[This portion of the blog post The Witness of the Church Fathers With Regard to Catholic Distinctives is re-posted with permission of Dave Armstrong. This material is also found in his book: The Church Fathers Were Catholic: Patristic Evidences for Catholicism]
VII. History of the Doctrine of Purgatory
In the Catacombs, Christian burial caves which extend for hundreds of miles underneath Rome, and date from the beginning of Christianity, there are numerous examples of inscriptions representing prayers for the dead (which only make sense given some conception of purgatory, however vague), for blessings, peace, and refreshment upon these souls. Among these inscriptions are the following sayings: “Refresh, O God, the soul of . . .,” “Peace to thy soul,” “Thy spirit in peace,” “May you live in the Holy Spirit.” (137)
With regard to ancient Christian liturgies, James Cardinal Gibbons summarizes the evidence:
A Liturgy is the established formulary of public worship, containing the authorized prayers of the Church . . . The principal Liturgies are the Liturgy of St. James the Apostle, who founded the Church of Jerusalem; the Liturgy of St. Mark the Evangelist, founder of the Church of Alexandria, and the Liturgy of St. Peter, who established the Church in Rome. These Liturgies are called after the Apostles who compiled them. There are, besides, the Liturgies of St. Chrysostom and St. Basil, which are chiefly based on the model of that of St. James . . . all these Liturgies, without exception, have prayers for the dead. (138)
In the late 2nd century, in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla (28 ff.), Thecla prays: “Thou God of the Heavens, Son of the All-Highest grant to her (to the Mother Tryphaena), according to her wish, that her daughter Falconilla may live in eternity.” (139) In the same period, the epitaph of Abercius, bishop of Hierapolis in central Turkey, reads: “. . . May everyone who is in accord with this and who understands it pray for Abercius . . .” (140)
In the third century, Tertullian, writing around 210, asserts that:
There are already punishments and rewards there [in Hades]; and there you have a poor man and a rich one [Luke 16:22 ff.] . . . In short, if we understand that prison of which the Gospel speaks to be Hades, and if we interpret the last farthing [Matthew 5:25-6] to be the light offense which is to be expiated there before the resurrection, no one will doubt that the soul undergoes some punishments in Hades, without prejudice to the fullness of the resurrection, after which recompense will be made through the flesh also. (141)
Tertullian also speaks of offering “sacrifices for the dead on their birthday anniversaries,” (142) and of a widow praying for here deceased husband and offering this yearly sacrifice. (143) Shortly after this, Origen taught that those dead who hadn’t performed penance commensurate with their sins, would be purified by a “purgatorial fire” after death. (144) Origen had developed this view following St. Clement of Alexandria’s teaching. (145) St. Cyprian, in the middle of the century, spoke of being “tormented in long pains and . . . cleansed and purified from one’s sins by continuous fire,” (146) and condoned “oblations” and “sacrifices” for the dead. (147)
The Protestant church historian Philip Schaff, who can definitely be considered a “hostile witness” as pertains this topic, summarized the belief of the Christian Church in its first three centuries:
These views of the middle state in connection with prayers for the dead show a strong tendency to the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory . . . there are traces of the purgatorial idea of suffering the temporal consequences of sin, and a painful struggle after holiness . . . The common people and most of the fathers understood it of a material fire; but this is not a matter of faith . . . A material fire would be very harmless without a material body. (148)
In the fourth century, Lactantius asserted around 307 that: “When God will judge the just, it is likewise in fire that he will try them.” (149) The first Christian historian, Eusebius, recounts that at the death of the emperor Constantine (337), a vast crowd, led by priests, offered prayers for his soul with great lamentation. (150) St. Ephraim believed that “the dead are benefited by the prayers of living Saints.” (151) St. Cyril of Jerusalem chronicles how the Christians “offer prayers to Him for those who have fallen asleep, though they be sinners.” (152) St. Gregory of Nyssa is of the opinion that : “After his departure out of the body, he . . . finds that he is not able to partake of divinity until he has been purged of the filthy contagion in his soul by the purifying fire.” (153) St. Epiphanius held that, concerning the dead, “useful too is the prayer fashioned on their behalf, . . . begging God’s mercy for them . . .” (154) St. Ambrose prayed for emperors who had died in the following fashion:
