PSYCHOPANNYCHIA: “The Sleep of the Soul”

Excerpts taken and adapted from, “PSYCHOPANNYCHIA.”
Written by, John Calvin, Basel, 1536.


[NOTE: The title of PSYCHOPANNYCHIA derived from Greek words which signify “the sleep of the soul;” the object of the Tract being to show, partly from reason, but more especially from Scripture, that there is no such sleep. It was published in 1534, when CALVIN was twenty-five years of age, and is, consequently, with the exception of the Commentary on the Clementia of Seneca, published in 1532, the earliest of all his writings, and two years earlier than the Institutes, the first known edition of which appeared in 1536. It thus possesses, especially to those who delight to trace the progress of a master mind, an interest additional to that which its merit gives it.

The figment which it refutes is said by CALVIN to be of Arabian origin, but was first brought prominently into notice by some of the wildest fanatics among the ANABAPTISTS, for whom everything new and monstrous appears to have had an irresistible attraction. In more modern times, attempts have been made to give it a philosophical shape, as a necessary corollary from the dogma of Materialism advocated by Priestley and others.

It would seem that the figment, wild and irrational though it is, had made considerable progress at an early period of the Reformation, and counted numerous converts, not merely among the fanatics who had revived it, but in more respectable quarters, where better things might have been expected. –Henry Beveridge, May 1851.]

Preface by John Calvin to a Friend.

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!

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

Calvin’s Treatise

But before proceeding farther, we must cut off all arguments about words… 

…which might be furnished by our giving the name of “soul” and “spirit” indiscriminately to that which is the subject of controversy, and yet sometimes speaking of the two as different. By Scripture usage different meanings are given to these terms; and most people, without attending to this difference, take up the first meaning which occurs to them, keep fast hold of it, and pertinaciously maintain it. Others, having seen “soul” sometimes used for “life,” hold this to be invariably the case, and will not allow themselves to be convinced of the contrary. If met with the passage from David,

“Their soul will be blessed in life,” –Psalm 49:19

…they will interpret, that their life is blessed in life. In like manner, if the passage from Samuel be produced, “By thy life, and by thy soul’s life,” (2 Samuel 11:11,) they will say, that there is no meaning in these terms. We know that “soul” is very often used for life in such passages as the following, “My soul is in my hands,”—”Why do I tear my flesh with my teeth, and carry my soul in my hands?”—”Is not the soul more than meat,”—”Thou fool, this night shall thy soul be required of thee.” (Psalm 119:109; Job 13:14; Matthew 6:25; Luke 12:20.) There are other similar passages which these soulslayers always have in their mouth. There is no ground, however, for their great self-complacency, since they ought to observe that soul is there used metonymically for life, because the soul is the cause of life, and life depends on the soul—a figure which boys learn even from their rudiments.

It is impossible not to wonder at the presumption of these men, who have so high an opinion of themselves, and would fain be thought wise by others, though they require to be taught the use of figures and the first elements of speech. In this sense it was said that “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David”—the soul of Sychem (Shechem) “clave unto Dinah the daughter of Jacob;” and Luke says, that “the multitude of the believers was of one heart and soul.” (1 Samuel 18:1; Genesis 34:3; Acts 4:32.) Who sees not that there is much force in such Hebraisms as the following? “Bless the Lord, O my soul,”—”My soul doth magnify the Lord,”—”Say to my soul, I am thy salvation.” (Psalm 103:1; 104:1; Luke 1:46.) An indescribable something more is expressed than if it were said without addition, Bless the Lord; I magnify the Lord, Say to me, I am thy salvation!

Sometimes the word “soul” is used merely for a living man, as when sixty souls are said to have gone down into Egypt.. (Exodus 1:5.) Again, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die,”—”The soul which turneth aside to wizards and soothsayers shall die the death,” etc. (Ezekiel 28:4; Leviticus 20:6.) Sometimes also it is called the breath which men inhale and respire, and in which the vital motion of the body resides. In this sense I understand the following passages, “Anxiety seizes me though my whole soul is still in me,”—”His soul is in him,”—”Let the soul of the child return within him.” (2 Samuel 1:9; Acts 20:10; 1 Kings 17:21.) Nay, in the very same sense in which we say, in ordinary language, that the soul is “breathed out” and “expires,” Scripture speaks of the soul “departing,” as when it is said of Rachel, “And when her soul was departing (for she died) she called the name of the child Benoni” (Genesis 35:18.)

