In her book Consorting with Saints, Megan McLaughlin discusses the development of purgatory in relation to prayers for the dead. She writes:
Historians have traditionally sought the meaning of prayer for the dead in the medieval West within the theological tradition, as formulated in the later middle ages and debated during the Reformation. In other words, prayer for the dead has been associated primarily with the doctrine of purgation after death.
She has a footnote at this point which is also worth quoting:
This is true of the most important recent treatment of the ideas associated with prayer for the dead in the early middle ages, Arnold Angenendt’s “Theologie und Liturgie,” in Schmid and Wollasch, Memoria, pp. 79-199. The title of this essay is somewhat misleading, since in fact Angenendt is concerned with the ways in which the commemoration of the dead was understood during the period of theological decline between the death of Gregory the Great in the seventh century and the revival of theology in the twelfth. Angenendt attributes the growing importance of prayer for the dead in this period to the triumph of crude assumptions about divine justice over theological subtlety. Nevertheless, his essay still focuses on those early medieval beliefs that fed into the theological tradition. He argues that the scholastics of the later middle ages were obliged to find justifications for liturgical practices which had grown up during the earlier period of theological decline; in the process they paved the way for the controversies of the sixteenth century…Angenendt sees in early medieval developments the roots of later problems.
Indeed, many of the most important scholarly discussions of the subject have occurred in works on Purgatory. A notable example is the long article on Purgatory in the Dictionnaire de theologie catholique, in which Albert Michel attempted to present a defense of the doctrine, using the tools of modern scholarship. Michel, writing in 1936, rejected some of the arguments used by earlier Catholic apologists, admitting in particular that no explicit reference to Purgatory could be found in Scripture. He asserted instead that the strongest argument for the existence of Purgatory was the tradition of the church. In order to demonstrate the continuity of that tradition, he reviewed not only patristic texts but also the evidence for prayer for the dead in the early Christian period. For so closely did Michel associate prayer for the dead with the doctrine of Purgatory, that he believed he could demonstrate the existence of the latter from the practice of the former. Prayer for the dead was “the most solid basis for Christian belief in Purgatory.” Throughout the article, he reverted to discussion of liturgical developments as a means of demonstrating continuity of belief in Purgatory.
Within the last few decades, however, the idea that belief in Purgatory has been continuous from the earliest Christian centuries has been criticized not only by Protestant apologists, but also by secularized scholars and even by a few Catholic ones. The issue has acheived new prominence since the publication in 1981 of Jacques Le Goff’s controversial book La Naissance du Purgatoire. Le Goff is concerned in this work with the emergence of Purgatory as a place, an intermediate space in the other world between heaven and hell. While he admits that belief in the possibility of purgation after death can be traced back to the first centuries of Christianity, he asserts that Purgatory–the place–came into being only in the late twelfth century. As proof of this, Le Goff cites linguistic evidence: the appearance of the substantive purgatorium (Purgatory), which eventually replaced earlier phrases such as purgatorius ignis (purging fire) or purgatoriis locis (places of purgation) in discussions of the afterlife. He argues that the substantive form first appeared between 1160 and 1180, and that this linguistic development signals the “birth” of Purgatory as a place.
My takeaway from all of this is:
- Scholastic theologians invented doctrine to justify liturgical practices which were novel in terms of Scripture.
- Clear headed historians admit that Purgatory cannot be found in Scripture.
- The earliest idea of purgation within the Church was of a cleansing fire after death, not a definite place.