Soon (and I am not sure how soon) I will be releasing some articles on the differences between Roman Catholics and Orthodox as it pertains to their view of the afterlife. The doctrine of Purgatory is dwelt upon and a contrast is drawn between this Roman Catholic doctrine and the Orthodox view.
In writing these articles, I have set out to be informative, to do justice to the Orthodox position, to accurately portray the Roman Catholic position, and ultimately help improve ecumenical dialogue.
Most of my research is based upon 1. osmosis of what Orthodox priests have told me, 2. an Orthodox book on the subject, 3. the writings of the fathers, and 4. my personal reading of the Scriptures.
I have presented rough drafts of the series of articles to three different Roman Catholics (one a layman, one seminary-trained, the other a Melkite.) I have honestly tried to thoroughly understand their position before moving forward with these articles.
That being said, I have a few comments to make in no particular order:
-I do not pretend to be an authority on Orthodoxy. I am merely a very opinionated layman. I am open to changing my mind and the way I do that is by dialogue. If I do not present a position that someone else can correct me upon, then I cannot grow.
-Since Vatican II, it appears that the Roman Catholic Church has obviously reversed its course on the doctrine of Purgatory. Without getting all argumentative and nit-picky, we know that Popes and theologians have endorsed the idea of Purgatory being a literal place, with literal fires, and with indulgences that literally wipe off a specific amount of years of purgation. This was explicitly the Roman Catholic view for at least 600 or 700 years. That being said, if the Roman Catholic Church has now become more wishy-washy (sort of like us Orthodox) and is willing to say Purgatory is not literal, Purgatory is not a “third place” but a different experience of God in the afterlife that is not pleasant, that indulgences are partial or plenary thereby rendering us unable to discern the exact amount of years they will avail the penitent, etcetera–I say all of these are positive developments that are bringing Roman Catholicism back towards the Orthodox conception of the afterlife.
-Nevertheless, I also think that the Western conception of the afterlife, with there being a Purgatory, is true to their intellectual tradition. It can therefore be construed as an Orthodox conception of the afterlife, and not a literal third place between Heaven and Hell, illustrated according to Western ideas. Granted, the Roman Catholics at the Council of Florence probably would have rejected this, but Orthodox have to realize that we have our own illustrations and embellishments. Aerial Toll Houses, for one, are not literal Toll Houses and their imagery is borrowed from Hellenistic thought. If we can be comfortable with our own imagery which is true to our intellectual tradition, then we must be charitable and allow the West the same.
-In the final summation of the preceding, I am increasingly convinced that Orthodox and Roman Catholics are describing the same spiritual experience that many souls have before the Last Judgement in different ways. They are employing their own intellectual traditions and imagery to describe what is ultimately an Apostolic, and therefore Jewish, teaching and mode of thought. To be perfectly frank, I believe the Orthodox conception to be more authentically Apostolic in its presentation and less troublesome with its ramifications (as Roman Catholicism’s approach to the doctrine became so extravagant and systematic that it created the Protestant schism.)
-There is a potential that I am misunderstanding many things myself due to 1. being a layman and 2. being a former Protestant. I have a very specific conception of the atonement in my mind, which in effect is the propitiation of God by blood. Hence, whether it is a payment of a penalty or some work of satisfaction which makes God look past a given fault, atonement is an act that absolves sin by propitiating God Himself. Now, it has been expressed to me that “atonement” may pertain to making right the penitent’s affections. To be perfectly honest, this appears to me to be a conflation of terms (as justification and sanctification make right our affections, to say that such sanctification is also atonement is to me not a Biblical nor traditional conception of the term.) In the spirit of charity, I can affirm that Orthodoxy teaches that the atoning work of the Cross is total and complete, but we only attain to the atonement by being conformed to Christ. Hence, while making right our affections does not literally atone for sins, it does for all practical purposes have that effect. Pardon the following illustration: if I were to say jumping forward does not literally incinerate me but jumping forward into a blazing oven for all practical purposes does, then one can see how a concept can be different but practically the same. While I think this is a clear example of Roman Catholic backtracking (as I very much doubt that Aquinas, or Roman Catholic representatives at Florence, or any serious Roman Catholic thinker took such a view of atonement until the 19th or 20th centuries), again I reiterate I see such a development as positive.
