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.)

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.

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.