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…
Alan Jacobs posted a summary of Plutarch’s 2nd century essay on the cessation of the oracles.
It was widely recognized in Plutarch’s time (late first and early second century A.D.) that the great oracles of the ancient world — the most famous of them being the one at Delphi, of course — had largely ceased to provide useful guidance or had fallen silent altogether. Some of the once famous shrines had been abandoned and had fallen into ruin. But no one understood why this had happened. Plutarch’s “essay” is a fictional dialogue — narrated by one Lamprias, who also takes the leading role in the conversation and may well be Plutarch’s mouthpiece — in which a group of philosophically-inclined men debate the possible reasons for the oracles’ failure.
Jacobs goes on the describe the various reasons that Plutarch through Lamprias rejects and accepts for this silence, which he concludes is a result of shifting natural phenomena. I happened to read Jacobs’ post at the same time I was reading Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word. Writing in the 4th century, Athanasius addresses this subject as well, but from a much different perspective. Athanasius argues that the incarnation of Christ profoundly altered the world. His incarnation brought the divine into the created, and broke the power of spiritual blindness upon the world. Jesus as the conquering word is not only defeating spiritual evil in the present and future, but has defeated it already by his arrival…
I started a tradition this past year of selecting a theologian and attempting to read most of their works over the course of a year, as well as reading some biographies on them and commentaries on their work. I started with St. Anselm of Canterbury. It was incredibly enriching. I am continuing this new tradition into 2019, but am trying something a bit bolder: I am selecting two very different theologians to read. I discovered with Anselm that if I had tried just a bit harder I could have read all his work much faster than I did, without compromising depth of understanding. So to test that theory I am reading two people this year. Another difference is that this year I am actually creating a schedule in order to help that theory prove correct.
The first is Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 293-373), one of the great fathers of the church…