Similar but not the Same: The Understanding of Luther and Calvin on the Soul in the Afterlife

The discussion about the understanding of the soul in the afterlife between Martin Luther and John Calvin has existed since the Reformation times. As Calvin wrote his treatise, Psychopannychia, Wolfgang Capito and Martin Bucer persuaded Calvin to hold this publication because some Protestants believed in the soul sleep’s idea. The discussion in Psychopannychia, in which Calvin discussed the immortality of the soul, may have caused tension among Protestants who supported the idea of soul sleep. Luther was a proponent of soul sleep and Capito was anxious that it would create unnecessary conflict among the reformers. However, Calvin published his treatise not to argue with Luther but against the prevailing idea among Anabaptists.

The assumption that Luther’s idea on the soul sleep contradicts Calvin’s immortal soul concept exists even after Reformation. Francis Blackburne, a Puritan, suggests that Luther’s soul sleep concept was contradictory to Calvin’s idea of the soul in the afterlife. LeRoy Froom, a 20th-century theologian, assumes the same idea. At this point, there is a void study in comparing the idea of the soul in the afterlife between Luther and Calvin, this paper aims to fill this lacuna.

This study will compare the idea of the soul between Luther and Calvin in six points. These six items are: the idea of both theologians about the body and the soul, the soul in the expression “death as sleep,” consciousness of the soul in the afterlife, the soul in the reward and punishment of the dead, the soul in the eternal punishment, and the idea of the immortality of the soul. This study indicates that, between these two reformers, there are more similarities in the idea of the soul in the afterlife than differences. It means there are no decisive differences between Luther and Calvin on the soul in the afterlife as Blackburne and Froom assumed. It seems the slight differences are in the idea of body and soul, in the understanding of “death as sleep,” the nature of consciousness of the soul in the afterlife, and the place of the soul in the reward and punishment.

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