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.

Is Jesus Victorious Over Death? My thoughts on @FaithTheology at #LATC15

The Thursday night plenary address at the 2015 Los Angeles Theology Conference was given by Ben Myers, Lecturer in Systematic Theology at Charles Sturt University and blogger and tweeter extraordinaire. Myers spoke on “Atonement and the Image of God,” and in his paper he focused on the Patristic model of the atonement. Myers argued that, for the Fathers (and Mothers via Macrina), Christ’s experience of death is the mechanism of the atonement, and its primary accomplishment is the restoration of the image of God in human beings, which was lost in their collective fall into sin. This experience of death is not an action on Christ’s part but a passive experience of, as Myers referred to it, the point at which humanity is sliding into non-being (i.e. death). Because, via the hypostatic union, God the Son “touches” death by being united to the humanity of Jesus, the privation that is death is swallowed up in the essence of being that is God. Further, because God does via the hypostatic union, the second Adam, Jesus, represents all humanity in this act and therefore heals all of God’s image bearers.

This very brief summary does not do justice to the intricacies of Myers’ argument, nor do I wish to argue his main point. I think that he is correct in his portrayal of the Patristic model of the atonement, in the sense that the main point for the early church is Christ’s role as the last Adam and therefore his ability, through his vicarious death, to take on the consequence of sin, death, and render it null and void. He thus heals humanity through his death for all human beings.*

The one point of Myers’ argument that continues to nag at me is his contention that, because the Fathers’ metaphysical belief about sin and death is that it is privation (not an ontological something, but simply the absence of good), they cannot be taken as giving a model of the atonement when they speak of Christ’s death as “victory.” They were careful to avoid Gnostic dualism, and so language about Jesus wrangling with sin and death as if they were endowed with being would be contrary to this anti-Gnostic understanding of Christ’s work. Victory language cannot be anything but metaphorical for the Fathers. Gustav Aulen, among others, is therefore incorrect to assume that the Fathers taught a “victory” model of the atonement since this would require a dualistic concept of good and evil, with God in Christ wrestling with evil in the Passion.

Myers’ point is well taken that the early church theologians were careful to avoid Gnostic conceptions of cosmology and metaphysics and that their metaphysical understanding of sin and death is that they are privation of the good and of life. I still am not convinced, though, that this restricts us, or the Fathers, or the New Testament, from speaking of Christ’s death as victorious over death and sin. Below I will simply list some texts, both from the NT and from the early church, that seem to emphasize Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the devil. I cannot see at this point how dismissing the word “victory” from our models of the atonement given these texts is plausible, even if I agree with Myers about the metaphysics of the early church (and Scripture) with respect to sin.

New Testament Texts

1 John 3:8 – “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”

John 12:31 – “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.”

Colossians 2:15 – “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”

Hebrews 2:14 – “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil”

Acts 2:24 – “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it”

Romans 6:9 – “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”

1 Corinthians 15:54-55 – “‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?'”

2 Timothy 1:10 – “and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel”

(Note also Revelation 19 and 20, where the Unholy Trinity, the Harlot, Death, and Hades are thrown into the Lake of Fire.)

Early Church Theologians

Cyril of Alexandria

Comm. Lk. 9:18-22 (Serm. 49) – “For that he utterly abolished death, and effaced destruction, and despoiled Hades, and overthrew the tyranny of the enemy, and took away the sin of the world, and opened the gates above to the dwellers upon earth, and united earth to heaven: these things proved him to be, as I said, in truth God.”

Odes of Solomon

Ode 42 – “Sheol saw me and was shattered / and Death ejected me and many with me.”

Melito of Sardis

On Pascha 102-3 – “I am the one,” says the Christ, “I am the one that destroyed death / and triumphed over the enemy / and trod down Hades / and bound the strong one / and carried off man to the heights of heaven; I am the one,” says the Christ.”

New Fragment III, 5 – “By the cross death is destroyed, and by the cross salvation shines; by the cross the gates of hell are burst, and by the cross the gates of paradise are opened”

Hippolytus of Rome

The Apostolic Tradition, 4, 4-13 – “Who fulfilling your will and gaining for you a holy people stretched out his hands when he was suffering, that he might release from suffering those who believed in you; who when he was being handed over to voluntary suffering, that he might destroy death and break the bonds of the devil, and tread down hell and illuminate the righteous, and fix a limit and manifest the resurrection, taking bread and giving thanks to you, he said/ “Take, eat, this is my body that will be broken for you.” Likewise also the cup, saying, “This is my blood that is shed for you””

Origen

Commentary on Romans, V, 1, 36 – “Thus by his own resurrection he has already destroyed the dominions of death”

Commentary on Romans, V, 10, 11-12 – “Then at the opportune time he binds the strong man (Mt 12:29) and despoils his powers and principalities (Col 2:15) and leads away the captives (Eph 4:8; Ps 68:18) which had been seized and were being held by the tyrant.
It was certainly in this way, then, that Christ also emptied himself voluntarily and took the form of a slave and entered the dominion of the tyrant, having become obedient unto death. Through that death he destroyed him who was holding the power of death, i.e., the devil (Heb 2:14r-15), so that he could liberate those who were being held fast by death. For when Christ had bound the strong man (Mt 12:29) and triumphed over him by means of his cross (Col 2:15), he even advanced into his house, the house of death in the underworld, and from there he plundered his possessions, that is, he led away the souls which the devil was keeping.”

