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The notion of purgatory (01/26/2014)
From: Barry Peratt

Bob Williams’ response to Steve Hesse regarding the notion of purgatory clearly highlights many misunderstandings between Catholics and Protestants about the nature of the Word of God and the teaching on Purgatory itself. As a former Protestant, I would like to briefly delineate three of the most prominent ones.

First, Mr. Williams cites “faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” We Catholics agree, but the issue is that this statement doesn’t restrict the Word of God to what is written in the 66 books of the Protestant Bible, and the Catholic Church feels itself bound to preserve the entire “faith once for all entrusted to God’s holy people,” (Jude 1:3) whether “in writing or by word of mouth” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). The Catholic Church, for her part, is referring to Sacred Tradition, not the traditions of men or things that men added, but the Tradition that was passed onto us by the Apostles and Early Church. She teaches that “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God” (CCC 97). Protestants and Catholics often talk past each other, because they mean different things by the same phrase. Even if one does wish to only consider the written Word, then one has to ask whether we are to use the Alexandrian Canon of the Old Testament or the Palestinian Canon. The Catholic Church uses the Alexandrian Canon, which was used by Jesus and His followers; Protestants use the Palestinian Canon.

The second misunderstanding concerns the idea that Purgatory would somehow render Christ’s complete work unfinished. He states that, “Therefore, if purgatory with its suffering were necessary, then the Bible would not be true when it says we are ‘complete in Him.’” But this argument would also render any such suffering on the part of Christians as un-Biblical. Indeed, it would make the apostle Paul a heretic when he says, “I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions...” (Colossians 1:24b). Some believe Christ came and suffered so that we don’t have to, whereas Catholics would maintain that He came and suffered so that our suffering might be fruitful, resulting in our sanctification and glorification if united to His suffering and endured in faith.

The third misunderstanding, and this is a common one, is that somehow Purgatory is a second chance for those who have not placed their faith in Jesus Christ. This is untrue; the Church teaches that Purgatory is only for the saved. Those who do not die in a state of grace are condemned to Hell, as Mr. Williams maintains. Here we encounter a division, not between Catholic and Protestant, but between Protestant and Protestant. Some Protestants maintain that the finished work of Jesus only allows God to look at us differently, to look at us and see the righteousness of Christ, or to make us “snow covered dung heaps,” in the words of Martin Luther. Others, primarily those from the holiness traditions, maintain that Christ came to actually make us different, not to just look at us differently. That He came to set us free from sin, “free indeed,” so that He might present us, His Church, as “holy and blameless, without spot or blemish on the day of his appearing” (Ephesians 5:27). They maintain that He came to literally transform us (1 Corinthians 3:18), allowing us to be purged from sin and our disordered affections and ultimately share in His holiness and freedom, “without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

Now, if we take the latter point of view, the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory follows immediately. If we accept that nothing unholy or sinful can enter the presence of God (Revelation 21:27), and we accept that most of us who die in a state of grace, at the moment of our death, are not yet perfected in love and so are not yet configured to receive the fullness of God’s beatific vision, then some transformation must happen between our death and our full entrance into God’s presence. This is all that the Catholic Church maintains. Whether this transformation occurs instantly or over the course of time, or whether it even makes sense to speak in such a way about an event that occurs outside of time, is for theologians to speculate, but it is not part of our doctrine. So, his contention that an intermediate state contradicts the passage about “being absent from the body is being present with the Lord” is a quibble without real meaning, because time is of no account once we enter eternity.

 

 

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