Ask an Anglican: Purgatory and Grace

In response to my earlier post on the 39 Articles, Ann writes:

You already addressed [Article] 17 and predestination (something which had been bothering me for years, and because of which I had not really entertained the notion of joining the church,) but what about 22? I’m pretty sure C.S. Lewis believed in a sort of purgatory (and iirc Anglicans rather like him,) and I’m rather fond of Saints myself.

The article in question, Article XXII, states the following:

XXII. Of Purgatory.
The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

The Council of Trent taught that Purgatory is a state after death in which those who have died without mortal sin are able to have their sins purged from them, so that they may enter the Kingdom of God clean and whole. The operative mechanism for performing this purging is the grace of God which is imparted not just by God Himself but also by the “suffrages of the faithful” and “the acceptable sacrifice of the altar.” In other words, though grace originates in God, the faithful are able to somehow collect it and make use of it. A person can have an overabundance of grace, more than one needs, and that extra grace can be applied to others who need it.

Grace as a Substance

It is hard to describe the Roman view of grace without beginning to speak of it as if it were a substance, something which the Roman Church explicitly rejects. According to the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, “grace is a participation in the life of God” (paragraph 1997). This accords with the Protestant understanding of grace as an imputation of Christ’s righteousness upon us. Yet Canon XI of the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent says “If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema.” Furthermore, Trent insists that the grace received through Christ in faith is only a starting point in the sinner’s walk towards salvation, insufficient without the cooperation of the individual by means of good works.

The capstone, however, on this seemingly substantive view of grace is the Roman Church’s doctrine regarding indulgences. The Roman Catechism teaches that indulgences are “obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins” (Paragraph 1478). Relying on the power of binding and loosing given to the Church by Christ in Matthew 16, Rome teaches that she can ease the punishments due to individuals in Purgatory by transferring excess grace from the Church to individuals. In other words, the grace which a person receives directly from Christ for justification is not enough to save a person from punishment for his sins. Additional punishment or purging is required, which can only be reduced by the application of extra grace, given at the Church’s discretion, having only a tangential relationship to the Cross.

Grace as Adoption

In contrast with this, Classical Anglicanism joins other Reformational Churches in teaching that grace—a word which simply means “gift”—is God’s granting of the status of Christ to us, not because of our efforts but because of Christ’s intercession. Grace is a sharing in the life of Christ, made available to us through faith, manifest in the faithful reception of the Sacraments. Classical Anglicanism teaches that we are justified by faith alone, grafted into the Body of Christ by Holy Baptism, and thereby adopted by God the Father as sons and daughters.

Purgatory, in this understanding, becomes unnecessary. The Anglican Reformers and Divines did not spend a whole lot of time writing about purgatory, other than to simply say that there is no need for anyone to believe in it. Following the classical Anglican method, the Divines argue that there is no evidence of purgatory to be found in Holy Scripture or in the early Church Fathers. And since the Roman doctrine concerning purgatory requires one to believe that the grace received through faith in the Blood of Christ is insufficient to rescue sinners from God’s punishment, Anglicanism flatly rejects it, along with “pardons” or indulgences.

Invocation of the Saints

This difference over grace illuminates why Article XXII rejects other practices, such as the worship of relics and invocation of saints. Remember, the Articles are surgical and precise, differentiating Anglicanism from other churches, not making comprehensive statements. Article XXII is not meant to be the Church of England’s definitive statement on saints but merely to distance Anglicanism from the Roman Church’s teaching on purgatory and other doctrines which flow from that. Thus, we see in the seventeenth century Divines a plethora of different ideas about what is or isn’t appropriate practice in regards to the saints. For instance, Joseph Hall is able to dismiss the whole idea of prayer with or to the saints as “absurd,” while Richard Montague and Herbert Thorndike see nothing wrong with the Church calling upon the saints in the liturgy or even asking for the saints to pray for us, so long as no one is forced to do so. Even amongst those who are most critical of invocation of saints, there is an acknowledgement that the saints are present with us in worship and even a respect for the non-biblical yet widely held idea of patron saints for various peoples and places (Saint George being the patron saint of England, for example). Anglicanism’s great concern over the invocation of the saints is not the idea that we can ask the saints to join us in our prayers, but that we somehow need the saints to intercede for us or else we will have an insufficient amount of grace for our salvation. It is this error in regards to grace that leads to the folk practice of worshiping saints as some kind of demi-gods. The issue is not the saints themselves. The issue is grace.

C. S. Lewis and Purgatory

So then, what of C. S. Lewis and the belief he seemed to hold in purgatory? In his posthumously published Letters to Malcolm, Lewis says that he believes in a kind of purgatory, though he also says that the Reformers had good reason to discount the doctrine as Rome taught it. In regards to prayer for the dead, Lewis says:

Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age, the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to him?

In this much, Lewis is absolutely in line with classical Anglicanism, which maintained the practice of praying for the dead, despite Puritan objections. As Thorndike says, “The practice of the Church in interceding for them at the Celebration of the Eucharist is so general and so ancient, that it cannot be thought to have come in upon imposture, but that the same aspersion will seem to take hold of the common Christianity.” Yet the Divines are extremely hesitant to say what the effect of these prayers is, beyond intercession to Christ for mercy upon the departed at his or her judgment. There is no indication in this practice, either in the ancient Church or in Anglicanism, that purgatory exists.

