The contrast in intrinsicist and extrinsicist approaches, to reiterate, is not contradictory with respect to human experience. Not least because of the authoritative Pauline assertion linking death and sin (Rom 5:12; 6:23; 1 Cor 15:56; cf. Jas 1:15): for intrinsicist and extrinsicist views, the present existence characterized by both sin and death is universal. Debates over ‘original sin’ and its propagation, especially as they have developed in more modern East-West arguments, can cloud this common experiential assertion. In many ways, Origen and Augustine end up in the same practical space with respect to the intractably demeaning character of present existence (Weaver 1983: 195–196). That said, a baseline of mortality or immortality will press in diverse directions of ethical evaluation and order, that is, of the ‘goods’ of this life.
Both traditions work themselves out differently in pre-modern and modern Christianity.
From a Christian perspective, any notion of mortality as a basic constituent of human life presupposes a dualist ontology that distinguishes between God and creation. Pragmatically (as contrasted with theoretically), the intrinsicist and extrinsicist traditions are held together in a balance, largely because both share a common dualist – in terms of Creator and creature – metaphysical framework. Though there are diverse explications of how God and creature relate in a detailed way, both outlooks agree that a differentiated divine/human ontology determines human existence essentially. Here the ex nihilo claims of early Christianity are determinative (Hubler 1995; Robinette 2011). Short of a pantheist or perhaps vague panentheist set of commitments, intrinsicist and extrinsicist views of mortality – mortality as purposefully created by God or as the consequence of some negative contingency – both assert the infinite qualitative and substantive distinction between Creator and creature, with mortality as lodged definitively in creaturely existence. Hence, for both traditions, ‘dying’ as a quality of existence stamps the relationship of creature to God in a fundamental fashion, and so exposes that relationship in an ineluctable and always epiphanic fashion.
To be sure, the issue of ‘afterlife’ seems to be approached differently depending on intrinsicist and extrinsicist views: how to maintain continuity of identity with respect to dead or decomposed or ‘vanished’ bodies (Olson 2013)? The spiritualizing tendencies of extrinsicist perspectives made ‘soul’ life determinative, and because souls were often viewed as essentially immortal in contrast to matter, they were not subject to ‘soul death’.
By early modernity, the topic had become lively, and included the early modern debates in Europe over Christian ‘Mortalism’ (Ball 2008; Burns 2015) – a confused category defined more by its opponents than by its adherents. These debates seemed to focus on the ontology of the soul. ‘Mortalist’ positions, emergent certainly by the sixteenth century, included claims to ‘soul-death’ and even ‘annihilation’, to ‘soul sleep’, and sometimes to soul ‘union’ (and hence depersonalization) with God. Opponents of (the various kinds of) mortalism saw the claims to ‘soul death’ or ‘soul sleep’ before resurrection as a materialist heresy, and just these worries were to fuel a later orthodox drift into the insistent extrinsicism of the nineteenth century
4.1.1 The question of orthodoxy
Intrinsicist and extrinsicist intuitions or tendencies did not, however, line up with standard claims to orthodoxy. Luther could affirm the possibility of soul-sleep, even as he insisted on the post-death continuity of the soul (Burns 2015: 28–32). Calvin could attack notions of soul-sleep, even as he insisted on the natural mortality of the soul (Burns 2015: 12). Furthermore, mortalism’s diverse claims were pragmatically less problematic at the time than the debate indicated: the mortalists’ claims were aimed initially at questions about purgatory perhaps, as well as, later, at God’s justice in punishment. These were ‘afterlife’ issues, rather than creation issues. Both mortalist and purportedly orthodox views were both empowered by robust views of ex nihilo creation – only God maintains continuity of identity or person across the chasm of death in any case, in a way analogous to creation (or identical to it – a view that leads to occasionalist metaphysics [Jolley 1998]). So, we can read Paul’s distinction of earthly and heavenly bodies (1 Cor 15:40–49) as in part a claim about the primacy of divine creation vis a vis human identity. A Christian vision of human mortality, in all of its forms, depended on the ex nihilo character of creation as part of a far-reaching vision.
Practical emphases do differ, however, between intrinsicist and extrinsicist views, though not in an exclusive fashion.
4.1.2 Intrinsicist mortal relations
Intrinsicism shapes the response to relational decisions and sentiments in the form of popular concerns with the boundedness of life:
Before the modern era, and still well into it for many, the personal existence of most Christians was shaped according to the economy of life-stages, with well-socialized perceptions of the right ordering of sequential periods of development, from birth to death (Hanawalt 1986; Youngs 2006). Expectations of bodily form and experience, learning, clothing, behaviour, relationships, and duties were all laid out in association with these stages. While the particular contours of the life-cycle – differently expressed in its details within diverse cultures and times – are of great interest to social historians, it is easy to miss their shared overall form as fundamentally constituted by the claim of mortality: developmental stages and their forms are important for mapping time-limited existences. Each of the stages, after all, and many of their details, are strictly coordinated with religious observances whose tenor is oriented to the vulnerable gift of life from God and its transient character, which determine, especially among the laity, the shape of prayer and energy.
