The Early Christian Church
The documents to which we have access, dealing with the philosophical
and religious history of Christianity in the first few centuries of
our era, are so questionable, that we can place but faint reliance
upon them, if we would really become acquainted with the thought of
that period. We have already seen that the number of spurious or
counterfeit productions was so great that a strange kind of sorting
out, or selectio
, took place at the first Council of Nicaea, resulting
in the choice of four so-called canonical Gospels. It is evident, too,
that the copyists, compilers, and translators of the period were
anxious, above all else, to make facts and opinions agree with their
preconceived ideas and personal sympathies or likings. Each author
worked pro domo sua, emphasising whatever fitted in with his
personal views and carefully concealing what was calculated to weaken
them; so that at the present time the only clues we have to guide us
out of the labyrinth consist of the brief opinions expressed by a few
historians, here and there, on whose honesty reliance may be placed.
In the present chapter, for instance, it is no easy matter to unravel
the Truth from out of these tangled threads of personal opinions. Some
believe that the early Christians and the Fathers of the Church were
reincarnationists; others say they were not; the texts, we are in
possession of, contradict one another. Thus, whereas Saint Jerome
brings against Origen the reproach of having in his book De
Principiis taught that, in certain cases, the transmigration of human
souls into the bodies of animals, was possible--as, indeed, seems to
be the case--certain writers deny that he ever said anything on the
subject. These contradictory affirmations are easy to explain, once we
know that Ruffinus, when translating into Latin the Greek text of De
Principiis, omitted all that referred to this question, that the
conspiracy of silence might be preserved on the matter of Origenian
At the close of his article "Origen on Reincarnation," in the
Theosophical Review, February, 1906, G. R. S. Mead says:
"It therefore follows that those who have claimed Origen as a believer
in reincarnation--and many have done so, confounding reincarnation
with pre-existence--have been mistaken. Origen himself answers in no
uncertain tones, and stigmatises the belief as a false doctrine,
utterly opposed to Scripture and the teaching of the Church."
Others affirm that Saint Justin Martyr believed in rebirths and even
in the transmigration of human souls into animal bodies. In his book
Against Heresies, volume 2, chapter 33, the Absurdity of the
Doctrine of the Transmigration of Souls is dealt with; and in the
following chapter, the pre-existence of the soul is denied! Is this
another instance, like the one just mentioned, of tampering with the
writings of this Father of the Church?
At times an author gives two contradictory opinions on the same
subject. In Tertullian's Apology for the Christians, for instance,
we find the following:
"If you can find it reasonable to believe the transmigration of human
souls from body to body, why should you think it incredible for the
soul to return to the substance it first inhabited? For this is
our notion of a resurrection, to be that again after death which we
were before, for according to the Pythagorean doctrine these souls now
are not the same they were, because they cannot be what they were not
without ceasing to be what they were.... I think it of more
consequence to establish this doctrine of the resurrection; and we
propose it as more consonant with reason and the dignity of human
nature to believe that man will be remade man, each person the person
he was, a human being a human being; in other words, that the soul
shall be habited with the same qualities it was invested with in its
former union, though the man may receive some alteration in his
form.... The light which daily departs rises again with its original
splendour, and darkness succeeds by equal turns; the stars which leave
the world, revive; the seasons, when they have finished their course,
renew it again; the fruits are consumed and bloom afresh; and that
which we sow is not quickened except it die, and by that dissolution
rises more fruitful. Thus you see how all things are renewed by
corruption and reformed by dying.... How, then, could you imagine that
man, the lord of all these dying and reviving things, should himself
die for ever?"
After such a clear and noble profession of faith, we may well wonder
if it were the same man who, in De Anima, could have both refuted
and pitilessly ridiculed the idea of rebirth, and denied the
separation of the soul from the body as well as the influence of the
former upon the latter. We prefer to believe that we are dealing with
two writers, or else that some literary forger, anxious to create a
diversion, deliberately made Tertullian responsible for this strange
Another reason for the difficulty in unravelling the tangled skein of
the religious and philosophical teachings prevalent in the early
centuries of Christianity is the lack of precision in the language of
the writers, the loss of the key to the special vocabulary they used,
and the veils which writers who possessed some degree of initiation,
deliberately threw over teachings which could only be given to the
masses in general terms.
There is one very important point to consider; and this is that in the
earlier centuries, outside the circles of initiation, there was not
that precision which the present-day teaching of theosophy has given
to the doctrine of Reincarnation; this latter, in the mind of the
people, became confused with the doctrine of Pre-existence, which
affirms that the soul exists before coming into the present body, and
will exist in other bodies after leaving this one. This confusion has
continued up to the present time, and we find schools of spiritualism
in England and America, as well as in other countries, teaching that
existence on earth has been preceded and will be followed by a great
number of existences on the invisible planes.
