This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 22 states:
XXII. Of Purgatory
The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping, and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.
By the late Middle Ages, a number of ancient Christian customs and traditions had taken on a life of their own. Respect for the dead, remembrances of the departed, the celebration of the Saints, reverence for sacred art, and other such things had grown from their simple pious origins into a systemic culture that the Reformers found to be “rather repugnant to the Word of God”.
Purgatory, in Roman teaching, is a place where the souls of the faithful go after death to finish the process sanctification. It’s like a temporary hell, or an extension of life’s sufferings, but with the certain promise of heaven when one’s time in Purgatory is complete. It is based on a controversial reading of 1 Corinthians 3:15 and its neighboring paragraph, and an attempt to differentiate between the “ordinary” Christian and the “perfect” Christian Saint in death. Over the centuries, a whole theological construct of prayers and indulgences for the souls in Purgatory, resulting in a literal economy of salvation, got so bloated and obviously abusive that it became the very first tipping point that led Martin Luther down the path of Reformation.
Pardons were an abuse of the godly practice of private Confessions. Out of convenience certain priests were assigned the specialty task of hearing confessions and helping local parishes in that function. Known as pardoners, these priests frequently earned for themselves rather unscrupulous reputations, accepting money in place of true penitence.
Worshiping and adoration of images and relics was another staple of medieval piety. It began with the good and godly practice of honoring the departed and upholding the truth that a human being is both soul and body – thus how we treat even a dead man’s bones is a matter of respect to that person. But over time the due veneration owed to the great Saints of the past became bloated in popular practice, often with the encouragement of the clergy, such that it became indistinguishable from the worship that is to be offered to God alone.
Most of the Protestant Reformers did away with these things entirely: no doctrine of Purgatory exists in official Protestant confessions, private confessions are only offered by the “high church” clergy in the Lutheran and Anglican churches, and the veneration of images (such as icons) is expressly forbidden in the majority of Protestant traditions. To some degree, Lutheranism resisted the iconoclastic movement (the destruction of icons and images of Christ and the Saints), and many Anglicans have taken a fresh interest in them as well, but the veneration shown by these few (as well as by Roman Catholics today) is nowhere near the overblown malpractice of the 16th century.
It is also important to note that this Article rejects the “Romish Doctrine” considering these things. This has two implications of significance. First, it points out that the Roman Catholic teachings on these subjects at the time of the Reformation were not Catholic, but an abuse particular to the Roman Church. The Eastern Orthodox Church had (and still has) versions of all these things – Purgatory, Confession, and especially veneration of Icons – but they are distinctly different from the Roman teachings and practices. This leads to the second point: that Article 22 technically only rules out the Roman teachings on these subjects. This has allowed an enabled Anglicans (particularly those of a “high church” ilk, with particular interest in the Early Church) to explore recovering the simpler Early Church doctrines on these matters, rather than throwing them out entirely. Although rare, Anglican theories of Purgatory do exist; some Anglican churches have and venerate icons; some Anglican churches offer private confessions on a regular basis.
This is one of the beauties and frustrations of The 39 Articles of Religion. Most of them read like straight-forward Protestant confessions of faith, but they were carefully written to enable (or even encourage) a rediscovery of the ancient Christian faith before the Church was divided. And, at its best, that’s what Reformation is all about: reforming what once was, rather than being revolutionaries and creating a whole new Church.