I’ll stop here, but we could go on into the fourth century and beyond and continue to find such texts.

*I’m not saying  I agree with this model, but am only describing Ben’s description of it.

He Descended to the Dead

Recently a relatively neglected doctrine in Protestant thought, Christ’s descent to the dead, has received some renewed attention. There was an ETS paper devoted to this (Jeffrey L. Hamm, “Descendit: Delete or Declare? A Defense Against the Neo-Deletionists”), and Reformation21 has published three separate posts on the doctrine in the last 5 days. Rick Phillips, leaning on Nick Batzig’s articulation of Vos’ position, started the conversation by arguing for omitting “He descended to the dead/hell” from the Apostles’ Creed, to which both Mark Jones and Eric Hutchinson have responded by saying that the phrase should be retained. For my part, I am presenting a paper at the Los Angeles Theology Conference next week which in part seeks to demonstrate the eschatological implications of Christ’s vicarious burial.

The descent clause is tricky because there are so many options for how to interpret it. Greek Orthodox Christians confess this doctrine to say that Christ descended to Hell to liberate all of death’s captives by healing Adam’s sin and leading he and his progeny (all humanity) out of the grip of Death and Hades. Roman Catholics see a similar liberating motif in the doctrine, but instead of Christ leading out all humanity he leads out only those in the supposed limbus patrum, inhabited by virtuous pagans and faithful Jews who lived and died before Christ’s first advent. The Roman Catholic version, often referred to as the Harrowing of Hell, has a more substitutionary and legal basis than the Orthodox “healing” view. Christ suffers the pains of Hell, the final judgment, on behalf of those who repent and believe.

Protestants have by and large rejected both the implied universalism of the Orthodox view and the delineated stages of the afterlife in the RCC view, but they have not rejected the doctrine altogether. Calvin (and later, Barth) viewed this phrase as articulating Christ’s endurance of the Father’s judgment on behalf of those united to him, but for Calvin this occurs on the cross and not during Jesus’ time in the grave. Luther, on the other hand, believed that the phrase denoted Christ’s conquering of Hades after his resurrection but before he exited the tomb. His interpretation of the clause focuses solely on liberation, in that by his descent Jesus conquered Death, Hell, and the Grave.

More recently the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has attempted to synthesize the RCC view and the Calvinian position, arguing that Christ’s descent occurs on Holy Saturday and that in it Jesus in his hypostatically unified divinity and humanity experiences the final judgment, separation from the Father, on behalf of humanity. This has been met with serious opposition from many fronts, but has also been argued by at least one RCC theologian to be a legitimate interpretation of Catholic doctrine.

As an evangelical Baptist, what am I to do with this phrase?

Given my understanding of the atonement and of the afterlife, I do not see the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Balthasarian (new word!) views as compatible with the biblical data. Further, as much as I appreciate Calvin’s substitutionary emphasis and his distinction between the suffering Christ endured in his humanity and what he experienced in his divinity, I do not think that relegating the descent to the cross makes sense of the Creed’s order. Every other phrase in the Creed occurs in chronological order, so I don’t think it makes sense to go with Calvin here.

Luther’s interpretation seems the most appealing to me because I think it is the most biblical. Passages in the New Testament like Acts 2:24; Eph. 4:8, and Rom. 10:7 seem to refer to Christ’s descent as a descent to the place of the dead. Many Protestants prefer to interpret the Ephesians and Romans passages as referring to the incarnation, but in those texts Paul appears to be relying upon Old Testament texts that are clearly speaking of Sheol or the place of the dead (e.g. Job 28:22; Ps. 68:18; 71:20; 107:15-16). Additionally, Jesus’ statement about the sign of Jonah (Matt. 12:40) is a clear reference to a descent to the place of the dead, and in Jonah 2 this place is called the abyss, or Sheol. You could also point to Jesus’ statement in Luke 23:43 about Paradise as an indication that upon his death he descends to the place of the righteous dead, i.e. Paradise, a view of the afterlife corroborated by Luke 16:19-31. Jesus in descending is not passive, but defeats Death through his own death (Heb. 2:14-15; cf. Col. 2:15). Christ’s burial is thus victorious, part of his atoning work that stretches from his birth to his second coming and that includes not just his crucifixion and resurrection but his life, teaching, ministry, burial, ascension, and gift of the Spirit.