But Lewis goes on to speak about a kind of purgatory that he believes in and has great hope for:

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 cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know’ – ‘Even so, sir.’

In Lewis’ vision, purgatory is the process by which God cleanses us, burning away our inequities and making us fit to be present in the Kingdom of God. While this resonates with the Roman teaching, it does not suggest the “treasury of merit” and the idea that the Church can dispense excess grace in order to bring a soul onward out of torment. Nor is there any language in Lewis’ description about punishment. His purgatory is purely a place of cleansing, all satisfaction having been made upon the cross.

It seems to me that this kind of a concept of purgatory, while not arising from classical Anglicanism, is not expressly forbidden. Scripture is relatively obscure about what exactly happens to us in the moments between our death and our entry into the Kingdom. All we know for sure is that we will be brought before the Great Judgment Seat of Christ. Perhaps it is in that moment of judgment that we experience something like the cleansing that Lewis envisioned. Then again, perhaps not. The problem with this kind of speculation is that it can never be resolved, and in our desperation to have a teaching that we can pin down we will be tempted to make extreme pronouncements about what all should or should not believe. We can know for sure that the Tridentine idea of purgatory, still officially the dogma of the Church of Rome, is repugnant to the Word of God because it relies on a false understanding of grace. Whether or not another idea of purgatory, unencumbered by the Roman error, could be true is not something the Church has the resources to pronounce upon definitively. The best advice that I can give in this instance is simply not to worry about it. Whether or not you will need to be cleansed at your judgment is infinitely less important than what the result of that judgment will be, and Holy Scripture is very clear that the only path that leads to a “not guilty” verdict is the one trod by Our Lord, who gives to us freely the merits of His saving work. There is only one place in all of existence where there is an overabundance of saving grace that can be poured out upon those who have not earned it and do not deserve it, and that place is at the foot of the cross.

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7 Responses to Ask an Anglican: Purgatory and Grace

  1. BC says:

    Fr. J, many thanks for another thought-provoking piece that has (again) driven me to reflect on the issue on my own blog. Apologies for piggy-backing yet again!

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      No problem. I appreciate the piggy-backing. I like being able to have a conversation across the blogs, rather than just having this be a soapbox.

      Actually, if you’re at all interested, you might consider becoming a contributer here. The original idea for this blog was that it would be collaborative, and I had three other people working with me at the beginning, but they’ve all found themselves too busy to continue. It would be nice to have some other conciliar voices on here, and particularly nice to have a voice from somewhere other than America. If you’re interested, you can shoot me an email or use the box on the “Ask an Anglican” page.

  2. Ann says:

    I think I’ve mentioned this already elsewhere, but my Beloved is Orthodox. I’ve always told him I have no problem with saints. My curiosity is more in line with how an Anglican and Orthodox can understand the saints together, than anything. We plan to raise our future children in his church, so this is something I consider often.

    I suppose I consider them friends and family. who happen to be invisible and won’t make inappropriate jokes at Christmas dinner. I honestly never thought of it in terms of grace! It just always seemed to me to be the same as putting someone’s name on the church prayer list, or asking a friend to pray for you.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Ann, I think that’s a perfectly fine way to think about the saints. So long as they are joining you in worship and not becoming the objects of worship themselves, there is no real conflict. And Orthodoxy is like Anglicanism in that the Orthodox pray for the dead but do not posit a belief in purgatory. Have you ever heard of the Fellowship of Saint Alban and Saint Sergius? It’s an organization that has been bringing Anglicans and Orthodox together for over a century now to talk about our common faith and to build towards the hope of future unity. Definitely worth checking out.

  3. Ann says:

    I did know that! Kind of. I forgot the name and never looked it up. I checked it out last night, but they don’t seem to have a whole lot of info directly on the website.

    Would it be appropriate – when I visit Beloved’s church – to kiss the icons and cross, as they do? I always feel I stick out like a sore thumb, with a great big sign over my head flashing “PROTESTANT” in giant neon letters. A nice old gentleman tried to convince me forward to kiss the cross and talk with the priest, but I was far too shy and unsure of the appropriateness of such an action – though Beloved assures me I would be totally welcome to do so. I’m fairly sure we were the talk of the coffee hour – “what in the world was HER problem???”

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      I’ve had a similar experience when I’ve been to Orthodox liturgies of wanting to kiss the icons or the cross but feeling kind of shy about it. I think that if the priest there says it’s ok, it’s probably not a problem. But again, from the Anglican perspective, the question is, what do you mean by it when you do that? What does the action signify? I have icons in my home, which I occasionally kiss, as a sign of my love for the saints and particularly my reverence for God (most of the icons I have are of Christ or Mary with Christ). I don’t worship them, though, and even the word veneration makes me a little bit nervous, unless I carefully explain. These are objects that we use within ritual to connect us with God, but it is only God Himself who receives our worship.

      Similarly, I often kiss my Bible when I read from it. I do this particularly during the Sunday Eucharist when I proclaim the Gospel. It is a sign of reverence and love, in the same way. I’m not worshiping the Bible either, but lovingly receiving the Word of God. Properly understood, I see these things in the same vein. The disposition of the heart is what makes all the difference.

      • Ann says:

        I definitely agree. I’m a Bible kisser! Sometimes, when I read it, I get this great outpouring of love for God, so I kiss it as a sign of thanks. I have icon print outs on my wall. Sometimes I’ll kiss my fingers, and touch the fingers to them.

        Thanks for the thoughts/advice. :)

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