Questioning the Immortality of the Soul In the Westminster Confession CH 32

Chapter XXXII of the Westminster Confession

The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens,

This is probably the part of the Westminster Confession that gives me the most pause, because there is solid scriptural evidence that immortal souls and resurrection from the dead are semi-exclusive positions.

Funny story behind this too, as:

I was once not even allowed to join a Reformed theology forum because they thought my dislike of “immortal souls” language was heterodox…

Don’t need no-body insisting on the formula of Chalcedon @ meet the puritans!

So, I figured today I’d tear into this section and see what I can do to it!

To those of you who follow me on Quora, I once posted this there but have since moved it. You can find the whole creed free here.

Proof Text

There are multiple proof texts given in the margins of the Westminster Confession, of varying accuracy, contextual quality, and to a different standard of proof than exist today.

The confession, drafted 1646, naturally reflects the contextual biases and cultural understanding of the time of composition, and in this section I feel that this is the main limitation of the pre-critical text.

However, there exist today people who confirm these statements; albeit, it is impossible to claim that it is from a 1 to 1 contextualization and philosophical agreement between those who “subscribe to the statement” and those that made it.

In fact, after 350 years, it is a tad unlikely!

Which means that though I am critical, this investigation can revisit these positions even for those inclined to agree with it!

The main text they use in this section

The first footnote seems to set the tone for the first couple lines of Chapter 32 of the Westminster Confession. They site Luke 23:43:

“Today you shall be with me in paradise”

Overturning this Luke reference by simple in-situ exegesis is almost about as tentative as the Westminster’s writers use of it.

First, the narrative it is pulled from is the crucifixion scene and not a long dedicated theological discourse. Moreover, it seems to be an “off the cuff” remark with little clarification as the main focus of the passage is Jesus’ innocence and the confession of the thief that Jesus’ kingdom will still come:

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)

Reformed Education has gotten better

But, thanks to the reformers, we have a few tools here:

First, we can tear into the Greek:

Some of it actually may back Westminster’s reading: the Greek word, σήμερον, in vv. 43 renders as “this day” implying immediacy or, “to this day” implying continued duration.

We could do some violence to the idea that the idea means the transfer of the thief to “heaven” is immediate on two fronts:

The church does not always render the word literally: Acts 13:33 uses the same word in the statement:

“You are my son, today I have begotten.”

We do not accept the Arian reading.

Still, one may counter that is unlikely Jesus at death would be speaking in such figurative language. I’ll even grant the point that the σήμερον is immediate… (I won’t belabor the ὅταν ἔλθῃς in the previous verse which is a one-off occurrence)

However, that the experience of the thief and all dead in Christ is subjective immediacy does not entail it is objectively so.

The second way we might overturn the Westminster statement, is addressing the Greek word they are renderin in the Westminster Confession as “Heaven.”

While it may not preclude the understanding of Westminster, Jesus actual statement is that the thief will be with him in Paradise. It’s not enough to render the soul immortal as they have.

Paradise

Christ’s word choice of Paradise allows a lot of lateral movement for intertextual claims.

Paradise (παραδείσῳ) only occurs two times. In the Luke Passage and Revelation 2:7.

Revelation’s use of the word is contextualized to the (admittingly confusing) interior chronology of the book, and we can draw that connection by the content of Rev 2:7, “To him who conquers I will grant to eat of the Tree of Life, which is in the paradise of God.”

Revelation returns image of the Tree of Life, in reference not to heaven (it also originally appears in creation in Eden not heaven) but in describing the new Jerusalem (Rev. 22) after the earth and current heaven pass away (Rev. 21).

Modern scholarship and historical research has implied that the idea of a human “going to heaven to be with God” is not native to an Ancient Near Eastern context, but rather the idea that humans can never aspire to go to heaven and that god(s) must accommodate them by meeting them in an intermediate “Garden.”[1]

If one bulks at such evidences, or does not trust any systematic conclusion drawn from Revelation alone (we won’t touch on the impiety of such), Heaven passing away is not a Revelation specific image (Psalm 102, Matt 24) and is again tied to Christ New kingdom in 2 Peter 3:10 (which does bring up the “when you come into your kingdom) in Luke.

This means that “Heaven” and “Now” are not firmly set readings, and in fact might not be the most scriptural

In my opinion, this lends weight to the “subjectively immediate-paradise” reading of Luke 23:43 that I proposed.

