Vos on the Descent of Christ into Hell

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Kudos to Nick Batzig for making us aware of Geerhardus Vos' lucid treatment of the line, "he descended into hell," in the Apostles' Creed.  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 (with regrets to Danny Hyde).  My reasoning was as follows:

1.  While the Reformed understanding of the descent is undoubtedly true (i.e. that Jesus suffered hell while on the cross), this cannot be what the Apostles' Creed is actually saying.  The reason for this is that there is a clear historia salutis ordering to the events in Christ's ministry: "He was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.  He descended into hell.  On the third day he rose again from the dead."  That is a clear sequence of events as presented by Holy Scripture.  It makes no sense, then, that "he descended into hell" is speaking about our Lord's suffering on the cross, because the sequence  has moved past his suffering into the period between his burial and his resurrection.  Therefore, so far as the Creed goes, it is hard to see how we are confessing the Reformed view of the descent.  Vos points out as well, citing Hodge, that the descent article seems to have been added to the Creed in order to amplify the reality of Jesus' burial, i.e., it does not mean what the Reformed believe.  Therefore, whatever we believe concerning the doctrine of Christ's descent, the Apostles' Creed as it is seems to be confessing something like the Roman Catholic or Lutheran view, not the Reformed view.  This, need I say, is bad.

2.  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."  The mere fact that it takes such scholarly labor to work through the likely meanings indicates that the descent article does not rise to the level of clarity and importance as should be represented in such a succinct and important credal statement.

3.  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.  This is especially troubling in light of Jesus' promise to the penitent thief on the cross that they would join that very day in paradise.  Are not some of our people wondering what they are saying and whether or not it is true?  It is better for us to omit the descent article than to train our people to profess what they do not believe and what may very well be untrue.

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.

Thanks again to Nick for pointing out Vos' treatment.  What a treasure trove has been made available to us in the translation of this great biblical theologian!
Posted January 2, 2015 @ 8:57 AM by Rick Phillips

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