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…
The first installment in this series will examine the compatibility of the Nashville Statement on Human Sexuality with the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. One of the criticisms of the Nashville Statement was its production by a parachurch organization rather than a church. However, with the endorsement of the Nashville Statement this past summer by the PCA this criticism has been rendered moot. While I am not a member of the PCA, my own EPC shares with it the same confessional standards. So, it was with great interest that I watched a Reformed and Westminsterian sister-church declare the Nashville Statement to be biblically faithful. Both the PCA and EPC require that their officers vow that they “sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church as containing the system of doctrine found in the scripture.” The Westminster Confession and Catechisms are not the final word on scripture’s teaching, nor are they the final word on the subject matter to which they expressly speak. However, what can be inferred from this vow is that for any additional doctrinal statement to be considered biblically faithful it must be compatible with the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. The PCA asserting that the Nashville Statement is biblically faithful is not the same thing as the Nashville Statement actually being biblically faithful, and the best tool to ascertain its biblical fidelity is its compatibility with the Westminster Confession and Catechisms…
You may say to me: ‘”You are still not removing from me the necessity of sinning or not sinning since God foreknows that I am going to sin or not sin, and it is therefore necessary that I sin, if I sin, or that I not sin if I do not sin.” But then I, in turn, respond: “You should not say: ‘God only foreknows that I am going to sin or not.’ You should say: ‘God foreknows if I am going to freely sin or not.’ From this it follows that I am free to sin or not to sin because God knows that what shall come to pass shall be free.”
-Anselm, De Concordia §1. This is the opening of his argument for the compatibility of human choice and God’s foreknowledge.