Sunday, May 11, 2008

Purgatory Not In Scripture?

Updated (13 May 08): David Burke pointed out to me a logical flaw in the last fifth paragraph. To reject apocrypha is not saying that Roman Catholics are not Christians. "Rather, it is held that they are mistaken at this point" (Burke's words). Thus, I have changed the sentence from "we are ruling out Roman Catholics as Christians unnecessarily on one hand" to "we are ruling out Roman Catholics' doctrines as non-Christians unjustifiably on one hand"; the word 'identity' to 'doctrine'.

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On page 12 of the recent Methodist Message, at the "Now, That's A Good Question!" section, Roland Chia has contributed an article to examines the Roman Catholic's doctrine of the purgatory entitled "Doctrine of Purgatory 'not based' on Scripture". The objective of the article is to answer whether "Is there scriptural basis for the doctrine of purgatory?"


That is a VERY ambitious attempt. It is especially so when a writer wants to clean a can of worms with only a-page-length long article. So, I excitingly read it to find out whether can Roland accomplish such massive task. If so, how did he do it.

Roland began by giving a brief introduction to the historical development of this doctrine. He traces its formal formulation to the Councils of Florence (c. 1438 - 1445) and Trent (c.1545 - 1563), though recognizing that the idea of purgatory can be traced back to Augustine, Origen, and all the way back to the 3rd century.

The historical development of the doctrine can be more traditionally recognized by Christians, if he includes an earlier council in his list. Roland probably missed out the mention of an earlier formalization of the doctrine by the western church. It was the second council of Lyons held in 1274, where the belief in purgatory was being formally defined (see 'Purgatory', in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed.).

Then Roland pointed out 2 Maccabees 12.44-45 as a passage that Roman Catholics regularly used as a scriptural ground to support the doctrine. He then further pointed out that "Protestants, however, regard 2 Maccabees as apocryphal and thus not part of the canon of Scriptures. The text in question therefore cannot be the authoritative basis for Christian doctrine."

Here, Roland is right on 2 things and mistaken on 1 thing. In fact, it seems to me that the 1 mistake actually invalidates the objective of his entire article.

Roland is right that Roman Catholics put a lot of weight on the passage in 2 Maccabees to justify their doctrine of purgatory as scriptural. He is also right to say that Protestants do not regard 2 Maccabees as Scripture, hence do not recognize that the belief in purgatory as scriptural.

The mistake is this. If Protestants do not recognize 2 Maccabees as Scripture, at best we can only conclude that the doctrine of purgatory is not in the Protestants' Scripture.

If we concludes that "The text... cannot be the authoritative basis for Christian doctrine" just because we do not share the same Scripture, we are ruling out Roman Catholics' doctrines as non-Christians unjustifiably on one hand; and we are arbitrarily elevating the Protestant's Scripture over against the Roman Catholic's on the other. But in the first 1400 years or so, before the Reformation, the entire body of Christ, stretches from the East to the West, shared, though with some different arrangement but still, the same Scripture!

After unduly dismissing the Roman Catholic's set of canon and their doctrines as 'Christians', Roland proceeded to argue that the formulation of "purgatory as a doctrine was woven into the thinking of the Roman Catholic Church to justify an existing practice" is not the practice of Protestants. In the sense of doctrine formulation, that is to say the Roman Catholics formulated a doctrine in order to validate an existing practice of the church. And Protestants do not share this similar formulation process.

Are Protestants really differ in doctrine formulation from the Roman Catholics?
I doubt so. Is not the doctrine of Trinity formulated to justify the already existing practice of the early church's devotion to one god and also to Jesus Christ?

Perhaps, Protestants might protest against this point by arguing that Trinity is different because the doctrine has scriptural basis. But that just beg back to the question whether is there any scriptural basis for purgatory. And the answer is 'Yes, the doctrine has scriptural basis in the Roman Catholic's Scripture'.

Thus, I think the more fundamental issue here is "which Scripture?". Unless that settled, we cannot provide a collective answer to the question of purgatory. But I highly doubt this fundamental question can be answered (cf. L.M.McDonald's 'The Biblical Canon'). Hence, instead of concentrating to disagree with the Roman Catholics' doctrines, our learning should encompasses 2 other things: First, how to accommodate and live with doctrinal differences within the body of Christ. But that is of course, I assumed that we still recognize Roman Catholics as 'Christians'. And second, what are the good questions to ask.

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