No Ma'am, That's Not History!
Shirley Maclaine, Reincarnation and Scholastic Dishonesty
by Stephen F. Cannon
The final credits are rolling on Late Nite with David Letterman.
Yawning, I decide to hang on a few more minutes and see who Bob
Costas is interviewing on his NBC talk show Later. All thoughts
of sleep vanish instantly when I see that his guest is Ms. New
Age herself, Shirley MacLaine.
I make a mental wager with myself that as surely as night fol-
lows day, before this half hour is over, she will find a way to
denigrate Christianity while touting the glories of reincarnation
and Eastern mysticism. And voila! About halfway into the show she
proves that I have prognosticated correctly (even without benefit
of psychic powers). Under the questioning of the host I am treat-
ed to this "scholarly" exchange.
Costas: You get a lot of negative feedback from people who feel
strongly about Christianity or a more Western view of religion,
which basically states that we go through this life and that our
soul finds its way to Heaven; so in that sense the experience is
finite. And if people were to explore what you are suggesting
they would be untrue to their own religious belief.
MacLaine: Yeah, but, Bob, remember that in 553 A.D. there was an
ecumenical council meeting in Constantinople where the teachings
of Origen, which are the teachings of the physical re-embodiment
of the soul, were struck from the Bible by the Emperor ah, Con-
stan....; by the Emperor Justinian and ah, his Empress Theodora.
So the Bible has been written and rewritten many, many times by
people like you and me, by folks who have their meetings and they
decide that this is maybe not a good idea.
Now the reason that Theodora and Justinian, by the way, the word
justice comes from his particular reign in Rome. Ah, the pope
boycotted that ecumenical council meeting because the whole thing
was stacked, ah, by bishops who were appointed by the Empresss
Theodora, in order to strike the teachings of Origen, which the
early Christian Fathers were teaching from the Bible; because she
wanted complete control over the human soul. Whereas the teach-
ings of Origen were talking about men and women -- men and women
are responsible for their own destiny through time.
So when you say Christian doctrine, what year are you talking
about? You see, that's why all of this business of people who
object to someone else's view of time, view of God, view of
reality, view of life and death, it's all relative. It all really
depends on what you see as true for you. What is difficult, is
when some very strict, narrow , limited fundamentalist point of
view is so harsh that it makes no room and no freedom and no
democratic allowance for anyone else's point of view. That can be
very hard on the world; that's what causes war! (1)
And just as voila!, the old adrenaline starts pumping. I have
heard this accusation made repeatedly in my conversations with
and research on New Age adherents. But, as I hear America's most
vociferous missionary of New Age philosophy repeat this old saw,
I decide to respond with a resounding, "No ma'am, that's not
The ideas expressed by Maclaine above are not new ones. I be-
lieve that she was only repeating supposed facts written by other
New Age advocates.
In his book, bashing historic biblical Christianity, liberal
English clergyman and quasi-reincarnationist Leslie D. Weather-
"It is important, as we examine the idea of reincarnation, to
realize the immense support for what I have written above which
is provided by the fact that it was excepted by the early church
for the first five hundred years of its existence. Only in A.D.
553 did the second Council of Constantinople reject it, and only
then by a narrow majority. If some view of reincarnation had not
been held in the early church it would have been pointless to
discuss it in a church council... . Origen, a great scholar of
the church (A.D. 185-254) accepted it. Augustine (A.D. 354-430),
an even greater authority, accepted it, and speaks of his infancy
that "succeeded another age of mine that died before it". St.
Jerome supported it in his "Letter to Avitus." Reference to "The
Catholic Encyclopedia" informs me that St. Francis of Assisi
(1181-1226) accepted it. And belief in reincarnation, according
to a priest writing in "The Liberal Catholic" is accepted by many
Roman Catholics and has never been declared heretical by any
Theosophist Anna Winner: "It was not until some five centuries
after the origin of Christianity, when it had long been the state
religion of Rome, that the belief in reincarnation was formally
declared to be not according to orthodox dogma." (3)
Authors Head and Cranston muse: "That Origen taught the pre-
existence of the soul in past world orders of this earth and its
reincarnation in future worlds is beyond question." (4)
In her book, Out on a Limb, Maclaine reports a conversation
with her friend and spiritual mentor David who states: "The
theory of reincarnation is recorded in the Bible. But the proper
interpretations were struck from it during an ecumenical council
meeting of the Catholic Church in Constantinople sometime around
553 A.D., called the Council of (sic) Nicea. The council members
voted to strike those teachings from the Bible in order to solid-
ify Church Control."(5)
The problem with the above accusations of editing the Bible and
eradication of reincarnation from the doctrine of the early
church would be laughable if Christians in general knew a little
church history. However, because of widespread historical igno-
rance, many are unfortunately confounded by such statements.
