Archive for the ‘Indulgences’ Category

Indulgences are Back!

February 11, 2009

Or so says the New York Times. I guess it just goes to show how little the NYT knows about Catholicism. Although Indulgences are not supposed to be sold any more (which naturally had the effect of less promotion of their alleged importance), the use of Indulgences was never terminated.


Biblical Evidence for Indulgences?

August 13, 2008
Dave Armstrong (DA), a lay apologist for Rome, asserts that there is “explicit biblical [sic] evidence for all the essential notions behind indulgences” (link to source of discussion) (link to quotation).

Initially, it’s worth noting that the explicitness of the “explicit biblical [sic] evidence” is undermined by the fact that it is not for indulgences, but for “all the essential notions behind” indulgences. It seems fair to say that DA has conceded that there is no explicit Biblical evidence for indulgences.

1) How does DA pick the “essential notions behind”?

DA is not very clear in this regard. It is as though he picks them out of a hat. This is not surprising, since the doctrine of Indulgences is not a Biblical doctrine. Thus, if one is going to be limited in how one picks doctrines that are to be called the “essential notions behind.”

Of course, given that the doctrine of Indulgences is not itself a Biblical doctrine, one might think that DA would look for essential notions permitting uninspired men to innovate doctrines not taught by the apostles. DA, however, does not do this, as we see when we turn to:

2) What are the “essential notions behind”?

DA writes: “These passages form the biblical [sic] basis for priestly absolution (forgiveness), and broadly speaking, for both papal and Church jurisdiction (by extension, for the power to impose penance — binding, retaining — and to grant indulgences — loosing, forgiving).”

Apparently, the two “essential notions” that DA thinks are behind indulgences are absolution and church jurisdiction. But are these enough to address the essence of indulgences? Surely not.

Before we get to the issue of jurisdiction over penance/indulgences and forgiveness, there is the more fundamental issue of whether a proper category of temporal punishment of sin exists. This category does not have a reason for existence until the doctrine of Purgatory develops, because it is principally Purgatory for which indulgences become of value.

That is to say, the concept of earthly penance is not enough to justify the doctrine of Indulgences, which is based on the concept of temporal punishment for sins. Prior to the development of Purgatory and the concept of temporal punishment for sins, the concept of earthly penance can be viewed simply as a test of sincerity, as discipline (as distinct from punishment) for sins, or both.

Of course, Scripture nowhere makes the eternal/temporal punishment distinction. Christ’s righteousness, suffering, and death are attributed to the believer in justification. Thus, as Paul says:

Romans 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

But even if the alleged “essential notions” are not enough to justify the doctrine of Indulgences, let us address the next question:

3) Do DA’s claims have support for what they assert?

DA claims that he has provided support for “priestly absolution” and “the power to impose penance … and to grant indulgences.” But, in fact, such concepts are not discussed in the passages he relies upon.

Instead, DA attempts to read his church’s doctrines into three texts of Scripture:

A) Matthew 16:19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

B) Matthew 18:18 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

C) John 20:23 Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.

The first two passages (A and B) speak of the so-called power of the keys – of binding and loosing. But look at what is said: not what is bound on earth will be bound on earth or what is bound on earth will be bound in purgatory — but rather what is bound on earth shall be bound in heaven.

Furthermore, the two passages (A and B) make no distinction between temporal and eternal punishments. In fact, though they mention earth and heaven they basically place an equals sign between them, such that what is true on earth is true in heaven. Thus, they actually undermine the underlying essential notion that there is a difference between temporal punishment for sins and eternal punishment for sins.

Likewise the third passage (C) makes no distinction between temporal and eternal punishment for sin, simply treating sin as sin. Thus, again, the essential notions behind Indulgences are not supported but undermined.

Furthermore, contrary to DA’s claims, the passages do not describe “priestly absolution. ” There is no discussion of priests performing the various binding/loosing remitting/retaining mentioned in the three passages.

It should be noted that the concept of a New Testament priesthood as separate from the “laity” is not a Scriptural concept. Nevertheless, there is nothing “explicit” (recall that was DA’s claim) in the text that limits the binding/loosing or remitting/retaining to even the category of ordained ministers, other elders, or deacons. In fact, there is no explicit limitation at all.

