Review Article by Robert Brow, as sent to the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association Discussion Group, September 20, 1999.

I was hoping one of our historians would respond to Michael Valpy's article "Vatican issues list of short cuts to heaven : Manual suggests ways to earn indulgences" (Globe & Mail September 18, 1999, pp. A1 & A8). I may be a gadfly, but zeroing in on a nice Pope is something else.

Here is what Michael Valpy wrote: "The Vatican manual, published in Latin but soon to be published in other languages, incorporates John Paul's teachings that humanity may meet God's requirements for justice by performing good social works, by reaching out to others, as well as by penance of prayer and other acts of faith."

As a result of the objections unleashed by Martin Luther, Valpy reminds us that "The Roman Catholic Church's Council of Trent in 1562 ended abusive practices, and, five years later Pope Pius V revoked all indulgences for which money payments or alms were required." But that did not end the idea of earning indulgences by other means.

It is just we Anglicans who had assumed that discussions on communion with the Roman Catholics were proceeding under full sail. We thought the only outstanding problem was the ordination of women. But now the Pope's flagship has shot off our main mast and the rigging has crashed on to the deck. After four hundred and thirty years we are back to Reformation square one on indulgences.

But wait a minute. The Pope's suggested basket of indulgences for Y2K does not apply to "forgiveness that follows from the sacrament of confession." I think that means we are saved by faith alone. Or is it faith expressed by confession to a priest in the apostolic succession?

It is the sins after we are forgiven that need to be paid for to satisfy  "God's justice, requiring a certain amount of time and punishment. God is saying, look, there is still a debt to be paid before the souls of the penitent are cleansed of sin in purgatory and can be allowed to enter heaven."

The good news is that the length of our stay in purgatory can be reduced by smartening up and doing some good works before we die. But for those who despair of ever meeting their spiritual deficit, let alone reducing the accumulated debt, there is the further good news that "the Church has surplus value - the reward of indulgences - which it can spend on the less perfect who are deserving." Obviously regular confession to clear our debt, good works, and keeping in touch with those whose prayers can help us get out of purgatory, is of supreme importance.

Before the Latin version of this document is translated into English we need to do our home work. It is insufficient for evangelicals to say "there you are, we always knew the Roman Catholic Church is as unreformed as it was before Council of Trent." Perhaps our CETA historians could tell us whether the Globe and Mail columnist has got his facts right? That should be easy.

Much more difficult is updating our doctrine of the atonement. Many think we do not need any such thing because John Calvin said it all. In the words of the BCP (the old Anglican Prayer book) "He made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole whole world." That means there is nothing more to pay off in purgatory. "The Romish Doctrine of Purgatory is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God" (Article XXII). But that still leaves a problem. Having accepted that full payment how do we fit into the perfect love of heaven if our character remains as mean and crabby as ever?

Others of us view the Son of God as the Lamb that keeps taking away the sin of the world (John 1:29 is in the present continuous tense). That means that our sin is lovingly and continually absorbed at great cost by the Son's eternal Lambness. Heaven is open to all whose hearts would enjoy the love of heaven, and God can perfect us according to our heart longings.. There is no payment required to satisfy the justice of God.

There are admittedly severe wrath consequences on earth, but no consequences remain when we die except the joyful enjoyment of God's heaven.

Perhaps one good result of the Pope's pre-Reformation bombshell will be to encourage Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox, to work again at what happens to us when we die.

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