Debating the Descensus

On October 2, 2015, I had a discussion with Western Seminary students, hosted by Prof. Todd Billings, about the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed, traditionally called the descensus. It is the phrase: “He descended into hell.” At the end of the 1990s,

The Harrowing of Hell. Medieval illustration, including Hellmouth. Not the same Hellmouth as featured in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The Harrowing of Hell. Medieval illustration, including Hellmouth. Not the same Hellmouth as featured in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

someone in the Reformed Church of Australia (now the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia) lodged a gravamen (a complaint against a confessional statement) regarding this phrase. The Australian church body considered numerous changes, but wisely submitted the matter to other Reformed churches for review and input. The CRCNA formed a study committee, which gave its final report at the 2000 Synod. The report, which was largely authored by my PhD mentor Richard A. Muller, is an excellent example of solid historical, theological, exegetical, and ecclesiastical analysis. You can read the report here: Descensus report Agenda 2000.

The arguments for deleting or altering the phrase are astounding. They presume that “hell” only means the place or state of eternal punishment. In modern usage, that meaning is dominant. However, its usage in the creed can mean either the place or state of punishment (gehenna) or, more commonly, the rather more neutral realm of the dead (hades, or in Hebrew thought, sheol).

Others state rather confidently that when Christ utters “It is finished,” the work of redemption is complete and therefore there is no more to do. This is clearly false. The work of redemption is absolutely not finished (at least) until the resurrection of Jesus. His resurrection is his victory over death. Moreover, the intercession of Christ still continues, as the book of Hebrews makes clear, and the final judgment, where those in Christ will be declared not guilty, is still to come. And redemption applied is the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. So one must be rather cautious about what “It is finished” means. Clearly it has to be limited to Christ’s suffering on the cross.

The original complaint to the Reformed Churches in Australia was apparently operating on the assumption that Jesus physically went to hell. That would be a new doctrine never heard of in the church, since orthodox believers have always confessed that Jesus’ physical body

Some who are considered evangelical leaders reject the descent into hell phrase in the creed, apparently unaware that by doing so they separate themselves from orthodox, universal Christian faith. John Piper, who considers himself Reformed, rejects the doctrine without much analysis. This is ironic, since no Reformed church would recognize as Reformed anyone who rejects an article of an ecumenical creed. He also refers to himself as a “Calvinist,” but Calvin would not recognize as a kindred spirit anyone who rejected this or any other article of the creed (let alone anyone who rejected infant baptism, as Piper does.) Wayne Grudem (whose theological positions are similar to Piper’s) also rejects the doctrine, also on mistaken grounds. Both put themselves perilously near the fringe of orthodox Christian faith by doing so. Neither seem to understand this. I suspect this has something to do with an overly rigid sense of sola scriptura, and a lack of understanding of how the Reformers honored universal Christian tradition as embodied in the creeds, as well as how they found more than adequate biblical grounds for the descensus. They also seem to care little about the effect such a selective recitation of the creed would have upon ecumenical relations.

Reading the 2000 report will save anyone who wants to study this issue from a multitude of theological sins.