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.


A Reflection on Biblical Interpretation

ScripturaMy newest article @ examines and refutes six illegitimate interpretive constraints heretics use in arguing against orthodoxy and for heresy. Here is an excerpt –

In 2nd Timothy 3:16-17, Paul reveals that


All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
Here Paul uses several keywords to underscore that “the Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.”[1] Firstly, the word all (πᾶς, pas) identifies which Scriptures (γραφή, graphē) are God-breathed and profitable for doctrine. As Gordon H. Clark notes, the text reveals “that every scripture, distributively every verse, has been breathed out by God.”[2] 

Secondly, the word complete/perfect (ἄρτιος, artios) reveals the intended purpose for which God has breathed out his Word, the completion and furnishment of the man of God for every good work. Commenting on the relationship of “complete” to “equipped” (resp., artios to exeertismenos), E.W. Bullinger writes —


The words “perfect” [ESV, complete] and “throughly furnished” [ESV, equipped] are cognate in the Greek, and should be similarly rendered. […] If the former άρτιος (artios) is rendered “perfect,” the latter ξηρτισμένος (exeertismenos) should be “perfected” (as in the margin). If the former is translated fitted, the latter should be fitted out-and-out. If the latter is rendered “furnished completely,” then the former should be furnished. Perhaps the best rendering would be “fitted, fitted out,” ie., “that the man of God may be fitted, fitted out unto all good works.”[3]


Thus, thirdly, Paul uses the word every (πᾶς, pas) to express the range of good works expounded upon by the entirety of the Scriptures. There is no good work that is not addressed by the Word of God. In a word, Paul is teaching us that there is no Scriptural content that does not teach us doctrine, and there is no good work that is excluded from the doctrines contained in Scripture. To assert that the Scriptures must be supplemented by any other a-theopneustos (i.e. non-Godbreathed) source of doctrine is to contradict what is plainly taught by Paul. All of Scripture teaches doctrine. All doctrine addresses the entire range of activities of a man’s life comprising what can be called “good works,” and aims at making him perfect in whatever situation he faces. Clark’s commentary is to the point —
Because God breathed out the words through Paul’s mind onto the manuscript, Timothy knows what he is obliged to teach, refute, correct, and instruct. Otherwise, neither Timothy nor any other minister down to the present day could provide his parishioners with anything better than his own personal prejudices.[4]
Phillip H. Towner, likewise, notes that the phrase “every good work” is “a general characterization that can be concretized with any number of activities.”[5] Thus, it can be said “that he who studies God’s word, will be a ‘man of God,’ fitted out and provided for all the circumstances and emergencies of life.”[6]

A Reflection on Biblical Interpretation

You can read the entire article here.

I pray you find it profitable.

Soli Deo Gloria