Christoph Barth (1917-1986), son of the renowned Karl and brother of the relatively well-known Markus, is the lesser-known Barth of the family. A respected scholar in his own right, he spent much of his time teaching in Indonesia and published much less than the father and brother. His most popular and important work is his Old Testament theology God with Us, a work that was originally published in four volumes in Indonesian and later condensed and translated into English.
This evaluation will (1) deal particularly with Karl’s clear influence on Christoph; (2) offer a brief overview of the nine divine acts upon which his Old Testament theology is structured, and (3) include some final thoughts on the work as a whole.
Like Father, Like Son?
From the gate, anyone who has read Karl can see his influence on his youngest son’s treatment of the biblical text. First, Christoph is highly exegetical. Though he does not stray from theological trails (after all, he calls it a “theological introduction”), he mostly hovers around the biblical text and grounds his arguments in exegesis. He is not offering a schematic list of Israelite doctrines nor a critically-developed philosophical or literary treatment; rather, he sees the Old Testament narrative as a theological witness to the God who acts. Similarly, Karl devoted extended writing to commentating on biblical texts, and even in the massive Church Dogmatics, he is often more exegetical than dogmatic, more narratival than propositional.
Second, Christoph introduces his method by keying in on the aforementioned act of divine initiation. Like a good Lutheran with some Barthian flare, he emphasizes God’s unrivaled sovereign freedom to elect and interact with Israel. He also approvingly cites von Rad’s theological task revolving around “a dynamic story instead of a static system of religious ideas” and notes that this was Israel’s own understanding as well as the way the apostles first proclaimed the gospel. Every part of the Old Testament “was consciously written as witness to God’s acts in history.” For Christoph, the Scriptures give testimony to the way in which God has dynamically acted upon and interacted with his people. This is akin to the way in which Karl viewed revelation in general and the biblical narrative in particular.
Whether one agrees fully with Karl or not, the influence on Christoph seen in his view of God’s sovereignty and his attention to the text is commendable. If nothing else, Christoph alleviates himself of the charge that he is only dealing in ideals and opinions rather than biblical data. As with any method, there are deficiencies and flaws. Christoph brings subjectivity to the table, as does any interpreter trying to make sense of the biblical text, but at least he is dealing with texts. When considering a theological or hermeneutical method, it means next to nothing if one is not dealing with Scripture itself. Christoph accepts the challenge, albeit imperfectly, that all biblical and theological scholars must face: make every effort to let the text inform the method.
I will continue in the rest of this review to refer to them by their first names to avoid confusion. (Sorry, Christoph — perks of being Karl’s son.)
The Divine Acts
The bulk of God with Us interacts with the nine divine acts that Christoph views as the “essential subject matter of the OT.” The acts, divided into chapters, are as follows: God created Heaven and Earth; God chose the fathers of Israel; God brought Israel out of Egypt; God led his people through the wilderness; God revealed himself at Sinai; God granted Israel the land of Canaan; God raised up kings in Israel; God chose Jerusalem; God sent his prophets. While admitting that there are doctrinal and legal elements within sections of Scripture like the Pentateuch, he asserts that these elements “are integrated into the structure of the story of Israel’s origins in the mighty acts of God.”
In Chapter 1, Christoph posits that God’s creation of Heaven and Earth is not merely a static event in history, but rather “a salvific fact, an event that evokes thankful joy and confession of faith.” God did not simply create all things and set them on their way; he now preserves and will ultimately make all things new, including mankind. He persuasively notes that questioning God’s creation of potentially fallible humans is only an attempt on man’s part to rid man of individual guilt; God created voluntary partners, not mindless robots. Where Christoph errs is focusing too highly on personal guilt and dismissing original sin. He is correct in asserting that focusing on Adam’s mistake is shameful blame-shifting, but this does not mean that Adam is not culpable, at some level, in man’s depravity. He disappointingly creates a false dichotomy rather than addressing the nuances of this issue. However, he is dead-on in concluding that “[God] will not abandon his work or leave it unfinished.”
