OR, A REFUTATION OF THE ERROR ENTERTAINED BY SOME UNSKILFUL PERSONS, WHO IGNORANTLY IMAGINE THAT IN THE INTERVAL BETWEEN DEATH AND THE JUDGMENT THE SOUL SLEEPS.
TOGETHER WITH AN EXPLANATION OF THE CONDITION AND LIFE OF THE SOUL AFTER THIS PRESENT LIFE.
PREFACE BY JOHN CALVIN TO A FRIEND.
LONG ago, when certain pious persons invited, and even urged me, to publish something for the purpose of repressing the extravagance of those who, alike ignorantly and tumultuously, maintain that THE SOUL DIES OR SLEEPS, I could not be induced by all their urgency, so averse did I feel to engage in that kind of dispute. At that time, indeed, I was not without excuse, partly because I hoped that that absurd dogma would soon vanish of its own accord, or at least be confined to a few triflers; partly because I did not think it expedient to engage with a party whose camp and weapons and stratagems I was scarcely acquainted with. For, as yet, nothing had reached me except murmurs and hoarse sounds, so that, to engage with those who had not yet come forth into the arena, seemed to be nothing better than blindly striking the air. The result, however, has been different from what I hoped. These babblers have so actively exerted themselves, that they have already drawn thousands into their insanity.
And even the error itself has, I see, been aggravated. At first, some only vaguely alleged THAT THE SOUL SLEEPS, without defining what they wished to be understood by “sleep.” Afterwards arose those yucokonoi, who murder Souls, though without inflicting a wound. The error of the former, indeed, was not to be borne; but I think that the madness of the latter ought to be severely repressed. Both are unsupported by reason and judgment; but it is not so easy to persuade others of this without openly refuting their vanity, and exposing it, so to speak, to their face. This is only to be done by exhibiting it as it appears in their writings. They are said to circulate their follies in a kind of Tracts, which I have never happened to see. I have only received some notes from a friend, who had taken down what he had cursorily heard from their lips, or collected by some other means.
Although one reason for my not writing has been partially removed by these notes, the other still remains. However, while the men by whispers, and a garrulity for which they are remarkable, stealthily insinuate themselves, and ensnare no fewer in their error than the circulation of printed books could enable them to do, I feel that I could not well defend myself from the charge of being a traitor to the Truth were I, in such urgent circumstances, to keep back and remain silent! And, while I trust that my labor will be of the greatest use to the more unskillful and less experienced, and not without some use also to the moderately instructed who have given some slight attention to the subject, I will not hesitate to give a reason of my faith to all the good — not such a reason, perhaps, as may fully equip them both for defense and for carrying the war into the enemies’ camp, but such a one as will not leave them altogether unarmed.
Had the importunity of these men in circulating their dreams among the vulgar allowed me, I would willingly have declined a contest of this nature, in which the fruit gained is not equal to the labor expended, this being one of the cases to which the Apostle’s exhortation to be soberly wise particularly applies. But though we long for this soberness, they will not allow us to employ it. Still, my endeavor will be to treat the subject with moderation, and keep it within due bounds.
I wish some other method of cutting away the evil, which makes far too much progress, had been devised, so as to prevent it from gaining ground daily, and eating in like a cancer. Nor does it now appear for the first time; for we read that it originated with some Arabs, who maintained that “The soul dies with the body, and that both rise again at the Day of Judgment.” (Euseb. Eccl. Hist. lib. 6 c. 36; Aug. lib. de Haeres. c. 83, dist. 16; John 2:) Some time after, John, Bishop of Rome, broached it, and was forced to recant by the Theological Faculty of Paris. (Gerson in Sermone Pasch. priore.) It lay smoldering for some ages, but has lately begun to send forth sparks, being stirred up by some dregs of Anabaptists. These, spread abroad far and wide, have kindled torches — and would that they were soon extinguished by that voluntary rain which the Lord hath set apart for his inheritance!
I will plead the cause without hatred to any man, without personal affront to any man, in short, without any bitterness of invective, so that no one shall be able to complain of being hurt, or even slightly offended. And yet, in the present day, persons may be seen giving full scope to a carping, biting, scoffing temper, who, if you were only to lay a finger on them, would make a lamentable outcry that “the Unity of the Church is rent in pieces, and Charity violated!” To such let this be our answer: First, That we acknowledge no Unity except in Christ; no Charity of which He is not the bond; and that, therefore, the chief point in preserving Charity is to maintain Faith sacred and entire. Secondly, That this Discussion may proceed without any violation of charity, provided the ears with which they listen correspond with the tongue which I employ.
To you, Honored Sir, I have, thought it right to dedicate this small Tract on many accounts, but on one account especially, — because I see that, amid those tumults of vain opinions with which giddy spirits disturb the peace of the Church, you stand firm and complete in prudence and. moderation.
TO THE READER.
