Pamphilus, Justinian, and the Preexistence of Souls

Post by
Ambrose Andreano

This holy martyr Pamphilus was one of those very people to “have held” the belief in the preexistence of souls, rendering him guilty of being a heretic worthy of condemnation, according to the logic of Justinian.

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.
(Jeremiah 1:5)

The ancient conception of preexistence of souls, now typically associated with Origen of Alexandria (AD 184 - 254), was that the soul is created prior to the formation of the body. That is, the spiritual man descends from God, existing in a spiritual form for some unknown length of time, to eventually descend to the material plane to fully incarnate as an enfleshed human being. The soul descends from God, traversing realms to unite with flesh, and then the animating process of meiosis begins.  

Many know about how the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (AD 482 - 565) anathematized this idea when they read summaries of the 5th Ecumenical Council. In the first of Justinian’s nine anathemas (AD 543), his decree on the matter is as follows:

If anyone says or holds that the souls of human beings pre-exist, as previously minds and holy powers, but that they reached satiety with divine contemplation and turned to what is worse and for this reason grew cold in the love of God and are therefore called souls, and were made to descend into bodies as a punishment, let him be anathema.[1]

Then by AD 553, the first of fifteen anathemas says the following:

If anyone advocates the mythical pre-existence of souls and the monstrous restoration that follows from this, let him be anathema.[2]

Justinian gives the following concluding remarks in his own letter to the council:

But the church, following the divine scriptures, affirms that the soul is created together with the body, not first one and the other later, according to the insanity of Origen. On account of these wicked and destructive doctrines, or rather ravings, we bid you most sacred ones to assemble together, read the appended exposition attentively, and condemn and anathematize each of these articles together with the impious Origen and all those who hold or have held these beliefs till death.[3]

However, few know about what Pamphilus of Caesarea (2?? - 309) had to say about this subject when he defended Origen on this very subject all the way back in the late 3rd century. Justinian is very much at odds with Pamphilus, and his actions have made history even more complicated than it was prior to 553. Why? Because this holy martyr Pamphilus was one of those very people to “have held” the belief in the preexistence of souls, rendering him guilty of being a heretic worthy of condemnation, according to the logic of Justinian.

Saint Against Saint

Pamphilus and Justinian (both considered saints in the Orthodox Church) contradict each other at a variety of places. For example, concerning whether or not the stars in the sky are to be considered rational beings, Pamphilus says the following:

[C]oncerning the stars of heaven, those who are in the Church each think differently—some indeed hold the view that they are living beings and of the class of rational living beings, but others think that they are irrational, nay rather, that they not only lack a soul and all sensibility but are mere bodies without spirit and sensibility. Yet no one would justly call someone a heretic who holds to one or another of these diverse opinions. Therefore, since there are no clear traditions in the apostolic proclamation concerning these matters, it is also not right to pronounce as heretics those who are in doubt and hold different views concerning the human soul and its origination and origin, especially since in the remaining standards of ecclesiastical doctrine they hold to what is correct and catholic.[4]

And then a few hundred years later, Justinian has this to say about the stars (considered a speculative theological opinion for centuries prior):

If anyone shall say that the sun, the moon and the stars are also reasonable beings [...] let him be anathema.[5]

Therefore, according to Pamphilus, Justinian anathematizing a particular theological opinion is unjust, precisely because this is not something which concerns apostolic tradition, nor is it a dogmatic matter of orthodoxy and heresy. For Pamphilus, a diversity of opinions is to be tolerated if we want to be just. This makes Justinian’s actions all the more problematic.

On the Origin of Souls

In his Apology for Origen, Pamphilus set out to refute nine objections against Origen from another saint, Methodius of Olympus (AD 250 - 311), and preexistence of souls was one of those topics. He opens by stating his intentions explicitly, saying: “Now we will respond in our own words to those objections they also raise concerning Origen’s doctrine of the soul, namely, that he says that the soul was made to exist before the body.”[6] However, contrary to what one might expect, Pamphilus does not set out to show that Origen does not believe this teaching (ie: arguing that it is a misinterpretation or foreign interpolation), but rather shows how believing in or rejecting the preexistence of souls does not qualify as something on the table to justly condemn, since neither the scriptures nor the apostles handed down a dogma regarding the soul.

