Luther on Purgatory

Well, Kiran asked for it, so here it is:

Luther on Purgatory

1. Explanation of the 95 Theses (1518)

“If purgatory is only a workshop of punishment, why not call it “punitory” rather than “purgatory”? For the meaning and force of the term “purgatory” imply a cleansing which can only be understood as pertaining to the remains of the old nature and sin, because of which those persons are unclean who in their affection for eathly things have hindered the purity of faith. But if by the use of the a new ambiguity…they shall say that cleansing here is the same as payment, so that then they are said to be cleansed when the punishments have been paid, I answer: It is despised as easily as it is proved. But if they shall also despise the idea that the meaning of the term includes the cleansing of faults, let it be so. I do not dispute it. Nevertheless, it has been demonstrated that both meanings are doubtful. For that reason the first meaning has been scattered abroad among the people in a distorted manner and with the greatest of certainty, especially since the basic meaning of the term does not agree with their opinion.”

2. Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper (1528)

“As for the dead…I regard it as no sin to pray with free devotion in this or some similar fashion: “Dear God, if this soul is in a condition accessible to mercy, be thou gracious to it.” And when this has been done once or twice, let it suffice…

“Nor have we anything in Scripture concerning purgatory. It too was fabricated by goblins. Therefore, I maintain it is not necessary to believe in it; although all things are possible to God, and he could very well allow souls to be tormented after their departure from the body…

“I know of a purgatory, however, in another way, but it would not be proper to teach anything about it in the church, nor on the other hand, to deal with it by means of endowments or vigils.”

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14 responses to “Luther on Purgatory

  1. GAB

    The idea of God “allow[ing] souls to be tormented after their departure from the body” is telling. I half-wish Luther had had the opportunity to read Dante’s Purgatorio and wonder if that might not have in some way changed his perspective (I don’t suppose it was available in German at the time). Certainly I get the impression, from my limited reading, that the popular conception of Purgatory (both in lay and clerical spheres) in Luther’s particular milieu had nothing of the richness or beauty of Dante’s vision. I wonder if things might not have turned out differently if it had.

    • It could be argued that the popular theological views at the time – that is, the views that Luther was directly arguing against – as a whole did not include the “richness and beauty” of the whole doctrine. (Truth is beauty, Beauty is truth?).

      Certainly, since the Reformation, and even in our own generation, the doctrine has been theologically overhauled to quite an extent, an extent which few Lutherans today appreciate, as they tend to know nothing about Purgatory except what they have read in polemical works.

  2. Perhaps more fruitful than Luther per se is the Lutheran Symbols on the question, and the much neglected section in Ap XII:70 noting that purgatory in the fathers denotes neither punishment nor satisfaction, but a purification of imperfect souls. “Just as Augustine says, that ‘venial offenses are consumed,’ that is, distrust toward God and other similar tendencies are destroyed.”

  3. I understand, David, and yet you must reckon that the Baltimore Catechism is in living memory here – and it treated of purgatory in a rather, well, different way.

    • Kiran

      This is where one would need on the one hand some insight from someone who has read the Baltimore Catechism, and on the other hand, specifically what you object to in it.

      That said also, I am quite sure that souls should be prayed for for more than just once or twice. I think also that the problem is that we think in bodily terms (Quite naturally/rightly too: Apparently, Luther once described faith as being beneath his left nipple, or is so cited by Wittgenstein) Proceeding from that, Dante’s descriptions are precisely what one should expect in a poem about purgatory written by a layman.

      The best presentation of purgatory I know in poetry though, is Newman’s Dream of Gerontius

      • I think what Luther was referring to when he said we should pray only “once or twice” was in reference to those who fret about the eternal salvation of their loved ones. I think his view was that praying “once or twice” with faith and trust in God we should then be content that God has heard our prayer.

        Of course, we understand that the prayers and good works we do for the holy souls are not out of fear that they might not be saved, but are rather aids to their preparation for the beatific vision. In this sense, then, to pray often for them is not a sign of a lack of faith in God, but quite on the contrary. We pray often, because it pleases God and God has thus commanded us to bear one another’s burdens.

        Nevertheless, I have wondered if it is still necessary to pray for a given individual after one has performed the necessary requirements for a plenary indulgence. What do you think?

    • Yes, Pastor Weedon, I do think there was a definite “tone” in some of the pre-Vatican II publications that tended to over-emphasise sin.

      I have one book here, called the Manual of the Catholic Church which is nearly 100 years old and was published in Chicago (I think). When I (rarely) open it, my husband comes up behind me and starts quietly chanting, “We’re all going to Hell…We’re all going to Hell…”

      Unfortunately the “answer” to this tendency was Kumbaya Catholicism.

      *sigh*

    • I just had to go and check that we have the Baltimore Catechism and it seems that we do.

      It’s pretty dated with its pictures etc (e.g. naughty boys wear leather jackets!) but my kids quite like it and I don’t think it’s “tone” is pessimistic.

  4. Son of Trypho

    But isn’t there a Tradition of purgatory – I’m thinking of the Passion of St Perpetua and her prayers for her brother (from the 3rd C CE)?

    It would be strange that Luther was not aware of this considering that St Augustine (Hippo) commented upon it.

    • I am sure that Luther was quite aware. Recall that he said that he believed in “a purgatory” of some kind, but was not prepared to talk of it. I think he had issues with the way Purgatory was presented in his day, especially in connection with indulgence selling. Who knows how he would have reacted to the doctrine as it is taught today?