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Learn how commonly held beliefs, which seem to have no basis in the Bible, have become doctrines of the Church. Read about how the doctrine of purgatory developed and apply the principles of its development and the conditions of its history to other doctrines whose relationship to Scripture is not clear at first glance.


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From Scripture to Doctrine

by Daniel Kendall, S.J.

People interested in their faith sometimes wonder how commonly held beliefs, which seemingly have no basis in the Bible, have become doctrines of the Church. They ask: "Does the New Testament talk about Mary's Immaculate Conception or her Assumption into heaven" "Aren't the origins of some sacraments like the anointing of the sick rather difficult to find in Scripture" These are just a sample of common questions people of good will ask about their beliefs.

No single answer exists to questions like these. In the teachings about Mary believers drew conclusions to the qualities she must have possessed to have given birth to Jesus, the Son of God, and to have shared by the cross in his glorious death and resurrection. The number and nature of sacraments were not definitively settled for Catholics until the Council of Trent (1545-1564) confirmed widely held beliefs and practices as being sacraments. In the case of the anointing of the sick, biblical scholars expound the foundations in the mission of the Twelve who cured the sick (Mark 6:13) and the elders praying over the sick and anointing them with oil (James 5:14), and find in these passages a starting point for the development of the sacrament.

Revelation Is a Living Reality

For the purposes of this issue of Scripture From Scratch, let us briefly trace one Church teaching, purgatory, to see how it developed. As we look at how this teaching ultimately is traced to Scripture, we can appreciate the principles of its development under the conditions of history so that we can apply them to other doctrines whose relationship to Scripture is not clear at first glance.

Our explanation rests on two suppositions. First, with the close of the apostolic age, the period of "foundational revelation" (the activity of the original witnesses) was finished. Second, God's revelation is not a once-and-for-all event. It continues to be a living reality that elicits our faith in Christ and shows ways in which we should express that faith.

What is our experience of the doctrine of purgatory? The official prayers at a Catholic funeral are offered for the deceased person. The implication is that these prayers can somehow help this person who might not yet have achieved full union with God. This practice reflects a question debated over many centuries: What is the fate of those persons who die in God's friendship but without reaching real sanctity? What happens to persons who die without fully expiating the evil they have done?

After centuries of speculation, the Church in the person of Pope Innocent IV officially formulated the doctrine of purgatory (1254) in a letter to his legate sent to make contact with some Greek Christians. The process leading up to the formulation, however, had begun in the earliest centuries of Christianity. Early Church theologians had written about three main issues: the practice of Christians praying for the dead, explanations of the state of those awaiting the resurrection and the necessity of divine justice. They needed to bring these three questions under a single heading. They also wanted some scriptural backing for positing a temporary state for deceased humans that was neither heaven nor hell. They did this by turning particularly to 2 Maccabees 12 and 1 Corinthians 3. Pope Innocent took all this into account in the letter sent to his legate.

Scriptural Foundation

According to the pope's formulation, Matthew 12:32 ("And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come") shows that some faults are expiated in the present, some in the future age.

An allegorical interpretation of 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 substantiates the view that souls undergo purification after death. This particular Scripture message reads: "According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire (itself) will test the quality of each one's work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone's work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire."

By turning a metaphor of St. Paul into an allegory (where gold, silver and precious stones become virtues, while wood, hay, straw represent vices or light sins, and fire is viewed as an instrument of punishment) and combining it with Matthew 12:32, the pope and others before him had a scriptural basis for purgatory as a temporary place for purification after death. He drew the logical conclusions: (1) people who are in the process of being purified can be helped by the prayers of the Church; (2) the "place of purification" is called "purgatory" where the imperfections are removed by transitory fire; (3) the souls of baptized infants and those of adults who die without need for penance go straight to heaven.

Elements in this teaching which he and others had added to the passage of 1 Corinthians to explain purgatory were: (1) the use of the word soul with the technical meaning as that part of the human that survives after death; (2) the introduction of the concept of sin and the further distinction between light and serious sins; (3) the existence of a post-mortem purification in some "place"; (4) the means of purification after death being a transitory fire; (5) the possibility of helping people in purgatory by the prayers of the Church (vicarious good).

