I’ve been working with Myles Coverdale’s Treatise on Death to prepare it for publication as part of our Coverdale series of books. Coverdale translated this treatise from the German work of Otho Wermullerus, a Zurich scholar and theologian, circa 1550.
The Treatise on Death is divided into three parts, called the First, Second, and Third Books of Death. Each book is then subdivided into “chapters,” which are really no more than short sections. Chapter one of the First Book discusses the four kinds of death and life mentioned in the Scriptures, including the kinds of blessed deaths experienced by the Christian, such as dying to (mortifying) the flesh. I have really appreciated these foundational definitions, so I wanted to share chapter one here. Each time I read this little chapter I find more to chew upon. The English is gently updated below:
From Myles Coverdale’s Treatise on Death
The First Book of Death
Chapter 1, Declaring what death is
The Holy Scripture makes mention of four kinds of death and life.
- The first kind is called natural. The natural life subsists as long as the soul remains with the body upon earth. The natural death is that which separates the soul from the body.
- The second kind of death is a spiritual, unhappy death here in the time of life, when the grace of God, because of our wickedness, is departed from us. By the means of this departing we are dead, separated from the Lord our God and from all goodness, though we still have the natural life. Contrary to this there is a spiritual, blessed life when we, through the grace of the Lord our God, live unto him and to all goodness. Saint Paul writes about this after this manner: “God, who is rich in mercy, through his great love with which he loved us even when we were dead in sins, has quickened us to life together in Christ.”
- The third kind of death is a spiritual, blessed death here in time when the flesh, being continually and increasingly over time separated from the spirit [of the regenerate person], dies away from its own wicked nature. Contrary to this there is a spiritual, unhappy life, when the flesh with its wicked disposition continually breaks forth and lives in all wilfulness. Against this life Paul exhorts us, saying, “Mortify therefore your members that are upon on the earth, fornication, uncleanness, unnatural lust, evil desires and affections, covetousness, etc.”
- The fourth that the scripture makes mention of is an everlasting life and an everlasting death. Not that the body and soul of man will after this time lose their substance and be utterly no more. For we believe certainly that our soul is immortal, and that even this present body will rise again. But since we ourselves grant that life is sweet and death a bitter herb, this word life, by a figurative manner of speech, means mirth and joy. However, the word death is used to mean heaviness and sorrow. Therefore eternal life is called eternal joy, and eternal death is called eternal damnation.
Of these different types of deaths we commonly have a perverse judgment. We abhor the death of the body, and hasten on apace to the unhappy spiritual death, which is yet in itself a thousand times more terrible than any bodily death. For when a man delights in his own wickedness, though he yet still lives upon the earth he is nevertheless dead before God, and the soul must continue damned forevermore.
In this book I treat of the natural death, which before our eyes seems to be a complete annihilation, and it seems that there is no help with the dead, even as when a dog or horse dies and God has no more respect to them. Yea, the world swims full of such ungodly people as have no other understanding. Otherwise, doubtless, they would conduct themselves differently towards God. In truth, death is not the annihilation of man, but a deliverance of body and soul. Therefore since the soul, being of itself immortal, does either out of the mouth ascend up into heaven or else from the mouth descend into the pit of hell, the body, losing its substance until doomsday, will then by the power of God be raised from death. It will then be joined again to the soul, so that afterwards the whole man with body and soul may eternally inherit either salvation or else damnation.
Concerning the third, blessed kind of death, I (Ruth) see it as coming about in several ways. One is by our own effort, by continually denying the lusts of the flesh – whether pride, competitiveness, envy, malice, fornication (of mind or body), unforgiveness, etc. – taking every thought captive, guarding what we see, read, and hear, and, as Paul said, pummeling our members. This is what it is to mortify the flesh, as the author said. But another way this blessed death comes about is by suffering, which is imposed on us from without and against our will and choice. But all suffering comes by God’s permission and serves to destroy the flesh or sinful nature. Suffering humbles us and keeps us low. It also teaches empathy for others who suffer. Tyndale often wrote about the need for suffering, and he said that suffering is a sign that a person is a child of God.
Hopefully our edition of Coverdale’s Treatise on Death will be ready for publication in the fall of 2021. It will be a facsimile of an 1846 modern-spelling reprint by the British Parker Society.
Ruth Magnusson Davis, July 29 2021