Hell 6: Calvin and the immortal soul

Posted: March 22, 2014 by J in Bible, Church history, Pastoral issues, Theology
Tags: , , , ,

We’ve seen how  the doctrine of ‘hell’ was traditionally based on the idea that humans possess an ‘immortal soul’. And how in modern times the discipline of biblical studies has called that idea into question. The other direction from which ‘the immortality of the soul’ has been assailed is from the discipline of Christian theology.

I want to look at how two of the great theologians – Calvin and Irenaeus – wrestled with this traditional teaching. This will hopefully get us to the heart of the theological problems surrounding the (now unpopular) doctrine of the ‘immortal soul’.

We will come at Calvin’s struggle from an unexpected direction: by looking at his argument against the doctrine that souls are unconscious after death in the ‘intermediate state’ before final judgement (also called ‘soul-sleep’). Why did Calvin reject soul-sleep so strongly? It doesn’t seem to be exactly a core faith issue. Why did he begin his writing career by publishing against this teaching?

To understand Calvin’s beef with soul-sleep, you need to realise that, like most theologians before him, he is a massive disciple of Plato. Massive. In the Institutes, writing on the soul, Plato is pretty much the only extra-biblical authority Calvin mentions with approval. Calvin overtly accepts Plato’s doctrine of the soul – as did much of the church since the time of the Fathers. So we need a thumbnail sketch of Plato’s view. Bear with me, this will get us some serious mileage.

For Plato, the material world was a miserable affair. It was a long way out from the good stuff, the eternal realm of reason or ideas which was the centre of reality. Matter was not properly real at all: not rational. The human was a strange mixture of parts: a soul that belonged to the core of reality (the rational realm), housed inside a body that definitely did not. The body was like a brute animal, stupid and controlled by base desires. So the human person was a conflicted mess: a little spark of eternal realm trapped inside a miserable, perishable flesh-cage. The only hope was to be released from the prison – through death – so the soul could be freed to get back to the centre of things, and do its rational knowing stuff without all the distractions of the beast. Death was a good: it was the start of a better life (see Plato’s Phaedro).

When Calvin talks about the soul, he has Plato’s cosmology and anthropology in the background, but he is trying to think Scripturally. So we find him working hard to explain Christian ideas from within this Greek world-view. The realm of ideas is now the ‘spiritual’ realm, the rational eternal core of existence is ‘God’, and the glimmer of rational, eternal substance inside the human is ‘God’s image’. It is the seat of conscious intelligence:

our spirit is the image of God, like whom it lives, understands, and is eternal.

from Psychopannychia (1534)

Calvin insists, then, that though the soul is created, it is created as an immortal essence. Immortality is kind of ‘built-in.’ (Institutes 1.15.2 etc).

As a young man, Calvin got really annoyed with the Anabaptists for suggesting that after death the soul went unconscious, and slept until the day of resurrection. (Actually Luther taught the same thing, but Calvin couldn’t so easily have a go at the great Reformer.) You can read Calvin’s Psychopannychia (‘Soul-sleep’) and see just how annoyed he got!

Why did Calvin care so much about this ‘intermediate state’ issue? I don’t care much about it, do you? He cared, not for its own sake, but because of what it implied about the nature of the human soul. The soul was the thing Calvin got fired up about.

What did the doctrine of soul-sleep suggest about the soul, that Calvin took issue with?

It was the ‘unconscious’ bit that stuck in his craw. We’ll let him explain in his own words. Following Plato, Calvin insisted that:

The soul, after the death of the body, still survives, clothed with sense and intellect.  And it is a mistake to suppose that I am here affirming anything else than the immortality of the soul. For those who admit that the soul lives, and yet deprive it of all sense, feign a soul which has none of the properties of soul, or dissever the soul from itself, seeing that its nature, without which it cannot possibly exist, is to move, to feel, to be vigorous, to understand. As Tertullian says, “The soul of the soul is perception.”

from Psychopannychia (1534)

The soul is the rational, sentient part of man, its function is to know and understand: the higher senses. The body on the other hand was the dead-weight that dragged down and dulled all the higher senses. So the idea that death might detract from the soul’s consciousness is not permissible. That would be to make the body the seat of consciousness. To postulate a sentient body and an unconscious soul was to turn the whole Platonic cosmology and anthropology on its head.

This was important for Calvin: to be freed from the body implied a liberation of the rational, sensible soul to return to the place of true consciousness where its awareness would be that much more profound:

The body… decays, weighs down the soul, and confining it within an earthly habitation, greatly limits its perceptions. If the body is the prison of the soul, if the earthly habitation is a kind of fetters, what is the state of the soul when set free from this prison, when loosed from these fetters? Is it not restored to itself, and as it were made complete, so that we may truly say, that all which it gains is so much lost to the body?

from Psychopannychia (1534)

Because the spiritual/rational world is so superior to this material one, in fact is where God is, therefore:

We desire indeed to depart from this prison of the body…since the load of clay by which we are pressed down, acts as a kind of wall of partition, keeping us far away from God.

from Psychopannychia (1534)

This is all written by Calvin, not Plato – just in case you were confused! It’s not hard to see how the structure of Calvin’s thought mirrors Plato in this area.