Not only this, but even more surprising is that Pamphilus argues the preexistence of souls is the most reasonable position on the matter:

If the Church manifestly handed down or proclaimed things that were contrary to Origen’s views, doubtless he would be deservedly censured as one who contradicted and resisted the Church’s decrees. But now, since there is diversity of opinion among all the men of the Church, and seeing that some hold one thing about the soul and others hold something else, and everyone holds different opinions, how is it that Origen should be accused rather than the others, especially since the things that are asserted by the others seem much more absurd, and these things are themselves contradictory?[7]

And elsewhere, Pamphilus emphasizes the injustice of condemning someone over this:

[J]ust as one would be wrong to call heretics those who hold as true either one of these opinions that we have set forth above, because nothing of certainty seems to have been manifestly spoken in the divine Scriptures about these matters, nor is it contained in the Church’s proclamation, so it is unjust to blame Origen when he discusses what seemed right to him concerning these matters. This is especially the case when we consider that in every way he preserved what chiefly had to be preserved in the Church concerning the confession of the soul [...][8]

Pamphilus is so eerily specific here that it is as if he is arguing against Justinian. Pamphilus explicitly states that it is unjust to condemn Origen about these matters because Origen already “preserved” that which is essential concerning them. In other words, Origen was not changing what has been handed down, he was speculating about things not handed down and open for discussion.

The Logic of Pamphilus

Why did Pamphilus believe the preexistence of souls was the most rational position? It is largely because he thought all the other opinions were had more problems. As you read his responses, take note of what he is trying to preserve: it is (a) the justice of God, (b) the creator/creature distinction, (c) the immortality of the soul.

I will detail the views besides preexistence that were circulating in his day, and then I will quote him responding to each one:

Option A: Souls are created after the bodies have already been formed in the womb.[9] To this, Pamphilus argues that not only can this not be argued from scripture, but it makes God appear to be unjust for His apparent impartiality concerning where souls end up once they incarnate:

[T]hose who hold these opinions are unable to go on and exhibit clear proofs from the Holy Scriptures. Moreover, in a certain respect they are accusing the Creator of injustice, because he does not bestow on everyone equally, that is, he does not give equal courses of life to all. For immediately when a soul has been created, when it has as yet committed absolutely no wrong within itself, it is inserted, as it so happens, sometimes into the body of a blind man, at other times into a debilitated body, at other times into healthy and stronger bodies. And to some souls a long life is granted, but to others a very brief life, so that sometimes, as soon as the souls are born, they are expelled from the body. And some souls are even directed to a kind of savage and barbaric manner of life, where nothing humane and decent exists, and, beyond all that, where irreligious native superstitions predominate. Yet other souls are directed to decent men who are sober and humane, where the observance of human laws obtains. Sometimes they are even directed to religious parents, where they receive a noble and honest upbringing, and where they likewise receive an education that is founded on reason. How then can those who defend such opinions assign to divine Providence rectitude and impartiality in dispensing and governing all things, as befits a good and just God?[10]

Option B: Souls are of one substance with God, and the direct in-breathing of the Spirit of God sown immediately together with the bodily seed.[11] To this theory, Pamphilus responds by saying:

Indeed, some of these are accustomed to claim that the soul is nothing but the in-breathing of the Spirit of God, namely, that which at the beginning of the creation of the world God is said to have breathed into Adam. Essentially they are professing that the soul is from the same substance of God. If this is true, how will these persons as well not seem in some way to be making assertions that go beyond the rule of Scripture and the definitions of religion? For if the soul is from the substance of God, then the substance of God sins when the soul sins. Moreover, the substance of God would have to be handed over to punishments because of sin. Furthermore, this theory runs into the problem– and this is extremely absurd—of failing to see that according to this view the soul necessarily dies together with the body and is mortal, if indeed it has been sown, formed, and born together with the body.[12]

Option C: It seems to me that this option is perhaps a preexistence version of the former. Souls preexist in Adam, and then from Adam the souls are naturally created through sexual reproduction, essentially meant to imply the souls of the human race were somehow already contained in and propagated by Adam’s sperm. Both Option B and Option C seem to be related to the traducian theory of souls (held by Tertullian),[13] believing that the soul is not directly created by God, but is (like the body) somehow inherited from the parents. To this, Pamphilus responds with the following (again emphasizing the absurdity in suggesting that souls are mortal):

What else are these people as well teaching except that souls are mortal? For if they come to exist solely from the seed, like the rest of the living creatures, then we should think the same thing of men, that is, that together with the body the soul too is diffused in the same seed. What, then, do we say about those who are still imperfectly formed and are aborted from the womb? What do we say about the fact that sometimes the seeds perish even before they have been received into the receptacles of natural vessels? In such cases doubtless it will be found that those souls as well that had been inserted into the seeds by a natural method were at the same time equally extinguished and destroyed.[14]

Therefore, Pamphilus is primarily concerned with holding fast to the aforementioned principles that are authoritative and must be affirmed regardless of whatever one chooses to believe about the origin of the soul: (1) God is just, so our position cannot make Him appear unjust, (2) God is creator, and cannot be reduced to the status of a creature, (3) Rational souls are immortal. Pamphilus also has a presumption that what we say about the soul can add to but must not, at the very least, contradict scripture. And even though Pamphilus does not agree with any of these other positions, he also does not believe it is just to condemn anyone for holding what is disagreeable to him because it is not spoken of in the scriptures nor handed down via apostolic tradition.