Chapters 2 through 4 introduce the reader to God’s initial election of patriarchs and his initial interactions with his chosen nation, Israel. Christoph’s main focus is the Exodus event, a topic “first in importance,” because “[i]t occurs almost everywhere in the OT” and cannot be naturally explained “either by the strength of the Israelites, the weakness or stupidity of the Egyptians, or the configuration of the terrain that might favor Israel rather than Egypt.” Christoph makes the case that for the Israelites, this was paradigmatic of God’s victory over enslavement and his desire for his people’s freedom. He states that the Exodus event was in God’s mind even when he elected the fathers because it demonstrating his promise-keeping of establishing Israel as God’s people “officially and authentically.” To Christoph’s credit, the case can be made that the New Testament offers a congruent typology of the Exodus. This can be seen in places such as John the Baptist’s preaching and preparation for Jesus, Jesus’s birth and Herod’s attempt to kill him, and in Simon’s allusion to Isaiah 52 when Jesus is presented in the Temple. One also thinks of general themes of the gospel’s liberation of man from slavery to sin.
Christoph also hits the nail on the head when he stresses that “[God] did not need ambassadors, or spokesman, or executors of his will, or servants to assist him. All he needed was his arm, his hand, or even his finger.” No doubt, but what of the human instruments he used? He acknowledges but too quickly downplays the significance of God’s calling on his creatures to join what he is doing in reconciling the world. Covenant faithfulness on the part of God’s people is a key motif in the Old Testament. He demands it. Of course it is God who initiates and acts, but he does not act completely divorced from his creatures. He reacts in both favor and disappointment (wrath, even) toward obedience and disobedience. He calls insubordinate men like Jonah to go to Nineveh. His instruments matter. God rescued the Israelites and praise of his name is demanded, but he did so out of concern for his people. God is calculated, but not disconnected; glory-emitting but not megalomaniacal. To be fair, Christoph might not outright deny this point, but the implication makes one wonder how he could fully accept the premise.
Chapters 5 through 9 survey God’s revealing of himself to Israel at Sinai, granting land to his people, and his interactions with and through kings and prophets. Of particular note is Christoph’s attention to God’s foreshadowing and promising of a Messiah. He notes that though the acts of God mentioned throughout the book to this point are “rooted in history … God and his revelation are not imprisoned in past history.” Indeed, “God lives and moves” as do his great acts, and so the liberation from Egypt and the raising up of Israelite kings are pointing forward to something and someone better. In perhaps Christoph’s most shining moment in the entire text, he rightly interacts with the ways in which the prophets foretold of the Savior’s multi-faceted purpose. Here, Christoph offers a useful picture of how the coming Savior would not merely be the ideal king that Israel needed, but would also be the priest, teacher, and prophet that Israel needed. He then, in biblical theologian form, takes New Testament texts and looks back into the Old Testament without aloof proof-texting that divorces the Old Testament from itself. His perceptive understanding that the Old Testament could not fully grasp or encapsulate Jesus is argued thoughtfully, and he convincingly emphasizes that New Testament writers did, however, receive “a key to the understanding of the mystery of Christ’s person and work,” as mentioned by Jesus himself in Luke 24:25-27. Christoph did well to highlight the overtly prophetic Old Testament passages about the coming Messiah without getting bogged down in speculative texts. Not to mention, any argument using the words of Jesus as justification is worth considering at the very least.
The major strength of this work is Christoph’s descriptions of God’s interaction with his people – acts that are entrenched in history but not always static to the historical setting. In the progression of revelation, as he notes often, God is seen as both keeping his word and even going beyond the hearer’s expectations of his word. Religious dogma by itself remains lifeless if God himself is not sovereignly bringing it to life through his words and deeds. These acts are too often overlooked as part of the background of the text rather than the primary foreground. God with Us gives a survey of the prevailing exegetical-theological message of the Old Testament rather than another rigid, map-and-biography-driven critical approach to the Old Testament.
The struggle occurs when Christoph becomes too Barthian. The God he describes surely loves his people and gives evidence as such, but appears unnecessarily distant and superseding in terms of carrying out his purposes. One thinks of Karl’s affinity for Rudolf Otto’s “wholly other” God; however, we must balance this with the fact that real people in real situations interacted with and responded to God’s divine activity. Again, one should never deny Scripture’s clear depiction of God as the sovereign architect of all that exists and all that happens within that existence, but he is not a robotic being with no regard to the prayers of his people. Christoph seems to readily emphasize eminence over immanence rather than incorporating and celebrating the tension.
