A Reformation Crisis Concerning the Soul – Mortal or Immortal?

by William Kilgore

Central among the theological crises of the Protestant Reformation were the doctrines of the authority of Scripture and justification by faith alone.[1] Nevertheless, there were several less visible theological crises during the same period that were possibly obscured by the priority of the more central doctrines. One such crisis involved the doctrine of the immortality of the soul – the idea that the real human person inhabits the physical body and lives on after death.[2] Within the Christian context, this involved the idea that a person goes to heaven or hell when he/she dies. While this was a minor crisis given the broader context of the time, the long range effects of its outcome were not: the vast majority of Protestants the world over hold firmly to the immortality of the soul to this very day.[3] In this paper, I will survey the background of this doctrine up to the Reformation, the waning of the doctrine in the teaching of the early Reformers, and John Calvin’s defense of the catholic position (along with Zwingli and Bullinger) that settled this issue for future Protestants.

Hebrew anthropology, based on their Old Testament Scriptures, saw human beings as a whole unit made up of body and spirit. Together, both components formed a “soul” – that is, a whole being.[4]  This, of course, contrasted sharply with the Platonic thought of Greece, which viewed the inner soul as the real person, “imprisoned” within a physical body.[5] By the time of Christ, Roman domination had brought the Jews into contact with Greek thought, and many adopted Platonic ideas like the immortality of the soul.[6] The earliest Christians, in contrast, promoted the idea of bodily resurrection rather than an immortal soul.[7] With the distancing of Christianity from its Judaic roots, the influence of Greek thought on Christian theology progressed throughout the period of the Church Fathers, who were in turn influenced by the Jewish Platonist Philo (c. 25 BCE – 50 CE).[8] In fact, it was in Alexandria, the very place where Philo lived and worked, that Church fathers like Clement (c. 150-c. 215) and Origen (c. 185 – c. 254) began to imbibe the Greek idea of the soul.[9] This mixing of the immortal soul with resurrection became the norm during the time of Athenagoras (2nd century).[10] By the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430)[11] had successfully championed the doctrine of the immortality of the soul as a concession in his dialogues with the Platonists.[12] By this time, the teaching was crystallized as the orthodox position in Christendom, thanks in large part to the eloquence of Augustine’s writings. The immortality of the soul would not be substantially reconsidered in Christendom until nearly a millennium later.

When hints of reformation began appearing in the centuries before Luther, men began to challenge established Catholic doctrines. Foremost among the precursors to Luther’s reformation was John Wyclif (1325 – 1384), whom some claim denied the Catholic doctrine of the immortality of the soul.[13] Apparently due to such dissenters on this issue, Pope Leo X (held papacy, 1513 – 1521) issued a statement in the eighth session of Lateran Council V on December 19, 1513 condemning all who would deny that the soul is immortal:

Since in our days (and we painfully bring this up) the sower of cockle, ancient enemy of the human race, has dared to disseminate and advance in the field of the Lord a number of pernicious errors, always rejected by the faithful, especially concerning the nature of the rational soul, namely, that it is mortal … with the approval of this holy Council, we condemn and reject all who assert that the intellectual soul is mortal … we decree that all who adhere to errors of this kind are to be shunned and to be punished as detestable and abominable infidels who disseminate most damnable heresies and who weaken the Catholic faith.[14]

Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) stood on the shoulders of these condemned precursors and started a revolution in 1517 with the nailing of his 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg.[15]  Seemingly unwittingly, Luther had initiated a reformation that would affect many spheres, including the ideological. What became known as the Protestant Reformation created an environment where Catholic ecclesiastical authority had been cast off and Catholic orthodoxy challenged in many important areas. Like some of his predecessors, Luther initially denied the immortality of the soul. Commenting in 1520, Luther referred to the immortality of the soul, along with other doctrines asserted by the Pope, as simply another “endless monstrosity” on “the Roman dunghill of decretals.”[16] This was in direct reaction to the pronouncements of Lateran Council V concerning the soul.[17]

As late as 1542, Luther was still speaking of death as a “sleep” and emphasizing the bodily resurrection in his funeral instructions:

