Sunday, August 9, 2009

Purging Misconceptions of Purgatory, Part II: Historical Continuity

As the title mentions, this is an unanticipated continuation of my column I wrote over a month ago on the biblical and logical foundation of the Church’s doctrine on purgatory. The desire to continue writing on this subject came from two events: 1) The fact that many people enjoyed the column; 2) A Lutheran minister had read it and said it was the most persuasive thing he had read on the topic of purgatory. Before you begin thinking you may see him in this year’s RCIA class, he did qualify the statement by saying he still doesn’t believe the doctrine. With that, I would like to continue the apologetic crusade—filled with charity—and address a couple more points that will further solidify the veracity of the Church’s wisdom in upholding this doctrine in spite of criticisms.

While the theological necessity of purgatory appears to be undeniable and the biblical evidence persuasive, the overall argument is still incomplete. The best way to validate a biblical truth claim is by looking for historical evidence that would confirm the particular interpretation of Scripture at hand. In other words, is there a line of continuity between the Church’s belief in purgatory and the belief of the Early Church? The answer appears to be a resounding yes!

One of the most persuasive texts comes from the middle of the second century (c. AD 160) in a Christian apocryphal work called The Acts of Paul and Thecla. Whether or not the story in this writing is historical is not important since the value of this work is in the story itself. Like every story or book whether fiction or non-fiction, the surrounding worldview informs the norms and practices of the narrative. In the story of Paul and Thecla, the deceased daughter of Trifina appears to Trifina in a dream. The daughter requests that Trifina take Thecla as her new daughter in place of the deceased daughter. When given the reason, the daughter says it is so “that she [Thecla] should pray for me, that I may be transferred to the place of righteousness” (ANF VIII: 490, brackets mine). Notice that there is never an explanation of this request on behalf of the deceased daughter as if this was some foreign custom being added to the narrative. Praying for the deceased had become so common by the mid-second century that it found its way into story telling. In other words, the practical elements of purgatory were being expressed without apology less than a century before Christianity was recognized as a separate religion from that of Judaism!

Story telling is not the only historical manifestation of a belief in purgatory by the Early Church. Archaeology has discovered burial stones with epitaphs that request prayers for the deceased. One such epitaph is by a man by the name of Abercius who after expressing a love for his Christian faith, requests that “everyone who is in accord with this [the Christian faith] and who understands it pray for Abercius” (Epitaph of Abercius, c. AD 190, brackets mine). Again, the customs and practices of the Early Church express an understanding of and belief in purgatory.

Yet another dimension of the historical record that has archived an image of the Early Church adhering closely to the image of the Catholic Church today is the written accounts of Christian martyrs. One such story articulates a vision of Perpetua’s blood brother who apparently died from disease. The sister received a vision of her brother being purified through fire after death and, with the help if her prayers, seeing him eventually purified for his eternal reward (cf. ANF III: 701-02, c. AD 202).

In the end, an entire monograph could be dedicated to an analysis of all the Early Church Fathers who explicitly spoke about the doctrine of purgatory whether that be through Origin’s commentary on 1 Cor. 3, or Tertullian’s interpretation of Mat. 5:25-26 (cf. Homilies of Jeremias [c. AD 244] & ANF III: 234-5 [c. AD 210]. The fathers of the Church are overwhelmingly in favor of the doctrine of purgatory and in light of such company—which only confirms the previous columns attempt to express purgatory’s biblical foundation and theological necessity—a sense of arrogance is almost needed to outright reject the doctrine without question. If the Judaism of Christ’s day believed in a form of it, the biblical text spoke of it, heaven needs it, and the Early Church practiced and preached it, then it would appear as if this doctrine is not up for dissenting.

I mentioned at the beginning of this column that my intention was to address a “couple” more points about purgatory, but I have only mentioned one additional point being the continuity of the Early Church Fathers. My next column will address the question about indulgences. Is it possible that while the Church got the doctrine of purgatory correct, she erred with the dispensation of indulgences? Stay tuned…

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