Catholic and Reformed Understandings of “He Descended into Hell”Apr 4th, 2015 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
Why are the Catholic and Reformed positions different regarding the meaning of the line in the Apostles’ Creed “He descended into hell,” and how can we stake steps toward resolving this disagreement? To approach those questions I consider and briefly engage below the writings of R. Scott Clark and Rick Phillips on this subject, in relation to the Catholic teaching we have presented previously in “The Harrowing of Hell.” R. Scott Clark is a professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, and has been teaching there since 1997. He is an ordained minister in the United Reformed Churches in North America. Rick Phillips is the Senior Pastor at Second Presbyterian Church (Presbyterian Church in America) in Greenville, South Carolina, having previously served as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Coral Springs, Florida, and as minister of preaching at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.
On November 6, 2014, R. Scott Clark included the following excerpt from The Second Helvetic Confession within a post titled “The Reformed are Catholic:”
THE CREEDS OF FOUR COUNCILS RECEIVED. And, to say many things with a few words, with a sincere heart we believe, and freely confess with open mouth, whatever things are defined from the Holy Scriptures concerning the mystery of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, and are summed up in the Creeds and decrees of the first four most excellent synods convened at Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon — together with the Creed of blessed Athanasius and all similar symbols; and we condemn everything contrary to these.
THE SECTS. And in this way we retain the Christian, orthodox and catholic faith whole and unimpaired; knowing that nothing is contained in the aforesaid symbols which is not agreeable to the Word of God, and does not altogether make for a sincere exposition of the faith. —From Chapter 11 of The Second Helvetic Confession
Three weeks later, on November 26, 2014, Clark posted an article titled “Why Did Jesus Suffer The Torment of Hell?” in which he wrote:
One of the clauses of the [Apostles’] creed that has caused questions is that which reads: “he descended into hell.” It is held in some traditions that by this Christians are confessing that our Lord, after His death, went to the place of the dead. It has been understood figuratively, however, by the Reformed churches to refer to Christ’s suffering. So Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism interpreted this clause.
There is nothing in this passage [1 Pet. 3:18-20] about Jesus going to the place of the dead or to the dead ones. That notion arose because of the influence of pagan ideas and tragically was adopted by Christians. Some have advocated that, since we do not believe that Christ went to the place of the dead, we should remove that clause from the creed. Others have defended retaining it.6 Calvin and the Reformed have retained the clause but have understood it to refer to Christ’s sufferings. We should explain that the original sense was merely “buried.” We might omit the clause on the ground that we would be reverting to an earlier form. Arguably we would not be substantially altering a catholic creed as much as removing early medieval accretions from it thus making it less Roman and more catholic.
How does Clark justify denying the traditional doctrine of the harrowing of hell specified not only in the Apostles Creed, but also in the Athanasian Creed, three weeks after claiming that by affirmation of these creeds, the Reformed are allegedly catholic? He does so as follows:
As a matter of history, early on it appears that the “descendit” (he descended) clause was used interchangeably with “sepultus” (buried) and was added in place of “was buried” so that they had the same meaning into as the late 4th century.3 Thus, “he descended” was another way of saying, “he was buried.”
And what is his evidence that the two terms were used interchangeably? At that footnote “3” Clark provides only the following statement from the late-fourth century monk and theologian Rufinus:
But it should be known that the clause, “He descended into Hell,” is not added in the Creed of the Roman Church, neither is it in that of the Oriental Churches. It seems to be implied, however, when it is said that “He was buried.”
So Clark reasons that because Rufinus says that the descent is implied by “He was buried,” this is not only evidence for the interchangeability of the two terms, but is sufficient evidence to conclude justifiably that the two terms were interchangeable.