St. Paul writes to those at Thessalonica (1 Thess. 4:13), that they should not sorrow over the dead as the others who have no hope, but that they should comfort themselves with God’s Word, as those who possess sure hope of eternal life and the resurrection of the dead. For it is no wonder that those who have no hope, grieve; nor can they be blamed for this. Since they are beyond the pale of the faith in Christ they either must cherish this temporal life alone and love it and be unwilling to lose it, or store up for themselves, after this life, eternal death and the wrath of God in hell, and go there unwillingly. But we Christians, who have been redeemed from all this through the precious blood of God’s Son, should train and accustom ourselves in faith to despise death and regard it as a deep, strong, sweet sleep; to consider the coffin as nothing other than a soft couch of ease or rest.[18]

It would certainly seem that the immortality of the soul had earned its place on the list of discarded Catholic doctrines like meritorious works in salvation, the cult of the saints, a special priesthood, and purgatory.

About the time that Luther was active in Germany, William Tyndale (c. 1494 – 1536) was denying the immortality of the soul in England. As with Luther, the initial motivation underlying this denial seemed to be the various Roman-Catholic doctrines hinging upon a continued existence after death: prayers to saints, purgatory and indulgences. Tyndale addressed the subject in two disputes with two different men. In 1534, Tyndale was involved in a dispute with George Joye, one of his earlier assistants in translating the New Testament.[19] Joye had apparently taken it upon himself to publish Tyndale’s New Testament with certain significant changes, one of which was to change the word “resurrection” in more than 20  instances to a reference to a disembodied afterlife.[20] This change was directly connected to ongoing personal discussions between Joye and Tyndale concerning the soul.[21] Thus, incidentally, Tyndale briefly defended the doctrine of the resurrection over against the immortality of the soul in response to Joye’s self-publication of his work.[22]

A second, and more significant, dispute was with Sir Thomas More and resulted in Tyndale’s An Answere Unto Sir Thomas Mores Dialoge [sic], published in 1531. In this detailed response to his ideological foe, Tyndale clearly stated his position on the soul:

… all soules lye and slepe tyll domes daye…. And ye in puttynge them in heuen hell and purgatory / destroye the argumentes wherewith Christ and paule proue the resurreccion. What god doeth with them / that shall we know when we come to them. The true faith putteth the resurreccion which we be warned to loke-fore euery houre. The hethen philosophoures denyenge that / did put that the soules did euer liue. And the pope ioyneth the spirituall doctrine of christe and the fleshly doctrine of philosophers to gether / thynges so contrary that the can not agre … if the soules be in heuen / tell me whi they be not in as good case as the angelles be? And then what cause is there of the ressureccion? [sic][23]

It is quite probable that Tyndale actually spent some time with Luther in 1525, as some of his contemporaries recorded and testified on more than one occasion.[24] Tyndale was also charged with “spreading the heresy of Lutheranism.”[25] Is it possible that Luther and Tyndale communicated regarding the immortality of the soul? While the details of their conversations are unavailable, it is certainly possible that such may have been the case.

John Calvin (1509 – 1564) was another Reformer who became active in France and did precisely what Augustine of Hippo had done so many centuries earlier. One of his first writings was written against the doctrine of soul sleep and was titled Psychopannychia, translated “On Soul Sleep.” This treatise was subtitled “Or a refutation of the error entertained by some unskillful persons who ignorately imagine that in the interval between death and the judgment the soul sleeps” [sic]. As one historian notes, “Calvin, at this point in company with the Catholics, became prominently involved in opposing the soul-sleepers and the mortalists.”[26]

Written in 1534, Psychopannychia was not actually published until 1542.[27] Although Calvin attributes the doctrine primarily to the Anabaptists, this doctrine of “soul sleep” was the same view held by (possibly) Wyclif, Tyndale and Luther himself – that the soul, rather than being immortal, “sleeps” with the death of the body until the final day when all will be physically resurrected. One scholar believes that Calvin attached “Anabaptists” as the intended foes as a device for the wider acceptance of his work, since the Anabaptists were hated in many corners of the Reformation. This same scholar suggests that Calvin was actually addressing his contemporaries, especially Luther and his followers.[28] It is true that there were Lutherans who held to soul sleep in 1534.[29] However, there is also irrefutable evidence that some Anabaptist groups did in fact hold to the doctrine of soul sleep.[30] In fact, Calvin may have been referring to the Libertines in Paris, a group with Anabaptist affiliations that he had become acquainted with.[31]

