He Descended: Christ’s Descent in the Apostles’ Creed   4 comments

Harrowing of Hades

Above:  The Harrowing of Hades

A Medieval Russian Orthodox Icon

Image in the Public Domain

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U.S. LUTHERAN LITURGY, PART XVII

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Christ himself died once and for all for sins, the upright doing for the sake of the guilty, to lead us to God.  In the body he was put to death, in the spirit he was raised to life, and, in the spirit he went to preach to the spirits in prison.

–1 Peter 3:18-19, The New Jerusalem Bible

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…He descended into hell….

The Book of Common Worship (1946), page 47

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I.  INTRODUCTION

I take a break from focusing on specific U.S. Lutheran volumes to write about a related theological question instead.  When I grew up in The United Methodist Church, we said the Apostles’ Creed weekly.  Item #738 in The Methodist Hymnal (1966), renamed The Book of Hymns after the 1968 merger, is the Apostles’ Creed.  That version omits

He descended into Hell,

relegating it to a footnote.  Items #881 and 882 in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) are the Apostle’s Creed–traditional and ecumenical versions.  Both follow the 1966 Hymnal‘s practice.  And both explain that “catholic” means universal, something which the editors of the 1966 Hymnal saw no need to do.  But that is a different matter and a rabbit I will not chase here.

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II.  POSSIBLE MEANINGS OF THE DESCENT

Philip H. Pfatteicher, the great Lutheran liturgical scholar, points out that the literal translation of the Latin text of that line from the Apostles’ Creed is:

He descended to the lower [world].

Furthermore, Pfatteicher writes, there are three main interpretations of what that means:

  • It emphasizes that Jesus was dead.
  • It indicates that Jesus went to battle Satan.
  • It indicates that Jesus freed the souls of the dead.

The English Language Liturgical Consultation (1988) version of the Apostles’s Creed renders that line:

he descended to the dead,

which applies to all three interpretations.

I prefer the traditional form:

He descended into hell.

This has been the standard U.S. Lutheran rendering, based on my secondary reading and opening of hymnals-service books in my liturgy library.  It remains the text in conservative U.S. Lutheran hymnals-service books and was likewise in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) line until Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), which uses the ecumenical version, with

He descended to the dead,

and places the traditional

He descended into hell

in a footnote.  But the descent is present.

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III.  MATTERS LUTHERAN AND REFORMED

Christ’s descent has been a hot potato for many Protestants over time.  Methodists have tended to avoid it, but at least Presbyterians have wrestled with it.  The Book of Common Worship (1906), of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., for example, placed

He descended into hell

inside brackets and provided an alternative text in a footnote:

He continued in the state of the dead, and under the power of death, until the third day.

The Book of Common Worship (Revised) (1932) removed the brackets but provided a different alternative text:

He continued in the state of the dead until the third day.

The Book of Common Worship (1946) said simply that Christ descended into hell, but our Lord and Savior has descended to the dead since 1970.  That is more than many Calvinists were willing to say for along time.  The Heidelberg Catechism (1562), Question 44 explains the descent into hell this way:

That in my severest tribulations I may be assured that Christ my Lord has redeemed me from hellish anxieties and torment by the unspeakable anguish, pain, and terrors which he suffered in his soul both on the cross and before.

The Book of Concord, however, affirms Christ’s descent into hell.  The Formula of Concord, Epitome IX (1577), says:

This article has also been disputed among some theologians who have subscribed to the Augsburg Confession:  When and in what manner did the Lord Christ, according to our simple Christian faith, descend to hell?  Was this done before or after His death?  Was this done before or after His death?  Did this happen only to His soul, only to the divinity, or with body and soul, spiritually or bodily?  Does this article belong to Christ’s passion or to His glorious victory and triumph?

This article, like the preceding article, cannot be grasped by the senses or by our reason.  It must be grasped through faith alone.  Therefore, it is our unanimous opinion that there should be no dispute over it.  It should be believed and taught only in the simplest way.  Teach it like Dr. Luther, of blessed memory, in his sermon at Torgau in the year 1533.  He has explained this article in a completely Christian way.  He separated all useless, unnecessary questions from it, and encouraged all godly Christians to believe with Christian simplicity.

It is enough to know that Christ descended into hell, destroyed hell for all believers, and delivered them from the power of condemnation and the jaws of hell.  We will save our questions and not curiously investigate about how this happened until the other world.  Then not only this mystery but others will be revealed that we simply believe here and cannot grasp with our blind reason.

The Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration IX (1577) affirms:

Even in the Ancient Christian teachers of the Church, as well as among some of our teachers, different explanations of the article about Christ’s descent to hell are found.  Therefore, we abide in the simplicity of our Christian faith.  Dr. Luther has pointed us to this in a sermon about Christ’s descent to hell, which he delivered in the castle at Torgau in the year 1533.  In the Creed we confess, “I believe….in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who…was crucified, died, and was buried.  He descended into hell.”  In this Confession Christ’s burial and descent to hell are distinguished as separate articles.  We simply believe that the entire person (God and man) descended into hell after the burial, conquered the devil, destroyed hell’s power, and took from the devil all his might.  We should not, however, trouble ourselves with high and difficult thoughts about how this happened.  With our reason and our five senses this article can be understood as little as the preceding one about how Christ is placed at the right hand of God’s almighty power and majesty.  We are simply to believe it and cling to the Word.  So we hold to the substance and consolation that neither hell nor the devil can take captive or injure us and all who believe in Christ.

