This post is a companion to the Heretics podcast found on the Podcast tab at the top of this page; and a continuation in our series of looks at the ancient heresies of the church and a refutation of them using good theology and hermeneutics.
I’ve got a fun one for you today. Can almost guarantee, none of you will have heard of today’s heretics: the Arabici. See, told you, you haven’t heard of them before.
Now before you go all, the who, the what on me; they were admittedly a rather small group from the first half of the 3rd century. Their founder is unknown, though they were popular in the area known as Arabia; hence the name which was given by Augustine don’t cha know. And just in case you thought Arabici was bad; they were also known as the θανατοψυχῖται, meaning: death of the soul.
So how did these people get such cheery names? They got here from an exegetical error in their understanding of 1 Timothy 6:16, which declares that only God possesses immortality. Because of their narrow reading, they taught the human body and soul both died; and therefore were both revived/resurrected when Christ returns.
Luckily for history, this is our first heretic with a happy ending. According to Eusebius, writing in Church History (Book 6, Chapter 37), Origen got them back into the fold during a called synod/council in the mid-3rd century. Which if you know your history of hermeneutics; Origen, the godfather of the allegorical interpretation of Scripture, getting credit for correcting another group’s exegetical mistake, especially later in his life, is bordering on the absurd.
Obviously, we condemn this view, and therefore all other soul-sleep or annihilationist views; for several reasons. The first of which is logical in its origins; simply put the Arabici logic is flawed in their understanding of God. And before you go down the road with me that we should not use logic: God makes sense; therefore how we relate to Him should make some sense as well.
In this case the Arabici fail by applying that which is true of the greater, in this case God; and applying it to the lesser, in this case us; in the same manner and in the same degree. We will flesh this out more fully in the correction, but understand the problem here; this is the view which sees God through the lens of the human, defining God and His attributes in light of us. Such, theology from below, will always lead to an aberrant view of God and a misunderstanding of His attributes. While they did seek to deny human equality with God, they did so by assuming the equivocation of attributes and failing to defining our immortality in light of God’s.
Secondly, hermeneutical principles for the win baby!!!! There are baseline rules to follow, which were run straight through by the θανατοψυχῖται. We read the later works of Scripture through the lens of the earlier, not the other way around. You might be saying, what about interpreting the Old Testament in light of the New? Yes, you should; but not as a reimagining, but as a fulfilling. We allow the earlier work to build the foundation upon which the later work comes. Therefore, we do not read Ecclesiastes in light of Revelation; we read Revelation in light of Ecclesiastes. Likewise, we read Paul in light of Jesus; rather than interpret Jesus’ teaching through the lens of Paul.
This leads us to our second hermeneutical understanding; we utilize the clear text to interpret the unclear text. If a text of Scripture is a little bit fuzzy, we do not use it to build our theology and rewrite the previous, obvious words. So in this case, yes, 1 Timothy 6:16 tells us that God alone possesses immortality; but if your answer is that souls now sleep before being awakened with the body: (for what?), then you have failed to read this idea in light of the previously given clear commands and teachings. Case in point, read the clear passages that occur elsewhere in Scripture.
While completing His work upon the cross in Luke 23:42 -43, Jesus tells one of the other condemned he will that day, be with Him in paradise. No sleep, no wait time, no cosmic waiting room or purgatorial endeavor; do not pass go, do not collect $200: today, with God, in eternity. Jesus was clear; which is why the 1 Timothy verse must be read some non-Arabician way.
If you want to go to a later, but clear verse; Revelation 7:9 – 17 speaks about the victims of the great tribulation; who are now gathered around the throne of the Lamb. These souls are not sleeping and waiting; they are not intermediate; instead they are active and present with their Savior the way He promised them. Therefore, again; we must read the 1 Timothy verse as saying something other than what the Arabici have determined.
