Protestants and Purgatory

•7 February 2008 • Comments Off

by Fr Alvin Kimel

Protestants and Purgatory do not go together. Of course, there are exceptions—C. S. Lewis immediately comes to mind—but as a rule, Protestant Christians firmly reject the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. Many reject it because they do not find it clearly taught in Holy Scripture. Others reject it because they believe that it contradicts the Reformation doctrine of justification. But does it contradict this doctrine? must it? It all depends, suggests Wesleyan philosopher Jerry Walls, on how we relate justification to sanctification. This relationship has been a matter of intractable dispute between Catholics and Protestants but also between Protestants and Protestants. Walls believes, though, that if we begin our reflection with Heaven we may discover possibilities for resolution.

“Salvation, such as it shall be in the world to come, shall itself be our final happiness,” declares St Augustine. Eternal life with God is the goal and fulfillment of our existence. God is our supreme good, consummation, and end. We were made to live with him and to find in him satisfaction and joy. “This point,” insists Walls, “must be emphasized: Salvation itself is our final happiness. There is a tight, integral connection between moral renewal, salvation, and human fulfillment and happiness. … Salvation is much more than mere morality. It is finally a matter of knowing God as fully as we are capable of knowing him and thereby experiencing the fullness of life” (Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy, pp. 37-38).

But we are not presently the kind of persons capable of Heaven. We are at war with our Creator and at war with our selves. In our fallen condition we are not disposed to love and worship God. We are inclined, rather, to self-centeredness, ingratitude, and disobedience. Our salvation therefore requires our personal transformation and the healing of our disordered desires. We must become persons who love God as their supreme good, who believe that he is infinitely praiseworthy, who desire to be eternally united to him in mutual self-giving. Becoming persons who find their ultimate felicity in Heaven is the heart and center of salvation:

The joy and happiness of heaven is precisely the joy and happiness of salvation. Salvation is essentially a matter of loving God and being rightly related to him. This relationship is the source of our deepest delight and satisfaction. Heaven is not a place that could be enjoyed apart from loving God in the way made possible by salvation. There is no question of “going to” heaven if one is not the sort of person who has the sort of desires and affections for God that heaven satisfies. (p. 40)

Walls is thus critical of forensic construals of justification that neatly cordon off sanctification. “The essence of salvation,” he explains, “is the real transformation that allows us to love God and enjoy fellowship with him. The element of forgiveness, although crucial, is secondary to this” (p. 50). To be declared righteous but never to become righteous is no salvation at all. The best in Reformation theology has always recognized the inseparable union of justification and sanctification, but this unity is often broken, he avers, in popular preaching and piety. The result is a portrayal of faith in Christ that “seems magical and void of moral and intellectual seriousness” (p. 41). Justification and sanctification cannot be divorced. We cannot honestly plead the atoning sacrifice of Christ and simultaneously refuse to become the kind of persons we are called by God to be, to become the kind of persons who are capable of enjoying Heaven. “To plead the atonement,” Walls continues, “we must acknowledge God as God. We must own his purposes for our lives and recognize them as good. That is, God’s purposes for us are indeed for our well-being and ultimate happiness and satisfaction. But we cannot merely ask God’s forgiveness and proceed with our purposes apart from God. To attempt to do this is to operate with a false valuation of both ourselves and of God” (p. 51). Human cooperation with grace would therefore seem to be indispensable in the process of salvation. We cannot by our own powers convert and heal ourselves. God must convert and heal us; yet he must do so, and does do so, in a way that elicits our free cooperation and involvement. In the words of Augustine: “But He who made you without your consent does not justify you without your consent. He made you without your knowledge but He does not justify you without your willing it.”

But how does God transform us in the depths of our being without violating our freedom and personhood? Here Walls appeals to the reflections of Eleonore Stump. If we understand the human self as a unity of hierarchically ordered desires, then we can distinguish between first-order and second-order desires. First-order desires are our basic desires; second-order desires are our desires about our desires. Stump cites the character of Rosamond Lydgate in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch. Rosamond is selfish and manipulative. How, speculates Stump, might God effect her conversion without compromising her personhood? Rosamund must begin to see the wickedness of her actions and the disorder of her primary desires. She must form, in response to grace and in grace, second-order desires that God will change her first-order desires and bring them into conformity with his will. This transformation, as we know from personal experience, simply takes time. Our sanctification is not completed the instant we form a second-order desire to be sanctified. Our volition at this point is vague, says Stump, and insufficiently powerful to effect an immediate conversion of our primary desires:

It consists in a general submission to God and an effective desire to let God remake one’s character. But a willingness of this sort is psychologically compatible with stubbornly holding on to any number of sins. … Making a sinner righteous, then, will be a process in which a believer’s specific volitions are brought into harmony with the governing second-order volition assenting to God’s bringing her to righteousness, with the consequent gradual alteration in first-order volitions, as well as in intellect and emotions. (Quoted on p. 56)

We may broadly desire to be made holy. We may desire that God would change one or more of our primary desires. But it is possible for us to desire all of this and yet not recognize all of our sins as sins or “perceive their destructiveness to the point of truly wishing to be delivered from them” (p. 56). We must grow into this knowledge and freedom. It takes time for grace to penetrate into the deepest recesses of our characters. It takes time for us to pierce the levels of our selfishness and self-deception and to accept the truth of ourselves and, most importantly, to accept the full-range of God’s will for us.

Our free response to grace is necessary for our transformation. God does not impose himself. He does not coerce our acceptance of his gift of love, nor does he overrule our wills in the process of sanctification. God respects our constitution as free beings and graciously guides us into full communion with him. “God enables our transformation each step of the way,” Walls writes, “but our cooperation is necessary for our sanctification to go forward” (p. 55). But what if we die imperfectly sanctified? If in this life God respects and works within our freedom, is it not reasonable to think that he will continue to do so in the next? Walls suggests that the point needs to be made even stronger: “If God is willing to dispense with our free cooperation in the next life, it is hard to see why he would not do so now, particularly in view of the high price of freedom in terms of evil and suffering” (p. 55). Hence Walls believes there are good reasons for Protestants to reconsider the doctrine of Purgatory (also see “Purgatory for Everyone”).

Walls finds unconvincing the Protestant claim that death itself effects an immediate movement into immaculate sanctity. Such a radical conversion would seem to violate our nature as temporal beings. Would we even recognize ourselves after such a dramatic change? If I were to wake up tomorrow perfectly and completely holy, would I in fact be the same person? No doubt friends and family would welcome the change, but might I not experience myself as a stranger, given the absence of historical and personal continuity? This does not mean that time after death must work in the same way as time in our world; yet it does seem appropriate that God would provide a way, transcending our present understanding, for the process of sanctification to continue in an intermediate state. Walls is particularly critical of the quasi-gnostic assertion that we are liberated from sin merely by being delivered from our present bodies and given new bodies. The most deadly sins are spiritual, and they are not cured by resurrection alone. Sanctification is never a purely passive affair. There are no short-cuts to holiness.