Prayers and rituals for passage from one stage to another – tied to birth, baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, marriage, and so on to death and burial, and far beyond (as with masses for the dead, including self and family) – were obviously critical. But analogous devotions accompanied every aspect of daily life, from planting, harvesting and selling, to production and consumption. All these prayers and in some cases formal liturgies, were orientated to matters of basic survival in the face of natural or social threats, to genealogical concerns (family, children, generations) and, finally, often to the procreative hope tied up with these relations. Much of these devotional postures were informed by an ethical humility in the face of love, loss, and historical uncertainty, expressed in terms of penitence, petition, and trust. All this embodies the reality of mortality in a practical fashion.
Despite the millennium-long theologically dominant monastic stream, then, the church’s life was structured according to the values and goods that emerged from a mortal existence. These values were promoted through ritual, preaching, and discipline, and formed the basic texture of human life (Daniell 1999; Binski 2001; Rubin 2009). They were expressed in the broad application of Old Testament scriptural texts to teaching and homiletics, as well as in the rise of the cult of saints, whose strength as mediators was mostly this-worldly and geared to the needs of these areas of life (Muir 1997).
Thomas Cranmer’s Great Litany (1544), which was then included in the Book of Common Prayer, remains one of the ongoing witnesses to this stable and universal Christian outlook, built upon translated medieval texts and sixteenth-century composition, whose Protestant register did little to obscure the deep continuities in attitudes to mortality that existed with earlier outlooks (Cummings 2011: 41–45). The Litany’s petitions cover the full gamut of daily life in its frequently assaulted and difficult forms, from personal relations and family, to natural disasters and disease, to agriculture, to civil order. Furthermore, these prayers include all social ranks and ages, moving from birth to death. The sweep of mortality and its stamp upon the breadth of life founds any petition to God in this regard.
This venerable outlook is again on display in the Book of Common Prayer’s order for the ‘Visitation of the Sick’, where the priest addresses the ill person, ‘Derely beloved, know this: that almightie God is the Lord of lyfe and death, and over all thinges to them perteyning, as youth, strength, health, age, weakenes, and sickenesse’ (Cummings 2011: 74). In the same vein, the burial service itself, granted its purging of certain previously traditional details relating to the afterlife, is insistent on pressing an intrinsicist attitude, beginning with quotes from, for example, Job 1:21, and adding the now famous phrase of mortality’s claim upon human existence, ‘In the mideste of lyfe we bee in death: of whom may we seke for succour, but of thee, O Lord’ (Cummings 2011: 82). At the committal of the ‘corps’ to the ground, dirt is scattered upon it with words asserting divine creative sovereignty:
‘asshes to asshes, dust to dust, in sure and certayne hope of resurreccion to eternal lyfe, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who shal chaunge our vyle bodye, that it maye bee lyke to his glorious bodye, according to the mightie working wherby he is hable to subdue all thinges to himselfe’. (Cummings 2011: 82–83)
In all this, the Book of Common Prayer simply applies an earlier medieval petition to its streamlined Protestant vision, continuous in its popular intrinsicist emphases.
4.1.3 Extrinsicist moral demands
While intrinsicism focuses upon the character of human existence in its experienced forms, extrinsicist attitudes emphasize the evaluative character of the decisions made within our mortal framework. Future divine judgment, with its outcomes of reward and punishment, provide an overarching context of eternal existence, with its impending consequences, and these presuppose mortality as a kind of transitory moment, though one fraught with everlasting importance. This moral framework, ordered to divine judgment, becomes a dominant motive informing the extrinsicist account of mortality even among modern critical interpreters of the Bible who worked with ideas of cultural development (Ewald 1888). Extrinsicist assumptions in fact coexist with a sense of mortality’s defining character, and only in modernity do the two orientations tend to pull apart. Thus, even in the Book of Common Prayer, while human life is rendered in terms of ‘dust to dust’ in the Burial service, this vision is preceded by a distinction between the ‘soul’ of a person that God ‘takes’ and the body that is left behind to be reconstituted at the resurrection (Cummings 2011: 82).
