Posts Tagged ‘Plato’

Poor Bill Dumbrell

Posted: October 11, 2016 by J in Church
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bill-dumbrell.jpgBill was a Christian man, I don’t think he’d be that fussed about dying.

What would have really upset Bill is the outpouring of Platonic theology that his death has triggered.

Listen to a few examples:

“A great saint has entered glory” – Archbishop Glenn Davies, Sydney Anglicans Website

“Moore Veteran called home” – Sydney Anglicans headline

“Dr Bill Dumbrell was called home into the presence of the Lord” – Moore College Website, Mark Fairful

“Bill now enjoys the presence of the Lord he served throughout his life.” Mark Thompson

“The great Bill Dumbrell has gone to Abraham’s side” – John Dickson, fb

Bill would be turning in his grave. That’s because he spent his entire career trying to teach people a different story about the Christian faith.

Not the ‘dying and going to heaven’ story, where eschatology is individualised, escapist, and death-centred. Not the story where our real home is elsewhere, and we get to go there as a spirit creature when we are finally released from the shackles of our human flesh. Not the story where the moment of death is the moment of achieving glory in the presence of the Lord forever, in heaven.

Bill devoted his public life to proclaiming a gospel different from this greek cosmology. More than any other figure from the Sydney Diocese, Bill insisted on an eschatology that was corporate, creation-focussed, and resurrection-centred. In the story Bill told, the presence of the Lord was something we would only enjoy when Christ returns. That would be the moment of glorification for believers. For Bill, our only home is planet earth, and its renewal is our only hope. Read his published works and search for any hint of the other story, the one quoted above – you won’t find it.

What you’ll find again and again is an eschatology that arises from Bill’s understanding of biblical theology, rather than from c.19th children’s hymns. He always had his eye on the big storyline, and when he thought about goals, it was the goal of that story that interested him.

Consider these quotes from Bill:

… In the epistle to the Hebrews… we refer here to the striking way in which the epistle takes up the biblically pervasive notion of “rest” as the goal towards which the faith of believers… is directed. This dependence upon the total harmony projected for the entire creation, as bound up with the notion of rest developed from Genesis 2, cannot be missed. Such references point to the establishment of the rule of the kingdom of God over an ordered creation     The End of the Beginning, p.192

Through reaffirmation of the believers hope in heaven, 1 Peter encourages resistance to the persecutions experienced by scattered congregations… The prospect for those who persevere will be the crown of glory at the manifestation of Christ.     The Search for Order, p.317

We still search for the city whose maker and builder is God. The primary eschatological event, the death of Christ, has placed us in the last days, which will be brought to a close by the return of Christ. At that time the cosmos will be changed, Christ will reign over his enemies, and believers will enter into their promised inheritance.   The Search for Order, p.326

At the end of the canon, we have returned to the beginning with an overplus… Through the sacrifice of the Lamb believers will rule, taking on the role that Adam had forfeited… For they have seen the face of the Lamb, the image into which they have been transformed, and they will be eternally in his presence. The history of salvation has ended.     The Search for Order p.346

We could go on, he said the same thing over and over. This biblical eschatology preoccupied Bill throughout his writings.

As for the other story of dying and going home to glory, Bill literally had no time for it. Never mentions it.

How sad, then to see his former colleagues foisting this other story onto him, fresh off the pages of Plato, after he is dead and can’t complain!

It’s a kind of betrayal, in effect covering over his life’s work as though it never happened. To speak of him like this is to silence the challenge of his scholarly voice. It is to say, we learned nothing from you, Bill.

These are the same colleagues who professionally ostracised Bill for so many years. When was the last time Moore College invited this ‘dear brother’ to speak at one of its meetings?

That’s fair enough if you don’t like his views. But to speak as though he didn’t hold them shows a lack of respect.

Contrast the acknowledgement outside Sydney, from another Aussie scholar, Mike Bird:

“Vale Bill Dumbrell. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.”

That’s at least a prayer Bill could recognise and relate to.

As for his Sydney colleagues, they’ve sent him off to some other-worldly paradise where I imagine he would not feel in the least ‘at home’. He certainly never looked forward to it while he was alive.

That’s why I say poor bloody Bill Dumbrell.

body-soulWe’ve seen that belief in ‘everlasting hell’ is wrapped up with the traditional Christian doctrine of the ‘immortality of the soul’. And we’ve seen how Calvin’s deep investment in that doctrine created serious problems for his theology. Now its time to consider the alternative approach of Irenaeus of Lyons (2nd century A.D.). Cards on the table: Irenaeus is extraordinary on this. Sit back and watch how real theology is done.