There are several questioned that must be asked to determine if
there is scholastic dishonesty on the part of the advocates cited
above. Was there a widespread belief of reincarnation in the
early church and did many of the church fathers, especially
Origen, teach this doctrine? Was the Bible edited to remove
verses that taught reincarnation? Was all of this concocted in
the Church Councils of the third through the fifth centuries?
Before we attempt to answer those questions, it would be helpful
The Formulation of Christian Doctrine
The benchmark of all doctrine is the revealed Word of God in the
Bible. Under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit, Jesus and the
Apostles clarified the message of the Old Testament. It was
revealed through them that the entire plan of God is centered in
the person and work of Jesus Christ. This revelation is the New
As this revelation was written and began to be disseminated
throughout the known world, it began to be interpreted and misin-
terpreted. Because of its broad appeal and success in winning
converts, many pagan religions incorporated parts of the Bible
into their own belief systems. This gave rise to many counterfeit
Christian sects and spurious gospels.
As the early church grew, it was constantly having to confront
pseudo-Christian Churches. The early Christian scholars -- the
church Fathers -- wrote entire volumes refuting false claims and
exposing their heretical beliefs. These apologetic writings
became the first step in the formulation of doctrine for histor-
ic, orthodox, biblical Christianity.
This dialectic began soon after the birthing of the church and
has continued since. A biblical truth would be proclaimed, it
would be assaulted and reinterpreted to fit some preconceived
ideas (usually of pagan origin, such as Gnosticism) and then
Christian scholars would have to answer that assault and bring
the teaching back to what the Scriptures actually said.
Eerdmans' Handbook to the History Christianity points out on
page 107, "The pioneering challenge of heresy did much to shape
Christian orthodoxy- a rounded, systematic exposition of the
implications of basic Christain convictions."
As the church became more organized, the writings of these
Christian scholars would be appealed to in connection with the
Scriptures, and certain doctrines would be established. Those who
where in general agreement with the established doctrines were
considered orthodox, those not were condemned as heretics.
It must be understood, also, that while the early Christian
scholars had the benefit of being closer to the direct teaching
of the Apostles, these men were not inspired as were the biblical
authors. Any doctrine, whether it be of a Church Father or a
modern-day theologian, must be compared diligently with Scrip-
ture. Where their writings meet with the benchmark, they are
good. Where not, they must be abandoned. This applies doctrines
from Calvin, Luther, Augustine or Origen.
Origen an His Doctrine
One cannot undertake a study of the history of the Christian
Church without encountering the theology and ideas of Origen.
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 185 A.D. to Christian parents,
Origen was taught a respect for the Scriptures from his youth
that would never fade. (6) Not only was there Christian instruc-
tion, but Origen's father also taught him the Greek philosophies.
After his father's martyrdom, Origen, then 17, even made his
living for a while by teaching Greek literature. (7)
Possessor of a keen and eager mind, a strict ascetic lifestyle,
and an indefatigable constitution, Origen wrote profusely. His
works include Bible translations, commentaries on Scripture,
apologies, and theological treatises. Unfortunately, "Today we
possess only some portions of his immense work, and the greater
part of it has come down to us only by means of translations, the
accuracy of which is by no means certain". (8) We do, however
possess enough of his works to chart a clear course of his theol-
ogy and unfortunately for New Agers it leads directly away from
That Origen took a very high view of the inspiration of the
Scriptures is undeniable. His monumental parallel Bible Hexapla
took years to compile. This work gave in parallel columns the
Hebrew Old Testament, a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew, the
Septuagint, and three other Greek versions. Origen's love for
Holy Writ lead church historian Williston Walker to state: "The
vast majority of his writings took the form of commentary on
Scripture, And even his occasional 'systematic' writings proceeded
by a method which was largely exegetical. ... Perhaps Origen's
most significant gift to the churches was the principle by which
he lived, of sola scriptura." (9) It is also true that this
complex thinker brought to his Christianity elements of Greek
Philosophy -- Middle Platonism -- that was prevalent in his day.