If those who are dead in Christ really “sleep” (1 Thes. 4:14 -15, κοιμηθέντας “have been sleeping”) as the Aorist tense supposes, Paul’s notion of “God will bring with him all who sleep (subjectively unaware)” does not override his “the dead in Christ will Rise (subjectively aware)”

This means God still retains the dead and death has no sting; him holding them in special “heaven” as many imagine it is unlikely

Honestly, the language is not the clearest in Thesselonians.

And as I stated, the Luke passage is a difficult text to base a creedal statement on anyways, and in fact, the writers of the Westminster Confession did indeed reach out to other text. Let us briefly delve into them:

let’s turn to the other proof text offered by Westminster’s writers for the section:

the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies

First, they cite Hebrews 12:23:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, …. of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect

This seems to me, to be a similar image as that presented by Luke’s Paradise and Rev.’s new Jerusalem.

Also, the context of the book makes it hard to say the Author of Hebrews is speaking of any “current” reality as Hebrews is full of eschatological tension similar to Paul’s Now/Not Yet. (For example Heb 12:27, “He has promised, “Yet once more I will…”

Next comes: 2 Cor. 5:6, 8:

“we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord”

And the writers of the Westminster Confession combine the quotation with v. 8: “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”

This type of reading can be almost gnostic if the immediate control of 2 Cor. 2-4 is not applied cf. v.4 “not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”

Once the control is placed over the reading, it is hard to accuse Paul of a gnostic leaning here that being “out of body” is a complete state, in fact he alludes to its “nakedness.” I think of all the text cited this one most betrays the 1645 theological anthropology of the writers, and touches on a materialistic dualism that historically has guided the Churches reflections on souls.

On to the next proof they offer Phi 1:23

“For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: Nevertheless, to abide in the flesh is more needful for you.”

This one seems a difficult hermeneutical pickle (if we don’t allow the control of the 2 Cor. passage to override the sentiment by fiat).

It is almost as if Paul is presenting that there is a spiritual reality available to him that being in the flesh prevents him from realizing… Marcion probably liked this verse!

Contextual to the book however, that is a rather unlikely reading.

Paul seems pretty much to contradict such a sentiment in the same letter: Phil 3:11, 21 “change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body” and elsewhere show that Paul still puts ultimate hope on resurrection of the dead and a change of our “current” body, not platonic immortal souls.

Thus, the safest non-gnostic reading again that Paul is perhaps speaking of a subjective mode of immediacy, as are all the other references to Paradise. And if we dig the entomology of the terms soul and spirit in Greek, there’s more play than implied by the English.

Acts 3:21

This one I almost dislike their parsing of just using a single verse that is an unfortunate break in the text:

“whom heaven must receive until the time for establishing all that God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old”

The full context renders: “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for establishing all that God” (Acts 3:19-21)

The verse is only pertaining to Christ. As is the last they cite Eph 4:10: “He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.”

I assume by these last two they are proofing, are received into the highest heavens. Yet, we can say the idea of Jesus in heaven being temporary until his return further backs the notion we discussed earlier that current “heaven” is removed at the end times as well and is not the ultimate hope. (which fits Job’s observation, “Even the heavens are unclean in his eyes” 14:14)

Let’s push now with our own textual references for the counter point, that there are not “immortal souls” in a Catholic-type “Elysium.”

Some folks may be a tad upset that I’m going after the Westminster Confession; I’m not the only theologian to ever take issue with the view they present.

Calvin himself on his commentary on 1 Cor. 15:19 states, “Paul did not dream of Elysian fields, and foolish fables of that sort, but takes it for granted, that the entire hope of Christians looks forward to the final day of judgment”

Intermediate states are not easily resolved in early modern thought

My only issue I take with Calvin’s sense of an intermediate state (And by proxy Westministers) which others confess to be less than solid[2]:

Of what advantage were it to the dead that they once were Christians? Hence our brethren who are now dead, did to no purpose live in the faith of Christ.” But if it is granted that the essence of the soul is immortal, this argument appears, at first sight, conclusive; for it will very readily be replied, that the dead have not perished, inasmuch as their souls live in a state of separation from their bodies. Hence some fanatics conclude that there is no life in the period intermediate between death and the resurrection; but this frenzy is easily refuted. [42] For although the souls of the dead are now living, and enjoy quiet repose, yet the whole of their felicity and consolation depends exclusively on the resurrection; because it is well with them on this account, and no other, that they wait for that day, on which they shall be called to the possession of the kingdom of God. (Comments on 1 Cor: 15:18)

Souls are interfering with claiming the best readings

I think Paul see’s little difference between the verses about the “dearly departed” and those that still breath:

Col. 3:3: For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.

