04 October, 2007

Descendit ad Inferna?

In a discussion on the article of faith, "He descended into hell" you will find much confusion. The ancients intended this phrase to mean just what it says- Jesus descended into hell after his burial. Most views say that he preached or proclaimed his triumph over sin and death before demons and/or the damned.

Reformed Christians historically deny this interpretation. We have reinterpreted this phrase in our ancient creed to mean that he either entered the place of the dead or he suffered the pains of hell on the cross. My personal belief (which does not find much support in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition) is that we strike this phrase from our Creed or we place a giant footnote at the bottom of every printing and state that we disagree with the original meaning of the authors of the text.

As far as I see there are three camps in the Reformed tradition here:
1. Those who are revisionists and reinterpret the creed.
2. Those that do not think that it is that important to change or redefine.
3. Those who want to strike the phrase out of our ancient creed.

Of course, all three have consequences. What should be done though? Does a revisionistic interpretation open the door to liberal interpretations of the Scriptures? Does striking the line show disrespect to our ancient heritage?

Three quotes were given in the discussion that shows the confusion that this phrase has made in the evangelical world. These quotes left me astonished that some have gone so far as to redefine Christ's atoning sacrifice to fit into a creedal system. I see these as the bad fruit of not dealing with this early on in the Protestant Reformation (I understand that the Reformers would not have been able to maintain their claim on catholicity if they began disassembling the creeds of the historic Church):

When Jesus cried, ‘It is finished!’ He was not speaking of the plan of redemption. There were still three days and nights to go through before He went to the throne...Jesus’ death on the cross was only the beginning of the complete work of redemption. -Kenneth Copeland

Do you think that the punishment for our sin was to die on a cross? If that were the case, the two thieves could have paid your price. No, the punishment was to go into hell itself and to serve time in hell separated from God...Satan and all the demons of hell thought that they had Him bound and they threw a net over Jesus and they dragged Him down to the very pit of hell itself to serve our sentence. -Fredrick Price

He [Jesus] tasted spiritual death for every man. And His spirit and inner man went to hell in my place. Can’t you see that? Physical death wouldn’t remove your sins. He’s tasted death for every man. He’s talking about tasting spiritual death. -Kenneth Hagen


steveandjanna said...

Oh my. Some debates aren't profitable for starting or getting involved in.

lloyd said...

I've personally wavered between position 1 and 3 myself. I've come to the point currently where I've reinterpreted it to be taken as order of severity (Hell being the greatest punishment, so that's why it comes last). But, I'm shocked and disgusted at how far these men that you quote have taken it. This makes me return to my Baptist roots, and declare pee on the ancient creed, and take that line right out. While creeds and confessions are cool, and are there to help our understanding of scripture, if it isn't doing that, then it has outlived its usefulness.

At the same time, I then find myself on the slippery slope I recently chided my own denomination for, as the CRC is looking at changing its Form of Subscription. The proposed change is to say that instead of our 3 forms of unity being binding, they are to be taken "as faithful expressions of the church's understanding of the gospel for its time and place". With this view, there is no problem with changing the apostle's creed, but it also makes the rest of our creeds and confessions impotent. In reality, it says that the gospel has changed, and so don't let these old documents get in your way. That I have a HUGE problem with. While I don't agree exactly with maybe 1% of our forms of unity, the vast majority I agree with, because I've seen it to be Biblical. While liberals may try to twist their views into the scriptures, they have not changed, and so all that is faithfully expressed in creeds and catechisms, still holds the authority of God's word.......

That's some of my thoughts, what's the right answer Nate?

An Eshelman said...

I believe that this is profitable since it deals with both worship and discipleship.

The text is well-known by the majority of Christians in the world and many use it in worship.

When disciplining either covenant youth or new converts the three things usually gone through are the 10 commandments, Lord's Prayer, and Apostle's Creed.

I do not think that we should start a crusade against the Creed since it has great use; but we must be honest about the way that Reformed Christians have denied this article in their interpretation of it.

