(RNS) What did Jesus do on Holy Saturday?

Posted by Kendall Harmon

"The single argument in its favor seems to be that it has been around so long," [Wayne] Grudem, a professor at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona, writes in his Systematic Theology, a popular textbook in evangelical colleges. "But an old mistake is still a mistake."

Grudem, like [John] Piper, has said that he skips the phrase about Jesus' descent when reciting the Apostles' Creed.

But the harrowing of hell remains a central tenet of Eastern Orthodox Christians, who place an icon depicting the descent at the front of their churches as Saturday night becomes Easter Sunday. It remains there, venerated and often kissed, for 40 days.

"The icon that represents Easter for us is not the empty cross or tomb," said Peter Bouteneff, a theology professor at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y. "It's Christ's descent into Hades."

Read it all.

Filed under: * Christian Life / Church LifeChurch Year / Liturgical SeasonsHoly WeekParish MinistryDeath / Burial / Funerals* TheologyChristologyEschatology

13 Comments
Posted April 7, 2012 at 9:08 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. John Boyland wrote:

Apparently the American Episcopal church tried to omit “he descended into hell” from the Apostles’ creed, or at least make it optional in the first BCP, but that various pressures (from CofE and the early bishops) led to the retention of the traditional wording.

April 7, 12:17 pm | [comment link]
2. TomRightmyer wrote:

The enlightened churchmen of the 18th century also had problems with the descent into hell and the 1785-89 revisers of the Book of Common Prayer allowed “churches” (undefined) to substitute “went into the place of departed spirits”  Ho-hum!

April 7, 12:18 pm | [comment link]
3. cseitz wrote:

It would be interesting to think through whether the same basic understanding of scripture actually unites a Piper and the Deist objection to the descent clause in ways that might surprise them both. I think Calvin is harder to locate on this issue.

April 7, 12:18 pm | [comment link]
4. Ad Orientem wrote:

Every other line in the Creed is optional in TEO.  Why should that one be any different?  Add a phrase here take one out there… no problem.  Knock yourselves out guys.

April 7, 1:24 pm | [comment link]
5. c.r.seitz wrote:

#4—are you referring to Piper and Gruden saying they have the considered option to remove a clause and will do so in this case?

April 7, 2:35 pm | [comment link]
6. Ad Orientem wrote:

Re #5
I am making a general reference to TEO being de-facto a non confessional entity.  There is no article of faith to which one is
required to subscribe to be a communicating member.  You can even become a bishop while denying every word of the Creed after “I believe…”  Yes, I am aware that in theory the clergy and faithful are supposed to subscribe to the Creed and the 39 Articles.  But we all know that the reality is that TEO is now just the Unitarian Church with smells and bells.

April 7, 4:18 pm | [comment link]
7. Kendall Harmon wrote:

I was surprised at my reaction to this article which appeared earlier this week.  On the one hand, I was delighted to see the topic covered at all, since it is so neglected.

But on the other, I was stunned that these gentleman whom I admire omitted the phrase in the Creed.

It is of course true that an ancient mistake is still a mistake—so far, so good.  But we are not just talking about that.  We are talking about a claim of an ancient mistake in the Creed.  That is an altogether different thing.  Of course, until history ends even there mistakes can happen but the point is you need to have extremely strong grounds for disagreeing with the Creed and the burden of proof is on you to counter argue against the Creed and to persuade the church it is wrong.

Until then, sorry, but part of being submissive to others in Christ is to accept the wisdom of those on whose shoulders we stand. We need to say all the Creed, even if there are parts we don’t like or do not fully understand.

So count me as an evangelical who is disappointed in these fellows and their action of partial creedal omission.

April 7, 4:46 pm | [comment link]
8. c.r.seitz wrote:

#5—the article has nothing to do with TEC. It has to do with gentlemen in the reformed church world deciding which portions of the Apostles Creed need omission.

April 7, 6:05 pm | [comment link]
9. MichaelA wrote:

#8 is correct. These ‘gentlemen’ do not have authority to remove anything. They are Reformed theologians who are entitled to express their opinion, just as Anglican, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox theologians express opinions from time to time, and not always correctly.