We know that spirit is literally “breath” and “wind,” and for this reason is frequently called πνοην by the Greeks. We know that it is used by Isaiah for a thing vain and worthless, “We have conceived and brought forth spirit,” or “wind.” (Isaiah 26:18.) It is very often taken for what is regenerated in us by the Spirit of God. For when Paul says that “the spirit lusteth against the flesh,” (Galatians 5:17,) he does not mean that the soul fights with the flesh, or reason with desire; but that the soul itself, in as far as it is governed by the Spirit of God, wrestles with itself, though in as far as it is still devoid of the Spirit of God, it is subject to its lusts. We know that when the two terms are joined, “soul” means will, and “spirit” means intellect. Isaiah thus speaks,

“My soul hath longed for thee in the night, but I will also wake to thee in my spirit, within me.”  –Isaiah 26:9

And when Paul prays that the Thessalonians may be entire in spirit, and soul, and body, so that they may be without blame at the coming of Jesus Christ, (1 Thessalonians 5:23,) his meaning is, that they may think and will all things rightly, and may not use their members as instruments of unrighteousness. To the same effect the Apostle elsewhere says, that the word of God is quick and piercing, like a two-edged sword, reaching to the division of soul and spirit, of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12.) In this last passage, however, some understand by “spirit” that reasoning and willing essence of which we now dispute; and by “soul,” the vital motion and senses which philosophers call superior and inferior, i.e., ορμαι και αισθησεις. But since in numerous passages both parties hold it to mean the immortal essence which is the cause of life in man, let them not raise disputes about mere names, but attend to the thing itself, by whatever name distinguished. How real it is let us now show.

And we will begin with man’s creation, wherein we shall see of what nature he was made at first. The Sacred History tells us (Genesis 1:26) of the purpose of God, before man was created, to make him “after his own image and likeness.” These expressions cannot possibly be understood of his body, in which, though the wonderful work of God appears more than in all other creatures, his image nowhere shines forth. (Ambros. lib. 6, hex. August. cap. 4: de Trinit. et alibi.) For who is it that speaks thus, “Let us make man in our own image and likeness?” God himself, who is a Spirit, and cannot be represented by any bodily shape. But as a bodily image, which exhibits the external face, ought to express to the life all the traits and features, that thus the statue or picture may give an idea of all that may be seen in the original, so this image of God must, by its likeness, implant some knowledge of God in our minds. I hear that some triflers say that the image of God refers to the dominion which was given to man over the brutes, and that in this respect man has some resemblance to God, whose dominion is over all. Into this mistake even Chrysostom fell when he was carried away in the heat of debate against the insane Anthropomorphites.

But Scripture does not allow its meaning to be thus evaded: for Moses, to prevent any one from placing this image in the flesh of man, first narrates that the body was formed out of clay, and makes no mention of the image of God; thereafter, he says, that “the breath of life” was; introduced into this clay body, making the image of God not to become effulgent in man till he was complete in all his parts. What then, it will be asked, do you think that that breath of life is the image of God? No, indeed, although I might say so with many, and perhaps not improperly. (Hilar. in Psalm 63; Aug. Lib. de Spiritu et Anima, cap. 39; Basil, hex. Hem. 8.) For what if I should maintain that the distinction was constituted by the word of God, by which that breath of life is distinguished from the souls of brutes? For whence do the souls of other animals arise? God says, “Let the earth bring forth the living soul,” etc. Let that which has sprung of earth be resolved into earth. But the soul of man is not of the earth. It was made by the mouth of the Lord, i.e., by his secret power.

Here, however, I do not insist, lest it should become a ground of quarrel. All I wish to obtain is, that the image itself is separate from the flesh. Were it otherwise, there would be no great distinctions, in man from its being said that he was made in the image of God; and yet it is repeatedly brought forward in Scripture, and highly celebrated. For what occasion was there to introduce God as deliberating, and, as it were, making it a subject of consultation, whether he should make an ordinary creature? In regard to all these things, “He spake, and it was done.” When he comes to this image, as if he were about to give a singular manifestation, he calls in his wisdom and power, and meditates with himself before he puts his hand to the work. Were these figurative modes of expression which represent the Lord, ανθρωποπαθως, (in a human manner,) in adaptation to our feeble capacity, so anxiously employed by Moses for a thing of nought? Was it not rather to give an exalted idea of the image of God impressed on man? Not contented with saying it once, he repeats it again and again. Whatever philosophers or these dreamers may pretend, we hold that nothing can bear the image of God but spirit, since God is a Spirit.

