“Some have advocated that, since we do not believe that Christ went to the place of the dead, we should remove that clause from the creed. Others have defended retaining it.6 Calvin and the Reformed have retained the clause but have understood it to refer to Christ’s sufferings. We should explain that the original sense was merely “buried.” We might omit the clause on the ground that we would be reverting to an earlier form. Arguably we would not be substantially altering a catholic creed as much as removing early medieval accretions from it thus making it less Roman and more catholic.”
Creeds and confessions are unavoidable. As many have noted even the slogan “no creed but Christ” is a short, inadequate confession. Let someone enter a congregation where that confession reigns and say, “We should say more about the faith” and what will happen? He will be shown the door. On what basis? Presumably that very short confession. As a matter of history, the church has always confessed her faith in formulae. The so-called Carmen Christi (Song of Christ) in Philippians 2:5–11 may well be a confessional formula. Colossians 1:15–20 seems like a confessional statement. The Nestle-Aland (28) edition of the Greek NT indents the passage to signal the change in Paul’s form of discourse. 1 Timothy 3:16 is almost certainly a confession since Paul uses the verb “to confess” and then says:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory (1 Tim 3:16; ESV).
Then there are the “faithful sayings” in 1 and 2 Timothy.1 All these places would lead us to expect that the early post-apostolic church would continue to confess the faith and they did. The Heidelberg Catechism, which we are studying in this series, exposits one of those early creeds, the Apostles’ Creed.
The document we know as the Apostles’ Creed, which was not actually written by the Apostles, began to develop as part of the catechesis (basic Christian instruction) in the church in the 2nd century.2 One of the clauses of the creed that has caused questions is that which reads: “he descended into hell.” It is held in some traditions that by this Christians are confessing that our Lord, after his death, went to the place of the dead. It has been understood figuratively, however, by the Reformed churches to refer to Christ’s suffering. So Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism interpreted this clause.
As a matter of history, early on it appears that the “descendit” (he descended) clause was used interchangeably with “sepultus” (buried) and was added in place of “was buried” so that they had the same meaning into as the late 4th century.3 Thus, “he descended” was another way of saying, “he was buried.”
By 570, however, the received form of the creed included both “he was buried” and “he descended into hell.” Thus, by that time, “descendit” (he descended) was no longer being used to mean “buried,” but rather it was used temporally and sequentially to mean “he went to the place of the dead” (in the reading, “descendit ad inferos“). As Charles E Hill has shown, there is a link between the rise of this notion and Greek ideas about the inherent evil of the material world.4
Since before the 7th century it has been widely held that Christ went either to the place of the dead or to the dead ones to announce victory/preach the gospel (which view Augustine rejected as heretical), and the Anglican/Lutheran view is that he went to conquer Satan and deliver the dead from hell.5 Reformed exegesis of 1 Peter 3:18ff rejects such a possibility. We generally interpret 1 Peter 3 to teach that Christ, through God the Spirit, preached through Noah to Noah’s contemporaries. Scripture says:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water (1 Pet 3:18–20).
I’ve revised the ESV by capitalizing the s in Spirit in v. 18. Peter’s point here is to remind believers to behave themselves as those who’ve been redeemed by Christ. His pattern is to exhort us to piety and obedience and then to remind us of the gospel (where Paul usually does things the other way round). The basis for the exhortation is that Christ suffered not because he was a sinner or a lawbreaker but as the righteous one, as the substitute. As Peter says, the righteous for the unrighteous….” He did so “in the flesh” but he was raised from the dead, by the Holy Spirit. Peter is not saying that Jesus soul was made alive but that he, Jesus, was made alive by the Holy Spirit. The first phrase in v. 19 refers back to the Holy Spirit: “in whom he went….” (ἐν ᾧ) Where ever Jesus went, he went in the Holy Spirit not in his soul or in some other way. Where did he go “in the Spirit”? To the souls who were in prison. Where and when were these souls in prison? In the days of Noah! Peter’s point here, which he’s made in other places, is that our time is just like Noah’s. Just as Jesus, by the Spirit, was preaching to the world through Noah, so too, he’s preaching to the world through the Apostle Peter and the other ministers. Just as the world was disobedient and faced a cataclysmic judgment, so too our world faces an even greater and more final judgment. He goes on to say that baptism is a witness to this reality. Just as Noah and the others were saved through (not by) the flood waters of judgment so we, in our baptism, we’ve been identified with Jesus’ passage through those waters on the cross. We who believe should be confident that he has endured it all and in that confidence live as those who’ve been redeemed.