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Monday, February 25, 2019

The Confusing Doctrine of Purgatory

Thomas Aquinas is called a "Doctor of the Church" and a "Saint" by the Catholic Church. Noted Calvinist, RC Sproul, said of him:

I, for one, am persuaded that the Protestant Church owes a profound debt to Saint Thomas and the benefit of a second glance at his contributions.... We need an Aquinas. We need a titanic thinker who will not abandon truth for safety. We need men and women who are willing to compete with secularists in defense of Christ and of his truth.
In this regard, the dumb ox of Aquino was heroic.

-R.C. Sproul on Thomas Aquinas – Was He The Most Brilliant of All the Theologians? (Excerpt)

This is an enormous topic for one blog post, but just let me note what this "doctor," "saint," and "most brilliant of all the theologians" had to say about the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory:

In Purgatory there will be a twofold pain; one will be the pain of loss, namely the delay of the divine vision, and the pain of sense, namely punishment by corporeal fire.... thus all sins, however grave they be, are expiated by the fire of Purgatory [Not by the sacrifice of Christ], as regards the debt of punishment. Therefore venial sins are cleansed by the fire of Purgatory as to their guilt... It is therefore clear that this opinion is utterly unreasonable: and consequently we must say with others that venial sin in one who dies in a state of grace, is remitted after this life by the fire of Purgatory: because this punishment so far as it is voluntary, will have the power, by virtue of grace, to expiate all such guilt as is compatible with grace... -Summa Theologica, by Thomas Aquinas (excerpt)

"This fire of Purgatory will be more severe than any pain that can be felt, seen or conceived in this world." -Augustine (xli De Sanctis, as quoted by Aquinas)


Just among Catholics you will find varying views on whether the fire is real or figurative. The confusion is great. Let me just point to the words of "Saint" Robert Bellarmine:

NOW on the time, in which Purgatory will remain, there are two extreme errors. The first error is that of Origen, who extended the times of Purgatory beyond the day of the resurrection...

We note that he says "Church Father" Origen* taught "error." Again, we will be here for days if we try to nail down some consistency, so I will turn to the Catholic site divinemercy dot org:

We are not certain about the nature of the punishment of purgatory. The Church does not teach dogmatically [that is, definitively] that it is a "physical fire," even though many preachers and some catechisms speak of "the fires of purgatory." The official declarations of the Councils speak only of purifying punishments, not purifying fire. Whatever it is, it is painful. -Volume three of Fundamentals of Catholicism (pp. 375-376)

So, it may be real fire, it may not be (can't even trust the Saints on this one, Aquinas teaches Purgatory is near the fires of "hell" itself)... but one thing we do know, it is "painful." .

So, when a Catholic relative passes and another Catholic says to you "he's in arms of Jesus now," or "she's no longer suffering," turn to that one and say, "according to your own church, he isn't in the arms of Jesus, he is suffering great pain for his sins."

Note I have not tried to debate the issue of Purgatory itself. The vast majority of what you will find online about this issue is a defense of the doctrine. Readers of this blog know I believe two things very strongly: (a) resurrection life is a free gift for which Christ's sacrifice is sufficient for all sin and (b) the dead, all the dead, are in the grave (apart from the risen Christ) until the resurrection of those who have life through his name (in their order).

My point is that arguing with a doctrine whose proponents cannot agree as to the details (even among their own doctors, church fathers, saints, and current adherents) is most likely a waste of your time. I imagine it would amount to mostly endless babbling.

The foundation scripture of this ministry is 2 Tim 2:15, but the verse that follows is of the utmost importance if the worker wants to focus on the work of rightly dividing the word of truth:

Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness.

The "profane and vain babbling" Paul uses as his example is the teaching that resurrection had passed. So, the most profane things are those which concern scriptural truth (resurrection in this case), but a perversion of that truth. Thus it is with Purgatory and the teaching of Paul in 1 Cor 3 and Peter in 1 Pet 1. There is a fire to test our works as Christians to come, but it is neither punishment nor physically painful. As we have been reviewing in our series on walking in the spirit, do not find yourself disapproved.


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*Origen taught horrific error about the nature of God and Christ; his doctrines on the soul were called "monstrous" and some of his teachings were declared heretical by the Catholic Church itself (Fifth Ecumenical Council, Second Council of Constantinople). But Pope Benedict XVI said of him "a figure crucial to the whole development of Christian thought", "a true 'maestro'", and "not only a brilliant theologian but also an exemplary witness of the doctrine he passed on..." To be fair, there seems to be some confusion among Catholic authorities about what exactly took place at the Second and Third Councils of Constantinople in regard to Origen, but that confusion (and the contradictions between Pope and Council) only add to the unstable house of cards that is "Sacred Tradition."