ON again reading this DISCUSSION, I observe that, in the heat of argument, some rather severe and harsh expressions have escaped me, which may, perhaps, give offense to delicate ears; and as I know that there are some good men into whose minds some part of this dogma has been instilled, either from excessive credulity or ignorance of Scripture, with which at the time they were not armed so as to be able to resist, I am unwilling to give them offense so far as they will allow me, since they are neither perverse nor malicious in their error. I wish, therefore, to warn such beforehand not to take anything said as an affront to themselves, but to understand that, whenever I use some freedom of speech, I am referring to the nefarious herd of Anabaptists, from whose fountain this noxious stream did, as I observed, first flow, and against whom nothing I have said equals their deserts. If I am to have a future fight with them, I am determined they shall find me, if not a very skillful, yet certainly a firm, and as I dare promise, by God’s grace, an invincible defender of the Truth. And yet against them I have not given immoderate vent to my bile, having constantly refrained from all pertness and petulance of speech; tempering my pen so as to be fitter for teaching than forcing, and yet able to draw such as are unwilling to be led. It was certainly much more my intention to bring all back into the right way, than to provoke them to anger.
All who are to read I exhort and beseech by the Name of God, and of our Lord Jesus Christ, that they bring an impartial judgment and a mind prepared as it were to be the seat of truth. I am aware of the power which novelty has to tickle the ears of certain persons: but we ought to reflect that “Truth has only one voice” — that which proceeds from the lips of our Lord. To Him alone ought we to open our ears when the doctrine of Salvation is in question, while to all others we should keep them shut. His word, I say, is not new, but that which was from the beginning, is, and always shall be. And as those err who, when the word of God, which had been laid aside through perverse custom or sloth, is brought to light, charge it with novelty; so they err, in the other direction, who are like reeds driven by the wind, nay, nod and bend at the slightest breeze! When we speak of learning Christ, do we mean that we are to lend an ear, without regard to the word of God, to any doctrine even though true? If you receive it as from man, will you not embrace falsehood with the same facility? For what has man of his own save vanity?
Such was not the conduct of those who, when they had received the word, searched the Scriptures to see whether these things were so ( Acts 17:11) — a noble example, if we would imitate it; but we, I know not from what sloth, or rather contempt, receive the word of God in such a way that when we have learned three syllables, we immediately swell up with an opinion of wisdom, and think ourselves rich men and kings! Hence, you see so many who, unlearned themselves, keep tragically bawling out about the ignorance of the age! But what can you do? They are called, and would wish to be thought Christians, because they have got a slight knowledge of some commonplaces; and as they would be ashamed to be ignorant of anything, they with the greatest confidence, as if from a tripod, give forth decisions upon all things. Hence so many schisms, so many errors, so many stumbling blocks to our faith, through which the name and word of God are blasphemed among the ungodly. At length, (this is the head of the evil!) while they proceed obstinately to defend whatever they have once rashly babbled, they begin to consult the oracles of God, in order that they may there find support to their errors. Then, good God! what do they not pervert, what do they not adulterate and corrupt, that they may, I do not say bend, but distort it to their own view? As was truly said by the poet, “Fury supplies armor.”
Is this the way of learning — to roll the Scriptures over and over, and twist them about in search of something that may minister to our lust, or to force them into subjection to our sense? Nothing can be more absurd than this, O pernicious pest! O tares certainly sown by an enemy’s hand, for the purpose of rendering the true seed useless! And do we still wonder at the many sects among those who had at first given in their adherence to the gospel and the reviving word? I, for my part, am terrified by the dreadful denunciation, “The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” ( Matthew 21:43.)
Here, however, I desist from my complaints: for I should write a large volume were I to declaim in just terms on the perversity of this age. Let us, brethren, warned by so many examples, at length, though late, become wise. Let us always hang on our Lord’s lips, and neither add to His wisdom nor mix up with it anything of our own, lest like leaven it corrupt the whole mass, and make even the very salt which is within us to be without savor. Let us show ourselves to be such disciples as our Lord wishes to have — poor, empty, and void of self-wisdom: eager to learn but knowing nothing, and even wishing to know nothing but what He has taught; shunning everything of foreign growth as the deadliest poison.
I would here obviate the objections of those who will blame my present undertaking, charging me with stirring up fierce contests about nothing, and making trifling differences the source of violent dissensions: for there are not wanting some who so reproach me. My answer is, that when Divine Truth is avowedly attacked, we must not tolerate the adulteration of one single iota of it. It is certainly no trivial matter to see God’s light extinguished by the devil’s darkness; and besides, this matter is of greater moment than many suppose. Nor is it true as they allege that he who does not acquiesce in the errors of others, shows deadly hate by dissenting from them. I have censured the curiosity of those who would agitate questions which are truly nothing else than mere tortures to the intellect. But after they have stirred this camarina, their temerity must be repressed, lest it should prevail over the truth. Whether I have succeeded in this I know not: it was certainly my wish, and I have done the best I could. If others can do better, let them come forward for the public good!