Sunday, December 05, 2010

A Layman's Guide to the Thirty-NIne Articles

Article III

Of the going down of Christ into Hell.

As Christ died for us, and was buried: so also it is to be believed that He went down into Hell.

De descensu Christ ad Inferos.

Quemadmodum Christus pro nobis mortuus est et sepultus, ita est etiam credendus ad Inferos

Fr. Laurence Wells

When we arrive at Article III, we do well to remind ourselves that this series is entitled "A Layman's Guide to the Thirty-nine Articles." I say this because laymen typically have a preconception of the word "hell" which is not appropriate here. When it is not reduced to street slang, hell usually means the place of eternal punishment, a place clearly taught in the NT and most frequently by Our Blessed Lord Himself, as in Matt. 25:41, "Depart from me you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." The state of eternal punishment is not the "hell" alluded to in the third Article, and we might just as well get this out of the way before we begin.

In the Latin text which underlies the Articles as we have them, the expression is "ad inferos." This is, of course, a quotation from the Apostles' Creed. Other ancient Latin texts use expressions like "ad infernum" or "ad inferna." These may be more precisely translated "to those below," or "to the condition below" or "to the places below." The paraphrase on page 15 of our Prayer Book, "He went into the place of departed spirits." is an accurate rendition, actually an improvement on the language of the Article.

But what is it all about? Why does this worse-than-difficult phrase from the Apostles and Athanasian Creeds get special treatment and special affirmation in the Articles? This phrase the last to be added to the text of the Apostles Creed and was challenged even before the Reformation by Bishop Reginald Pecock (d. 1460, a highly original theologian who was found guilty of heresy for various reasons). In the Reformation era its meaning was disputed between the Lutherans and the Reformed, with conflicting interpretations among the Reformed. A German Reformed pastor by the name of Walter Deloenus, ministering in London, denied the truth of the Descent. He was rebuked by his Reformed brethren, but the issue had been raised and a dispute ensued. Evidently Cranmer felt it necessary to say something on the point.

It is interesting that Article III as we have it in the final version of 1571 is briefer and safer than the original version in the Forty-Two Articles of 1553. In the earlier form, not only was the Descent stated as a fact, but an interpretation was added: "The body lay in the sepulchre until the resurrection, but His ghost departing from Him was with the ghosts that were in prison or hell, and did preach to the same, as the place of St. Peter doth testify."

The Descent of Christ into Hell has continued to be a matter of debate There has been and still is a wide variety of interpretations. These are neatly summarized in competent article by Daniel R. Hyde entitled "In Defense of the Descendit," published in a small-circulation journal quaintly entitled "The Confessional Presbyterian." Dominie Hyde (to give him his proper Dutch Reformed title) lists seven truly different interpretations.

1. The earliest goes back to writers like Rufinus and Cyprian. "Descended to those below" simply means "He was buried in a tomb." This would explain why it is omitted in the Nicene Creed, which affirms Christ's burial as evidence of the total reality of His death. In the various early local Creeds, we find references either to burial or to descent. The first to combine the two as separate truths was an Arian Creed of AD 359.

2. Another very different view is that Our Lord went to the place of eternal punishment (hell in the colloquial sense) to endure further misery after He expired. That is easily refuted, not only by referring to the original Latin but also by reflecting on His final Word, "It is finished." This view, however, still circulates among radical Protestants.

3. A third interpretation is that Jesus entered the intermediate state (called Sheol or Hades) in order to preach the Gospel to those who never accepted it or knew Him in their early lifespan. Apart from I Peter 3:19 and 4:6 (both obscure), Scriptural support is lacking. Hyde quotes a Patristic writer, Philastrius of Brescia (fl. 380) calling this notion a heresy. It remains popular, however, among Anglican theologians generally considered sound, such as the Evangelical E. A. Litton and E. J. Bicknell.

4. Yet another interpretation holds that Christ descended into this intermediate state in order to manifest Himself to those who had, in some sense or other, known and accepted Him. This was the view of St Thomas Aquinas and has recently been re-articulated by Pope Benedict XVI. Many Anglicans and many conservative Evangelicals defend the difficult clause with such a construction. Either the third or forth interpretation, or a combination of the two is depicted in Byzantine iconography.

5. Another interpretation holds that Christ entered into the lower world to confront Satan, announce His victory, and demand the release of enslaved humanity. This is associated with the Gospel text Luke 11:21, "When a strong man [namely Satan] fully armed guards his own palace [that is, the nether regions], his goods [captive humanity] are safe; but when One stronger than he [the "stronger one" being Christ] attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil." Having roots in certain Mediaeval traditions of "the harrowing of hell," this became the classic Lutheran view. While this may seem quite close to the fourth view, there is a subtle and important difference, which accounts for Calvinist versus Lutheran disputes. For all their differences, the first four views agree that the Descent was the final stage of Christ's humiliation. As Flannery O'Connor expressed it, "You Can't Be Any Poorer Than Dead." But by locating the "strange and dreadful strife" in the Underworld itself, the Descent has become the first stage of the Saviour's exaltation. His victory began not at the empty tomb but in the lower world itself.

