By Francis Turretin in Institutes of Elenctic Theology

Whether the souls of the fathers of the Old Testament were immediately received into heaven after death or were cast into limbo. The former we affirm; the latter we deny against the papists.

Statement of the question.

I. This question lies between us and the papists who (the more easily to defend their hypothesis concerning the imperfection of the Old Testament) maintain that the fathers who lived under it were not immediately admitted into heaven, but were detained in limbo until the coming of Christ. Now by the term limbus, they mean the upper part of hell and as it were the extremity; the metaphor being taken from a garment whose extremity or border (which runs along the extreme part) is called limbus, according to Virgil: “Clad in a Sidonian robe with embroidered border” (Aeneid 4.137 [Loeb, 1:404–5]).

II. The papists make a fourfold hell. They assign the first to the eternal punishment of sense and loss of the wicked, which is called by them hell by way of eminence (kat’ exochēn). They make the second of temporal punishment of sense and loss, which they call purgatory. To the other two they give the common name of limbo. They hold the one to be eternal for the mere punishment of loss (for infants dying before baptism), which they call the “limbus of infants” (Limbus Infantum). The other is assigned to the temporal punishment of loss (for the fathers who died before the death of Christ), called by them the “limbus of the fathers” (Limbus Patrum). Thus Altenstaig says on this word: “Limbus according to Gerson, is the upper part of hell, in which they were kept to be saved as far as the debt of the first parent should be paid by the death of Christ” (Lexicon theologicum [1619/1974], p. 498; cf. Gerson, “De Articulis Fidei,” Exp. 5 Opera Omnia [1987, repr.], 1:238; Thomas Aquinas, cf. Innocentii Quinti … in IV Libros Sententiarum Commentaria ex Manuscriptis … Thomae Aquinatis, Dist. 45, Q. 1*, Art. 2 [1652/1964], 4:432–33; and Bellarmine, “De Purgatorio,” 2.6* Opera [1857], 2:396–97).

III. On the contrary, the orthodox assert that the souls of the fathers were immediately received into heaven after death, where they enjoy happiness and are free from both kinds of punishment, both that of loss and that of sense.

Reasons against limbo: (1) from the formula of the covenant.

IV. The reasons are: (1) the formula of the covenant of grace under which the fathers lived does not suffer them to be hurled into a limbo, but demands that they should be admitted into heaven. For since God promised that he would be their God, not temporarily, but eternally (nor is he the God of the dead, but of the living)—the fathers must necessarily still live even after death, at least as to some part of them (i.e., as to the soul), not with any kind of life, but with a happy and heavenly life, necessarily included in this promise (as has been proved before, Question 2). Christ expressly teaches this. When speaking of the dead fathers he says “All live unto him” (pantes autō zōsi, Lk. 20:38), not only in the mind and power of God because he can recall them to life and was really about to do this according to his decree; but they live because they are before him always and enjoy a divine life. This is both “from him” (as the beginning) and terminates “on him” (as its object and end). Now who would say that they live in God who being thrust into hell are without the vision of God and feel the punishment of loss (at least the temporal).

2. From the example of Lazarus.

V. Second, the ancients immediately after death were received into the bosom of Abraham, as appears from the example of Lazarus (Lk. 16:22, 23). Therefore they were also received into heavenly joy. For “the bosom of Abraham” can be referred to no other thing than to eternal life; this is shadowed forth under the symbol of a sumptuous feast, in allusion to a custom of the ancients in which they were accustomed so to recline at their feasts that the one rested his head on the bosom of the other. This is said of John, because Christ reclining upon the higher part of the couch had John next to him, who is therefore said to have leaned upon his bosom (Jn. 13:23). Thus nothing is more natural than that it should be said here that Lazarus was to Abraham what John was to the Lord; in the heavenly feast especially since Christ elsewhere clearly unfolds this mystery when he says, “Many shall come from the east and the west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 8:11), i.e., shall enjoy with him the celestial banquet. “To sit down with Abraham” and “to be in the bosom of Abraham” are the same except that to be in the bosom is a mark of greater love because not all shall recline upon his bosom, as Maldonatus aptly remarks on this passage (Commentaria in quatuor evangelistas [1863], 2:287–88 on Lk. 16:22). Now mention is made of Abraham rather than of Jacob or any other saint; both because he was the father of believers in whose bosom (i.e., most loving embrace) they are collected who partake of the fruit of the same faith with him, as sons come together in the bosom of their father when they are graciously received by him; and also on account of his liberal hospitality during life, so that the hospitality of the good but wealthy Abraham may be opposed to the inhospitality of the wealthy provider of the feast.