In Against HeresiesIrenaeus was writing against a popular belief now called gnosticism, which made use of Christian terminology, but combined it with a big whack of Greek cosmology. These gnostics taught that there were two orders of existence: a lower order of material stuff which had been created, and a higher order, including some people’s souls, which existed alongside God and was, like him, eternal. These souls were able to transmigrate from one person to another – a kind of reincarnation. They were ultimately destined to return to the higher spheres, while lower stuff like the human body was fit only to be burned up and annihilated. Not that different from Plato. (Or from Calvin, actually!) In fact, Irenaeus holds Plato responsible for a lot of these ideas (2.33.2): and he’s not that impressed!

Many Christians in Irenaeus’s time, however, were being swayed by these ideas. To counter gnostic teachings, Irenaeus employs Christian theology. He doesn’t take the usual proof-texting approach which we all know and love. Rather, we are going to see four powerful, big-picture theological ideas which Irenaeus brings into play – like a battery of hand-picked, long-range guns, which he feels are more than adequate to knock out the opposing forces. Let’s see if he’s right.

First, Irenaeus introduces the idea of God’s freedom in creating:

If He (the Creator) made all things freely, and by His own power, and arranged and finished them, and His will is the substance of all things, then He is discovered to be the one only God who created all things, who alone is Omnipotent, and who is the only Father rounding and forming all things, visible and invisible, such as may be perceived by our senses and such as cannot, heavenly and earthly, by the word of His power; and He has fitted and arranged all things by His wisdom, while He contains all things, but He Himself can be contained by no one: He is the Former, He the Builder, He the Discoverer, He the Creator, He the Lord of all; and there is no one besides Him, or above Him.

Against Heresies 2.30.9

As you can see, this idea of God’s freedom gets Irenaeus a lot of mileage. He asserts that God made the world the way he wanted to make it. He was able to arrange his creation ‘by his wisdom‘, not by any external necessities. His will is bedrock for the creation: it is ‘the substance of all things.’ This all seems hard for any Christian to deny.

But if this is so, then there could not have been any other heavenly beings or souls existing alongside God. For if there were, then the necessity of those things’ existence constrains and limits God in his creating. God would be surrounded, or as Irenaeus puts it here, ‘contained’. His freedom is compromised. It follows that for God to be truly free as Creator, then he must have created alone. So then, anyone else that is, was created by him:  ‘then He is discovered to be the one only God who created all things…there is no one besides Him:

God alone, who is Lord of all, is without beginning and without end… always remaining the same unchangeable Being.

Against Heresies 2.34.4

Irenaeus’s second contribution follows close on the first. He teaches that the soul, is therefore created, just like the body:

But, as each one of us receives his body through the skilful working of God, so does he also possess his soul.   2.33.5

Not only are souls created: Irenaeus defines them with reference to the body:

[Souls] preserve the same form [after death] as the body had to which they were adapted…  2.34.1

…the soul possesses and rules over the body     2.33.4

Wow. The soul is not a prisoner of the body (cf. Calvin): it is actually the proprietor of the body! The soul possesses its own body. Moreover the soul is tailor-made and adapted to that particular body, and after the body’s death, the soul continues in that same form. The two parts of the human have a strong and permanent affinity. For the soul has much in common with the body with which it has been ‘mixed up’ (2.33.4). In other words, the soul’s true home is not a disembodied spirit world: its true home is its own proper body.

Blown away are the eternal souls of the Gnostics, who pre-existed uncreated alongside God. Such souls are not compatible with a free Creator. Irenaeus places everything, including souls, firmly and unambiguously in the ‘created’ camp, as the beneficiaries of God’s wise, sovereign, free creative action, and belonging within the created order. Note the difference with Calvin, who creates an ambiguous special category for souls, with both divine and creaturely qualities.

Now we come to the really interesting thing: Irenaeus also believes in ‘the immortality of the soul’. How does he maintain this, if souls are mere creatures? Here is Irenaeus’s third theological idea, perhaps his most important contribution to this whole debate. Irenaeus describes a different kind of immortality:

But if any persons at this point maintain that those souls, which only began a little while ago to exist, cannot endure for any length of time; but that they must…if they have had a beginning… die with the body itself— let them learn this:  [Souls] endure, and extend their existence into a long series of ages, in accordance with the will of God their Creator; so that He grants them that they should be thus formed at the beginning, and that they should so exist afterwards.

Against Heresies, 2.34.2

This is an immortality which is not intrinsic but given, and not built-in but maintained from without. God, who is the only one to have essential immortality, grants length of days to his creatures as he wills it. Irenaeus compares souls to the sun and moon, which had a beginning from God, but which last on through long ages as he upholds them by his will.