Just like their Anglican, RC, EO and OO brethren, sometimes Reformed theologians are wrong, and need to be pulled into line by the rest of the Church. Canon Harmon, although an Anglican, has started that process with this article.

April 7, 6:34 pm | [comment link]
10. MichaelA wrote:

The issue has been raised about John Calvin’s view. It would be surprising if Calvin had not expressed his view very clearly on this passage, since his “Institutes of the Christian Religion” is conceived as a reflection on the Apostles Creed!

Calvin’s exposition of this passage is worth reading. It also indicates why we should correct Messrs Piper et al firmly, but in a spirit of gentleness.  They are not the first to make this mistake.

“Here we must not omit the descent to hell, which was of no little importance in the accomplishment of redemption.  For although it is apparent from the writings of the ancient Fathers, that the clause which now stands in the Creed was not formerly so much used in the churches, still, in giving a summary of doctrine, a place must be assigned to it, as containing a matter of great importance which ought not be any means to be disregarded. 

Indeed, some of the ancient Fathers do not omit it, and hence we may conjecture, that having been inserted in the Creed after a considerable lapse of time, it came into use in the Church not immediately, but by degrees.  This much is uncontroverted, that it was in accordance with the general sentiment of all believers, since there is none of the Fathers who do not mention Christ’s descent into hell, though they have various modes of explaining it. ...” [Inst., II, 16, 8]

Calvin, like Cranmer, firmly supported the use of the Apostles Creed as we know it today, and as it was used by most of the medieval church. Calvin was aware of the criticisms delivered by some of his medieval theologians against the phrase “he descended into hell”, which were essentially based on its apparent lack of antiquity. However, Calvin would have none of it, because he considered the phrase to be fully consistent with biblical and patristic theology.

The Anglican divines were of similar mind, hence which this phrase has its own article (III) devoted to it in the Articles of Religion.

April 7, 6:51 pm | [comment link]
11. c.r.seitz wrote:

#10 Thank you.
When I said Calvin was ‘harder to locate’ I agree with your take in your last comment, as against the Piper/Grundem take on Calvin (if I read them correctly). I did not find persuasive the reasons attributed to him for why he wrote what he wrote, in addition.

April 7, 7:19 pm | [comment link]
12. Don C wrote:

John Wesley thought it might confuse the laity so, he excised the line from the Sunday Service that he sent the American Societies after the Revolution. It’s still missing in the ‘traditional’ version of the creed in the UMC Hymnal.

More intriguing to me, however, is why it never made it into the Nicene creed. Anyone?

April 8, 12:53 am | [comment link]
13. MichaelA wrote:

Don C, this may be the reason:

We have reason to believe that the phrase “he descended unto hell” was added to the Apostles Creed after the Nicene Creed was formulated.  Our evidence for this is that St Augustine of Hippo wrote a “Sermon to new christians on the creed” (De symbolo ad catechumenos), where he analyses the Apostles Creed in detail, but never mentions the phrase “He descended unto hell”.  From this we conclude that the phrase wasn’t part of the Apostles Creed known to Augustine.  Since Augustine was not converted from paganism until after the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD (at which the statement or ‘symbol’ that we now call the ‘Nicene Creed’ was finalised), there was no reason for it to be picked up into the Nicene Creed.

Of course, if the Church Fathers at Constantinople had thought it necessary to address the point of Christ’s descent into hell in order to combat the Arian heresy, they could have done so.  But they obviously did not see it as so necessary, and it is difficult to see what relevance it would have to the fight against Arianism.

As John Calvin observes in the passage quoted at #10 above, the Church Fathers all agreed that the scriptures teach that Christ descended to the dead.  They don’t necessarily agree on the precise doctrinal reason for this, but Calvin (and many other medieval divines, including our Anglican reformers) felt that this was sufficient for the phrase to be retained in the Apostles Creed.

April 8, 11:04 pm | [comment link]
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