Purgatory: History, Textual Basis, and Theological Merit, Pt. 7

Based on the information contained in the preceding parts of this series, we can come to the following conclusion: The dogma of purgatory stands in complete opposition to the scriptures, to the message of the gospel, and significantly diminishes the meaning of the atoning work of Christ. It is built on a shaky foundation of eisegesis, poorly documented church tradition (largely because of the actual lack of teaching on the subject in the history of the church, particularly in the patristic period), and wild fantasies regarding the intermediate state which in no way are supported by the whole plain teaching of scripture on the afterlife. We can see the beginnings of the dogma were shaky at best, and if Rome wished to maintain any sort of compelling argument in favor of purgatory, it likely would have been in their best interests to leave things that way.

While St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas provided far more detailed and developed doctrines of purgatory than their predecessors, they ultimately did the Roman Catholic Church a great disservice by shining a far brighter light on the details of the dogma. This light caused the blemishes, already somewhat visible to be even more apparent for all to see. We can see that Rome did not care for this in their attempts to return to a more vague version of the dogma through the councils of Florence and Trent, but the damage was already irreparably done. In modernity, although it is still a dogma maintained by the church, it is something that seems to be far more hidden in the soteriology of the Roman Catholic Church. Whether this is a good thing or not is difficult to say, but it does show us how little weight the doctrine actually carries, which is something to be thankful for. On the other hand, the atoning work of Christ continues to bear all the weight of the sins of His people, and directs the glory for that work to the Triune God. This is the true doctrine of salvation of the church.



Selected Series Bibliography:


Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. publication place: publisher, publication year. Accessed July 26, 2014. http://www.newadvent.org/summa/7001.htm . Web.


Augustine. The City of God Against the Pagans. Translated by R W. Dyson. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Print.


Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. new ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996. Print.


Hannah, Edward, Purgatory in the Catholic Encyclopedia (New York, Robert Appleton Company, 1911). http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12575a.htm. Web.


Kirsch, J.P. (1912). Council of Trent. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved July 26, 2014 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15030c.htm. Web.


Le Goff, Jacques. The Birth of Purgatory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. Print.


McGrath, Alister E. Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. 2nd ed. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Print.


Neale, J. M., ed. The History of the Council of Florence. publication place: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2007. Print.


Venema, Cornelis P. The Promise of the Future. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000.


Purgatory: History, Textual Basis, and Theological Merit, Pt. 6

In last week’s post, we examined the lack of textual basis for the dogma of purgatory. This lack of textual basis, however, does not even cover all the problems with the dogma. The dogma of purgatory, as a whole, is unchristian, and wholly opposed to the message of the gospel. Rome has made the mistake of trying to affirm one important portion of scripture (the just judgment of God), and pushed it far past what it was ever supposed to mean, in a weak attempt to make sense of how God can be just and still justify those who have sinned. It entirely shifts the focus of the gospel (God providing salvific righteousness for sinners through the atoning work of Christ) from God’s grace to the sinner’s work, both in this life and in the intermediate state. It takes away from the perfectness of the work of Christ, and even makes him out to be a liar (after all “It is finished!” doesn’t mean a whole lot when there is still work to be done). God most certainly does call sinners just and righteous because they are truly just and righteous, but not through any work of penance of theirs, nor of any moral perfection which is ontologically inherent to them. The means by which God calls sinners just and righteous is the imputed righteousness of Christ, granted to all those who have been regenerated to new life by the Spirit, not by some ontological transformation of their moral being over the course of their life and death.

Finally, setting aside the soteriological issues with the doctrine, there are also issues of ecclesiology which it brings up. It is certainly true that Christ has given the keys of the kingdom over to the rulers of the church (Matthew 16), but not in such a way as to allow this form of administration to go on. When Christ gave the keys to the kingdom over to Peter and the church which was built on the foundation of the Apostles, he gave the keys in such a way that the church could recognize that which was bound in heaven, not in such a way that it could alter it, particularly for monetary gain. Neither the church nor the pope has the power to change where the souls of those who have died reside, be it in heaven, hell or purgatory. While the doctrine of purgatory may not have been used for the sake of financial gain by the Roman Catholic Church for its entire history, it would be a serious disservice to the study of the subject to not point out the amount of financial gain as well as power that Rome was able to exploit from this dogma. Whether or not theologians of the church who believed in this doctrine had ulterior motives for it, we can see that it was grossly misused, not simply as an errant doctrine, but as a tool by which the church maintained power and financial welfare which they otherwise would not have had. The administration of the church is a serious matter, and abuse or misuse of the power of the offices of authority within it is not to be taken likely. Teachers incur stricter judgment, and teachers with the authority of offices in the church (bishop, priest, pope, etc.) also face this same judgment. The power which they are granted by Christ is one of service, not one of domination, and the dogma of purgatory is unfortunately used as a tool for domination by the church, particularly in the centuries closer to the protestant reformation.


