Someone sent this question in...
I was browsing through the "Christ Unity" church website and their statement of faith. As they are a local church in the Sacramento area, I was suprised by their radio ads discussing "Christ Centered prayer". After reading their statement of faith I saw nothing "Christ Centered" about them, then the following caught my eye regarding reincarnation:
" the early Christian Church prior to the Council of Constantinople in 533 CE "
Do you know anything about reincarnation recognized by any facet of the early church before Constantinople?
1. the closest thing we have is the teachings of a minor Gnostic heretic Carpocrates (2nd century ad, Alexandria). ECH:49 summarizes:
"Carpocrates (second century A.D.) was a gnostic teacher in his native city of Alexandria, Egypt, in the middle of the second century. He founded a school and his followers were called Carpocratioans. He taught that the world was created by intermediaries (angels) that had been created by the Father. Moreover, he and his followers held that Jesus was the son of Joseph (and Mary) and was distinct from the rest of humanity only in the purity of his soul. But the distinction between Christ and the Gnostic becomes blurred in this system, for the Gnostic can become like Jesus. Indeed, some of the Carpocrations believed that they were even 'stronger' than Jesus, and still others claimed superiority to his disciples, including Peter and Paul. Among other things, the Carpocratians also taught the transmigration of souls and a libertine ethic. The sect seems to have ceased existing sometime in the fourth century A.D."
2. Of the five main Church leaders who wrote against this sect (Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Eusebius, Epiphanius) two of them mention this doctrine of 'transmigration of souls' (it's not quite the same as 'reincarnation', but close), and only two describe the reincarnation thingy--Ireanaus (Against Heresies 1.25.1-6, 190AD) and Hippolytus (Refutation of All Heresies 7.20, 230AD).
3. The Carpocratians called themselves 'Christians' but their beliefs and actions were very heretical and bizarre. For example, they held all wives to be communal property, so that husbands routinely did the wife-swapping weekends. Their 'love feasts' (named after the Lord's supper!) was an orgy, in which the lamps were turned over (putting the light out), and the group engaged in sexual intercourse with whomever they bumped into for the rest of the evening...The strangest aspect of their system was that the reincarnation cycle occurred over and over until a soul had done EVERY EVIL that could be done! They used the 'fill up the measure of your sins' passage by Jesus as a command(!)in support of this!
4. To call this group "Christian" would be quite unwarranted...[quotes below are from Irenaeus, Adv. Her., I.25)
The above summary quote pointed out that Jesus was certainly not unique ("They also hold that Jesus was the son of Joseph, and was just like other men, with the exception that he differed from them in this respect, that inasmuch as his soul was stedfast and pure, he perfectly remembered those things which he had witnessed within the sphere of the unbegotten God"), and that ANYONE could become equal to or greater than He ("This idea has raised them to such a pitch of pride, that some of them declare themselves similar to Jesus; while others, still more mighty, maintain that they are superior to his disciples, such as Peter and Paul, and the rest of the apostles, whom they consider to be in no respect inferior to Jesus. For their souls, descending from the same sphere as his, and therefore despising in like manner the creators of the world, are deemed worthy of the same power, and again depart to the same place. But if any one shall have despised the things in this world more than he did, he thus proves himself superior to him."). They held that Jesus did NOT uphold the Law ("They further declare, that the soul of Jesus, although educated in the practices of the Jews, regarded these with contempt"). They were deeply involved in the occult ("They practise also magical arts and incantations; philters, also, and love-potions; and have recourse to familiar spirits, dream-sending demons..."). They did not believe in ANY God-directed moral absolutes (" that they declare they have in their power all things which are irreligious and impious, and are at liberty to practise them; for they maintain that things are evil or good, simply in virtue of human opinion"). Satan is in their system a savior of sorts! ("They also declare the “adversary” is one of those angels who are in the world, whom they call the Devil, maintaining that he was formed for this purpose, that he might lead those souls which have perished from the world to the Supreme Ruler.") They were abject universalists ("In this way also all souls are saved").
This statement by Tertullian (Against All Her., chapter III) demonstrates the strikingly sub-apostolic Christology of this group: "that Christ was not born of the Virgin Mary, but was generated—a mere human being—of the seed of Joseph, superior (they admit) above all others in the practice of righteousness and in integrity of life; that He suffered among the Jews; and that His soul alone was received in heaven as having been more firm and hardy than all others: whence he would infer, retaining only the salvation of souls, that there are no resurrections of the body."
5. The broader group of Gnostics held to some form of transmigration of souls, but it was consistently rejected and refuted by mainstream church leadership LONG BEFORE 533ad(!)...For example, Irenaeus, in the work mentioned above, has a section entitled "Absurdity of the doctrine of the transmigration of souls" (chapter 33)
6. Finally, although I cannot find much on it, Epiphanius in Panarion 42.4.6, mentions in passing that the heretic Marcion also taught reincarnation and transmigration of souls.
1. Reincarnation was taught by DECIDEDLY non-Christian groups (although it was a good bit different from 'modern' reincarnation.)
2. This non-Christian teaching was associated with radical Gnosticism, in which the body was a prison (and hence a punishment for former sins--a la karma?)
3. Reincarnation (and its related transmigration of souls) was rejected by ALL mainstream churches and church leaders in the 2nd century (400 years BEFORE that council of Constantx).
It is therefore incorrect to say that the "Christian Church" believed in reincarnation before 533 ad.
[Note: The Israelite OT/Tanaach community also rejected this: Cf Ps 78.39: :”Thus He remembered that they were but flesh, A wind/breath that passes and does not return.”]
hope this helps,
The Christian ThinkTank...[http://www.Christianthinktank.com] (Reference Abbreviations)