Should we include the “descended into hell” clause in our modern versions of the Apostles’ Creed?
As has often been pointed out, the article in question is a “late addition” to the Creed.* It was not until AD 750 that the language became standardized in Western churches. And its origins are, as Wayne Grudem puts it, murky. One of the earliest appearances of the article is in the heretical “Dated Creed” of the synod held at Nice in Thrace AD 359 (Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 2. 37) - in the wake of which Jerome wrote, “The whole world groaned in astonishment to find itself Arian.” Rufinus, in the first known commentary of the venerated symbol (~ AD 400), wrote:
But it should be known that the clause, He descended into Hell, is not added in the Creed of the Roman Church, neither is it in that of the Oriental Churches. It seems to be implied, however, when it is said that He was buried.
We don't see another creedal version of the article until AD 650.
On this point, I think Calvin is generally both charitable and correct:
...it appears from the ancient writers that this phrase which we read in the Creed was once not so much used in the churches. …From this we may conjecture that it was inserted after a time, and did not become customary in the churches at once, but gradually. This much is certain: that it reflected the common belief of all the godly; for there is no one of the fathers who does not mention in his writings Christ’s descent into hell, though their interpretations vary.
For instance, though Rufinus reads the descent into Hades/Hell doctrine as implied by the previous line about Christ’s burial, he still appears to maintain a literal descent into Hades/Hell (ala Peter’s language in Acts 2:24, 31):
That He descended into hell is also evidently foretold in the Psalms, where it is said, You have brought Me also into the dust of the death. And again, What profit is there in my blood, when I shall have descended into corruption? And again, I descended into the deep mire, where there is no bottom. Moreover, John says, Are You He that shall come (into hell, without doubt), or do we look for another? Whence also Peter says that Christ being put to death in the flesh, but quickened in the Spirit which dwells in Him, descended to the spirits who were shut up in prison, who in the days of Noah believed not, to preach unto them; where also what He did in hell is declared. Moreover, the Lord says by the Prophet, as though speaking of the future, You will not leave my soul in hell, neither will You suffer Your Holy One to see corruption. Which again, in prophetic language he speaks of as actually fulfilled, O Lord, You have brought my soul out of hell: You have saved me from them that go down into the pit.
Augustine is remarkably ambivalent on the matter. He omits any exposition of the clause in his sermon to catechumens on the Creed (De symbolo ad catechumenos), and elsewhere critically questions the oft-cited 1Peter 3:18-19 as a “proof text” of Christ’s supposed postmortem descent. Nevertheless, he does affirm the “plain sense” of descendit ad inferna:
It is established beyond question that the Lord, after He had been put to death in the flesh, descended into hell; for it is impossible to gainsay either that utterance of prophecy, You will not leave my soul in hell, — an utterance which Peter himself expounds in the Acts of the Apostles, lest any one should venture to put upon it another interpretation—or the words of the same apostle, in which he affirms that the Lord loosed the pains of hell, in which it was not possible for Him to be holden. Who, therefore, except an infidel, will deny that Christ was in hell? (Letter 164.2)
This basic understanding of Christ’s abysmal descent in death is reflected by nearly all the fathers before Augustine (e.g., Ignatius, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus). But, as Calvin noted, the precise meaning of Christ’s descent was variously understood. Part of the confusion surrounded the ambiguity of the term “hell” or inferna in Latin, sometimes conflated with inferos, and hades or ta katotata in Greek. Charles Hill speaks for most students of church history (Protestant and Catholic) when he writes:
The word “hell” in the Creed does not mean the place of eternal punishment, Gehenna of the New Testament, the lake of fire that burns forever. It is rather Hades, or the Old Testament Sheol. This word is used often as a synonym for death, or the grave, and is associated with the depths of the earth, or the depths of the sea. But usually it has the sense of the place of the dead, where there is some consciousness of the disembodied soul, and thus is not identical merely with “the grave”, the physical place where dead body is laid.
Similarly, Catherine Ella Laufer’s Hell’s Destruction: An Exploration of Christ’s Descent to the Dead traces out the historical development of the phrase, and links the “hell” language more to the Old Testament concept of Sheol or Hades as the shadowy realm of the dead (both righteous and wicked). She concludes: “The recent English translation ‘he descended to the dead’ is a more accurate rendering of the sense of the Latin text and its Greek precursor,” (p. 30). If the text were to be maintained in modern versions of the Creed, this would be the preferred translation.
Nevertheless, confusion has seemingly always surrounded this article. Even where there was some agreement on the subterranean abode of Christ’s descent, the extent and scope of His “harrowing of hell” varied widely (from the early fathers’ conception of Christ’s comforting deceased saints to Origen’s universalistic “emptying of hell”).
