Monday, November 3, 2008

Perfection and purgatory

Our Department's (unofficial) weekly Bible study is on 1 John. We meet for about 55 minutes every week. The last three weeks, we've been struggling through 1 John 2:28-3:10 (last week we "covered" only two verses). The dilemma is that the text seems to be telling us that if we are children of God, then we do what is right and love our brother, and if we do not do what is right or fail to love our brother, then we are not children of God. This makes it seem that unless we are perfect, we have no hope of salvation. But we are not perfect (or at least, I am not, and none of my colleagues wanted to claim perfection)—and, besides, 1 John begins by warning us against claiming we are perfect.

I am beginning to wonder if this isn't the right place to bring in the notion of purgatory.


jawats said...

Perhaps this, from the D/R 1899 American Version, will help your discussion:

1 John 2:28-3:10 (Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition.)
Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition. (DRA)

28 And now, little children, abide in him, that when he shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be confounded by him at his coming.

29 If you know, that he is just, know ye, that every one also, who doth justice, is born of him.

1 John 3

1 Behold what manner of charity the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called, and should be the sons of God. Therefore the world knoweth not us, because it knew not him.

2 Dearly beloved, we are now the sons of God; and it hath not yet appeared what we shall be. We know, that, when he shall appear, we shall be like to him: because we shall see him as he is.

3 And every one that hath this hope in him, sanctifieth himself, as he also is holy.

4 Whosoever committeth sin commmitteth also iniquity; and sin is iniquity.

5 And you know that he appeared to take away our sins, and in him there is no sin.

6 Whosoever abideth in him, sinneth not; and whosoever sinneth, hath not seen him, nor known him.

7 Little children, let no man deceive you. He that doth justice is just, even as he is just.

8 He that commmitteth sin is of the devil: for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose, the Son of God appeared, that he might destroy the works of the devil.

9 Whosoever is born of God, commmitteth not sin: for his seed abideth in him, and he can not sin, because he is born of God.

10 In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil. Whosoever is not just, is not of God, nor he that loveth not his brother.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dr. Pruss,
I don't see how purgatory would help here, because according to Roman-Catholicism purgatory is available *for* children of God; hence I don't see how it could get one *into* that group. And I don't think one could say that it's a matter of degree, because in the passage there is a sharp dichotomy between being of God and of the devil; one failing to meet the criteria of practicing righteousness is of the devil - surely a description for the group never entitled to purgatory in the first place.

You note that in ch. 1 John warns us against claiming that we are perfect. Might this not lend contextual support for the idea that in ch. 3 John does not mean that literal moral perfection is required for one to, now, have been born of God?

In ch. 1 he says we must not say that "we do not *have* sin", and also that we must not say that "we have not *sinned*", whereas in ch. 3 the criteria for being a child of God is that one is not "*doing* sin." Perhaps there is a relevant difference between the present tense in ch. 3 and the perfect tense in 1:10 (the perfect implying something more isolated or punctiliar); and likewise a relevant difference between the present tense in ch. 3 and "having" sin in 1:8 (perhaps "having sin" being a weaker claim than "doing sin").

If one ascribes a more progressive aspect to the "sin" verbs in ch. 3 then it seems plausible that John is not saying that moral perfection is a condition (as in necessary fruit) for being born of God but that a life that is predominantly oriented around doing righteousness and loving God and brother is the condition (perhaps one can bring in second-order desires as part of unpacking this). This kind of life is fundamentally different from that of one who is of the devil, one difference being that the former has an Advocate and purifier (1:9-2:2), and not only for *past* sins before becoming children of God (2:1; 3:1).

Alexander R Pruss said...

Thanks for the suggestion!

I don't have the details at my fingertips, but we tried something like a progressive reading--talking of habit of sin, that sort of thing--but did not find the Greek of chapter 3 to support it. Moreover, it seems quite possible for a Christian to habitually commit some minor sin--e.g., to habitually commit gluttony to a minor degree, or to habitually be a little lazy.

I like the idea of talking of the orientation of a life, but it's hard to make it fit with the text. The text really seems to be talking of actions.

The best reading I have at this point is an "insofar as" reading (Augustine says something like that). Insofar as we sin, we are children of the devil. Insofar as we act justly, we are children of God. I am not happy with this reading. (I can fit this with considerations of purgatory--to be in heaven, one must be wholly a child of God.)