Now, DA may want to counter that in the text only certain people are addressed and thus implicitly the binding/loosing and remitting/retaining is limited. One problem is that if one wishes to make that argument, one has to be prepared for the fact that there is nothing in the passage provided to avoid taking that implicit limit to its logical conclusion, namely that it was limited to only those people in particular to whom it was given.

Finally, naturally, the explanation of what the binding/loosing remitting/retaining constitutes is simply not explict in the passage (contrary to DA’s broad assertions). In fact, in the case of binding/loosing, the passage is not even explicit that the binding/loosing has to do with sin.

In fact, with respect to the first two passages (A and B) there is a reasonable argument to be made that the reference could be to revelation – such that those with the power of the key to bind and loose may have the ability to keep heavenly information secret or reveal it.

The most obvious counter-argument to such a response is that these are the keys of the kingdom of heaven, i.e. that reference is being made to entry into the kingdom of heaven – i.e. to salvation. If this is the case, though, the verse cannot have any relation to Indulgences – which do not provide salvation.

After a brief quotation from Karl Adam (which provides some similar assertions to those of DA without any Biblical evidence), DA quotes from 1 Corinthians 5:3-5 and 2:6-8 and 10-11 and provides the following commentary:

St. Paul in his commands and exhortations to the Corinthians is in entire agreement with the Catholic tenets of penance and indulgences. He binds in 1 Corinthians 5:3-5 and looses in 2 Corinthians 2:6-7,10, acting as a type of papal figure in 2 Corinthians 2:10, much like St. Peter among the Apostles. He forgives, and bids the Corinthian elders to forgive also, even though the offense was not committed against them personally. Clearly, both parties are acting as God’s representatives in the matter of the forgiveness of sins and the remission of sin’s temporal penalties (an indulgence). In this as in all other doctrinal matters, the Catholic Church is grounded in the Bible, takes seriously all that it teaches, and grapples with all the implications and deepest wellsprings of Truth to be found within the pages of God’s Holy Scriptures.

Counting the errors in this paragraph is somewhat laborious, but perhaps it will be edifying:

1) The idea that the cited passages are “in entire agreement with the Catholic tenets of penance and indulgences,” is really a red herring. Even supposing that were true, it would only be relevant if those passages were raised as an objection to such doctrines.

2) DA comment that, “He binds in 1 Corinthians 5:3-5,” is not supported by Paul using the word for “bind” in that passage. Furthermore, Paul doesn’t impose penance on the man, he excommunicates him.

3) DA states: “looses in 2 Corinthians 2:6-7,10,” but that is also not supported by Paul using the word for “loose” in that passage. Furthermore, Paul speaks only of forgiveness and not excuse from the suffering of temporal punishments, as in the doctrine of Indulgences.

4) DA states: “acting as a type of papal figure in 2 Corinthians 2:10,” but if there is an resemblance between Paul’s activity and the supposed activity of a pope, Paul is engaging in the activity – not foreshadowing it.

5) DA states: “much like St. Peter among the Apostles,” but there is no suggestion in the text to support an analogy of “Paul is to the Corinthians as Peter is to the other Apostles.”

6) DA states, “He forgives, and bids the Corinthian elders to forgive also, even though the offense was not committed against them personally,” but the text does not say that they offense was not committed against them personally.

7) DA states: “Clearly, both parties are acting as God’s representatives in the matter of the forgiveness of sins and the remission of sin’s temporal penalties (an indulgence),” but actually, as noted above, only the forgiveness of sins is mentioned, not the “remission of sin’s temporal penalties.”

8) DA finally states: “In this as in all other doctrinal matters, the Catholic Church is grounded in the Bible, takes seriously all that it teaches, and grapples with all the implications and deepest wellsprings of Truth to be found within the pages of God’s Holy Scriptures.” But, in fact DA’s comment is misleading on several levels. The teaching of Catholicism is grounded on the authority of the Vatican, not on the authority of the Scripture. It is not a doctrine “grounded in” or otherwise derived from the Bible. It is the not the result of infallible exegesis – in fact it doesn’t even claim to be! (i.e. that’s not the Vatican’s claim) It is not the result of battling with Scripture, as suggested by DA’s comment, or – at best – there is absolutely no historical record of such grappling taking place.

