Thursday, June 08, 2023

Widespread Disagreement About The Afterlife Before The Reformation

In a recent post, I cited a book on the cult of the saints by Matthew Dal Santo. Something that often comes up in the book is the wide variety of views of the afterlife held by late patristic and medieval sources. For example:

In the 420s the problem of the intermediate had already led Augustine to consider the possible existence of a cleansing fire after death to purge imperfect souls, but he remained hesitant regarding its necessity….It was in the context of this debate about the saints, therefore, that Gregory [the Great, a Roman bishop] parted company with Augustine, as his [Gregory's] fourth dialogue henceforth made purgatorial fire post mortem an obligatory belief…

Thus, what remained for Augustine as a possibility became for Gregory doctrine….

According to him [Eustratius of Constantinople], at death every soul was seized by good or bad angels and taken either to eternal blessedness or eternal damnation, from which there was no escape. This is strikingly different from Gregory's belief in mandatory purgatorial fire for the imperfect, but only really reveals Eustratius's focus on defending the saints' cult….

It is also worth noting how significantly this distinguished Gregory's vision of the afterlife from that of his fellow sixth-century Italian, Cassiodorus (c. 485-585), who appears to have viewed the soul as essentially dormant prior to the Resurrection….

Despite his almsgiving, Philentelus committed fornication and his death prompted a debate between the island's bishops. A renowned local ascetic then intervened to describe a vision of Philentelus's soul eternally sandwiched in an intermediate state between heaven and hell, one from which eventual entry into heaven was impossible. According to the ascetic, this was the same place to which all children went who had not yet had the chance to do good or evil - an assertion that recalls the anxieties on account of which the hermit Secundinus petitioned Gregory in 599 and with which this chapter began. The Cypriot notion [advocated by the ascetic referred to above] is not the same as Gregory's purgatorial fire, but it displays the extent to which a doctrine of immediate post-mortem judgement stirred eschatological debate across the Mediterranean at this time. Ultimately, the soul's slow ascent through the tollgates of heaven - tested at each stage by the imprecations of demons, uncertainly dependent upon the intercession of angels or saints - became the most common Byzantine view of the afterlife….

In the west, the proclamation of Purgatory at the Second Council of Lyons (1274) solved the problem of the intermediate. But like the Byzantine, the medieval Latin position was reached after six centuries of intermittent, at times inconsistent speculation.

(Debating The Saints' Cult In The Age Of Gregory The Great [United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2012], 119, 121-22, n. 134 on p. 122, 124-25)

There are many other such examples discussed elsewhere in the book (e.g., the contradictory views of Jacob of Sarug and Severus of Antioch discussed in n. 130 on p. 273; the "radical divergence" between Timothy I's views and those of Gregory and Eustratius discussed on 308).

No comments:

Post a Comment