The soul-body dichotomy, the first element presuming (in the views of many) immortality and the second a mortal aspect, is one means by which extrinsicism holds sway, arguably from New Testament times, across the centuries. The body becomes the main locus of limitation, and the soul stands as the body’s bearer of immortal meaning, for good or ill. Thus, in the Book of Common Prayers ‘Visitation of the Sick’, illness (and hence mortal corruption) is explained in terms of almost exhaustive extrinsicist terms: sickness is either ‘certaynlye’ ‘god’s visitacion’, or the ‘decayed’ result of ‘the fraud and malice of the devyl’ and a human being’s ‘owne carnal wyl’, much as in the standard reading of Genesis 3 (Cummings 2011: 74–76). At death, the ‘soul’ ‘departs from the body’, to be ‘presented’ to God for judgment and bearing, as it were, the marks, good or ill, made upon it by limited mortal existence, itself a kind of extrinsic force exerted on spirit. Yet it is that immortal soul, not the body itself (which disappears and is then remade), that seems to carry human identity with it
The body, of course, is not irrelevant. In Christian thinking, in both elite and vernacular forms, the body is both essential in determining the soul’s destiny, but also, in its resurrected restoration, maintaining the soul’s integrity as an immortal substance (Williamson, Shippey, and Karras 2017: 243–249). Still, in its theological elaboration, the soul’s immortal character, reunited (or not as later developments suggested was more rational) with its transfigured resurrected body, settles into eternal punishment or the beatific vision, both of which trade on extrinsicist notions of mortal existence (Feser 2018: 88–101).
While these are afterlife issues, their projective demand upon earthly existence tended to ramp up the value of mortal goods in a certain way, inflating both their governing influence on the future, but also thus their difficult loss in existential terms. As with the inflation of Eucharist piety in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which could tend to lessen the attraction of frequent communion or of communion at all, so the expansion of afterlife concerns based on this-worldly action and events could also render human (mortal) existence increasingly burdensome and, in terms of meaning, something to be escaped (McManners 1999: 432; Jacob 2002: 60).
Joined to the burgeoning theodical concerns of early modernity, one response to this sense of the evanescent value of mortal existence came to involve more and more explicit assertions of the human being’s essential immortality, in the form of pneumatic existence (Radner 2019). The long Christian tradition, dating back at least to the early church (in both East and West), that encouraged seeing the death of loved ones as a blessing because it granted relief from earthly misery and temptation, by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, enabled the attractions of ‘heaven’ to overshadow the value of mortal life (Graves 1846: 372–381; Springer 1898; Douglas 1974; Spence 2015: 9–30). The focus on the ‘heavenly home’ was not the only extrinsicist trajectory, however. By the mid-twentieth century, certain streams of renewed Reformation theology, informed by the Biblical Theology movement, pressed their extrinsicist convictions in terms of a more personified ‘death the enemy’ argument, that emphasized the this-worldly hope and struggle of faith (Cullmann 1965: 9–53; Aulén 2010). Thus, the extrinsicist revaluation was complex, and could move in both materialist and idealist directions.
4.1.4 Reminders of death
Worries over the value of a mortal life, thus, develop in various directions as modernity itself evolves. But both intrinsicist and extrinsicist views together inform the various versions of the memento mori tradition (whether so-named) of preparative life in the shadow of death, and the moral demands of this kind of life (O’Connor 1942). Human life – whatever its origin or final promise – is ‘mortal’ in a way that demands that it be inevitably experienced in certain ways, morally ordered in certain ways, and consequently suffered in certain ways. Although strong distinctions have been made in the theology of pre- and post-Reformation artes moriendi (manuals guiding the preparation for death) – for example between a medieval attitude of ‘uncertainty’ about salvation and a Reformation attitude of confidence – both Catholic and early Protestant artes finally focus their reflection upon Christ’s Passion as a conduit to a this-worldly refashioned faith (Reinis 2016). In this common vision, a deeper experience of mortal limits provides for each tradition the means by which God’s grace is perceived and assimilated (Levering 2018). The artes moriendi tradition, while it begins to attenuate by the eighteenth century, nonetheless remained strong in Christian circles, through the nineteenth century, as much through continued use of manuals, including those of an earlier century, as through publicized accounts of ‘good deaths’ which rely on ‘good lives’, however short (e.g. of children) or constrained (Janeway 1815; Jalland 1996: 17–38). We see this in the popular genre of missionary lives (Church Missionary Society 1842–1950). And while intrinsicist and extrinsicist views of mortality – often only unconscious – can tug in different directions, both are tethered to a life given by God, and hence both liable and open to divinely creative ordering and accountability.