Is Purgatory, therefore, compatible with a forensic understanding of justification? Absolutely, answers Walls. Since forensic justification is concerned with our acceptance by God, and not with our being internally made righteous, it does not, in principle, provide a basis for objecting to the proposal of purgatorial sanctification.

The words of C. S. Lewis provide a fitting conclusion:

Our souls demand purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleansed first”? “It may hurt, you know.”—“Even so, sir.”

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Purgatory as Self-Knowledge

•4 February 2008 • Comments Off

by Fr Alvin Kimel

“God is the Last Thing of the creature. Gained, He is its paradise; lost, He is its hell; as demanding, He is its judgment; as cleansing, He is its purgatory” (Hans Urs von Balthasar).

This statement succinctly states the fundamental approach of contemporary Catholicism to eschatology: the Last Things are understood as aspects and dimensions of the final encounter with the Triune God. The result has been a movement away from the juridical metaphors that have dominated Catholic imagination for the past millenium. “The court room scene,” writes Fr Zachary Hayes, “is replaced with an interpretation in which the primary metaphors are derived from the experience of personal encounter. The traditional symbols are not lost but are given a new interpretation which stands fully within the framework of theological possibilities left open by the church’s magisterial teaching” (Visions of a Future, pp. 115-116).

The interpretation of the Last Things in terms of personal encounter has been widely received within the Catholic Church. A good example is philosopher Peter Kreeft’s popular and insightful work Every Thing You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven, but Never Dreamed of Asking [Heaven]. Kreeft devotes a chapter to the theme of Purgatory. He also briefly discusses Purgatory in his book Catholic Christianity [CC].

Kreeft notes that the disagreement between Catholics and Protestants on Purgatory seems to be intractable, yet he believes it is resolvable, “if we will only look at Purgatory as the saints do” (Heaven, p. 62). Purgatory, argues Kreeft, logically follows from two facts: our imperfection on earth and our perfection in Heaven. “At the moment of death,” he writes, “most of us are not completely sanctified (purified, made holy), even though we are justified, or saved by having been baptized into Christ’s Body and having thereby received God’s supernatural life into our souls, having accepted him by faith and not having rejected him by unrepented mortal sin” (CC, p. 149). But Heaven requires perfect holiness, not as an arbitrarily-imposed condition, but because Heaven simply is a perfect communion of love and self-giving. No one can love God with all of his heart and soul and body until he has been purified of twisted self-love and liberated from attachments and delusion. If we are not ready for Heaven when we die, then we must somehow be made ready beyond death. Purgatory refers to this process of being made ready for Heaven. Kreeft identifies four essential notes of Purgatory (Heaven, pp. 62-63):

1) Purgatory is a part of Heaven. It is not a distinct “place” between Heaven and Hell. Purgatory is Heaven’s anteroom in which the elect are prepared, cleansed, healed, matured, and sanctified. It is the wash-room, where we shed our dirty clothes and plunge into a hot bath before entering the majestic palace of the King. Purgatory is therefore temporary. There are only two eternal destinies—Heaven and Hell.

2) Purgatory is joyful, not gloomy. Whatever pain may attend the process of purification, it does not diminish the profound joy and triumph of Purgatory. The holy souls have passed through death into life and know that their ultimate destiny is now secure. The sufferings of Purgatory are more desirable than the most ecstatic pleasures on earth.

3) Purgtory is a place of sanctification, not justification. Only the forgiven and justified enter into the final purification. Sin is not paid for in Purgatory but surgically removed. The doctrine of Purgatory neither challenges nor diminishes the finished work of Christ on the cross.

4) Purgatory is a place of education, not works. Purgatory is not a second chance to merit salvation through good deeds but an opportunity to acquire “a full understanding of deeds already done during our first and only chance, and a full disposal of all that needs to be disposed.”

Kreeft acknowledges the long-standing tradition that speaks of Purgatory as the expiation of the temporal punishment due to our sins, but he insists that this punishment must be interpreted by its eschatological purpose—the transformation of sinners into saints:

The reason for purgatory is not the past, not an external, legal punishment for past sins, as if our relationship with God were still under the old law. Rather, its reason is the future; it is our rehabilitation, it is training for heaven. For our relationship with God has been radically changed by Christ; we are adopted as his children, and our relationship is now fundamentally filial and familial, not legal. Purgatory is God’s loving parental discipline (see Heb 12:5-14). (CC, pp. 149-150)

Kreeft’s favorite image of Purgatory is that of reading a book: “Purgatory is reading the already-written book of your life with total understanding and acceptance—the total understanding that comes only from total acceptance” (Heaven, 65). With the story of our mortal lives having reached conclusion, we can step back and read and re-read our stories from God’s perspective, without fear of condemnation, without rationalization and self-deception. Purgatory provides us the freedom to confront our histories and understand our choices and their consequences for ourselves and most importantly for others. “Since in Purgatory,” Kreeft explains, “we do not make different choices but only see and understand clearly all our past choices, the only virtue there is knowledge, and education there does cure all moral ills” (p. 64).

“Human kind,” T. S. Elliot wrote, “cannot bear very much reality.” Humankind cannot bear to see the destruction and horror that it brings into the world, cannot bear to accept the responsibility for the injuries it has afflicted on others. Our offenses, infidelities, greed, lust, and violence ripple through families and communities, affecting people unto the third and fourth generation. We spend much of our time, both individually and corporately, protecting ourselves against this knowledge; but in Purgatory God reveals to us the truth of our lives. Denial is no longer a possibility. God delivers us from our delusions and brings us into reality, into knowledge, into responsibility. This is the suffering of Purgatory.

Sin is purged by sharing in our destiny as light. We see the meaning and the effects of all our sins in Purgatory—their effects on others as well as ourselves, both directly and indirectly, through chains of influence presently invisible, chains so long and effectual that we would be overwhelmed with responsibility if we saw them now. Only a few can endure the saint’s insight that “we are each responsible for all.” … In Purgatory I will experience all the harm I have done, with sensitized and mature conscience. This is a suffering both more intense and more useful than fire or merely physical pain. But I will experience it also with the compassion and forgiveness of God, forgiving myself as God forgives me. … After we remember sin, we can forget it; after we take it seriously, we can laugh at it: after we share in the sufferings of the God Who experienced Hell for us (“My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”), we can share in His “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Our experience and forgiveness will be perfect in Purgatory because there we will know. (pp. 68-69)

In C. S. Lewis’s parable The Great Divorce, the visitors from the grey town are met in Heaven by old friends and relatives, who seek to assist them in their journey to God. In love, honesty, and frankness, each speak truth to the visitors. Alas, only one visitor decides to remain in Heaven. The others choose to deny their sins and to return to the grey town. Perhaps this is one of the important functions of the communion of saints—to assist us in the apprehension of our sins. The support of the saints may well be crucial as we read the book of our lives. Reading is most effective when exercised in community. And perhaps in some mysterious way our penitent acceptance of our sins will be instrumental in the healing and final sanctification of those whom we have injured. Perhaps we will even be allowed to ask and receive their forgiveness. The communion of saints, suggests Kreeft, is essential to the process of purgatorial transformation, “for there is no more effective method of religious education than the presence of saints” (p. 72). Even in Purgatory, especially in Purgatory, we need teachers and communicators of holiness. Sanctity is a dynamic, contagious, revelatory power.