-The articles make comments on the energy-essence distinction, as well as the dichotomy between created and uncreated grace. These issues are way above my pay grade and all I can offer are simplistic comments at best. The more I look into it, the more I realize that a lot of the Christological and Pneumatological disputes are grounded in 1. epistemology and 2. Neo-platonist categories of thought. It appears to me that Aquinas’ idea where philosophy is the handmaiden of theology (ancilla theologiae) is something that has always been an undercurrent within Western thought. Hence, while the West would concur with the East that there are truths only made available to us by God’s revelation (i.e. the Scriptures), philosophy provides to us a legitimate means of systematizing these truths and discerning things in a deeper and more profound way. I believe this has led to philosophical speculation having a much stronger role in Western theology than Eastern. In my honest opinion, I think we can see Saint Augustine himself admitting that this is precisely what he was doing in devising a theology of the Trinity (On the Trinity, Book 3, Par 1).* For this reason, the West (whether Protestant or Roman Catholic) can lay claim to the idea that they understand Christology, Mariology, Soteriology, and etcetera better now due their methodology of discerning truths. In short, inquiry and dialectics finds out new things we did not know before. This epistemology is ultimately different that the idea that the faith was “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3) that “the unlearned receive” apart from philosophical “disputations and quibbles” as Saint Irenaeus taught.** The Eastern approach to philosophy was to explain things we as Christains already believe in a way that is intelligible given the intellectual concepts and ideas of the time, as we can see in the writings of the Apologists. The West, as Augustine admits, has largely used philosophy to tread new ground due to not having direct access to that said faith delivered once and for all in the (mostly) Greek tongue.
*[I]f what we have read upon these subjects is either not sufficiently set forth, or is not to be found at all, or at any rate cannot easily be found by us, in the Latin tongue, while we are not so familiar with the Greek tongue as to be found in any way competent to read and understand therein the books that treat of such topics, in which class of writings, to judge by the little which has been translated for us, I do not doubt that everything is contained that we can profitably seek; while yet I cannot resist my [Latin] brethren [who are ignorant of theology in Greek] when they exact of me, by that law by which I am made their servant, that I should minister above all to their praiseworthy studies in Christ by my tongue and by my pen, of which two yoked together in me, Love is the charioteer; and while I myself confess that I have by writing learned many things which I did not know: if this be so, then this my labor ought not to seem superfluous to any idle, or to any very learned reader; while it is needful in no small part, to many who are busy, and to many who are unlearned,and among these last to myself. Supported, then, very greatly, and aided by the writings we have already read of others on this subject, I have undertaken to inquire into and to discuss, whatever it seems to my judgment can be reverently inquired into and discussed, concerning the Trinity, the one supreme and supremely good God; He himself exhorting me to the inquiry, and helping me in the discussion of it; in order that, if there are no other writings of the kind, there may be something for those to have and read who are willing and capable; but if any exist already, then it may be so much the easier to find some such writings, the more there are of the kind in existence.
**True knowledge, then, consists in the understanding of Christ, which Paul terms the wisdom of God hidden in a mystery, which
the natural man receives not, 1 Corinthians 2:14 the doctrine of the cross; of which if any man
taste, 1 Peter 2:3 he will not accede to the disputations and quibbles of proud and puffed-up men, 1 Timothy 6:4-5 who go into matters of which they have no perception. Colossians 2:18 For the truth is unsophisticated (ἀσχημάτιστος); and
the word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart,Romans 10:8; Deuteronomy 30:14 as the same apostle declares, being easy of comprehension to those who are obedient. For it renders us like to Christ, if we experience
the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings. Philippians 3:10 For this is the affinity of the apostolic teaching and the most holy
faith delivered unto us, Jude 3 which the unlearned receive, and those of slender knowledge have taught, not
giving heed to endless genealogies, 1 Timothy 1:4 but studying rather [to observe] a straightforward course of life; lest, having been deprived of the Divine Spirit, they fail to attain to the kingdom of heaven. For truly the first thing is to deny one’s self and to follow Christ; and those who do this are borne onward to perfection, having fulfilled all their Teacher’s will, becoming sons of God by spiritual regeneration, and heirs of the kingdom of heaven; those who seek which first shall not be forsaken (Fragment 36).