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. 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.