A New Doctrine

What situation prompted questions about what happens to those who die? Some factors are obvious: the influence of Greek philosophy in explaining Church teaching, the experience that human malice is not always equally as great (thus the distinction between light and grave sins to explain what purification could take place between death and the long-delayed final judgment), the loving relationship between those still living with the dead, and a means of punishment for those who had not fully atoned for their sins when they died.

To explain these problems—and this list is certainly not exhaustive—at least two separate Scripture texts complementing one another were brought together, compared and interpreted, a radical new interpretation of fire was given, and a non-biblical meaning of soul was employed (and this in turn helped explain a type or possibility of existence between death and resurrection). A new "doctrine" had come into existence.

How It Developed

Since purgatory is not the most pressing issue in contemporary theological thinking, it does allow us to examine calmly how the Church historically faced changing socio-cultural situations with new problems and new insights, dealt with people's practices, hopes and aspirations, and handled the long-delayed end of the world in the light of Christ's resurrection—and did all this on the basis of tradition and current insights.

The doctrine of purgatory did not exist at the beginning of the proclamation of the Gospel. It developed over centuries. Let's look at some of the elements involved in this development:

Historical Situations. The delay of the end of the world brought about questions of what happened to those who died before God's final judgment; people's concerns shifted from universal judgment to the fate of the individual.

Scriptural Reflection. The realization developed that Scripture alone does not always directly answer all questions; texts were considered as complementing one another especially when applied to a situation that is not found in Scripture; a historical approach to the texts was not always considered necessary (indeed, the pope used an allegorical approach).

Philosophical Questions. The dichotomy of body and soul raised by Greek philosophy (the philosophy around for over a millennium of the Church's existence) needed to be addressed.

The result of this process was a new doctrine. A comparison can be made to charting the solar system. Astronomy and mathematics can show that a planet not yet visible probably exists. It must necessarily have a place in the logical sequence. So too a doctrine like purgatory (and other doctrines as well) is drawn from other beliefs and principles already accepted by the Church. A rereading of the Bible in a new light gives a scriptural foundation to this new doctrine.

A misuse of this teaching occurred in 1518 when Pope Leo X sent a papal edict to his legate, Cajetan de Vio, in which he asserted the pope's right as successor of St. Peter and the Vicar of Christ to grant indulgences to the living as well as to the dead. Unfortunately, indulgences were granted if people gave certain sums of money for the building of St. Peter's Basilica. This abuse helped bring on the Reformation. Protestant theology quoted St. Paul's stance on faith and works of the Law to repudiate this position, and, frequently enough, the doctrine of purgatory. The situation developed where some Scripture passages were being quoted against other Scripture passages to prove a point. The practical result today is that in some Protestant funeral services the prayers are recited for the bystanders rather than for the deceased.

Praying for the Dead Is a Human Response

Yet praying for the dead is a very human response for all of us. In his Confessions St. Augustine gave a moving account of the death of his mother, Monica. He related how Monica was not so much concerned about where she died, as she was about her family remembering her at the Lord's altar after her death. Augustine mentioned that he did not want to celebrate her funeral with tears and moaning because she did not die unhappy, nor did she altogether die. Yet he had deep inward grief. He prayed to God to forgive whatever sins she had committed, and requested that the readers of his Confessions do likewise.

The process of the development of the doctrine of purgatory can be applied to other doctrines as well. Elements to consider in the development of any doctrine include the historical aspects that went into the formulation of a doctrine in a particular way, the context of the teaching, the sociology and culture contemporary to the time period, philosophical and other presuppositions, and how Scripture was being interpreted.

Many doctrines cannot be directly traced to Scripture because the questions were not asked of the biblical writers. Throughout the centuries General Councils of the Church were called to clarify Scripture and its relationship to current practices.

New doctrines were never meant to replace the gospel, but to keep it alive and bring it to bear on the problems of the present age. They arise out of current insights and tradition, and are based on Scripture being read in a new light. Augustine and Monica show how old prayers for the dead are, and show in a beautiful way how the doctrine of purgatory developed.

Father Daniel Kendall, S.J., teaches Theology and Scripture at the University of San Francisco. He has a licentiate in Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. He has published several articles and books on theology and Scripture.

Living the Scriptures

We are exhorted to pray for the dead. Make a list of those you have known and loved who have died and pray for each one. As Catholics we believe in the communion of saints and that there is a link between us all, both living and dead. Perhaps create a little altar of photographs or plant a flower garden to honor those who have gone before you. Remember, you will one day be reunited with all of them in heaven.

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