Justinian’s Injustice

How did Pamphilus escape Justinian’s warpath against those who believed in the preexistence of souls? Why is canonization and anathema so incredibly inconsistent with seemingly no immutable standard for either?

Why canonize Pamphilus and condemn Origen when they are thought to have both believed the same “heresy?” (The same can be said about Gregory of Nyssa and Isaac the Syrian concerning Origenian universalism). If Origen is condemned precisely because of these things, then one must condemn the others as well if one is to be consistent. Remember, Justinian did not say anyone who currently holds the belief in his own generation (6th century), but “all those who hold or have held these beliefs till death,” which is a retroactive anathematizing that should have also swept Pamphilus into this wroth flood of injustice (as he would describe it).

There are a few possibilities that I can tell:

  1. Justinian was ignorant of Pamphilus and would have condemned the martyr-saint too, had he read him,
  2. Justinian was ignorant of Pamphilus and would not have thought preexistence was a heresy had he read him, because Pamphilus already stated that it was not even in the framework of  “orthodoxy” and “heresy.”
  3. Justinian was ignorant of Pamphilus and mistakenly conflated preexistence of souls with reincarnation (as most people did in his era), and condemned preexistence of souls on the basis of entirely unrelated conceptions of what it asserts (which would mean it is actually reincarnation that is condemned, and not the preexistence of souls).
  4. Justinian was aware of Pamphilus, and for some reason intentionally went against the saint in order to condemn Origen, creating his own innovation as to what constitutes “heresy” and what does not.
“Heretics” As Defined By Origen

It is very interesting to note that Pamphilus records Origen (from his now lost Commentary on Titus as well as other works) defining what it means to be a heretic (and obviously agrees with him). According to Origen, the marks of a heretic are those who subvert the apostolic teachings of the faith and “suffer from the disease of philarchia [having the lust for power].”[15] I will give twenty examples of heresies according to Origen that can be found in Pamphilus’ Apology.

Origen says heretics are...

  1. Those who professes to believe in Christ, but say “there is one God of the law and the prophets, and another God of the Gospels.”[16]
  2. Those who says that the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not he who is proclaimed by the law and the prophets, but is some other, whom no one knows and no one has heard of.”[17] (Origen lists as examples for these two: Marcion, Valentinus, Basilides, the Sethians, and Apelles).[18]
  3. Those who believe in accordance with the Ebionites and Valentinians that Christ was not a divine person from heaven truly born from a virgin, but a mere man born from the natural union of Joseph and Mary.[19]
  4. Those who deny that Jesus Christ is the “firstborn,” the God “of all creation” and “the Word” and “the Wisdom,” which is “the beginning of the ways of God,” which “came into being before anything else,” “founded before the ages” and “generated before all the hills.”[20] and instead say he was a mere man.
  5. Those who say Christ is God but did not truly assume humanity: both body and soul, and rather say that Christ only seemed to have been a man.[21]
  6. Those who “do not acknowledge that he was born of a virgin, but say he appeared in Judea as a thirty-year-old man,” or say that “he was indeed brought forth from a virgin, but claim that the virgin only imagined that she had given him birth, when in fact she had not truly given him birth.”[22]
  7. Those who assert that Christ was the human incarnation of the Father, or those who say the Father and the Son are one person/hypostasis that manifests in different modes (Sabellianism/Modalism/Patripassianism).[23]
  8. Those who say the Holy Spirit in the prophets is different than that of the apostles.[24]
  9. Those who deny the human soul is of one substance and say that there are different natures of soul (and this is what makes people good or bad), which accuses God of injustice and inequity.[25]
  10. Those who take away free will with determinism, saying that “nothing good can be attributed to human intentions, whether action, speech, or thought.” Because this doctrine leads to the formation of a human mind that “despises and neglects the divine judgment.”[26]
  11. Those who deny the assurance regarding “the punishments that are due to sinners at God’s just judgment, and in regard to those who will receive rewards for their good conduct and life in the Lord’s kingdom.”[27]
  12. Those who deny the bodily resurrection of the dead, subsequently denying the bodily resurrection of Christ.[28]
  13. Those who deny that “no man is handed over to destruction by God, but each of those who perish perishes by his own fault and negligence. Since each has the freedom of choice, each was both able and obligated to choose what is good.”[29]
  14. Those who deny that “We must likewise hold this view of the devil himself, who is recorded to have offered resistance in the presence of the Lord Almighty and to have abandoned his proper position, in which he had been without stain, he who assuredly could have “persevered to the end” in that position in which he had been from the beginning, if he had wanted.”[30]
  15. Those who deny that the Father is incorporeal and without body, being immeasurably simple, having nothing lesser or greater within Himself.[31]
  16. Those who deny that Christ is that Wisdom who is head of all creation, both of the celestial archons above and of mankind below, and who alone has the Father as head, and who mediates between the Father and all other things.[32]
  17. Those who deny that God did not begin to be the Father at some point in time, as though He was not Father previously: denying that the Son is co-eternal with the Father.[33]
  18. Those who say that there are two Gods or two Christs.[34]
  19. Those who deny the uncreated and divine nature of the Holy Spirit.[35]
  20. Those who deny that the Son is of one essence with the Father.[36]
Navigating the Ark of Salvation