It was speculative theology formed from a synthesis of Hellenis-
tic and Christian thought that prompted Origen to formulate a
doctrine of the pre-existence of the soul. This doctrine would
earn him church condemnation several hundred years after his
death. It would also provide, albeit mistakenly, a basis for
reincarnationists to assert that their belief was taught in the
Pre-existence vs. Transmigration
Briefly, reincarnation (Greek metempsychosis; English transmi-
gration) is the belief that the soul of man is divine and eternal
and is ever evolving back into an absolute oneness with God
through a system of cause and effect (law of karma) lifetimes.
Because man is so mistaken in his thinking and because of this is
so far removed from God, it will take many, many lifetimes to
progress to the point of being released from these multiple
births. As one body dies, the soul transmigrates into another and
so on until release.
This belief system and elements of it have been traced to almost
every ancient culture. Greece was no exception. From the Orphic
Mystery Schools through Pythagoras, Empedocles and down to Plato
and beyond transmigration was widely held in Hellenistic thought.
(10) As mentioned above, it was the influence of Hellenism cou-
pled with certain Scriptures that led Origen to develop his
doctrine of pre-existence. Latourette writes: "Inevitably, like
so many of the early Christian thinkers, nurtured as they were in
Greek philosophy, and indeed, like still others in succeeding
centuries who were familiar with Greek thought, in his writings
and in the formulations of his religious beliefs Origen bore the
unmistakable impress of the Greek heritage. Yet Origen believed
that he found the truth primarily in the Scriptures and in what
had been transmitted in orderly succession from the
And the truth that he found both in these Scriptures and the
teachings of the Apostles did not include reincarnation.
"He did of course reject the Pythagorean metempsychosis, which
teaches that human souls pass into the bodies of animals (Contra
Celsum V, xlix; VII, xxx), he also set aside Plato's hypothesis
of a transference of souls from one human to another (Contra
Celsum IV, xvii)." (12) Further, in his commentary on Matthew,
under the heading entitled Relation of John the Baptist to Eli-
jah-the Theory of Transmigration Considered we read: In this
place, it does not appear to me that by Elijah the soul is spoken
of, lest I should fall into the dogma of transmigration, which is
foreign to the Church of God and not handed down by the Apostles,
nor anywhere set forth in the Scriptures. For observe (Matthew)
did not say, in the 'soul' of Elijah, in which case the doctrine
of transmigration might have some ground, but 'in the spirit and
power of Elijah". (13)
The above is most understandable. Although Origen did teach the
pre-existence of the soul, and even though he did derive that
doctrine from the influence of Greek thought, he never held to
the doctrine of reincarnation. A short examination of the extant
works of this scholar, or a cursory examination of various histo-
ries of the early church show the contrary to be true. To contin-
ually make assertions to the contrary is nothing short of scho-
The pre-existence that Origen taught more closely resembles some
aspects of Mormonism than those of reincarnationists. "Finally,
Origen accepted an old tradition of interpretation, already
exploited by Philo, which held that the two accounts of creation
in the opening chapters of Genesis reflected, in fact, two stages
of divine creation, the first concerned with the appearance of
the immaterial, intelligible order and the second with the forma-
tion of the visible cosmos. Accordingly, it was Origin's convic-
tion that God's original creation was a society of immaterial'
spirits', finite because created, self-determining because ra-
tional. ... Evil intruded when these spirits, becoming satiated
with the vision of God, chose to fall away from their own happi-
ness, God, into a self-willed state of separateness, variety, and
multiplicity. Some became demons and others angels and yet others
the souls of human beings, but all, to one degree or another,
fell from their original focused identity into distraction and
alienation. As a consequence and symbol of their altered state,
God then brought into being the physical, visible cosmos, to be
for these creatures a second-best world -- a world in which
harmony was imposed on disorder and in which the fallen spirits
could be 'schooled' back to their original glory." (14) This
doctrine was only one of several that brought the wrath of the
Roman emperor Justinian (A.D. 482-565) on Origen.
The second Council of Constantinople that was mentioned by
Maclaine above was convened to deal primarily with reconciling
those in the church who held that Christ had only one nature
(Monophysites), with those that believed He had two (Chalcedoni-
ans). The condemnation of Origin as a heretic was primarily a
political move to appease the Chalcedonians. (15) Absolutely no
scriptural editing took place. This council did not even concern
itself with the canon of the Scriptures.