“Purgatory, like Heaven,” concludes Kreeft, “is joy and truth. Heaven is the perfection of joy and truth. Hell is the refusal to accept truth and therefore the refusal of joy” (p. 71).

(To be continued)

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The Fire That Is Christ

•1 February 2008 • Comments Off

by Fr Alvin Kimel

What does the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory mean? Pope Benedict XVI takes up this question in his most recent encyclical, Spe Salvi.

“With death,” writes the Holy Father, “our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge.” We come into the holy presence of our creator as persons whose lives have taken on certain shape. Our stories have been written; our personal narratives have reached decisive conclusion; the trial is finished. We have become, in the most fundamental sense, the kind of persons we are and shall ever be. We stand before the living God as individuals who have either rejected his love and mercy or who have embraced his love and mercy.

There can be people, Benedict warns, who have destroyed in their hearts the desire for truth and the readiness to love. Hatred, greed, and mendacity control and determine them. Such individuals are truly damned; they have damned themselves. “In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell.” There can also be people who are completely permeated by God. Their hearts are filled with love. Their entire being is consecrated to God, who is the consummation of “what they already are.” These are the saints. They die into the immediate vision of God. But in between, as it were, are those who die in a deep interior openness to love, to truth, to God, but whose concrete choices have been “covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul.” What happens to these individuals? Will their impurity suddenly cease to matter?

Following Western exegetical tradition, Benedict appeals to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians for guidance:

For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Cor 3:11-15)

Paul is employing imagery to speak of that which we cannot literally describe. As Benedict notes, “we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it.” But Paul is confident in the victory of the resurrection. When the final day arrives, those who have built the foundation of their lives upon Jesus Christ will endure. Much may be lost in the fire of God’s judgment, but the believer will survive. “In this text,” Benedict explains, “it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through ‘fire’ so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.”

But what is this fire? In the past many Western theologians have interpreted the purgatorial fire as a material fire, but Benedict chooses a symbolic interpretation—the fire is Christ Jesus himself!

Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.

The Pope thus proposes an understanding of Purgatory as personal encounter with the Savior who is infinite love and grace. In the eschatological moment, the duration of which transcends earthly reckoning, we are liberated from self-deception and bondage. Christ pulls us to himself, as through fire. The dross of guilt is burnt away. We are purified of all remaining egoism. The purgatorial transformation necessarily implies suffering, as we submit to the fire of love and surrender our sins and attachments, yet in the midst of this suffering we rejoice in the gift of our healing and deliverance.

Benedict elaborated this understanding of Christ’s fiery love in his book Eschatology, originally published in 1977:

Purgatory is not, as Tertullian thought, some kind of supra-worldly concentration camp where man is forced to undergo punishment in a more or less arbitrary fashion. Rather is it the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints. Simply to look at people with any degree of realism at all is to grasp the necessity of such a process. It does not replace grace by works, but allows the former to achieve its full victory precisely as grace. What actually saves is the full assent of faith. But in most of us, that basic option is buried under a great deal of wood, hay and straw. Only with difficulty can it peer out from behind the latticework of an egoism we are powerless to pull down with our own hands. Man is the recipient of the divine mercy, yet this does not exonerate him from the need to be transformed. Encounter with the Lord is this transformation. It is the fire that burns away our dross and re-forms us to be vessels of eternal joy. (pp. 230-231)

Though the Latin tradition has typically construed the period of purgatorial transformation in temporal terms, Benedict recognizes the inappropriateness of this construal. The duration of transformation cannot be quantified according to any measure that we can understand. The transformation is indeed a transition, but its measure “lies in the unsoundable depths of existence, in a passing-over where we are burned ere we are transformed” (p. 230). Benedict would also have us understand that the first judgment at the moment of death is ultimately identical to the final judgment at the Great Assize; the two are indistinguishable. “A person’s entry into the realm of manifest reality,” Benedict writes, “is an entry into his definitive destiny and thus an immersion in eschatological fire” (p. 230).

(To be continued)

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Clarifying Purgatory

•28 January 2008 • Comments Off

by Fr Alvin Kimel

The dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church on the doctrine of Purgatory is limited and specific. In 1439 the Council of Florence declared:

It has likewise defined that, if those truly penitent have departed in the love of God, before they have made satisfaction by worthy fruits of penance for sins of commission and omission, the souls of these are cleansed after death by purgatorial punishments; and so that they may be released from punishments of this kind, the suffrages of the living faithful are of advantage to them, namely, the sacrifices of Masses, prayers, and almsgiving, and other works of piety, which are customarily performed by the faithful for other faithful according to the institutions of the Church.

Formulated in the Western idiom of satisfaction and punishment, it is unclear precisely how the Eastern participants might have interpreted the decree, but it is important to note the omission of spatial language (Purgatory is not referred to as a place) and of the instrument of purification (material fire is not mentioned). Fr Zachary Hayes summarizes the difference in approach between West and East:

In very broad terms, it can be said that Western theology, especially in its soteriology, has tended to develop a strong moral line of thought and to use juridical-legal categories and metaphors to express itself. This has led Western theology to deal with purgatory in terms of its penal character. The Eastern Church, on the other hand, has approached the doctrine of soteriology, grace, and fulfillment from the perspective of growth and maturation. This can be seen clearly in the traditional patristic doctrine of deification. Consistent with this understanding of the spiritual life, Eastern thought has tended to think of purgation in terms of growth and maturation rather than in terms of punishment. (Visions of a Future: A Study of Christian Eschatology [1989], p. 112)

The substance of the Florentine dogma was later reiterated by the Council of Trent in response to Protestant denials. The Catholic dogma of Purgatory may be succinctly stated under two points:

(1) Those who die in a state of grace but imperfect holiness and freedom must undergo a process of final purification.

(2) Those who undergo final purification are aided by the prayers, suffrages, and ascetical and charitable works of the Church.

This second point is crucial. While great latitude exists for reflection, debate, and speculation on the question of Purgatory, all must be normed by the apostolic practice of prayer for the faithful departed. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared in its 1979 Letter on Certain Questions Concerning Eschatology: “The Church excludes every way of thinking or speaking that would render meaningless or unintelligible her prayers, her funeral rites and the religious acts offered for the dead. All these are, in their substance, loci theologici.”

During the past fifty years a significant clarification of the doctrine of Purgatory has occurred. Moving away from the juridical categories in which the doctrine has typically been expressed, Catholic theologians have sought to interpret the doctrine in personalist terms that more adequately express the encounter between sinners and the God who is a trinitarian community of love. If one looks closely, one can see signs of this reinterpretation in both the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the writings of Pope John Paul II—specifically coalescing around the notion of “temporal punishment for sin.” In the Catechism we read:

To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church [indulgences], it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the ‘eternal punishment’ of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the ‘temporal punishment’ of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.

