The Doctrine of Immortality in the Early Church – Book Review

19381161The Doctrine of Immortality in the Early Church by John H. Roller

“The Doctrine of Immortality in the Early Church” is a brief work filled with quotations from church fathers, quotations which are not given detailed explanation that would substantiate the author’s belief that they — because they employ binaries such as life/death, immortality/destruction, etc — support the contemporary doctrine of conditional immortality.Given our historical and cultural distance from the historical and cultural backdrop of the writings of the fathers, it is all too easy to interpret their use of the aforementioned binaries as meaning what our present day colloquial speech may, in some instances, mean. So when examining the works of the fathers, it is isn’t enough to collate passages that contain words and phrases that seem to support one’s doctrine. Rather, it is necessary to explain one’s justification for interpreting those words and phrases to mean something identical to or concordant with one’s doctrine.

Ironically, by not presenting the passages he cites in a historically informed manner, but instead simply citing them and adding parenthetical remarks such as “not torment,” Roller is not presenting an “unbiased view.” Rather, he is begging the question and stacking the deck. In addition to these fallacies, we have to add his use of the word-concept fallacy, implying that because Clement did not use the phrase “immortal soul” or “immortality of the soul” that he held to the same conditionalist doctrine which Roller holds.

The question Roller does not ask is this — “What exactly do the fathers mean when they claim that the soul is not immortal”?

A cursory study of Patristic scholars will reveal that the consensus opinion of specialists in this field is that the fathers have employed Platonic language in the service of explaining Christian doctrine over and against the Gnostics. The fathers denied that the soul was divine, immortal, etc, and affirmed that it was created by God, sustained in existence by him, and given life or deprived of life by him.

Because the fathers deny the Gnostic doctrine of the immortality of the soul, in the case of those who have the divine spark at least!, conditionalists like Roller believe they were conditionalists in the contemporary sense of the word. However, that is not the case. The fathers to a man believed in the immortality of the soul, but they were also conditionalists. How so? They affirmed that the existence of anything is conditioned upon the will of God alone, while they also affirmed that the soul has been created in such a way that it does not undergo deconstruction/disintegration/decomposition into constituent parts as the body does.

The soul exists and lives conditionally, then, as an immortal entity. This is not the conditionalism of Roller, the Adventists, or contemporary annihilationists.

What makes Roller’s book attractive is its claim to being unbiased, as well as its claim to only deal with the original authors themselves. It would be nice if we could gather a long list of quotations from the fathers and decide what their theology was simply by such proof-texting. Unfortunately, if we really want to know what these men meant when they asserted that immortality was not natural to man, or that immortality was a gift for those whose faith has been placed in Christ, then we need to do more historical research on these men in order to better understand their use of binaries and phrases that have come to mean something completely different than what many contemporary authors may assume.

Roller claims that Athenagoras is one of the first, if not the first, fathers to believe that immortality was naturally proper to the soul. However, that is not the case, as a simple reading of Irenaeus, as well as an in-depth examination of scholarly patristic writing on the issue very quickly reveals. The church fathers were not conditionalists, but held to a view similar to the one contemporary orthodox Christians hold. Conditionalism, and Soul sleep (which Roller also seems to embrace), was not held by any but the heretics.

Arnobius the heretic, the Arabian heretics, and Tatian the heretic held to these such views. Moreover, prior to these heretics, it was the Gnostics themselves who taught that those who were not spiritual would be annihilated in body and soul (see Heracleon’s Commentary on the Gospel of John, for instance where he treats Matthew 10:28 in the same way that conditionalists today do).

If you want to know what the church fathers believed about immortality, it would be best to read patristic scholars, and those who are familiar with patristic scholarship, on the matter. Roller’s book is not a good place to learn about the fathers, but does serve to educate one about how not to do historical research.



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7 thoughts on “The Doctrine of Immortality in the Early Church – Book Review

  1. squeaky2 says:

    Annihilationism- the final disposition of unredeemed humanity after due suffering for “things done while in the body” (2Cor. 5.10). This has never by any church group (as far as I know) been considered heresy.
    Maybe you want to go on record as saying it is heretical?

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    • Hiram says:

      There hasn’t been an ecumenical council declaring it to be heresy, but it has never been accepted as orthodox. There is no ecumenical council declaring justification to be by faith alone, but to deny justification by faith alone is to put oneself outside the christian faith.

      I have identified annihilationism as heresy. I don’t view all heresies as “damnable,” as it were. There is a broad sense of heresy in which the doctrine is a complete departure from the faith, and a narrower sense in which specific deviations from orthodoxy exist but don’t bring one’s salvation into question.

      I think annihilationism is heresy, but not damnable heresy.

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  2. squeaky2 says:

    Your position I held 40 years ago while I was in seminary. I used to sit smugly while the president of the seminary (Richard V. Clearwaters) spoke since he held to annihilation of the unsaved. I thought I was more orthodox too.
    If you want to debate me, bring it. I will only deal with scripture however and not what people believed or didn’t (historical positions of the church fathers are not authoritative to me).
    However, you need to drop sweeping statements without proof. In your article above, you make several statements without a shred of support. The church fathers all held to immortality of the soul? prove it! You can’t. No serious scholar would say such a thing. Your confident pronouncements about the nature of the soul that it is indestructible are hollow. Academics have studied these concepts thoroughly and none, that I know or have read, have ventured so confidently as you. You are an empty drum. I doubt you have exegeted and of the relevant passages.

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    • Hiram says:

      I hold the position I do because of scripture. It isn’t a mark of intellectual or spiritual pride, seeing as it is the Spirit of God who reveals the truth to his people.

      I’m not sure where your statement about debating comes into the picture, especially in the context of a book review’s comment section.

      As for the fathers and their doctrine of immortality, I didn’t give any citations because this is a book review, not a scholarly paper. However, if you want to read up on the issue I’d recommend the works of John Behr, Robert M. Grant, Eric Osborn, and Khaled Anatolios.

      My statement about the indestructibility of the soul is taken from Irenaeus’ Against Heresies. It’s the same doctrine, unless he lied, that his mentor Polycarp held, and Polycarp was the disciple of John the Apostle. Unless, of course, Irenaeus was lying.

      I’ve studied conditionalism/annihilationism for a while now, and I have studied the passages of scripture they think support their doctrine. I’ve Fudge, Pinnock, Constable, and quite a few others. And none of these writers presents a logically coherent case for their doctrine from the Scriptures.

      This is a comment thread on a book review, so I’m going to leave my comments at that. Suffice it to say, I have studied the issue at length.

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