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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Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought [Book Review]

Church history is a subject that, sadly, many Protestants fail to study. This is not only problematic given the propensity of heretics to distort that history,1 but it also can be a hindrance to our present day theological systematizing. The situation isn’t helped by the many pressing time constraints placed upon us by our other, admittedly, more important duties. Not many have the time to read through the entirety of ancient church fathers in a way that can inform our defense of the truth against heretics, as well as provide us with a robust and thought-provoking theological starting point for our study of systematics.
If the job has been done, moreover, why try to reinvent the wheel? Patristic scholars have produced many works in this field, secondary sources that have undergone the scrutiny of other patristic scholars and have held their own as trustworthy guides to understanding the fathers. Khaled Anatolios, a leading Athanasian scholar, has produced not only a clear and concise biography of Athanasius, but an equally concise and clear explanation of his theological system in his work Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought. In it, Anatolios expertly demonstrates the consistency, coherence, and brilliance of Athanasius’ system of theology, deriving his conclusions not from a single text, nor from a simplistic word study limited to a select few texts written by Athanasius, but from the entirety of Athanasius’ corpus.
Anatolios begins this work with an examination of the theme of the relation between God and creation prior to Athanasius…

Source: Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought [Review]