Does Ratzinger understand 1 Cor 3?

Ratzinger in Spe Salvi:

“Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God’s judgement according to each person’s particular circumstances. He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible, without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it. Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, 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. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15). In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.

“47. Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion.”

The Greeks:

“In explanation of the Apostle’s words, they quoted the commentary of S. John Chrysostom, who, using the word fire, gives it the meaning of an eternal, and not temporary, purgatorial fire; explains the words wood, hay, stubble, in the sense of bad deeds, as food for the eternal fire; the word day, as meaning the day of the last judgment; and the words saved yet so as by fire, as meaning the preservation and continuance of the sinner’s existence while suffering punishment. Keeping to this explanation, they reject the other explanation given by S. Augustine, founded on the words shall be saved, which he understood in the sense of bliss, and consequently gave quite another meaning to all this quotation. “It is very right to suppose,” wrote the Orthodox teachers, “that the Greeks should understand Greek words better than foreigners. Consequently, if we cannot prove that any one of those saints, who spoke the Greek language, explains the Apostle’s words, written in Greek, in a sense different to that given by the blessed John, then surely we must agree with the majority of these Church celebrities.” The expressions sothenai, sozesthai, and soteria, used by heathen writers, mean in our language continuance, existence (diamenein, einai.) The very idea of the Apostle’s words shows this. As fire naturally destroys, whereas those who are doomed to eternal fire are not destroyed, the Apostle says that they continue in fire, preserving and continuing their existence, though at the same time they are being burned by fire. To prove the truth of such an explanation of these words by the Apostle, (ver. 11, 15,) they make the following remarks: The Apostle divides all that is built upon the proposed foundation into two parts, never even hinting of any third, middle part. By gold, silver, stones, he means virtues; by hay, wood, stubble, that which is contrary to virtue, i. e., bad works. “Your doctrine,” they continued to tell the Latins, “would perhaps have had some foundation if he (the Apostle) had divided bad works into two kinds, and bad said that one kind is purified by God, and the other worthy of eternal punishment. But he made no such division; simply naming the works entitling man to eternal bliss, i.e., virtues, and those meriting eternal punishment, i.e., sins. After which he says, ‘Every man’s work shall be made manifest,’ and shows when this will happen, pointing to that last day, when God will render unto all according to their merits: ‘For the day,’ he says, ‘shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire.’ Evidently, this is the day of the second coming of Christ, the coming age, the day so called in a particular sense, or as opposed to the present life, which is but night. This is the day when He will come in glory, and a fiery stream shall precede Him. (Dan. vii. 10; Ps. 1. 3; xcvii. 3; 2 S. Pet. iii. 12, 15.) All this shows us that S. Paul speaks here of the last day, and of the eternal fire prepared for sinners. ‘This fire,’ says he, ‘shall try every man’s work of what sort it is,’ enlightening some works, and burning others with the workers. But when the evil deed will be destroyed by fire, the evil doers will not be destroyed also, but will continue their existence in the fire, and suffer eternally. Whereas then the Apostle does not divide sins here into mortal and venial, but deeds in general into good and bad; whereas the time of this event is referred by him to the final day, as by the Apostle Peter also; whereas, again, he attributes to the fire the power of destroying all evil actions, but not the doers; it becomes evident that the Apostle Paul does not speak of purgatorial fire, which, even in your opinion, extends not over all evil actions, but over some of the minor sins. But these words also, ‘If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss,’ (zemiothesetai, i.e., shall lose,) shows that the Apostle speaks of the eternal tortures; they are deprived of the Divine light: whereas this cannot be spoken of those purified, as you say; for they not only do not lose anything, but even acquire a great deal, by being freed from evil, and clothed in purity and candour.”” –The Greeks at the Council of Florence link:



  1. Can I quibble? If we call your bishops bishops and patriarchs patriarchs can you show us the same dignity and call our popes popes? I don’t call Patriarch Alexius “Ridiger” or Patriarch Bartholomew “Arhondonis.”


