The Son Will Be Subjected to the Father? Thomas and Calvin Weigh In

Awhile back, during the heat of the summer, Matt posted some quotes from St. Basil and St. Augustine on the meaning of 1 Corinthians 15:28: “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.”

In what sense will the Son be subjected to the Father? Does this verse teach a final submission of the Son of God as such to the Father ? Or are we to understand this subjection in terms of Christ’s humanity rather than his personal divine identity? As Matt pointed out, Basil and Augustine pick up on clues in the biblical text itself that point in the direction of the latter interpretation.

I was interested to hear from a couple of my favorite interpreters on this text as well. So I tracked down what Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin had to say. Here’s Thomas on 1 Corinthians 15:27-28 (emphasis added):

But on the other hand. If the Father subjected all things to the Son, the Son is less than the Father. The answer is that the Father subjected all to the Son as man, as has been stated, and so the Father is greater than the Son. For He is less according to his humanity, but equal according to His divinity. Or it might be said that even the Son Himself as God subjected all things to Himself, because as God He can do all that the Father does: “We await a Savior who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil 3:20)….Therefore, he says, when all things are subjected to him. As if to say: God has not yet subjected all things to Christ, but when all things shall have been subjected to Him, namely, to Christ, then the subject Himself according to His humanity will be subjected to Him, namely, to the Father: “The Father is greater than I” (Jn. 14:28), and even now Christ as man is subjected to the Father, but this will be more manifest then.

And Calvin (again, emphasis added):

But Christ will then restore the kingdom which he has received, that we may cleave wholly to God. Nor will he in this way resign the kingdom, but will transfer it in a manner from his humanity to his glorious divinity, because a way of approach will then be opened up, from which our infirmity now keeps us back. Thus then Christ will be subjected to the Father, because the vail being then removed, we shall openly behold God reigning in his majesty, and Christ’s humanity will then no longer be interposed to keep us back from a closer view of God.

So it’s clear that Thomas and Calvin agree with Basil and Augustine: the Son’s subjection to the Father in the eschaton is a function of his humanity. There are clues in 1 Corinthians 15 itself that point in this direction (e.g., as Basil points out, the subjection spoken of is somehow a future and not a present reality; so it can’t be describing some eternally fixed relation of Father and Son in their immanent relations). But, as Thomas and Calvin seem to be appealing to, there are also Christological commitments grounded in the text of Scripture that must guide our interpretation of this particular text. We know from John’s gospel that there is some sense in which the Father is greater than the Son (John 14:28). But we also know from other texts that the Son possesses the same “glorious divinity” as the Father and that he has the same power to subject all things to himself (Phil. 3:20). The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that, along with the Father and Spirit, the Son is the very God to whom all things will be subjected and who will finally be all in all.

So Thomas and Calvin seem to be employing the classical “form of God/form of servant” hermeneutical rule. Is this text speaking of Christ in terms of his deity or in terms of his humanity? Answering that question with regard to any particular text demands appeal not only to the specifics of the text itself but also to broader Christological judgments that take into account the entire scope of Scripture. In short, Basil and Augustine, Thomas and Calvin provide us with commendable examples of the classic principle that Scripture interprets Scripture.

Biblical Studies and Systematic Theology: An Allegory

This is anecdotal, and, for the purposes of this post, a bit hyperbolic, but in my experience there is still a divide within evangelical scholarship between biblical studies and systematic theology. To be sure, there are those who do these together and do it well, albeit from one or the other discipline, but, for many evangelical scholars, an academic version of Lessing’s ditch makes its disciplinary mark and it, like the original, cannot be crossed. Biblical studies is biblical studies, and theology is theology, and never the twain shall meet. Again, of course there are biblical scholars who believe all sorts of things about theology, and of course there are theologians who read the biblical text. But with respect to how these two disciplines mutually inform one another, the implied answer, at least from their praxis, seems to be that they don’t.

Here’s an example: I have witnessed, countless times, evangelicals trained in biblical studies exercise a hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to systematic categories, concepts, and terms. To my biblical studies friends, theology is something that should be kept at arm’s length, at least until we’re done exegeting. Dogmatics is also something that, to many biblical scholars, isn’t rooted in the Bible but instead in tradition, philosophy, and so forth.

