Purgatory in the Bible (vs. Calvin #60)

Purgatory in the Bible (vs. Calvin #60) January 15, 2021

This is an installment of a series of replies (see the Introduction and Master List) to much of Book IV (Of the Holy Catholic Church) — and some portions of Books I-III — of Institutes of the Christian Religion, by early Protestant leader John Calvin (1509-1564). I utilize the public domain translation of Henry Beveridge, dated 1846, from the 1559 edition in Latin; available online. Calvin’s words will be in blue. All biblical citations (in my portions) will be from RSV unless otherwise noted.

Related reading from yours truly:

Biblical Catholic Answers for John Calvin (2010 book: 388 pages)

A Biblical Critique of Calvinism (2012 book: 178 pages)

Biblical Catholic Salvation: “Faith Working Through Love” (2010 book: 187 pages; includes biblical critiques of all five points of “TULIP”)


III, 5:6-9 


6. Their purgatory cannot now give us much trouble, since with this axe we have struck it, thrown it down, and overturned it from its very foundations. I cannot agree with some who think that we ought to dissemble in this matter, and make no mention of purgatory, from which (as they say) fierce contests arise, and very little edification can be obtained. I myself would think it right to disregard their follies did they not tend to serious consequences. But since purgatory has been reared on many, and is daily propped up by new blasphemies; since it produces many grievous offences, assuredly it is not to be connived at, however it might have been disguised for a time, that without any authority from the word of God, it was devised by prying audacious rashness, that credit was procured for it by fictitious revelations, the wiles of Satan, and that certain passages of Scripture were ignorantly wrested to its support. Although the Lord bears not that human presumption should thus force its way to the hidden recesses of his judgments; although he has issued a strict prohibition against neglecting his voice, and making inquiry at the dead (Deut. xviii. 11), and permits not his word to be so erroneously contaminated.

Praying for the souls in purgatory is not at all the same as necromancy, or sorcery, or occult, etc.:

Invocation of the Saints = Necromancy? [10-18-08]

Secondly, if God had supposedly forbidden all contact with the dead whatsoever, how is it that the prophet Samuel actually appeared and talked to Saul, and prophesied of his coming doom (1 Sam 28:3-25)? Why would God allow that? Since God can’t contradict Himself, this must necessarily be an error on Calvin’s part, and an example of his novel and anti-traditional theology “ignorantly wrested.”

Let us grant, however, that all this might have been tolerated for a time as a thing of no great moment;

Purgatory having been believed by the Christian Church for the “time” of 1500 years till Calvin arbitrarily and groundlessly decided it was unChristian . . .

yet when the expiation of sins is sought elsewhere than in the blood of Christ, and satisfaction is transferred to others, silence were most perilous.

Of course, nothing in the doctrine of purgatory denies, or is contrary to the blood of Christ (since, in the first place, all who are there are already saved and will go to heaven in due course). Calvin simply falsely assumes it is, offering no biblical proof to the contrary.

We are bound, therefore, to raise our voice to its highest pitch, and cry aloud that purgatory is a deadly device of Satan; that it makes void the cross of Christ; that it offers intolerable insult to the divine mercy; that it undermines and overthrows our faith.

Calvin can rant and raise his voice all he likes. It’ll do no good unless he overthrows the considerable testimony of Scripture to purgatory.

For what is this purgatory but the satisfaction for sin paid after death by the souls of the dead? Hence when this idea of satisfaction is refuted, purgatory itself is forthwith completely overturned. But if it is perfectly clear, from what was lately said, that the blood of Christ is the only satisfaction, expiation, and cleansing for the sins of believers, what remains but to hold that purgatory is mere blasphemy, horrid blasphemy against Christ? I say nothing of the sacrilege by which it is daily defended, the offences which it begets in religion, and the other innumerable evils which we see teeming forth from that fountain of impiety.

