Lessons from Limbo

Earlier this year, Fr. John Breck took on the news of the Roman Catholic change on the doctrine of limbo, and drew up some Lessons from Limbo.

He first sets up the difference between the Roman Catholic teaching on limbo and the Orthodox understanding of the state of unbaptized infants.

If the logic is defective, it is because the underlying presupposition is false. The consensus of Eastern patristic tradition, and of Orthodox theologians today, is that the “original sin” of Adam is not transmitted (sexually or by any other means) from generation to generation like an inherited disease. Rather, what we inherit or receive from creation of the “first man Adam” (who represents all of humanity) is the consequence of sin, namely mortality, death. “As sin came into the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, so death spread to all men because all men sinned…” (Rom 5:12).

Fr. John then goes on to elucidate some important lessons from this entire episodes. Here is what he says is the most important:

Perhaps the most important lesson in all of this is that the Holy Spirit is calling and directing us constantly to return to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Particular theologoumena, theological opinions, always need reassessing – not just for their specific content, but for the impact they might have on the lives of our faithful. (A case in point is the “toll houses,” spheres of purification through which deceased persons pass on their journey toward heaven. There is room, to be sure, for some such teaching within the Church – purification as an ongoing process, for example – as long as it does not become, as it so often does, distorted into a Gnostic image of purification through what amounts to torture, inflicted by powers more demonic than angelic.)

The primary question, made clear by the history of “limbo,” is this: To what degree does any given teaching or exposition of the faith actually reflect the witness of Holy Scripture and the Church’s authentic Tradition? To the extent that it does, then it should be retained; where it does not, then the teaching needs to be reinterpreted so that it conforms faithfully to revealed Truth.

Because pious traditions – even erroneous ones – can have such a hold on the popular mind, it requires courage, patience and a great deal of prayerful discernment in order to make this continual reassessment of our various theological interpretations. Nevertheless, we should not fear the process. We should accept it as a function of the Church’s Living Tradition, given and sustained by the Spirit of Truth.