I have also witnessed, namely through reading but also through listening to papers and to conversations among peers, systematic theologians theologize without exegeting the biblical text. Constructing dogmatics appears to be, for many, a task we can do without exegesis. Theologians look to philosophy, the hard sciences, the social sciences, logic, and history to “do theology,” but the biblical text is a footnote at best.

To put it simply: my biblical studies friends are often suspicious of systematicians, and my systematician friends often find exegetical work boring and useless.

Or, to put it allegorically, biblical studies and systematic theology are, in this view, like Jacob and Esau: they are family, twins, even, but different in stature, interests, and outcome. While they greet each other warmly on the outside, they do so under a cloud of suspicion on the inside (Genesis 32-33).

Rather than these two roads diverging so widely in the wood of Christian scholarship, though, it would be better if we did not put asunder what God has joined together. Frankly, this mutual suspicion between tasks is born not out of the superiority of one discipline or the other, but is instead a hangover from modernism. In seeking to cast aside every authority but the self, modernism separated exegesis from theology, interpretation from the church, hermeneutics from confession. This ought not to be so.

Biblical studies and systematic theology, rather than suspicious but related brothers, are instead more like covenanted friends. They push one another, edify one another, love one another, encourage one another, protect one another. Instead of Jacob and Esau, brothers in paternity but rivals in spirit, these tasks should be seen more like Jonathan and David: covenanted friends who seek to serve the one God together. Each has its strengths, but each needs the other to edify its work in places where its tools are insufficient in and of themselves.

Suspicion is a product of the spirit of the Enlightenment; mutual love is a product of the Spirit of God.

Random Thoughts on Place and Time

Being in one place doesn’t actually separate you from other places. It connects you to all places on the same good earth.

The only way to be separated from other places is to be dis-placed in abstraction from any concrete place (online worlds, commuter cities, back-patio neighborhoods, etc.).

Similarly, being in one time doesn’t actually separate you from other times. It connects you to all times in the same eschatological continuum.

The only way to be separated from other times is to be un-timed in abstraction from any determinate time (casting aside tradition, appealing to timeless principles, embracing a carpe diem hedonism).

Applying these thoughts to ecclesiology, the church is connected to the universal and the eternal precisely by being local and present.

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:22-24).

On Scholarly Focus: Pursuing Dogmatic Biblical Theology

I am currently reading A. G. Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life – a feast for those pursuing an academic ministry – and last night I read the end of the chapter, “The Field of Work.” This section focuses on two poles: on the one hand, the scholar’s need to connect their discipline to other areas of knowledge, since, as God’s creation, all knowledge is connected; and, on the other hand, the scholar’s need to dig deeply in one specific area of focus. I cannot remember the exact quote, and I don’t have the book in front of me at the moment, but Sertillanges ends the chapter by cautioning the academic not to take that first principle too far because a jack of all trades is a master of none. Everything is interesting, everything could garner our attention, but the academic life is a disciplined one, and this is especially true with respect to the focus of one’s study.

I find this particularly difficult. My dissertation was an integration of canonical criticism (biblical studies), the history of interpretation (hermeneutics), theological method (dogmatics), and tracing a theme through the NT (biblical theology). That’s a lot to tackle in one monograph; too much, really. Looking back, I realize I should have narrowed considerably. In any case, I mention that because it is characteristic of how I operate: many areas of study catch my eye, and I tend to try and fit them all together. As Sertillanges says in his first principle, this is, on the face of it, not a bad thing: all areas of knowledge are connected and therefore can and should be integrated. My problem has been that I do not drill down deep enough in one area and only then, once I’ve done so, ask where the other wells of knowledge connect to mine.

This has been an issue I’ve been pondering for at least a year, and toward the end of last year and the beginning of this one I began to see with some clarity where I’d like to dig. I’ve given it the moniker dogmatic biblical theology. By “dogmatic” I mean the study of Christian doctrine in its historical and systematic formulations. By “biblical theology” I mean reading Scripture with its redemptive historical, intertextual, and contextual features at the forefront of the interpretive process. There are a couple of other terms floating at the edges that need mentioning, but I haven’t quite figured how to put these into a concise, summary phrase. “Ressourcement” would be the first; I want to retrieve the biblical-theological rationale, and the pre-critical methodologies from which that rationale arose, for traditional dogmatic categories. “Protestant” would be the second; my theological method is situated within a Protestant, evangelical, Baptist theological method. Combining these, and to state it succinctly, I want my focus to be recovering classic Christian doctrines from an evangelical perspective via pre-critical hermeneutical retrieval and biblical-theological reflection.Perhaps an even more succinct way of putting it is that I want to do biblical theology in service of hermeneutical and dogmatic retrieval. I think this gives me enough focus to dig deeply while at the same time scratching the itch of disciplinary integration.

