Purgatory: History, Textual Basis, and Theological Merit, Pt. 2

Picking up from last week’s post on the origins of the doctrine of purgatory, the next (and perhaps easiest to point to as the father of the actual doctrine) great developer of the doctrine of purgatory was St. Augustine. Although this doctrine was by no means central to Augustine or his work, there are portions of his writings which lead us to understand how he affected and changed the church’s understanding of this doctrine. Augustine was truly the first to introduce the term purgatory to the lexicon of the church. His initial introduction of the concept of the effectiveness of prayers for the dead came in a written prayer following the death of his mother, Monica, but this was not so much a piece of doctrine as it was his emotive response to such a heart wrenching loss. Nonetheless, Augustine’s doctrine of purgatory continued to take shape even after and outside this event. In 419 A.D., we find St. Augustine’s most explicit quote on the subject here:

Temporal punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by some after death, by some both here and hereafter, but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But not all who suffer temporal punishments after death will come to eternal punishments, which are to follow after that judgment.


This quote may not give the entirety or the exact wording of the doctrine of purgatory as laid out in later Roman Catholic dogma, but it comes as close as any church father ever did. We also find, laced throughout his understanding the idea that prayers may be given on behalf of the dead, in order to effect their salvation. While it’s not entirely clear how long after death these prayers may remain effectual in St. Augustine’s thought, we certainly do know that this concept was a part of his understanding of life after death and personal eschatology. Augustine was very clear that those who could offer up prayers on behalf of the deceased were a select few (particularly members of the institutional clergy of the church), which, while it may not have been offered by Rome as explanation for their selling of indulgences, would certainly provide an explanation or grounding for the concept in later Roman theology.

Augustine also spent some time in his writings against the Manichaeans explaining the difference between the fires of purgation and the fires of damnation. Augustine’s views did take some time to develop but (as we’ve seen in the above quote) eventually blossomed into a fuller doctrine of purgation. These changes began to take shape in the year 413 and following, when Augustine began to espouse the idea that harsh punishments waited for those who died in grace but without yet having reached a state of perfection. These punishments were not sadistic, but were rather disciplinary in Augustine’s view, that is, they served to teach and purify sinners, as a father teaches and chastises his children whom he loves. This view is substantially more developed (and stands in sharp contrast to) the earlier views of Origen in relation to purgation and damnation. While Origen seemed to believe that even the worst of sinners could ultimately be made righteous through time after death, Augustine’s view is one in which only those who have previously been granted new life by grace may eventually reach paradise after a time of purification. What is interesting, however, is that Augustine’s cleansing fire is not all necessarily situated between death and the final judgement. He isn’t entirely clear on the subject, but there seems to be a thread throughout his work not only of the concept of purgation, but also that some (or perhaps in some cases all) of this purification may come in the form of tribulation in the present life.

It is also clear in the writings of Augustine that he believes in actual places for those in the intermediate state. For those who have already been made righteous, they rest in the bosom of Abraham (Luke 16). For those must still make penance for their sins or crimes, they remain in Gehenna. Augustine was also influential in his views of suffrage for the dead, in that his beliefs that alms and the practice of the eucharist could aid those in purgatory helped in the establishment of the great multiplication of masses for the dead as was practiced in Rome, particularly in the medieval period prior to the reformation. The suffrages practiced for the dead were effectual, in Augustine’s thought, but only for those who had previously received salvific grace. Ultimately we see in Augustine’s doctrine of purgatory that this purification applies to a select few sinners, that it is painful for them, and that it is a sort of temporary hell reserved for the impure within the church, which is the groundwork for the full development of purgatorial theology in later Rome.

This post is the second part of a seven part series. To read part one, click here.


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