All of this said, God with Us is a fantastic OT theology, even with some of its theological misgivings. It is intensely practical and presents a God-centered view of the Old Testament’s message, the kind of OT theology we could use more of. And as a work written for the church, it’s a beneficial read for just about anyone.
 Christoph Barth, God with Us: A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), viii.
 Ibid., 5-6.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 5.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 37.
 Ibid., 56.
 Ibid., 61.
 See this interesting treatment: R. E. Nixon, “The Exodus in the New Testament,” http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/exodus_nixon.pdf (accessed April 22, 2014).
 God with Us, 81.
 Ibid., 220.
 Ibid., 233.
This Lenten season I have been reading I Am with You, by Kathryn Greene-McCreight, which was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book for 2016. It is a biblically rich and pastorally sensitive reflection on the presence of God with his people. This quote from Erasmus has really stuck with me over these past few weeks:
Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit.
Which means, “Called or not called, God will be there.” Or, in Greene-McCreight’s looser rendering, “Like it or not, God is with you.” Sometimes God’s presence is discomfiting and even frightening. His nearness often means judgment. His presence often brings rebuke and chastisement. His providence often spells sorrow and pain. But he is still there with his chosen people, sanctifying, prodding, sustaining, pulling us to glory.
And when the dust settles, God’s people know: the threat of his absence is even more terrifying than his sometimes uncomfortable presence. And so we give thanks, knowing that our Triune God is still with us. Even in death, we know that our crucified and risen Christ has promised to remain with us to the very end of the age (Matt. 28:20), like it or not.
When I tell people that I prefer to write by hand rather than type on a screen, they typically look at me like I’m a dinosaur. But I protest that I prefer to write by hand because it allows my mind and hand to work at the same speed since I can type faster than I think. 1 When I type, my mind is always trying to catch up rather than setting the agenda. With my caveman ways in mind, I was delighted to read Claudia Dreifus’s interview with the esteemed journalist, Robert Caro’s own practice of drafting his books by hand.
Is it true that you write your books by hand?
My first three or four drafts are handwritten on legal pads. For later drafts, I use a typewriter. I write by hand to slow myself down. People don’t believe this about me: I’m a very fast writer, but I want to write slowly.
When I was a student at Princeton. I took a creative writing course with the literary critic R.P. Blackmur. Every two weeks, I’d give him a short story I’d produced usually at the last minute. At the end of the semester, he said some complimentary words about my writing, and then added, “Mr. Caro, one thing is going to keep you from achieving what you want—you think with your fingers.”
Later, in the early 1960s when I was at Newsday, my speed was a plus. But when I started rewriting The Power Broker, I realized I wasn’t thinking deeply enough. I said, “You have to slow yourself down.” That’s when I remembered Blackmur’s admonition and started drafting by hand, which slows me down.
I prefer to write by hand because I express myself better when my mind and hand are synchronized. Caro’s purpose for handwriting is a different one. He can write very quickly as he attests, but he purposefully slows down his writing in order to provide the space he needs to engage his subject deeply. Although, I have preferred drafting by hand because it feels more natural for me, it is true that handwriting allows me think more deeply about my subject.
Of course, some will probably scoff at the idea of writing by hand and all the time that is lost by re-writing by hand and then transcribing to screen. But I think Caro is correct that the practice of writing by hand does create the space to engage a subject in a more meaningful way. Caro’s interview adds another reason to why I think writing by hand is a skill that I plan to continue to use. 2
I have recently been reading St. Maximus the Confessor’s commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, and it, like all of Maximus’ writings, rewards careful (and prayerful) reflection. If you don’t know about Maximus, I’m not talking about this guy (but he was pretty awesome too). Maximus was a seventh century Byzantine monk, theologian, and controversialist. He is most well-known for the pivotal role he played in the monothelite controversy—the debate over the number of “wills” in the incarnate Christ—which culminated in the sixth ecumenical council (the Third Council of Constantinople, 680-81) and its proclamation that Christ does in fact have two wills (dyothelitism) that correspond to his two natures. Maximus was so convinced of this position that he was willing to endure torture (he had his tongue cut out and his hand severed) and ultimately the exile that took his life. As such, he is referred to as the “Confessor,” which in Eastern Christianity refers to one who suffers for the sake of orthodoxy.