Although Dave goes on to quote from a Cardinal of his church, the bulk of the remainder of Dave’s article is really related to penance – which DA admits has “developed” over time (though some of the footnotes mention indulgences and their Medieval abuse).

In conclusion, we may safely continue to view Indulgences as not Biblically evidenced, despite Mr. Armstrong’s boldly titled blog post.

Thanks be to the God who Justifies,


Did Cyprian Teach the Doctrine of Indulgences?

May 12, 2008

The answer is, of course not. There was no doctrine of Purgatory in Cyprian’s day, and consequently no doctrine of indulgences either. But occasionally Cyprian’s Epistle XIII is trotted out as evidence of indulgences in the 3rd century (example).

A typical presentation of Cyprian’s words is presented thus:

“Those who have received a libellus from the martyrs and with their help can, before the Lord, get relief in their sins, let such, if they be ill and in danger, after confession and the imposition of your hands, depart unto the Lord with the peace promised them by the martyrs ” (Ep. xiii, P.L., IV, 261).

What’s usually not mentioned is that this “libellus” is a certifiate: a piece of paper filled out by the martyr. In Epistle XII, Cyprian refers to these certificates as “by their letters to us.” It’s not 100% clear which martyrs Cyprian has in mind (at least not from this particular epistle). In Epistle VIII, Cyprian writes to certain martyrs, to wit men about to die for their faith.

In Epistle IX, Cyprian conveys the fact that apparently the martyrs had written to him requesting that those who had lapsed during the time of persecution be restored to communion when the time of persecution was over. He explains that some were willing to accept people back on the bare word of the martyrs, before the persecution was past, before there was repentance, and even before the martyrs themselves had been martyred! Cyprian explains that this is not proper. Furthermore, Cyprian explains that “even if the martyrs, in the heat of their glory, were to consider less carefully the Scriptures, and to desire anything more, they should be admonished by the presbyters’ and deacons’ suggestions, as was always done in time past.”

From Epistle X, we gather that the martyrs had identified “certain of the lapsed” for this benefit. In Epistle X, though, Cyprian has to politely decline their request in part, for he insists that there must be repentance of sin before their can be a granting again of communion. Furthermore, toward the end of the epistle (part 4), Cyprian urges the martyrs to be specific in their commendations. Cyprian explains that they should name names, and only designate those “whose penitence [repentance] you see to be very near to full satisfaction.”

In Epistle XI, Cyprian explains that “no one can come to communion unless the hands of the bishop and clergy be first imposed upon him” and therefore urges “how much more ought caution and moderation, according to the discipline of the Lord, in these gravest and extremest sins!”

For you see, the problem is this: in the time of persecution, many abandoned the faith. It was an enormous task for the elders (even assisted by the deacons) to examine those who wished to return to communion. The testimony of the martyrs was viewed as compelling – partly because the martyrs could themselves be trusted (for they were willing to die for their faith) and also an honor for the martyrs as indicated in part 3 of Cyprian’s Epistle XIV.

In short, in the historical context, when Cyprian writes: “Those who have received a libellus from the martyrs and with their help can, before the Lord, get relief in their sins, let such, if they be ill and in danger, after confession and the imposition of your hands, depart unto the Lord with the peace promised them by the martyrs,” we understand that Cyprian is referring to restoration into the visible church of Christ: a restoration of fellowship and communion, and of peace with the church.

Even so, Cyprian immediately goes on to contrast them with the “others who, without having received any certificate from the martyrs, are envious …, must wait, in dependence on the protection of the Lord, for the public peace of the Church itself.”

What is Cyprian trying to convey? He’s explaining that even though it is not technically proper to begin restoring the lapsed while the church is being persecuted, those who appear to be at death’s door may be received back, assuming the other conditions for re-acceptance are met.

