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The Early Church Fathers on 1 Corinthians 3

The ancient writers of the faith all interpret 1 Corinthians 3 as a purification that occurs in the afterlife.

-William Albrecht

Cyprian of Carthage (200s)

It is one thing to stand for pardon, another thing to attain to glory: it is one thing, when cast into prison, not to go out thence until one has paid the uttermost farthing; another thing at once to receive the wages of faith and courage. It is one thing, tortured by long suffering for sinsto be cleansed and long purged by fire. Epistle LI

Origen (200s)

Now Paul says this also to me, in order that I not build in a careless way, since I know that on that day the fire will test what sort of work I build. I take care in building not to add on wood, hay, or strawFor if I carelessly add wicked souls to the church, I have attached to the good foundation, Christ Jesus, wood, and others who are hay, and others who are straw. On the other hand, it will be clear that I have built precious stones upon the foundation if some who belong to the building shine brilliantly—and so brilliantly that they are like those stones in the description of Jerusalem and the temple: chosen stones and stones of crystal and stones of saphire and all the other stones named there (Isa 54:11–12; Rev 21:19–21). The temple of God (1 Cor 3:16) and the building of God (1 Cor 3:9) are to have gold like the temple that Solomon built as the archetype of a temple that has much gold and silver (1 Kings 6:20–22). Thus if someone else comes and builds, the gold he adds to the building will prove to be more precious than the silver. I myself must take care: I do not wish that through me wood and hay and straw should be introduced. Even if I am considered worthy of salvation on other grounds (since Paul writes, he himself will be saved, but only as through fire), it is not my wish—wretched man that I am (Rom 7:24)—that I be saved in such a way as to fill the building with wood, hay, and straw, through not being receptive to grace and not building well. This is not what God’s word intends. For the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.…

Cyril of Jerusalem (Early 300s)

“Or who shall stand when He appears? Because He comes in like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ herb; and He shall sit as a refiner and purifier..For this cause Paul warning us beforehand says, If any man builds on the foundation gold, and silver, and precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; every man’s work shall be made manifest; for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in fire.” Catechetical Lectures  15

JEROME (late 300s)

IF THE MAN WHOSE WORK HAS BURNT AND PERISHED, AND WHO SUFFERED THE LOSS OF HIS LABOR, SHALL LOSE INDEED THE REWARD OF HIS LABOR, BUT SHALL HIMSELF BE SAVED, YET NOT WITHOUT THE PROBATION OF FIRETHEREFORE, THE MAN WHOSE WORK SHALL ABIDE WHICH HE HAS BUILT, SHALL BE SAVED WITHOUT THE PROBATION OF FIRE, AND THERE WILL BE SOME DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SALVATION AND SALVATION

Jerome Contra Jovinian

Chromatius of Aquila (Mid 300s)

“It is not possible to be sent out from the fire of punishment until one has paid for the least sin by the washing of punishment(ablutione poenae). The apostle is known to indicate this when he says the fire will test the quality of each one’s work.”

Tractatus in Mathaeum

Gregory of Nazianzus (mid 300s)

Let these men then if they will, follow our way, which is Christ’s way; but if they will not, let them go their own. Perhaps in it they will be baptized with Fire, in that last Baptism which is more painful and longer, which devours wood like grass, 1 Corinthians 3:12-19 and consumes the stubble of every evil.

Oration 39

Basil the Great (360)

“If therefore we have disclosed our sins by confession, we have dried up the grass as it was growing, clearly suitable to be consumed and devoured by the purgatorial fire… It does not altogether threaten destruction and exterminationbut beckons to purgation, according to the teaching of the Apostle, ‘he will be saved as if by fire’.” –Commentary on Isaiah IX

Ambrosiaster  (370s)

Though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. Paul says that a person will be saved because the substance of which he consists will not perish the way false doctrine perishes: the latter does not belong to the person’s essence. He says but only as through fire to show that this salvation does not come without any penalty. To suffer loss is to endure reproof. For what person, when subjected to punishment, does not lose something thereby? Yet the person himself may be saved. His living soul will not perish in the same way that his erroneous ideas will. Even so, however, he may suffer punishments of fire. He will be saved only by being purified through fire.

–Homilies on Corinthians

John Chrysostom (late 300s)

If someone has the right faith but leads a wicked life, his faith will not protect him from punishment, because his work will be burned up. A man in gold armor will pass through a river of fire and come out shining all the more brightly, but a man who passes through it with hay will lose it all and destroy himself besides. Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians 9.5.

Christ will come and demand an accounting of the whole human race and of the Jews along with the others. See how both David and Malachi foretold this. Malachi said: “And he came in like a smelting furnace and like the soap of the fullers, and he will refine and purify the silver and gold,” and Paul’s words were: “For the day will declare it since the day is to be revealed in fire,” And David said: “God in full manifestation will come.” And by this he was again proclaiming Christ’s second coming. –Demonstration Contra Paganos VIII

Saint Augustine (400s)

Again, the fire of which the apostle speaks in this place must be such a fire as both men are made to pass through, that is, both the man who builds upon the foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, and the man who builds wood, hay, stubble. For he immediately adds: The fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he has built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire. The fire then shall prove, not the work of one of them only, but of both. Now the trial of adversity is a kind of fire which is plainly spoken of in another place: The furnace proves the potter’s vessels: and the furnace of adversity just men.

And it is not impossible that something of the same kind may take place even after this life… some

believers shall pass through a kind of purgatorial fire, and in proportion as they have loved with more or less devotion the goods that perish, be less or more quickly delivered from it.

– Augustine, Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love, Chapter 69

Theodoret of Cyr: (420s)

The teacher teaches what is right. Some follow him; others do not. Those who follow will be like gold and silver—purified by the fire and shining when they emerge from it. The others will be burned up. But the teacher will not lose anything by this. If he has been faithful, he will receive his reward regardless. Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians 183.

Caesarius of Arles: (500s)

There are many people who understand this text incorrectly, deceiving themselves with a false assurance. They believe that if they build serious sins upon the foundation of Christ, those very offenses can be purified by transitory flames, and they themselves can later reach eternal life. This kind of understanding must be corrected. People deceive themselves when they flatter themselves in this way. For in that fire it is slight sins which are purged, not serious ones. Even worse, it is not only the greater sins but the smaller ones as well which can ruin a person. Sermons 179.1.

Cassiodorus (500s)

There are three types of honor in the church: good, better, and best, and three types of dishonor: bad, worse, and worst. These are compared to wood, hay, and straw. Others have the following interpretation of this passage: the man who builds gold, silver, and precious stones upon the those who build with wood, hay, and straw are those who, although faithful Christians, are entangled by too great a love of their possessions. When persecution comes or they are required to either give up their property or deny Christ, they do not value their possessions more highly than Christ and so they give them up. Yet since they love them more than they ought, their loss causes them pain and tribulation. So they will be saved, but only as through fire, that is, by tribulation. And the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. That is, his work will be tested by a trial or a present tribulation, which is often compared to fire. Gold and silver are made brighter in the fire; wood, hay, and straw will burn up. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. If anyone teaches carelessly, either by example or by word, he labors in vain because the product is paltry. Though he himself will be saved. He will be saved in virtue of his own righteousness. But only as through fire. The word as refers to something true, for example, in the passage as of the only begotten of the Father (John 1:14). If the man who is just is saved as through fire, why was he not concerned that his building be strong and lasting? What of those who build up by word but tear down by example?

Gregory the Great: (500s)

We should remember that in the world to come no one will be purged of even his slightest faults unless he has deserved such a cleansing through good works performed in this life. Dialogue 4.41.

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