However, it is worth considering whether that conclusion is justified. Just because y is implied by x, we are not thereby justified in inferring that x and y are interchangeable. For example, just because smoke implies fire, we are not justified in inferring that smoke and fire are the same thing, or are interchangeable. Semantic synonymy is not the only way one thing can imply another. One thing can imply another because of a causal or narrative relation, as when we say that a student goes to a university, it is implied that he studies while there, or when a woman goes to church it is implied that she worships there. Likewise, when Rufinus says that the descent is implied by “He was buried” he is saying that Christ’s activities in the bosom of Abraham between the hours of His death and resurrection are implied in “He descended into hell.” Therefore, this statement by Rufinus is not evidence that the two terms [“descendit” and “sepultus”] were interchangeable, because it is fully compatible with their having entirely different meanings.
Moreover, Rufinus, who is providing a commentary on the version of the Apostles’ Creed he learned at Aquileia (in northeastern Italy), defers to the authority of the Church at Rome regarding the Creed when, immediately before discussing the first article of the Creed, he writes the following:
But before I begin to discuss the meaning of the words, I think it well to mention that in different Churches some additions are found in this article. This is not the case, however, in the Church of the city of Rome; the reason being, as I suppose, that, on the one hand, no heresy has had its origin there, and, on the other, that the ancient custom is there kept up, that those who are going to be baptized should rehearse the Creed publicly, that is, in the audience of the people; the consequence of which is that the ears of those who are already believers will not admit the addition of a single word. But in other places, as I understand, additions appear to have been made, on account of certain heretics, by means of which it was hoped that novelty in doctrine would be excluded. We, however, follow that order which we received when we were baptized in the Church of Aquileia.
Since therefore the Church at Rome did not at this time (c. AD 400) include “descendit ad inferos” (“He descended into hell”) in the Apostles Creed, but subsequently within two hundred years did incorporate this line (along with the lines “Creator of Heaven and earth,” “the communion of saints,” and “life everlasting”), Rufinus here shows by his deferral to the Church at Rome that he likely would have accepted these additions as authoritative as they would come to be understood and embraced by the Church at Rome.
So Clark’s claim that the terms descendit and sepultus were interchangeable is not adequately supported by the evidence. Moreover, in treating these terms as interchangeable Clark is rejecting the patristic Tradition concerning the meaning of this line, i.e. that Christ descended into hell after His death, a truth St. Augustine refers to with the following question: “Who, therefore, except an infidel, will deny that Christ was in hell?” (Letter 164.2) On what grounds does Clark reject this element of the Tradition? Simply by stipulating, on the tacit assumption of ecclesial deism, that this Tradition was an accretion from paganism. Clark writes: “That notion arose because of the influence of pagan ideas and tragically was adopted by Christians.”
So on the one hand Clark claims to be “catholic” (and not a sect) on the grounds that he accepts the four creeds and condemns everything contrary to them. But where the creeds do not fit his interpretation of Scripture and his theology, he ascribes the patristic understanding of these articles to a pagan accretion, and makes the article in question conform to his interpretation of Scripture.
But that seems to be exactly what sects do, pick and choose from among the Catholic doctrines, and change them to fit their own beliefs. Anyone can claim to submit himself to Tradition, but when one starts picking and choosing or altering the Tradition to fit one’s interpretation, then, as I have argued at “Sola Scriptura Redux: Matthew Barrett, Tradition, and Authority,” in one’s actions one is denying the authority of Tradition. The creeds cannot be both authoritative and subject to picking and choosing, by rejecting the meaning of the articles as they were understood by those who put them together and developed them. And if in one’s actions one is denying the authority of the creeds, even if with one’s words one is affirming the authority of the creeds, then one’s claim as a confessionalist to stand in a position that is principally different from biblicism, is undermined.
Moreover, Clark has argued against ecclesial deism, claiming that only at the Council of Trent did the [institutional] Church finally depart from the Gospel, and so had to be continued outside her institutional structure by the Reformers. But in 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council (Twelfth Ecumenical) taught authoritatively that Christ:
having suffered on the wood of the Cross and died, descended into hell …. But He descended in soul, and He arose in the flesh, and He ascended equally in both, to come at the end of time ….
