Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Catholic Defense of Purgatory Shocks My Protestant Theology

This week I was confronted for the first time with a real discussion about purgatory on Cheeky Pink Girl's blog. It has been fascinating.

I have opened up to the Catholic church and theology, and for the most part been totally impressed. However, recently I've confronted a few things within the church that remind me of how I disagree, and sometimes it shocks me because I now come to the discussion with a general assumption that we are all likely to agree on the basics of theology.

Purgatory is one of the issues that has shocked me. When Cheeky Pink Girl began discussing purgatory I sort of reeled with shock at the theology behind what she was saying. For instance, one of the first few comments on her blog says this:

"If one dies without having expiated all of the penalties due to one's sins, yet one's sins have been forgiven, the soul undergoes purgation to prepare it for entrance into heaven, where nothing unclean can enter. This purification of the soul after death is called Purgatory by the Church -- from the Latin purgare, to cleanse, to purify. Nobody skates. If Hitler repented and God forgave him, he'd still have to do time in Purgatory. I would expect that Hitler and a few bad Popes, if they are not in hell, will be in Purgatory until the end of time. "

My immediate thought was ... WOAH... are you serious? The discussion that followed surprised me even more because I realized that what she was saying was not just a lay Catholic opinion, it is the catechism of the church.

My immediate comment was this:

"I guess it sounds to me like you're saying... you're forgiven, but you still have to pay for your sins. and it seems to me that scripture says you are forgiven, you stand pure before God, Jesus paid your debt, and so by belief in Him you are FULLY purified. Yes, we still struggle with what Romans called "this body of death", but upon death the body is put aside and there is nothing more between us and God. I don't see anywhere how we can gather that we still have a debt of sin to pay for. It seems like scripture repeatedly says that the blood of Christ pays for all.

You mentioned Hitler repenting and still having to do time in purgatory. How does that jive with the parable Jesus tells about the workers in the vineyard? He says that even those that come to work in the vineyard in the very last hour before the end will be paid in full, and he lectures those who have worked the longest for resenting the grace of God to those young believers."
The response to my question was a general push back to say that it is quite flippant of us to act as though our sins NOW, in a life already under the salvation of Christ, don't continue to stain us and make us unfit to approach God and enter His glory in heaven. Therefore, there is a necessity to cleanse ourselves, to "wipe the dirt off our feet" before we enter heaven.

Woah again. My Protestant self is still in shock. My response:

"I feel like it's a little arrogant to think that I can wipe the mud off my feet before going into heaven, so to speak, because that would seem as though I on my own strength can purify myself. In light of the awesome glory of God, I am nothing. the idea that I personally could manage to earn the last payment for the last of my sin... well.. it seems to me that scripture is pretty clear that as humans we cannot and do not earn anything. 2 Cor 5:21, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."And so - if we are the righteousness of God, it seems insulting for us to act as though the atoning death of Christ was not enough... 1 Peter 3:18 "For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God."
So, I've been looking into it since then. It seems as though the doctrine of purgatory wasn't formalized until after 1200, which is pretty late compared to much of orthodoxy. However, many of the early church fathers did believe in an intermediate state before heaven. It's pretty difficult for Catholics to find direct scripture that addresses the issue - their strongest passage is in 1 Maccabees, which is not considered canonical by Protestants.

One of the commenters is right to say that in the end, our discussion comes down to where we place authority. Catholics believe it because it has been handed down to them through the church, and they place authority within the church to interpret scripture and theology. For me as a Protestant, while I certainly place great weight in church history and the works of the early church fathers, I find the need to reconcile them to scripture, and I just don't see AT ALL how purgatory can be reconciled with scripture. It goes against every passage I can find about the sacrificial atonement of our sins, and our being counted as righteous through Christ.

So. In the end of it all, I find myself rather strongly feeling the separation between Protestants and Catholics on this point of theology.

From the Roman Catholic Catechism (the recent one).
The Final Purification, or Purgatory
All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.606


CM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mason said...

Purgatory is certainly one of the Catholic doctrines I would disagree with most. Outside of a passage in Maccabees (which honestly is still pretty vague), there is no reason to think atonement works that way.

Your response pointed that out well, if Jesus paid for our sins then it does not follow that we get stuck working some of them off.

On the other hand, there are a couple factors that have made it less of an issue for me.

First off, there have been Protestants here and there who have leaned towards a doctrine of Purgatory - C.S. Lewis for one.

More importantly for me though is that I get the impression it is a doctrine the Catholic Church is doing what it can to back away from. They recently got rid of limbo I believe (the baby purgatoryish place) and both the last two Popes have downplayed purgatory and spoken of in language that makes it sound nothing at all like the picture we have from the Reformation.

CM said...

Okay, I have to try again. You have such a well thought post, and I had a crazy, meandering response, so I deleted it.

As a Catholic, I see purgatory as part of God's mercy and grace. Have you ever asked yourself what was lacking in Christ's afflictions? (Col 1:24) Clearly nothing could be lacking on His end, so the only thing that could be lacking is my acceptance of His grace. I have found growing in Christ to be quite a process. Usually it involves Him showing me a place in my heart that I haven't fully handed over to Him. Then, through struggles, I am gradually able to hand more and more of that place over to His healing grace.

We believe if this process is not completely finished when we die, then we finish it in purgatory. It is still His grace, burning away all that is not of Him with a refiner's fire- 1 Cor 3:12-15 (I am speaking symbolically, I don't know of anything that says for sure whether purgatory does or does not have anything to do with fire, the verse says "as though fire").