Importantly, this immortality is seated not in the soul’s nature, but in the will of God:

When God bestows life, it happens that even souls which did not previously exist, henceforth endure [for ever], since God has both willed that they should exist, and should continue in existence. For the will of God ought to govern and rule in all things, while all other things give way to Him.”

Against Heresies 2.34.4

God’s freedom, then, extends to maintaining the creation he first made.

This is so important that we will dwell on it a bit more. Here is how Irenaeus sees this ‘supported’ immortality functioning in Scripture:

The prophetic Spirit bears testimony to these opinions. He thus speaks respecting the salvation of man: “He asked life of You, and You gave him length of days for ever and ever;” indicating that it is the Father of all who imparts continuance for ever and ever on those who are saved. For life does not arise from us, nor from our own nature; but it is bestowed according to the grace of God. And therefore he who shall preserve the life bestowed upon him, and give thanks to Him who imparted it, shall receive also length of days for ever and ever. But he who shall reject it, and prove himself ungrateful to his Maker, inasmuch as he has been created, and has not recognised the Giver of life, deprives himself of [the privilege of] continuance for ever and ever.

Against Heresies 2.34.3

Continued existence or life is not automatic or intrinsic to our nature, not even to our souls. Rather it is a gift given moment by moment by the God who has promised eternal life to those who trust him. As he says later, “the soul herself is not life, but partakes in that life bestowed upon her by God.

In this one move, Irenaeus blows away the cosmology of Plato and the Greeks, so beloved of many in the medieval Church. He replaces it with a model derived from the doctrine of God’s free creation out of nothing (ex nihilo): souls are by nature mortal, not immortal, like every other part of creation. They belong down here, with their respective bodies! The world just turned on its axis!

Irenaeus’s last great contribution to this issue also follows tightly. It follows from all this that immortality is conditional: something which some receive by asking, and others miss out on. Or as Irenaeus puts it, immortality must be entered into. It is not the automatic inheritance of souls by nature.

And this has an unexpected corollary for the poor old human body:

If, on the other hand, [immortality] is on account of their righteousness, then it is no longer simply because they are souls, but because they are righteous. But if souls would have perished unless they had been righteous, then righteousness must have power to save the bodies also [which these souls inhabited]; for why should it not save them, since they, too, participated in righteousness? For if nature and substance are the means of salvation, then all souls shall be saved; but if instead righteousness and faith [are the means], why should these not save those bodies which, equally with the souls, will enter into immortality? 

Against Heresies 2.29.1

Now Irenaeus has an immortal body as well as soul: a scandalous idea for any well-informed Greek! You can’t have it both ways, he says: either immortality is inherent in souls, or it comes only from righteousness. If it comes from righteousness, then it can come to the body of the righteous person also: for the body took part in the righteousness! Good call.

And this of course pushes the whole question about immortality into the future, to the resurrection of the dead:

And then the doctrine which we believe concerning the resurrection of bodies, will emerge true and certain… since God, when He resuscitates our mortal bodies which preserved righteousness, will render them incorruptible and immortal.

Against Heresies 2.29.2

Immortality is something we look forward to, our promised inheritance. It comes at the end of the story, not at the beginning.

And so Irenaeus’ version of immortality relies on the work in history of Christ and especially of his Holy Spirit, to bring this transformation at the appointed time. This view of immortality is eschatological, fully integrated into the Christian hope. Once again we note the difference with Calvin, whose doctrine of immortality tended to sideline both Spirit and eschatology.


We could show more of Irenaeus’s stunning work in this area. There is more gold here, to be mined. But what we’ve seen is enough for us to say: Ireneaus has given the Greek doctrine of the immortality of the soul a complete reworking along biblical-theological lines. When it emerges, it is a doctrine of conditional immortality as the goal of the gospel. Not everyone who has been granted existence will be given continuance in life for ever and ever. But some will enter into eternal life. This doctrine seems to sit well with the framework of Christian faith at the very points where Calvin’s did not.

We know that Calvin was familiar with Irenaeus’s work in this area, because he quotes it. But he seems to have been little influenced by it. Calvin acknowledges Irenaeus’s points:

For when we say that the spirit of man is immortal, we do not affirm that it can stand against the hand of God, or subsist without his agency. Far from us be such blasphemy! But we say that man’s spirit is sustained by God’s hand and blessing. Thus Irenaeus, who with us asserts the immortality of the spirit, wishes us, however, to learn that by nature we are mortal, and God alone immortal.

Calvin, Psychopannychia

Ok. But Calvin doesn’t seem to learn much from Irenaeus’s masterly treatment of the subject. He appears not to see that conceding this much undermines his own insistent teaching of the soul’s essential immortality. Calvin here gives the game away without even noticing. He ends up with a fairly confused and conflicted position. Irenaeus on the other hand, shows us what can be done if you start with Christian theology.

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.