Purgatory: History, Textual Basis, and Theological Merit, Pt. 5

Having looked at the tradition and development of the doctrine of purgatory, the texts commonly used in favor must be examined. Historically there are three main passages which have been used to support the dogma of purgatory: 2 Maccabees 12:43-45, Matthew 12:32, and 1 Corinthians 3:12-15. We should start by looking at 2 Maccabees, even though this text is non-canonical, it is important to engage Rome on their own turf. the text does seem to support some idea of offerings being made for the dead, in order that they may be released from their sin. Ignoring the issues this would cause in understanding the work and words of Christ (“It is finished” seems to make it rather clear that the sacrificial work of Christ was a once for all redemptive-historical event), this text does not support the Roman Catholic dogma as it has been built up in their history. Cornelius Venema helpfully points out that the sins for which Judas was making sacrifice included mortal sins such as idolatry, which his prayers and offerings could not help to atone for in the purgatory created in the minds of Roman Catholic theologians. It is clear, even from this non-canonical text that Roman Catholic dogma has performed some rather forced exegesis on the text. The fact that this non-canonical text with a rather forced reading is the strongest support of the dogma of purgatory is rather damning evidence.

The second text, Matthew 12:32 is the famous passage regarding blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The text states that “whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, in this age or in the age to come”. Now, the age to come certainly indicates that there will be both reward and punishment following death. However, we can see that this text does not offer any substantial support to the concept of purgatory. This text simply makes it clear that the judgement and punishment rightly due to those who commit this sin will continue on past their earthly life, just like every other sin which is not forgiven to an unrepentant sinner. As with the passage in 2 Maccabees, there is a massive argument and subsequent dogma being built off of a very small amount of textual support. This is a clear case of applying the Texas sharpshooter fallacy to the text. There is a tiny bit of data which supports or correlates to a tiny portion of the dogma itself (in this case correlating to the idea of sins being forgiven after death), which is then teased out into an argument which would require a mountain of support to overcome the rest of the testament of scripture regarding the nature of justification; As well as the subsequent benefits of being in the covenant of grace at death. There is one more important point made by Venema as well related to this text. He points out that the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven in this age, nor in the age to come. The age to come (in this text, and others) does not refer to the intermediate state, but the age immediately surrounding and following the second advent of Christ, and can therefore not coincide with the intermediate state following death but preceding Christ’s return.

The last substantial text which Roman Catholic theologians appeal to in support of the dogma of purgatory is 1 Corinthians 3:12-15. This passage depicts fires of judgment which will reveal and test the works of righteousness. Each man’s work will be revealed by fire, according to this text, and the fire will test the quality of the work. Roman Catholic dogma argues that the fire which this text describes is a literal fire through which the souls of the dead in Christ will pass in order to be cleansed. Similar to Matthew 12:32, we can see a mistake regarding the time which this passage refers to. This passage clearly refers to the present trials and tribulations which believers face in this life, rather than a testing by fire in the intermediate state. Looking at these three primary texts used by Roman Catholic theologians to support the dogma of purgatory, we can see that they are largely devoid of any support of the doctrine, that they are at best tiny portions of biblical text in isolation from the testament of scripture, and that even ripped out of their true context, they still do not lend support to the doctrine of purgatory as Rome has laid it out.