4.1.5 Scripture and criticism
It is important to recognize how the scriptural narrative itself upholds and suffuses both intrinsicism and extrinsicism, and its canonical breadth maintains an insoluble link between the two; for the dissolution of this link, and indeed of the ordering force of mortality in Christian thinking in modernity, is a major conceptual and practical force in undermining mortality’s essential role in defining the specifically religious character of human life.
The unintegrated character of scriptural descriptions of human creation, spirit, flesh, family, toil, lifespan, and destiny gave rise to diverse theological theories about what a ‘human being’ is. But the canonical conjoining of these descriptions meant that none of these theories could quite escape their provisionality and mutual interdependence. The uncertainty of the bible’s claims about human destiny left that destiny, in evaluative experiential terms, vulnerable; even while the consistent biblical insistence on divine creative sovereignty subordinated that vulnerability to God’s grace in an invariable fashion. God’s character might be diversely described, but that this character was determining (and thus intrinsically limiting) for all aspects of human existence was uniformly accepted, no matter how the nature of the human body and soul was conceived or how the scope of human willing was traced. Patriarchal narratives, psalms, ‘Deuteronomistic history’, wisdom literature – all are taken up in the prophetic corpus that shapes the messianic history that the New Testament mirrors, a history, after all, whose central symbolic paradigms are cross, resurrection, and cataclysmic judgment.
As the scriptures themselves become subject to the practices of historical critique, from the eighteenth century on, in such a way as to pull apart its texts and assign them to separated periods, cultures, and attitudes, mortality’s defining status was destabilized for Christian theology, and finally for popular understanding. If, for instance, a literary-historical wedge is placed between purported patriarchal, or Davidic or other ‘ancient Israelite’ concepts of birth and death, and those of a later post-Exilic and New Testament era – what became a dominant history-of-religions approach to the biblical text – then the very category of mortality, in scriptural terms, is handed over to anthropological processes which, by the nature of the case, are disentangled from any comprehensive divine ordering and distinction. Either mortality’s creational or ontological meaning becomes subject to a theory of progressive knowledge (which will move, generally, in an idealist/immortalist direction, bound to notions of ‘spiritual religion’), or it is abandoned altogether (Smith 1881: 272–274; 1895: 63–64; 1889: 82–131; Knibb 1989; Bryan 2011: 9–18). This historical trajectory is important to note since it underscores how modern biblical criticism and religious self-understanding are intimately bound to one another.
4.1.6 Mortality as revelation
The scriptural context and articulation of the church’s pragmatic balance between intrinsicist and extrinsicist views also underscores the way that mortality is, in traditional Christian terms, a revelatory quality within human existence, something that is oriented towards uncovering the primacy of God’s person and character. Some modern theologians and philosophers have mined this line of thinking deeply. Much of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy was informed, in a unique and radical way, by an affirmation and examination of intrinsic human mortality, which formed the basis of his phenomenological analysis (Heidegger 2010; 2014). Though himself decidedly non-Christian and even atheistic in his approach, other phenomenologists like Edith Stein (intrinsicist) adapted the phenomenological method either to traditional theistic or Christian categories; or, like Michel Henry (extrinsicist) arrived at substantive Christian claims through the method itself, identifying revelatory aspects of God’s creative action within the experience of mortal limitation (Stein 2003; Calcagno 2008; Henry 2003). Rudolf Bultmann, a towering figure in New Testament scholarship, took up some of Heidegger’s categories and applied them hermeneutically to his historical-critical analysis of early Christianity, distinguishing a range of contextually-driven attitudes towards temporal limits in Jesus’ and the early church’s teachings, and integrating them theologically through a core extrinsicist vision explicated within the Lutheran category of ‘faith’ (Bultmann 1951; 1984). In English Christianity, the influential theologian and literary moralist Donald M. Mackinnon, offered an oblique approach to through the categories of tragedy and the Cross (1974).
These efforts, are, arguably, less ‘modern’ than re-framed vestiges of early-modern natural theology. They have taken up the latter’s interest in the revelatory character of human and created existence as lodged within a theodical challenge (the ‘origin of evil’), but with a greater sophistication (Paley 1822: 327–335; Young 1985; Brooke 1992). Theodicy has, indeed, proved a contemporary version of a now frequently maligned discipline that, in the past, examined the finite contours of creation as a means of defining their divine origins. And phenomenology of this kind represents a scripturally and dogmatically stunted version of traditional Christian themes.
Mortality’s articulation – whether in its intrinsicist or extrinsicist description – is a way of stating the infinitely asymmetrical relationship of Creator and creature. Mortality, in both its theoretical forms, is thus constitutive of classical Christian faith. Scripture holds the two sides together (vs. the early modern/modern wedge between them), not so much in a balance as in a constantly shifting dynamism of interest in divine creative purpose and obedience.