Some questions regarding Christ's descent to hell and church history

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Sam Jer

Puritan Board Freshman
The Anglican 39 articles state:
As Christ died for us, and was buried; so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell. (The 39 Articles of Religion, article 3)

Who wrote these articles? Do we have any further comments from them on this issue? As in what they meant with it, what exactly they beleived Christ did there, and what scriptures used and how?


I wonder the same about a briefer, vauger statement in the Scots confession. Do we know what Knox's view was?
We undoubtedly believe that, insomuch as it was impossible that the dolours of death should retain in bondage the Author of life; that our Lord Jesus Christ crucified, dead, and buried, who descended into hell, did rise again for our justification, and destroying him who was the author of death, brought life again to us that were subject to death and to the bondage of the same. We know that his resurrection was confirmed by the testimony of his very enemies; by the resurrection of the dead, whose sepulchres did open, and they did arise and appear to many within the city of Jerusalem. It was also confirmed by the testimony of angels, and by the senses and judgments of his apostles, and of others, who had conversation, and did eat and drink with him after his resurrection. (Taken from the Scots Confession, Chapter 10)


And for a more theological question, what did happen with Christ between his death and resurrection? The reformed confessions (excluding Scots) do not take this phrase in the creed too literally. The Westminster Larger Cathecism, for example, states:
Q. 50. Wherein consisted Christ’s humiliation after his death?
A. Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.

But what does it mean to be "continuing in the state of the dead"? In what state, and where, was Christ until the resurrection?
 
It's important that this phrase of the Apostle's Creed be understood in its historical context, not as though Christ was bodily in a pit of fire with demons, but that he suffered severely the wrath of God for our sins and continued in the state of the dead for three days. I would say it's not so much about where was Christ but what was Christ (physically dead). Calvin has a good explanation of the phrase.

 
Christ wasn't barbequed in hell. That's the problem with the word "hell." It connotes pop-medieval Catholic views of torture and ignores the rich nuances in the words sheol, hades, and Tartarus.
 
To clarify, I am not asking the well-covered question of the phrase in the apostles creed. I am trying to understand:
1. what/where was Christ between the passover and resurrection?
2. What did Knox, and what did the authors of the 39 articles, mean by "hell" in this context?
 
The authors of those documents were referencing the Apostles' Creed. So their understanding of the Apostles' Creed is going to be the key.
 
To clarify, I am not asking the well-covered question of the phrase in the apostles creed. I am trying to understand:
1. what/where was Christ between the passover and resurrection?
2. What did Knox, and what did the authors of the 39 articles, mean by "hell" in this context?
Where was Christ? I think we must conclude from Luke 23:43-46 that his spirit was with God in paradise, and from Matthew 12:40 that his body was buried in the earth. The handful of passages that possibly suggest something else are far from clear about it.

I'm not enough of a historian to point you to sources where the reformers explain in detail what they meant, but clearly they were choosing to quote the historic creeds to show their agreement with those. If the creeds had phrased it differently, I suspect the reformers would have done the same.
 
It's important to remember that the Reformed Churches retained the catholic creeds. The reason it is referenced in The Confessions is because it is in the Apstle's Creed.

I think it's the Heidelberg that directly interprets this with Calvin's view that Christ's "descent into hell" was with regard to bearing the wrath of God on the Cross.

Danny Hyde wrote a Defense of the Sescenis in the Confessional Presbyterian Journal to point out that many believed it referred to the fact that Christ was in the grave for 3 days.

There is no single "this is what every Reformer or Divine" believed concerning that phrase. Beeke and Jones note that there were about 5 views that the Puritans held on what it meat. The two important things were the retention of the creed itself and the fact that they all denied that it meant that Christ suffered torment in Hell.
 
This post piqued my interest, so I did a little digging...

