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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 122. Against the Worship of Relics. 1543.


Advertissement tres-utile du grand proffit qui reviendroit à la Chrestienté, s’il se faisoit inventoire de tous les corps sainctz et reliques, qui sont tant en Italia qu’en France Allemaigne, Hespaigne, et autres Royaumes et Pays. Gen., 1543, 1544, 1551, 1563, 1579, 1599. Reprinted in Opera, VI. 405–452. A Latin edition by Nicolaus Gallasius (des Gallars) was published at Geneva, 1548. It appeared also in English (A very profitable treatise, etc.), London, 1561, and in two German translations (by Jakob Eysenberg of Wittenberg, 1557, etc., and by J. Fischart, 1584, or 1583, under the title Der heilig Brotkorb der h. Römischen Reliquien). See Henry, II. 333 and III., Appendix, 204–206. A new English translation by Beveridge in Calvin’s Tracts relating to the Reformation, Edinb., 1844, pp. 289–341.

In the same year in which Calvin answered Pighius, he published a French tract on Relics, which was repeatedly printed and translated. It was the most popular and effective of his anti-papal writings. He indulged here very freely in his power of ridicule and sarcasm, which reminds one almost of Voltaire, but the spirit is altogether different. He begins with the following judicious remarks, which best characterize the book: —


"Augustin, in his work, entitled On the Labor of Monks, complaining of certain itinerant impostors, who, as early as his day, plied a vile and sordid traffic, by carrying the relics of martyrs about from place to place, adds, ’If, indeed, they are relics of martyrs.’ By this expression he intimates the prevalence, even in his day, of abuses and impostures, by which the ignorant populace were cheated into the belief that bones gathered here and there were those of saints. While the origin of the imposture is thus ancient, there cannot be a doubt that in the long period which has since elapsed, it has exceedingly increased, considering, especially, that the world has since been strangely corrupted, and has never ceased to become worse, till it has reached the extreme wherein we now behold it.

"But the first abuse and, as it were, beginning of the evil was, that when Christ ought to have been sought in his Word, sacraments, and spiritual influences, the world, after its wont, clung to his garments, vests, and swaddling-clothes; and thus overlooking the principal matter, followed only its accessory. The same course was pursued in regard to apostles, martyrs, and other saints. For when the duty was to meditate diligently on their lives, and engage in imitating them, men made it their whole study to contemplate and lay up, as it were in a treasury, their bones, shirts, girdles, caps, and similar trifles.

"I am not unaware that in this there is a semblance of pious zeal, the allegation being, that the relics of Christ are kept on account of the reverence which is felt for himself, and in order that the remembrance of him may take a firmer hold of the mind. And the same thing is alleged with regard to the saints. But attention should be paid to what Paul says, viz., that all divine worship of man’s devising, having no better and surer foundation than his own opinion, be its semblance of wisdom what it may, is mere vanity and folly.

"Besides, any advantage, supposed to be derived from it, ought to be contrasted with the danger. In this way it would be discovered that the possession of such relics was of little use, or was altogether superfluous and frivolous, whereas, on the other hand, it was most difficult, or rather impossible, that men should not thereby degenerate into idolatry. For they cannot look upon them, or handle them, without veneration; and there being no limit to this, the honor due to Christ is forthwith paid to them. In short, a longing for relics is never free from superstition, nay, what is worse, it is the parent of idolatry, with which it is very generally conjoined.

"All admit, without dispute, that God carried away the body of Moses from human sight, lest the Jewish nation should fall into the abuse of worshipping it. What was done in the case of one ought to be extended to all, since the reason equally applies. But not to speak of saints, let us see what Paul says of Christ himself. He declares, that after the resurrection of Christ he knew him no more after the flesh, intimating by these words that everything carnal which belonged to Christ should be consigned to oblivion and be discarded, in order that we may make it our whole study and endeavor to seek and possess him in spirit. Now, therefore, when men talk of it as a grand thing to possess some memorial of Christ and his saints, what else is it than to seek an empty cloak with which to hide some foolish desire that has no foundation in reason? But even should there seem to be a sufficient reason for it, yet, seeing it is so clearly repugnant to the mind of the Holy Spirit, as declared by the mouth of Paul, what more do we require?"