6. Most of the Reformed were satisfied with a less dramatic and more sober interpretation. Without explaining the motive for the Descent and without venturing an explanation for what it accomplished, it states merely that between the moments of His final breath on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter morning, Christ experienced the existence of all dead people. That is is apparently the view in the Prayer Book's laconic paraphrase, "He went into the place of departed spirits." It is more amply expressed in the Westminster Larger Catechism, "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."

7. Yet another interpretation uses the word "hell" in a purely figurative manner. In the pain and anguish of Gethsemane and Calvary, and supremely in the cry of dereliction, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?", our Lord experienced torment of body and soul equal to or even surpassing the worst of eternal punishment. This was the interpretation advanced by John Calvin and is commonly taken to be a "Calvinist" interpretation. No matter that this interpretation was advanced by three Roman Catholic theologians in the 14th and 15th centuries.

It is sometimes objected that such a view displaces the Descent chronologically, putting it before the actual death and burial. But by the same token, some presentations of the third, fourth and fifth views place them after the Resurrection, during the Great Forty Days between Easter and Ascension Day.

Those who have labored with the writer may be wondering what is his own take on the matter. As a parish priest who preaches frequently on the Atonement, normally working through a Passion narrative every Lent, I confess that I have not resisted the homiletical possibilities of any of these, except for the second and third which I consider seriously flawed. The fourth and the fifth make thrilling sermons and are generally faithful to the Gospel message, but I would be hard put to demand that anyone subscribe to such teaching. Both of these stand close to the boundary between reveled truth and religious speculation and seem inclined to look across it. In such an area we must be reverently cautious.

Interpretation Seven has the great merit of taking seriously the reality of our Savior's penal suffering for us. It is quite correct in what it affirms, but is hardly what the original writers of the Creed had in mind. So we are left with Interpretation 6. Our Lord was truly dead in every sense. Whatever happens to the souls of dead people happened to Him. Whatever their condition is, He shared it to the uttermost. And because He has been there, it holds no terrors for me.


Fr. Robert Hart

Modern writers have presumed to denounce and repudiate the relevant line in the Apostle's Creed. Their lack of respect for the wisdom of the Church is symptomatic of fleshly confidence and pride. One does not come to the Creeds to be a critic, but to be taught by the ancients who knew the Scriptures well.

Fr. Wells has provided a thorough explanation of the Descent into Hell. Indeed, the issue was exactly what he said, death not punishment. Christ had borne the full weight of our sins on the cross. The descent into Hell is about the reality and complete nature of His death. It was not like death, nor was it a partial death. He died as truly, and completely, as all men.

One mystery that seems tied to the subject at hand is told by St. Matthew, the resurrection of various saints who came out of their graves with Him (Matt. 27: 52, 53), taking part of His rising as the first fruits from the dead (I Cor. 15:20). The story is told briefly, and without elaboration. But, it is stated plainly enough to foreshadow the coming harvest, that is, the General Resurrection on the Last Day, when all who belong to Christ will rise again to immortality, their share by grace of His unending life.

In the final analysis it seems that we are told only a very little, that death is meant to remain a mystery to us, a terrible reality that we are not permitted to master. What truly matters is that death, whatever it is in the darkest and most hidden reality that even the Risen Christ chose not to disclose, holds no terror to true believers. The Lord, who assumed the fullness of human nature into His Divine Person, was there ahead of us, and He had no trouble finding the exit.

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." Psalm 23:4

"O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (I Cor. 15:55-57)

And, this will naturally lead to the next Article.


Jack Miller said...

Fr. Hart,

Excellent and thorough unpacking of "the descent." I've met the Rev. Danny Hyde, a godly churchman and first rate scholar.

Thanks to both you and Fr. Wells.


Paul Rimmer said...

Dear Reverend Fathers,

Thank you very much for a clear explanation of a sometimes cryptic phrase.

I wonder, don't the Byzantines also go with #5? I'm thinking of the Descent Icon:

Christ is definitely exalted in this scene, he's breaking down the gates of hell, and he's freeing the captives.

Is this a proper understanding of the icon, and of #5?

After reading the descriptions, I think #4 makes the most sense. But all seem to have their merits, and their problems. Death is indeed a great mystery.

The Midland Agrarian said...

Thank you for this important work.

Would you kindly consider establishing a new dedicated link for the series over on the right, so it is easier to read the earlier posts in continuity without googling?

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Exactly, a link on the right in the "pages" section near the top.

Anonymous said...

Paul, thanks for the comment. The Byzantine icon seems to reflect Interpretations 3, 4, amd 5. It is important to remember that the various views are not mutually exclusive. The 5th Interpretation I personally find appealing, in that it links Christ's humilation and exaltation very closely.

Charlie J. Ray said...

I thought I would never read anything whatsoever here with which I could find agreement. Wonder of wonders:)

Although #7 is not the original intent of the Creed, the Creed is intended to teach Scripture. Since the Scriptures do emphasize the hell Christ suffered on the cross, #6 and #7 are equally valid interpretations of the descent in my opinion.

I still refuse to call anyone a "father". Heck, I don't even like "brother". Sounds too Pentecostal.

How's about mister, mister?


Fr. Robert Hart said...

Charlie Ray might agree with this, but, despite that discouraging fact, I think it is good anyway.

Paul Rimmer said...

Thank you for your answer. I do see that it is possible to hold aspects of these different views at the same time.

There does appear to be a tension between suffering and victory in most of these views.