Because this descending is said to take place after His death, it cannot simply be restating His suffering on the Cross. So in teaching that Christ descended into hell as something distinct from His suffering on the Cross either the Fourth Lateran departed from the true meaning of the early creeds, and departed from the faith received from the Apostles, or the Fourth Lateran taught the orthodox and universal understanding of “He descended into hell,” and Clark’s position is denying the orthodox meaning of this article of the creed. It cannot be both ways. Either the Church preceding the Reformation was the true Church, in which case her authoritative teachings were in fact authoritative, including the doctrine of the harrowing of hell, or if the Church in the centuries prior to Trent had already lost her way, then not only at the Council of Trent did the Church finally depart from the Gospel.1
Rick Phillips’s approach to this question is not the same as Clark’s. Phillips recently wrote an article both explaining and defending why his congregation omits the line “he descended into hell” from the Apostles’ Creed. He is not the first Protestant to do so; John Piper also has proposed eliminating this line from the Apostles’ Creed, as has Wayne Grudem.2 In defense of his decision Phillips writes:
When I came to my present church, I found that they had abandoned this line in the Creed (which, I understand was a fairly widespread omission among Southern Presbyterians). On studying the matter, I agreed to continue this omission ….
Why? For three reasons. First, because Phillips recognizes that the line cannot mean what the Reformed tradition takes it to mean, i.e. that Christ suffered hell while on the cross. In this, Phillips disagrees with Clark. Second, because:
It seems to me that for an item to make it into a credal summary like the Apostles’ Creed there should be undoubted and clear biblical testimony to it. This is certainly not true when it comes to “he descended into hell.”
Phillips is here confirming what I wrote in “Sola Scriptura Redux: Matthew Barrett, Tradition, and Authority.” Confessional Protestants want to distinguish themselves from “solo scriptura” biblicists by claiming that tradition has authority. But when what gets to count as tradition is only either what is explicitly stated in Scripture or entailed by one’s interpretation of Scripture, then ‘tradition’ has no authority; it does not govern one’s interpretation of Scripture. Rather, when it does not conform to one’s interpretation of Scripture, it is excised from ‘tradition.’ As a result, what is referred to as ‘tradition’ is only either Scripture itself or a restatement of one’s own interpretation of Scripture. And that is equivalent to “solo scriptura” biblicism hidden under the appearance of adherence to the creeds.
His third reason is:
Not only is there dubious biblical support for the descent line, but most of our people simply do not know what it means. What do our people think they are confessing when, after saying that Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried, that he then descended into hell? It seems that our people are professing something they either do not likely understand or that they probably understand wrongly. This is hardly a good pastoral practice.
He is right that people can misunderstand this line, and take it as Christ suffering the fires of hell. But when people in one’s congregation misunderstand a line of the Creed, rather than eliminating that line from the Creed a better solution is to make sure that one’s congregation rightly understands that line. Misunderstanding of a line of the Creed is not a justifying reason for eliminating articles of the faith.
Lastly he writes:
For these reasons, I content myself gladly with the existing practice of my congregation, namely, to omit the descent line from the Apostles’ Creed. Now that I am used to it this way, it is startling to me when I am in other settings and the credal declaration is made: “he descended into hell.” What an odd thing to have placed in such a clear and vital sequence of events that otherwise is proclaimed about Jesus in the Apostles’ Creed. Here is a case where those who deeply honor the tradition will be warranted in omitting an item from it.
The last line captures precisely the problem. Phillips thinks one honors the tradition by omitting from it anything that is not found explicitly in Scripture or is not entailed by one’s interpretation of Scripture. But that is just honoring either Scripture alone, and/or one’s own interpretation of Scripture.
