Combating Creedal Amputations of the Descent Clause

Tomorrow is Holy Saturday, that liminal temporal space between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. For many evangelicals, Holy Saturday has lost all meaning, while for others it is associated with Catholic and Orthodox notions of the Harrowing of Hell. Because of this latter association, where Christ goes into Hades (Hell) and brings out either virtuous Jews and pagans (Roman Catholic) or all humanity (Orthodox), some evangelical theologians have even argued that we should cut the line referencing it from the Apostles’ Creed (“he was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose…”).

Aside from the methodological problem that is one individual attempting to surgically dismember an ecumenical creedal clause, I want to suggest here four reasons why we should avoid cutting the descent clause from the Apostles’ and Athanasian Creeds.

1. It is historically important.

While I agree with evangelical theologians that a Roman Catholic or Orthodox understanding of the descent clause should be rejected, this has not been what the clause has always meant. The “Harrowing of Hell” view arose toward the middle of the Medieval period, but before that the early church simply affirmed ubiquitously that Christ descended to the dead – that is, in his human nature he experienced death as all humans do, his body in the grave and his soul in the place of the (righteous dead), and in doing so by virtue of the hypostatic union the God-man conquered death. He also announced (“preached”) his victory to all the dead – good news for the righteous, bad news for the unrighteous. In other words, Jesus in his humanity experiences human death, and by virtue of his divine nature he conquers it. He also lets all the dead know he’s the conqueror.

2. It is biblically important.

Of course, as a Protestant the key to affirming any doctrine is not ultimately its historicity, no matter how ancient, but its foundation in Scripture. And the understanding of the descent outlined above is thoroughly biblical (as the ancient Christians also understood it to be). Jesus is said to have experienced human death in both body and soul in e.g. Matt. 12:40; Acts 2:24; Rom. 10:7, and, I’d say, Eph. 4:9-11. He also conquers death through this experience in Rev. 1:18, and I’d also say 1 Pet. 3:18-22 teaches the same thing. I realize Grudem’s exegesis of that latter passage is influential, as is Augustine’s, but as Augustine recognized, the doctrine of the descent does not rise or fall with the interpretation of 1 Pet. 3:18-22 (see on this Justin Bass, The Battle for the Keys, who presents the most compelling biblical and historical case for the descent from an evangelical in print).

3. It is theologically important.

The descent is not a minor doctrine. For the early church, it was one of the most important ones, in fact. This is because much hinges on it – our nature as human beings and Christ’s full redemption of it; the beginning of Christ’s exaltation as the Lord over all things, even the last enemy, Death; the communion of saints; and the nature of Paradise as dwelling in the presence of God in Christ. It impacts our understanding of doctrines like soul sleep (and whether its even a viable possibility), the Sabbath and Jesus’ fulfillment of Israel’s hope, ownership of the Promised Land, the millennium, and the extent of the atonement.

4. It is pastorally important.

My Aunt Jane passed away last month. At her funeral, my most comforting thought was that, because she trusted in Christ’s atoning work for forgiveness, I know that Christ is with and for her, and in more ways than one. First, yes, our deceased Christian loved ones are now in the presence of the risen Christ, and yes that is comforting. We should acknowledge that this soul-ish life in the presence of Christ is due in part to Christ’s own soul-ish descent, a descent that, while the end point of his suffering, is also the beginning of his exaltation in his resurrection and ascension. This is a pastoral implication of the descent, to be sure.

But another often overlooked pastoral implication is that Christ, too, experienced death as we do on Holy Saturday. His body lay in the grave, beginning to rot. He experienced the ultimate sting of death, the body’s failure and the soul’s departure from it. He experienced the liminal space between death and resurrection pro nobis – for us. We can thus tell those who have lost Christian loved ones not only that there is light at the end of the tunnel in the resurrection of the dead, and not only that they experience Christ’s presence now – both supremely comforting, to be sure! – but also that Christ himself experienced what they experienced now and conquered it. And they, too, will be conquerors one day with all of us who live by faith in the died-yet-risen Son of God.

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.”

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).


“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

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.

On Removing the Descent Clause from the Creeds

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.

The Good News of Holy Saturday

In Protestant American churches, and particularly in evangelical ones, Easter, along with Christmas, is the highlight of the church year. Pastors exhort their congregations to invite their neighbors, the worship leader may prepare some special music, and families will gather together afterward to eat some/a lot of New Covenant ham. In between these two poles of celebrating Christ’s birth and resurrection, though, many evangelical congregations have lost a sense of the rest of the Christian calendar. Even when a pastor mentions Holy Week, the most an evangelical church might do is have a Good Friday service.

One day in particular that suffers from this apathy towards the traditional church calendar among evangelicals is Holy Saturday. While Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and some mainline Protestants still practice the Holy Saturday evening liturgy, both the practice and theological impact of the Great Sabbath have been lost in many evangelical churches. So what does Holy Saturday mean? Why is it important not only that Christ “died, and was buried,” but also that “he descended to the dead”?

First, when I affirm that Christ descended to the dead, what I mean – and what I think the Bible teaches – is that Jesus experienced the fullness of death as the incarnate Son. In other words, his human body went down to the grave, his human soul went to the place of the dead (and more particularly, the place of the righteous dead, Paradise), and both of these occurred while his human nature was all the while hypostatically united to the divine nature of the Son. So the God-man experiences death – not just in a moment, but the state of death, remaining dead for three days. I think, then, we can point to at least three aspects of Christ’s time in the tomb that are good news – part of the gospel.

  1. Holy Saturday is Jesus’ Sabbath rest. Jesus declares on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), and, as the Triune God rests after the work of creation is finished, so Jesus rests after his work of new creation is finished. Saturday is the seventh day, the day of rest, and Jesus is resting after completing his work of redemption. Of course, we’re still waiting on the resurrection – without Easter Sunday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday mean nothing. But Jesus’ mission is effectively completed when he gives up his spirit at the crucifixion.
  2. Holy Saturday is when Jesus experiences death for us. The Nicene Creed declares that Jesus came “for us and for our salvation,” and his time in the tomb is part of what he does for us. As the God-man, Jesus experiences death. He has not just died for a moment and then received life again, nor did he revive after being placed in the tomb and then just chill until Sunday morning. Jesus remained dead. I think this is particularly comforting for those facing death, or who have loved ones facing death – Jesus has experienced this with us and for us. We have nothing to fear because Christ our Brother has faced and experienced the same death we all face.
  3. Holy Saturday is Jesus’ victory over death. Again, we’re still waiting on the consummation of Christ’s victory over death in his resurrection on Easter Sunday, but in a very real sense the fact that Jesus remains dead for three days is in itself defeating death. He doesn’t just experience death for us; by experiencing it as the God-man, he also defeats it for us. Death therefore has no sting or victory anymore (1 Cor. 15:55). In the early church, Holy Saturday was when Jesus declared his victory to all the dead, righteous and unrighteous, since he was in the place of the dead with them. So we can say on Saturday Jesus’ announced victory and on Sunday he demonstrated it.