In Epistle XIV, Cyprian explains that he “wrote twice” and indicated that those qualifying in dire straits should be “remitted to the Lord.” In the same epistle he goes on to explain how he came to provide epistles XII and XIII, namely because there way too many, and way too many spurious, certificates being written – and lapsed were being welcomed back in, who should have been excluded. But after this had been stopped, those who had certificates started to stir up trouble, basically demanding that the churches honor their certificates. So, the purpose of XII and XIII were to limit the acceptance of the certificates to those at death’s door, at least until the persecution was over.

In short, even with the certificates of the martyrs, Cyprian goes in Epistle XXVI to state that “although they [i.e. certain lapsed folk] had received certificates from the martyrs, nevertheless, that their satisfaction might be admitted by the Lord, these persons beseeching have written to me that they acknowledge their sin, and are truly repentant, and do not hurry rashly or importunately to obtain peace ….”

From all this context, we see that these certificates of the Martyrs were, in essence, personal commendations to the effect, “I know this person – he is truly sorry for his sins, please accept him back into the church of God.” This was taken by some of the certificate recipients to their spiritual benefit – but by others to a demanding and insistency, as though the certificates were “Get out of Excommunication Free” cards.

So we even read a response from the presbyters and deacons of Rome to Cyprian, in which they explain “Let them, then, see what they are trying to do in this matter. For if they say that the Gospel has established one decree, but the martyrs have established another; then they, setting the martyrs at variance with the Gospel, will be in danger on both sides. For, on the one hand, the majesty of the Gospel will already appear shattered and cast down, if can be overcome by the novelty of another decree; and, on the other, the glorious crown of confession will be taken from the heads of the martyrs, if they be not found to have attained it by observation of that Gospel whence they should become martrys; so that, reasonably, no one should be more careful to determine nothing contrary to the Gospel, than he who strives to receive the name of martyr from the Gospel.” (Ep. XXIX, pt. 2)

Notice how both Cyprian and the Roman presbyters agreed that even if the martyrs thought otherwise, it was their loss: not the Gospel (word from the Romans) /Scriptures (word from Cyprian). But finally, one could turn to the end of the second epistle from the roman presbyters to Cyprian, in which they assent to his thought of making an exception for those on death’s door. For they essentially repeat his ideas and expound and (most notably, slightly expand):

“but of such as impending death does not suffer to bear the delay, having repented and professed a detestation of their deeds with frequency ; if with tears, if with groans, if with weeping they have betrayed the signs of a grieving and truly penitent spirit, when there remains, as far as man can tell, no hope of living; to them, finally, such cautious and careful help should be ministered, God Himself knowing what He will do with such, and in what way He will examine the balance of His judgment; while we, however, take anxious care that neither ungodly men should praise our smooth facility, nor truly penitent men accuse our severity as cruel.”

After such an investigation, I think we can conclude that neither Cyprian or his colleagues in Rome had any concept of Indulgences in mind in the various letters they exchanged. They were concerned, very concerned, about proper church discipline, and had very serious reservations about those who had lapsed during time of persecution.


Indulgences for Reading Scripture

April 10, 2008

One Catholic blogger, who found a cute way to avoid mentioning Dr. White’s name without being offensive, has a post in which he points out that Indulgences can be gained in Roman Catholicism by reading Scriptures. (link) He believes this to be a counter-argument to Dr. White’s point that it is useless for Catholics (given Catholic epistemology) to read Scripture.

As his first commenter notes, however, the passage he quotes is a bit outdated, because it refers to indulgences that remit “time” in Purgatory. Now that Catholicism is changing to stop talking about “time” in Purgatory, these old indulgences do not make sense. Only the “plenary” indulgences make sense, and so those are the only ones left. (Update: there is still the concept of a “partial” indulgence – but now that time has been eliminated, it is somewhat difficult quantify parts in a way that would permit the indulgence to be coordinate with the act performed. Thus, as a practical matter, the plenary indulgences would be expected to – and do – dominate the indulgence scene.)

This provides a great example of one of the many changes in Catholic theology that took place in Vatican II. Oh – we know the counterargument: the idea that there is time in Purgatory had never been dogmatically defined, and consequently this isn’t a change.

