John Calvin's Treatise on Relics

This book is a real eye opener. At times I found myself open mouthed and with furrowed brow as I read page after page of fine detail on the sheer scale of idolatry Calvin found himself working against.

We Christians in the new millennium have no idea to what extent the worship of relics (ie artifacts supposedly from Biblical times) had taken hold of the Church in the years leading up to the reformation.

I had long ago heard about Calvin’s Treatise on Relics but it never really interested me until I saw a news story of some statue of Mary weeping somewhere and the hordes of worshippers who had come to experience this ‘divine’ miracle. What bemused me was that so many should unquestioningly accept what was put before them as a miracle.

Not long after, a friend asked me for my opinion and I told him the worship of statues had a long and unfortunate history in the Church and I mentioned something I had heard Calvin say about such things. I recalled hearing Calvin report that there were so many pieces of the cross doing the rounds in Europe in his day that if they were put all together there would be enough to make several crosses, or words to that effect.

Then I thought to myself, “I wonder exactly what Calvin did say about all this?” and searched for a copy of Relics. To my surprise, Calvin went further than I had anticipated. His actual words on the subject of the cross are as follows;

And with that I found myself on the one hand chuckling with amusement and then suddenly gasping in horror at the state of the Church circa 1500’s. It is difficult to get your head around the size of the problem. I attend a Church where we are nervous about making a wooden cross to hang on a wall somewhere, just in case someone thinks we are idolizing the timber. This has always seemed like an overreaction to me, but having read Calvin’s book, I can see how we got there.

Apparently, even in Calvin’s day the clever folk amongst church going idolaters worked out there were more pieces of the cross than there could possibly have been even if Jesus were nailed to an oak tree so they came up with a ‘miracle’ to explain it.

Calvin is a clever writer and I get the sense that writing this book was a kind of therapy for him. The icons and relics get so obscure and ludicrous, you can tell Calvin has just about given up hope of ever hoping to dissuade the gullible from worshipping them.

Here is the man who wrote the magisterial Institutes of the Christian Religion in his mid twenties and yet finds himself dealing with people who worship “the bones of an ass or dog” as though they were of God himself. I think writing about it all served two purposes; it prevented him from being depressed about it (although I think it might have been a photo finish!) and it served as both a warning and instruction to anyone in the church who may be led astray.

The sheer scale of the problem must be read to be believed. I will give you a list of highlights which should leave you with the conclusion that the basic philosophy of the day was that if you wanted to be considered a legitimate church, you had to have a relic on display.

Remember this is Reformation Church history we are talking about so it is a cop out to say that only the Roman Catholics would do such a thing. The fact is, this was the only Church available in the land and Calvin's conclusion is that every single parish, abbey, chapel or bishopric had a relic it could claim as its own.

To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, I have compiled a shame file from Calvin's book. A "best of" from the inglorious list of reformation era relics. Imagine yourself on a tour of these famous sites:

  • In Geneva (Calvin’s home town) you could see the brain of St Peter which sat in a shrine. It was considered blasphemy to doubt its authenticity. It turned out to be “a piece of pumice-stone”. p224
  • The very blood of Jesus was said to be on show at more than 100 places. At Rochelle the story went that Nicodemus captured a few drops of it in his glove. It survived like that for 1500 years? No problem, when you can attach a miracle to every incredible story. In Rome they were clever. The Church of St John of the Lateran even had it mixed with water to show that it came from him whilst upon the cross.
  • The manger Jesus was laid in as a baby was on display at the Church of Madonna Maggiore at Rome while his swaddling clothes were across town at St Paul’s.
  • Mary’s breast milk (I kid you not) was preserved in numerous churches. So many in fact it led Calvin to another of his famous hyperboles.

This is the only time Calvin seems thankful for the Roman Catholic belief that Mary’s body was taken up straight into heaven. This, according to Calvin, is all that prevented the church from having every part of her and anything she might have owned on display. The milk and snippets of her hair were all that they could bring themselves to display.

