Friday, April 20, 2012

Article 3

Today's article involves a very short Article of Religion (No. 3):

III. Of the going down of Christ into Hell
As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell.

This is affirming the Apostles' Creed (...Suffered under Pontius Pilate Was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hellThe third day he rose again from the dead) and the doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell. The Nicene Creed actually makes no reference to Jesus descending to the Dead (he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures...)

This is actually been in the news of late in American Evangelical Christian circles. John Piper, the nearest thing to a demi-God to many Evangelical pastors, recently got into a theological squabble over the fact that he thinks the Apostles' Creed is wrong on this count and that he doesn't say that part of the creed when it is recited. Though, to be fair to Piper, this is not a new thought for him or to certain Protestants in general. He has said this for years here (2008) and here (2012). Of course by saying this, Piper contradicts himself here when he said the Creeds are important to prevent "Bible believing Christians" from becoming heretics. 

I noticed this debate being passed around various news media and social networking sites leading up to Holy Week. I had never actually encountered this particular kind of thinking before on the harrowing of hell. Granted, in the Episcopal church, the major problem is people not believing anything of the Creeds at all. It is very trendy for people to be "free thinking" and reject the Creeds of orthodox Christianity wholesale. That notion of rejecting Christ descending to the dead was a doctrine in itself that I had always taken for granted as an essential part of Christian faith was news to me. 

A couple of notes on the Apostles' Creed before I continue. First of all, the Apostles' Creed is one of the earliest creeds or statements of the Christian faith. It was basically the catechism formula used in Baptisms by at least the AD 2nd Century, if not earlier.  Also, there is some debate on whether the proper translation in modern English is "he descended to the dead" or "he descended into hell." The early Patristic fathers are somewhat ambivalent on this issue. Some seem to think it means quite clearly "hell" in the fire and brimstone" sense, others seem to conclude it meant something more like a dark, holding place of the dead like the underworld Hades or the Hebrew notion of Sheol or "I descend into the Pit," as it says in a Psalm. By the time the Creed is being said in Latin, it is very clearly hell: "descendit ad inferos." 

Personally, I don't have a strong opinion on whether he descended to the dead or descending into hell, though I tend toward the notion of the harrowing of hell and not just some dark lifeless underworld. The point is he descended and brought forth the keys of death and hell, defeating the devil and the works of darkness. The idea of the Christus Victor, which is probably the earliest Christian understanding of the atonement won by the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, is central to my understanding of salvation and the mission of Jesus, as it was for most Christians for the first 1000 years of Christianity. 

While Anselm of Canterbury made a good case for the substitutionary or penal theory of atonement, I have trouble buying it  So the theory goes, the Father poured out his wrath on his son so that He would not have to pour out his wrath on us mortals so that the demands of divine justice could be met. The major problems with that that I cannot get around is that such a view makes God the Father a slave to his own justice with the end result being divine injustice in that an innocent son is penalized for crimes he did not commit nor is even accused of. I've talked about this before with this excellent video illustrationDespite whatever red Koolaid that Brother Piper might be passing out, I stick to the idea of the harrowing of hell as central to understanding the atonement. 

What baffles me about critiques of the harrowing of hell as found in the Apostles' Creed is that our Reformed brethren who seem to be all about "Sola Scriptura" and the "sovereignty of God" seem to suggest somehow God's sovereignty could not countenance Christ descending to the dead nor that is not scriptural itself and therefore not warranted in doctrinal or creedal formulations of the faith. I simply do not understand how they come to that conclusion because I believe it is very much a scriptural mandate. Ephesians 4 is very clear: 
7 But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8Therefore it is said,
‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
   he gave gifts to his people.’ 
9(When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)

Some other bible verses are as follows: 

  1. The prophet Hosea foretold the descent of Christ into Hell in Hosea 13:14 by placing these words into the mouth of the Messiah: “O death, I will be thy death; O hell, I will be thy bite.”
  2. Zechariah foretells the redemption of those in the Limbo of the Fathers in Zech 9:11: “Thou also by the blood of Thy Testament hast sent forth Thy prisoners out of the pit.” What could this mean except that the Messiah would free people from the underworld?
  3. Acts 2:24 has Peter preaching that “God has raised up Christ, having loosed the sorrows of hell, as it was impossible that He should be holden by it.” 
  4. Saint Peter also wrote in 1 Peter 3:19 that “Christ coming in spirit preached to those spirits that were in prison, which had some time been incredulous.” 
  5. In Ecclesiasticus 24:45, Siracides prophesied concerning Christ: “I will penetrate to all the lower parts of the earth.”

So, even given the Reformed thread that runs through the Articles of Religion, the English Reformers had no problems believing in that part of the Apostles' Creed that refers to the harrowing of hell. That is pretty foundational to Anglicanism's notion of the unity of God and the incarnation.  

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