It would be blasphemous if it were indeed not taught in Scripture, but the Bible has plenty of examples of sinners being cleansed, purged, purified, etc., of sin. I myself found fifty of these:

50 Bible Passages on Purgatory & Analogous Processes [2009]

25 Bible Passages on Purgatory [1996]

One of Calvin’s big heroes, St. Augustine, believed in penance, prayer for the dead, and purgatory along with all the other Church fathers:

In the Church, therefore, there are three ways in which sins are forgiven: in baptisms, in prayer, and in the greater humility of penance . . . (Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed 7:15, 8:16)

[A] man is detained temporally in punishment even when by his guilt he is no longer held liable to eternal damnation. (Homilies on John, 124, 5)

For some of the dead, indeed, the prayer of the Church or of pious individuals is heard; but it is for those who, having been regenerated in Christ, did not spend their life so wickedly that they can be judged unworthy of such compassion, nor so well that they can be considered to have no need of it. (The City of God, XXI, 24, 2; NPNF 1, Vol. II)

The man who perhaps has not cultivated the land and has allowed it to be overrun with brambles has in this life the curse of his land on all his works, and after this life he will have either purgatorial fire or eternal punishment. (Genesis Defended Against the Manicheans, 2, 20, 30)

As also, after the resurrection, there will be some of the dead to whom, after they have endured the pains proper to the spirits of the dead, mercy shall be accorded, and acquittal from the punishment of the eternal fire. For were there not some whose sins, though not remitted in this life, shall be remitted in that which is to come, it could not be truly said, “They shall not be forgiven, neither in this world, neither in that which is to come.” (The City of God, XXI, 24, 2; NPNF 1, Vol. II)

Does Calvin therefore conclude that he was a blasphemer, guilty of sacrilege? He’ll never say that, and this is part and parcel of the incoherence of his position. It’s historically and biblically ludicrous.

7. Those passages of Scripture on which it is their wont falsely and iniquitously to fasten, it may be worth while to wrench out of their hands. When the Lord declares that the sin against the Holy Ghost will not be forgiven either in this world or the world to come, he thereby intimates (they say) that there is a remission of certain sins hereafter. But who sees not that the Lord there speaks of the guilt of sin? But if this is so, what has it to do with their purgatory, seeing they deny not that the guilt of those sins, the punishment of which is there expiated, is forgiven in the present life?

But that text also makes clear that forgiveness for sin is also possible after we die, and this is the whole point. What sense does that make in Protestant theology, where all such processes are confined to this life? Forgiveness that occurs in the afterlife is the essence of purgatory, in the sense that satisfaction for this remaining sin is made through penitential suffering.

Lest, however, they should still object, we shall give a plainer solution. Since it was the Lord’s intention to cut off all hope of pardon from this flagitious wickedness, he did not consider it enough to say, that it would never be forgiven, but in the way of amplification, employed a division by which he included both the judgment which every man’s conscience pronounces in the present life, and the final judgment which will be publicly pronounced at the resurrection; as if he had said, Beware of this malignant rebellion, as you would of instant destruction; for he who of set purpose endeavours to extinguish the offered light of the Spirit, shall not obtain pardon either in this life, which has been given to sinners for conversion, or on the last day when the angels of God shall separate the sheep from the goats, and the heavenly kingdom shall be purged of all that offends.

The problem here is that Calvin attempts to collapse the passage into a question of damnation or salvation, rather than forgiveness of sins, which it clearly has to do with (see Mt 12:31-32). He pretty much has to, given his theology, or else change that theology. When Jesus says, “whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (12:32), it’s clear that He doesn’t mean salvation, because one can lose that before death; thus saying they can also lose it after death would be redundant, as both Catholics and Protestants believe that we are judged for what we do in this life.

If committing this unforgivable sin were a synonym for damnation, then Jesus would say so plainly, and simply say, “whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will be lost forever” or some such. But He’s not saying that. St. Francis de Sales observed in The Catholic Controversy:

If sins can be pardoned in the “age to come” (the afterlife), again, in the nature of things, this must be in purgatory. We would laugh at a man who said that he would not marry in this world or the next (as if he could in the next — see Mark 12:25). If this sin cannot be forgiven after death, it follows that there are others which can be. Accordingly, this interpretation was held by St. Augustine, [City of God, 21:24] St. Gregory the Great, [Dialogues, 4,39] Bede, [Commentary on Mark 3] and St. Bernard, [Homily 66 in Cant.] among others.

