THE STORY OF THE CHURCH - PART 3, TOPIC 4
- Penance and Purgatory
- Penance developed out of the initial experience of the churches with persecution. Persecutions were not constant,
but came in waves. During times of peace, when the "lapsed," those who had denied the faith or in some
way faltered under persecution, wanted back into the churches, the bishops had to devise ways to test their faithfulness
and sincerity. Hence, they might assign various tasks or penalties for them to suffer.
- In this way, the bishop or his clergy became those who either imposed or remitted the earthly penalties of
the church. God's heavenly penalty was beyond the powers of the church to influence, but it came to be believed
that the church was a key player in the imposition of penalties.
- Two biblical concepts were thought to lend credence to the developing views: the seeming contrast between deadly
sins (or "mortal" sins) and other sins (found only in I John 5:16,17), and the statements found in the
Gospels ("whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth
shall be loosed in heaven," Matt 16:19, and "If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been
forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained," John 20:23)
- In addition the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible used the term "do penance" to translate "repent."
This encouraged the belief that there was a sacrament of penance.
- Penance was preceded by confession to the priest, who would then pronounce the penance that was to be performed.
The priest would also absolve from sins.
- The doctrine of purgatory is closely related to that of penance. Strictly speaking, the tasks involved in penance
are the temporal penalties of sin, not the eternal penalties. (Penance and purgatory strictly applied to sinners
who were in a state of grace. Unrepentant sinners would still be under the eternal punishment of hell.) If a Christian
dies without fully satisfying the temporal penalties of sin, he goes (according to Catholic theology) to Purgatory
to finish paying those temporal penalties. He is then welcomed into heaven, having fully paid the penalties. Purgatory
is one of the medieval doctrines that was never accepted by the Eastern Church.
- Even though the penalties are "temporal," the distinction between divine and human penalties is unclear
to me. The priest gives absolution, i.e. forgiveness of confessed sins. As a Protestant I agree that there are
varieties of forgiveness that are post-conversion, but the Roman Catholic doctrine seems to play too much into
the hands of salvation by works, which is a doctrine accursed in Paul's letter to the Galatians. In the Middle
Ages this doctrine reached absurd degrees, in which souls' stay in purgatory was calculated, and indulgences (absolution
without penance) were bought and sold in Germany in Luther's time. This practice was a major cause of Luther's
revolt against the Pope.
- Like most medieval doctrines, monasticism has its roots in the early church. From earliest times, there have
been those who have taken worldly society in general, and marriage in particular, to be substandard ways to lead
the Christian life. There are certainly hints in Jesus' and Paul's teaching that there is a special grace for those
who remain unmarried. But, as with most things, this tiny, underemphasized New Testament teaching became one of
the foundations of medieval life.
- The earliest monks were hermits who left the decadent Roman society of their upbringing and went into the wilderness.
They were disgusted at the increasingly worldly Church of their day and they sought a closer walk with God through
solitude and depriving themselves of physical comforts. The common term for this practice is called asceticism.
- Athanasius' Life of Anthony was a powerful argument for asceticism and the monastic life in his time. You will
remember that Athanasius was the powerful exponent of the full deity of Christ. His comrades in arms, the Cappadocian
Fathers (the two Gregories and Basil), who were also powerful in the defense of orthodox Christology, were likewise
big supporters of monasticism. Basil is regarded as the father of Eastern monasticism.
- Pachomus was the first, around A.D. 320, to gather monks into communities under a common rule of discipline
(Shelly p. 119). But Basil (329-379) gets most of the credit for organizing and systematizing the practice. In
the West, Benedict (c. 480-c.550) is regarded as the father of traditional monasticism.
- Benedict's Rule
- The organization of monks into the monasteries, and the founding of monasteries across Europe, had a profound
influence on the development and preservation of civilization, in areas such as manuscript transmission, the creation
of schools, and specific contributions in areas such as theology.
- Not all monks were priests, but there was always a desire in some minds to make all clergy monks. Clerical
celibacy was essentially unknown in the earliest church, but by 1123 the First Lateran Council imposed celibacy
on all clergy.
- Time does not allow us to do justice to the uniquely medieval contribution of the concept of friar. St. Francis
(1182-1226) pioneered the idea of the wandering monk, owning nothing but traveling and preaching and living off
contributions only, performing acts of service and building churches. It wasn't too long before there were also
friars who were fat and lazy, and this stereotype is visible in Chaucer and other places. The Protestant Reformers
disliked monasticism in all its forms, but reserved special contempt for the friars. Nevertheless, like the other
types of monasticism, the best in this tradition has given much to Western civilization.
- It is hard to know where to begin. Without taking away a single one of the many contributions made by monks
and nuns in the past 1700 years, one wonders how the church could have made such a colossal blunder. Much harm
has been done. By exalting a side-teaching of the Bible into the main line of Christian virtue, Catholicism has
inevitably downgraded the more well taught virtues (being a husband and father, wife and mother). In the medieval
view, the most virtuous Christians were those who concentrated most successfully on these side issues.
- The mother of our Lord suffered in the process, posthumously. First it was thought that she must have remained
a virgin while bearing her child Jesus, and then it was concluded that she must also have remained so for the rest
of her life. (If a Christian woman were to do this, it would contradict clear New Testament teaching.) All this
was to give her a virtue that there was no need for her to have.
- In many ways the monks were the "serious Christians" of their generations. This has permanently disfigured
the notion of what a serious Christian must look like. Even a Protestant will tell you that so-and-so serious Christian
should go into "full time ministry,"
- Monastic houses became rich even when their members had taken a vow of poverty. No contradiction was seen in
this. Again, the richness of their life was due to their hard work and their service to God, but these were virtues
that should have been imparted to the people rather than reserved to the few.
- Discuss in class other problems and advantages of the monastic life.
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Copyright © 1998, 1999 by Mark S. Ritchie. Permission is granted
to use materials herein for the building up of the Christian Church. Bibliographic entries for published works
quoted may be found in Bibliography page.