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IV.  CONCLUSION

The descent of Christ is an important theological point, not one which any Christian should sweep under an ecclesiastical rug.  But it is also a theological point replete with mystery and ambiguity.  Self-identified orthodox Christians have, since the Patristic era, offered competing interpretations of it.  I prefer the Harrowing of Hell version, but it is sufficient for me that a version of the Apostles’ Creed contain Christ’s descent.  Whether it says that he descended into hell or to the dead is a minor issue.

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KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JULY 26, 2013 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINTS ANNE AND JOACHIM, PARENTS OF SAINT MARY OF NAZARETH

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Ambassador Hymnal for Lutheran Worship.  Minneapolis, MN:  Association of Free Lutheran Congregations, 1994.

Book of Common Worship.  Louisville, KY:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993.

Book of Common Worship, The.  Philadelphia, PA:  Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1906.

Book of Common Worship, The.  Philadelphia, PA:  Board of Christian Education of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, 1946.

Book of Common Worship (Revised), The.  Philadelphia, PA:  Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, 1932.

Book of Hymns.  Milwaukee, WI:  Northwestern Publishing House, 1917.  Reprint, 1932.

Christian Worship:  A Lutheran Hymnal.  Milwaukee, WI:  Northwestern Publishing House, 1993.

Commission on the Liturgy and Hymnal, The.  Service Book and Hymnal.  Music Edition.  Philadelphia, PA:  United Lutheran Publication House, 1958.

Common Service Book of the Lutheran Church.  Philadelphia, PA:  The Board of Publication of The United Lutheran Church in America, 1917, 1918.

Concordia:  A Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs.  Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Publishing House, 1917.

Concordia:  The Lutheran Confessions–A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord.  2d. Ed.  Paul Timothy McCain, General Editor.  St. Louis, MO:  Concordia Publishing House, 2006.

Concordia Hymnal, The:  A Hymnal for Church, School and Home.  Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Publishing House, 1932.

Constitution of the Prebyterian Church (U.S.A.), The.  Part I.  Book of Confessions.  Louisville, KY:  Office of the General Assembly, 1996.

Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary.  St. Louis, MO:  MorningStar Music Publishers, Inc., 1996.

Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America, The.  The Lutheran Hymnal.  St. Louis, MO:  Concordia Publishing House, 1941.

Evangelical Lutheran Worship.  Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Fortress, 2006.

Fevold, Eugene L.  The Lutheran Free Church:  A Fellowship of American Lutheran Congregations, 1897-1963.  Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Publishing House, 1969.

Hymnal and Order of Service, The.  Lectionary Edition.  Rock Island, IL:  Augustana Book Concern, 1925.

Hymnal for Church and Home.  3d. Ed.  Blair, NE:  Danish Lutheran Publishing House, 1938.

Hymnal Supplement 98.  St. Louis, MO:  Concordia Publishing House, 1998.

Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship.  Lutheran Book of Worship.  Ministers Desk Edition.  Philadelphia, PA:  Board of Publication, Lutheran Church in America, 1978.

__________.  Lutheran Book of Worship.  Pew Edition.  Philadelphia, PA:  Board of Publication, Lutheran Church in America, 1978.

Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship for Provisional Use.  Contemporary Worship 2:  Services–The Holy Communion.  Philadelphia, PA:  Board of Education, Lutheran Church in America, 1970.

Lutheran Hymnary Including the Symbols of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, The.  Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Publishing House, 1935.

Lutheran Intersynodical Hymnal Committee.  American Lutheran Hymnal.  Music Edition.  Columbus, OH:  The Lutheran Book Concern, 1930.

Lutheran Service Book.  St. Louis, MO:  Concordia Publishing House, 2006.

Lutheran Worship.  St. Louis, MO:  Concordia Publishing House, 1982.

Methodist Hymnal, The:  Official Hymnal of The Methodist Church.  Nashville, TN:  The Methodist Publishing House, 1966.

Pfatteicher, Philip H.  Commentary on the Lutheran Book of Worship:  Lutheran Liturgy in Its Ecumenical Context.  Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Fortress, 1990.

Pfatteicher, Philip H., and Carlos R. Messerli.  Manual on the Liturgy:  Lutheran Book of Worship.  Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Publishing House, 1979.

Reed, Luther D.  The Lutheran Liturgy:  A Study in the Common Service of the Lutheran Church in America.  Philadelphia, PA:  Muhlenberg Press, 1947.

__________.  The Lutheran Liturgy:  A Study in the Common Liturgy of the Lutheran Church in America.  2d. Ed.  Philadelphia, PA:  Fortress Press, 1959.

United Methodist Hymnal, The:  Book of United Methodist Worship.  Nashville, TN:  The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989.

With One Voice:  A Lutheran Resource for Worship.  Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Fortress, 1995.

Worship Supplement.  St. Louis, MO:  Concordia Publishing House, 1969.

Worshipbook, The:  Services and Hymns.  Philadelphia, PA:  Westminster Press, 1972.

KRT

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