It’s important, when reading a historical document, to understand what the authors mean by what they say.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.