VI. Hence it is evident that to no purpose does Bellarmine maintain that the bosom of Abraham is nothing else than limbo and that the souls of Abraham and of Lazarus were in the same abyss with the soul of the provider of the feast, distinct indeed from each other, but having nothing solid interposed, but only a great gulf (mega chasma) (“De Purgatorio,” 2.6* in Opera [1857], 2:396). For first, our interpretation concerning the reclining in the heavenly banquet being established, this figment falls to the ground. Hence, after mention of this sitting down, it is added that others shall be cast out “into outer darkness” (eis to skotos exōteron, Mt. 8*:12)—the similitude being taken from a magnificent banquet in which on the inside the ceiling glitters with lamps, but outside there is nothing but the blackness of night. Thus whatever is outside the kingdom of heaven (where the eternal light shines) will be darkness. Again, in the bosom of Abraham good things are received and consolation is given to Lazarus for the torture he had suffered. Thus “the alternate changes of evil and good things are compensated by an ample retribution” (Tertullian, De Idolatria 13.14–15 [trans. J. H. Waszink and J. C. M. van Winden, 1987], pp. 46–47). But in limbo neither can this good be possessed, nor any place for consolation be had because there is the punishment of loss and exclusion from the face of God. Third, if Abraham was in hell, how can it be said that the abyss was so profound that there could be no passage from one to the other? How could Lazarus be said to have been carried away (apenechtheis) to a different place from hell, where the rich man is said to have been? Fourth, the Roman Ritual itself favors our opinion. For among other things which the clergy ought to sing, as soon as the funeral enters the church, they sing, “May Christ who called receive thee and angels carry thee into the bosom of Abraham” (“Caput 8: De Exspiratione*,” Rituale Romanum [1944], p. 141). In reality the whole of this discourse (whether it be a history or a parable or a history parabolically described) must be understood not according to the letter (kata to rhēton) and historically, but parabolically, for neither tongues nor speech nor fingers can belong to souls.

3. From the thief.

VII. Third, the thief is admitted into paradise before the ascension of Christ according to his promise, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Lk. 23:43). Nor should it be said here that “today” must be construed with the preceding verb (“I say”) and not with what follows (“shalt thou be with me”) so that the meaning is “today I say unto thee, thou shalt be with me in paradise” (to wit, at the last judgment) because the construction will not suffer this. In vain would this be added because no one speaks except in the present time and it is clear that Christ refers to the words of the thief, “Remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (v. 42). Nor should it be said that paradise is limbo (as Maldonatus holds), because it appears from Scripture that paradise is located in heaven as a place of delight and of eternal happiness (2 Cor. 12:2, 4; Rev. 2:7). Nor should it be said that the thief requested only this—that Christ should remember him in paradise—because it is not absurd to say that Christ gave more to him than he asked, as the most kind Father is accustomed to do above what we seek. Nor is this a privilege peculiar to the thief and not common to others since faith and repentance (to whom this is given by Christ) is common to all true believers. Hence Bellarmine rightly proves from this passage that the saints immediately after death enjoy the vision of God (“De Sanctorum Beatitudine,” 1.7 Opera [1857], 2:437–38).

4. From Enoch and Elijah.

VIII. Fourth, Enoch and Elijah were translated to heaven (Heb. 11:5; 2 K. 2:11). For although this was peculiar to them that they were bodily whirled into heaven, it was not singular that they were spiritually admitted into it; yea, they were the solemn pledges to the pious of the heavenly glory to be at length obtained. Nor if the letter said to have been written from Elijah to Jehoram (2 Ch. 21:12) was handed to the king only after Elijah’s death, does it follow that it was written after his translation. It is one thing for it to have been written after his translation; another to have been given only then. The emptiness of the figment concerning the translation of Enoch and Elijah to a terrestrial paradise, also concerning their return to war against Antichrist has been elsewhere exposed (Volume I, Topic VIII, Question 7, Section 9).

5. From the consolation of the ancients.

IX. Fifth, the ancient believers waited for a heavenly city (Heb. 11:10) and had a great consolation and certain hope of glory in death (which would not have been the case if they had as yet to be hurled into hell). How could Jacob have testified that he waited with such earnestness the salvation of the Lord (Gen. 49:18) and David that he committed his spirit into the hand of the Lord (Ps. 31:5), if they should still be far off from the face of God and were to be glorified only after many ages? Nor can it be said that David thus commended to God the perfection of life because the words can bear no other meaning according to the style of Scripture than to deliver the soul to God (as is evident from the example of Stephen, Acts 7:59).

Sources of explanation.

X. What is said of “the sepulcher” and “death” (Gen. 37:35; 42:38)—that Jacob was about to go down with sadness (lsh’vl) (“into the grave”) is falsely drawn to limbo. Sh’vl or hadēs is the grave into which men descend after death.