Here we are not left to conjecture what resemblance this image bears to its archetype. We easily learn it from the Apostle. (Colossians 3:10.) When he enjoins us to “put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him who created him,” he clearly shows what this image is, or wherein it consists; as he also does when he says, (Ephesians 4:24,) “Put on the new man, who has been created after God in knowledge and true holiness.” When we would comprehend all these things, in one word we say, that man, in respect of spirit, was made partaker of the wisdom, justice, and goodness of God. This mode of expression was followed by two sacred writers. The one, in dividing man into two parts—body, taken from the earth, and soul, derived from the image of God—briefly comprehended what Moses had more fully expressed, (Ecclesiastes 17:1,) “God created man, and made him after his own image.” The other, desiring to state exegetically how far the image of God extended, called man “inexterminable,” because created in the image of God. (Wisdom 2:23.) I would not urge the authority of these writers strongly on our opponents, did they not allege them against us. Still they ought to have some weight, if not as canonical, at least as ancient pious writers strongly supported. But, leaving them, let us hold the image of God in man to be that which can only have its seat in the Spirit.

Let us now hear what Scripture more distinctly states concerning the Soul. When Peter speaks of the salvation of the soul, and says that carnal lusts war against the soul; when he enjoins us to keep our souls chaste, and calls Christ the “Bishop of our souls,” (1 Peter 1:9, 22; 2 Peter 2:25,) what could he mean but that there were souls which could be saved—which could be assailed by vicious desires—which could be kept chaste, and be ruled by Christ their Bishop? In the history of Job we read, (Job 4:19,) How much more those who dwell in houses of clay, and have a foundation of earth?” This, if you attend to it, you must see to apply to the soul, which dwells in a clay body. He did not call man a vessel of clay, but says that he inhabits a vessel of clay, as if the good part of man (which is the soul) were contained in that earthly abode. Thus Peter says, (1 Peter 1:13,) “I think it right, as long as I am in this tabernacle, to stir you up by way of remembrance, knowing that in a short time I must put off this my tabernacle.” By this form of expression we might, if we are not very stupid, understand that there is something in a tabernacle, and something which is taken out of a tabernacle, or which, as he says, is to put off a tabernacle. The same manifest distinction between the flesh and the spirit is made by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, (Hebrews 12:9,) when he calls those by whom we were begotten the parents of one flesh; but says that there is one God, “the Father of spirits.” Shortly after, having called God the King of the heavenly Jerusalem, he subjoins that its citizens are angels and

“the spirits of just men made perfect.” –Hebrews 12:23

Nor do I see how we can otherwise understand Paul, when he says, (2 Corinthians 7:1,) “Having, therefore, these promises, let us cleanse ourselves from all pollution of the flesh and spirit.” For it is clear that he does not there make the comparison which he elsewhere frequently uses when he attributes defilement to the spirit, by which term, in other passages: he merely means purity.

I will add another passage, though I see that those who wish to cavil will immediately betake themselves to their glosses. The passage is, (1 Corinthians 2:11,) “Who of men knows the things of a man, save the spirit of man that is in him? so also no man knows the things of God, but the Spirit of God.” He might have said, that man knows the things which are his; but he applied the name to that part in which the power of thinking and understanding resides. Also, when he said, (Romans 8:16,) “The Spirit of God bears witness with our spirit, that we are the sons of God,” did he not use the same peculiarity of expression? But, might we not convince them by a single passage? We know how often our Savior condemned the error of the Sadducees, which partly consisted, as Luke states in the Acts, (Acts 23:8,) in denying the existence of spirit, The words are, “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel nor spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all these.” I fear they will cavil, and say that the words must be understood of the Holy Spirit or of angels. But this objection is easily met. He both mentioned the angels separately; and it is certain that those Pharisees had no knowledge of the Holy Spirit. This will be still better understood by those who know Greek. Luke uses the term πνευμα without adding the article, which he certainly would have added had he been speaking of the Holy Spirit.

If this does not stop their mouths, I do not see by what argument they can either be led or drawn, unless they choose to say that the opinion of the Sadducees, in denying spirit, was not condemned, or that of the Pharisees, in asserting it, approved. This quibble is met by the very words of the Evangelist: for, after stating Paul’s confession, “I am a Pharisee,” he adds this opinion held by the Pharisees. We must therefore either say that Paul used a crafty and malicious pretence, (this could not be, in a confession of faith!) or that he held with the Pharisees on the subject of spirit. But if we give credit to History, (Eccl. Hist., c. 4: cap. 13,) this belief among the Apostles was as firm and certain as that of The Resurrection of the Dead, or any other leading article of our faith. It will not be out of place here to quote the words, of Polycarp, a man breathing the spirit of a martyr in all his words and actions, (Hist. Eccl., cap. 19,) one who was a disciple of the Apostles, and so purely delivered what he heard from them to posterity, that he never allowed it to be in any degree adulterated. He, then, among many illustrious sayings which he uttered when brought to the stake, said, that on that day he was to appear before God in spirit. About the same time Melito, Bishop of Sardis, (Hist. Eccl., c. 24,) a man of like integrity, wrote a treatise, On Body and Soul. Were it now extant, our present labor would be superfluous: and so much did this belief prevail in a better age, that Tertullian places it among the common and primary conceptions of the mind which are commonly apprehended by nature. (Tertull. de Resurrect. Carnis.)