Knox evidently took the same "non-literal" position as Calvin (which is not at all surprising). From The Form of Prayers and Ministration of the Sacraments, etc. Used in the English Congregation at Geneva (1556; also chiefly written by Knox):

And forasmuch as he, being only God, could not feel death; neither, being only man, could overcome death, he joined both together, and suffered his humanity to be punished with most cruel death: feeling in himself the anger and severe judgment of God, even as if he had been in the extreme torments of hell, and therefore cried with a loud voice, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.
Thomas Cranmer was the chief author of the 42 Articles (which were later pared down to 39 Articles as part of the Elizabethan Settlement). The way Article 3 originally read indicates that Cranmer took the "literal" position (two of Cranmer's closest colleagues, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, wrote very explicitly to that same end).
As Christ died, and was buried for us: so also it is to be believed, that he went down into hell. For the body lay in the Sepulchre, until the resurrection: but his Ghost departing from him, was with the Ghosts that were in prison, or in Hell, and did preach to the same, as the place of. S. Peter does testify.​

Also, the truncated reading that passed into the 39 Articles (1571) is said to have been on account of various Reformed-minded divines that objected to the original further definition of hell in that context, as it portrayed it as being literal.

Interestingly, while the earliest versions of the Apostle's Creed were apparently in Latin (4th Century), where the article in question reads descendit ad inferos, "descended into hell," the Greek version reads κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα, which literally means "descended to the lowest," which is in line with Eph. 4:9, κατέβη εἰς τὰ κατώτερα μέρη τῆς γῆς, "he descended into the lower earthly regions." The entire phrase is missing from the Old Roman Symbol (Creed), believed to have been the 2nd century predecessor to the Apostle's Creed, which simply reads, tertia die resurrexit a mortuis, ascendit in caelos, "...on the third day he rose from the dead, ascended into the heavens..."
 
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Heidelberg Catechism 44. Why is it added: “He descended into hell”?
That in my greatest temptations I may be assured that Christ my lord, by His inexpressible anguish, pains and terrors, which He suffered in His soul on the cross and before, has redeemed me from the anguish and torment of hell.

Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 50. Wherein consisted Christ’s humiliation after his death?
A. Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried,200 and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day;201 which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.

This post piqued my interest, so I did a little digging...

Knox evidently took the same "non-literal" position as Calvin (which is not at all surprising). From The Form of Prayers and Ministration of the Sacraments, etc. Used in the English Congregation at Geneva (1556; also chiefly written by Knox):

And forasmuch as he, being only God, could not feel death; neither, being only man, could overcome death, he joined both together, and suffered his humanity to be punished with most cruel death: feeling in himself the anger and severe judgment of God, even as if he had been in the extreme torments of hell, and therefore cried with a loud voice, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.
Thomas Cranmer was the chief author of the 42 Articles (which were later pared down to 39 Articles as part of the Elizabethan Settlement). The way Article 3 originally read indicates that Cranmer took the "literal" position (two of Cranmer's closest colleagues, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, wrote very explicitly to that same end).
As Christ died, and was buried for us: so also it is to be believed, that he went down into hell. For the body lay in the Sepulchre, until the resurrection: but his Ghost departing from him, was with the Ghosts that were in prison, or in Hell, and did preach to the same, as the place of. S. Peter does testify.​

Also, the truncated reading that passed into the 39 Articles (1571) is said to have been on account of various Reformed-minded divines that objected to the original further definition of hell in that context, as it portrayed it as being literal.

Interestingly, while the earliest versions of the Apostle's Creed were apparently in Latin (5th Century), where the article in question reads descendit ad inferos, "descended into hell," the Greek version reads κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα, which literally means "descended to the lowest," which is in line with Eph. 4:9, κατέβη εἰς τὰ κατώτερα μέρη τῆς γῆς, "he descended into the lower earthly regions." The entire phrase is missing from the Old Roman Symbol (Creed), believed to have been the 2nd century predecessor to the Apostle's Creed, which simply reads, tertia die resurrexit a mortuis, ascendit in caelos, "...on the third day he rose from the dead, ascended into the heavens..."
Danny Hyde argues (and I think he's correct) that the phrases "was buried" and "descended to hell" or "to the grave" are essentially the same phrase with different geographic and linguistic origins or centers; and by the time the Creed is standardized across the breadth of the earth, both phrases were kept, and assigned distinct meanings.

The Reformers sought to affirm the historic creed verbatim, and chose to reframe the decendit as pointing to Christ's suffering (cross) or humiliation (grave), as the two catechisms split those ideas--moving away from notions like Christ performing a "harrowing of hell" or a victory lap in that realm.

I find the idea that "hell" represents Christ's suffering to be the best use, as it offers the opportunity within the Creed to address what death meant for all sinners. Hell is death's terminal, but Christ suffered hell for his elect and did away with it respecting them; the rest will have hell to themselves for eternity.
 