Purgatory: History, Textual Basis, and Theological Merit, Pt. 4

Following the work of Aquinas, the next major development in the doctrine of purgatory in the church came at the council of Florence, in 1439. The council of Florence is primarily known for the filioque controversy, but the doctrine of purgatory was also a central factor in the council. The doctrine of purgatory as taught by Rome was not the cause of the schism between the Greeks and Latins, but it certainly was an irritant, and it required a great deal of work for the two sides to come to terms on the doctrine. Rome maintained that this doctrine had been taught since the time of the apostles, but this was clearly untrue, given that any clear semblance of the doctrine did not appear until the time of Origen in the late second to early third centuries (also given that he was anathematized by an ecumenical council, it would be a hard sell for Rome to claim his teachings on this or any other subject as part of their tradition). The Greeks taught of only one eternal fire, that is, damnation, and maintained that there was only one type of bad works which was spoken of by Paul, that the only types of works were of virtue and perdition. While a true agreement may never have been reached between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, the council of Florence was a grounds at which the Roman Catholic church was finally able to put forth a substantial formula or statement regarding their beliefs on purgatory, drawing primarily from the second council of Lyons for their statement, particularly the words of the profession of faith made in the name of Michael VIII on the subject:

“But those who have died in a state of charity, truly repentant [for their sins] but before they have brought forth fruit worthy of repentance, their souls are purified after death by cleansing pains. The petitions of the living, the sacrifices of Masses [for example], prayers, almsdeeds and other pious services, such as the faithful are accustomed to do for one another according to the established custom of the Church, [these] are profitable to them, [i.e., the dead persons mentioned] for the lifting of these pains.”


From these words we are able to gather the major substance of the Roman Catholic dogma of purgatory, perhaps even more substantial in its theological content than the dogma which was finally confirmed by the council of Trent in 1563.

The end of the development of the doctrine of purgatory in the Roman Catholic Church came at the council of Trent, following the protestant reformation. While the reformation was started in response to the sale of indulgences for those in purgatory, the doctrine itself existed long before Rome ever attempted to capitalize on it, so it would be difficult to say that the reformation was caused by this single doctrine, although it did eventually reject it in favor of a biblical view of justification. The council of Trent was originally convened in 1546 and concluded in 1563, and was called as the Roman Catholic Church’s counter-reformational council, intended to reaffirm and further codify those doctrines rejected by the protestant reformers. Among other developments (such as codifying the canon with the apocryphal books included, reaffirming progressive justification, and papal primacy in interpreting the scriptures) Trent reaffirmed and finally dogmatized the doctrine of Purgatory. Rome effectively squelched any ongoing debate regarding purgatory, although they did not alleviate confusion regarding the particulars of the doctrine, with this statement:

Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has from the Sacred Scriptures and the ancient tradition of the Fathers taught in Councils and very recently in this Ecumenical synod (Sess. VI, cap. XXX; Sess. XXII cap.ii, iii) that there is a purgatory, and that the souls therein are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar; the Holy Synod enjoins on the Bishops that they diligently endeavor to have the sound doctrine of the Fathers in Councils regarding purgatory everywhere taught and preached, held and believed by the faithful”


This statement brought the development of the doctrine of purgatory in the Roman Catholic Church to a close, although it by no means resolved the issues surrounding the doctrine. Trent effectively gave Rome a proper written statement regarding the doctrine, but it failed to properly explain the various details of the doctrine. In fact, Trent goes on further to try to squash inquiry or debate related to purgatory: “Further than this the definitions of the Church do not go, but the tradition of the Fathers and the Schoolmen must be consulted to explain the teachings of the councils, and to make clear the belief and the practices of the faithful.”

This portion of the statement of Trent makes it very clear that Rome is not terribly interested in properly defining or building their theological terms, so much as they are ensuring that they are heeded. It is beneficial for everyone that Rome at least created some written rule by which they maintain this doctrine, but the benefit derived is minimal. Rome made it clear with this statement that they were not only disinterested in dealing with purgatory and the surrounding soteriological and eschatological implications of the doctrine with the protestant reformers, but that they also had no interest in properly creating or defining one for themselves, or entertaining any form of internal debate. It was made clear by Trent that to go beyond the traditions of the fathers is both unsafe and not to be entertained. This is somewhat understandable, given the timing of the council, the last thing Rome wanted was to appear to be a party divided on matters of doctrine or polity. Even so, it was a failure to properly examine the doctrine for its worth, and a failure to reckon with any serious counter-arguments to the idea.

