When I was a protestant, there were a number of passages of Scripture that nagged at me. They were the sort of passages that fuel countless little arguments in every protestant community. Some verses had to do with internal protestant debates, such as those surrounding free will, while others – the ones that I found most interesting – were the kind that are mostly ignored; if they are addressed, it is usually only to note, “it doesn’t mean what Catholics think it means.”
1 Corinthians 3:10-15 was one of those passages.
Here’s how that passage reads in the English Standard Version, one of the better protestant translations of the Bible:
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
Let’s layout some of the working elements of this passage. We have a construction analogy wherein the foundation is Christ. Various people might build on this foundation, and their building materials are categorically either flammable or inflammable. Judgement Day will bring a testing fire, as opposed to a tormenting fire, by which each builder’s work will be proved. When a builder’s work survives, he is rewarded. When a builder’s work is burned up, he will suffer some loss. Still, he will enjoy salvation, though he only comes to it after going through a fire of sorts.
One objection to the Catholic reading of this text ignores the fact that the foundation is Christ. Needless to say: ignoring the foundation is fatal to any critique. From the protestant perspective, that Christ is the foundation must mean that the individuals are all Christians. That must not be ignored or subverted.
The most common objection, however, lazily asserts that the second fire is the same as the first. Remember that the first fire is a testing of what was built, and the second fire is what the builder must go through if his work does not survive the first fire. Not only are the two fires clearly distinct, but the words are rendered meaningless if the two fires are equated, since the builders whose work survived witnessed the same testing fire. One fire is for the building, the other fire is for the builder.
Another common objection is the claim that the loss suffered by the builder whose work was burned up was the very burning up of his work. This position ignores the future tense of the loss suffered; it is subsequent to the burning of his work. Moreover, this position neglects the contrast between receiving reward and suffering loss, especially as individual consequences following from either good or poor building.
Generally, protestant objections are usually laced with incredible misconceptions about the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. It is not surprising to encounter the false assumption that Catholicism holds that the second fire, the one experienced by the builder himself, is a torment or punitive. In fact, while the Church has little to say about the particulars of purgatory, the second fire is certainly about the purification of the builder, not a symbol of punishment. Among other things, fire is a symbol of purification, and nothing impure may enter heaven; a universal tenet of basic spiritual physics backed up by the Bible.
Finally, tangential to the question of purgatory is the practice of praying for the departed. On this point too, protestant interlocutors have a tendency to presume to know what the Church teaches. Hence, remarks such as this one are all too common: “Their final destination has been already settled by their sin and rebellion against God in this life so to pray for the dead would only encourage the false hope that the destinies of people might be changed after they die.”
The Catholic Church, being the preserver and compiler of Sacred Scripture, is intimately aware of why praying for the salvation of a departed person is contrary to Scripture. Perhaps the best way of addressing this particular perverted assumption about Catholic theology is to merely ask this question: “Where did the Church ever claim that a single damned person would go to purgatory?”
An attentive person will note that the builders in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 all had Christ for a foundation, and all eventually enjoyed salvation. The Church’s position is simple. Every person is judged upon leaving this life. Each one will either enjoy heaven or suffer hell. However, of those who will enjoy heaven, some are not adequately purified, or sanctified, prior to their bodily death. Those persons, logically, must complete their sanctification before entering the Beatific vision. The experience of final sanctification is known as purgatory.
Protestant theology cannot accommodate the idea of purgatory, because protestant theology does not believe in the need or possibility for real purification. This is part of their teaching on justification, that it is not actual, but only forensic. That, however, is can of worms for another time.
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