I find the idea that "hell" represents Christ's suffering to be the best use, as it offers the opportunity within the Creed to address what death meant for all sinners. Hell is death's terminal, but Christ suffered hell for his elect and did away with it respecting them; the rest will have hell to themselves for eternity.

I'll cast my vote for grave. It has a more intuitive link with the term descendit, accounts best for the juxtaposed ascendit, and accords nicely with Rev. 1:18.
 
This post piqued my interest, so I did a little digging...

Knox evidently took the same "non-literal" position as Calvin (which is not at all surprising). From The Form of Prayers and Ministration of the Sacraments, etc. Used in the English Congregation at Geneva (1556; also chiefly written by Knox):

And forasmuch as he, being only God, could not feel death; neither, being only man, could overcome death, he joined both together, and suffered his humanity to be punished with most cruel death: feeling in himself the anger and severe judgment of God, even as if he had been in the extreme torments of hell, and therefore cried with a loud voice, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.
Thomas Cranmer was the chief author of the 42 Articles (which were later pared down to 39 Articles as part of the Elizabethan Settlement). The way Article 3 originally read indicates that Cranmer took the "literal" position (two of Cranmer's closest colleagues, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, wrote very explicitly to that same end).
As Christ died, and was buried for us: so also it is to be believed, that he went down into hell. For the body lay in the Sepulchre, until the resurrection: but his Ghost departing from him, was with the Ghosts that were in prison, or in Hell, and did preach to the same, as the place of. S. Peter does testify.​

Also, the truncated reading that passed into the 39 Articles (1571) is said to have been on account of various Reformed-minded divines that objected to the original further definition of hell in that context, as it portrayed it as being literal.

Interestingly, while the earliest versions of the Apostle's Creed were apparently in Latin (5th Century), where the article in question reads descendit ad inferos, "descended into hell," the Greek version reads κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα, which literally means "descended to the lowest," which is in line with Eph. 4:9, κατέβη εἰς τὰ κατώτερα μέρη τῆς γῆς, "he descended into the lower earthly regions." The entire phrase is missing from the Old Roman Symbol (Creed), believed to have been the 2nd century predecessor to the Apostle's Creed, which simply reads, tertia die resurrexit a mortuis, ascendit in caelos, "...on the third day he rose from the dead, ascended into the heavens..."
wow, thank you for the information.
Cranmer's view is especially interesting, given the difficulties that this interpetation of 1 Peter raises. I still wonder if someone holding that view at the time explained it in further leangth. Like, what was the purpose of the descent? How do they explain the afformentioned passages ("Today you will be with me in paradise"). Since the change between the 42 and 39 articles was to accommodate objections, one also wonders if the word "hell" had a broader meaning at the time.

As for the actual state of Christ's ghost (to use Cranmer's language) after his death, to clarify, are ya'll saying he was in the same intermidiate state that all the rightouss get to? Is that what the longer cathecism means by "continuing in the state of the dead"? Or are you suggesting something else entirely?
 
Cranmer's view is especially interesting, given the difficulties that this interpetation of 1 Peter raises. I still wonder if someone holding that view at the time explained it in further leangth. Like, what was the purpose of the descent?
Matthew Henry explained it as follows:
For the explication of this we may notice, (1.) The preacher—Christ Jesus, who has interested himself in the affairs of the church and of the world ever since he was first promised to Adam, Gen. 3:15. He went, not by a local motion, but by special operation, as God is frequently said to move, Gen. 11:5; Hos. 5:15; Mic. 1:3. He went and preached, by his Spirit striving with them, and inspiring and enabling Enoch and Noah to plead with them, and preach righteousness to them, as 2 Pet. 2:5. (2.) The hearers. Because they were dead and disembodied when the apostle speaks of them, therefore he properly calls them spirits now in prison; not that they were in prison when Christ preached to them, as the vulgar Latin translation and the popish expositors pretend. (3.) The sin of these people: They were disobedient, that is, rebellious, unpersuadable, and unbelieving, as the word signifies; this their sin is aggravated from the patience and long-suffering of God (which once waited upon them for 120 years together), while Noah was preparing the ark, and by that, as well as by his preaching, giving them fair warning of what was coming upon them. (4.) The event of all: Their bodies were drowned, and their spirits cast into hell, which is called a prison (Matt. 5:25; 2 Pet. 2:4, 5); but Noah and his family, who believed and were obedient, were saved in the ark.
 