Purgatory is a doctrine, limbo never was, so purgatory is not going away. It's hard to put all of the nuances of what I believe about purgatory into a comment, but I can say that it is not about "working off" sin. It is rather about letting the grace of Christ fill us completely, perfecting us in Him so that we can be perfect, even as the Father is perfect.

Kacie said...

CM - great comments, I'm sorry I couldn't reply earlier - I was out of town.

I do agree that we still remain imperfect, though the Bible says we are counted righteous. I agree that becoming like Christ is a constant process, a constant refining. It's like Paul says, I die every day.

So I guess where we start to disagree is that you would say that because we are still in that refining process when we die, we need further refining in order to enter heaven perfect.

And I would say that it seems to me that the point of the sacrifice of Christ is to cover the sins and imperfections of mankind that we cannot ever rid ourselves of, and so by His grace upon death we are counted righteous, because ALL of our sin is paid for by Christ.

I would say... the debt is paid completely already. The process of becoming like Christ is life-long.

It's interesting to see Catholic and Protestant doctrine sitting so starkly next to each other, so similar and yet firmly different! I appreciate the grace of your comment, and your thoughtfulness!

brianna said...

first, as a member of the episcopal church, let me point out that some protestants accepts Maccabees as canonical. i'm not trying to validate any reference made to purgatory therein, just setting the record straight.

i hadn't thought about this until your post kacie, but the difference as i see it between the catholic and protestant positions is not a matter of forgiveness, but of reconciliation. protestants generally hold that reconciliation is a normal part of earthly, christian life (sanctification). catholics merely extend the work of sanctification to life after death.

as i think about it, it's really unclear what part reconciliation has to play in terms of salvation. protestants have typically put the highest value on profession of faith (acceptance of christ's atoning sacrifice), while catholics put the emphasis on faith acts (living in a christlike manner). it's always seemed a weak point in protestant theology that faith acts are some kind of footnote to profession, as opposed to THE main body of the text of discipleship. how do we take paul's imploring of the philippian church to work out their salvation with fear and trembling?

i don't know what i think about purgatory as a dogma. but i think the protestant position has also ignored the ambivalence of their own position in this regard.

i do have to tell you that one of the things that i love about the episcopal church is that we pray for the dead. it has brought me a lot of peace to remember deceased loved ones before God every Sunday.

your posts are always top notch and thought provoking. this one is no exception.

Anonymous said...

Purgatory makes sense to me remembering that it's not about salvation but rather sanctification as it were.

I remember when I was reading something from CSLewis and he talked about the soundness and logical nature of purgatory (and he was not a super High Church Anglican or whatever), and I found that very surprising. Of Roman Catholic concepts (shared of course by some other denominations), purgatory does make sense as does a broader sense of the saints and their intercession, much much more so than say the sinlessness and the assumption of Mary, for example, which I just can't comprehend at all.


Kacie said...

Interesting to see the input from high church protestants. You know, I agree that Protestants have a lack of emphasis on living well and being conformed to the likeness of Christ. I guess I question whether or not this means that we are still unclean at death or not, though. To me it smacks of questioning the sufficiency of the death of Christ.

Particularly when I realized that the Catholic church still presents indulgences as an option - then I get very uneasy. For the most part I think that the things the reformers objected to in the Catholic church of their day really HAVE been reformed now. This is one area that I still question

Togenberg said...

Purgatory makes sense to me as does a more Roman Catholic sense of the saints. However I do seem them as being of secondary importance as I do of say eschatology, i.e. not part of essential or 'mere Christianity'.

'For the most part I think that the things the reformers objected to in the Catholic church of their day really HAVE been reformed now"
Depends on the reformers! Lutherans and Anglicans and some Calvinists, yes, but the Radical Reformation (Zwingli, Anabaptists, baptists)? Pedobaptism, Real Presence in communion, church hierarchy, the papacy itself, Marian devotion, prophecy, 'getting saved', the saints, relationship to the state/violence, ... Surely some of these can (and should) be downplayed or seen as not essential but the differences between the Roman church and the Radical Reformation makes for such a very long list.

Sam Hughes said...

Hey, I know this is an old article so you may never read this. It seems to me that you do not actually agree with the catholic idea of purgatory but instead still have a few misconceptions about it. The idea is not punishment, but cleansing. Only that which is perfect can enter heaven. Indeed we are forgiven but living in this battleground that is full of sin has left a huge mark on our souls. The Catholic Church teaches that the reason there is suffering is because of sin. The sin of Adam separated us from God permanently and infinitely. Although this has been forgiven through Christ, effects of this sin still are with us. The same is true in this case. Though your sins and my sins have been forgiven and paid for through Christ, we still are 'dirty' in a sense. (now I use this dirtiness in contrast to God(who is Perfection Itself)) In order to enter the heavenly kingdom we must therefore be cleansed. This purification process has been visualized as a fire of a forge purifying precious metals. (although I don't wont you to take that as literal, it is merely a metaphor to make it easier to conceptualize).
In conclusion, the idea is not, as you have stated, that we pay for our sins after death or even that we are "wiping our feet" (for it is Christ who was the feet of his followers) but instead it is God, the Heavenly Blacksmith if you will, who is purifying us and preparing us to enter heaven.

Kacie said...

Agreed that the effects of sin are still with us, but if it is only effect rather than sin, why do we need cleansing? The picture of cleansing is in baptism. We were dead, we were buried with Christ, we are alive with Christ. Cleansed by his burial and resurrection. It is finished.