Creeds: Wording

It’s important, when reading a historical document, to understand what the authors mean by what they say.  Corollary to this, it’s dishonest to pretend that their words mean something they did not intend.

For example, Lewis Sperry Chafer always maintained that he believed in the perseverance of the saints.  But what he meant by “perseverance of the saints” was that the saints would persevere in being saints, which is to say, eternal security.  This is mildly dishonest, because the terminology “perseverance of the saints” goes back to the Canons of Dordt, which definitely did not mean only eternal security; they meant that the saints will persevere in acting like saints.

It would have been more honest for Dr. Chafer to simply say that he didn’t believe in the perseverance of the saints, but he did believe in eternal security.

When the wording in question is biblical, however, we do not have the option of simply abandoning it.

For example, take “He descended into hell” in the Apostles’ Creed.  Arguably, that wording, when first introduced in the Latin version of the Creed, meant no more than that Jesus went where dead people go.  They used the word “Infernus,” which repeatedly appears in the Vulgate as a translation of “Sheol,” the Hebrew term.  In the Hebrew cosmology,  all the dead go to Sheol — some to Abraham’s bosom, and some to torment, to be sure.  But Sheol was all of it.  That is, apparently, within the semantic range of “Infernus.”  (The Greek OT translated “Sheol” as “Hades” with similar connotations.)

Note that I said “arguably” above.  Later, in the middle ages, many Christians taught that after dying on the cross, Jesus spent three days in hellfire suffering for the sins of the world before He was raised from the dead.  There is some argument as to what the original framers of the phrase in the creed actually meant by it — just that Jesus really died, and really went where dead people go, or that Jesus suffered the flames of hell to really pay for our sin after He said “It is finished.”  Turns out, “Infernus” can mean either the place of the dead generally, or the place where bad people go to suffer for their sins.

So what does one do with the creed?  When I say it, I say “He descended into Hades” rather than “He descended into hell” because the English word “hell” has connotations of suffering for sin, which is the meaning I don’t endorse.  But many of my conservative brethren would ask: With that ambiguity in play, why would I be willing to say that phrase at all?

We cannot simply abandon “He descended into Hades” for the very good reason that it’s true.  Scripture speaks of the death of Jesus in just that way, albeit obliquely (Acts 2:31).  To say “He did not descend into Hades” is to say that He did not go where dead people go — which is to depart from Scripture, and the Christian faith.  We just can’t say that.

So we say the creed, and when we say the words “He descended into Hades” we know that some of the people who have said those words do not mean what we mean by them.  In fact, the people involved in framing that part of the creed may not have meant what we mean by it.  However, they would have justified the language by appeal to Acts 2:31, just like I would, and Acts 2:31 ultimately does not mean what they mean by it; it means what God means by it.  I affirm the biblical language wholeheartedly, and to the best of my understanding, I mean what God meant by it.

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4 Responses to Creeds: Wording

  1. Jim Reitman says:

    My, you sure have a way of stirring up trouble.

    I thought I had put a stake in the heart of that vampiric question that keeps climbing back out of the coffin whenever I “visit the graveyard” in Ephesians 4:8-10 and 1 Peter 3:18-22; namely, What is “into [eis] the lower parts of the earth” (Eph 4:9) and “preached…in [en] prison” (1 Pet 3:19)? I had originally come to the conclusion that these were referring to what Jesus was doing “in the grave” before his resurrection, but then I was convinced by other exegetes that the passages were referring to the Incarnation (NT) or Preincarnation (OT), respectively, because they had to be referring to time on earth “speaking” to still-alive-people with a legitimate opportunity to accept the Gospel and get eternal life.

    Now I wonder whether these passages may indeed be referring to Jesus’ ministry “in the Spirit” (1 Pet 3:18-19) while in the grave to souls in both compartments of Hades, such that he “extracted” the OT saints when he “opened the gate of heaven” and at the same time also “judged” those who rejected the Gospel (such as it was in the OT era). Both groups would now have to leave Hades for their respective “final destinations”—some to eternal life and some to eternal separation.

    In either interpretation, the point is not that he suffered for sins while “down there,” but rather had already taken care of that on the cross so that it now made sense to “liberate” Hades. So I guess I didn’t lose too much blood to the vampire this time.

    I wish you would stop being so annoying.

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Yeah, not gonna happen any time soon.

    I believe Eph. 4 describes the Incarnation, and then subsequently the ascension; I don’t see any direct reference to Hades action there, except that He led captivity captive — so it’s implied. When He ascended, He didn’t go alone, and He didn’t take the disciples with Him. So who went? Doesn’t say, but a victorious general doesn’t make the triumphal march by himself.

    However, I believe 1 Pet. 3 describes something that happened after the death of Jesus. Proclaiming His victory falls within the semantic range of the phrase there; I don’t see the need for there to be an opportunity to repent. So yeah, I think Jesus looked across the great gulf and said “I did it! I won!” And then he kicked out the door of Abraham’s Bosom and said “All you guys come with me; we’re going to see Dad.”

    Not a lot of suffering at that point, I don’t think.

  3. David Wyatt says:

    Well-said! Especially the part about kicking out the door of A’s B & taking the OT saints Home!

  4. Tim Nichols says:

    Thanks David! Glad you enjoyed it.

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