Having read through Danny Hyde's article again, and also taking into account some additional resources, here are some summary thoughts that occur to me...

-The phrase "descended into hell" was a 4th century addition to a number of earlier and otherwise nearly-the-same Latin creeds.​
-The "original intent" of the phrase was pretty clearly synonymous with "was buried," as is especially proven by the addition of that phrase in the Nicene Creed (the 325 AD vs. 381 AD versions) within that same time period. The phrase "and suffered" was original to the Creed, but "was buried" was also added in 381, showing an appreciable distinction was understood between the two concepts. This Creed was formulated in Greek.​
-In the first millennium following the phrase's appearance, it was almost always taken as a literal "descent," but with significantly different understandings as to the intent and result of Christ's soul/spirit/human-nature/ghost going down into "Hades."​
-The term "Hades" itself has significantly different nuances in its Scriptural usage (1. the abstract state of death and not a spatial locality 2. a literal, spatial locality where bodies are interred in the earth, i.e. the grave 3. a literal, spatial locality, the place of eternal punishment for the lost, i.e. hell. - Hyde). To this may be added the concept of a supposed in-between-death-and-eternity state of limbo/purgatory, which was also sometimes comprehended by ECF and medieval RC writers under the term "Hades" - and sometimes applied by them to this phrase in the AC.​
-The literary/metaphorical interpretation of "descended into hell" is relatively late, and primarily held among the Reformed.​
-The Reformed believed it was important to maintain subscription to the Apostle's Creed, including this article, going so far as to incorporate it into some of their confessional documents. The reasons given for this, as commonly expressed, include, "...we [then] join the great cloud of witnesses throughout history, experiencing a transcendence that the tyranny of the urgent in our culture seeks to repress..." and "... it [i.e. "descended into hell"] is an historical phrase that links us as Protestants to our Christian past as members of the 'one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.'” (Hyde)​
-Nonetheless, within the above context, this article should be understood "in light of the Reformed interpretation(s)" (Hyde)​

I don't have a problem with the last three points, per se, but the whole issue does raise a basic question for me. I'll let something Philip Schaff said summarize the basis of my question: "The translation 'descended into hell' is unfortunate and misleading. We do not know whether Christ was in 'hell,' but we do know from His own lips that He was in Paradise between His death and resurrection. The term Hades is much more comprehensive than Hell (Gehenna) which is confined to the state of the lost."

The point is, why must, or should the word "hell" be retained in our use of this credal clause, knowing that it is prone to be, and in fact is surely misunderstood by many who nonetheless regularly profess it? Why not rephrase it in some manner to more readily and accurately convey the meaning we believe is most appropriately taken from the saying and remove the ambiguity and confusion? One response may be that the terminology can be explained by ministers and theologians, and thus the appropriate understanding be made clear. True enough, but we don't necessarily take that approach even with Holy Scripture - i.e. we are agreeable to (re)translating the Bible into terms more understandable to the average reader in a given milieu, while being careful to still retain the "original intent." So is the Apostle's Creed somehow uniquely sacrosanct in this respect?
 
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The point is, why must, or should the word "hell" be retained in our use of this credal clause, knowing that it is prone to be, and in fact is surely misunderstood by many who nonetheless regularly profess it? Why not rephrase it in some manner to more readily and accurately convey the meaning we believe is most appropriately taken from the saying and remove the ambiguity and confusion? One response may be that the terminology can be explained by ministers and theologians, and thus the appropriate understanding be made clear. True enough, but we don't necessarily take that approach even with Holy Scripture - i.e. we are agreeable to (re)translating the Bible into terms more understandable to the average reader in a given milieu, while being careful to still retain the "original intent." So is the Apostle's Creed somehow uniquely sacrosanct in this respect?
I thnk your summary is a good one.

I don't know that there is a must other than the last point you summarized from Danny Hyde. You could argue that every creed has been, at one time or another, variously misunderstood in its parts. I think it is the value of thinking that there is a "cloud of witness" aspect to it that we're confessing. You could respond that it was changed, but it's what we have. To my mind, it is more ad hoc to omit a phrase we don't like if we're going to recite a creed than to give it an interpretation. Historical theology is useful but there is nothing canonical about how prior generations understood the meaning. For that matter, even when we think we know what some understood, it's not as if we have tomes of writing from across the Church in all ages but are only confident of what a few writers might have written at various points.
 
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