Purgatory: History, Textual Basis, and Theological Merit, Pt. 1

**Author’s note: This is the first post in a seven part series on the doctrine of purgatory. This series was originally one single paper, but for the sake of ease of reading I am breaking it up into seven smaller chunks to be published one per week each Wednesday**

 

Soteriology and eschatology are two areas of systematic theology which are inextricably bound together. Without a developed understanding of soteriology, one has little hope of developing any sort of eschatology. Without a developed eschatology, one has a limited understanding of the purpose and end of salvation. Thus, the subject of the intermediate state is an important part of both of these studies. In the historic Christian faith, most of the focus on this area has been spent on understanding the various aspects of heaven and hell. However, Roman Catholic teaching adds two additional layers to this study, with the subjects of limbo (both limbus patrum and limbus infantum) and purgatory. Unfortunately this series will not have sufficient space to offer a proper treatment of the subject of limbo, but it will be instead primarily focused on the doctrine of purgatory, particularly its origins and development, as well as taking some time to examine arguments for and against this dogma of the Roman Catholic church.

The doctrine (as we will see) has some rather sketchy origins, shaky evidence in favor of it, and an overwhelming amount of biblical backing against it. However, it is a substantial enough part of (very broadly speaking) Christian theology today, that it still must necessarily be reckoned with. While the doctrine of purgatory remains a substantial part of the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church (both in relation to soteriology and eschatology), it is not a doctrine that we will find in scripture, nor in the historic traditions (that is, the traditions which remain true to the testament of scripture) of the Christian church. In our study of this subject, we will find that the historical teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on the subject of the intermediate state, and particularly purgatory stands in stark opposition to the plain teachings of scripture and the gospel, all the while downplaying the significance of the atoning work of Christ.

The exact origins of the doctrine of purgatory are, unfortunately, somewhat dubious. There are some vague references to some sort of temporal punishment or purification in the intermediate state made by Tertullian in his works The Soul and Monagomy but these are not substantial enough to assure us that this doctrine originated with him. There are some other vague references to punishment after death which do not necessarily speak of purgatory in the works of St. Cyprian of Carthage, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, and St. Gregory of Nyssa, but none of these are substantial enough to confirm the origins of the doctrine with them either. The most likely fathers of this doctrine are Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Origen’s conception of purgatory and hell are closely associated, given that he believed every sinner, no matter how wicked, could ultimately be sufficiently purified in the afterlife to enter into the rewards of heaven. Origen’s purgatory (and if his theology on hell and salvation were drawn to their logical conclusions) was ultimately hell with a time limit, whereby the sinner would be purified both from his association with his sinful body, and any sinfulness remaining in his soul. Clement’s purgatory is somewhat less heretical, although still problematic, in that he believed that all sinners who die in repentance but have not had the opportunity to do sufficient penance for their sins in this life would spend time being purified through post-mortem works of penance and reception of correction. Both the ideas of Clement and Origen may provide a root or source for the doctrine of purgatory, as well as a rough outline of the process of purification after death, but they do not fully present purgatory as it is understood both in modernity, and at the time in which it was made dogma at the council of Florence.

In the next post in this series, I will examine Augustine’s contribution to the doctrine of purgatory.

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