Pastor's Note - September 9
You may have noticed that we use the Apostles’ Creed somewhat frequently during our communion preparation. It’s a wonderful, historic confession that unites us to the Church across time and space. Last week, someone finally noticed something, that I was waiting for someone to notice – that there is a part of the confession that we have omitted. The phrase in question is in the section about Jesus, which states; “he descended into hell.” Someone on Sunday asked why we omit that, and in my post-service foggy brain, I wasn’t able to answer well. So I wanted to answer that here, and solicit feedback from you all! It is a much-debated phrase, that in my perspective easily leads to confusion. We/I don’t normally include it for several reasons. First, the phrase “descended into hell,” on its face, implies in English that, on Holy Saturday before the resurrection, Jesus went to the realm where the condemned are judged in torment. I believe that is not the original intent of the phrase, nor does it reflect a theological or historical accuracy in what Jesus experienced during Holy Saturday. I don’t believe Scripture states that Jesus descended into hell. The majority of the church throughout history has not held that Jesus went to the place of torment, and our English version of the creed causes some confusion that is not found in other languages and versions of the creed. So omitting the phrase avoids that confusion. Second, some would argue then that we should simply say, “he descended to the dead,” which is certainly a good option! Maybe we should do that! This is the meaning taken by the Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 50; I encourage you to look that up. But I wonder if it adds any clarity, particularly when the phrase “he was crucified, died, and was buried” articulates the completeness of Jesus’ death. He fully experienced death. True, that doesn’t speak to what Jesus’ soul experienced on Holy Saturday, and maybe that’s where the phrase “descended to the dead” would help. But I’m still not sure that tells us much more about what we believe. It’s still a pretty nebulous phrase, and we would have to do a lot more explaining about what Jesus in His soul was experiencing in death on Saturday. Third, the phrase “he descended into hell” (or hades if you prefer) actually does not seem to appear in the earliest versions of the creed, which began to take shape in churches around 200 AD, Rather, it seems it was included sporadically between 390-650 AD. The phrase does not appear in the early church creeds formed at Nicea and Constantinople. So the phrase has a cloudy history, and I thus don’t feel terribly compelled to include it. And again, I’m not sure it teaches us terribly much by its inclusion. That is in comparison to another potentially confusing term in the creed; “catholic.” Some may argue that this word is also confusing, so we should change or omit it. But I like to include this term, because I think it does teach us something. The word “catholic” (notice that’s not with a “big C”) means universal – the whole church throughout time. It was used in the creed formed at the Council of Constantinople (381), so it has historic pedigree, and long before there was ever a “Roman Catholic” church. Before Roman Catholicism was ever a thing, early Christians used the word “catholic” to describe that we are one whole, universal body of Christ together. Maybe it’s my pugnaciousness, but I’d rather not give that word over to the Roman Catholics and never use it! It’s a great word to describe the church. So I’d rather use it, teach it, and reframe our thinking around it—and in the process endure a little confusion—than lose it forever. I think the word and concept is worth it. Again, it’s totally possible I’m just being stubborn in that case! I suppose my point is that I think the word “catholic” has historic and biblical credibility, and teaches us something valuable, where I am not convinced of the same for the phrase “descended into hell.” What do you think? Should we include that phrase, or some version of it? See the article below for a slightly different take (there are many)!