Calvin’s treatise proved to be very influential, though even he seemingly did not consider the topic to be a major debate at first.[32] He attributed the doctrine of soul sleep to “some Arabs,” with its then recent revival “being stirred up by some dregs of Anabaptists.”[33] Then, in a moment of candor, Calvin asserted that Plato was more right on the nature of the soul – asserting its immortality – than “some amongst ourselves.”[34] One history roots Calvin’s disagreement with Luther on this issue directly in the idea that Calvin was a “Platonist,” and “therefore found it easier than Luther … to hold to a natural persistence of the soul after death.”[35]

After spending a few pages defining what he meant by “soul,” Calvin then proceeded to demonstrate from Scripture “That the Soul, after the Death of the Body, still survives, endued with sense and intellect” [sic].[36] Just to be clear, he also added that “it is a mistake to suppose that I am here affirming anything else than the Immortality of the Soul.”[37] Calvin proceeded after this clarification to examine several passages that, to his mind, proved the immortality of the soul.[38] He argued persuasively and thoroughly, and also addressed the passages that were used as proof texts by his opponents.[39]

A debt to Augustine and other patristic sources is acknowledged as Calvin included references and quotes from the Church Fathers.[40] It should also be noted that Calvin in no sense denied the doctrine of a future bodily resurrection, far from it. Rather, he affirmed in his treatise both the immortality of the soul and a future rejoining of soul and body in the promised resurrection.[41] This, of course, is precisely the majority view in Protestant churches today. Calvin ends Psychopannychia by asserting that, after all, the doctrine of soul sleep must be heretical since its source – the Anabaptists – is “a forge which has already fabricated, and is daily fabricating, so many monsters.”[42]

Both before and after Calvin wrote Psychopannychia, another reformer named Huldreich Zwingli (1484 – 1531) also vigorously defended the immortality of the soul. In 1531, Zwingli wrote his Exposition of the Christian Faith, in which he refuted soul sleep:

… I maintain against the Catabaptists [Anabaptists], who contend that the soul sleeps with the body until the day of judgment, that the soul whether of angel or of man cannot sleep or be at rest.[43]

Zwingli did basically what Calvin did in Psychopannychia, though much more briefly. After some philosophical observation, he focused on a few select passages from the New Testament to demonstrate the immortality of the soul.[44]  Like Calvin, he asserted his belief in no uncertain terms: “I believe, then, that the souls of the faithful fly to heaven as soon as they leave the body.”[45] Again, he wrote in Platonic Language of being “freed from the body.”[46]

Calvin also had the support of Heinrich Bullinger (1504 – 1575), who likewise denounced soul sleep as an Anabaptist heresy in 1548.[47] While he treated the subject scripturally, as had both Zwingli and Calvin, Bullinger resorted to crude denunciations at times. For example, “Ye are obstacle asses, O Anabaptistes, whiche dare make mention of suche sleapyng, against so manifest places of the scriptures [sic].”[48]

It was this early treatise of Calvin, with support from other important Protestant reformers like Zwingli and Bullinger, that exerted influence on the Protestant churches. Further, Calvin did not waver one bit from the Catholic position on the soul in later life. This is apparent in his monumental work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, completed in its final form in 1559.[49] Calvin defined the soul as “an immortal though created essence” that “is freed from the prison-house of the body” at death.[50] Further, Calvin not only used Platonic language (i.e., “prison-house”), but referred to Plato and stated his substantial agreement with the philosopher on the matter of the soul.[51]

Like Augustine before him, who actually was a strong influence on his own theology, Calvin had successfully championed the traditional, Catholic view of the immortal soul.[52] The Westminster Confession of Faith (1643 – 1646), later adopted by the Presbyterian and Reformed churches that existed in Calvin’s shadow, was very specific concerning this matter, stating that, while the human body decays after death, “their souls … neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence …”[53] In fact, every original Protestant group – Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian/Reformed, and Baptist – embraced the traditional view defended by the eloquent Calvin by the time they were settled and organized.