The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the “old man” and to put on the “new man.” (CCC 1472-73)

Note here the insistence that the divine punishment of sin must not be considered as extrinsic or external to sin, as “a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without,” but as the intrinsic consequences of sin. The punishment of sin is sin itself, with all of its terrible repercussions for the individual and for the world. The free decision to sin leads to an increasing attachment to sin, which in turn makes repentance more difficult and painful, in a spiraling descent into darkness and bondage. One is reminded of St Paul’s presentation of the wrath of God in Romans 1:24-32: God manifests his wrath by delivering sinners over to the lusts of their hearts. Disobedience brings its own retribution. As the Scripture teaches: “a man is punished by the very things through which he sins” (Wisdom 11:16).

The clarification of temporal punishment becomes explicit in the teaching of John Paul II. In his catechetical lecture on indulgences, the Pope speaks of the negative effects which sin causes in the sinner—“what the theological tradition calls the ‘punishments’ and ‘remains’ of sin.” Absolution restores the relationship between God and man, but it does not immediately and perfectly repair the damage sin has done to the sinner himself:

At first sight, to speak of punishment after sacramental forgiveness might seem inconsistent. The Old Testament, however, shows us how normal it is to undergo reparative punishment after forgiveness. God, after describing himself as “a God merciful and gracious … forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin”, adds: “yet not without punishing” (Ex 34:6-7). In the Second Book of Samuel, King David’s humble confession after his grave sin obtains God’s forgiveness (cf. 2 Sm 12:13), but not the prevention of the foretold chastisement (cf. ibid., 12:11; 16:21). God’s fatherly love does not rule out punishment, even if the latter must always be understood as part of a merciful justice that re-establishes the violated order for the sake of man’s own good (cf. Heb 12:4-11).

In this context temporal punishment expresses the condition of suffering of those who, although reconciled with God, are still marked by those “remains” of sin which do not leave them totally open to grace. Precisely for the sake of complete healing, the sinner is called to undertake a journey of conversion towards the fullness of love.

In this process God’s mercy comes to his aid in special ways. The temporal punishment itself serves as “medicine” to the extent that the person allows it to challenge him to undertake his own profound conversion. This is the meaning of the “satisfaction” required in the sacrament of Penance.

Once it becomes clear that the temporal punishment of sin is not a punishment externally imposed by God but rather is identical to the deleterious effects of sin upon the sinner, then it becomes clear that indulgences, for example, can no longer be understood as a mechanical removal of sanction or the cancellation of debt. Indulgences are perhaps better understood as an ecclesial form of intercession within the communion of saints:

The Church has a treasury, then, which is “dispensed” as it were through indulgences. This “distribution” should not be understood as a sort of automatic transfer, as if we were speaking of “things.” It is instead the expression of the Church’s full confidence of being heard by the Father when—in view of Christ’s merits and, by his gift, those of Our Lady and the saints—she asks him to mitigate or cancel the painful aspect of punishment by fostering its medicinal aspect through other channels of grace. In the unfathomable mystery of divine wisdom, this gift of intercession can also benefit the faithful departed, who receive its fruits in a way appropriate to their condition.

To obtain an indulgence is to invoke, with the authority of the Church, the prayers and merits of the saints for the sanctification of oneself and others; it is to participate in the mystical co-inherence of the body of Christ. The mystery of indulgence is the mystery of communion with the saints and martyrs. Indulgences express the deep intuition of the Church that the prayers and works of others may assist us in our conversion to God and that our prayers and works may assist others in their conversion to God. In a transcendent web of exchange we share each other’s burdens and gifts. The vicarious involvement of the saints in the process of sanctification is beautifully stated in John Paul’s Jubilee Bull, Incarnationis Mysterium:

Revelation also teaches that the Christian is not alone on the path of conversion. In Christ and through Christ, his life is linked by a mysterious bond to the lives of all other Christians in the supernatural union of the Mystical Body. This establishes among the faithful a marvellous exchange of spiritual gifts, in virtue of which the holiness of one benefits others in a way far exceeding the harm which the sin of one has inflicted upon others. There are people who leave in their wake a surfeit of love, of suffering borne well, of purity and truth, which involves and sustains others. This is the reality of “vicariousness”, upon which the entire mystery of Christ is founded. His superabundant love saves us all. Yet it is part of the grandeur of Christ’s love not to leave us in the condition of passive recipients, but to draw us into his saving work and, in particular, into his Passion. This is said in the famous passage of the Letter to the Colossians: “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his Body, that is, the Church” (1:24).

The language of punishment, debt, and satisfaction awkwardly and imperfectly expresses the penitential life consummated in Purgatory. Within Western culture this language no doubt assisted the faithful in living out lives of holiness and repentance; but it also distorted the Church’s proclamation of the love and mercy of God—hence the necessity today to clarify the inherited terminology of Purgatory. Nor is it surprising that many Catholic theologians and teachers find that they may, and perhaps must, now speak of Purgatory without employing the juridical categories of the past. I reference, for example, Pope John Paul II’s catechesis on Purgatory. In his teaching the Pope avoids altogether the language of punishment and debt. He speaks rather of imperfect openness to God and the need for perfect integrity and purity of heart if we are to realize our communion with our Creator. “Every trace of attachment to evil must be eliminated, every imperfection of the soul corrected,” he states. “Purification must be complete, and indeed this is precisely what is meant by the Church’s teaching on purgatory. The term does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence. Those who, after death, exist in a state of purification, are already in the love of Christ who removes from them the remnants of imperfection.”

(To be continued)

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Purifying Purgatory

•26 January 2008 • Comments Off

by Fr Alvin Kimel

One of the great strengths of the Latin theological tradition has been the development and articulation of a Christian social and personal morality. Catholic theologians and philosophers have reflected deeply on divine law, justice, and the common good and have integrated this reflection into the spiritual life and practice of the Church. But this development has come at a price: God has been portrayed principally as Law-giver, soteriology interpreted through juridical categories, sin reduced to violation of commandment and preaching to moral exhortation. Consequently, Catholic spiritual life has often taken on an unhealthy legalistic cast.

Consider how the doctrine of Purgatory has been presented in the Catholic Church. If a person dies without having adequately satisfied the temporal punishment rightly due for his sins, he is consigned to purgatorial suffering. As we read in the Baltimore Catechism:

Q. 1381. What is Purgatory?

A. Purgatory is the state in which those suffer for a time who die guilty of venial sins, or without having satisfied for the punishment due to their sins.

Q. 1386. Since God loves the souls in Purgatory, why does He punish them?

A. Though God loves the souls in Purgatory, He punishes them because His holiness requires that nothing defiled may enter heaven and His justice requires that everyone be punished or rewarded according to what he deserves.

