Friday, April 26, 2002


A couple of weeks ago I referred to an article in First Things by Wesleyan theologian Jerry Walls on purgatory. Well, that article is now available online.

Early on, Walls poses one of -- if not the-- questions concerning the idea of purgatory: If salvation essentially involves transformation—and, at that same time, we cannot be united with God unless we are holy—what becomes of those who plead the atonement of Christ for salvation but die before they have been thoroughly transformed?

Precisely. As I've grown in my understanding of most of the various Protestant theologies, I've realized that -- contrary to my prior polemical perception -- growth in sanctity is important for my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. (I know, I know... how could I have thought otherwise? Well, that's another story.) Granting that, I think that this "indiscreet theological question" (as Walls terms it) must now be dealt with seriously. As our author explains, this difficulty served to prompt the initial forays into what would become the doctrine of purgatory in the first place, all the way back to the Patristic era (Walls refers to Fathers like Cyprian and Augustine).

Walls is masterful in dealing with some of the objections which his fellow Protestants pose to the doctrine of purgatory. He refers to one theologian who states that, "“In both this life and the life to come, the basis of the believer’s relationship with God is grace, not works. There need be no fear, then, that our imperfections will require some type of post–death purging before we can enter the full presence of God."

But as Walls replies, nothing about purgatory denies the necessity and primacy of grace. Does it imply that we must cooperate with grace? Absolutely (and this may stick in the craw of some), but cooperation-with-grace has nothing to do with "works-righteousness".

Yes, grace first involves forgiveness of sin. But many Protestant theologies (including -- I would contend -- those of the first generations of Reformers) do not deny that there is some transformative aspect to grace, i.e. that grace -- besides forgiving sins -- also changes who and what we are. The New Testament stress that we (the justified) are the sons and daughters of God is fully understood only when the power of grace to transform us is remembered.

One of the graces of ecumenical dialogue has been the realization that much of what we believed our brothers and sisters in Christ has been nothing but a caricature. My former view of a holiness-less Protestant theology is one such example. And for many Protestants, the view that Catholics teach a "works-righteousness", grace-less theology of justification is another.

But back to purgatory... Walls' article includes many other excellent points. I would highly recommend it to any Protestant curious about the Catholic doctrine of purgatory and to any Catholic curious about a "positive" take on purgatory by a Protestant.

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