Purgatory: History, Textual Basis, and Theological Merit, Pt. 3

Following Augustine, the next major figure in the development of the doctrine of purgatory is St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas’ teaching key roles in the development of the concept of purgatory in two ways. First, his view of justification (the concept of progressive justification based off his understanding of the Latin term iustificare and appropriation of Aristotelian physics to it), and second, Aquinas developed what may be the most complete and explicit doctrine of purgatory in the church prior to the council of Florence or the council of Trent. Aquinas understood justification as a cause and effect process, one which involved motion either towards sanctification and therefore towards God or away from God. For Aquinas, justification was not a once and for all piece of the salvific puzzle, but was instead much more of a journey. For those who only committed venial sins and regularly received the sacraments, the journey was shorter and easier (although still not devoid of purgatorial cleansing), while for those who perhaps committed mortal sins but received the second plank for shipwrecked souls through works of penance, the process was much longer and more arduous. Given that Aquinas believed justification involved being made righteous through a process rather than through the once for all covering of Christ, it is understandable that he would necessarily have to develop a doctrine of purgatory, lest nearly all men end up in eternal damnation because they failed to achieve moral perfection prior to their death.

Aquinas’ work is also key to understanding the doctrine of purgatory not only as the medieval precursor to Roman Catholic teaching prior to and following the reformation, but also because it is the single most detailed teaching on purgatory that came from anywhere outside of a council of the church. While other theologians in history at least had a concept of a temporary place of (painful) punishment and cleansing, they rarely offered any more detail than that. Aquinas has two significant articles in his Summa Theologica on the topic, and we can see that they are truly the ground of future developments of the doctrine of purgatory. Aquinas explains the necessity of purgatory:

For if the debt of punishment is not paid in full after the stain of sin has been washed away by contrition, nor again are venial sins always removed when mortal sins are remitted, and if justice demands that sin be set in order by due punishment, it follows that one who after contrition for his fault and after being absolved, dies before making due satisfaction, is punished after this life.


From Aquinas we gather a full understanding of Roman Catholic teaching on the necessity of purgatory. The council of Trent lacks substantial teaching in relation to the theology of purgatory, but instead defers to the doctrine “transmitted by the holy Fathers and sacred councils” as both the source and the ultimate authority on the subject. Whether this refers particularly towards the patristic fathers or not is not entirely clear, but based off what limited teaching on this doctrine we find in their works, it is fair to infer that they are referring primarily to the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine. The teaching of Aquinas, Augustine, and subsequently the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church is that the demands of justice require sinners to be truly made righteous before God before they are able to enter into paradise. Interestingly enough, the contrition of the sinner and the absolution that they receive is somehow not sufficient to justify the person and make them righteous. Why Aquinas and other Roman Catholic theologians do not consider this absolution to be a sufficient cause to make the sinner righteous is difficult to grasp. It is understood in Aquinas’ theology that the sacraments, as an infusion of grace are an efficient cause towards justification and ultimately eternal life, but the fact that (based off his doctrine of purgatory) the work of Christ and additional sacraments which have been added on are insufficient to immediately merit salvation is tough to reasonably understand.

Aquinas may not have been the first to speak of purgatory as something similar to hell with a time limit, but he was among the first to explicitly teach that the cleansing which happens in purgatory is through fire. Aquinas is even willing to allow for the possibility that purgatory and hell may be the same place, but simply used for different purposes (affliction versus cleansing) and occupied by people in different states (those who are bound eternally to hell, versus those who have received some measure of grace through baptism and the sacraments). What is surprising however is that subsequent Roman Catholic councils dealing with this doctrine did not defer to Aquinas’ traditional teaching in this area, but instead determined not to teach beyond the conciliar definitions of the church. We can clearly see that the teachings of Aquinas on purgatory were both highly influential on the Roman Catholic Church’s development of the doctrine, and simultaneously beyond the bounds of that which Rome was willing to teach on the subject as they made clear at Florence and Trent. Whether or not Rome accepted all the teachings of Aquinas in this area, it remains clear that (with the possible exception of Augustine, although it is close) St. Aquinas had the most substantial influence on the doctrine of purgatory of any theologian in the history of the church.

For part one in this series, click here. For part two, click here.

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.

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.