In defense of his position Phillips draws from Nick Batzig’s post explaining Geerhardus Vos’s argument for the Reformed view of this line of the Apostle’s Creed. Vos writes:
This expression appears to be derived from Ephesians 4:9, “This ‘He ascended,’ what is it other than that He had also descended to the lower parts of the earth (εἰς τὰ κατώτερα μέρη τῆς γῆς)?” To understand what the apostle intends with these words in Ephesians 4, one must compare the immediately preceding citation from Psalm 68:18. …
Notice Vos’s reasoning. He claims that the line from the Creed “appears to be derived from Eph. 4:9.” Therefore, in Vos’s mind the meaning of this line from the Creed is governed by Vos’s exegesis of Eph 4:9. This reasoning presupposes that tradition, including all the content of the Creeds, is derived from Scripture by logical deduction. And once again, that’s “solo scriptura” dressed up as something more.3
Vos also considers 1 Peter 3:18-19 and argues there that:
That the word ζῳοποιηθεὶς does not mean “made alive” but “kept alive,” for the proponents of the local descent must understand it this way. They cannot and will not assume that the soul of Christ also died and then was brought back to life again. Now, it appears that none of these conditions are supported by the text. To begin with the last, ζῳοποιεῖν does not mean “to keep alive,” but always “to bring back to life.” So Christ is brought back to life.
Here Vos is bound by the lexical paradigm, and so his reasoning begs the question, by presupposing the error of the very paradigm against which he is attempting to argue. In other words, he reasons that because in its other usages the term is used to refer to cases of bringing back to life, therefore here too in 1 Peter 3:18 it must mean bringing back to life what was dead. Apart from the presupposition of the lexical paradigm, however, this conclusion does not follow from that premise. Moreover, a bit of philosophical anthropology is helpful here. Because the human spirit is part of the human soul, not naturally functional apart from a body, the functioning of the human spirit apart from the body requires divine aid, which is why being made alive in the spirit does not require that Christ’s spirit first die, but does require unique divine action at the moment of death. And this divine action can be the referent of ζῳοποιηθεὶς here.
So while Vos’s arguments against the traditional meaning of this line of the Apostles’s Creed are flawed, he did not advocate its removal from the Creed, as Phillips does. Nevertheless, the Reformed tradition faces a dilemma here. Either it can retain this line while acknowledging that the Reformed construal of the line is not its original meaning, or it can remove this line from both the Apostles’ Creed and the Athanasian Creed. Both options, however, undermine the Reformed claim to catholicity. And underlying both sides of the dilemma is a “solo scriptura” biblicism that wants at the same time to distinguish itself from creedless, self-conscious biblicism. The third option, of course, is to embrace the traditional understanding of this line. But this is also problematic for the Reformed tradition because as explained elsewhere, the traditional understanding of this line supports the doctrine of purgatory, which the Reformed tradition opposes.
How can we move toward resolving this disagreement? We can move forward only if we first recognize the methodological and second-order differences underlying these doctrinal disagreements. In my experience in reflecting on these disagreements most of the time our focus is on the doctrinal disagreement itself, and we overlook the second-order questions that are at the root of the disagreement. Second, we have to consider and evaluate together these second-order differences, without begging the question by presupposing in our evaluation the truth of one over the other. Most of all, the disagreement and separation must cause us pain, as an indication of a failure to love sufficiently, a privation of the bond of charity where charity ought to be. For this, we must like Christ descend into each other’s worlds, with courage and compassion and perseverance. May Christ, whom we all adore as the living God, fully God and fully man, be our light, lighting our way in the darkness of division, to unity in the truth through love.
Holy Saturday, 2015
- I haven’t addressed here the problem of claiming to be “catholic” on the ad hoc basis of only the first four centuries, as if the Church ceased to develop and define doctrine after the fourth century, and thus as if the fifth, sixth, seventh, etc. ecumenical councils are of no matter to the question of catholicity. [↩]
- See also “What did Jesus do on Holy Saturday?” in the Washington Post. [↩]
- See the “VIII. Scripture and Tradition” section of my response to Michael Horton’s last reply in our Modern Reformation interview. [↩]