Origen did not believe in reincarnation. He was not anathemized
because of reincarnation: " If anyone maintains the fabeled pre-
existence of souls and the monstrous restoration that follows
from it; let that one be anathema!" (16) And to Maclaine's state-
ment regarding the second Council of Constantinople: "where the
teachings of Origen (which are the teachings of the physical re-
embodiment of the soul were struck from the Bible by the Emperor
Justinian and his Empress Theodora," we must send a resounding
"No ma'am, that's not history!"
To Head and Cranston we respond: Yes, Origen clearly taught the
pre-existence of the soul, but as we have seen, it was not in the
"past world orders of this earth" but in the spirit world before
the creation of this earth! And the assertion that he taught "its
(soul) reincarnation in future worlds" is at best poor scholar-
ship, and at the worst scholastic dishonesty!
In light of the above, Leslie Weatherhead's statement, "Only in
A.D. 553 did the second Council of Constantinople reject it
(reincarnation)... . Origen, a great scholar of the church (A.D.
185-254) accepted it," is shown to be false. One must wonder that
if he could be so wrong in his assertion about Origen, what of
his assertions about the other church fathers mentioned. Was
there a widespread belief in reincarnation in the early church?
Gnosticism, Reincarnation, and Christianity
As mentioned above, the writings of the first- and second-cen-
tury Christian Fathers were penned to refute the claims of pseu-
do-Christian sects. The lion's share of this theological warfare
was directed against a wide-ranging world view known as "Gnosti-
cism". Early thought to have been established by Simon the magi-
cian mentioned in the book of Acts (17), it is now known to have
had a much earlier genesis, and was not confined to the Christian
church. (18) However, into the growing church it came in crisis
"It was not so much that the Christians toyed with Gnosticism
as that the Hellenistic world was trying to integrate Christ into
its thinking without being profoundly changed by him, and pro-
posed Gnosticism to the church as a means to this end. Jesus and
his first disciples made such an overwhelming impact on the
Mediterranean world that it could not be ignored, but his message
was so contrary to Hellenistic culture that it could not simply
be accepted, and so the effort was made to adapt it to the cul-
ture." (19) The church, of course, rightly rejected these over-
It is impossible in the space alloted to define or even ade-
quately summarize Gnostic beliefs because they represented "less
a specific set of teachings than a religious mood of world rejec-
tion coupled with what might best be called a transcendentalist
state of mind." (20) Suffice to say, that in the writings of the
Fathers (who quoted Gnostic sources extensively), the recent
archeololgical finds of the Nag Hammadi Library and extant Gnos-
tic literature, we have abundant evidence that reincarnation was
a prevalent belief among the Gnostics, not the New Testament
As to the assertions by Weatherhead that Jerome, Augustine and
other church fathers taught the doctrine: "No sir, that's not
Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165): In his dialogue with Trypho the
Jew, in chapter IV while discussing "souls", this conclusion is
Trypho: "Therefore, souls neither see God nor transmigrate into
other bodies... Justin: "You are right, I replied." (22)
Irenaeus (A.D. 135-202): In his Against Heresies, Irenaeus
condemns Carpocrates and his followers, calls them mad, irreli-
gious, and impious because "They deem it necessary, therefore,
that by means of transmigration from body to body, souls should
have experience of every kind of life as well as every kind of
action..."(23) In the same volume, he devotes an entire chapter
to the refutation of transmigration. The chapter title says it
all: "Absurdity of the Doctrine of the Transmigration of Souls."
Jerome (A.D. 331-420): It has been charged that Jerome's letter
to Avitus shows his belief in transmigration. Albrecht cites,
"Actually Jerome's letter to Avitus severely criticizes Origen
for his Platonic ideas and nowhere condones the teaching of
reincarnation. In his Letter to Demetrius he also refutes
Origen's teaching on pre-existence..." .(25)
Augustine (A.D. 354-430): Because he was in a Gnostic Sect and
steeped in Platonic thought prior to his conversion to Christian-
ity, Augustine was certainly in a position to tout reincarnation-
ism. However, he never did. In fact in his letter to Optatus he
wrote, "For it is impossible that you should hold the opinion
that it is for the deeds in a former life that souls are confined
in earthly and mortal bodies." (26)
Once again it is seen from the writings of those that are sup-
posed to be reincarnationists, that they thoroughly opposed the
doctrine. And once again we are forced to ask the question: Poor
scholarship or scholastic dishonesty?