  2. Why would I give honor to a man that holds a position as the”Vicar of Christ” that is reserved for Christ or His Holy Spirit? That is deeply offensive, not to mention idolatry.

    Second, I call lots of people by their last name when I’m writing on the blog even for those I actually do respect and revere (e.g. +Photius Farrell).



  3. So we can expect you to start referring to the PoM as Aleksej Michajlovič Ridiger (or Алексей Михайлович Ридигер) or the PoC as Aghios Theodoros (or Άγιος Θεόδωρος)?

    If your starting point is the basic “He deserves no respect anyway…”

    “Why would you give honor?” Because we do and that is a decent starting point and a civil thing to do when engaged in a debate or discussion… but this is perhaps more a choir-preaching sort of thing to do?

    One wonders, does Jones understand 1 Cor 3?


  4. Joseph can you call bishops of antioch and alexandria popes too since they are also historically petrine sees and their bishops have been referred to as “popes” as well?


  5. So, perhaps I am just too steeped in the Western tradition, but I can’t get this interpretation to make sense to me. I’ve actually been reading Chrysostom’s homilies on John recently and have been curious about his soteriology, so perhaps this discussion will also help clear some of that up for me, but for now let’s stick to the interpretation of St. Paul. There are three questions which the interpretation B16 (if that abbreviation offends anyone, I blame Tim Troutman, that’s who I picked it up from) gives answers, and which are not answered in the quoted text of the Council of Florence (though perhaps they are answered by Chrysostom somewhere):

    1) In what sense are the buildings of “wood, hay, or straw” built on the foundation of Christ? If these are the wicked works of wicked people who will suffer damnation, then aren’t they indeed built on another foundation (or, better, no foundation at all – Matt. 7:24-27)?

    2) Why does the text say (v. 15) that the WORKS are burnt up but CONTRAST this with the fate of the worker using the particle ‘de’? Admittedly, ‘de’ sets up a weaker contrast than, say, ‘alla’, and is not always contrastive at all in some writers less well versed in Greek, such as Matthew, but in Paul it usually has at least some contrastive force, and even if it didn’t this would be an odd way of phrasing things if the worker is also burned.

    3) Why is the worker said to be preserved THROUGH (‘dia’) fire? Doesn’t that imply coming out the other side? Occasionally ‘dia’ is used for means, which would favor a VERY Roman Catholic interpretation (purgatory and all), but that causes more problems than it solves. It’s best to say that there is a metaphor of passing through a fire and out the other side, or perhaps a temporal metaphor of surviving until the fire is over.

    The native speaker argument is quite significant, and so is the “Chrysostom is smarter than me” argument, but neither of these is a blank check. There are other smart people who interpret the text roughly the way B16 does. Also, there was centuries of language change between Paul and Chrysostom. Finally, in many cases (including, I would argue, this one) a strict grammatical interpretation comes out ambiguous, and decisions have to be made with context, and in certain extreme cases of ambiguity that context may have to be so wide as to include Paul’s entire theological understanding. In cases like this, being a native speaker is still an advantage, but it is not nearly so decisive here as it is in cases where the question is actually linguistic.


  6. asimplesinner,

    My initial intentions in using Ratzinger instead of Pope Benedict XVI was entirely innocent inasmuch as I have a habit of doing this for any other writer (e.g. the Confessor, Farrell, Romanides, and others). But since the first post was made demanding I honor him in a way that would go beyond my usual blogging habit “more” or “less,” I can assure you I would never do so based on such presumption. Plus, I have an affinity for obstinance. 😉

    Yes Jones certainly understands 1 Corinthians 3 because he tries to follow the Fathers (especially those who KNEW the language), but the question is do foreign German usurpers?


    1) Those that build with hay, wood, and straw do not build with a faith that is secure in Jesus Christ, but rather for their own selfish intentions. That there are men that exercise faith that are not brothers in the “community of faith” has always been the case in Christianity. That’s a big part of the context and the intention of the letter by Paul.