The following is a summary of this tract: —

What was at first a foolish curiosity for preserving relics has degenerated into abominable idolatry. The great majority of the relics are spurious. It could be shown by comparison that every apostle has more than four bodies and every saint two or three. The arm of St. Anthony, which was worshipped in Geneva, when brought out from the case, turned out to be a part of a stag. The body of Christ could not be obtained, but the monks of Charroux pretend to have, besides teeth and hair, the prepuce or pellicle cut off in his circumcision. But it is shown also in the Lateran church at Rome. The blood of Christ which Nicodemus is said to have received in a handkerchief or a bowl, is exhibited in Rochelle, in Mantua, in Rome, and many other places. The manger in which he laid at his birth, his cradle, together with the shirt which his mother made, the pillar on which he leaned when disputing in the Temple, the water-pots in which he turned water into wine, the nails, and pieces of the cross, are shown in Rome, Ravenna, Pisa, Cluny, Angers, and elsewhere.

The table of the last Supper is at Rome, in the church of St. John in the Lateran; some of the bread at St. Salvador in Spain; the knife with which the Paschal Lamb was cut up, is at Treves.887887    The holy coat is still at Treves, and was worshipped by many thousands of devout pilgrims in the year of our Lord 1891! What semblance of possibility is there that that table was found seven or eight hundred years after? Besides, tables were in those days different in shape from ours, for people used to recline at meals. Fragments of the cross found by St. Helena are scattered over many churches in Italy, France, Spain, etc., and would form a good shipload, which it would take three hundred men to carry instead of one. But they say that this wood never grows less! Some affirm that their fragments were carried by angels, others that they dropped down from heaven. Those of Poitiers say that their piece was stolen by a maid-servant of Helena and carried off to France. There is still a greater controversy as to the three nails of the cross: one of them was fixed in the crown of Constantine, the other two were fitted to his horse’s bridle, according to Theodoret, or one was kept by Helena herself, according to Ambrose. But now there are two nails at Rome, one at Siena, one at Milan, one at Carpentras, one at Venice, one at Cologne, one at Treves, two at Paris, one at Bourges, etc. All the claims are equally good, for the nails are all spurious. There is also more than one soldier’s spear, crown of thorns, purple robe, the seamless coat, and Veronica’s napkin (which at least six cities boast of having). A piece of broiled fish, which Peter offered to the risen Saviour on the seashore, must have been wondrously well salted if it has kept for these fifteen centuries! But, jesting apart, is it supposable that the apostles made relics of what they had actually prepared for dinner?

Calvin exposes with equal effect the absurdities and impieties of the wonder-working pictures of Christ; the relics of the hair and milk of the Virgin Mary, preserved in so many places, her combs, her wardrobe and baggage, and her house carried by angels across the sea to Loreto; the shoes of St. Joseph; the slippers of St. James; the head of John the Baptist, of which Rhodes, Malta, Lucca, Nevers, Amiens, Besançon, and Noyon claim to have portions; and his fingers, one of which is shown at Besançon, another at Toulouse, another at Lyons, another at Bourges, another at Florence. At Avignon they have the sword with which John was beheaded, at Aix-la-Chapelle the linen cloth placed under him by the kindness of the executioner, in Rome his girdle and the altar at which he said prayers in the desert. It is strange, adds Calvin, that they do not also make him perform mass.

The tract concludes with this remark: "So completely are the relics mixed up and huddled together, that it is impossible to have the bones of any martyr without running the risk of worshipping the bones of some thief or robber, or, it may be, the bones of a dog, or a horse, or an ass, or—Let every one, therefore, guard against this risk. Henceforth no man will be able to excuse himself by pretending ignorance."



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