An Edited Bible?
The last question to be asked, and the one most easily dealt
with, is: Was he Bible edited to excise the teaching of reincar-
nation? The first negative to this question comes from biblical
There is in existence today multiplied thousands of whole and
partial manuscripts of the New Testament that go back to within
100 years of the events of the Gospel. Some of these were found
only recently. It takes a real stretch of the imagination to
believe that with all of these there would not have been at least
one manuscript found that would contain the verses that were
supposed to have been edited out.
Also, if the church took such great pains to edit out references
to reincarnation, where are references to that effect in the
edicts of the different church councils that we have today? We
have seen that early Christian scholars were not shy about naming
names when it came to heresy. I have given ample evidence that
transmigration was adressed and rejected by the ante- and post-
Nicene Fathers and the church at large. However there exists no
literature from the early ecumenical councils that indicates
reincarnation was widespread in the church and needed to be dealt
with. Gnosticism was the deadly foe; the doctrine of transmigra-
tion was only a corollary to that movement.
The burden of proof of for extensive editing of reincarnation
out of Holy Writ falls squarely on the shoulders of those making
this charge. To date that proof is sadly lacking.
What are we to say then regarding the scholarship of those
advocating the teaching of reincarnation by Jesus, the Apostles
and the early Christian church? It somewhat stretches the bounds
of credulity to think that these writers and speakers make their
assertions without benefit of research. I would like to believe
that the worst accusation that we can level against them is
ignorance of the subject. If these advocates did investigate the
writings of the Fathers and church history and still make their
statements, then the only conclusion that can be drawn is that
they have a hidden agenda and are being deliberately deceitful.
It is imperative that Christians, in these perilous times,
become more aware of the history of our beliefs. We desperately
need to know from whence we have come so that we are not defeated
by the mistakes and the deceits of the past.
1. "Later" with Bob Costas; NBC Talk Show, videotape on file.
2. Leslie D. Weatherhead, The Christian Agnostic, (New York;
Abingdon Press, 1965) pp. 296-297.
3. Anna K. Winner, The Basic Ideas of Occult Wisdom, (Wheaton,
Ill.; Theosophical Publishing House, nd) pg. 56. ð3Ð/
Š 4. Joseph Head and S.L. Cranston eds., The Phoenix Fire Mystery,
(New York; Warner Books, 1977) pg. 145
5. Shirley Maclaine, Out on A Limb, (New York; Bantam Books,
1983) pg. 237.
6. Jules Lebreton and Jacques Zeiller, The History of the Primi-
tive Church, (New York; The Macmillan Co. 1946) pg. 929.
7. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, 2 vols.,
(New York; Harper and Row, 1953) Vol. 1, pg. 149
8. Lebreton and Zeiller, pg. 297. 9. Williston Walker et al, A
History of the Christian Church, (New York; Charles Scribners'
Sons, 1918) pg. 90
10. See especially Mclintock and Strongs' Encyclopedia of Reli-
gion and Ethics, section on Transmigration.
11. Latourette, Vol. I, pg. 150.
12. Lebreton and Zeiller, pg. 938.
13. Allan Menzies, ed. The Ante Nicene Fathers, (Grand Rapids;
Eerdmans, 1978) Vol. I, pp. 474-475.
14. Walker, pp. 91-92.
15. ibid, pps 176-179.
16. Jon F. Dechow, Dogma and Mysticism in Early Christianity,
(Macon; Mercer University Press) pg. 454.
17. Acts, chapter 8.
18. Walker, pp. 61-70.
19. Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies, (Garden City; Doubleday, 1984)
20. Walker, pg. 61.
21. see especially The Pistis Sophia, Book I, chapt. 7 and Book
III, chapt 125.
22. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds, The Ante Nicene
Fathers, (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1975) vol 1. pg.197.
23. ibid, pg. 351.
24. ibid, pg.409.
25. Mark Albrecht, Reincarnation, (Downers Grove; Inter Varsity
Press, 1982) pg. 47.
26. Philip Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers of the
Christian Church, (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1979) pg. 283.
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