In this post, I will summarize the content of Jewish scholar Wolfson’s discussion regarding patristic and medieval anthropology. His essay is titled “Immortality and Resurrection in the Philosophy of the Church Fathers,” originally published in the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin in 1956, and reprinted in Harry A. Wolfson, Religious Philosophy: A Group of Essays (Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1961): 69-83. After discussing Wolfson’s ideas, I will be then providing a brief conclusion regarding his exposition of the topic.
After giving some brief examples concerning how Socrates (a dualist Greek philosopher), Jesus (a dualist first-century Jew), and Rabban Johanan, the son of Sakkai (a dualist Jew sage), approached their forthcoming death, Wolfson affirms that Church Fathers considered the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul as two different but related beliefs in relation to what happens to the human body and soul after death (70). With this central thread in view, Wolfson explains how all Church Fathers interpreted Jesus’ death and resurrection in relation to the philosophical validity of the two beliefs here in discussion. They found support of the immortality of the soul in Greek philosophy, albeit their understanding of such belief based on the Scripture differed from Plato’s theoretical understanding. Besides, Wolfson tells us that the first Church Father to discuss this topic was Justin Martyr, who openly rejected Plato’s notion by considering that the soul does not live by itself but will partake life by the grace of God (71).
Wolfson mentions a list of Church Fathers who followed Martyr’s argument against Plato. They were Irenaeus, Tatian, Theophilus, Arnobious, Lactantius, among others. However, Wolfson warns us that one might misunderstand Church Fathers’ position if we interpret their exposition on the matter without considering their proper context. For him, three Fathers have been the most misunderstood: Tertullian, Origen, and Augustine. Tertullian’s phrases “immortal by nature” and “known by nature” raised confusion when taken out of context. Wolfson argues that for Tertullian, immortal by nature means that the human being cannot kill the soul, and by known by nature, he implies that the belief in the immortality can be attained by human reason (72). The issue with Origen was found in his reasoning that the immortal human soul partakes in the divine nature. Wolfson claims that what Origen meant was not that God is incapable of killing the soul, but that God will not destroy it because it partakes in God’s own nature (73). Finally, the concern with Augustine started with his decision of using similar arguments to those used by Plato and Plotinus when formulating their belief in the immortality of the soul (73). Nonetheless, as Wolfson correctly asserts, the fact a Church Father expressed his belief based on philosophical arguments of a particular group does not mean that the Church Father is supporting the group’s conclusions on the same matter. For Augustine, then, the soul is not only immortal but also God does not annihilate it, though he could.
Despite the different understanding of it, the immortality of the soul was a common area of endeavor between Church Fathers and Greek philosophers —via Plato— in opposition to the belief in the resurrection of the body that only Church Fathers supported. Notwithstanding this, Wolfson argues that Church Fathers “found in the teaching of philosophers two doctrines… [which served] as two analogies of the Christian doctrine of resurrection” (4). These two analogies, according to Wolfson, are the Stoic belief of regeneration and the theory of the transmigration of souls.
The first analogy, according to Wolfson, is the belief in the continual recreation of the destroyed world: “every individual who died in one world will be regenerated exactly in the same way in every other world” (75). Among the Church Fathers who at least worked “implicitly or explicitly” with this analogy are Tatian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Lactantius, Augustine, and Nemesius. The second analogy is the transmigration of souls’ theory developed by Pythagoras, Empedocles, and Plato according to Church Fathers. In view of this theory, “the soul enters another human body or even the body of an animal or a plant,” Wolfson writes. Among the Church Fathers who discussed this belief are Origen (quoting Celsus), Gregory of Nyssa, Irenaeus, Lactantius, and Augustine.
As seen earlier, Church Fathers studied the doctrine of the resurrection of the body with these two Greek analogies, and this allowed them to establish two vital principles to keep in view: the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul as volitional acts of God, and the identical body in life and resurrection. Now, although these principles also raised a question, according to Wolfson, such a question produced a series of answers (76). The first principle referred to whether God will ever will to annihilate a soul, while the second one raised the question of the portrayal of the New Testament seen in some verses such as Matt. 22:30, Mark 12:25, Luke 20:36, and 1 Cor. 15:44 regarding the apparent difference between the natural body and the resurrected one.
Trying to answer the first question concerning the eventual annihilation of a soul, Church Fathers faced three limitations. First, the Scriptures itself, as Wolfson argues, “are as vague as the oracle of Delphi…” (7). Second, the scriptural corpus that might lead us to answer accurately the first question is indeed limited. And as if these limitations were not enough, one may add a third one: the set of scriptural texts does not present a unified vision, raising a problem of interpretation. Thus, for example, Wolfson states,
According to one set of scriptural utterances [Matt. 25:46, John 5:29, and Rom 1:8-9], the wicked will suffer “everlasting punishment” … according to another set of utterances they are destined to everlasting “destruction [2 Thes. 1:9, cf. Matt 7:13, Heb. 10:39, 2 Pet. 3:7] or “perdition” [Rom. 9:22, Phil. 3:19, 2 Thes. 2:3] (77).
Hence, as Wolfson highlights, Church Fathers had a diverse of opinions on the matter and because of that, “no unanimity of opinion was arrived.” In any case, Church Fathers, Wolfson argues, did not understand the terms “destruction” and “perdition” as annihilation (77).
When trying to answer the second question related to the apparent contradiction of the New Testament and the difference between the natural body and the resurrected one, two main points of views emerged. Origen held the first approach, while the generality of the Church Fathers held the second one. Origen, based on Jesus and Paul’s words, defended the position that the natural body differs from the spiritual body. Because after the resurrection, believers will be adorned with new clothing of a spiritual body, Origen claims that the spiritual body will be the same as the natural one, but will differ with the latter one in the sense that the spiritual body will have a better condition and quality (78). To put it in another way, what Origen was referring to is a change of a state or transformation of the body, i.e. from flesh to spirit. Contrary to Origen’s “only spiritual” position, the Church Fathers in general thought that the body would be resurrected in its visible substance (Tatian), in its own integrity and wholly (Tertullian), in the very same body (Cyril of Jerusalem), in its original form (Gregory of Nyssa), and in substance and flesh (Augustine).
The final part of the first section studied here (69-83), Wolfson discusses another concern: if the natural and spiritual body are the same, in what ways we will become like angels? Wolfson mentions Tertullian who affirmed that the Scripture does not say that we will become angels, but “equals to angels” (2). That is, according to him, the resurrected body will not be affected by corruption. As Gregory of Nyssa notes, the resurrection of the body is the restoration of the pristine grace of grace before the fall (qtd. in Wolfson, 82).
In conclusion, Wolfson’s exposition on the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul as found in the philosophy of Church Fathers remains today as an excellent and remarkable material of study for those interested in the early development of such beliefs in Western Christianity. Though easily forgotten, the beliefs of the resurrection of the body and biblical immortality of the soul did not emerge from the Greek or Roman philosophy but the Jewish and biblical anthropology, so that when early non-Jewish people studied them, they had also to deal with the proper contextualization of such beliefs. Such a struggle is still present today, and although the arguments and how the resurrection/immortality topic is addressed have changed, the questions of the modern human being concerning the soul, its existence, and its future destiny remain live in our culture. Hence, Wolfson’s paper on the immortality of the soul and resurrection of the body offers a very accurate study of the Church Fathers’ positions and of how they understood and approached such concepts.