Through the Flames…
The official Roman Catholic teaching regarding purgatory is rooted in historical Jewish prayers for the dead. History records that as early as the second and third centuries, Christians often made reference to prayers for the departed. The argument that Catholics, therefore, have historically given for purgatory is “why pray for the dead if there isn’t some benefit in the prayers?”
One of the common scriptures used in connection with this doctrine is from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter three, verse fifteen: “If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.”
It was St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–450) who first used the term purgare in referring to the need for the departed to be purged or cleansed of their sin. While the idea that the Christian departed may still need to be cleansed from their sin was ancient, a place called purgatory was most likely brought into common knowledge by the fourteenth century
Italian poet Dante, who wrote of the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory in the epic Divine Comedy. Unlike the more modern Roman Catholic teaching regarding purgatory, in the late Middle Ages it was portrayed as a horrible place of torment, punishment, hellfire, despair, and anguish. It became a popular teaching of the church at that time that indulgences would be granted for individuals who were alive as well as those who had died. These indulgences ranged from simple prayers and good works to gifts of money and property. People who gave substantially to build churches and monasteries would receive years of indulgences that could benefit them or departed relatives suffering in purgatory.
By the time of the Reformation, the sale of indulgences had become a major financial boon for the Catholic Church, and a German monk by the name of Johann Tetzel was charged with the task of raising money for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s in Rome. Martin Luther saw the selling of indulgences as not only nonbiblical but another obvious example of the corruption in the Catholic Church, which included the office of the pope. Martin Luther made Johann Tetzel famous—or infamous— because of Tetzel’s nondisputed quote: “As soon as the gold in the casket rings; the rescued soul to heaven springs.”
Today the Roman Catholic Church continues to embrace both purgatory as well as indulgences. However, since the time of the Reformation, when Martin Luther and others strongly objected to the obvious abuses in the church, including the sale of indulgences, the Roman Catholic Church has modified its teachings so that purgatory is not so frightening. It is not thought to be a place of torment but rather a holding place where venial sins or minor transgressions are purged primarily through time as well as by the prayers of others and through the sacrifice of the altar, meaning the saying of a Mass for the departed. The Catholic Church denies that indulgences were ever sold. It claims people thought they were buying the indulgence where in fact they were just making financial contributions, and the church was providing the spiritual merit from their treasury of merit.
text above from pages 99-101 in Purgatory - Chapter 18 of "Roaming Catholics"
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This thoroughly researched book presents the development of the Catholic Church in an engaging way to help Christians understand their common history shared by all. The apostle Paul referred to the church as the "Body of Christ," not the "Body of Christians." Rather than Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female he proclaimed we are to be one in Christ.
Pastor and theologian Kenneth Behr shares his own religious evolution from a Catholic altar boy to an evangelical pastor and engages readers with a parallel story of the evolution of Catholicism.