Perhaps that last paragraph is a bit “meh” for you. Not your cup of tea, etc. That’s fine. Understanding Canaanite creation myths isn’t my favorite blend, but more power to you if that’s the well you want to dig. I’d still encourage you to a) pick up Sertillanges ASAP, if you’re pursuing an academic vocation and b) articulate your specific area of focus.

The “Scripture and…” Seminars at IBR/SBL 2016

The highlight of my ETS/IBR/SBL experience every year is the Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar. If you’re unfamiliar with SAHS, it began in 1998 under the direction of Craig Bartholomew and produced what I consider to be some of the best biblical scholarship available in the Scripture and Hermeneutics Series. Last year, SAHS unveiled their latest project, A Manifesto for Theological Interpretation, and also presented papers on the Old Testament and Worldview. In my estimation, SAHS is a “can’t miss” event for those attending IBR/SBL (in full disclosure, I’m biased as a committee member). This year’s meeting is on Saturday, November 19th, from 4-6:30pm. The theme is “The Kingdom of God,” and the schedule is as follows:

Welcome

Opening Liturgy     

Heath A. Thomas (Oklahoma Baptist University): ‘The Kingdom of God is Among You’: Retrieval of the Kingdom for Today

Catherine McDowell (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary): The Image of God and the Kingdom of God

Break

Brant Pitre (Notre Dame Seminary, New Orleans): The Last Supper and the Kingdom of God

Jonathan T. Pennington (Southern Seminary): The Sermon on the Mount and the Kingdom of God

Discussion 

Closing Liturgy

This is an outstanding group of scholars, and I’d encourage you to sign up here.

Last year Prof. Bartholomew also initiated the Scripture and Doctrine Seminar, led by a committee consisting of Bartholomew, Kevin Vanhoozer, Scott Hahn, Luke Stamps, and Benjamin Quinn. Their theme this year is a continuation of last year’s event on Divine Action. The SADS meeting takes place on Friday, November 18th from 1-3:45pm, and the schedule is as follows:

Welcome and Introduction – Benjamin Quinn
Context Setting Introduction: Craig Bartholomew and Luke Stamps
Andrew Pinsent (Oxford University, Faculty of Theology and Religion): The Second-Person Perspective on Divine Action in Hebrews
Amy Peeler (Associate Professor of New Testament, Wheaton College): A Fearful Thing to Fall Into the Hands of a Living God: Divine Action In Human Salvation
Alan Torrance (School of Divinity, St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews): What does the Continuing Priesthood of Christ tell us about the Doctrine of God?
Mary Healy (Sacred Heart Major Seminary): The Holy Spirit and Christ’s Ongoing Priesthood in Hebrews.

Again, this is a fantastic group of scholars, and I’d encourage you to sign up here.

There is also a new seminar being formed, the Scripture and Church Seminar, and it will have a planning discussion on Sunday, November 20th from 4-6:30pm. If you would like to attend this discussion, please sign up here.

Finally, please join us for a meal together on Saturday evening.

SPACE IS LIMITED SO PLEASE SIGN UP ASAP.

Is There an Application in this Text?

No.

Or at least, if what we mean by “application” is “something practical,” then the answer is often, “no, not immediately so.”

I was listening to the radio this morning and there was an ad for some kind of art foundation. The tag line was “art works.”

No it doesn’t. Art isn’t supposed to “work.” It’s not supposed to be immediately practical. Neither is theology or the Bible many times, for that matter. That’s because the arts are not supposed to be “practical.” They’re of a higher order, one that’s job (yes I’m using that ironically) is to point us to the true, good, and beautiful or how we’ve rebelled against it.

Of course, the Bible is transformational. Scripture’s purpose is to point us to the Son by the illumining power of the Spirit so that we might know the Father, and in seeing the Son we are transformed into his image (see 2 Cor. 3:17-18). In this sense every text is applicable, because every text calls us to respond to Christ in faith, whether for the first time or for our continued sanctification. But this is not the same thing as “practical.”

