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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?[195]

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?[196] 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[197] 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."[198] A. Franck quotes this passage on page 184 of his

Kabbale; Huet, too, gives it in Origeniana.[199] 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,[200] 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.[201]

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?"[202]

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

of Pre-existence."

Dr. Henry More, the famous Platonist of the seventeenth century,

quotes Synesius as one of the masters who taught this doctrine,[203]

and Beausobre reports a typical phrase of his,[204] "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."[205] 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:[205]

"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)[206] 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[207]:

"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[208] 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;[211] 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.[212] Certain souls, on attaining to perfect peace, return to

new worlds; some remain faithful, others degenerate to such a degree

that they become demons.[213]

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."[214]

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"[215] they

kept alive belief in the rebirths of the soul, "Izarn the Monk," in

his book Historie d' un Heretique,[216] 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.