Thus, this forgiveness after death refers to the reception of forgiveness through penitential suffering in purgatory, as St. Augustine taught above.

The next passage they produce is the parable in Matthew: “Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily, I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing” (Matth. v. 25, 26). If in this passage the judge means God, the adversary the devil, the officer an angel, and the prison purgatory, I give in at once. But if every man sees that Christ there intended to show to how many perils and evils those expose themselves who obstinately insist on their utmost right, instead of being satisfied with what is fair and equitable, that he might thereby the more strongly exhort his followers to concord, where, I ask, are we to find their purgatory?

St. Francis de Sales again offers the reply, in the same work:

Origen, St. Cyprian, St. Hilary, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine say that the way which is meant in the whilst thou art in the way [while you are going with him to court] is no other than the passage of the present life: the adversary [accuser] will be our own conscience, . . . as St. Ambrose expounds, and Bede, St. Augustine, St. Gregory [the Great], and St. Bernard. Lastly, the judge is without doubt Our Lord . . . The prison, again, is . . . the place of punishment in the other world, in which, as in a large jail, there are many buildings; one for those who are damned, which is as it were for criminals, the other for those in Purgatory, which is as it were for debt. The farthing, [penny] . . . are little sins and infirmities, as the farthing is the smallest money one can owe.

Now let us consider a little where this repayment . . . is to be made. And we find from most ancient Fathers that it is in Purgatory: Tertullian [The Soul, 100, 10], Cyprian [Epistle 4, 2], Origen [Homily 35 on Luke 12], . . . St. Ambrose [Commentary on Luke 12], St. Jerome [Commentary on Matthew 5] . . . Who sees not that in St. Luke the comparison is drawn, not from a murderer or some criminal, who can have no hope of escape, but from a debtor who is thrown into prison till payment, and when this is made is at once let out? This then is the meaning of Our Lord, that whilst we are in this world we should try by penitence and its fruits to pay, according to the power which we have by the blood of the Redeemer, the penalty to which our sins have subjected us; since if we wait till death we shall not have such good terms in Purgatory, when we shall be treated with severity of justice. [

8. They seek an argument in the passage in which Paul declares, that all things shall bow the knee to Christ, “things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth” (Phil. ii. 10). They take it for granted, that by “things under the earth” cannot be meant those who are doomed to eternal damnation, and that the only remaining conclusion is, that they must be souls suffering in purgatory. They would not reason very ill if, by the bending of the knee, the Apostle designated true worship; but since he simply says that Christ has received a dominion to which all creatures are subject, what prevents us from understanding those “under the earth” to mean the devils, who shall certainly be sisted before the judgment-seat of God, there to recognise their Judge with fear and trembling? In this way Paul himself elsewhere interprets the same prophecy: “We shall all stand before the judgment-seat of Christ. For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God” (Rom. xiv. 10, 11). But we cannot in this way interpret what is said in the Apocalypse: “Every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever” (Rev. v. 13). This I readily admit; but what kinds of creatures do they suppose are here enumerated? It is absolutely certain, that both irrational and inanimate creatures are comprehended. All, then, which is affirmed is, that every part of the universe, from the highest pinnacle of heaven to the very centre of the earth, each in its own way proclaims the glory of the Creator.

The Catholic Apologetics Info. page (“Purgatory – Biblical and Patristic Insight”) rebuts this:

If God refuses to receive prayer, praise and worship from the unrepentant sinner (as shown in :Psalm 66:18, Proverbs 1:28-30, Isaiah 1:15, 59:2, Jeremiah 6:20, Amos 5:21-24, Micah 3:4, Malachi 1:10, John 9:31, Hebrews 10:38), why would He permit the damned to undertake this practice? Furthermore, if God does not compel human beings to follow Him and to enjoy His presence for eternity contrary to their free will, then it seems that He would not – as far as we can tell from Scripture – compel them to praise Him, as this would be meaningless, if not repulsive.