I’m afraid in our thinking on preaching, theology, art, and a whole host of other issues we have been taken in by that distinctly American philosophy, pragmatism. The truth of something is known through its usefulness and the results it engenders. This just isn’t the same as contemplating God for who he is and being transformed into his image.

None of this is an excuse for theologians to keep their heads in the clouds and ignore their ecclesial-rooted calling and audience. But it is to say that I think that many calls for theology to be made “practical” are many times influenced more by pragmatism than by a proper understanding of the role of theology (and the rest of the arts).

The Vincentian Rule and Christ’s Descent to the Dead

Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus

“[Which has been believed] everywhere, always, by all.”

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Vincent of Lérins’ famous 5th century maxim regarding what beliefs should be properly regarded as “catholic” (that is, to be confessed by all Christians) is commonly used to support or deny one doctrine or another. In Justin Bass’ monograph, The Battle for the Keys: Revelation 1:18 and Christ’s Descent into the Underworld (Paternoster Biblical Monographs; Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2014), he makes the argument that “Jesus Christ between his death and resurrection, by means of his soul, descended into the underworld in triumph for purposes that at least in the NT, are open for debate” (2). (The three purposes are “preaching tour, releasing the saints of the Old Testament, and a triumphant defeat of death and Hades,” 2.)

Interestingly, his first chapter is an implicit appeal to the Vincentian Rule, as he repeatedly notes how universally accepted this doctrine was in the early church, and indeed until the 15th century. A few choice quotes in that regard:

Whether the phrase descendit ad inferna was added [to the Apostles’ Creed in the late 4th or early 5th c.] to fight against Apollinarianism or not, it is clear from the Fathers’ writings, beginning with Ignatius, that they all believed that Christ descended into the underworld between his death and resurrection (7).

And:

“If we apply the external canons of textual criticism to the doctrine of the Descensus, then we will discover that it is very ancient (Ignatius AD 98-117; Marcion; Irenaeus’ presbyter), geographically widespread (Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Melito of Sardis, Irenaeus of Lyons, Irenaeus’ presbyter, Justin Martyr, Marcion of Pontus, etc.) and therefore should be seen as bearing witness to the teaching of the autographs (the Apostles). Regardless of how imaginative the understanding of the Descensus becomes in the later centuries, the historical core of threefold purpose of Christ’s descent: preaching, releasing the saints of the OT, and triumphant defeat of Death and Hades is one of the best attested Christian doctrines from the second century (11, emphasis mine).

And finally:

…Zwingli’s Zurich colleague Leo Jud (AD 1482-1542) in a 1534 catechism and Martin Bucer (AD 1491-1551) were the first to argue that the Descensus meant merely that Christ descended to the grave (burial) and thus rejecting this doctrine of a literal descent after fifteen centuries of the church affirming it. … Plumptre rightly says, “We may quite sure that no Jew or Greek in the apostolic age would ever have thought that the words ‘He descended into Hades’ meant only that the body of Christ had been laid in the grave, or that His soul had suffered with an exceeding sorrow in Gethsemane on the cross.” … To equate the Descensus with Christ’s burial was nothing more than a pre-Bultmannian attempt to demythologize the NT text because Bucer and those who followed him could no longer accept an underworld beneath the earth (18, emphasis mine).

If we are going to use the Vincentian Rule as a case for orthodoxy, then it is fascinating how radically Protestants have departed from one of the most well attested and widely accepted doctrines of the early church.

(If you are interested in an historical and exegetical case for the descensus from a Protestant perspective, I cannot recommend more highly Bass’ book.)

Angelic Bodies, Human Bodies, and the Intermediate State

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I have just finished Paul Griffith’s Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures (Waco: Baylor, 2014). In it his aim is to explicate the novissimum, or last thing, of all creatures, animate (angelic, human, animals) and inanimate (plants, rocks, etc.). While there is much to commend and to critique, my purpose for reading is my continued research on Christ’s descent to the dead. And although, as Griffiths notes, the intermediate state is not properly a novissimum, it is intricately connected to each creature’s last thing and so he deals with it in this book, albeit more briefly than other topics.