But Maximus’ theology is much richer and wider than this single doctrinal controversy. Indeed, his work is nothing less than cosmic in scope, in that he sees the whole of reality—everything from personal piety and the church’s liturgy to the created order and the grounding of abstract properties—summed up in the Incarnate Logos and the Triune God that he reveals.
But back to his comments on the Our Father. His commentary is wide-ranging. It touches on the specifics of the prayer but also interprets the prayer as a kind of window into the whole economy of redemption. It is full of rich intertextual connections and allegories that illuminate the mysteries of the Christian faith. This paragraph, in Maximus’ prologue to the commentary, especially stood out to me:
In becoming incarnate, the Word of God teaches us the mystical knowledge of God because he shows us in himself the Father and the Holy Spirit. For the full Father and the full Holy Spirit are essentially and completely in the full Son, even the incarnate Son, without being themselves incarnate. Rather, the Father gives approval and the Spirit cooperates in the incarnation with the Son who effected it, since the Word remained in possession of his own mind and life, contained in essence by no other than the Father and the Spirit, while hypostatically realizing out of love for man the union with the flesh.
Maximus provides here a tightly packed summary of the whole Christian faith. Notice several salient points:
- Christocentrism: For Maximus, the incarnate Christ provides the key that unlocks the mystical knowledge of the whole Trinity. The Son reveals the Father and the Holy Spirit because, even though the Son alone is incarnate, the other divine persons are fully present in the Son, in whom the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily. Thus, true Christocentrism can never be Christomonism, because Christ reveals the whole glorious Godhead.
- Perichoresis: As Maximus argues, this Christocentrism is predicated upon the mutual indwelling of the divine persons. The Cappadocian concept of perichoresis is often misused in contemporary Trinitarian thought when it is leveraged as a kind of catch all, meant to solve the problem of divine unity in social or relational models. But this misuse should not cause us to jettison this crucial insight. Perichoresis is not the interpenetration of distinct divine agents but the intimate sharing of life together in the numerically singular divine essence.
- Inseparable operations: Maximus argues that the incarnation is not an act of the Son alone but of the whole Trinity in unity. The Augustinian insight that all of the external acts of the Trinity are indivisible is echoed here by Maximus. It is not enough to say that the Father sends the Son or that the Holy Spirit is the agent in his virginal conception; the Son himself also “effected” the incarnation. The Trinity acts in unity to bring about the mystery of the Word-made-flesh.
- Appropriation: Having said that, Maximus is also careful to safeguard against theopaschism or patripassianism, by maintaining that the Son alone is made man. Incarnation is properly appropriated to the Son alone, but this truth should never be pitted against the indivisible divine act of incarnation. The doctrine of inseparable operations and the doctrine of appropriation must be held in tension.
- Extra Calvinisticum: In becoming incarnate, the Son did not surrender his divine “mind and life.” He continues to share in the selfsame divine life as the Father and the Spirit, even in his incarnate state. This doctrine, which came to be known as “Calvin’s extra” in the Reformation debates over the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, is actually a much older teaching. Indeed, as David Willis has suggested, the doctrine is more properly titled the extra Catholicum or the extra Patristicum because of its near universal acceptance in classic Christologies.
- Hypostatic union: Finally, Maximus highlights the union of divinity and humanity in the person, or hypostasis, of the Son. This union is realized “out of love for man,” since the motivation and telos of the incarnation is the salvation of fallen humanity. As the Nicene Creed has it, the Word became incarnate and was made man “for us men and for our salvation.” So the goal of God in the incarnation is soteriological in nature. As Maximus says elsewhere, “the realization of the divine counsel is the deification of our nature.”
What a rich paragraph! If you have never read Maximus, you should remedy that. You might start with this selection of his spiritual writings or this collection of his Christological reflections. For secondary sources, you might try Balthasar’s classic treatment, Andrew Louth’s introduction (with several important translations of Maximus’ own writings), or the recent work of Paul Blowers.