    2) The fire prevents one from going off into perpetual sin and eventually non-being, that is why the works are burnt up and yet the person gets salvation as existence. Maximus calls this “ever-being.”

    3) Like answer two, The fire of Hell, which is God, keeps them in existence and from falling into non-existence. The word there for “saved” doesn’t have the impact of personal salvation, but natural salvation. You need to think in terms of Person and Nature. Everyone gets saved by Christ by dint of consubstantiality, but not everyone experiences God in the same way. This kind of exegesis requires a complete over haul of the Western view of Hell, but as an Orthodox I don’t have a problem with that. God is both Heaven and Hell.

    Secondly on context, those who built with gold silver and precious stone receive a reward (which is obviously the glories of Heaven), so if the “fire” here is the “fire” of purgatory, what do these persons recieve? The text says they suffer loss. Ergo., the fire in context can’t contextually or theologically be the fire of purgatory.

    You might find it a bit smug and a bit arrogant that the Greeks are saying that they know their native language better than Germans. But think about the converse? How arrogant is it that German Erasmian scholars developed a whole program of Greek studies in Western society that nobody ever knew or EVER spoke? Linguistic or not, the greeks are and have always been in a better position to understand their own people and language.



  7. 1) You haven’t answered this question. In what sense are these works built on the foundation of Christ?

    I do realize that 2 and 3 are less serious problems, and it is absolutely true that ‘sozo’ can mean preservation – i.e. not being annihilated – rather than salvation in the typical theological sense. There are other places in Paul where it may be used this way. For example, 1 Timothy 2:15 may be intended to indicate that God will provide physical protection from death in childbirth, which was one of the biggest causes of death for women in those days.

    So, with (2) the claim is evidently that the works are ‘burnt up’ (i.e. CONSUMED) but the person is not. Hence the contrast. The text does seem to imply the utter annihilation of the works, so I’ll give you that one.

    3) I don’t think I have the background in Eastern theology to understand this claim. Sorry.

    On context: I’m a Protestant. I don’t believe in purgatory any more than you do. I realize I started out by aligning myself with the Pope – what he says is more or less how I’ve always read it (situated as I am in the Western tradition), but if he kept talking I’m sure I would start disagreeing quickly. In what sense does a person suffer loss? I always thought he suffered loss because he received no reward for his works. I associated this fire not with hell or purgatory but with 2 Peter 3:10 (the destruction of the present world), and I associated the works of “wood, hay, and straw” with Matthew 6:1-18 (though, of course, they are probably also referring to other things). So my thought was that works of apparent righteousness done with insincere motives are part of this world and cannot survive the destruction of this world, and so we will not carry them with us into the new world, whereas we will, in the next world, receive a reward for genuine works of righteousness. This seems to me to fit well in Pauls theological system.

    On language: all I said was that it isn’t a blank check. For instance, I study early modern philosophy, mostly Berkeley. I’m a native speaker of English. Suppose I write a paper interpreting Berkeley and a native speaker of German writes a rebuttal of it. Can I just say “I’m a native speaker of the language Berkeley wrote in so my interpretation is obviously correct”? Absolutely not! I still have to present my arguments. If there is a dispute ABOUT LANGUAGE I can say “I’m a native speaker of English and in English we say these words with this meaning” (of course, I still have to establish that the meaning hasn’t changed over the last 250 years), but I can’t do that with larger interpretive issues. I have to present my arguments. So I agree that the Greeks are in a much better position than the West with regard to interpretation and their interpretive tradition, but that is NOT, by itself, an argument that we should accept every interpretation made by a Greek lock, stock, and barrel, especially interpretations that are centuries and centuries after the text. Speaking a much later form of a language can sometimes even be a DISadvantage – many speakers of contemporary English are more confused by Shakespeare than someone who learned Elizabethan English as a second language, but never learned contemporary English.

    All this is simply to say that I will give great deference to the interpretations of the Greek fathers, and will not dismiss them without first having thoroughly understood them and being able to give an explanation of their reasons for believing what they believe, but I won’t accept everything they say just because they say it.