Therefore, under the earth must refer to purgatory. Revelation 5:13 especially makes sense under this interpretation, as the praise spoken there does not in any way appear forced, but rather, heartfelt and seemingly spontaneous (which would not be at all expected of persons eternally consigned to hell – see Matthew 8:29, Luke 4:34, 8:28, James 2:19).

To the passage which they produce from the history of the Maccabees (1 Maccab. xii. 43),

He really means 2 Maccabees 12:43.

I will not deign to reply, lest I should seem to include that work among the canonical books. But Augustine holds it to be canonical. First, with what degree of confidence? “The Jews,” says he, “do not hold the book of the Maccabees as they do the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms, to which the Lord bears testimony as to his own witnesses, saying, Ought not all things which are written in the Law, and the Psalms, and the Prophets, concerning me be fulfilled? (Luke xxiv. 44.) But it has been received by the Church not uselessly, if it be read or heard with soberness.” Jerome, however, unhesitatingly affirms, that it is of no authority in establishing doctrine; and from the ancient little book, De Expositione Symboli, which bears the name of Cyprian, it is plain that it was in no estimation in the ancient Church.

It’s not true that the ancient Church rejected it as canonical:

Pope Damasus I‘s Council of Rome in 382, if the Decretum Gelasianum is correctly associated with it, issued a biblical canon identical with the list given at Trent including the two books of Maccabees. Origen of Alexandria (A.D. 253),[19] Augustine of Hippo (c. 397 AD),[20] Pope Innocent I (405 AD),[21][22] Synod of Hippo (393 AD),[23] the Council of Carthage (397 AD),[24] the Council of Carthage (419 AD),[25] the Apostolic Canons,[26] the Council of Florence (1442 AD)[27] and the Council of Trent (1546 AD)[28] listed the first two books of Maccabees as canonical. (Wikipedia, “2 Maccabees”)

The synods of Hippo and Carthage are the same councils that Protestants cite as regards the New Testament canon. But they also include the deuterocanon. St. Augustine holds the book to be part of the “canon of Scripture” and “the Old Testament” (On Christian Doctrine, Book II, Chapter 8, section 13: “The Canonical Books”; NPNF 1, Vol. II). Martin Luther thought that the teaching of purgatory was “quite plain” in the book.

And why do I here contend in vain? As if the author himself did not sufficiently show what degree of deference is to be paid him, when in the end he asks pardon for anything less properly expressed (2 Maccab. xv. 38). He who confesses that his writings stand in need of pardon, certainly proclaims that they are not oracles of the Holy Spirit.

2 Maccabees 15:38 (RSV) If it is well told and to the point, that is what I myself desired; if it is poorly done and mediocre, that was the best I could do.

The problem with this argument of Calvin’s is that it proves too much, because it would also apply to Moses:

Exodus 4:10-12 But Moses said to the LORD, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either heretofore or since thou hast spoken to thy servant; but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” [11] Then the LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? [12] Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.”

God allowed Aaron to speak for Moses (4:13-16), but we notice that Aaron didn’t write the first five books of the Bible, as Moses did (Ex 17:14; 34:27; Dt 31:1, 9). So if God chose him to do that, we can be sure that His guiding inspiration was sufficient to overcome Moses’ lack of eloquence and self-confidence. And so by analogy, could it very well be also for the author of 2 Maccabees.

We may add, that the piety of Judas is commended for no other reason than for having a firm hope of the final resurrection, in sending his oblation for the dead to Jerusalem. For the writer of the history does not represent what he did as furnishing the price of redemption, but merely that they might be partakers of eternal life, with the other saints who had fallen for their country and religion. The act, indeed, was not free from superstition and misguided zeal; but it is mere fatuity to extend the legal sacrifice to us, seeing we are assured that the sacrifices then in use ceased on the advent of Christ.