Remaining is the question of Luther and his original position against the Catholic doctrine of the immortality of the soul. It is known that Luther embraced the traditional view in his later writings.[54] Further, at least some of Luther’s followers were expressing a belief in the immortality of the soul as early as 1525.[55] The question is: why did Luther change his view? While we may never know for sure, some scholars have suggested the obvious: that Luther and his followers simply had more important things that concerned them. Their priorities were more central doctrines such as justification by faith alone and the authority of Scripture alone. To have perpetuated a dispute on the nature of the human soul among themselves would have been counterproductive, and such a dispute probably seemed relatively minor against the backdrop of the principal issues of an infant Protestantism.[56]

There is also another possibility for which there is some evidence. It seems that Luther’s viewpoint on the afterlife may have been in flux for some time. A survey of his writings yields some signs of tentativeness and uncertainty. The soul is variously described as “living,” “asleep,” “at rest,” “conscious,” and “not conscious.”[57] It is known that, as early as 1522, Luther expressed his discomfort with being too dogmatic on the question in conversation with his friend Amsdorf.[58] Generally, “the precise condition of departed souls was not entirely clear to Luther,” and he had “arrived at some rather paradoxical, if not incongruous, conclusions.”[59]

Thus, perhaps Luther never really committed himself to his denial of the immortality of the soul as Tyndale clearly had. Perhaps Luther simply flirted with the idea of a mortal soul before said flirtation was halted by the writings of the other leaders. That Psychopannychia was expected to reach Luther, and possibly offend him, was one consideration of Calvin’s in delaying its publication.[60] One further factor may have been the fact that, in the final 20 years of his life, Luther himself had no great love for the Anabaptists.[61] If he accepted the Anabaptist label given the soul sleep doctrine by Calvin, Zwingli and Bullinger, perhaps his animosity influenced him to abandon his own speculations on the issue.

For all practical purposes, and certainly for the vast majority of Protestants even up to the present day, Calvin settled the issue once and for all with his Psychopannychia. Everywhere from Christian funerals to cartoons, it is taken for granted that the soul of an individual departs to its deserved place after death and continues in conscious bliss or torment until the resurrection.

Primary Bibliography

Bromiley, G.W., ed. Zwingli and Bullinger. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1953.

Bullinger, Heinrich. Antidotus Against the Anabaptistes [sic]. New York: De Capo Press, 1973.

Calvin, John. Tracts and Treatises in Defense of the Reformed Faith, Volume III. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1958.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans, 1994.

Fifth Lateran Council, EWTN Global Catholic Network, <http://www.ewtn.com/library/ COUNCILS/ LATERAN5.HTM>,   accessed 18 November 2004.

Forell, George W., & Lehmann, Helmut T., eds. Luther’s Works, Volume 32: Career of the Reformer: II. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976.

Grimm, Harold J. & Lehmann, Helmut T., eds. Luther’s Works,  Volume 31: Career of the Reformer: I. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979.

Hinke, William John, ed. The Works of Huldreich Zwingli, Volume 2. Philadelphia: the Heidelberg Press, 1922.

Luther, Martin. Works of Martin Luther, Volume 6: The Philadelphia Edition. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1932.

Plass, Ewald M., ed. What Luther Says: An Anthology, Volume I. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Sherman, Franklin, & Lehmann, Helmut T., eds. Luther’s Works,  Volume 47: The Christian in Society IV. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981.

Tappert, Theodore G., & Lehmann, Helmut T., eds. Luther’s Works,  Volume 54: Table Talk. Philadelphia: Fortress Press,1981.

Tyndale, William. An Answere Unto Sir Thomas Mores Dialoge [sic]. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2000.

Secondary Bibliography

Bowden, John. Who’s Who in Theology. New York: Crossroad, 1992.

Daniell, David. William Tyndale: A Biography. London: Yale University Press, 2001.

Demaus, Robert. William Tindale: A Biography. London: The Religious Tract Society, 1886.

Dickens, A.G. Reformation and Society in Sixteenth-Century Europe. London: Thames and Hudson, 1977.

Estep, William R. Renaissance & Reformation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.

Fudge, Edward. The Fire That Consumes. Houston: Providential Press, 1982.

Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993.

Grell, Ole Peter, & Scribner, Bob, eds. Tolerance and Intolerance in  the European Reformation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.