    That said, I think your deference to the Greek fathers has more to do with your theology of Tradition than with their privileged position in New Testament scholarship.


  8. Ken,

    1) I take the wood, hay, and straw as a metaphor to be building a false edifice, like a facade. It proclaims to be building on Christ but it is not truly. They could be false teachers, usurpers, or just people that say they profess faith but don’t live by that faith. What is built doesn’t necessarily mean it is sound. Only that which is gold silver and precious stones is actually true. And more importantly, the context of 1 Cor 3 is the contrast of good and bad teachers. The context says nothing about the faithful.

    I’m not suggesting that the language game is a slam dunk. I’m saying it is more likely that the greeks understand their language and people better than foreigners, especially since the foreigners did not have humble minds to submit themselves to teachers to actually be taught these things. How many Medieval theologians understood the biblical languages and yet built a false doctrine not actually understanding the passage in its original language? Only a few men understood greek in middle ages, men like John Eriugena, and they were considered so far gone to be outcasts (because they were actually Orthodox in faith). Here you have a whole other tradition at variance with the whole Greek tradition, which doesn’t even understand the language of greek much less biblical greek.

    For the record, I have as much deference to Latin Fathers like Ambrose and Hilary of Poiters as I do to the Greek Fathers. But I cannot say the same for this received “Augustinism” in the west.

    What reward is received? Is it not itself eternal well being with God that is the reward for good work?

    I take the fire to be a metaphor for God. Like the burning bush, Mal 3:2, Heb 12:29.



  9. There are many teachings throughout Scripture which would seem to imply differing degrees of heavenly reward. The standard Protestant understanding is that everyone who (sincerely) confesses faith in Christ has some part in the heavenly kingdom, but there may be different rewards. (Of course, the more careful Protestant theologians point out that it is not possible to make a sincere confession of faith in Christ without any change in one’s conduct.) Thus this passage is interpreted as talking about the heavenly rewards given to teachers/leaders of the church. I can see your claim about a facade, but it seems to me that the criticism is still a criticism of shoddy work. The work cannot withstand scrutiny, and so the worker goes unrewarded. Clearly it is talking about teachers and leaders of the church. I previously thought it was talking about those who work out of selfish motives (e.g. televangelists who live in mansions and drive Mercedes), but it could also be talking about false teachers building garbage on top of the basic Christian foundation their disciples already have.

    I think our disagreement here might not be about this passage but about soteriology generally. I have for some time been confused about Eastern soteriology (see some probably inaccurate speculations of mine here, which I based largely on this article from the GOArch web site, combined with some thoughts on what happens when you deny Augustinian original guilt). Everything I’ve read on the subject talks about being judged based on “progress in virtue” or some such, so I wondered if this ‘progress’ had to do with whether we got into heaven at all, or if it had to do with something like our concept of differing rewards, or if perhaps I was totally confused and there was a totally different conceptual scheme at work. Perhaps you can clear this up for me. Who goes to heaven? Is everyone treated the same when they get there? Who goes to hell? Are they all treated the same?

    Finally, I agree with what you are now saying about Eastern and Western theology, and language knowledge. You sounded like you were making a stronger claim before (and the Council text you quoted sounds like it is making a stronger claim). I also agree that the privileged place of Augustine in the West is unreasonable. I do consider him to be one of the great theologians of the early church, but he has his shortcomings and, unfortunately, many in the West have treated him as THE great theologian (and Protestants have been the worst about it), edging out even figures like Athanasius or Gregory of Nyssa, and this is clearly an absurd imbalance. Augustine is also separated from the text by greater cultural and linguistic barriers than the Greek fathers. He does give good instructions for dealing with these kinds of barriers in his De Doctrina Christiana which clearly shows that he was aware of the problem, but there’s just no substitute for being close to the text.