Other than mapping the options for those persons in the intermediate state (heaven, hell, and purgatory [Griffiths is Roman Catholic]), the other main concern of Griffith’s chapter on this issue is to describe “the intermediate state . . . [and] the nature and capacities of the soul therein, understood as a kind of body, and as the only trace of the human remaining in the incarnate state” (178, emphasis mine). I highlight that middle phrase because it is my particular concern with the descensus: how can we speak of Christ’s soul descending to the dead, and in what way(s) is his own “intermediate state” instructive for understanding ours? Griffiths provides one avenue for answering those questions by arguing that disincarnate souls have bodies.

He bases this point on his understanding of both angels and timespace. Of angels, Griffiths says,

If the created order is by definition spatio-temporal, and if the LORD is by definition not, then angels, being creatures, must be located firmly within the created order, and that is best done by clarity about their spatio-temporality and (therefore) the fact that they are bodies. … We must say, if we are to think with the church, that angels lack bodies if by “body” is meant a solid, fleshly body like that of animals, including humans (angels are not incarnate; they have no caro; we must also say that they lack bodies if by that is meant the continuous extension in space of aggregated inanimate matter (angels are not in this way like rocks or bodies of water). We must also say that they are not eternal (angels are not the LORD), which is the same as to say that they are part of the created order, and thus temporal in some sense, and that they can, again in some sense, occupy or appear in space. And if spatio-temorality implies body…then there must be a sense in which angels have bodies, or are embodied (120-21, emphasis mine).

This is a foundational truth for Griffiths (and indeed, for the Tradition) – the Creator/creature divide means only God is unbound by space and time. Angels must, therefore, be located within timespace (even if it is in a different manner than other creatures), and this entails having a body of some sort. Griffiths goes on to describe angels as “permanently disincarnate animate bodies,” and says this about them:

 … In ordinary English usage, terms like “body,” “flesh,” “matter,” and “mass” are not clearly distinguished, and we affirm the existence of many kinds of thing (electrons and quarks, for instance) whose capacity for spatio-temporal location is very unlike that of enfleshed animate bodies. … “Body” names capacity for spatio-temporal location, and thus for availability and responsiveness to other creatures with spatio-temporal location…. Bodies come, however, in many kinds.

In other words, all creatures have bodies of some sort, precisely because they are creaturely – they are located in timespace. But there are different kinds of bodies. To speak in logical terms, all creatures are embodied, but not all creatures are enfleshed. “Flesh” is a subset of “body.” Continuing in this vein, Griffiths says that,

Angelic bodies, according to this definition [located in timespace], have mass, but not, or not necessarily, matter. … “Mass” … names, in the discourse of physics, a body’s resistance to acceleration by force acting upon it (inertial mass), and its gravitational attraction to other bodies (gravitational mass). These may be properties of bodies without matter, which is to say bodies consisting only of energy … [T]o speak of a body’s mass, then, is another way of speaking about its availability and responsiveness to other bodies, without necessarily attributing to them the weight and aggregated extension in space characteristic of animate fleshly bodies. Angelic bodies, I should think (in this like the bodies of the separated souls), are bodies whose mass is immaterial… (122).

In other words, angels are embodied much like quarks and electrons are embodied, albeit as animate rather than inanimate.

The key phrase for my purposes is “in this like the bodies of the separated souls,” for in his chapter on the intermediate state, Griffiths explicitly compares again the permanently disincarnate animate bodies of angels with the temporarily disincarnate animate bodies of souls that have been separated from their fleshly body by death. In other words, according to Griffiths, separated souls exist as embodied and locatable, albeit in a different type of embodiment than the one they experienced prior to their death in their fallen enfleshed existence and than the one they will experience at the general resurrection of the dead and their subsequent novissimum.

Where are they? Griffiths says,

Asking where they are in this sense is like asking where an electron is at the moment: a malformed question. The best answer to it is that they are, disincarnately, more or less intimate, depending on their state – those in hell very much less, those in heaven very much more – with the locus-tempus that is the LORD (181).

This understanding of both spatio-temporality and of angels and separated human souls as “bodies,” albeit unenfleshed ones, has obvious implications for both our understanding of the intermediate state and of Christ’s descent. I am still working through the ramifications but nonetheless found Griffiths’ approach worthy of attention.

Blog Name Change

name tag

So the three of us have decided to change the name of the blog. It’s been a long time coming I guess. “Secundum Scripturas” (Latin for “according to the Scriptures”) has served us well over the years as a call to remember the foundational role of Scripture in all of our theologizing. But, alas, it is a Latin phrase. And while I’m tempted to quote Max Fischer (“Is Latin dead?”), we felt like the switch to an English title would help our less Latin-inclined readers and those with whom they might share our posts.

