Keeping "Christ's Descent Into Hell"

Rick Phillips has posted a provocative piece on why his PCA church does not recite the full version of the Apostles' Creed. I was actually surprised to learn that many Southern Presbyterians omit the phrase, "He descended into Hell." Pastor Phillips makes a strong argument, but one that leaves me unconvinced.

The phrase in the Apostles' Creed "He descended into hell" (descendit ad inferna) has met with varying responses. The celebrated linguist and Church of England bishop of Winchester, Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), went so far as to ask: "who therefore but an Infidel will deny that Christ was in Hell?" 

I am personally unaware of any Early Modern Reformed theologians advocating for the rejection of the phrase. It was essential for Reformed theologians to maintain catholicity at all costs. A rejection of the phrase would have injured their cause a great deal.

Before Andrewes's time, the bishop of Chichester and opponent of John Wycliffe's Lollards, Reginald Peacock (b. ca. 1392, d. in or after 1459), rejected this phrase in the Apostles' Creed, which was symptomatic of his unorthodox view of tradition.  For the most part, however, this phrase has been accepted by theologians, except with different understandings of its meaning. 

William Perkins (1558-1602) noted four views on Christ's descent: 1) a local descent; 2) descent as a synonym for 'buried'; 3) descent as a metaphor to describe Christ's sufferings; and, 4) descent as a reference to the curse of death.  

Prior to the Reformation, the dominant view in the church was some form of a local descent, but there were some notable exceptions.  Reformed orthodox theologians were adamant that Christ's descent was not a spatial event.  Heppe summarizes what he calls the "dominant [position] in the Reformed Church" in the following manner: "Christ's descent thus signifies on the one hand ('strictly') the reality of Christ's human death and of his burial, and on the other hand ('figuratively') the pang which Christ suffered in his soul, when he felt the punitive judgment of God."  

The more prevalent focus of Reformed theologians was the descent of Christ 'strictly' understood, that is, the place where his human body remained entombed for three days before his resurrection from the dead. Yet, Calvin's influence accounts for the so-called 'figurative' view, which understands Christ's descent as the torments he suffered on the cross in his substitutionary death. In fact, Calvin's understanding of the Creed would mark the first significant reinterpretation of the descent clause.

But make no mistake: Calvin was defensive of retaining the words. 

In view of his reinterpretation, Calvin argues in favor of retaining the phrase "He descended into Hell," for, "if it is left out, much of the benefit of Christ's death will be lost."  Rejecting the view that Christ descended locally to those in limbo as a "story," Calvin understands Christ's descent into hell in the context of the atonement whereby his body and soul suffered the full force of God's wrath. In response to the Creed describing Christ's descent into hell after his burial, Calvin insists that the Creed "sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God."  

Calvin's position was accepted in the Heidelberg Catechism (Q.&A. 44): "Why is it added: He descended into Hades? That in my greatest temptation I may be assured that Christ, my Lord, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, and terrors which he suffered in his soul on the cross and before, has redeemed me from the anguish and torment of hell." 

In England, according to Chad van Dixhoorn, Calvin's untraditional opinion was alternately condemned as blasphemous on Christological grounds or praised as a basic tenet of the Reformed faith."  Whatever the case, Calvin's view on Christ's descent did not pass into obscurity. 

At the Westminster Assembly, Calvin's reinterpretation of the Creed became a matter for discussion because article three of the Thirty-nine Articles says that "As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell." John Lightfoot's journal reports that on July 22, 1643 the "first committee reported upon the 3rd Article, about the Descent into Hell."  The judgment of the committee was that article three "importeth Christs continuing under the power of death till his resurrection."  This position fits well with the opinions of Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) and William Perkins. 

This was only the beginning of the debate, which, according to Lightfoot, "grew very earnest."  The Assembly considered the following interpretations - all framed in the negative - of the Creed:

1. That no right sense can be given of this Article which cannot be proved & confirmed by express scripture.
2. That the local descent is not intended by it.
3. That it intends not his suffering the torments of hell in his soul after death.
4. That it intends not his sufferings in soul at all.

The second interpretation of the Creed is an explicit reference to the pre-Reformation traditional view. The fourth is obviously connected to Calvin's interpretation. In the end, the Assembly adopted the Ussher-Perkins view, which reads: "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" (WLC, Q. 50). 

Despite this, Featley shows his catholic spirit on this particular debate: "concerning descent into Hell, all the Christians in the world acknowledge, that CHRIST some way descended into hell, either locally, as many of the ancient fathers, Latimer [...] or virtually as Durand, or metaphorically as Calvin, or metonymically as Tilenus, Perkins, and this Assembly."  

Importantly, he was willing to recognize the difference between the views of Calvin and the Assembly. But there is no question that "all Christians in the world acknowledge that Christ some way descended into Hell."

Because of the variety of interpretations from orthodox divines, Featley adds that "no man need to make scruple of subscribing to the Article, as it stands in the Creed, seeing it is capable of so many orthodoxall explications."  Despite Featley's catholicity, he desired that the Assembly reject the popish view, "which taketh hell for limbus patrum, or purgatory."  Calvin's view, then, was not adopted, though various prominent individuals at the Assembly, such as Thomas Goodwin, did not altogether reject Calvin's understanding of the descent. 

Goodwin makes Christ's descent into hell co-extensive with his sin-bearing, by way of imputation, on the cross.  In fact, his understanding of Christ's descent into hell is remarkably similar to Calvin's, namely, that Christ, by virtue of the excellency of his person, could endure God's wrath on earth "as fully as in hell itself."  

What this shows is that though the Assembly rejected Calvin's reading, and the pre-Reformation position of a local descent, there were those present, like Goodwin, who understood Christ's descent in the same manner as Calvin. Indeed, Perkins notes that Calvin's position is "good and true," but nevertheless "does not fit the creed."  This explains why many Reformed theologians affirmed Calvin's ('figurative') position as well as the idea that the descent was also his burial ('literal'). 

Finally, Schaff's comment (fn. 45) shows that there is allowance for some interpretative movement concerning the ordering of the words. This is important, I believe! In other words, Christ descended into the abode of the dead (i.e, "hell").

What does this all mean?

Reformed churches and theologians have always strived for catholicity. In fact, that is why many Reformed theologians preferred to call themselves "Reformed Catholics" instead of "Calvinists." 

For that reason, I think we should be very careful about excising phrases from the ecumenical creeds, especially when our churches can enjoy an interpretation that is sound and orthodox. Our Reformed forefathers did this, and also spoke very strongly against rejecting that part of the Creed, which is one reason why our church confesses the whole Creed. 

True, in the PCA we confess the WCF, but we must also remember the sage words of Rabbi Duncan: "I'm first a Christian, next a catholic, then a Calvinist, fourth a paedobaptist, and fifth a Presbyterian. I cannot reverse this order."

After all, I would hate for the PCA to be called the one holy, but not catholic, church. The last thing we need is to be accused of schism - a point often made against some branches of the Reformed church. By omitting the phrase I think we lose more than we gain, notwithstanding some of the salient points made by Rick Phillips.

Pastor Mark Jones says, "I content myself gladly to maintain the catholic spirit of the Reformed tradition, and so keep the descent line in the Apostles' Creed."

For more, see Daniel Hyde's book on the topic.