Hall, Christopher A. Learning Theology With the Church Fathers.

Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Hillerbrand, Hans J. The Reformation. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979.

Lane, Anthony N.S. John Calvin: Student of the Church Fathers. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999.

Lohse, Eduard. The New Testament Environment. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983.

Marius, Richard. Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999.

Martin, Walter. The Kingdom of the Cults. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997.

Morey, Dr. Robert A. Death and the Afterlife. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1984.

Oberman, Heiko A. The Dawn of the Reformation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition 1: The Emergence of  Catholic Doctrine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.

Stemberger, Gunter. Jewish Contemporaries of Jesus: Pharisees,  Sadducees, Essenes. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.

Tavard, George H. The Starting Point of Calvin’s Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

Tkach, Joseph. Transformed By Truth. Sisters, OR: Word,1997

Williams, George Hunston. The Radical Reformation. Philadelphia:

The Westminster Press, 1962.

[1] Hans J. Hillerbrand, ed., The Reformation (Grand Rapids, 1979), 27, 35; Heiko A. Oberman, The Dawn of the Reformation (Grand Rapids, 1992), 104-125, 283. Most of the Roman-Catholic doctrines directly addressed by the Protestant Reformers touched these two major areas in some way. For instance, papal infallibility was rejected and attacked because the Reformers believed that it added to the authority of the Bible. Likewise, the priesthood and the Mass, as well as the remedial purpose of purgatory, were seen as unwelcome additions to justification by faith.

[2]  David Daniel makes reference to this theological crisis in his biography of William Tyndale: “If purgatory went, most of the Church’s power and income went with it. And the reformers had themselves to sort out urgently what they now understood from the New Testament about the present state of the souls of the departed, not to mention bodily resurrection” – cf. David Daniel, William Tyndale: A Biography (London, 1994), 325.

[3] The only denomination accepted by evangelical Protestants today without qualification that holds otherwise is the Advent Christian Church, a rather obscure and small group of churches (http:// www.adventchristian.org/). Some Protestants have come to accept, if somewhat reluctantly, the Seventh-Day Adventists as fellow Protestants (cf. Walter Martin & Hank Hanegraaff, The Kingdom of the Cults, Minneapolis, 1997, 517-608). Finally, the Worldwide Church of God also allows dissent on the question of the soul, but it has only been since the substantial in-house reformation of 1996 that the group has been reevaluated by most Protestants as orthodox (cf. Joseph Tkach, Transformed By Truth, Sisters, OR, 1997; Walter Martin & Hank Hanegraaff, The Kingdom of the Cults, 471-494).

[4] 4 Gunter Stemberger, Jewish Contemporaries of Jesus: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes (Minneapolis, 1995), 70: “It is quite true that postbiblical Judaism replaced the biblical anthropological unity with a more or less developed body-soul dualism …” (emphasis mine).

[5] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, 1993), 314-315, 321.

[6] Eduard Lohse, The New Testament Environment (Nashville, 1983), 124, 196; Stemberger, Jewish Contemporaries of Jesus: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, 70-73. Lohse writes, “While in Palestine the eschatological hope was oriented to the resurrection of the dead, in the Diaspora people embraced the contemporary Greek idea of the immortality of the soul” (p. 124). And again, “In Hellenistic Judaism, it is the Greek influence that causes the belief in the immortality of the soul to be appropriated to the extent … that the hope of eternal life also took on a different significance” (p. 196, emphasis his).

[7] Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 572.

[8] Lohse, The New Testament Environment, 138-140; cf. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 315, 336, 521. Ferguson writes that “Patristic theology took shape largely in the framework of Platonic philosophy … Plato’s emphasis on … a deathless soul distinct from the body … has been enormously influential” (p. 315). However, it should also be noted that the progression of emphasis from bodily resurrection to the immortality of the soul was gradual, with the earliest Church Fathers (e.g., Tatian, c. 160) defending the former and rejecting the latter – cf. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Volume 1 – The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago, 1971), 30.

[9] Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Volume 1 – The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 47-52.

[10] Pelikan, 47-52.

[11] All name spellings and years for persons mentioned throughout this paper are based on those provided by John Bowden, Who’s Who in Theology (New York, 1992).

[12] Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology With the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL, 2002), 262; Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes (Houston, 1982), 373.