I say it every year, and I mean it every year – my favorite events of IBR/SBL are the Scripture and Hermeneutics, Scripture and Doctrine, and Scripture and Church Seminars. These seminars attempt to combine rigorous biblical study and philosophical and theological reflection in an ecclesial context. This year, the SAHS and SADS seminars will continue their themes from last year, the Kingdom of God and Divine Action in Hebrews respectively. The SACS seminar will discuss the theme of the Kingdom of God from an ecclesial and liturgical perspective. I’ve listed the program, including date, time, and location, below.
If you’ll be in Boston, I’d encourage you to sign up for these seminars (links to SADS, SAHS, SACS sign-ups), as well as for the dinner on Saturday night. That meal is the absolute highlight of the entire week, for me, and this year the cost has been reduced – so please join us!
SCRIPTURE AND DOCTRINE SEMINAR
1:00 PM to 3:15 PM
Room: Back Bay C (Second Level) – Sheraton Boston Hotel (SB)
Benjamin Quinn, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Presiding
Steve Harris, Hamilton, ON, Canada
Hebrews in Historical Theology: The Contours
Craig Bartholomew, KLICE, Tyndale House, Cambridge
Creation, the Ongoing Priesthood of Jesus, and Divine Action in Hebrews
Gareth Cockerill, Wesley Biblical Seminary
The Present Priesthood of the Son of God
Luke Stamps, Anderson University
“No One Greater”: Hebrews and Classical Christian Theism
Scott Hahn, Franciscan University of Steubenville
Covenant, Sacrifice, and Divine Action in Hebrews
Q & A Panel with Presenters
Q & A Additional Panelists
Michael Rhodes, Memphis Center for Urban Theological Studies, Panelist
Amy Peeler, Wheaton College, Panelist
SCRIPTURE AND HERMENEUTICS SEMINAR
4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Room: 306 (Third Level) – Hynes Convention Center (HCC)
Heath A. Thomas, Oklahoma Baptist University, Presiding
Jason Hood, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Boston Campus
God’s Empire: Exploring the Structure of the Kingdom in the Gospels
David J. H. Beldman, Redeemer University College
“Where Now Is Your King?” The Kingdom of God in Judges
Lynn H. Cohick, Wheaton College (Illinois)
“The Kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph 5:5): Kingdom in Ephesians and Philippians
Julien Smith, Valparaiso University
The Transforming Image of the Ideal King: Paul’s Apostolic Defense (2 Cor 2:14-4:6) in Light of Greco-Roman Political Ideology
Walter Strickland, Southeastern Seminary
Interpreting the Kingdom of God: The Ethics of Black Liberation in James Cone and J. Deotis Roberts
SCRIPTURE AND CHURCH SEMINAR
4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Room: 103 (Plaza Level) – Hynes Convention Center (HCC)
Michael Wagenman, Western University, Presiding
Vince Bantu, Covenant Theological Seminary
Biblical Interpretation and Liturgical Performance in Global Christian Perspective
Peter Leithart, Theopolis Institute
The Kingdom of God and Everyday Liturgies in the Old Testament
Ruth Padilla-deBorst, Boston College
The Kingdom of God and Everyday Liturgies in the New Testament
Dru Johnson, The King’s College (New York)
Placebos, Elevator Buttons, and High Powered Lasers: How Ritual Ethics Enable Us to See the
Kingdom of God
I want to extend my congrats to my friend, Matt Novenson’s new book The Grammar of Messianism: An Ancient Jewish Political Idiom and Its Users (Oxford University Press, 2017). Matt is a Senior Lecturer at New College, University of Edinburgh and is a well respected Pauline and Christian Origins scholar. But more importantly (to me at least), he’s a great human being. If you are considering doing a Ph.D in Pauline Studies or Christian Origins, Matt needs to be at the top of your list for potential supervisors.