It is important to note that there is a rule of faith regarding these things. There is a specific rationale which determines what is or is not “heretical,” and it is fundamentally reduced to three main features: (1) apostolic tradition, (2) sound logic, and (3) a scriptural exegesis that is careful not to make claims that give the wrong impression of what we already believe about the moral nature of God as revealed in Christ (whether it be His love, goodness, justice and so on). Heresy has been historically defined as whatever contradicts these three immutable principles.

Now that we have seen saint contradict saint even at the levels of what is and is not just, it is up to the church to decide where to navigate the ship of orthodoxy from here. Justinian claimed to be “following the divine scriptures” with his condemnation, and yet Pamphilus already said hundreds of years prior that this is not even something given to us in the scriptures. Pamphilus is just another example exposing the great scandal that we have murdered our own grandfather Origen. We have, in an unjust moment of insanity, cut off our right hand. This is our great blemish, one that will never go away until we admit our mistake, correct it, and move on with our “right hand” reattached.[37] We are the Church. Right now in 2020. I am of the opinion that the operations of the Orthodox Church must not transform itself to a kind of tradition that is, as Sergei Bulgakov rightly critiqued, “dead archaeology, or into an exterior law,” transforming itself “into the letter that kills.”[38] This is the kind of dead traditionalism for which Christ said makes “the word of God of none effect through your tradition.”[39]

We are the ones who need to navigate the ark of the church and make the decisions for our era with the knowledge that our forefathers did not necessarily have, being faithful stewards of this knowledge (and its advancement due to modern technologies such as the internet). We have the power to correct the mistakes of the past. We must not choose to delude ourselves into thinking we as a church cannot ever make mistakes.

I pray that we as the church body can take hold of the unmanned rudder of status quo and steer ourselves into a future that is far more charitable than our past.


[1]  Richard Price, The Acts of the Council of Constantinople 553: With related texts on the Three Chapters Controversy(Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009), 281.

[2]  Ibid., 284.

[3]  Ibid.

[4]  Pamphilus, Apology for Origen (FOTC 120), trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010),p. 114.

[5]  Anathema 3 of 15.

[6]  Pamphilus, Apology for Origen (FOTC 120), trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010),p. 109.

[7]  Ibid., 111.

[8]  Ibid., 113-114.

[9]  Ibid., 111-112.

[10]  Ibid., 112.

[11]  Ibid., 112.

[12]  Ibid., 112-113.

[13]  Tertullian, De Anima, 27.

[14]  Pamphilus, Ibid., 113.

[15]  Ibid., 57.

[16]  Ibid., 55.

[17]  Ibid.

[18]  Ibid., 56.

[19]  Ibid.

[20]  Ibid., 56-57.

[21]  Ibid., 57.

[22]  Ibid.

[23]  Ibid., 58.

[24]  Ibid.

[25]  Ibid.

[26]  Ibid., 59.

[27]  Ibid.

[28]  Ibid.

[29]  Ibid.

[30]  Ibid., 59-60.

[31]  Ibid., 62.

[32]  Ibid., 65.

[33]  Ibid., 66.

[34]  Ibid., 70.

[35]  Ibid., 72,

[36]  Ibid., 85.

[37]  cf. Origen’s Homily 7 on Joshua.

[38]  Sergei Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church (SVS Press, 1988) p. 33.

[39]  Mark 7:13.

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