[13] I have been unable to verify this in firsthand sources. In favor of the assertion is the fact that noted advocates of the immortality of the soul have conceded that Wyclif is to be included among those who denied the doctrine – cf. Martin & Hanegraaff, Kingdom of the Cults, 556; Dr. Robert A. Morey, Death and the Afterlife (Minneapolis, 1984), 200. However, against the inclusion of Wyclif here is the fact that he is noted for revising, rather than denying, the doctrine of purgatory, which would seemingly include an underlying notion of the immortality of the soul.

[14] Fifth Lateran Council, EWTN Global Catholic Network, <http://www.ewtn.com/library/COUNCILS/ LATERAN5.HTM>, accessed 18 November 2004.

[15] Cf. Harold J. Grimm, ed., Luther’s Works, Volume 31: Career of the Reformer: I (Philadelphia, 1957), 17.

[16] Martin & Hanegraaff, Kingdom of the Cults, 556. Unfortunately, I am forced to rely on this secondary source for this widely quoted statement. Luther issued four separate responses to Pope Leo X’s declarations. The statement I have quoted is found in his third reply, Assertio omnium articulorum M. Lutheri per bullam Leonis X. novissimam damnatorum, published in December, 1520. This particular writing does not seem to be extant in an English translation, the most complete set of Luther’s Works (Philadelphia, 1981) opting for the inclusion of the final reply of March, 1521 only. The original source for the quote that is normally cited is the Weimar edition of Luther’s Works, Volume VII, 131-132, written in German. I justify the quotation’s inclusion here because: 1) it is the clearest denunciation of the immortality of the soul found in Luther’s writings, and 2) because it is widely quoted by responsible scholars (who are capable of translating the German) on both sides of the issue.

[17] Also mentioned in Luther’s warning to the German people of 1530. Cf. Franklin Sherman & Helmut T. Lehmann, eds., Luther’s Works, Volume 47: The Christian in Society IV (Philadelphia, 1981), pp. 37-38.

[18] Martin Luther, Works of Martin Luther, Volume 6 (Philadelphia, 1932), 287-288.

[19] David Daniel, William Tyndale: A Biography (London, 1994), 288.

[20] Daniel, 321-323.

[21] Robert Demaus, William Tindale: A Biography (London, 1887), 444-446.

[22] Demaus, 462-463.

[23] Anne M. O’Donnell & Jared Wicks, ed.s, An Answere Unto Sir Thomas Mores Dialoge (Washington, D.C., 2000), 181-182. Earlier in the text, Tyndale argued his viewpoint in more detail, answering specific Scriptures set forth by More as proof-texts for the immortality of the soul (cf. pp. 117-119).

[24] Robert Demaus, William Tindale: A Biography, 117, 122.

[25] David Daniel, William Tyndale: A Biography, 375.

[26] George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia, 1962), 581.

[27] John Calvin, Tracts and Treatises, Volume III (Grand Rapids, 1958), 413, Historical Note. Martin Bucer (1491-1551) had actually urged Calvin to go ahead and publish the work in the Fall of 1538, after three Anabaptists had been drowned in the area for preaching soul sleep – “for some reason, Calvin put it off.” Cf. George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation, p. 589.

[28] William R. Estep, Renaissance & Reformation (Grand Rapids, 1998), 243. This view was an old opinion originally expressed by Father Francois Garasse – cf. George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation, 583, n. 7; George H. Tavard, The Starting Point of Calvin’s Theology (Grand Rapids, 2000), 31.

[29] George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation, 583, n. 7.

[30] Cf. William John Hinke, ed., The Works of Huldreich Zwingli, Volume 2 (Philadelphia, 1922), 269. Zwingli wrote against the “Anabaptist” doctrine of “soul sleep” in 1531, a full three years prior to Calvin’s treatise. Likewise, Bullinger, writing in 1548, gave full treatment against “soul sleep” in his Antidotus Against the Anabaptistes (New York, 1973). However, it is certainly true that the “Anabaptists” were not a monolithic group, having “no generally-accepted epitome of doctrine” – cf. A.G. Dickens, Reformation and Society (London, 1977), 135.

