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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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The 95 Theses today

Five Lutheran scholars say which still matter and why

No place for purgatory
By Joy Schroeder

14. Imperfect piety or love on the part of the dying person necessarily brings with it great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater the fear.

15. This fear or horror is sufficient in itself, to say nothing of other things, to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near the horror of despair.

26. The pope does very well when he grants remission to souls in purgatory, not by the power of the keys, which he does not have, but by way of inter-cession for them.

The early church’s practice of prayer for the dead led to the idea that saved souls undergo a process of “purgation” (purification) after death, before entering heaven. In Martin Luther’s time, many imagined purgatory as a geographical place filled with fire, punishment and torment. One’s duration in purgatory was described in terms of days and years.

In theses 14 and 15, Luther redefines purgatory as an experience—the near-despair of a dying person filled with dread about God’s punishment and one’s salvation.

Modern Roman Catholic theologians, likewise, resist defining purgatory as a place or something quantifiable in human terms such as years. Some Roman Catholics still do use older concepts to describe purgatory but their theologians now prefer to use the language of experience, transition, process or maturation to describe purification of souls being prepared to enjoy the full presence and holiness of God. These souls are said to benefit from the prayers of the living. Pope Benedict XVI suggested that purgatory might be the “moment” of the Christian’s purifying encounter with Christ after death and on the Last Day.

Luther advances his arguments with the assumption that there is some sort of purgatory and concludes, in thesis 26, with the idea that souls there may benefit from prayers—specifically the pope’s. Modern Lutherans don’t share this supposition. Luther and his supporters later argued that there is no scriptural warrant for teaching people to believe in purgatory.


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