I suppose we could have just translated the phrase and called the blog, “According to the Scriptures.” That would have captured some of the emphases of the blog. But we are also keen to explore here the intersection of biblical interpretation, on the one hand, and dogmatic theology, on the other. So we decided to adopt the title “Biblical Reasoning” to capture both sides of this project. For those who are familiar with the writings of the late John Webster, you will recognize this phrase as the title of one of his most influential essays. First published in the Anglican Theological Review (90:4) and then in The Domain of the Word (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2012), Webster’s essay seeks to articulate a vision of Christian theology that locates both Scripture and theological reasoning in the context of the divine economy: God’s redemptive and revelatory activity in the Son and the Spirit. In this understanding, Christian theology “has its origin in the Spirit-sustained hearing of the divine Word,” which in turn prompts “the rational contemplation and articulation of God’s communicative presence,” on the part of the created, fallen, and redeemed intellect.

We do not claim to speak for Webster or his legacy, but we have been profoundly influenced by the framework he has articulated for a truly theological interpretation of Scripture. The phrase “biblical reasoning,” then, expresses in plain terms what we aspire to here: using our created and redeemed rational capacities to contemplate and elucidate the revelation of the triune God in Holy Scripture.

The domain name secundumscripturas.com will not change. So there is no need to update RSS feeds or anything like that. Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for more reflections on biblical and systematic theology, which we hope will still be, by God’s grace and as far as we are able, “according to the Scriptures.”

On Removing the Descent Clause from the Creeds

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I have recently been reading Catherine Ella Laufer’s Hell’s Destruction: An Exploration of Christ’s Descent to the Dead (Surrey: Ashgate, 2013). Much of the book is an historical overview of the ways in which the descent clause has been understood, from its inclusion in the Apostles’ and Athanasian Creeds through the Medieval and Reformation periods to its re-interpretation in Moltmann and Balthasar.

The last chapter, however, moves beyond historical explanation to theological formulation. While I do not find every point of her subsequent formulation compelling, Laufer begins her task by asking a crucial question: “What consequences would there be if the [descensus] clause were removed [from the Creeds]?”

This is not a hypothetical question, but rather a response to explicit suggestions that “He descended to the dead [or hell]” be removed from both Creeds that contain the clause.[1] And it is a question asked with the right criteria in place; Laufer agrees that any theological affirmation must be grounded in Scripture and must not be in conflict with other creedal affirmations.[2] With those guardrails in place, here is her answer:

What consequences would there be if the [descensus] clause were removed [from the Creeds]? Two most serious ones: an incomplete incarnation and a pseudo-resurrection could result. If there is no affirmed belief that Jesus descended to the dead but only that his body was entombed, then it is quite consistent to hold to the Apollinarian view that Christ’s person comprised divine intellect ‘within’ a human body. Bodily death would presumably free the divine intellect to return whence it orginated. . . . Moreover, without the descensus clause the resurrection is called into doubt. . . . Without it, Christ need not truly die upon the cross, for without the descent, the entombed body can merely be in a coma; without the descent, resurrection easily becomes revivification (181-82, emphasis mine).

In other words, without affirming that Jesus descended to the dead, we are left with the possibilities that a) the Son only assumed a human body and not also a human soul and/or b) Jesus’ didn’t actually die, but was revived from a com-like state after being placed in the tomb. The descent clause, at the very least, affirms that Jesus experienced death as all humans do, with his body ceasing to function and his soul departing to the place of the dead. It also affirms, via affirming Jesus’ human soul departing to the place of the dead, that Jesus was really and truly dead, not just in a coma.

While there is more that can be positively stated about the meaning of the doctrine, the descent clause functions, at the very least, as twin guardrails. It protects us against both Apollinarianism and denying that Jesus actually died at the crucifixion.

[1] Perhaps the most well known, at least among evangelicals, is Wayne Grudem’s argument for excising the phrase. See his “He Did Not Descend into Hell: A Plea for Following Scripture Instead of the Apostles’ Creed,” JETS 34 (1991): 103–13.

[2] e.g. Affirming the descensus in such a way that it contradicts the affirmation of, say, double judgment in the Athanasian Creed is not appropriate.