Purgatory, Interpretation, praying in turbulent times, Today and Pre-Reformation Days – Q/A from October 1, 2017
Q – What are we to think about teachings not in the Bible (example: Purgatory)? Do you feel that the current Catholic Church has any teachings that are not in the Bible?
Over the centuries, as successive generations of Christians have studied scripture, seeking to answer the question “What does Scripture teach?”, statements which synthesize and are organized into categories fall under the general title of “doctrine.” We can talk, for example, about what Scriptures teach about the Being and persons of God. The ideas we draw about God from Scripture can be called “Theology” or the Doctrine of God.
The doctrine of purgatory results from Catholic theologians’ observations of Scripture passages which (1) talk about “the place of the dead,” or “Sheol” (O.T. word), and in the N.T., passages which describe a place of punishment after a person physically dies, and (2) speak of a variety of judgments that await someone who dies.
Catholic doctrine defines purgatory as a “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven,” which is experienced by those “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified” (cf. https://www.catholic.com/tract/purgatory). One has to wonder about this doctrine, given the clear teaching of Scripture that the gift of Jesus’ righteousness makes the believer holy and justified in God’s sight. What then is the need for further “purification so as to achieve holiness” for those who die in God’s grace?
Such doctrines like Purgatory, or Limbo, or the Immaculate Conception of Mary–and thus the sinlessness of Mary and the worship of Mary–do not seem to be clearly, directly taught by the passages of Scripture themselves. These were doctrines which Roman church councils insisted on adding at a later time. Such “doctrines” result from both a unique “combination” of passages (i.e., insisting that a number of various passages are actually teaching the same truth) and/or an extrapolation of ideas from passages which seem beyond the original intent of the passages teaching. For example, the call to pray to Mary for blessing is based, in part, on the Catholic interpretation that since Mary was able to persuade Jesus to turn water to wine at the wedding (John 2), that she continues to have influence with Jesus when it comes to answering prayers. Protestants have consistently insisted that such an interpretation of John 2 — as a justification to pray to Mary — is beyond the Lord’s intended “interpretation and application” of that passage.
The point is that Scripture should be interpreted “normally,” that is in keeping with the original author’s intent, deduced from an historical, contextual, and linguistic understanding of the text itself. In my view–and very unfortunately–the Catholic church has often interpreted passages apart from this kind of careful interpretation, and thus produced a number of suspect doctrines
Q – How should we pray as we too are living in turbulent times?
Tough to improve on Paul’s exhortation: “Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. Keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints.” This comes at the end of Ephesians 6:10-20 where he speaks about us being in any number of spiritual battles with the enemy, and standing strong in the Lord, in the strength of His might. Good word.
Q – Could you give me your take on the similarities in American Christianity and the church in Western Europe in the pre-Reformation?
Any analysis I might offer would be woefully shallow. I’ve not had the time to research sufficiently whatever comparisons might be warranted. It is interesting to me to hear Christians today wonder about what “God is saying” through all the tragic events humanity is experiencing world-wide. We are, I think, stunned at what God allows, and wonder in light of storms, floods, earthquakes, and devastation–and God’s sovereignty over all these things–if He isn’t trying to get our attention. CS Lewis noted that God “shouts in our pain.”
One other brief reflection, by way of comparison, might be that wealthy Christianity back then (14th, 15th centuries) and wealthy Christianity today appear to have some striking similarities. Perhaps the biggest question for both eras will be, at the judgment seat of Christ, an assessment on whether or not we spent what God placed in our hands “on ourselves” or truly for “the advance of the Gospel.”
Q – How do we deal with differences in Scripture interpretations that tend to justify (current) morality both socially and politically?
When–as the result of the Reformation’s effort to put the Bible in the hands of regular, non-ordained-to-ministry Christians–a number reflected on the kinds of interpretations would result, someone used an interesting illustration. He suggested Biblical interpretation would be twisted and turned like a “wax nose.” A wax nose on a wax figurine could be shaped or reshaped or turned this way and that in just about any way.
The last 500 years of Biblical interpretation within the broader Christian family has demonstrated just that. And, also, those not in the Christian family can misuse Scripture similarly.
Yet sense argues that understanding anything written demands that the interpreter respect the author’s intent, which he/she indicates through the historical setting of the writing, the context of the words, the grammar intentionally used, and the lexical meaning of the words employed. It is the meaning which the author intended which should be sought, and honored, and not merely what the reader or interpreter “wants it” to say.
When allowed to speak and to deliver it’s original meaning, Scripture is quite clear about a Biblical morality which does not change from generation to generation. Modern, novel interpretations should bend the knee to the timeless teaching of the Word of God.