A pastor friend of mine and I were discussing the meaning of this phrase in the Apostles’ Creed, stimulated by Ligon Duncan’s recent article on the subject. Duncan helpfully lists out a number of options for its meaning:
- That it refers to the spiritual agony Christ felt on the cross. This is the meaning put forth by the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 44) and held by John Calvin (Institutes 2.16.8-10). Duncan rejects this as the historic intent of the phrase since it comes after burial of Christ in the creed.
- That it refers to Christ descending into hell and freeing Old Testament saints from captivity and bringing them with him to heaven. The idea here is that Sheol/Hades/Abraham’s Bosom all refer in various ways to the abode of the dead in general, with the dead being sorted into hell and heaven only after the redemptive-historical work of Christ. Calvin strongly rejected this view, but modern Reformed thinkers like J. I. Packer and Sinclair Ferguson teach a modified version of it.
- That Christ was providing a second chance to the damned to repent, which Duncan, correctly, rejects.
- Duncan emphatically ruled out the possibility that Jesus was paying for sins by suffering in hell, a view common to the Word of Faith movement.
- That it refers to the fact that Jesus really, truly died and continued in the state of death. Duncan accurately states that this is both the intent of the creed, and also that it is the view that best fits with scripture. This is the view taught in the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q&A 50).
Interestingly, Duncan doesn’t mention the historic Lutheran view that Christ descended into hell in victory, smashing the power of the devil (e.g. Formula of Concord, IX), though this view does overlap a bit with the idea that Christ in his death freed the Old Testament saints…
When [Luke] saith that Philip preached Christ, he signifieth that the whole sum of the gospel is contained in Christ. The other speech which he useth shortly after is more perfect; yet it all one in effect. He joineth the kingdom of God and the name of Christ together; but because we obtain this goodness through Christ, to have God to reign in us, and to lead an heavenly life, being renewed into spiritual righteousness, and dead to the world, therefore the preaching of Christ containeth this point also under it. But the sum is this, that Christ doth repair with his grace the world, being destroyed; which cometh to pass when he reconcileth us to the Father. Secondly, when he regenerateth us by his Spirit, that the kingdom of God may be erected in us when Satan is put to flight.
-John Calvin on Acts 8:5.
The Satanic Temple is at it again, and has unveiled a new abortion ritual that, in their view, “sanctifies the abortion process by instilling confidence and protecting bodily rights when undergoing the safe and scientific procedure.” The Satanic Temple is really a Objectivist-libertarian organization masquerading as a religious group in order to provocatively promote their vision of individual human autonomy. Their goal in this ritual is to invoke religious freedom protections against state obstructions to abortion. The Satanist Temple had previously argued that Missouri’s abortion restrictions were the imposition of Christian values on non-Christians, and therefore violated the separation of church and state. I addressed the subject at the time and agreed with the Satanist claim on the merits, though not the legitimacy of the practice. Why? A society cannot be organized with shared values that are morally or religiously neutral because there are no such values. The attempt at a secular American has only worked because of the preponderance of shared values, which is now unraveling.
The Satanist Temple’s approach to this via claims of religious liberty will again bear this out. Religious liberty in any society only works if that religion’s practice does not violate the society’s understanding of what is right and what are rights, and a secular society has to pretend that these values that transcend religious liberty are morally neutral. That is where the effectiveness of the Satanist’s strategy will be evident – the assertion that abortion restrictions trump the Satanic religious value of bodily autonomy cannot stand on a claim of moral or religious neutrality. Like with the Missouri cases in past years, the Satanists may fail in court, but the exposed fissures in American culture are widening and eventually some political body will rule a law constitutionally illegitimate because of the values it expresses. American culture and laws were premised on Christian values in many ways (e.g. respect for the life of the unborn), but our constitutional framework is atheistic (no laws allowed that establish religion); the less Christian the American people become, the greater the tension will grow between laws that enact Christian values and their constitutional legitimacy.