In reality, this is the doctrine of Rebirths, though there is nothing
precise about the teaching. Whether the soul has a single physical
body, or takes several in succession, it is none the less continually
evolving as it passes into material vehicles, however subtle the
matter be; the difference is, therefore, insignificant, unless we wish
to enter into details of the process involved, as was the case in the
West in the early centuries of Christianity.
Did the Fathers of the Church teach Pre-existence? There can be no
doubt on this point. In a letter to St. Anastasius, Rufinus said that
"this belief was common amongst the early Christian fathers."
Arnobius shows his sympathy with this teaching, and adds that St.
Clement, of Alexandria, "wrote wonderful accounts of metempsychosis";
and afterwards, in other passages of the same book, he appears to
criticise the idea of the plurality of lives. St. Jerome affirms that
"the doctrine of transmigration has been secretly taught from ancient
times to small numbers of people, as a traditional truth which was not
to be divulged." A. Franck quotes this passage on page 184 of his
Kabbale; Huet, too, gives it in Origeniana. The same Father
proves himself to be a believer in Pre-existence, in his 94th Letter
to Avitus, where he agrees with Origen on the subject of the
interpretation of a passage from St. Paul, and says that this
means "that a divine abode and true repose are to be found in Heaven,"
and "that there dwell creatures endowed with reason in a state of
bliss, before coming down to our visible world, before they fall into
the grosser bodies of earth...."
Lactantius, whom St. Jerome called the Christian Cicero, though he
opposed pagan doctrines, maintained that the soul was capable of
immortality and of bodily survival only on the hypothesis that it
existed before the body.
Nemesius, Bishop of Emissa in Syria, stoutly affirmed the doctrine of
Pre-existence, declaring that every Greek who believed in immortality
believed also in the pre-existence of the soul.
St. Augustine said: "Did I not live in another body, or somewhere
else, before entering my mother's womb?"
In his Treatise, on Dreams, Synesius states that "philosophy assures
us that our past lives are a direct preparation for future lives...."
When invited by the citizens of Ptolemais to become their bishop, he
at once refused, saying that "he cherished certain opinions of which
they might not approve, as, after mature reflection, they had struck
deep root in his mind. Foremost among these, he mentioned the doctrine
Dr. Henry More, the famous Platonist of the seventeenth century,
quotes Synesius as one of the masters who taught this doctrine,
and Beausobre reports a typical phrase of his, "Father, grant
that my soul may merge into Light and be no more thrust back into the
illusion of earth."
St. Gregory of Nysa says it is absolutely necessary that the soul
should be healed and purified, and if this does not take place during
its life on earth, it must be accomplished in future lives.
St. Clement of Alexandria says that, although man was created after
other beings, "the human species is more ancient than all these
things." In his Exhortations to the Pagans, he adds:
"We were in being long before the foundation of the world; we existed
in the eye of God, for it is our destiny to live in him. We are the
reasonable creatures of the divine Word; therefore, we have existed
from the beginning, for in the beginning was the Word.... Not for the
first time does He show pity on us in out wanderings. He pitied us
from the very beginning."
He also adds:
"Philolaus, the Pythagorean, taught that the soul was flung into the
body as a punishment for the misdeeds it had committed, and his
opinion was confirmed by the most ancient of the prophets."
As regards Reincarnation, i.e., the descent of the human soul into
successive physical bodies, and even its temporary association with
the physical bodies of animals, more than one Christian writer
advocated this teaching.
Chalcidius, quoted by Beausobre in the book just mentioned, says:
"The souls, that are not able to unite with God, are destined to
return to life until they repent of their misdeeds."
In the Pistis Sophia, a Christian treatise on the mysteries of the
divine Hierarchies and the evolution of souls in the three worlds, we
find the doctrine of Rebirth frequently mentioned:
"If he is a man who (after passing out of his body) shall have come
to the end of his cycles of transmigrations, without repenting, ... he
is cast into outer darkness."
A few pages earlier, in the same work, we find:
"The disincarnate soul which has not solved the mystery of the
breaking of the bonds and of the seals is brought before the virgin of
light, who, after judging it, hands it over to her agents
(receivers), who carry it into a new body."