XI. “The pit wherein is no water,” from which the ancients were to be sent forth by the blood of the covenant (Zech. 9:11), ought not to be drawn to limbo since this may be said partly literally concerning deliverance from the Babylonian captivity and the miseries accompanying it (from which the Jews were not yet entirely freed); partly mystically, concerning the spiritual captivity under sin from which Christ frees us by the efficacy of his blood, by which the covenant of grace is ratified (as it was the foundation of all deliverances even temporal).

XII. It was not the real Samuel who was seen by the woman (1 S. 28:12), but only his apparition (spectrum) (to wit, a demon personating the prophet), who came out of the earth to terrify Saul, as Satan himself often transfigures himself into an angel of light. For no right or dominion belongs to demons over the souls of the pious whom God has received into the eternal tabernacle that they may rest from their labors (otherwise their condition after death would be worse than in life, in which, armed with faith, they are safe from all the assaults of Satan). Besides, if it was Samuel himself, he would not have suffered Saul to worship him; nor could it be said that God had not answered Saul consulting him—neither by priests nor by prophets, because he had answered then by the prophets. Nor is there anything important as to the mistake in the name of Samuel given to that apparition; it could be so called on account of similitude, as images are usually called by the names of the things themselves of which they are images (as Augustine fully proves ad Simplicianum). Nor is there any importance in this that it predicted future things because this could be done by divine revelation for the punishment of men (as the same Augustine and after him Lyranus observe; cf. De diversis questionibus ad Simplicianum [PL 40:101–48]).

XIII. It is said that no one ascended into heaven before the Son of man descended from heaven (Jn. 3:13), not as to local ascension to the beatific vision because Enoch and Elijah had already been translated even bodily, but as to a mystical ascension (i.e., a knowledge of heavenly things to be made manifest to men). As “to ascend into heaven” (Rom. 10:6) is to know divine mysteries (cf. Prov. 30:4). In this sense, it is said that no one has ever seen God, but the Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has revealed him to us (Jn. 1:18); and “neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him” (Mt. 11:27).

XIV. “The way into the holiest of all” is said not to have been manifested before the ascension of Christ (Heb. 9:8); not that it was entirely concealed, but (1) that it was not so clearly made known. Therefore the fathers went into heaven through Christ (in whom they believed) because he is the way of entrance into heaven, but who was not yet clearly known because he had not yet come. (2) Again, it was not known to any of the Gentiles, as in the New Testament. (3) It was not as yet manifested by the actual ransom (lytrō) of Christ (which had not yet been paid), but only as to efficacy of merit. (4) Time is not compared with time here, but rather the Mosaic sacrifices with the sacrifice of Christ, to intimate that they could not open heaven to us, which was granted to the blood of Christ alone. (5) If Christ is said to have been the first who entered into heaven, this is to be understood not as to time, but as to causality because the entrance of Christ was the true cause of the fathers’ no less than of our entrance into heaven.

XV. The “prison” (phylakē) mentioned in 1 Pet. 3:19 (“by which [Spirit] also Christ went and preached unto the spirits in prison” [tois en phylakē]) cannot mean the limbo of the fathers. He speaks of those which “sometime were disobedient” (apeithēsasi pote), while Christ by his prophetic Spirit through Noah preached repentance to them. Rather it denotes the infernal prison (as in Rev. 20:7) in which (in the time of Peter) they were held shut up on account of their resistance to the preaching of Christ by Noah (to wit, to those who are in prison now [tois en phylakē ousi], not who were formerly there).

XVI. Although it can be said that the ancients received some increase of knowledge and consolation after the exhibition of Christ in the flesh and his ascension unto heaven (as is said of the angels, Eph. 3:10), it does not follow that they had been altogether excluded from heaven and from beholding the face of God; but only that their beatitude was not yet fully consummated. To this some refer the words of the apostle: “God having provided some better things for us, that they without us should not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:40). And to this Calvin seems to have had respect by the mirror or act of watching in which he says the fathers were said from a desire of Christ not to exclude them from the fruition of beatitude and the vision of God, but to mark the desire and earnest expectation (apokaradokian) of the advent of Christ, to which also the angels are said to have looked (1 Pet. 1:12) (Epistle of Paul … to the Hebrews and the First and Second Epistles of St. Peter [trans. W. B. Johnston, 1963], p. 293 on 1 Pet. 3:19).

XVII. The promise sometimes denotes the first advent of Christ in the flesh promised in the Old Testament; sometimes the second in glory promised in the New. The ancients died without “receiving the promise” (Heb. 11:39)—namely, concerning the former advent of Christ, which was reserved for us without them. But believers still wait for the promise (epangelian)—namely, to be brought in the latter advent of the Lord (Heb. 10:36, 37)—which they also themselves are about to receive; but not without us for what we now expect will be common to us with them. Thus God has set before us “something better” (kreitton ti) with regard to the former advent, in which we alone rejoice.


 Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 2 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–1997), 257–261.

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