IN the 1st Corinthians ( iii. 13, 14, 15): The day of the Lord shall declare (every man’s work), because it shall be revealed by fire, and the fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work burn, he shall suffer loss: but he hims&shall be saved, vet so as by fire.
This passage has always been held as one of the important and difficult ones of the whole Scripture. Now in it, as is easily seen by one who considers the whole chapter, the Apostle uses two similitudes. The first is of an architect who with solid materials builds a valuable house on a rock: the second is of one who on the same foundation erects a house of boards, reeds, straw. Let us now imagine that a fire breaks out in both the houses. That which is of solid material will be out of danger, and the other will be burnt to ashes. And if the architect be in the first he will be whole and safe; if he be in the second, he must, if he would escape, rush through fire and flame, and shall be saved yet so that he will bear the marks of having been in fire: he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire. The foundation spoken of in this similitude is Our Lord, of whom S. Paul says: I have planted . . . and as a wise architect I have laid the foundation: . . . and then afterwards : For no one can lay another foundation but that which is laid; which is Christ Jesus. The architects are-the preachers and doctors of the Gospel, as may be known by considering attentively the words of this whole chapter. And as S. Ambrose interprets, and also Sedulius on this place, the day of the Lord which is spoken of means the day of -judgment, which in the Scripture is ordinarily called the day of the Lord, as in Joel ii : the day of the Lord ; in Sophonias i: the day of the Lord is near; and in the word that follows in our passage: the day of the Lord shall declare it; for it is on that day that all the actions of the world will be declared in fire. When the Apostle says it shall be revealed by fire; he sufficiently shows that it is the last day of judgment; [as] in the Second to the Thessalonians i.: when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with the a ngels of his power, in a flame of glory;and in Psalm xcvi.: fire shall qo before his face.
The fire by which the architect is saved-he himself shall be saved yet so as by fire-can only be understood of the fire of Purgatory.
For when the Apostle says he shall be saved, he excludes the fire of hell in which no one can be saved; and when he says he shall be saved by fire, and speaks only of him who has built on the foundation, wood, straw, stubble, he shows that he is not speaking of the fire which will precede the day of judgment, since by this will pass not only those who shall have built with these light materials, but also those who shall have built in gold, silver, &c. All this interpretation, besides that it agrees very well with the text, is also most authentic, as having been followed with common consent by the ancient Fathers. S. Cyprian (Bk. iv. ep. 2) seems to make allusion to this passage. S. Ambrose, on this place, S. Jerome on the 4th -of Amos, S. Augustine on Psalm xxxvi., S. Gregory (Dial. iv. 39), Rupert (in Gen. iii. 32), and the rest, are all express on the point; and of the Greeks, Origen in the 6th Homily on Exodus, Ecumenius on this passage (where he brings forward S. Basil), and Theodoret quoted by S. Thomas in the I st Opusculum contra errores Groec.
It may be said that in this interpretation there is an equivocation and impropriety, inasmuch as the fire spoken of is taken now for that of Purgatory, now for that which will precede the day of judgment. We answer that it is a graceful manner of speech, by the contrasting these two fires. For notice the meaning of the sentence : the day of the Lord shall have light from the fire which will go before it, and as this day shall be lighted up by the fire, so this same day by the judgment shall cast light on the merit and defect of each work; and as each work shall be brought clearly out, so the workers who will have worked with imperfection shall be saved by the fire of Purgatory. But besides this, if we should say that S. Paul uses the same word in different senses in the same passage it would be no new thing, for he employs words in this way in other places, but so properly that this serves as an ornament to his language: as in the 2d of Corinthians, 5th chapter Him who knew no sin for us he hath made sin :-where who sees not that sin in the first part is taken in its proper sense, for iniquity ; and the second time figuratively, for him who bears the penalty of sin ?
It may be said again that it is not said that he will be saved by fire, but as by fire, and that therefore we cannot conclude there is a Purgatorial fire. I answer that there is a true similitude in this passage. For the Apostle means to say that he whose works are not absolutely solid will be saved like the architect who escapes from the fire, but at the same time not without passing through the fire; a fire of a different quality from that which burns in this world. It is enough that from this passage we evidently conclude that many who will gain possession of the kingdom of paradise will pass through fire: now this will not be the fire of hell, nor the fire which will precede the judgment; it will therefore be the fire of Purgatory. The passage is difficult and troublesome, but well considered it gives us a manifest conclusion for our contention; -so that we have here two places by which we can learn that after this life there are a time and a place of purgation.