But think about it. If all the popes and other Catholic teachers promulgated (and – in previous generations – sold) indulgences that were absolutely meaningless (if, in fact, there is no “time” in Purgatory) then what’s the explanation?

1) The “Church” didn’t know the truth about Purgatory; or
2) Something else?

Or perhaps someone will come back with a new counter-argument that the post-Vatican II position also hasn’t been dogmatically defined, and just because there are no more time-based indulgences doesn’t mean that there is no time in Purgatory. On the other hand, the CCC now states that “death is the end of earthly time” (I don’t recall the citation offhand), and the CCC nowhere suggest that there is time in purgatory (to my knowledge).

On top of that we have, in Spe Salvi, essentially a promulgation of a denial that Purgatory is a place where time applies:

Who would not feel the need to convey to their departed loved ones a sign of kindness, a gesture of gratitude or even a request for pardon? Now a further question arises: if “Purgatory” is simply purification through fire in the encounter with the Lord, Judge and Saviour, how can a third person intervene, even if he or she is particularly close to the other? When we ask such a question, we should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other—my prayer for him—can play a small part in his purification. And for that there is no need to convert earthly time into God’s time: in the communion of souls simple terrestrial time is superseded. It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain.

(take from paragraph 48 thereof, emphases added, source)

Thus, I think it’s safe to conclude that this is an example of Catholicism teaching “X” 50 years ago (i.e. before V2) and “notX” now. That’s usually the standard that we’re asked to provide by Catholics who want a demonstration of the fact that the Roman Catholic church makes mistakes, and consequently cannot be trusted in the same way we trust Scripture.

In short, Dr. White’s point is emphasized by this very matter. If Catholics simply accept what Rome teaches, they are going to be accepting error as truth, because the Roman Catholic church makes mistakes.


UPDATE: “The Hidden One” has disputed several “factual matters.” He doesn’t specifically come out and say that it was not previously taught that there was time in Purgatory. It’s good he didn’t because, as Thomas Aquinas wrote in Summa Theologica, “the punishment of purgatory is temporal” (See reply to Objection 4, here) and “The fire of Purgatory is eternal in its substance, but temporary in its cleansing effect” (See reply to Objection 1, here) and “a man may be punished at the same time for sins committed in various places” (See main answer, here) and “And since that which clings more persistently is more slowly cleansed, it follows that some are tormented in Purgatory longer than others, for as much as their affections were steeped in venial sins.” (See main answer, here) and “Severity of punishment corresponds properly speaking to the amount of guilt: whereas the length corresponds to the firmness with which sin has taken root in its subject. Hence it may happen that one may be delayed longer who is tormented less, and “vice versa.”” (See reply to Objection 1, here)

Furthermore, it is not only a medieval belief, but one that was reflected in the modern era (before V2). For example, see the comparison of three days in purgatory versus three years of suffering on Earth in this aid to understanding the Baltimore catechism (link). See also the discussion in the right hand column, about mid-way down (with various citations) here.

Erasmus points out the belief that there is time and days in Purgatory according to the prevailing belief in his day (link). (See also, footnote 3, here – especially the portion on the following page).

There’s a very lengthy discussion here, if anyone is interested.

Likewise, numerous non-Catholics have recorded the same thing (see here for example, especially pp. 375-77).

In fact, we could go and on.

James Akin’s undocumented claim(s), “The number of days which used to be attached to indulgences were references to the period of penance one might undergo during life on earth.” (here) and “This document introduced the classification of indulgences as partial or plenary—a simplification of an earlier system of reckoning how many “days” of penance an indulgence represented that led some to suppose that an indulgence represented getting a certain number of days “off” their time in purgatory.” (here, emphasis in original – same website as previous quotation, but attribution to a particular author is unclear) do not persuade me to the contrary, since Aquinas and many many others are clear that Purgatory was temporal and temporary. Indeed, Aquinas believed that Purgatory was a place (not merely a “state”) and that it was either in or near hell. He also held that the fire of Purgatory was real physical fire (and the same fire as Hellfire), which would require time in order to burn, since burning is an action.

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