For centuries, an inordinate and unhealthy attention has been directed to certain items claimed to be relics of Christ, Christian leaders, or illustrious Christians. The veneration of relics has been a major feature of Roman Catholic popular piety since the earliest centuries of its history, reaching its highest official sanction in 787, when the Second Council of Nicaea decreed that every church should have some relic at the altar.
Now, much attention is being paid to the first public display of the so-called “Shroud of Turin,” in Italy. As David Farley explained in USA Today, “The Catholic Church’s most famous (and infamous) holy relic is being exposed to the faithful for the first time since the year 2000. The Shroud of Turin, on display until May 23 in the handsome northwestern Italian town, can be shown by permission only from the pope.”
Evidently, more than 1.5 million people signed up for reservations to see the shroud during its brief display. Clearly, the artifact means something to many people - indeed, it means a very great deal.
The shroud is but the most famous of the relics held to be holy by so many Catholics. Various churches hold items claimed to be portions of the crib of Jesus, items from the disciples and prominent saints, and various body parts of leading figures. David Farley recently wrote a book on what must certainly go down as the most bizarre claim concerning a relic - the claim of a church in the tiny Italian village of Calcata to hold the remains of Christ’s infant circumcision. Of course, the special status of this relic was the fact that, according to the claim, this skin was the only remnant of Christ’s body on earth.
As Farley documents, eventually there were many churches and communities that claimed to possess this special holy relic. Eventually, the Roman Catholic Church became embarrassed by the claims, and Pope Leo XIII threatened excommunication to any Catholic who even mentioned the relic. That did not end the fascination.
The veneration of relics, still a part of popular piety among many Roman Catholics worldwide, is a grotesque distortion of biblical piety. The authority for our faith is not based on the evidence of relics, but on the fact that God has spoken to us in his Word. We are to trust the truthfulness of the Bible, not the existence of some relic, authentic or not.
Of course, most of these relics are not authentic - a fact easily determined by even a casual review of the story behind the item. Furthermore, the existence of contradictory claims, such as were made by competing villages with respect to the circumcision remains of Christ, demonstrates the embarrassing fact that these claims cannot be trusted.
The best evidence concerning the “Shroud of Turin” is that it dates to the medieval period and is probably an artifact of human artistry. In David Farley’s words, “a medieval fake.” Nevertheless, more than a million and a half people are lining up to see it, representing far more than historical curiosity. Farley also reports that relics associated with St. Therese of Lisieux went on a 28-city tour of Britain last year, also drawing huge crowds. Clearly, interest in and veneration of relics is not a thing of the past.
In his essay, Farley acknowledges that many people retain belief in the power and authenticity of relics such as the “Shroud of Turin,” and then comes to this conclusion:
If they accept the shroud as the real deal, then, in their minds, in their hearts, in their conceptions of heaven and the afterlife, it is the real thing. They will pray in front of it and it will give them happiness and relief.
And isn’t that what we all want, for ourselves and for each other? Which is exactly why holy relics and the Shroud of Turin still matter in this world.
No, that is not what we are to want. The “happiness and relief” found in these relics is empty and delusional. Christians are to find happiness and relief and infinitely more in Christ alone. The obsession with relics comes at a grave cost - the confusion of the Gospel, the marginalization of Christ, and the subversion of the Bible’s sufficiency.
The leadership of the Roman Catholic Church has failed its members and betrayed the Gospel by embracing and allowing various forms of the veneration of relics, and this particular feature of Catholic piety and theology cannot be isolated from the larger project of Catholic doctrine.
Evangelical Christians observing the veneration of relics by Catholics are rightly horrified by the practice, but may be wrongly satisfied that nothing like this marks evangelical piety.
This temptation should be checked by the realization that many evangelicals fall prey to similar modes of thinking. Consider the attention given in recent days to the claim that remnants of Noah’s ark had been found on Mount Ararat in Turkey. A team from “Noah’s Ark Ministries International,” based in Hong Kong, claimed that wood found on the mountain came from Noah’s ark - with a certainty of “99.9 percent.”
Archaeologists remain skeptical about the claims, and the controversy is likely to continue for some time. But Christians should not give too much attention to such claims in the first place. Our confidence that the account of the flood and Noah’s ark happened in space, time, and history is grounded in the Bible, not in remnants of ancient timber.
If archaeologists later agree that the fragments are indeed from Noah’s ark, that will be a matter of real interest to Christians, but this should add nothing to our confidence in the Bible. If the fragments are determined to be authentic or, most likely, if there is no consensus at all, this will not detract anything from the truthfulness, authority, and sufficiency of the Scriptures.
Our confidence is in the Bible as the Word of God, not in gopher wood.