Let us now see what Origen says on the matter:
"Celsus, then, is altogether ignorant of the purpose of our writings,
and it is therefore upon his own acceptation of them that he casts
discredit and not upon their real meaning; whereas if he had reflected
on what is appropriate to a soul which is to enjoy an everlasting
life, and on the idea which we are to form of its essence and
principles, he would not so have ridiculed the entrance of the
immortal into a mortal body, which took place, not according to the
metempsychosis of Plato, but agreeably to another and higher order of
The teaching of Origen is not easy to set forth clearly, for he is
very reticent about many things, and employs a language to which
present-day philosophy cannot always find the key; still, the teaching
seems full and complete. It comprises pre-existence and even those
special associations of certain human souls with animal souls, which
we have just spoken of and which form one of the chief mysteries of
In the following words he explains the existence of souls in previous
"The soul has neither beginning nor end....
"Rational creatures existed undoubtedly from the very beginning in
those (ages) which are invisible and eternal. And if this is so, then
there has been a descent from a higher to a lower condition on the
part not only of those souls who have deserved the change, by the
variety of their movements, but also on that of those who, in order to
serve the whole world, were brought down from those higher and
invisible spheres to these lower and visible ones, although against
their will. 'For the creature was made subject to vanity, not
willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope'
(Rom., chap. 8, v. 20); so that both sun and moon and stars and
angels might discharge their duly to the world, and to those souls
who, on account of their excessive mental defects, stood in need of
bodies of a grosser and more solid nature; and for the sake of those
for whom this arrangement was necessary, this visible world was also
called into being.
"This arrangement of things, then, which God afterwards appointed not
being understood by some, who failed to perceive that it was owing to
preceding causes originating in free will, that this variety of
arrangement had been instituted by God, they have concluded that all
things in this world are directed either by fortuitous movements or by
a necessary fate, and that nothing is in the power of our own
"Is it not rational that souls should be introduced into bodies, in
accordance with their merits and previous deeds, and that those who
have used their bodies in doing the utmost possible good should have a
right to bodies endowed with qualities superior to the bodies of
All souls will arrive at the same goal; it is the will of souls
that makes of them angels, men or demons, and their fall can be of
such a nature that they may be chained down to the bodies of
animals. Certain souls, on attaining to perfect peace, return to
new worlds; some remain faithful, others degenerate to such a degree
that they become demons.
Concerning bodies, he says:
"The soul, which is immaterial and invisible in its nature, exists in
no material place, without having a body suited to the nature of that
place; accordingly, it at one time puts off one body which was
necessary before, but which is no longer adequate in its changed
state, and it exchanges it for a second."
Although metensomatosis (re-embodiment of the soul), i.e., the
true teaching of Origen, was not clearly expounded, it considerably
influenced the early Christian philosophers, and was favourably
received up to the time of its condemnation by the Synod of
Constantinople. It appeared in most of the sects of that time and in
those of the following centuries: Simonians, Basilidians,
Valentinians, Marcionites, Gnostics, Manichaeans, Priscillianites,
Cathari, Patarins, Albigenses, Bogomiles, &c....
Chivalry, too, in these ages of darkness and persecution, was an
instrument for the dissemination of esoteric doctrines, including
Reincarnation. The heart of this noble institution consisted of
students of divine Wisdom, pure devoted souls who communicated with
one another by means of passwords.
The Troubadours were their messengers of the sacred Teaching, which
they skilfully concealed in their songs, carrying it from group to
group, from sect to sect, in their wanderings. "Sons of the teachings
of the Albigenses and of the Manichaean-Marcion tradition" they
kept alive belief in the rebirths of the soul, "Izarn the Monk," in
his book Historie d' un Heretique, apostrophised an Albigensian
bishop in the following terms:
"Tell me what school it was in which you learnt that the spirit of
man, after losing his body, passes into an ox, an ass, a sheep, or a
fowl, and transmigrates from one animal to another, until a new human
body is born for it?"
Izarn was acquainted with only so much of the teachings of the
Troubadours as had got abroad and been distorted and misrepresented by
ignorant or evil-minded persons; still, his criticism plainly shows
traces of the teachings of palingenesis in the darkest and most
blood-stained periods of the Middle Ages.
The Inquisition put an end to the Troubadours, though certain of them,
Dante and St. Francis of Assisi, for instance, by reason of their
popularity or the special circumstances of the case, were left in
peace. In Europe the secret teaching was continued by the
Rosicrucians; the Roman de la Rose is pure Hermetic esotericism. The
struggle of official Christianity--that of the letter--against those
who represented the spirit of the Scriptures, raged ever more
bitterly, and the idea of Rebirth disappeared more and more from the
Church; its sole representatives during the Middle Ages were St.
Francis of Assisi, the learned Irish monk, Johannes Scotus Erigena,
and St. Bonaventura, "the Seraphic Doctor." At the present time there
remains nothing more than a disfigured and misunderstood fragment of
this idea: the dogma of the Resurrection of the Body.