Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Purgatory, By The Rev. M. Canty, P.P., Part 21.


Descent into Hell - Tintoretto 1568 

V. Theologians also advance another argument, in support of the subterranean situation of Limbo,  which is taken from that well-known place where St. Peter § says (St. Peter, iii. 19.): "Coming He (Christ) preached to those spirits that were in prison." This verse, be cause somewhat obscure, requires some elucidation.

The following is the whole passage on which the argument is founded : "Christ also died once for our sins, the just for the unjust: that He might offer us to God, being put to death indeed in the flesh, but enlivened in the spirit. In which also coming he preached to those spirits that were in prison : which had been some time incredulous, when they waited for the patience of God in the days of Noe, when the ark was a building, wherein a few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water." Now the question is this: What was this preaching, and who were those spirits in prison to whom He preached ? With regard to this question, there have been many mistaken notions entertained.

1. St. Augustine, (Epist. 99.) and after him the Venerable Bede, Hugo, and St. Thomas, (3 p. q. 52, Art. 2.) understand by the prison, the body, and by the spirits, the souls that were inclosed in their bodies in the time of Noe ; in other words, the souls of those who were then alive. The body is as it were the prison of the soul. To the souls that were inclosed, or imprisoned, in their body at the time of the deluge, Christ may be said to have preached through Noe, who, whilst he built the ark, exhorted the people to repentance.

But they who do not accept this explanation say :

1. that St. Augustine admits it is not easy to under stand the passage, and that his own rendering of it did not please himself. He acknowledges that this text is full of difficulties; and he expressed a wish that some reason may be found for applying it to hell. This, however, he declares is clearly placed beyond all doubt, that the soul of Jesus Christ descended into the regions below, or hell. He concludes his observations on the text with this interrogation: " Who therefore unless an infidel shall deny that Christ.had been in hell ?" 2. If the prison be explained of the body, this would be taking the words in a symbolical or metaphorical, instead of the literal and genuine sense. But to forsake the literal and genuine for the symbolical or metaphorical sense would, in the present case, be opposed to one of the cardinal rules of hermeneutics.* 3. Such an explanation would be contrary to the scope of the apostle. The motive he had in view was this, to praise the efficacy and the fruitful effects of the death of Christ. But the efficacy and virtue of His death would be in no way praised, in no way glorified by this, that Christ had at one time, through the mouth of Noe, preached to wicked men, who died in their sins. If the apostle sought in the past an example, or type, of the virtue and efficacy of the death of Christ, he would have gone back rather to the preaching of Jonas to the Ninivites, than to that of Noe to the people of his day.

2. Some few, admitting that Christ descended into hell, imagined that He preached there to the damned, and converted those among them, who were the less guilty, or had committed the less evil. It is said that Clement of Alexandria seems to have held this opinion.
How vain and false was such a notion, is seen from this alone, that " out of hell there is no redemption." Opposed to such a fable, is the constant opinion of the, Fathers, and, in a special manner, of St. Augustine. (Lib. de Haeresib,, cap. 79.) Hence, St. Gregory the Great tells us that Christ delivered from hell, or Limbo, those just souls alone that were detained there. These are his words : " Christ descending into hell, delivered by his grace those alone who both believed Him to come, and, whilst alive, kept His precepts,"

3. Calvin imagined that the spirits, of whom St. Peter makes mention, were the souls of the saints; but that they were not, as the Vulgate has it, in prison. He says that the word used in the Greek version φυλακή,  signifies not alone a prison, but also a watch-tower. He takes it in the latter sense; and by the term watch-tower, he means heaven, where, according to his notion, the souls of the just awaited the advent and death of Christ. He imagined that Jesus Christ preached to these, not in person, but in cause; that is, as the cause of their liberation from the watch-tower, and of their translation to beatitude.

It is enough to upset the notions of Calvin, to observe that it is quite certain, and, as we have seen, quite capable of proof, that Christ really descended into hell. The Syrian version thus renders it: " He preached to those souls which were detained in hell." Furthermore, though the Greek word adopted by St. Peter, may, at times in the Scripture, signify a watch-tower, it has this meaning only in the case where there was an enemy to be watched. When there was no danger to be apprehended from an enemy, the word is never used in Scripture to signify a watch-tower. Now, in whatsoever place were the souls of the saints who died before Christ, they had no enemy to fear, and were safe from hostile attack. Then the word must be read, not in the sense of a watch-tower, but of a true prison.

Beza, a worthy coadjutor of Calvin in the work of "reformation," contended that when it is said in the text Jesus Christ was " enlivened in the spirit" we are to understand by the spirit his divinity. Then the sense would be that, by the power of his divinity, He had preached through Noe, to those who on account of their incredulity at the time of the deluge, are now detained in a prison, that is, hell.

This notion of Beza is dispelled: 1. because although by the spirit some understand the divinity of Christ, others by it understand his soul. That it should be read in the latter sense would seem to have been the intention of St. Peter, for he establishes an antithesis between the soul and body, contrasting one with the other. 2. The soul alone of Christ arrived in the prison. The phrase found in the Greek is : " He went into the prison." It could not be properly said of his divinity, which was always present everywhere, that it went into the prison, or arrived therein. Then the allusion must be to his soul alone. 3. All the ancient versions, as we have seen to be the case in the Syrian, read : " who were in prison," and not " who are in prison." They employ the past, and not the present tense. But if the notion of Beza were true, if St. Peter alluded to those souls who were in prison, or damned, on account of their incredulity in the time of Noe, he would have used the present instead of the past tense, for when the apostle wrote, these incredulous were still in prison, as they shall for ever be.

Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation ; particularly as applied to the sacred Scriptures.