  10. asimplesinner,

    Let me just say that I believe Rome to be an irreformable institution and a *spiritually* unrepentable institution doctrinally. In a lot of ways, it’s point-less to argue with committed hell or high water Roman Catholics. I point these things out to nourish our Orthodox faith so we can understand what it is that we are dealing with and to dialogue with others that are much more open minded like conservative protestants. There is no dialogue with Roman Catholics, only the smoke and mirrors of divide and conquer and bankrupt programs of “compatibility” that have tendentious intentions whether willful or engrained.



  11. Ken,

    To add to Photios’s comments.

    1) St Paul was speaking to baptised Christians in Corinthians for whom the foundation had been laid in Christ for them to build on in developing the virtues and purity of soul. If you return to our sins or build flimsy and weak structures with little desire for true virtue then this will be exposed at the Judgement when time and wicked actions will stop as if consumed in fire. Only virtue will remain; if we do not have this then we will have nothing, and suffer for this, yet our bodies and souls remain eternally, there being no time for any change of condition and God will not destroy what is good. Our actions cease not our being unless our actions are united to the uncreated operations/energies of God.

    3) Saved through fire means that in an instant when time ends and eternity remains, wicked deeds are consumed and continue no more but the body and soul remain eternally as if saved through fire. They are not consumed by eternity because they are not merely temporal actions as are wicked deeds. It is those things limited to time that are consumed not those that have an eternal place in God.


  12. Fr. Patrick – you sound like you’re saying something more like what I always thought it meant. Only our righteous deeds will survive to the afterlife. This isn’t the same thing that Photios/the Council of Florence were attributing to Chrysostom, is it?


  13. Ken,

    It is the same thing in the sense that even though the body is saved, it is not necessarily saved in the sense of escaping hell. Saved in the context of this verse only means that the body and soul do not cease to exist in the judgement, following St John Chrysostom, but it is neutral regarding whether one will suffer in hell or enjoy blessedness in Christ. St Augustine believed ‘saved’ meant participating in joy and not hell and I believe the Ratzinger is working along the same lines. St John Chrysostom notes this understanding in his commentary and that people may be surprised by it, ie understand it as St Augustine, but firmly says that it is salvation only in sense of preservation of the body and soul in punishment not salvation from punishment.

    St John Chrysostom is adamant and clear that the punishment is eternal and not temporary. It certainly does not refer to purgatory or similar ideas based on time. It is the last day, the end of time, the end of change. On this day all men are resurrected by God and this is their eternal state because this moment is eternal; there can be no other moment of destroying again.


  14. Another reason why the body and soul is saved eternally in punishment, is the we are the image of God. We are the logoi of the Logos par excellence. He is in us and He cannot deny Himself nor destroy Himself. All creation is in Him in a sense and all will be eternally established in Him. He will not destroy it anymore than He would destroy Himself. Rather we suffer if we refuse to accept this reality that we cannot escape.


  15. Ken,
    sorry your comment was caught in moderation filter and I just now discovered it. apologies for the delay.

    We’re far closer in faith because we have much easier means and standards to resolve our differences. I’ve commented before that some forms of sola scriptura are not incompatible with Orthodoxy. We have a whole lot less red tape to run through and we like mindedly have a keen alertness to Gnosticism of all forms.



  16. Hello Photios. I am a newcomer to the historical debate between the Greek and Latin Christians. But I would, nevertheless, like to make a few remarks.

    Concerning native Greek speakers and their interpretations of 1 Cor. 3, it is not necessarily the case that a native Greek speaker would understand this passage better. We must remember that Paul was a “Hebrew of the Hebrews,” therefore many of his images come from the Hebrew Scriptures as well as 2nd Temple Jewish backgrounds. The Rabbinic Jews spoke of being saved through fire as well, in reference to those who had sinned yet still would be saved. E.P. Sanders, in Paul and Palestinian Judaism, records and expounds this reference. It seemed that some Jews, who were part of the Hillel tradition, believed that a deceased person could go to Heaven, Hell, or another place to be saved through fire. It could be, though I am not sure I am convinced, that Paul is interpreting this Rabbinic tradition Christologically in 1 Cor. 3.


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