This penal understanding of a temporary post-mortem punishment has its roots in the Western patristic tradition and was elaborated with precision in the medieval period. It is grounded in the conviction that justice requires the perfect sanctification of sinners, achieved through penitence and suffering. St Bonaventure’s presentation may be considered representative. In his Breviloquium Bonaventure states that just as God, as supreme goodness, can suffer no good to remain unrewarded, so also he “cannot suffer any evil to remain unpunished.” Even the just, should they die before having completed their penance on earth, must endure a post-mortem penalty for their sins, “lest the beauty of universal order be disturbed.” However, while this sounds to modern ears as if God is punishing for punishment’s sake, this is not Bonaventure’s intent. The temporal punishment of sin is the sanctification and healing of the sinner. Sin distorts and corrupts the human being, attaching the will to lesser goods. While God forgives the offense of sin through the atoning sacrifice of Christ, in his justice he also requires the repentance, conversion, and healing of the sinner. The disorder of sin within the human heart must be rooted out, and because this sanctifying transformation involves suffering, it is metaphorically described as punishment:

Now, because actual sin offends God’s majesty, damages the Church, and distorts the divine image stamped on the soul—especially if the sin is mortal, although venial sin will tend to do the same; and because offense calls for punishment, damage for repair, and distortion for purification: therefore this penalty must be justly punitive, duly reparative, and properly cleansing.

Suffering is both the instrument and consequence of our sanctification. Just as the addict must experience, and indeed embrace, terrible pain in the process of withdrawing himself from his drugs, so the sinner suffers pain and distress as he detaches himself from bondage to worldly goods. When viewed from the perspective of God and his justice, how else can this suffering be understood except as “punishment.” But the punishment is not primarily or exclusively retributive: its purpose is the sanctification and perfection of the sinner. The punitive dimension of purgatorial suffering must be interpreted through its medicinal purpose. The person is truly being “punished” for his own good—to heal the disorder of his heart and liberate him completely from the power of sin. The language of “punishment” in this context should therefore be recognized as a form of figurative speech. The torment individuals suffer in Purgatory varies, Bonaventure explains, “according as they took with them from their earthly life more or less of what must be burned away. … The more deeply a man has loved the things of the world in the inner core of his heart, the harder it will be for him to be cleansed.” With Augustine and Caesarius of Arles, Bonaventure affirms that the sufferings of Purgatory exceed the sufferings of our present life, but “because those who are being cleansed possess grace which now they cannot lose, they neither can nor will be completely immersed in sorrow, or fall into despair, or be moved to blaspheme.” Two hundred years later St Catherine of Genoa would remind the Church that though the sufferings of the poor souls may be great, their joy and happiness is greater still: “No happiness can be found worthy to be compared with that of a soul in Purgatory except that of the saints in Paradise; and day by day this happiness grows as God flows into these souls, more and more as the hindrance to His entrance is consumed.”

Following long-standing Western opinion, Bonaventure believes that God has ordained a physical fire as the instrument of purification. “The fire of purgatory is a real fire,” he states, “which, however, affects the spirit of the just who, in their lifetime, did not sufficiently atone and make reparation for their sins.” The question of the nature of the purgatorial fire was raised at the Council of Florence, the Greeks insisting upon a symbolic understanding. The council wisely avoided settling this question.

The sufferings of Purgatory are punitive precisely as medicinal, sanctifying, and transformative. They effectively cleanse the soul and render it fit for glory. Punishment ends at the moment the soul is prepared for perfect union with the God who is love:

And because such spirits are fully prepared to receive God-conforming glory, the door being now open and the cleansing achieved, they must take flight, for there is within them a fire of love that lifts them up, and no impurity of the soul or any guilt to hold them down. Nor would it befit God’s mercy or His justice further to delay glory now that He finds the vessel to be suitable; great would be the pain if the reward were delayed, nor should a cleansed spirit be punished any longer.

Purgatory therefore must be seen as an expression of the divine goodness. God wills only the good of his creatures. In his infinite love, he purifies, sanctifies, and liberates sinners that they might perfectly enjoy eternal life in the beatific vision; in his infinite justice he refuses to allow evil to retain even the tiniest foothold within the souls destined for glory. As George MacDonald astutely observes, “There is no heaven with a little of hell in it.”

Yet given the legalistic idiom of the language of Purgatory (“temporal punishment,” “satisfaction,” “reparation,” “expiation,” “penance,” “debt”), combined with horrific medieval visions of the sufferings of the poor souls condemned to suffer the purgatorial flames, it is understandable why many Catholics have envisioned God as a stern and even cruel taskmaster. What is this Purgatory of popular imagination but a temporary torture-chamber? Hence the title of a popular 1936 tract: “How to Avoid Purgatory.” Not that the tract does not contain some helpful ascetical counsel, but the counsel is formulated so wrong-headedly as to render it pastorally dangerous. Should the spiritual life be focused on the avoidance of the future pain of final sanctification? I think not. Faith is the free interior movement of the soul toward the God who has captured us in grace and mercy; it is a movement of love toward Love, a movement lived in gratitude, contrition, praise, and joy. Perhaps the advice to embrace present suffering in order to avoid greater future suffering sounds commonsensical; but it violates the relationship of love God has established with us in Jesus Christ. Life in the Spirit is not driven by fear. As the Apostle John writes: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love” (1 John 4:18).

(To be continued)

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The Grand Question

•9 January 2008 • Comments Off

by Fr Alvin Kimel

The justification of sinners—this is “the grand question which hangeth yet in controversy between us and the Church of Rome.” Thus declared the great Anglican Divine, Richard Hooker. Hooker notes that Anglicans and Catholics agree on many points about justification. They agree that all human beings are sinners and need to be reconciled to God. They agree that sinners are justified by grace alone for the sake of Christ. They agree that that the righteousness and merits of Christ must be applied to the sinner if justification is to be made actual in his life. Wherein then lies the disagreement? According to Hooker, Anglicans and Catholics disagree on “the very essence of the medicine whereby Christ cureth our disease,” what is often described as the formal cause of our justification. Formal cause refers to what we might call the identity of a given object, the pattern which makes something what it is.

The Catholic Church, writes Hooker, teaches that sinners are justified by an inherent righteousness:

When they are required to show what the righteousness is whereby a Christian man is justified, they answer that it is a divine spiritual quality, which quality, received into the soul, doth first make it to be one of them who are born of God; and, secondly, endue it with power to bring forth such works as they do that are born of him; even as the soul of man, being joined unto his body, doth first make him to be in the number of reasonable creatures, and, secondly, enable him to perform the natural functions which are proper to his kind; that it maketh the soul gracious and amiable in the sight of God, in regard whereof it is termed grace; that by it, through the merit of Christ, we are delivered as from sin, so from eternal death and condemnation, the reward of sin. This grace they will have to be applied by infusion, to the end that, as the body is warm by the heat which is in the body, so the soul might be righteous by inherent grace; which grace they make capable of increase; as the body may be more and more warm, so the soul more and more justified, according as grace shall be augmented; the augmentation whereof is merited by good works, as good works are made meritorious by it. Wherefore the first receipt of grace is in their divinity the first justification; the second thereof, the second justification.