And then finally here is a description of The Grammar of Messianism, from the OUP site:
Messianism is one of the great themes in intellectual history. But for precisely this reason, because it has done so much important ideological work for the people who have written about it, the historical roots of the discourse itself have been obscured from view. What did it mean to talk about “messiahs” in the ancient world, before the idea of messianismbecame a philosophical juggernaut, dictating the terms for all subsequent discussion of the topic? In this book, Matthew V. Novenson gives a revisionist account of messianism in antiquity. He shows that, for the ancient Jews and Christians who used the term, a messiah was not an article of faith but a manner of speaking. It was a scriptural figure of speech, one among numerous others, useful for thinking kinds of political order: present or future, real or ideal, monarchic or theocratic, dynastic or charismatic, and other variations beside. The early Christians famously seized upon the title “messiah” (in Greek, “Christ”) for their founding hero and thus molded the sense of the term in certain ways, but, Novenson shows, this is nothing other than what all ancient messiah texts do, each in its own way. If we hope to understand the ancient texts about messiahs (from Deutero-Isaiah to the Parables of Enoch, from the Qumran Community Rule to the Gospel of John, from the Pseudo-Clementines to Sefer Zerubbabel), then we must learn to think in terms not of a world-historical idea but of a language game, of so many creative reuses of an archaic Israelite idiom. In The Grammar of Messianism, Novenson demonstrates thepossibility and the benefit of thinking of messianism in this way.
Again, congratulations on the release of the book, Matt.
I was encouraged and exhorted yesterday by Fred Sander’s post on writing tips. Last night I also read a few essays in David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, including his review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time (“Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think,” pp. 51-58 in CtL). The review is scathing, to say, the least, and full of detailed critiques of Updike’s writing that I don’t need to repeat here. But toward the end of the essay, Wallace gives a summary what he calls the “turgidity” of Updike’s prose (p. 57-58), a summary which I believe is applicable to any writer in any genre.
- “so many modifiers” – Wallace first critiques Updike for constantly modifying nouns and verbs. I see many younger writers (including myself) give in to this particular temptation by loading up sentences with adjectives and adverbs that we’d probably never use in real life. And I’d guess that many times we overload readers on Twitter or in articles and books to make what we’re saying sound more profound than it really is.
- “so much subordination” – Wallace’s point here is that Updike constantly subordinates clauses in the middle of sentences. Again, I see (and do) this frequently. Sentences don’t always have to be short, but they should be clearly follow-able. Subordinating clauses decreases the reader’s ability to follow the grain of a sentence.
- “so much alliteration” – According to Wallace, Updike gets too cute by half with alliteration. But trying to make all your modifiers start with the letter “p” or some such isn’t the only way we try to doll up our sentences: using weird sentence structures or formatting (as if we’re trying to be the next e e cummings), giving the reader a heavy dose of modifiers (see #1), using words that everyone knows we found in a thesaurus or a GRE Study Guide and not in our own vocabulary, and the like are all ways that writers (including me) try to make their sentences and paragraphs look better than they actually are. As we say in the Deep South, it’s like putting lipstick on a pig.
These were helpful to me to consider. Maybe they’ll benefit some of you as well.
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.
My wife, Aubree, and I recently had a chance to get away for a few days to visit Rome—the Eternal City. It was a great visit and Rome truly is one of the greatest cities, if not the greatest. We spent a few days doing the normal tourist things like finding pizza and gelato.
One of our destinations—not too long after some gelato—was the Catacombs of Priscilla, “Regina Catacumbarum: The Queen of the Catacombs.” This catacomb, was used during the 2nd–5th centuries AD and houses some 40,000 Christian graves with a great number of Christian martyrs. The tour was an interesting experience and I marvelled that the tombs were used by rich and poor Roman Christians because they desired to be buried together so that they might all resurrect together.
A particular meaningful part of the tour was a room called the “Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman.” It is thought that these frescoes date somewhere to the second-half of the third century, but I think what is really interesting is that it has a biblical theology of resurrection of sorts represented through painted frescoes.
The centre of the room has a young woman praying with her arms extended, and directly on her left and right are other life scenes—possibly scenes from her life or the life of her family. And above her, in the centre of the ceiling is a painting of the Good Shepherd in Paradise surrounded by lambs, peacocks, and doves.
On the wall to the left is a painting of Abraham and Isaac. And on the wall to the right is a painting to the right is Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the midst of the fiery flames. And in the archway of the room is the Prophet Jonah being vomited from the fish.
Each of these scenes depict resurrection, but it is interesting there is no picture of the empty tomb. It is clear that they put hope in that event, but these early Christians drew upon the Old Testament Scriptures as a way of depicting their hope of the resurrection of the dead. It appears—and I’m no Robert Langdon—that early Roman Christians understood that these Old Testament images reveal the character of God and his providential patterning of the future. What God has done in the past, they trust he will do again in the future.