  • Joseph does not fare much better. If having his sandals preserved seems believable, the same cannot be said for his most famous relic; his “han”. (I had no idea what this was either) Apparently it is the grunt Joseph let out one day when he was splitting a block of wood. It was allegedly preserved in a jar and kept in France for all to see. How you are supposed to see a grunt and how it was captured for posterity in the first place is not explained. I guess it was a miracle too. For sheer lunacy this one is hard to top.
  • For those churches who are tired of the mere human relics, there are relics of angels to be had. “It may be supposed that I am joking when I speak of the relics of an angel, considering how absurd and ridiculous it is to do so, yet, although the hypocrites certainly know this well, they have made use of the name of St Michael to delude the ignorant and foolish”.1 These include St Michael’s “falchion” (dagger) and his shield. Both were allegedly used in his famous battle with Satan. As Calvin said, “Is it possible for man or woman to exist who can believe such mockery?”2
  • John the Baptist was quite popular and people found a way of adding to the miracle of his preservation. Calvin relates the story of how one of his shoes was on display in Paris until it proved too tempting for a thief. “It was stolen about twelve years ago; but it was very soon replaced by that sort of miracle never likely to cease so long as there are shoemakers in the world.”3 His haircloth garment was in Rome, where an extra miracle must have taken place whereby the camel hair of the Bible is turned into horse hair by Calvin’s time. The sword used to behead him was in France, as was the sheet spread out under him at the time. Oh yes, and John’s head was displayed in about 10 places across Europe.
  • The body of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, was on display in Rome in its entirety, but was at the same time shown piece by piece at over 300 other venues. Not content with that, the stones which were used to kill Stephen were also preserved. Calvin states that they were even officially canonized. “Whoever will close his eyes and allow his understanding to be set aside, may believe that these are the identical stones with which St Stephen suffered martyrdom, but whoever will exert his reason a little cannot but laugh at this imposition.”4

And on and on it goes. There is hardly an item from a New Testament Biblical story you can think of which was not advertised as being on display in a church somewhere at that time. It had become ingrained in the culture. You were not a real church unless you had a relic of some sort. It is little wonder the use of ‘icons’ became one of the key battlegrounds in the Reformation.

Are we any better?

Before I read Calvin’s book, and even for a short time afterwards, I would have confidently said we were not prone to such behaviours in our day, but now I’m not so sure. The question I have is, does Calvin describe the behaviour of genuine believers or of superstitious pagans? If he is describing what born again believers were doing with icons, then I don’t think you could say it is something we see in our day.  

Perhaps there are a sprinkling of Christians who would worship the literal cross of Jesus should it turn up, but I don’t think that would be the normal reaction, even though we would all love to see it.

I am much more inclined to think Calvin is providing evidence the church had become so utterly corrupt that Biblical Christianity was hard to find anywhere. After all, this is the Reformation we are talking about, so it would be normal for Calvin to examine the Church and conclude the majority of worship was idolatrous. 

If I am right, then I do not believe we have moved on very far from those days at all. We are unlikely to repeat the steps of the past in perfect symmetry, but we are very likely to keep succumbing to the same sinful tendencies. Idolatry has been there since the fall and it shows no signs of abating. 

Recently I was talking to a chef who works in a Coffs Harbour Café. He told me his establishment has regulars who have made it very clear to staff they do not appreciate having their coffee or tea cups whisked away from the table too soon after they have finished their drink. The reason? They like to turn them upside down onto their saucers and “read” them. I’ve heard of reading tea leaves but not the dregs of a cappuccino. But there it is happening on a daily basis in a regular Aussie town. 

So, I ask, is our society really so much more advanced than Calvin’s? We lap up astrology with eagerness, we attend séances, we look into the “crossing over” seminars with more than just curiosity and we read coffee beans apparently.

Add to that the enormous tourism dollar generated by Holy Land tours. Today in Israel you can stand on the very rock Jesus stood on to give the Sermon on the Mount. Of course, there is no such rock, but there is one displayed prominently in the general vicinity. Tourists want to touch it and feel the holy vibes. And we are all familiar with the pagentry of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

If you consider that the culture of Calvin's day made it likely people would go to church and add that to our own, you can see how all manner of superstitious nonsense could find its way in. 

It seems wherever there is a spiritual vacuum, man with fill it with just about anything, no matter how ludicrous it seems. And that just may be part of the plan. We will let Calvin have the last word.



1. Calvin, J. Treatise on Relics, 1854, Johnstone and Hunter, Edinburgh, p 253 (Emphasis in original)

2.       ibid.

3.       ibid. p 258

4.       ibid. p 269