The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 2


V. “Immortal Soul” Concept Derived From “Roman Dunghill of Decretals”

On November 29, 1520, Luther published a defense of the forty-one propositions that had been condemned by the bull Exsurge Domini, of June 15. This he titled Assertion of All the Articles Wrongly Condemned in the Roman Bull, thus publicly justifying his Theses. On the twenty-seventh item he states the general principle: “It is certain that it is not in the power of the church or the Pope to establish articles of faith, or laws for morals or good works.” And he immediately gives as the reason that all true articles of faith are already established in the Word of God. CFF2 73.1


With ironical permission Luther grants to the pope the right and power to make special “articles of faith” for himself and his own followers. He lists five in the series, including the “immortality of the soul” as the fifth, all and each of which Luther expressly rejects. The significance of including “the soul is immortal [“animam esse immortalem”]” in what he denominates “monstrous opinions” and “Roman corruptions,” is, of course, obvious. And he added immediately that these “all” came out of the “Roman dunghill of decretals” 4—thus harking back to the pop’s bull of December 19, 1513, wherein he declared the natural immortality of the soul to be a doctrine of the Catholic Church. 5 Here are Luther’s exact words: CFF2 73.2

“But I permit the Pope to make articles of faith for himself and his faithful, such as [1] The Bread and wine are transubstantiated in the sacrament. [2] The essence of God neither generates, nor is generated. [3] The soul is the substantial form of the human body. [4] The Pope is the emperor of the world, and the king of heaven, and God upon earth. [5] THE SOUL IS IMMORTAL, with all those monstrous opinions to be found in the Roman dunghill of decretals, that such as his faith is, such may be his gospel, such his disciples, and such his church, that the mouth may have meat suitable for it, and the dish, a cover worthy of it.” 6 CFF2 73.3

The implication is clear: These were distinctive Catholic doctrines, expressing the Roman faith, and consequently consistent with Catholic dogmas. But they were at variance with the Protestant scripturalism proclaimed by Luther, for the Biblical concept of the nature and the destiny of man had been woefully warped by the Papacy. CFF2 74.1


Archdeacon Blackburne’s incisive summation of Luther’s position was this: CFF2 74.2

“Luther espoused the doctrine of the sleep of the soul, upon a scripture foundation, and then he made use of it as a confutation of purgatory and saint worship, and continued in that belief to the last moment of his life.” 7 CFF2 74.3

Blackburne then adds that Luther’s commentary on Ecclesiastes, published in 1532, was “clearly and indisputably on the side of those who maintain the sleep of the soul,” 8 Blackburne, the Anglican scholar, is cited here because, having studied deeply into Luther’s position nearly two centuries previously, and having searched out all the pertinent source evidences bearing thereon, he recorded this definite opinion: “Luther mentioned the immortality of the soul, as a portentous opinion, supported by nothing but the Pope’s decrees.” 9 CFF2 74.4


Dr. T. A. Kantonen, contemporary American Lutheran scholar and professor of systematic theology, Hamma Divinity School, likewise confirms the observations here made concerning Luther’s position. CFF2 74.5

“Luther, with a greater emphasis on the resurrection, preferred to concentrate on the scriptural metaphor of sleep. ‘For just as one who falls asleep and reaches morning unexpectedly when he awakes, without knowing what has happened to him, so we shall suddenly rise on the last day without knowing how we have come into death and through death.’ ‘We shall sleep, until He comes and knocks on the little grave and says, Doctor Martin, get up! Then I shall rise in a moment and be happy with Him forever.’” 10 CFF2 74.6


To the question Did Luther “so alter his mind as to recant, and espouse the contrary doctrine?” Blackburne gives an unqualified “No.” 11 Luther, he asserted, not only held to “the sleep of the soul” in the decade from 1522 to 1532, when he published his commentary on Ecclesiastes, but his later reflections on the death of John, Elector of Saxony, show that he still believed that the souls of the righteous were “at rest.” 12 CFF2 75.1

Blackburne then alludes to disputes among Luther’s followers as to “what becomes of the soul after death” and gives Luther’s reply as, “Nothing is revealed to us on that head, and that it is rash to affirm anything about it without the word of God.” 13 Nevertheless Luther, it must be frankly stated, was not always consistent. He himself was in the process of clarification, and was subjected to terrific pressures from associates who did not see the issue as he did. CFF2 75.2


Discussing Luther’s final view, expressed on the very day of his death (which is cited from Sleidan xvi, p. 488), Blackburne states that Luther averred that friends will see and know each other hereafter, on the resurrection morn, as Adam saw Eve when she “was first presented to him, namely, just [as Adam] awaked out of a deep sleep.” Blackburne then observes: “The renewal by Christ cannot possibly mean any thing but the resurrection of the dead.” Then follows Blackburne’s considered conclusion, after all evidence had been painstakingly surveyed: CFF2 75.3

“Luther never departed from the sentiments he disclosed to Amsdorf in 1522, but retained to his dying moment, the same uniform idea of a total suspension of thought and consciousness during the interval between death and the resurrection.” 14 CFF2 76.1


Then Blackburne adds: “The misfortune was that his more immediate disciples were in another persuasion, and therefore, instead of defending their master’s doctrine, set themselves to prove he never held it,” wishing “to conceal Luther’s sentiments on the intermediate state through a foolish apprehension of their being heretical.” 15 In thus “leaving the main root of Popery, in the ground,” Blackburne observes, “it is no wonder they should have been unsuccessful in pruning away the corrupt fruits [the “intercession of saints, which led directly to the practice of invocation”] which always have, and always will spring from it.” 16 CFF2 76.2