Unknown to the Philosophers
Calvin was willing to make use of the insights of the philosophers in developing his doctrine of the human soul. He was especially willing to draw upon Plato's teaching on the soul's immortality. (See John Calvin's Ideas by Paul Helm, Oxford, 2006 paperback edition. Helm devotes a chapter to The Soul and discusses Calvin's use of philosophy in his doctrine of man). Plato may even have speculated that man's chief good is to be united with God. But he did not expect that this would involve being united to God as resurrected human beings. Calvin says,
"It is difficult to believe that after our bodies have been consumed with rottenness, they will rise again at their appointed time. And hence, while many of the philosophers maintained the immortality of the soul, few of them assented to the resurrection of the body." (III:XXV:3).
N. T. Wright devotes a lot of attention to pagan views of the afterlife in his The Resurrection of the Son of God and concludes,
"The great majority of the ancients believed in life after death; many of them developed complex and fascinating beliefs about it and practices in relation to it; but, other than within Judaism and Christianity, they did not believe in resurrection. 'Resurrection' denoted new embodied life which would follow whatever 'life after death' there might be. 'Resurrection' was, by definition, not the existence into which someone might (or might not) go immediately upon death; it was not a disembodied 'heavenly' life; it was a further stage, out beyond all that. It was not a redescription or redefinition of death. It was death's reversal." (SPCK, 2003, p. 82 & 83).
No philosopher entertained that possibility. The resurrection hope is not the product of human reason, but divine revelation. However, the fact that bodily resurrection is a revealed truth does not mean that it is at all unreasonable. The philosophers were "inexcusable" for denying the resurrection hope (III:XXV:3). The problem is not that resurrection is an unlikely or foolish belief, but that human understanding has been darkened by sin. Calvin suggests that the burial of human remains is a testimony to a long lost belief in the resurrection of the body,
"But that this gross ignorance might be no excuse, unbelievers have always by natural instinct had an image of the resurrection before their eyes. For why the sacred and inviolable custom of burying, but that it might be the earnest of new life...But although that ceremony was without profit, yet it is useful to us if we prudently consider its end; because it is no feeble refutation of infidelity that all men agreed in professing what none of them believed." (III:XXV:5).
Calvin suggests two main grounds for believing in the resurrection of the body. First that the resurrection of Jesus is the model and dynamic of the believer's resurrection. Second the power of God (III:XXV:3). But a third reason is hinted at in III:XXV:2 - that by the the resurrection, God will restore what was lost in Adam due to the fall,
"For since Adam by his fall destroyed the proper order of nature, the creatures groan under the servitude to which they have been subjected through their sin; not that they are all endued with sense, but that they naturally long for the state of perfection to which they have fallen."
Calvin cites Romans 8:19 at this point and then draws upon the language of Romans 8:23 to describe the final advent of Christ as the believer's redemption "we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of the body".
Salvation will not be complete unless the body is redeemed. The philosophers, like Plato may have tended to view the physical side of human life as inherently evil and irredeemable, but the Bible teaches that God made man as a union of body and soul. Calvin reflects on this on Book I:XV. He can sound rather Platonic in his emphasis on the soul as "an immortal, though created essence" and the body as a "prison house" for the soul (I:XV:2). He thinks that God made the human body out of the dust of the ground to curb our pride "nothing being more absurd than that those should glory in their excellence who not only dwell in tabernacles of clay, but are themselves in part dust and ashes." (I:XV:1). The Reformer insists that the soul rather than the body is the seat of the image of God (I:XV:3). But he does not exclude the body altogether from man's identity as God's unique image bearer,
"An though the primary seat of the divine image was in the mind and the heart, or the soul and its powers, there was not part even of the body in which some rays of glory did not shine" (I:XV:4).
The human body, then is an essential and important aspect of our God-given humanity. The philosophers were mistaken in their estimation of the origin and destiny of man as a union of body and soul. For Calvin, God has acted in Christ to redeem created, yet fallen human life in its totality.
One feature of Calvin's teaching needs to be qualified and corrected. The Reformer's tendency to use the word "immortality" of the soul is regrettable. This gives his teaching a slightly Platonic flavour. It is true to say that the soul exists beyond death, but in Scripture "immortality" is used only of resurrected humanity (1 Corinthians 15:50-55). Calvin cites 2 Timothy 1:10 in a footnote to III:XXV:1,
"Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel"
It is through the gospel, not Plato that the true, Christ-defined meaning of immortality is brought to light. It is a pity that Calvin, who was usually so careful to put the Bible's teaching ahead of philosophical speculation did not pay more careful attention to Scripture at this point.
To sum up, Calvin argues that the resurrection hope was unknown to the philosophers because the fall has darkened human reason. The resurrection hope flows from the Bible's account of man's constitution as a psycho-physical being, the resurrection of Christ and the omnipotence of God.
In the next post in this series I hope to reflect on Calvin's teaching regarding Christ as the model and dynamic of the believer's resurrection.