Although several arguments have already been advanced which, if I mistake not, establish the point for which I contend, viz., That the spirit or soul of man is a substance distinct from the body, what is now to be added will make the point still more certain. For I come to The Second Head, which I propose to discuss, viz., THAT THE SOUL, AFTER THE DEATH OF THE BODY, STILL SURVIVES, ENDUED WITH SENSE AND INTELLECT. And it is a mistake to suppose that I am here affirming anything else than THE IMMORTALITY OF THE SOUL. For those who admit that the soul lives, and yet deprive it of all sense, feign a soul which has none of the properties of soul, or dissever the soul from itself, seeing that its nature, without which it cannot possibly exist, is to move, to feel, to be vigorous, to understand. As Tertullian says, “The soul of the soul is perception.” (Lib. de Carne Christi.)

Let us now learn this IMMORTALITY from Scripture. When Christ exhorts his followers not to fear those who can kill the body, but cannot kill the soul, but to fear him who, after he hath killed the body, is able to cast the soul into the fire of Gehenna, (Matthew 10:28,) does he not intimate that the soul survives death? Graciously, therefore, has the Lord acted towards us, in not leaving our souls to the disposal of those who make no scruple of butchering them, or at least attempt it, but without the ability to do so. Tyrants torture, maim, burn, scourge., and hang, but it is only the body! It is God alone who has power over the soul, and can send it into hell fire. Either, therefore, the soul survives the body, or it is false to say that tyrants have no power over the soul! I hear them reply, that the soul is indeed slain for the present when death is inflicted, but does not perish, inasmuch as it will be raised again. When they would escape in this way, they must grant that neither is the body slain, since it too will rise; and because both are preserved against the day of judgment, neither perishes! But the words of Christ admit that the body is killed, and testify at the same time that the soul is safe. This form of expression Christ uses when he says, (John 2:19,) “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” He was speaking of the temple of his body. In like manner he exempts it from their power, when, in dying, he commends it into his Father’s hands, as Luke writes, and David had foretold. (Luke 23:4,6; Psalm 31:6.) And Stephen, after his example, says “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” (Acts 7:59.) Here they absurdly pretend that Christ commends his life to his Father, and Stephen his to Christ, to be kept against the day of Resurrection. But the words, especially those of Stephen, imply something very different from this. And the Evangelist adds, concerning Christ, that having bowed his head, he delivered his spirit. (John 19:30.) These words cannot refer to panting or action of the lungs.

Not less evidently does the Apostle Peter show that, After death, the soul both exists and lives, when he says (1 Peter 1:19) that Christ preached to the spirits in prison, not merely forgiveness for salvation to the spirits of the righteous, but also confusion to the spirits of the wicked. For so I interpret the passage, which has puzzled many minds; and I am confident that, under favorable auspices, I will make good my interpretation. For after he had spoken of the humiliation of the cross of Christ, and shown that all the righteous must be conformed to his image, he immediately thereafter, to prevent them from falling into despair, makes mention of the Resurrection, to teach them how their tribulations were to end. For he states that Christ did not fall under death, but, subduing it, came forth victorious. He indeed says in words, that he was

“put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit,” –1 Peter 3:18

…but just in the same sense in which Paul says that he suffered in the humiliation of the flesh, but was raised by the power of the Spirit. Now, in order that believers might understand that the power belongs to them also, he subjoins that Christ exerted this power in regard to others, and not only towards the living, but also towards the dead; and, moreover, not only towards his servants, but also towards unbelievers and the despisers of his grace.

The meaning of the Apostle will therefore be, that Christ in spirit preached to those other spirits who were in prison—in other words, that the virtue of the redemption obtained by Christ appeared and was exhibited to the spirits of the dead. Now, there is a want of the other member which related to the pious, who acknowledged and received this benefit; but it is complete in regard to unbelievers, who received this announcement to their confusion. For when they saw but one redemption, from which they were excluded, what could they do but despair? I hear our opponents muttering, and saying that this is a gloss of my own invention, and that such authority does not bind them. I have no wish to bind them to my authority, I only ask them whether or not the spirits shut up in prison are spirits? There is another clearer passage in the same writer, when he says (1 Peter 4:6) that the gospel was preached to the dead, in order that they may be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. You see how, while the flesh is delivered over to death, life is claimed for the spirit. A relation is expressed between life and death, and, by antithesis, the one dies and the other lives.

We learn the same thing from Solomon, when describing man’s death, he makes a wide difference between the soul and the body. He says,

“Until the dust return to the earth whence it was, and the spirit return to God who gave it.” –Ecclesiastes 12:7