Our final look at the hermeneutical failure of this group is that of context and genre. Yes, 1 Timothy is a letter; and typically letters fall under the category of didactic, that is teaching, material. But within each letter, there can be myriads of differing genres from: quotation, poetry, didactic, doxological, etc. The entire section from which our heretical view comes in verses 13 – 16. In this section, Paul is charging Timothy to action, and grounding that charge in the doxology of verse 16. Yes; a doxology, a statement of praise, is the cornerstone of verse 16. A doxology is not, and should not be treated as, a didactic passage. To attempt to build out a brand new eschatology based upon a verse of praise literature is beyond wrong; it is dumb: and the official rule of Practical Theology Ministries is: don’t do dumb things.
So how do we correct this idea, and guard ourselves from falling prey to it in the future? We start, by seeing God rightly as He is described; and therefore seeing ourselves rightly as we are described. Yes, we are made in the image of God as Genesis 1:27 makes crystal clear. But the clay of Romans 9 does not get to question the potter; instead, we recognize the Potter is beyond us and greater than we as God declares in Isaiah 55:8 – 9. How does that work in the realm of immortality? This is where our knowledge of Theology Proper comes in very handily.
God possesses aseity, the property of self-existence. Philosophically speaking, that means God is the uncaused or first cause. This is the declaration by John in 1:4 that in the Word, who is Jesus, was life. Jesus does not receive life, He is life. He is not alive in the sense we are; He is alive in the sense that He cannot be anything else. By contrast, since we do not possess aseity, we are dependent beings. Our immortality therefore, if granted through Christ, is just that: granted. We do not possess it; instead we have been given life by the One who does possess it. This is the difference between an eternal, without beginning or end, God; and an immortal, with beginning but not end, soul. Understanding God rightly, enables us to define ourselves in light of Him; but not the same as Him.
We also have to be careful to treat Scripture as a unity. This is the great failure of many Christians, both lay and clergy: a failure to see value and benefit in the totality of the Biblical witness as it weaves together one fluid story across the ages and continents. This would be a good time to plug our weekly worship services, as we are going through Exodus, and will be until early 2022; because we are doing just that. In Exodus we are walking through the book and seeing its story, but also seeing the seeds of its story in Genesis, and the ultimate fulfillment of its story in Christ. If you enjoy this podcast, join us: 10:30 AM CDT (UTC – 6) every Sunday.
So how does that unity help us here? We know from Hebrews 9:27 – 28; we die and then God judges us. Simple, basic, tells the story. We know from our previous look at the Luke 23 and Revelation 7, that work is immediate. We also know that in Christ, we should not fear that judgment as Paul expounds in Romans 8:14 – 17, and in reality the entire chapter; read Romans, it will do you good. As Paul mentions, we have: a new Spirit, no fear, future glory, adoption, and freedom. All of this can be yours in Christ; how?
They are yours in Christ, because in our repentance, through the substitutionary work of Jesus; we have been given life. 1 John 5:10 – 12 makes this point clearly. In the Son, we have been given life; and this is the testimony we bear. If we have the Son, we have life; if we do not have the Son, we have no life. God can grant this life without granting us His nature and being; and that is a key distinction the Arabici did not make, and one the prosperity Gospel tries to ignore even today; but that is another episode. Sometime later we will have to look at the annihilationist view of these verses, but that is also another episode.
Finally, we must read the entire section in light of its: place, nature, and role. The doxology of verse 16 stands in light of the charge of verses 13 – 15. So let us do rightly what the 3rd century θανατοψυχῖται did wrongly. We have seen we will be with God if we are Christ’s. We have seen the immediacy of that dwelling. We have seen the ability of God to grant such status in His people because of His Son. Therefore we must read the words of verse 16 in the way they were intended: as praise of the eternal, almighty God who is the giver of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17).
We have not been given the status of God; rather we have been fulfilled by His goodness and light. Timothy can do the good work Paul is charging him to do, precisely because God has removed the stumbling offense of sin and granted Timothy a status that only God, the self-living One, ever could.
Not seeing this is the failure of the Arabici; one we hope to not replicate. And while you’ll never hear of these people again, understanding what went wrong, helps us solve other heretical problems that we will tackle down the road.