XXII. Of Purgatory
The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.
I plan to take this in two posts: the first dealing with purgatory and prayer for the dead, and the second with the saints, and their invocation, with a couple of general remarks to begin with. First, Blessèd John Henry, Cardinal Newman (as he then wasn’t), in his notorious Tract 90 made much play with the phrase “Romish Doctrine” to argue that other doctrines were therefore acceptable.
Accordingly, the Primitive doctrine is not condemned in it, unless, indeed, the Primitive Doctrine be the Romish, which must not be supposed. Now there was a primitive doctrine on all these points,–how far Catholic or universal, is a further question—but still so widely received and so respectably supported, that it may well be entertained as a matter of opinion by a theologian now; this, then, whatever be its merits, is not condemned by this Article.
One doubts that this was what the Reformers intended, but to a certain extent the point must be granted: what they attacked was a full-blown economy of the dead, almost, at times, mechanical in its operation, and often appearing to many to lose sight of the fundamental role of Christ as the one mediator who redeems the world, purifies us from our sins, and brings us to life in God.
This is not the context we are in today, and it is quite reasonable to explore the questions so summarily dismissed in the article. Are there understandings of post-mortem purification and a living relationship with the saints that actually need to be considered? Does the great Protestant gulf between the living and the dead in fact do damage to the concept of the Body of Christ? Does it make it harder for faith in the resurrection to be part of the living reality of the Church, rather than past event and future expectation? If the dead are alive in Christ, how are we related to them? These do not seem to be unreasonable questions to ponder.
Before jumping into Purgatory (whither some readers of this may wish to consign me) it’s probably better to begin with the custom of praying for the dead. I have sometimes found myself wondering whether one of the reasons the Reformers excised the deutero-canonical literature was not just the more general Renaissance ad fontes question leading them to draw their (dubious) distinctions between Greek and Hebrew writings, but their desire to remove the most explicit scriptural support for praying for the dead. (This should also remind some Protestants that in claiming there is no biblical support for prayers for the dead, they forget that Catholics have a wider canon, and can claim such support.)
[Judas Maccabeus] also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin. (2 Maccabees 12:43-45 NRSV)
Even to those who don’t see this as Scripture, it provides some evidence for what the possibilities were in both early Judaism and early Christianity. But there are also two NT references which may suggest prayer for the dead was not unknown. One is the quite cryptic and confusing reference to “baptism on behalf of the dead” (1 Cor 15:29) presumably directed at their salvation. Unfortunately Paul fails to reflect on or explain this practice he notes in passing. Subsequent commentators have varied in their understanding of what is referred to. Some have interpreted it so as to remove any possibility of seeing it as a prayer. It remains something tantalising, but ultimately unknown.
The second is a firmer possibility:
May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chain; when he arrived in Rome, he eagerly searched for me and found me – may the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! (2 Timothy 1:16-18 NRSV)
The mention of Onesiphorus’ household first, and the future-looking petition for him, seem to me to read most naturally as meaning that he has already died, in which case we do have a NT prayer for a specific individual who has died. The beginnings of a textual foundation might be found here, yet as with most practices we then enter a second century dark tunnel, until we emerge with Tertullian saying as part of a longer description of Christian activities: “As often as the anniversary comes round, we make offerings for the dead as birthday honours” (De Corona iii). From then on it is possible to find prayer for the dead regularly evidenced as normal Christian behaviour, with no sense that there is any problem about it.
Purgatory is a separate question, and to my mind comes in part from the tendency of the medieval Latin Church to produce nice tidy systems (something the Reformers were not free from either: viz. Calvinism on double predestination). Here the Scriptural evidence is ambiguous. 1 Corinthians 3:9-15 suggests a judgement which will entail both the loss and destruction of shoddy workmanship, while still saving the worker. Although the temporal reference is to “the Day” [of Judgement], what is envisaged is clearly a purifying process as part of that judgement.
It is unclear whether there are other passages that offer any basis for any intermediate state. Some have found three states in 2 Corinthians 5:1-5: clothed in our earthly body, clothed again in a spiritual body and in-between times unclothed. This is possible, but far from certain, yet Paul does seem to speak of the person as an entity to be embodied one way or the other, in a way which seems in some tension with his fuller statements in 1 Corinthians 15. It suggests “sleep” may not be the only metaphor Paul could have employed for the interval between death and resurrection.
The most one can say is that an intermediate state, or purifying process is not entirely ruled out by Scripture, and may be hinted at, albeit obscurely. Prayer for the dead has firmer foundations, may actually have a NT exemplar and certainly emerges as normative Christian practice quite early. To some extent understandings of purgatory relate to a later desire to codify and systematize this practice – in my view unnecessarily. I think it unwise either to make dogmatic statements about the ways in which God heals and purifies those who we see no longer, except to say that whatever God does, and in however long or short a time he does it, the hurts of our lives are healed, and the mess of our lives is cleansed.
But we who live on earth are intimately related as brothers and sisters in Christ to those who are alive in him the other side of the grave. And part of what needs healing for those we knew is their relationship with us, which even in the best of cases, falls short of perfection. Our prayer for them is in some sense, perhaps, a contribution to the healing of those relationships, and our letting go of them into their life with God. It seems to me a perfectly proper recognition of their present and future in God’s hands that we should indeed pray for them, that they with us might come to the fullness of the resurrection, the easing of our hurts, the reconciliation of our divisions, the perfecting of all our relationships in communion with the Blessed Trinity, and the healing of all creation.