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).
I largely agree with you (especially on the idea of East/West describing the same thing) but I will say three things:
1) maybe it was understood as literal years by the laity, but that’s never what it was intended to mean. It is rooted in the ancient penitential discipline in the Early Church — people would have to do a certain amount of year’s worth of penance before being re admitted to communion. Since the West always framed this in terms of satisfaction, the afterlife concept became rooted not in literal years but rather in years’ worth of satisfaction. (Sort of like a lightyear isn’t a literal year, but a distance traveled within a year’s time.)
2) Orthodox Wiki’s article on purgatory says that the toll house used to not only more emphasized but even taken too literally, so the Orthodox wouldn’t be too different than the Catholics in this regard.
3) I seem to remember reading in Aidan Nichols’ ROME AND THE EASTERN CHURCHES that at the council of Lyons/Florence, the juridical expositions of purgatory was actually greatly diminished, meaning that either A) Rome compromised or B) they rightly recognized that some elements of their doctrine were simply Latin and of secondary significance to the overall scheme of things and worth not pushing farther for the union of the churches.
Thanks for what you do.
I’d have to actually take a look at the timeline but you maybe able to answer this right off. Did the idea of purgatory as an actual place exist prior to Dante? And it influenced his work? Or did Dante influence the cultural understanding of purgatory in the West?
I’m not sure. Clearly the doctrine was clear long before Dante. The system of indulgences did not predate Dante by much (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indulgence#History) but being that Purgatory existed before Christianity itself, I think it likely predated the first council of lyon by centuries. However, Purgatory as we know it does not really make sense without indulgences (because Purgatory is essentially a calculable penance for atonement due for sins), and since Vatican II indulgences lost their precise calculations–with it, modern Roman Catholic conception of Purgatory has likewise retreated to the realm of allegory. Take away the brick and mortar of indulgences and the same happens to purgatory.
I’ve go so far in my work to indicate that Jesus taught or had a concept of purgatory in Mt. 5:25-26 on the mount. I suppose I’m wondering about the imagery of purgatory influenced after Dante’s divine comedy.
In regards to time being in a sense allegorical, again this falls into the traditions of the west and Thomism cosmology. God and his kingdom being outside of the time of His creation, a 100 days wouldn’t be a 100 earthly days necessarily.
Benedict XVI referenced it as I remember to a burning fire from St. Paul. So, more or less, I practice indulgences but how they exactly apply, I simply think of it as a mystery and trust in God’s judgment.
Thanks for your honesty.
I don’t think I can contribute in all the subtleties that you display, but here is something interesting to ponder.
Malachi and Revelation.
The 22nd verse before the end of the book of Revelation, the last book of the new testament, reads like this:
Revelation 21:27 “Nothing unclean may come into it: no one who does what is loathsome or false, but only those who are listed in the Lamb’s book of life.”
The 22nd verse before the end of the book of Malachi, the last book of the old testament reads like this:
Malachi 3:11 “3 He will take his seat as refiner and purifier; he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they can make the offering to Yahweh with uprightness.”
There is a connection here. A hint of purgatory, and not by chance.
( Zech 2:1-4 “1 *And I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, a man with a measuring line in his hand! 2 Then I said, “Where are you going?” And he said to me, “To measure Jerusalem, to see what is its breadth and what is its length.” 3 And behold, the angel who talked with me came forward, and another angel came forward to meet him, 4 and said to him, “Run, say to that young man, ‘Jerusalem shall be inhabited as villages without walls, because of the multitude of men and cattle in it. 5 For I will be to her a wall of fire round about, says the LORD, and I will be the glory within her.'”)
I wrote this during my Protestant days, but it addresses some of those Scriptures: https://orthodoxchristiantheology.com/2015/04/24/baptism-by-fire-and-biblical-views-of-purgatory/
You write very well. The first part is very Catholic. Sometimes people get the impression that the only form of “purgation” for Catholics is in purgatory, but of course saints who go directly to heaven (by no means only those canonised by the church), as well as martyrs (as those who die immediately after baptism) have been fully purified on earth, a concept that you express so well in your article ( purification on earth I mean). Besides, all those who end up in purgatory have gone some degree of purification here on earth,
“And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart” (Matthew 18:34-35).
“Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.” Matthew 5: 25-26
Scripture passages like these do seem to point to some form of cleansing before we enter heaven.