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Church History Forum: reincarnation in early church

by Catherine Frakas 19 Dec 2001

reincarnation in early church QUESTION from Sarah August 1, 2001 I was informed that the Catholic church believed in reincarnation until the Second Council of Constantinople in 553. Could you offer a little more insight into this. Thanks
ANSWER by Q & A Staff on August 5, 2001 Dear Sarah,
No, it is not true that the Catholic Church ever believed in reincarnation.
The source for most, if not all, of the claims made about reincarnation's supposedly being taught by the Catholic Church stem from the heretical writings of Origenes Adamantius, who lived c. 185-254, known to us as Origen. He was strongly infulenced by pagan philosophy, having studied under the philosopher Ammonius Saccas, who founded the school of Neoplatonism. Origen succeeded Clement as head of the Cathechtical school of Alexandria, but was removed from his post and banished from his city of residence because of his controversial teachings.
While the Second Council of Constantinople (553 A.D.)was concerned with an episode in history known as the Three Chapters, which had nothing whatsoever to do with reincarnation, it did, apparently, refer to Origenism in one of its anathemas, in reference to certain writings in which Origen supported heretical doctrines such as the pre-existence of the soul and the final salvation of all men. A Synod in Constantinople in 543 also dealt with the question of Origenism.
This does not mean, however, that the Church accepted origen's controversial views before this time. Quite the opposite, in fact.
I cite from Ludwig Ott's Fundamental of Catholic Dogma (TAN Books and Publishers, Rockford, IL. 1974.) page 99 :

Pre-existentianism, which was proposed by Plato, and which in the early Christian era was accepted by Origen and individual members of his disciples (Didymus of Alexandria, Evagrius Ponticus, Nemesius of Emesa), as well as by the Priscillianists, teaches that souls exist even before their connection with the bodies—according to Plato and Origen, from all eternity—and are exiled in bodies, as a punishment for moral defect. This doctrine was rejected by a Synod at Constantinople (543) against the Origenists, and by a Synod at Braga (561) against the Priscillianists... The Fathers, with very few exceptions, are opponents of the doctrine of pre-existence upheld by Origen. The chief enemy of Origenism was St. Jerome, though in his condemnation he seems to have been somewhat ill-informed. Theophilus, Archbishop of Alexandria, in 399 banished the monks of the Nitrian desert on the charge of reading heretical works by Origen (this however, was merely a pretext of Theophilus to capture a fugitive priest, Isidore, who had fled from Theophilus earlier; in fact, Theophilus was once a supporter of Origen). It was Theophilus who wrote to the then Pope, Anastasius, and secured in obtaining a papal restriction on the use of his books.
There were, it is true, several aspects to Origen's writing which were heretical. For example, he taught a pre-corporeal fall through sin, instead of the teaching on Original Sin; he denied the eternity of hell's punishments, basing this view on the Platonic belief that all punishment has as its goal the improvement of the delinquent; plus other errors.
There are numerous Church Fathers who clearly and unequivocally refuted various errors of Origenism, including St. Jerome, St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Justin Martyr, and several others.
As an aside, there is a file I wrote on reincarnation and how to refute it Scripturally at Sean's Faith Website
So in conclusion, it is certainly not true that the Catholic Church at any time taught or believed the doctrine of reincarnation. The one major teacher of the time who did believe it was repeatedly condemned. While it could be argued that Origen's teachings went a long time before being officially condemned, nevertheless they were never embraced by the Church at any time, and in any case were condemned by the Church Fathers of the time.
God bless,
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