Unsurprisingly, then, the import of the clause has been long debated. This includes the question of its place in the Apostles’ Creed - at least since the eve of the Reformation (e.g., Bishop Reginald Pecock, the so-called “only great English theologian of the 15th century,” published a revision of the Creed in 1440 without the controversial article), much more so during (e.g., Calvin’s successor, Theodore of Beza deleted it also, as did other contemporaries) and continues unabated to this day (e.g., among American Evangelicals, John Piper is perhaps the most well-known proponent of removing the article, following Grudem’s argumentation). By and large, however, it was retained by the Reformers for the sake of confessional uniformity. Yet this came at the cost of re-defining the article’s historic sense - at least among the Reformed branches. While Lutherans maintained a traditional interpretation of the article (i.e., a literal “harrowing of hell”), Calvin rejected this as “childish,” and offered the novel if not “entirely original” (cf. Nicolas of Cusa and Pico della Mirandola) metaphorical interpretation of the descensus as Christ's redemptive agonies in His state of humiliation, particularly at the cross. This was followed by the Heidelberg Catechism (Q/A 44), and continues to be the predominant interpretation of the article among the continental Reformed churches.
The Westminster Confession (and the Puritans in general) went in a slightly different direction, perhaps influenced by Olevianus’ exposition of the Creed (which is worth quoting: [Christ’s descent entails] “not only the pains of death but also his utter disgrace-- the seeming victory of those pains-- while he was held down in the grave until the third day, lying as it were, under the oppression of death”), interpreting the descent clause as referencing Christ’s remaining “under the power of death” for three days (Westminster Larger Catechism Q/A 50).
In both cases, it seems to me somewhat disingenuous to promulgate (metaphorical) interpretations that markedly differ from the original and historic (literal) sense of the Creed.
Calvin’s explanation of the article is beautiful theology (as Tim Keller helpfully reflects), but not compelling as an exposition. First, it appears to be a novelty as it stands (note: Aquinas does state of Christ’s descent into hell that, “by the power of his Passion he delivered the saints from this penalty whereby they were excluded from the life of glory...,” but also maintains a literal release of righteous souls from limbus patrum). Secondly, it is an unnatural reading of the Creed - Calvin’s protests notwithstanding. Understood as the agony of Christ in His earthly humiliation, culminating in the “cry of dereliction,” it makes little sense to place “he descended into hell” after “and was buried.” By the time of His burial, His redemptive agonies had ended (as texts like Luke 23:43, 46 and John 19:30 would indicate).
We might do better to lean toward the Westminster Catechism here. But then the article is confusing, to say the least, in its traditional rendering. And if we opt instead for Laufer’s translation, “he descended to the dead” (minus its classical, mythological dimensions of course), then it appears redundant. I find Calvin persuasive here:
I grant that what they [Martin Bucer, et al.] put forward concerning the meaning of the word is true: "hell" is frequently to be understood as "grave." But two reasons militate against their opinion, and readily persuade me to disagree with them. How careless it would have been, when something not at all difficult in itself has been stated with clear and easy words, to indicate it again in words that obscure rather than clarify it! Whenever two expressions for the same thing are used in the same context, the latter ought to be an explanation of the former. But what sort of explanation will it be if one says that "Christ was buried" means that "he descended into hell"? Secondly, it is not likely that a useless repetition of this sort could have crept into this summary, which the chief points of our faith are aptly noted in the fewest possible words. I have no doubt that all who have weighed this matter with some care will readily agree with me.
Perhaps we might follow Charles Hill (and Joe Rigney) then, and argue for a literal “harrowing of hell/hades,” though understood in more biblically grounded terms. As he writes about it:
...what brings them [the OT saints] to heaven is their union with the one who is now in heaven. He has “tasted death for everyone” (Heb.2.9) and then passed through the heavens (4.14), to the heavenly Mt. Zion, into the heavenly temple, and through the greater and more perfect tent, not made with hands (9.11), entering once for all into the holy of holies by means of his own blood. The saints of old have now received what was promised! They are in the heavenly city, and now surround the throne. … Yes, in Christ, they have inherited the promises – the presence of God in his heavenly city, with Christ! This is the victory Christ has achieved for us.
The idea is both beautiful and biblical (though of course these “saints of old” still await some promises, e.g., the resurrection body). But is it the meaning of the article in question - assuming, as is most likely, that the patristic doctrine of Christ’s intermediate visit to the realm of the dead served as the primary rationale for its original inclusion? Did the Lord actually descend into Sheol / Hades after His death in order to comfort and even “liberate” the righteous souls of patriarchs and prophets? It isn’t clear from the texts cited above (to say nothing of 1Pe.3:18ff.). On the contrary, such “harrowing” is associated in these texts with Christ’s glorious exaltation and session, rather than His shrouded three days in the grave. Scripture just isn’t explicit here ... unlike every other point of the Creed.
All things considered, then, I would just assume follow Beza’s example here and excise the clause. The much-debated article seems to create more trouble than it's worth. We are children of the Reformation after all and are not absolutely beholden to the creeds as they’ve been handed down to us, but must continually and faithfully evaluate their truth and efficacy as tools for edifying the saints in light of God’s Word. Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum dei. But of course we don’t “move ancient boundary stones” lightly (or often). In this case, we need to be shown the value of keeping this rather moot point.