1 Thes. 4:14: we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who have fallen asleep

And other versus highlight what is popularly called Paul’s Now/Not yet Eschatology. Yet, the church has generally failed to internalize this because it strives always to understand versus such as Romans 8:30, “And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” With the ultimate hope based on the immortality of the soul.

Our souls are saved; our outside nature is renewed in an over literal rendering of Paul’s Flesh/ spirit duality.

Placing the hope in the resurrection as Calvin did in the bolded text our readings must change.

Now/ Not Yet resurrection: Fully incarnational eschatology

We live in 2016, so at the very least I am dubious on the idea of there being any sort of “absolute time” as if there is a giant clock synchronizing this universe, heaven, and the New Creation.

One of my formative experiences was a thrilling sense of vertigo as I realized at 6 years old what gravity lensing and astronomical things look like. Once I was old enough to buy my own telescope, I had realized that a lot of thoughts on space and time are silly.

They exist inside a universe. And it’s hard to think of two realms, Heaven/Earth, if they be universes as separated by “space” as there must be time… nor are they separated by just “time” because things happen on “Earth as it is in Heaven.”

Just imagine two universes colliding… their past/present and near and far would all intermingle. It wouldn’t be a singular event like 1, 2, 3… it would be at 1, 2, and 3….

Do I pretend to understand all this?

Heck no!

It just puts into focus Paul’s idea that there is what we subjectively know now, and there is what will be finally reviled.

And one of these days, I’ll probably re-purpose Irenaeus’ recapitulation ideal in this direction…

The Westminster Confession is very Newtonian

I’d charge 98% of theologians with this. The idea that there even must be an objective intermediate state to satisfy subjective temporal distance between believers is a product of a certain view of the “cosmos” that is very modern and mechanical.

It makes things like “eternal” equate one-to-one with creation based conceptions of “forever.”

If I may risk being 100% a Reformed theologian, it is Augustine’s old “Slavery to the signs.” We see the infinite in nature… that should point us towards the divine creator of it… but get stuck and see the infinite as the divine itself.

Scripture at the very least resist the mechanical understanding

Gone is the surprise at statement’s like Christ’s “God told him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God of the living not the dead.” (Mark 12:27)

Which is especially pertinent in the context: “regarding the dead rising” (Mark 12:26)

Jesus is making the claim that the Subjective experience of the patriarchs as dead and rotten, does not match the objective spiritual reality that they are contemporaneously with us now alive. Moreover, they are alive in this statement as resurrected or the “dead rising.”

Jesus does not allow the other options.

I simply want a dialogue here

There’s part of this that is rushed, as I have not attempted to make a treatise out of this, but rather just show there’s some openness for discussion in the Westminster’s text.

I have not touched on the parable of Lazarus (yet it’s hard to say Jesus isn’t condescending to typical social understandings and making a different point than “intermediate states.”)

Nor have I touched on a sense of “consciousness” in an concept of eternity separated from temporal understandings in any way. There’s ideas like “soul sleep” that I think are just as temporally bound. We live in an age of space time.

This is just my two sense on why it should be talked about…

Yet, it also gets me banned from places!

If you want to check out my main blog: follow this link: John Calvin’s Radical Beliefs Regarding Eucharistic theology « Religible


Sources

[1] Cf. Edward Wright, Early History of Heaven (Ney York: Oxford Press, 2000), 44-46, In my opinion this lay behind the worldview of Ecclesiastes which is dubious on “souls” and life after death, and explains why Job is adamant on Resurrection and seeing God with his own eyes (Ch. 14) not going to see him “in heaven.” Also, the OT often has God send angles “down” to humans with only two occurrences of “lifting up”

[2] H. Quistorp, Calvin’s Doctrines of Last Things, (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1955), cf. 81

Post Author

Paul is the founder of Religible.com and a life long Christian with a childhood interest in systematic theology. He holds an M.Div. from Fuller Theological seminary and hopes to use his education to better his fellow man. He also operates an automotive blog, has worked at Google, and has diverse life interest.

reformedmonk – who has written posts on Religible.


1 Comment

  • […] Because Calvin so relates the word and the sacrament, he makes the focus of the sacrament the good news itself. Calvin strove to return to the Church the sense that at the Lord’s Table we are experiencing anew how Jesus took our burdens upon himself and bore our sin. Interestingly enough, Calvin’s views have not had a big impact of Calvinist Churches like the Presbyterians and trend more Zwinglian despite the Westminster confession.  […]

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