in the coming week.

    • Schütz says:

      Give me a Word of God please, prescriptive not descriptive of course

      Too niggardly, Pastor Mark. We have given you two passages – the one from Acts about the hankerchief (which gives an apostolic example of the power of relics) and the one from 1 Corinthians (which gives a theological reason for regarding the bodies of saints as sanctified and having a sanctifying power). To dismiss the former as an example of “magic” and “superstition” is unfair, given that St Luke does not give us any inkling that he saw this as a negative development. To dismiss the theology of the sanctified body as having relevance is to dismiss the important role that theological reflection and deduction has in Christian doctrine and tradition.

      So a little more generosity, please. Not all that is approved as good and holy and true in the Church’s tradition is based on “prescriptive” commands in Scripture. The washing of feet on Maundy Thursday is a good example. Many things are true that are not taught prescriptively in Holy Writ. Many things are good and holy that have developed in the Church over the centuries. The rejection of them on the basis that there is only “descriptive” and not “prescriptive” basis in Scripture is – even for one who demands that all teaching in the Church be based on Scripture – niggardly.

    • Tony Bartel says:

      My response to Pastor Mark can be seen on his blog, as linked to by David above.

  3. Everyone keeps relics, even if they don’t call them that. The woman who keeps her mother’s hair brush and the man who preserves his father’s watch in a jewel box are keeping relics — objects that not only remind us of one who is no longer among us but also connect us to them in a tangible way. Add this instinct to the Catholic confidence that grace can be and is regularly given through “stuff,” and you have everything you need to understand devotion to relics. Can that devotion go astray? Certainly, and when it does, the practice must be corrected by the Word of God. But abusus non tollit usum.

    When the Church reaches moral certitude that an individual Christian already sees God in the Face and is changed from glory into glory and then realizes that there remains with us on earth a physical remnant of that persons’ earthly life, is it so hard to understand that those earthly remains would be venerated by those who also love and want to see the Lamb once slain? We honor the body with dignified burial because we anticipate the resurrection of the body, and the veneration of relics is nothing more than the working out of that doctrine in practical ways. If that devotion degenerates into superstition or hope for magical intervention, then it must be corrected, but even worse, it seems to me, would be to reject the bodies of the baptized (let alone the beatified or canonized) as unimportant.

  4. John Nolan says:

    @ Mark Henderson. Praying for the dead i.e. the holy souls in purgatory is not a superstition but an established Christian custom. The fact that Bruder Martin saw fit to dissent from it is neither here nor there. I would feel safer belonging to the Church founded by OLJC rather than that founded by the “beast of the waste wood” as Gerard Manley Hopkins so eloquently described him.

    • Schütz says:

      Good sounding rhetoric, John, but it would fail to convince a real Lutheran. You see they don’t see Martin Luther as the founder of a new church. Lutherans DO NOT teach that at some stage between Jesus and Martin Luther the Catholic Church became so corrupt as to be no longer the true Church of Christ. They do believe, however, that it had steadily corrupted the message of the Gospel, which they believe was fully restored by Martin Luther. They also believe that by rejecting of that “true Gospel”, of justification by FAITH ALONE, the Catholic Church forfeited the right to claim to be the Church in true continuity of the Apostolic Succession of FAITH. Thus they see their doctrine as the true doctrine in continuity with the Apostolic teaching found in Scripture – to the exclusion of all other doctrines. So, the upshot is, they too would argue that their church is “founded by OLJC”.

      However, for this little black Lutheran duck, the argument of continuity was exposed as a lie. It simply doesn’t hold up to historical scrutiny, let alone the scrutiny of the Tradition of Faith received via the Fathers from the Apostles. When asked why I became Catholic, I always give three inter-related reasons: Authenticity, Authority and Continuity.

  5. David Parkhurst says:

    I’m assuming the good Lutheran pastor is converting to Calvinism, given his embrace of the regulative principle (prescriptive, not descriptive basis in Scripture)?

  6. John Nolan says:

    One of the defining features of Protestantism is that it denies it is founding a new church yet spawns thousands of them, based on a subjective interpretation of Scripture.

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