Why, then, does Paul pray for the dead Onesiphorus? Why does he refer to people being baptized for the dead (i.e., doing penance for them)? Nothing changed in that respect from the Old Testament.

9. But, it seems, they find in Paul an invincible support, which cannot be so easily overthrown. His words are, “Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work shall be burnt, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire” (1 Cor. iii. 12—15). What fire (they ask) can that be but the fire of purgatory, by which the defilements of sin are wiped away, in order that we may enter pure into the kingdom of God? But most of the Fathers give it a different meaning—viz. the tribulation or cross by which the Lord tries his people, that they may not rest satisfied with the defilements of the flesh. This is much more probable than the fiction of a purgatory. I do not, however, agree with them, for I think I see a much surer and clearer meaning to the passage. But, before I produce it, I wish they would answer me, whether they think the Apostle and all the saints have to pass through this purgatorial fire? I am aware they will say, no; for it were too absurd to hold that purification is required by those whose superfluous merits they dream of as applicable to all the members of the Church. But this the Apostle affirms; for he says, not that the works of certain persons, but the works of all will be tried. And this is not my argument, but that of Augustine, who thus impugns that interpretation. And (what makes the thing more absurd) he says, not that they will pass through fire for certain works, but that even if they should have edified the Church with the greatest fidelity, they will receive their reward after their works shall have been tried by fire. First, we see that the Apostle used a metaphor when he gave the names of wood, hay, and stubble, to doctrines of man’s device. The ground of the metaphor is obvious—viz. that as wood when it is put into the fire is consumed and destroyed, so neither will those doctrines be able to endure when they come to be tried. Moreover, every one sees that the trial is made by the Spirit of God. Therefore, in following out the thread of the metaphor, and adapting its parts properly to each other, he gave the name of fire to the examination of the Holy Spirit. For just as silver and gold, the nearer they are brought to the fire, give stronger proof of their genuineness and purity, so the Lord’s truth, the more thoroughly it is submitted to spiritual examination, has its authority the better confirmed. As hay, wood, and stubble, when the fire is applied to them, are suddenly consumed, so the inventions of man, not founded on the word of God, cannot stand the trial of the Holy Spirit, but forthwith give way and perish. In fine, if spurious doctrines are compared to wood, hay, and stubble, because, like wood, hay, and stubble, they are burned by fire and fitted for destruction, though the actual destruction is only completed by the Spirit of the Lord, it follows that the Spirit is that fire by which they will be proved. This proof Paul calls the day of the Lord; using a term common in Scripture. For the day of the Lord is said to take place whenever he in some way manifests his presence to men, his face being specially said to shine when his truth is manifested. It has now been proved, that Paul has no idea of any other fire than the trial of the Holy Spirit. But how are those who suffer the loss of their works saved by fire? This it will not be difficult to understand, if we consider of what kind of persons he speaks. For he designates them builders of the Church, who, retaining the proper foundation, build different materials upon it; that is, who, not abandoning the principal and necessary articles of faith, err in minor and less perilous matters, mingling their own fictions with the word of God. Such, I say, must suffer the loss of their work by the destruction of their fictions. They themselves, however, are saved, yet so as by fire; that is, not that their ignorance and delusions are approved by the Lord, but they are purified from them by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. All those, accordingly, who have tainted the golden purity of the divine word with the pollution of purgatory, must necessarily suffer the loss of their work.

I have dealt with this specific passage:

Purgatory: Refutation of James White (1 Corinthians 3:10-15) [3-3-07]

Purification or purgation by fire (or similar terms like “burning” and “refined” is a common scriptural motif:

Psalm 66:12 (RSV) . . . we went through fire and through water: but thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place. (cf. 12:6)

Isaiah 4:4 When the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning.

Isaiah 48:10 Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction.

Zechariah 13:1, 9 On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness. . . . [9] And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested . . .

Malachi 3:2 But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap:

1 Peter 1:7 That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ:


Photo credit: Historical mixed media figure of John Calvin produced by artist/historian George S. Stuart and photographed by Peter d’Aprix: from the George S. Stuart Gallery of Historical Figures archive [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]


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