This is a fair statement, I think, of the Tridentine construal of justification. Contemporary Catholic theologians would probably wish to nuance, qualify, and expand the above in various ways. Most acknowledge the limitations of employing the categories of Aristotelian causality in describing the mystery of God’s justifying work in man. Instead of speaking of the infusion of a “divine spiritual quality,” some might wish instead to speak of the supernaturalization or deification of human nature. Catholic theologians would most definitely wish to complement the Tridentine insistence on sanctifying grace as the formal cause of justice with an even greater insistence on the indwelling Spirit. As Charles Cardinal Journet writes:

When you bring into a room a source of light, it illuminates the walls; so, when the divine Persons come to us (here we have the source, uncreated grace), they illuminate the walls of the soul (here we have the effect, created grace). And if you possess grace, then the source of grace, the three divine Persons, is there too. … The uncreated Spirit is given in created grace, as the sun is given in its rays. The uncreated Gift of the Spirit and the created gift of grace are simultaneous. (The Meaning of Grace [1962], p. 14)

Similarly, Piet Fransen:

Created grace is not something standing in between God and us; it is no path to approach God, no ladder to climb up to God, no means to God—at least not primarily…. Created grace does not act as a screen between God and us since it comes into being only because of and within the gesture by which God unites us immediately to himself. He gives Himself without an intervening medium; He comes to dwell in us and take us back to Himself…. Created grace is at once the fruit and the bond of the indwelling, originating in the indwelling and sustained by the indwelling; it raises us into an ever-deepening actualization of the indwelling on earth and in heaven. Latin expresses it more tersely: ex unione, in unione, et ad unionem—arising from our immediate union with God, granted in that union and urging us to that union. (The New Life of Grace [1969], pp 102-103)

Ultimately contemporary Catholic theologians would want to insist that the justification of sinners is nothing less than their regeneration into the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hence they find it necessary to qualify, as did John Henry Newman in the 19th century, the Tridentine assertion that the formal cause of our justification is the gift of inherent righteousness. As Karl Rahner explains, “It is true that the Council describes this interior grace in terms which in the theology of the schools hold good primarily of created grace, but it nowhere says that interior grace, as the unique formal cause of justification, must be understood exclusively of created grace” (Theological Investigations, I:341). Thus Robert Gleason, for example, speaks of the Holy Spirit as the “quasi-formal” cause of justification (Grace [1962], p. 146).

The Catholic need not deny forensic imputation, effectually enacted in baptism and absolution. Cardinal Newman boldly acknowledged the imputational force of the justifying Word: Christ declares to the sinner that he is now forgiven and restored to righteousness, and in that divine declaring the sinner is made righteous:

Justification is a word of state and solemnity. Divine Mercy might have renewed us and kept it secret; this would have been an infinite and most unmerited grace, but He has done more. He justifies us; He not only makes, He declares, acknowledges, accepts us as holy. He recognises us as His own, and publicly repeals the sentence of wrath and the penal statutes which lie against us…. Before man has done anything as specimen, or paid anything as instalment, except faith, nor even faith in the case of infants, he has the whole treasures of redemption put to his credit, as if he were and had done infinitely more than he ever can be or do. He is “declared” after the pattern of his Saviour, to be the adopted “Son of God with power, by a” spiritual “resurrection.” His tears are wiped away; his fears, misgivings, remorse, shame, are changed for “righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost;” he is clad in white, and has his crown given him. Thus justification is at first what renewal could but be at last; and, therefore, is by no means a mere result or consequence of renewal, but a real, though not a separate act of God’s mercy. It is a great and august deed in the sight of heaven and hell; it is not done in a corner, but by Him who would show the world “what should be done unto those whom the King delighteth to honour.” It is a pronouncing righteous while it proceeds to make righteous. As Almighty God in the beginning created the world solemnly and in form, speaking the word not to exclude, but to proclaim the deed,—as in the days of His flesh He made use of the creature and changed its properties not without a command; so does He new-create the soul by the breath of His mouth, by the sacrament of his Voice. The declaration of our righteousness, while it contains pardon for the past, promises holiness for the future. (Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification, pp. 73-74)

By the Word of God the sinner is forgiven his sin, made regenerate in the Spirit, adopted as a son in the Son, and brought into the ecstatic love of the Holy Trinity. He is made righteous in the core of his being and supernaturally oriented to God in faith, love, and hope. The Catholic Church thus refuses to divide justification and sanctification. We can distinguish the two intellectually, but in reality there is only the one grace that is the self-communication of God.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ,” the Apostle proclaims, “he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17).

Hooker, on the other hand, insists that the righteousness by which we are justified in the present is extrinsic to the sinner:

There is a glorifying righteousness of men in the world to come: and there is a justifying and a sanctifying righteousness here. The righteousness, wherewith we shall be clothed in the world to come, is both perfect and inherent. That whereby here we are justified is perfect, but not inherent. That whereby we are sanctified, inherent, but not perfect….

But the righteousness wherein we must be found, if we be justified, is not our own; therefore we cannot be justified by any inherent quality. Christ hath merited righteousness for as many as are found in him. In him God findeth us, if we be faithful; for by faith we are incorporated into him. Then, although in ourselves we be altogether sinful and unrighteous, yet even the man which in himself is impious, full of iniquity, full of sin; him being found in Christ through faith, and having his sin in hatred through repentance, him God beholdeth with a gracious eye, putteth away his sin by not imputing it, taketh quite away the punishment due thereunto, by pardoning it; and accepteth him in Jesus Christ, as perfect righteous, as if he had fulfilled all that is commanded him in the law: shall I say more perfectly righteous than if himself had fulfilled the whole law?

Justifying and sanctifying righteousness are thus different in kind, says Hooker. Justifying righteousness is the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. It is external to us and is received by faith. For the sake of Christ, God forgives and accepts us. Sanctifying righteousness is the transformation effected in us by the Spirit and consists of “faith, hope, charity, and other Christian virtues.”

The differences between the two communions on justification are clear. Anglicanism teaches the imputation of righteousness; Catholicism teaches the infusion of righteousness. Yet matters may not be quite as clear as they seem. The discussion comes to a head when we ask, “May one be justified apart from repentance and a transformed moral and spiritual life?” This is not an idle question. One need only read the writings of Zane Hodges and the other teachers of the Grace Evangelical Society. These theologians have followed out the doctrine of imputation to its logical conclusion, offering a clear yes to the question. Yet Hooker refuses to separate justifying and sanctifying righteousness. Saving faith is inseparable from the virtues of love and hope:

We ourselves do not teach Christ alone, excluding our own faith, unto justification, Christ alone, excluding our own works, unto sanctification, Christ alone, excluding the one or the other as unnecessary unto salvation. It is a childish cavil wherewith in the matter of justification our adversaries do so greatly please themselves, exclaiming that we tread all Christian virtues under our feet and require nothing in Christians but faith, because we teach that faith alone justifieth; whereas by this speech we never meant to exclude either hope and charity from being always joined as inseparable mates with faith in the man that is justified, or works from being added as necessary duties, required at the hands of every justified man, but to show that faith is the only hand which putteth on Christ unto justification, and Christ the only garment which, being so put on, covereth the shame of our defiled natures, hideth the imperfections of our works, preserveth us blameless in the sight of God, before whom otherwise the very weakness of our faith were cause sufficient to make us culpable, yea, to shut us out from the kingdom of heaven, where nothing that is not absolute can enter.