[31] George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation, p. 585. Williams also notes that such “psychopannychist Anabaptists” had become a problem in Geneva by 1537 (p. 586). On March 30 of that year, Calvin actually debated two Anabaptists, John Bomeromenus and John Stordeur, on the issue of soul sleep (p. 587).

[32] John Calvin, Tracts and Treatises, Volume III, p. 415. Calvin spends his preface describing how he reluctantly entered this fray over the soul, calling it “a contest … in which the fruit gained is not equal to the labor expended.” By the end of the preface, Calvin explains that “this matter is of greater moment than many suppose” (p. 418).

[33] Calvin, 415. This is one of only two times that Calvin actually used the term “Anabaptists” in the entire treatise.

[34] Calvin, 420. One wonders, given Calvin’s vehement words leveled at the Anabaptists, if he is actually referring to them here or to other Reformers (Luther? Tyndale?).

[35] George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation, p. 582.

[36] Williams, 427.

[37] Williams, 427.

[38] Williams, 427-450.

[39] Williams, 450-490.

[40] Williams, 468-469, 478. Cf. Anthony N.S. Lane, John Calvin: Student of the Church Fathers (Grand Rapids, 1999).

[41] Williams, 469-474.

[42] Williams, 490.

[43] William John Hinke, ed., The Works of Huldreich Zwingli, Volume 2, 269.

[44] Hinke, 270-272.

[45] Hinke, 271.

[46] G.W. Bromiley, ed., Zwingli and Bullinger (Philadelphia, 1953), 254.

[47] Heinrich Bullinger, Antidotus Against the Anabaptistes (New York, 1973), Treatise X, “How that the soules after that thei be departed from the body do not slepe, but lyue in christ” [sic] (no page numbers).

[48] Bullinger, (no page numbers).

[49] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids, 1994), Introduction (no page number).

[50] Calvin, Book I, 160.

[51] Calvin, Book I, 166-167.

[52] This is acknowledged by George Huntston Williams: “In any event, [Calvin’s] arguments for immortality were still closer to those of Pope Leo than to the views of Luther.” Further, he was “on this point in company with the Catholics” (emphasis mine). Cf. The Radical Reformation, 582-583. Likewise, the same is expressed by Edward Fudge: “As Augustine had fixed the tradition for later Catholicism, so Calvin sealed it with the Protestant stamp of approval 1100 years later.” Cf. The Fire That Consumes, 383.

[53] The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 32, reproduced in Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, 2000), 1196.

[54] Cf. Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, 382.

[55] Ole Peter Grell & Bob Scribner, eds., Tolerance and Intolerance in the European Reformation (Cambridge, 1996), 51. A local diarist from the Hainaut province of the Low Countries is quoted as writing that part of the Lutherans’ “confession” was that they believed “that there was no purgatory and that as soon as a person dies he goes straight to heaven or hell” (emphasis mine).

[56] Cf. Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, 382.

[57] Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says: An Anthology (St. Louis, 1959), 384-387. Luther actually wrote of the soul as conscious after death in the Winter of 1542-1543, just after the earlier quoted passage asserting the sleep of the soul! Cf. Theodore G. Tappert & Helmut T. Lehmann, eds., Luther’s Works, Volume 54: Table Talk (Philadelphia, 1981), 446-448. Biographer Richard Marius also acknowledges that Luther made seemingly paradoxical statements about this topic – cf. Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death (Cambridge, 2000), 61-64.

[58] Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says: An Anthology, 385. Also mentioned by George H. Tavard, The Starting Point of Calvin’s Theology (Grand rapids, 2000), 31.

[59] Plass, 385.

[60] George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation, 586.

[61] Richard Marius, Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death (Cambridge, 2000), 474.

One thought on “A Reformation Crisis Concerning the Soul – Mortal or Immortal?

  1. This article seems to imply if we have a spirit that persists after death that it is necessarily immortal (never dies). The existence and immortality of the spirit are mutually exclusive (not one in the same). The spirit of a man can die just as his body. I think this is what Jesus is referring to when he says fear not man who can only kill the body, rather fear God that can destroy the soul (body and spirit – the whole being). So, obviously, if dualism is true (I think that is a stronger Biblical argument than monism which leads to the soul sleep doctrine), then a man’s spirit persists and only God has the capacity to kill/destroy it.

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