[On the death of Emperors Gratian and Valentinian] Blessed shall both of you be, if my prayers can avail anything . . . No night shall hurry by without bestowing on you a mention in my prayers . . . [On the death of Emperor Theodosius] Give perfect rest to Thy servant Theodosius, that rest which Thou hast prepared for Thy Saints. May his soul return thither whence it descended . . . Nor will I leave him until, by tears and prayers, I shall lead him . . . unto the holy mountain of the Lord . . . (155)
In the early fifth century, St. John Chrysostom, citing Job 1:5 as an example, enjoins Christians to “assist” the dead who had neglected their souls, “by praying for them and by entreating others to pray for them, by constantly giving alms to the poor on their behalf.” (156) St. Augustine, the greatest of the Fathers, expressed a number of clear statements on these beliefs:
By the prayers of the Holy Church, and by the salvific sacrifice, and by the alms which are given for their spirits, there is no doubt that the dead are aided . . . For the whole Church observes this practice which was handed down by the Fathers . . . If, then, works of mercy are celebrated for the sake of those who are being remembered, who would hesitate to recommend them, on whose behalf prayers to God are not offered in vain? It is not at all to be doubted that such prayers are of profit to the dead; but for such of them as lived before their death in a way that makes it possible for these things to be useful to them after death. (157)The man who perhaps has not cultivated the land and has allowed it to be overrun with brambles has in this life the curse of his land on all his works, and after this life he will have either purgatorial fire or eternal punishment. (158)
Temporal punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by some after death, by some both here and hereafter; but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But not all who suffer temporal punishments after death will come to eternal punishments, which are to follow after that judgment. (159)
The prayer . . . is heard on behalf of certain of the dead; but it is heard for those who, having been regenerated in Christ, did not for the rest of their life in the body do such wickedness that they might be judged unworthy of such mercy, nor who yet lived so well that it might be supposed they have no need of such mercy. (160)
That there should be some such fire even after this life is not incredible, and it can be inquired into and either be discovered or left hidden whether some of the faithful may be saved, some more slowly and some more quickly in the greater or lesser degree in which they loved the good things that perish, – through a certain purgatorial fire. (161)
Thus undeniably taught the early Church, and the Catholic Church through the centuries has only developed (not invented) the belief which was present in its essentials from the beginning, indeed, that which it authoritatively received right from the mouths of Christ and the Apostle Paul, as has been illustrated above.
Protestantism rejected the beliefs in purgatory and prayers for the dead, with the exception of Anglicans, many of whom have retained some form of these tenets, especially since the 19th century. (162)
C. S. Lewis was one of these traditional Anglicans. In a late work, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, (163) he stated that he prayed for the dead, among whom were many of his loved ones (he was in his sixties at the time), and that he believed in purgatory, comparing it to an intense rinsing of the mouth at the dentist’s office. He thought no one would want to enter heaven unclean, as this would be downright embarrassing.
John Calvin, on the other hand, expresses, with characteristic vehemence, the much more prevalent Protestant antipathy to this ancient belief of the Church:
Purgatory is constructed out of many blasphemies . . . it was devised apart from God’s Word in curious and bold rashness (164) . . . some passages of Scripture were ignorantly distorted to confirm it . . .When expiation of sins is sought elsewhere than in the blood of Christ, when satisfaction is transferred elsewhere, (165) silence is very dangerous . . . Purgatory is a deadly fiction of Satan, which nullifies the cross of Christ, inflicts unbearable contempt upon God’s mercy, and overturns and destroys our faith (166) . . . When the notion of satisfaction is destroyed, purgatory itself is straightway torn up by the very roots. But if it is perfectly clear . . . that the blood of Christ is the sole satisfaction for the sins of believers, the sole expiation, the sole purgation, what remains but to say that purgatory is simply a dreadful blasphemy against Christ? (167) . . . . .
Surely, any man endowed with a modicum of wisdom easily recognizes that whatever he reads among the ancient writers concerning this matter was allowed because of public custom and common ignorance. I admit that the fathers themselves were also carried off into error. For heedless credulity commonly deprives men’s minds of judgment (168) . . .
Though I concede to the ancient writers of the church that it seemed a pious act to help the dead, we ought ever to keep the rule that cannot deceive: that it is not lawful to interject anything of our own in our prayers. But our requests ought to be subjected to the Word of God (169) . . .