We are justified by faith, yet faith is never alone. At this point the gap between Anglicanism and the Catholic Church narrows considerably. What precisely is the difference between Hooker’s assertion that justifying faith is always joined to charity and hope and the Catholic assertion that justifying faith is intrinsically “formed by love” (fides caritate formata)? The gap narrows to a hair’s breadth when Hooker addresses the question “Which does the believer receive first, justifying or sanctifying righteousness?” Hooker’s answer is illuminating and needs to be read carefully:

We have already showed that there are two kinds of Christian righteousness: the one without us, which we have by imputation; the other in us, which consisteth of faith, hope, charity, and other Christian virtues; and St. James doth prove that Abraham had not only the one, because the thing he believed was imputed unto him for righteousness, but also the other, because he offered up his son. God giveth us both the one justice and the other: the one by accepting us for righteous in Christ; the other by working Christian righteousness in us. The proper and most immediate efficient cause in us of this latter is the spirit of adoption which we have received into our hearts. That whereof it consisteth, whereof it is really and formally made, are those infused virtues proper and particular unto saints, which the Spirit, in that very moment when first it is given of God, bringeth with it. …

If here it be demanded which of these we do first receive, I answer that the Spirit, the virtues of the Spirit, the habitual justice which is ingrafted, the external justice of Christ Jesus which is imputed, these we receive all at one and the same time. Whensoever we have any of these we have all; they go together. Yet since no man is justified except he believe, and no man believeth except he have faith, and no man hath faith unless he have received the Spirit of adoption, forasmuch as these do necessarily infer justification, but justification doth of necessity presuppose them; we must needs hold that imputed righteousness, in dignity being the chiefest, is notwithstanding in order the last of all these, but actual righteousness, which is the righteousness of good works, succeedeth all, followeth after all, both in order and in time. Which thing being attentively marked showeth plainly how the faith of true believers cannot be divorced from hope and love; how faith is a part of sanctification, and yet unto sanctification necessary; how faith is perfected by good works, and yet no works of ours good without faith; finally, how our fathers might hold, we are justified by faith alone, and yet hold truly that without good works we are not justified.

Believers cannot lay hold by faith of the righteousness of Christ unless they have already received the Spirit of adoption, who creates faith within us. Imputation, in other words, logically follows the gift of the Spirit. “What is this,” Newman asks about this passage, “divested of verbal differences, but to say expressly that the Holy Spirit is the formal cause of justification?” Quite so. The Catholic would simply add that where there is the indwelling Spirit, there is also the transformation of the human person, i.e., sanctifying grace. Are we not here confronted with a mystery that eludes our analytical categories?

In 1986 the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission released a common statement on justification: Salvation and the Church. The document witnesses to the conviction of the commission members that an authentic convergence of belief between Anglicans and Catholics is indeed possible on the question of justification. They key to this convergence is the mutual recognition of the effective and recreative power of the justifying word:

Justification and sanctification are two aspects of the same divine act (1 Cor 6:11). This does not mean that justification is a reward for faith or works: rather, when God promises the removal of our condemnation and gives us a new standing before him, this justification is indissolubly linked with his sanctifying recreation of us in grace. This transformation is being worked out in the course of our pilgrimage, despite the imperfections and ambiguities of our lives. God’s grace effects what he declares: his creative word imparts what it imputes. By pronouncing us righteous, God also makes us righteous. He imparts a righteousness which is his and becomes ours. (par 15)

We must think together, in other words, justification and sanctification, the forensic and the ontological, the external and the internal.

If the respective Anglican and Catholic positions are so close, why do so many Anglicans, especially those of evangelical commitment, continue to cite the doctrine of justification as an issue that divides the two communions? I am sure there are many answers, but I would like to highlight one issue. In his excellent book Justification by Faith in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue (2002), Tony Lane asks the question, What are the grounds on which we are reckoned righteous?

On what basis do we come to God to pray? On what ground do we suppose that he is gracious to us and willing to hear our prayer? Through Christ we have access to the Father by one Spirit (Eph 2:18). Indeed, but how does that work? Do we approach God on the basis that Christ has changed our lives sufficiently for us to be acceptable to him? Or is it on the basis that imperfect as we remain in ourselves, we are acceptable because Christ’s righteousness is reckoned to us? (p. 163)

The evangelical concern is faithful access to the holy God. Given that I am a sinner, how can God accept me? When the evangelical hears the Tridentine assertion that the formal cause of our justification is “the justice of God, not that whereby He Himself is just, but that whereby He maketh us just,” he hears the Catholic Church declaring that God only accepts us when we have become perfectly righteous. But I suggest that Trent’s assertion of the formal cause of justification was not designed to answer the question “What are the grounds on which we are reckoned righteous?” That question was answered by Trent’s assertion of the meritorious cause of justification: “The meritorious cause is His most beloved only-begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, for the exceeding charity wherewith he loved us, merited Justification for us by His most holy Passion on the wood of the cross, and made satisfaction for us unto God the Father.” Why does God forgive us? Why does he accept us? Why does he justify us? Not because of our works and merits or because we have fulfilled specific conditions of righteousness, but only because of the merits of Christ Jesus. We are justified by grace—sola gratia. According to Catholic understanding, God applies the justification of Christ to us in the sacrament of holy baptism, by which he communicates to us the righteousness of Christ and comes to dwell within us in the Holy Spirit, thereby incorporating us into the divine life of the Holy Trinity.

But I also wish to suggest that there is something odd about the questions posed by Lane, at least odd when posed within the gospel and the liturgical experience of the Church. The presumption of the liturgy is that the Church subsists in Christ: she is his body; and in and through him she participates in the communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. She does not ask herself if she has a right to address God in prayer, she does not ask if she is acceptable or whether she has fulfilled the conditions of justification, for to do so would be to to deny the identity she has received from God by mercy and grace. The Church simply knows that she lives within the Holy Trinity and thus may and must pray to her heavenly Father, not of course by natural right or in her own resources but only through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.

So what does it mean when individual members of Christ’s body raise the question, May I come to God in prayer?

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Augustine and the Varieties of Monergism

•8 January 2008 • Comments Off

by Phillip Cary, Ph.D.

Synergism is just a Greek way of saying “co-operation,” which in turn is just a Latin way of saying “working together.” Paul uses the corresponding Greek verb when he describes himself and his colleagues as “co-working” (2 Cor. 6:1) with God as ambassadors for Christ, through whom God urges people to be reconciled to himself (ibid., 5:20). Monergism, a much more recent term, means to work alone, having no co-worker. So monergists are those who think that in some respect God works alone.