An Eshelman said...


Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater! :)

Our creeds and confessions are great and quite useful in giving us guides for understanding the Scriptures.

It is quite sad what the CRC is proposing to open its doors wide to all views in the ministry.

AS for me, I propose no solution, just discussion and my opinion of what may work. I would not do it at the expense of any disunity in a denomination though. We all need to be on board with these things if there is going to be major changes on things that have stood for 3/4 of Christian history.

steveandjanna said...

Just because an issue deals with 'worship and discipleship' doesn't mean it's profitable to start a debate on the matter. There are some battles that aren't worth fighting, they cause more trouble than they're worth. I dare say this is potentially one of them.

Anonymous said...

It is healthy and can be profitable for Christians to discuss the things of God--things about God if done in a biblical and mature manner. It does not have to be a "debate" but a healthy discussion to further grow in knowledge and understanding of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I see no wrong being done here. I see no attempt at starting a "battle." Praise God for someone who desires to have a better understanding of our Savior and to encourage others to think about things. I appreciate the attempts of the writer in sharing things he is studying.

An Eshelman said...

Well Steve, that would put you in the #3 camp. If it is not worth discussing.. don't discuss it.

steveandjanna said...

Just because one's intentions aren't to start a battle doesn't mean that a battle can't be started by one's actions.

lloyd said...

Thinking a little more on the subject, I remembered that the creed is covered in the Heidelberg Catechism. It says: "Question 44. Why is there added, "he descended into hell"?

Answer: That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which he was plunged during all his sufferings, but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell."

So, would you consider this explanation of the creed to be an example of your number 1? Also, does the Westminster Catechism cover the creed at all?

Mark said...

The larger catechism addresses it as such:

Question 50: Wherein consisted Christ's humiliation after his death?

Answer: 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 has been otherwise expressed in these words, he descended into hell.

I believe this is more or less how Calvin explains it. He also says that there's a variety of interpretation in the early church fathers, so I don't know that the Reformed tradition has been revisionist in its view. Not that I'm all high and mighty about this - like Nate, I've had trouble with this, too.

Droll Flood said...

Rev. Klompien preached on this section of the A.C.
I thought originally that the text meant Christ literally dove in and was doing the backstroke in the lake of fire.
After the sermon I was convinced by scripture that this line meant that Christ underwent the torments of hell on behalf of His people and the matter was done "it is finished'. And today you will be with me in paradise, proclaimed that Christ was not in the location of hell, formerly phrased as 'doing the backstroke in the lake of fire.'
We maintain that Christ went through torments of body and soul. If Christ's body was not in the lake of fire, yet in the grave, and His soul was in paradise...

-Nate, it has been presented to me that there were varying beliefs concerning this line early on.
It is my opinion that the wording adequately expresses it, but being a nit-picker that I am, would want to state that my views are not the same as the writers, yet my views are such that the phrasing is adequately and well put.

-An Asterix would work quite well. Like the one Roger Maris got for his former homerun record because of the expanded season compared to the former HR record holder. Or like the one Barry Bonds has/ will get.

"This makes me return to my Baptist roots, and declare pee on the ancient creed, and take that line right out."
-Drop it like they dropped infant baptism...

Daniel Ritchie said...

The Apostle's Creed that is found in the Westminster Standards contains a footnote qualifying the offending phrase.

Strange isn't it that many ultra-conservative Presbyterians would oppose ANY revision or qualification to the Westminster Standards, yet the Westminster Divines corrected the meaning of an earlier creed.

Patrick Parker said...

Ok, I'll jump in so that I can benefit from the wisdom of you guys. I'm no scholar, but here's how I've justified that phrase...

"On the third day he rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven..."

For three days he was somewhere... He wasn't with the Father because he hadn't ascended yet. He wasn't lying around here on earth - so, if he was absent from the body (as in 2Cor 5:6f)but was not present with the Father, where else could he have been?