14 August 2008

Descended into hell? (Pt 4): Philip Schaff and the Creeds

For today's segment, I turn to the ever popular set of books The Creeds of Christendom by historian Philip Schaff. While he gives a wealth of information on the history and stories behind the creed, I will focus strictly on some of the notes mentioned about the clause in question here.

The first notable thing, is right in the actual text of the creed, he has inserted a parenthetical thought after the descended clause, which says "Hades, spirit-world" and has a footnote marking for additional comments.

The footnote continues clarifying by stating:
Descendit ad inferna (other Latin copies: ad inferos, to the inhabitants of the spirit-world; so also in the Athanasian Symbol)...other Eastern Creeds...he descended into Hades... The words katoteros and inferna, taken from Eph 4:9, correspond here to the Greek Hades, which occurs eleven times in the Greek New Testament, viz. Matt. 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27,31; 1 Cor. 15:55; Rev. 1:18; 6:8; 20:13,14, and is always incorrectly translated hell in the English Version, except in 1 Cor. 15:55. Hades signifies, like the word Sheol, the unseen spirit-world, the abode of all the departed, both the righteous and the wicked; while hell (probably from the Saxon word helan, to cover, to conceal), at at least in modern usage, is a much narrower conception, and signifies the state and place of eternal damnation, like the Hebrew gehenna, which occurs twelve times in the Greek Testament, and is so translated in the English Bible... The American editions of the Book of Common Prayer leave it optional with the minister to use, in the Creed, hell, or the place of departed spirits; but it would be much better to restore or popularize the Greek Hades. The current translation, hell, is apt to mislead, and excludes the important fact — the only one which we certainly know of the mysterious triduum — that Christ was in Paradise in the time between the crucifixion and the resurrection, according to his own declaration to the penitent thief, Luke 23:43...

The clause has been explained in three different ways: 1. It is identical with sepultus (Rufinus), or means 'continued in the state of death and under the power of death' till the resurrection (Westminster divines). This makes it a useless repetition in figurative language. 2. It signifies the intensity of Christ's sufferings on the cross, where he tasted the pain of hell for sinners (Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism). This is inconsistent with the order of the clause between death and resurrection. 3. An actual self-manifestation of Christ after the crucifixion to all departed spirits, Luke 23:43; Acts 2:27,31; 1 Pet. 3:18-19; 4:6; comp. Eph. 4:8-9; Col. 2:15; Phil. 2:10; Rev. 1:18. As such the descent is a part of the universality of the scheme of redemption, and forms the transition from the state of humiliation to the state of exaltation. This is the historical explanation, according to the belief of the ancient Church, but leaves much room for speculation concerning the object and effect of the descent.
So, as he mentions, to remove this clause from the Creed as some would suggest, does lose an important step in the redemptive process, and is suggested only because the modern church fails to understand what is being said by the early Church in this clause.

And his dismissal of the common misunderstanding of this clause is spot on too. Looking at the order of the Creed, it says he "was crucified, died, and was buried" then he descended. So logically it makes no sense to say this means he suffered great suffering on the cross as most Reformed today proclaim. It would be like saying he "was crucified, died, and was buried, and suffered on the cross." Huh? Does that make any sense at all? The order implies that the descent was something that took place after the burial. The composers of the Creed were trying to say something else, and we seek to remove or reinterpret, to the point of illogical interpretive gymnastics.

Richard D. Phillips, of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, in an article he wrote in 2000 (by the same title as my blog title oddly enough), wrote:
In the Apostles’ Creed we affirm together that Jesus was “crucified, dead and buried,” and then “descended into hell,” before “on the third day he rose from the dead.” The first thing we want to say about this is that it deals with the time between Jesus’ crucifixion on Friday (or on Thursday as an alternative view has it) and Sunday morning when He arose. Jesus went somewhere during this time and this answer affirms that it was to hell that he went...

The original languages help quite a lot in this case. The place where Jesus went after death in Hebrew is called “Sheol;” in Greek it is “Hades.” Both of those terms are used for the place where dead souls were said to go...

Therefore, when we say, “He descended into hell,” we are simply recalling that Jesus came under the power of death, and went to the place of the dead until His resurrection. Hell, in that terminology, is not the place of final judgment, but the place of all the dead awaiting judgment. He went to the place of the dead, being under the power of death until His resurrection. Romans 6:9 says, “Since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.” Logically, then, death once did have mastery over Jesus, and that would be during the time He descended into hell...

In the Old Testament, and even during the life of Christ, the dead are presented in Hades. For instance, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus says, “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side” (Lk. 16:22-23). This whole scene takes place in hell, that is, in Hades. On one side of hell, as it were, is paradise, where Abraham and Lazarus are. On the other side, beyond a great chasm, hell is really hell, and that is where the once greedy rich man now is. This also seems to agree with what Jesus said to the thief on the nearby cross who believed in Him: “Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise”(Lk. 23:43). Presumably, then, Jesus went to hell, proclaiming his victory to those given over for damnation, while actually staying in the paradise precincts.

All of that is quite different from the situation set forth after the resurrection and ascension of Christ in the New Testament epistles. In 2 Cor. 5:7-8, for instance, Paul speaks positively about Christian death, saying, “We are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” It seems that after Christ’s resurrection and ascension, the souls of His own are now in heaven – which is not what He said to the thief on the Cross, nor what the Old Testament says of believers. Perhaps, this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote in Ephesians 4:7, “”When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.” After this, in the New Testament, hell is a place of punishment and final condemnation, a place to which neither Christ nor His people will ever go.

I feel that I am on the precipice of speculation and want to avoid going further than Scripture will take me. As Calvin said, “Where God makes an end of teaching, let us make an end of learning.” One thing, however, we can affirm with zeal, is that after His death and burial, Jesus descended into hell. And we can also say, as Michael Horton writes in his book on the Apostles’ Creed, “His hell gained our heaven; his curse secured our blessing; his incalculable grief brought us immeasurable joy.”1 Therefore, let us say it with conviction and with joy: “He descended into hell.”

View the other parts of the topic

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10