The crucial question is: in what respect? The standard Protestant view is monergism with respect to justification: God alone renders us just or righteous in his sight, without our co-operation. But most Protestants would add that sanctification is a co-operative enterprise in which our will and work have a necessary role to play, working together with the grace of God. So most Protestants are monergists about justification but synergists about sanctification. And since justification by faith alone is all that is necessary for salvation, most Protestants are also monergists about salvation.

Of course in order to be thoroughly monergist about justification one must also be monergist about the faith by which we are justified, understanding it to be a divine gift resulting from grace alone and not from human work. Luther, in effect, insisted on this type of monergism when he excoriated the medieval nominalist notion of “congruent merit,” according to which sinners work to acquire the gift of “first grace” (meaning roughly, the gift of conversion and true faith) by praying as well as they can, trying their best to “do what is in them” (facere quod in se est) even without grace. The term “synergism” seems to have come into use for the position rejected by the Lutheran orthodox theologians when they reaffirmed Luther’s doctrine in the Book of Concord in 1580 (see especially article 2). Later, Calvinists used it to describe the Arminian position that our free will has an independent role to play in accepting the gift of grace. Synergism, for both Lutherans and Calvinists, means the teaching that grace does not simply cause us to have faith, but rather makes an offer of salvation which it is up to us to accept or reject. Both Lutherans and Calvinists reject this synergism, and thus can aptly be labeled monergists with respect to the gift of faith.

The question of whether Augustine is a monergist or a synergist is more complicated. For one thing, even at his most monergistic, Augustine does not deny that we are active in our own salvation. Augustine is a monergist with respect to the origin of faith, for instance, in that he sees it as resulting from prevenient or “operating grace” rather than “co-operating grace” (his terms). But for Augustine this does not take away the role of human free will, for what prevenient grace does is precisely to move our wills so that they freely will the good. Hence for Augustine grace never undermines or replaces free will. In that sense he is never a radical monergist, as if the human will had no active role to play. On the other hand, he is indeed a monergist in a less radical sense, because for him the gift of faith is wholly the work of God, since even our freely willing to accept God’s gift is a work of grace alone.

So in that sense, Augustine is clearly a monergist with respect to the gift of faith, unlike the Arminians. Ultimately it is up to God, not us, whether we freely choose to accept what God has to give us. However—and here is the real complication—this does not make Augustine a monergist with respect to salvation. The reason why is that Augustine does not have a Calvinist concept of saving faith. For he does not share Calvin’s distinctive new doctrine about the perseverance of the saints, according to which everyone with true (i.e., saving) faith is sure to persevere to the end and be eternally saved. For Augustine, you can have a perfectly genuine faith but not persevere in faith to the end of your life. There is no guarantee that believers will not lose their faith and thus ultimately be damned. Hence no matter how true your faith presently is, that does not mean you are sure to be saved in the end. Consequently, Augustine’s monergism about faith does not make him a monergist about salvation.

About salvation Augustine is a synergist, explicitly drawing a contrast between “operating grace” (i.e., the grace that works in us), which is monergistic in its granting the gift of faith, and co-operating grace (i.e., the grace that works with us), with which we are co-workers in the journey of faith, hope and love by which we come to eternal life in the end. In Calvinist terms, Augustine is a synergist about sanctification like most Protestants, but because he thinks sanctification is necessary for salvation unlike most Protestants, he ends up being also a synergist about salvation—despite being a monergist about faith.

A good illustration of Augustine’s distinction between operative and co-operative grace is the late treatise On Grace and Free Will, 33. Addressing the issue of how a person comes to love God (in Calvinist terms, the issue of sanctification rather than justification) he asks, “Who was it that had begun to give him his love, however small, but He who prepares the will and perfects by his co-operation [synergism!] what He initiates by his operation [monergism]? For in beginning [i.e. in the initial choice to have faith, from which charity springs] He works in us that we may have the will, and in perfecting works with us when we have the will.” In Augustinian terms: prior to any co-operation of our will, operative grace produces faith (i.e., a good will) in us, then from faith springs charity, which works together with the (co-operating) grace of God in the journey to eternal life. In Calvinist terms, again, this amounts to monergism about faith, but synergism about salvation.

However, as I mentioned above, there is a radical sense of the term monergism in which Augustine is not a monergist at all. This is the sense in which “grace alone” excludes any exercise of human free will, even one which is wholly a gift of prevenient grace. One reason often given for this radical monergism is a yet more fundamental monergism—call it “absolute monergism”—in which the answer to the question “monergism with respect to what?” is: “absolutely everything.” This amounts to a denial of the existence of what the Christian tradition calls second causes. It means that only God, the First Cause, has real power, and that neither human free will nor anything else in creatures is a real cause of anything that happens.

This absolute monergism could thus also be called “mono-causalism.” It is contrary not only to Augustine and the whole Catholic tradition, but also to the Westminster Confession, which teaches that the eternal decree of God by which he does “ordain whatsoever comes to pass” works in such a way that “neither is God the author of sin … nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (3.1; cf. also 5.2). The point of this teaching, which is couched in the language of Thomas Aquinas and agrees with his doctrine, is that God’s working in all things does not mean that creatures have no power to work, but rather that the creatures’ power, will and work derive from the work of God, and precisely for that reason are real, just like all God’s works. God’s primary causality therefore does not undermine or replace the secondary causality of creatures, including their free will. God has ambassadors, apostles and other servants with a will of their own and work to do, even while he is always indispensably at work in them. The two forms of causality are not incompatible or in competition with one another.

Mainstream Calvinism is thus at one with Catholicism in rejecting absolute monergism. The place to locate the difference between Catholicism and Calvinism concerning monergism is rather in the fact that the whole Roman Catholic tradition since Augustine is synergist about salvation. For Catholicism our works of love (made possible by operative grace in the beginning and aided by co-operative grace throughout) are necessary for salvation. That’s precisely the purport of Trent’s denial of the sola fide: faith alone is not enough for salvation without works of love (Decree on Justification, articles 10-11).

However, there is a division within Catholicism on the point about monergism with respect to faith. Whereas one important strand of Catholic theology, including Aquinas and the Dominican tradition, promotes an Augustinian monergism about faith, another strand, most powerfully represented by the 16th-century Jesuit Luis de Molina, defends a form of synergism about faith. Molinism is thus something like the Catholic form of Arminianism. In the De Auxiliis controversy around 1600, the Pope adjudicated between these two positions, decreeing that both were legitimate and neither side could accuse the other of heresy. This was of course not a relativist move: the two positions are probably irreconcilable, and if so then at least one of them is in error in some way. But the pope’s decree meant that such error is not heresy and does no harm to the faith, so the debate may continue but must do so in mutually respectful terms.

There is of course no one on earth to adjudicate between Catholics and Protestants. But perhaps it will help to be aware, at least, of the difference between absolute monergism and the more modest monergism about faith, justification and salvation which is the legacy of Luther and Calvin.

(Originally published 31 October 2006)

Dr Phillip Cary is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University.

 
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