The ancients rarely and only perfunctorily commended their dead to God in the communion of the Sacred Supper. (170)
Eastern Orthodoxy (broadly speaking) concurs with Catholic Tradition on this matter, but it refrains from defining the exact nature of the intermediate state, preferring a more mystical view. A majority faction holds that these departed do not suffer, while others believe that they do in some undetermined sense. A third group takes an agnostic position on suffering, while still accepting the intermediate state. (171)
137. Examples found in Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, vol. 2, “Ante-Nicene Christianity: A.D. 100-325,” 5th ed., NY: 1889; rep. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976, chapter 7, section 86, 303-304. See also The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Anglican), Cross, F.L., and E.A. Livingstone, eds., Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 1983, 381.
138. Gibbons, James Cardinal, The Faith of Our Fathers, NY: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, rev. ed., 1917, 179. See also Cross, ibid., 381; Schaff, ibid., ch. 12, sec. 156, 604.
139. In Ott, Ludwig, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, tr. Patrick Lynch, Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, 1974 (orig. 1952 in German), 321.
140. In Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 78.
141. The Soul, 58:1,8. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 144-145.
142. The Crown, 3:3. The “birthday anniversary” is a commemoration of the date of their death, their birthday into eternal life. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 151.
143. Monogamy, 10:1,4.
144. Numbers, Hom. 15 (Migne, Greek Fathers, vol. 12, 169 ff.).
145. Stromateis, 7,6.
146. Epistle 55,20. From Ott, ibid., 484.
147. Epistle 46. In Conway, Bertrand L., The Question Box, NY: Paulist Press, 1929, 395.
148. Schaff, ibid., ch. 12, sec. 156, 604-606.
149. The Divine Institutions, 7,21,6. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 269.
150. Life of Constantine, 4,71. Schaff, ibid., 603.
151. In Gibbons, ibid., 177.
152. Catechetical Lectures, 23:5,9-10. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 363.
153. Sermon on the Dead. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 2, 58.
154. Panacea Against All Heresies, 75, 8. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 2, 75-76.
155. Obituary for Theodosius, 36-7 (2nd Excerpt). In Gibbons, ibid., 177.
156. Homilies on Philippians, 3,4; also Hom. in 1 Cor, 41, 5. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 2, 121-122.
157. Sermons: 172, 2. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 29-30.
158. Genesis Defended Against the Manicheans, 2, 20, 30. Jurgens, FEF, vol.3, 38.
159. City of God, 21, 13. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 105.
160. Ibid., 21, 24, 2. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 106.
161. Enchiridion of Faith, Hope & Love, 18,69, Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 149. See also (in the same work): 29,109-110; The Care That Should be Taken of the Dead, 1,3.
162. See Cross, ibid., 381, 1145.
163. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964, 107-109.
164. Twenty-five broad biblical arguments are presented in this chapter, most quite multi-faceted and copiously cross-referenced. Calvin deals with five in his diatribe against purgatory.
165. This is a false dichotomy, which is explicitly and adequately repudiated in Catholic theology and apologetics.
166. One wonders where Calvin’s “faith” was for the 1500 years before the advent of Protestantism. The historical task of finding such a “faith” is absolutely impossible, since such a (Protestant) “Church” simply didn’t exist during the whole of this period, as most Protestan historians will readily admit.
167. It indeed would be blasphemous if it required or entailed the false dichotomy that Calvin attributes to it, i.e., isolating our meritorious acts from God’s grace which always and necessarily precedes and engulfs them.
168. Calvin’s severe, judgmental verdict on the intellectual and theological capabilities of all the Church Fathers just examined in our survey, can only be characterized (by any reasonably objective criteria) as exceedingly arrogant. One can see how the usual tone of 16th century polemics was not conducive to theological or ecclesiastical reconciliation (Catholics, too, fell prey to such inflammatory rhetoric – it being a general tendency). Here, however, Calvin’s factual errors are inexcusable for a man of his learning and erudition, and amount to slander and misrepresentation of the Catholic position.
169. In other words, Calvin’s interpretation of it, over against the universal Christian Tradition up to his own time.
170. Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559 ed.), tr. Ford L. Battles (ed. John T. McNeill), two volumes, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960, Book 3, chapter 5, sections 6, 10, vol. 1, 676, 682-683.
171. Ware, Timothy (Archbishop Kallistos), The Orthodox Church, NY: Penguin Books, rev. ed., 1980, 259.