In Saint Augustine’s world, being Christian was becoming the default mode; it was no longer dangerous by definition. Many theologians were, therefore, speculating on the relationship between acts of repentance for sins, in the present, versus the possibility of purification after death, asking the question: When is a person purged—cleansed and ready for salvation?
In medieval Europe, the idea that one must also pray for the dead was gaining ground. The dead, perhaps a majority of souls were thought to be in purgatory, an intermediary realm between Hell and Heaven where they undergo suffering for their past sins, until those sins are washed clean through atonement. That is the meaning of the Latin verb purgare, ‘to purge’.
The most significant support for the later medieval doctrine of Purgatory comes from a passage of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. Paul writes,
No one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—the work of each builder will become visible, for the day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.
Saint Augustine and Salvation
Saint Augustine, bishop of Hippo Regis (North Africa) and the most influential of all Christian theologians, grappled with this passage and its interpretation in the decades around the year 400 CE. In his Enchiridion, or handbook of spiritual exercises, Augustine lent his authority to this Pauline metaphor in a section on the means to salvation. What did Paul mean when he said that the work of each builder would be revealed by fire? Did he mean that a person is purged—cleansed and made ready for salvation—by their faith, as revealed to God? Or does Paul mean that salvation depends on the ‘works’ they perform, their observance of Jesus’s teachings and participation in the sacraments of the Church?
Just as Saint Augustine teaches that no crime is too great to be forgiven, if a person truly repents, he also insists that we are all constantly sinning without knowing it. As he says, “We see even [baptized] infants … tortured by divers evil afflictions.” The sacraments of the Church can only do so much to alleviate that inherent and perpetual human sinfulness, for “the whole import of the sacraments of salvation has more to do with the hope of future goods [in heaven] than with the retaining or attaining of present goods” in this life.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval Legacy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Mercy of God
And yet, Augustine also disagrees with those who believe that all people will be punished by fire, regardless of what they have done in their lives to alleviate or atone for their sins. To assume that is to be blinded by the limitations of human forgiveness, which cannot imagine the mercy of God. In this and other writings, he argues that, “According to Holy Scripture, the faith that saves is the faith that the apostle Paul describes when he says, ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision avails anything, nor uncircumcision, but the faith which works through love’. But if faith works evil and not good, then without doubt, according to the apostle James, ‘it is dead in itself’.”
Faith that works through evil is not faith, says Augustine. Moreover, he posits that it would seem unjust for an evil man who has never atoned for his sins in this life to be able to atone for them after death.
‘The Foundation, which Is Christ’
This is where Augustine turns back to Paul’s metaphor about those who build on “the foundation, which is Christ, not [with] gold, silver, and precious stones, but wood, hay, and stubble”—these are the ones who will be saved “as by fire”.
In fact, wood and hay and stubble may be understood, without absurdity, to signify such an attachment to those worldly things—albeit legitimate in themselves—that one cannot suffer their loss without anguish in the soul. Now, when such anguish “burns”, and Christ still holds his place as foundation in the heart—that is, if nothing is preferred to him and if the man whose anguish “burns” would still prefer to suffer loss of the things he greatly loves than to lose Christ—then one is saved, “by fire”. But if, in time of testing, he should prefer to hold onto these temporal and worldly goods rather than to Christ, he does not have Him as foundation—because he has put “things” in the first place—whereas in a building nothing comes before the foundations.
Burning Away the Fire of Desire
Augustine teaches that all people, even those who build with gold and precious stones, must have their works, their deeds, tested by fire. “The fire shall try every man’s work, of whatsoever sort it is.” If the work survives the test of fire, “He shall receive a reward. If any man’s work burns up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, as by fire”. But that fire is not made of literal flames: it is the fire of desire for worldly things that must be allowed to burn away and leave only Christ behind.
As he goes on to say:
Because he prefers to suffer the loss of these things rather than losing Christ, and does not desert Christ from fear of losing such things—even though he may grieve over his loss—“he is saved”, indeed, “as if by fire”. He “burns” with grief for the things he has loved and lost, but this does not subvert nor consume him, secured as he is by the stability and the indestructibility of his foundation.
In conclusion, Augustine describes this fire as “purgatorial”, rather than as physical, and he distinguishes it from the eternal damnation of “everlasting fire”, which Jesus invokes in Matthew’s gospel. Clearly, Augustine and his contemporaries were wrestling with problems of sin and salvation in new ways.
Common Questions about Saint Augustine and the Idea of Salvation
A purgatory is an intermediary realm between Hell and Heaven where the dead undergo suffering for their past sins, until those sins are washed clean through atonement.
Saint Augustine was the bishop of Hippo Regis (North Africa) and the most influential of all Christian theologians.
Saint Augustine posits that it would seem unjust for an evil man who has never atoned for his sins in this life to be able to atone for them after death.