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A while back our Session was asked to consider whether or not we should say “he descended into hell” when we used the Apostles’ Creed as our confession of faith. This is the result of my work on the subject.

The Apostles’ Creed has been used as a confession of faith in the Western Church for approximately 1,500 years. It is a brief statement of orthodox Christian doctrine. There is one phrase, however, that many people stumble over. Unlike the rest of the Creed, it is not clear and open to a variety of interpretations. Some of those interpretations are theologically acceptable, but may not fit the context. Other interpretations are not acceptable. This leads some to a crisis of conscience when it comes to reciting the Apostles’ Creed.

 

The History of the Creed

In the early church, many churches developed brief symbols or rules of faith to be used in baptismal services. Catechumens would be instructed in the meaning of the faith through the symbol and recite it prior to their baptism. These symbols were necessitated by some false doctrines that had arisen, particularly Gnosticism.

Tradition, according to Rufinius, held that the Apostles’ Creed was put together by the Apostles before they left Jerusalem. They were alleged to have composed one stanza each. There is no evidence for this tradition. We do see that Irenaeus and Tertullian were familiar with rules of faith that greatly resemble the Apostles’ Creed. There was probably some “cross-pollination” between congregations as people traveled throughout the Empire.

Interestingly, the canons of Nicea established the Nicene Creed as the only creed to be used. In the Eastern Church, local symbols were replaced by the Nicene Creed.[1] The Western Church maintained local symbols. These Western forms were shorter and more simple. Schaff notes that they had less variety. He asserts that they were all merged into the Roman Symbol which became the rule of faith for the Western, or Latin, Church.[2] Historian Roland Bainton argues that as the emperors got involved they had wanted to unify or standardize the rules of faith. The local symbols began to be standardized in a cultural give and take.[3]

The first version that includes the phrase “descended into hell” (descensus ad inferos) is found in Aquileia, according to Rufinius in his commentary on the Creed dated in 404. Schaff thinks the church had believed this long before it found its way into the Creed.[4] We are not sure how it ended up there. Some, like Francis Turretin, believe that the phrase was taken from the Athanasian Creed.[5] The problem is that it is highly unlikely that Athanasius, a key figure in the Council of Nicea, wrote the creed that bears his name. The Athanansian Creed has a more developed Christology than that of Nicea and is estimated to be a product of the 7th century.[6] Therefore, it is more likely that its presence in the Apostles’ Creed influenced its inclusion in the Athanasian Creed.

Between the writing of Rufinius’ commentary and the Athanasian Creed, this phrase had spread to be found in the “final” version of the Apostles’ Creed.

 

The History of Interpretation

Unlike most of the Apostles’ Creed, this phrase has suffered from a variety of interpretations. While the Eastern Church did not use the Creed, they were familiar with the phrase. Herman Witsius says that Eastern Churches understood it to mean Christ’s burial. Herman Witsius quotes Vossius in this regard.[7] This would be redundant at best.

The most common understanding of the phrase in the West is that it refers to Jesus’ descent to the dead (infernos) based upon a common (mis)interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18 which has Jesus going to limbo to free the OT saints and bring them to heaven. Limbo is like a holding cell, not necessarily a place of punishment like hell or purgatory. They, unlike the unrighteous, would simply be awaiting release by the Messiah.[8]

Later versions would change the Latin to descensus ad inferna, descent into hell. This fits with another (mis)interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18. This view holds that Jesus descended to the unrighteous dead in hell to declare His triumph to them. We are unsure of why this would take place.

Both of these views would have this descent take place on the three days in which Jesus was in the grave. This aspect is asserted in the Catechism of the Council of Trent, Article 5.[9] They are inconsistent with the best understanding of Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross- “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

MCC-31320 Portret van Johannes Calvijn (1509-1564)-uitsnede.jpgThese interpretations are also common among Lutheran and Anglican theologians. However the most common Protestant interpretation follows John Calvin and is expressed in the Heidelberg Catechism (#44). It serves as a summary statement for the sufferings of Christ in that He endured the curse and wrath of God on the Cross. Therefore, His descent is figurative or spiritual in nature. His death is not an ordinary death, but to bear our sin. Calvin expresses it this way:

 

“If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. No- it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment. For this reason, he must also grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death.”[10]

 

The Heidelberg Catechism expresses it in this way:

  1. Q. Why is there added: He descended into hell?
  2. In my greatest sorrows and temptations I may be assured and comforted that my Lord Jesus Christ, by His unspeakable anguish, pain, terror, and agony, which He endured throughout all His sufferings but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.

The Westminster Larger Catechism takes a different approach to the infamous phrase.

 

Q 50. Wherein consisted Christ’s humiliation after his death?

  1. Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.

 

This is a similar enough interpretation to the earliest understanding of the phrase in question. It is not simply being buried, but that for three days Jesus continued in the state of death and was under the power of death for us and our salvation.

 

Options for Moving Forward

The best interpretation of the phrase in question is that put forward by John Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism. But this was not the original interpretation. If we confess this phrase with this interpretation in mind, we are not confessing it with much of the Church over time. Or as originally understood.

  1. We could remove the phrase from the Creed when we recite it. This would “restore” the Apostles’ Creed to its original versions.
  2. We could no longer say the Apostles’ Creed but default to other creeds like the Nicene Creed or the Rule of Irenaeus. This is the recommendation of William Cunningham.[11]
  3. Continue to recite the Apostles’ Creed as is and clarify it with a notation to affirm the interpretation of our confessional standards.
  4. Recognize that we are but one congregation and have no right to alter the Creed and send an overture to General Assembly to either amend the Creed for our congregations or provide necessary guidance via a study committee. While this process takes place, we could apply one of options 1-3.

 

We decided to merely footnote that portion of the Creed to express the interpretation found in the Westminster Larger Catechism. At some point we may choose to present an overture to our presbytery, but right now there are more pressing concerns for us as a congregation.

 

[1] Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, Vol. 2, pp. 530.

[2] Schaff, History, pp. 530.

[3] Bainton, Roland. Christianity. Pp. 150.

[4] Schaff, History, pp 601.

[5] Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 362.

[6] Witsius, Herman. Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed in Two Volumes, Vol. 2, pp. 140.

[7] Witsius, pp. 140-141.

[8] Cunningham, William. Historical Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 92.

[9] Turretin, Vol. 1, pp. 357.

[10] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, book II, XVI, 9.

[11] Cunningham, Vol. 1, pp. 93.

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