Friday, December 21, 2007

Descended Into Hell

Awhile back I noted the early 20th century work of Arthur McGiffert, "The Apostles' Creed: Its Origin, Its Purpose, and Its Historical Interpretation" (1902), available from Google Books. That earlier post discussed whether or not current Protestant uses of the Apostles' Creed match the "original intent" of the church that created it. To repeat the words of a Creed, but not its substance, is to fail to subscribe to that Creed.

The Apostles' Creed tells us that Christ "descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead."

The Reformed circle teaches that Christ went to hell to suffer the torment of damnation on our behalf, in order to be a sufficient substitutionary atoning sacrifice. Calvin taught this, particularly noting that, "If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 16, Sect. 10)" and later, "surely, unless his soul shared in the punishment, he would have been the Redeemer of bodies alone. (ibid., Sect. 12)" These Reformed teachings are deeply woven together with the notion of Christ's substitutionary atonement, His standing "accused before God's judgment seat for our sake." At any rate, this has been my life-long understanding.

So I was none too surprised to learn from McGiffert that "The idea that Christ went down to suffer the torments of the damned in order to complete thereby his expiatory work arose first in the middle ages. (196, emphasis added)" I learned here that a 3rd Century Syrian Creed teaches that Jesus "departed in peace, in order to preach to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the saints concerning the end of the world and the resurrection of the dead." McGiffert notes several early theories of what Christ did upon His descent to Hades, none of which match Calvin's theory.

Theologians of my Reformed circle criticize many Orthodox and Catholic doctrines as inventions of the Middle Ages. But Calvin's view, that Christ descended into the Hell of the damned to be a substitutionary atonement because his physical death and resurrection were insufficient to redeem His people, came from the Middle Ages. Perhaps, on a more philosophical level, this stemmed from Calvin's separation of spirit and matter. One could say that if the earlier teaching were correct, Calvin's could be a big enough theological change to merit the title "heresy", no?

5 comments:

Cow Bike Rider (alias, Chris Sagsveen) said...

Thos,
Interesting post. With regards to the Apostles Creed, it has been my intent to fully learn and understand the differences between Luther and the Catholic Church on not only your point, but the Communion of Saints (an obvious big one). Thanks

Thos said...

Chris,

Nice new "icon"!

To make sure you saw it, since you're mentioning Communion of the Saints in the creed, you might be interested in that earlier McGiffert post I did: here.

This wasn't about Lutheranism per se, but should apply.

Peace in Christ,
Thos.

Cow Bike Rider (alias, Chris Sagsveen) said...

Thos,
Thank you for the link. I started reading throught he combox and realized I need more time :) It looks to be an interesting discussion.

With that though (and sorry to digress from your point here so I will keep this as short as possible), with regards to Communion of Saints, I guess I come to a conclusion very easily. Lutherans see all Christians as both saints and sinners. Catholics (as you know) have a completely different definition of Saint. It's one of the reasons why (like you are concluding in your posts) it is strange to me that Protestants maintained use of the Creeds. On the other hand maybe it isn't so strange. This is simplistic reasoning I know, but I'll give it a shot to try and make my point. In your post you said "To repeat the words of a Creed, but not its substance, is to fail to subscribe to that Creed". If Calvinists, Lutherans, others can say things like "we believe in the communion of saints", and have their own definition of "saint" (or other), and the creed fits within their definitions, then is it truly failing to subscribe to that Creed?

My answer: In the historical sense, as the Creed was originally written and intended, the answer to my question would be "yes".

My question: In your studies, does it seem that Calvin, Luther or any other reformer were attempting to reform the Church to fit the creed (and definitions - like "saint") as they originally understood, or did they keep the creeds because those creeds were applicable within their revised definitions of things (like "saint").

Not sure if I'm getting to my point/question here but I haven't spent much time studying the subject.

Thanks!

Bob said...

Re: Descended into Hell.

The word hell includes both eternal damnation and limbus patrum (or limbo of the fathers -- since the gates of heaven were closed from the moment of original sin to Christ's ascent into heaven).

In the Apostle's Creed, hell is meant to indicate the descent into limbus patrum to free those souls who awaited the Christ.

Thos said...

Bob,

You are absolutely right to note that. Calvin only wrote of the term as if it referred to Christ's descent to the hell of damnation, and discounted the theory that there was another state of death (so to be honest, I'm not sure how he interpreted "Abraham's Bosom", but my guess is that he saw that as heaven). McGiffert quotes the line as "descended into Hades".

Chris,

I'm a little trepidatious to answer your question under some notion that I'm well studied on Calvin, Luther and the Reformation. I'm just a blogger (so, probably pretty dumb in the grand scheme of things). That said, I don't think they were trying to Reform the "Church" to match the Creeds, but rather to conform the Church to the Bible's teachings. My guess is that at that time, it would have been unthinkable to suggest that the creeds and earliest councils were out of synch with Scripture. But the goal was to match to Scripture (with a strong Pauline stress).

Peace in Christ,
Thos.