Article XXII: Of purgatory

This post is part of a Lenten series on the 39 Articles.

Article XXII: Of purgatory
The Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, worshipping and adoration as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saint, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture; but rather repugnant to the word of God.

The poetry of the language here is lovely. No one talks this way any more. Just think how different life would be if the next time you had a disagreement, you said, “Your opinion is a fond thing, vainly invented.” I doubt if the argument would be any less intense, but it would be more beautiful.

At issue here among all the lovely language is superstition. The Reformers didn’t like it, rightly so. Treating an image or a relic as a magical talisman is to be avoided, and I doubt if very many people would make a counter argument today. However, if an icon is seen only as an aid to devotion, rather than an end of itself, most people would have no issue. Then there are relics, which can be inspiring — so long as we honor the grace revealed in a holy life, not bones themselves.

Again in this article we come to an issue of salvation and eternal life. Purgatory is hard, though not impossible, to argue scripturally (proof texting will get you just about everywhere). Frankly, if Anglicans believed in purgatory, it could be handy for a parish priest. “Hey, if you cook at the next parish dinner, I’ll knock a year off your purgatory!” You can see how this could be abused, which is precisely why the Reformers insisted that purgatory was nonsense.

The problem with defining things about life after death is that, by definition, we living folks can’t really know things for sure. We rely on the revelation of scripture, which is somewhat ambiguous. Indeed, even Rome has a change of heart sometimes. For hundreds of years: “Unbaptized children who die are consigned to limbo!” Then the current Pope says: “Oh, oops. Limbo? Not so much.”

As I’ve said before, it seems to me that we have plenty to worry about in our struggle to follow Jesus in this life. I have hope that God will offer eternal blessing. Beyond that, it’s all speculation. As this Article suggests, we do well to focus on the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ — rather than on magical ideas and esoteric objects.

Oh, one more thing: I will continue to invoke saints. Here’s my reasoning. We have no problem asking for the prayers of a living friend, right? So why should it be a problem to ask the prayers of those who have gone before? As long as we all remember that I can pray to God directly — without the need of an intercessor on my behalf — I can find no reason, biblical or otherwise, to refuse to invite the prayers of the living or of the dead. Holy Mary, pray for those who have trouble with this practice.

Let’s just remember to keep the main thing as the main thing.

Here are some questions for pondering or meditation:

  • Do you ever ask for the prayers of a departed saint? Why or why not?
  • Does it matter in this life exactly how things will work in the life to come? How will we know?
  • Icons and other images have been a source of controversy from the earliest days of Christianity. How might their use be abused? How could this abuse be avoided?

Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy. We ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Previous: Article XXI: Of the authority of General Councils
Next: Article XXIII: Of ministering in the congregation

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4 Responses

  1. Toni Álvarez says:

    “However, if an icon is seen only as an aid to devotion, rather than an end of itself, most people would have no issue. Then there are relics, which can be inspiring — so long as we honor the grace revealed in a holy life, not bones themselves”

    I have to take issue with this characterization of icons. I think there is a valid view that they are much more than mere aids to devotion that is not “superstitious”.

    Icons bear witness to our Chalcedonian faith. They are sacramental in the larger sense because they depict heavenly realities and they convey these realities to us. Icons are to heaven.

  2. There is a tale that Arthur Michael Ramsey, who spent time at Nashota House after his retirement, once preached a sermon on Purgatory there.

    He was challenged on the basis that, “we don’t believe in Purgatory – it says so in te 39 Articles.”

    To which Ramsey allegedly replied, “No, no young man. We don’t believe the ROMISH doctrine of Purgatory.”

  3. Toni Álvarez says:

    *Icons are windows to heaven.

  4. Bob Chapman says:

    Romish doctrine of Purgatory versus the one promoted by, say, C. S. Lewis?