All this was threatened, then, by the idea of ‘soul-sleep’. So, for Calvin, much bigger and more annoying issues were at stake than just the ‘intermediate state’ question. That’s presumably why he felt this was this first thing he wanted to publish on.


I wonder if you’ve noticed the dodgy theological territory into which Calvin has strayed here? The Greek idea of the soul as immortal and eternal, involves it being a part of the divine core of things. A little bit of divinity emanated from the centre out to the fringes, and got locked into a filthy body made of corruptible material (yuck!). That divine soul-substance was not created: it has always existed. This idea is called panentheism.

Transferring this into Calvin’s Christian arena, we run into immediate problems: is the soul a breakaway bit of God himself? Calvin definitely did not want to be saying this. For him the soul is created. Yet in his scheme soul has quite a bit of the divine about it. How can he have it both ways? Calvin manages this by calling the soul the image of God. This is why he insists ‘God’s image’ means ‘rational intellect’: because ‘rational intellect’ is Calvin’s definition for what the soul is. I.e. God’s image = soul. Calvin needs this category of ‘image’, as a kind of mediating half-way point between God and created matter. He wants an essence that has the qualities of divinity, but is created. He needs to distinguish soul from God, and also to distinguish soul from corruptible flesh. In this way Calvin gets an immortal soul while avoiding Plato’s panentheism.

OK, but in practice, is there a difference in nature between God and our soul? Here things get sticky for Calvin: he needs to assert that our souls share in the divine quality of eternity or immortality. Otherwise they cannot belong to that higher ‘spiritual’ realm. Trouble is, things that are immortal may not need a Creator. In Plato’s scheme, the soul always was. But if Calvin goes there, he introduces something that existed necessarily, and not through God’s creative will. Was the soul-substance always there, alongside (or within) God? Perhaps God didn’t create it. If he didn’t, then we lose creation ex nihilo, which any theologian will tell you is a disastrous thing to lose. Calvin does not want to lose ex nihilo, so he adds ‘created’. But is this just a word tacked on to a basically Platonic structure of thought? Is it convincing? In short, can a truly immortal thing be created, and can a truly created thing be immortal? Justin Martyr thought not: he says of the soul, “it ought not to be called immortal: for if it is immortal, it is plainly unbegotten” (Dialogue with Trypho, ch.5).

Calvin does not seem to be aware of this strong tensions in his teaching re. the ‘immortal soul’. In the Institutes, he doesn’t really address or resolve them. He does little to disentangle himself from the conflicted implications that come along with his Platonic structure of thought.

This question about souls’ past history is likely a problem. What is definitely a problem is the present and future relation between an immortal soul and God. You see, really, intrinsically immortal souls don’t need God at all to continue existing. If you’re immortal, even if you’ve been created, by nature you cannot die, and so go on existing without relying on anyone to sustain you. You are truly independent, in the matter of existence. This idea severely limits God’s role as sustainer of the whole creation and of all life. And that is a Bad Thing.

Was Calvin aware of this problem? Maybe, a bit. but he doesn’t appear to make any effort, in his Institutes, to guard against it. No, he just asserts ‘immortal essence’ strongly and repeatedly. And since this imperishability is core to what it means to be the ‘image of God’, it sounds very much as though souls are by nature immortal: it is an intrinsic quality they possess. ‘Immortal essence’ sounds a lot like immortality is a quality intrinsic to the soul, doesn’t it? And this all tends to overthrow God’s place in his creation.

In other words, the panentheism world-view is not really compatible with creation ex nihilo: the Hebrew idea of a God who creates and sustains all things out of his own free will. It is precarious to try to bring together ideas from these divergent schemes of thought – and Calvin gets himself in a right mess trying it.

Calvin gets into hot water at the other end, also: in redemption. Because there is in Scripture a kind of immortality which Christ and his people are said to receive from the action of the Holy Spirit through resurrection.

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable… For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  

from 1 Corinthians 15: 42-53

This is a classic ‘before and after’ structure. Before this we do not possess immortality. Afterwards, we do. As N. T. Wright comments,

‘Barr is surely right to stress that the Genesis story as it now stands indicates that humans were not created immortal, but had (and lost) the chance to gain unending life.’

Resurrection of the Son of God. (2003) p.92, 129:

…and so the story of the Bible was needed.

But if we already have an intrinsic or essential immortality, from creation – if our soul is already a fit vehicle in which to see God and to live forever: then why must we all be changed? Do we need the Bible story to happen at all? What need of this other, lesser immortality? What need, ultimately, for the Holy Spirit? The imperative to resurrection is lost, as Calvin has given us at the beginning the thing which redemption holds out as our hope for the end. 

This is a worry and then some. It tends to undermine the goal of the gospel. It puts the Holy Spirit out of work. Takes the ‘Gee!’ out of eschatology. Gulp.

Turns out Plato has not been a good guide for Calvin, after all. He’s led him up a couple of different creeks and taken away his paddle. This doctrine of the immortal soul doesn’t seem to sit well in the framework of Christian theology.

Has anyone worked out a better doctrine of the soul than Calvin’s? Which personally I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. This is not the end of Calvin’s struggles with the theology of the immortal soul. But we’ll leave him for now. Next post we’ll look at the work of another theological giant, Irenaeus, who points a helpful way forward.





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