Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706) and Amandus Polanus (1561-1610) on Christ’s descent into hell

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Every Sunday, Christians around the world confess the Apostles’ Creed during worship. Sometimes referred to as the Apostolic Symbol (based on its Latin title Symbolum Apostolicum), it consists of twelve articles. The fifth article includes a clause which has often led to controversy, particularly in Reformed-Roman Catholic polemics. In it we confess that “he [Christ] descended into hell.”

Now, how should Christ’s descent into hell be understood? Many Roman Catholic theologians (though not all) have understood it by what in English has become known as the “Harrowing of Hell.” This view, in short, holds that the patriarchs of the Old Testament could not enter heaven until redemption by Christ made this possible. They were therefore kept in a part of the underworld called the limbus patrum (the Limbo of the Fathers/Patriarchs) until Christ’s soul descended into it and liberated them. But did Christ descend localiter (locally, i.e. spatially) into hell in the three days between his crucifixion and resurrection? Several reasons may be given why this was not the case, as Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706) shows:

“The Reformed deny all local descent, because (1) neither would he [Christ] have descended according to the divine nature (which by its omnipresence rejects all local movement), nor according to the human, which once more neither descends as regards the body (which throughout the three days partly hung on the Cross, partly lay in the tomb), nor according to the soul, since at the point of death he commended it into his Father’s hands, and since it ascended that very day to Paradise (Lk. 23:43), as Adam on the very day of his sin was ejected and carried away from Paradise (Gen. 3:23, 24). (2) Because a local descent is quite useless and superfluous. He did not descend into hell to suffer for us there: that had already been finished on the cross (Jn. 19:30). Nor to satisfy for our sins by such a descent; this was already provided for by his death (Heb. 2:14; 9:12; 1 Thess. 1:10). Nor to bring the patriarchs of the Old Testament out of hell, since they never were in hell, as is clear from Enoch’s case (Heb. 11:5) and Elijah’s (2 Kings 2:11). Nor to triumph over the devils; that was already done on the cross (Heb. 2:14, 15; Col. 2:14-15) and afterwards also in the ascension (Eph. 4:8-12) I shall add (3) because the Papists’ limbo is nothing but a superfluous fiction devoid of all Scripture and reason.”

– Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706), Theoretico-practica Theologia, V.xiii.12.

Amandus Polanus

Thus it is clear that Christ did not and could not have descended into hell locally. The majority of Reformed theologians understood Christ’s descent into hell in a different manner, referring it to the agony Christ suffered on the cross when he underwent the punitive judgment of God the Father in our stead. Amandus Polanus (1561-1610) explains:

“Christ descended into hell the moment when in the garden he struggled with the judgment and wrath of God and the horror of eternal death and ran the whole of him with bloody sweat; and was made a curse for us on the cross. And accordingly he descended living into hell and tasted the tortures of gehenna, though not however dead. Whence we understand that Christ descended into hell not locally, i.e. by quitting the body with the substance of the soul for the place appointed for the damned, because with it he entered paradise, he committed it into the Father’s hands; but virtually, secundum virtutem, by the strength by which he conquered hell and its pains in himself for our good. In the Apostolic Symbol the article on Christ’s descent into hell is placed after the article on the burial, but this is done in order that the things which happened outwardly to Christ, expressly in his body, might be recounted first, and only then the inward happenings to his soul.”

– Amandus Polanus (1561-1610), Syntagma Theologiae, VI.21.

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Historical trajectory of the Apostles’ Creed

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The Apostles’ Creed, according to legend, was composed by the Apostles on the tenth day after the Ascension under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The legend no doubt added prestige to the creed, but it was effectively exposed as legendary by Lorenzo Valla (c. 1407-1457) and subsequent scholars. The creed does, however, have a legitimate claim to its title on the basis of the fact that all of its articles are to be found in the theological formulas that were current circa A.D. 100.

The ancestry of the Apostles’ Creed can be traced to a creed that developed at Rome around the end of the 2nd century (known as the Roman Symbol). The origin of this creed is not clear, but its early form is likely preserved in the Interrogatory Creed of Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition (c. 215), the creed submitted by Marcellus to Julius I (340), and the Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed by Rufinus of Aquileia (c. 404), which was based on the baptismal creed of his own church, Aquileia, but in which he is careful to point out divergences from the Roman Creed.

The Roman Symbol (late 2nd century, as given by Rufinus of Aquileia)

I believe in God the Father almighty;

and in Christ Jesus His only Son, our Lord,

Who was born from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,

Who under Pontius Pilate was crucified and buried,

on the third day rose again from the dead,

ascended to heaven,

sits at the right hand of the Father,

whence He will come to judge the living and the dead;

and in the Holy Spirit,

the holy Church,

the remission of sins,

the resurrection of the flesh

(the life everlasting).

Note: The last clause is to be found in the Greek but not in the Latin

Interrogatory Creed of Hippolytus (c. 215)

Do you believe in God the Father All Governing [pantokratora]? Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, Who was begotten by the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary, Who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died (and was buried) and rose the third day living from the dead, and ascended into the heavens, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the Holy Church, and (in the resurrection of the body [sarkos])?

 

Creed of Marcellus (340)

I believe in God, All Governing [pantokratora];

And in Christ Jesus His only begotten Son, our Lord,

Who was begotten of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,

Who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and buried,

Who rose from the dead on the third day,

ascending to the heavens

and taking His seat at the Father’s right hand,

whence He shall come to judge both the living and the dead;

And I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy Church,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body [sarkos],

life everlasting.

 

Creed of Rufinus (c. 404)

I believe in God the Father almighty, invisible and impassable;

And in Christ Jesus, His only Son, our Lord,

who was born by the Holy Spirit from Mary the Virgin,

crucified under Pontius Pilate and buried.

He descended to hell.

On the third day He rose again from the dead,

He ascended to heaven, where He sits at the Father’s right hand

and from whence He will come to judge both living and dead;

And I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy Church,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the dead [carnis].

In the three centuries following the emergence of the old Roman Symbol numerous creeds developed in the area that was under Roman influence. While these creeds bear the marks of local influence, they have so strong a resemblance to the Roman Symbol that they can be considered daughter creeds.

The date and place of the origin of the present form of the Apostles’ Creed cannot be fixed with precision. There is considerable evidence for a date late in the 6th or 7th century somewhere in southwest France. The earliest appearance of the Textus Receptus (Received Text) of the Apostles’ Creed is found in De singulis libris canonicis scarapsus of Priminius, which dates somewhere between 710-724. This creed, which owed much to Rome, was finally adopted by Rome and became the common creed of Western Christendom, and is still confessed in traditional Christian churches all over the world today. Below is the Latin text with the English translation below it:

Textus Receptus of Apostles’ Creed

Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem, Creatorem caeli et terrae,

et in Iesum Christum, Filium Eius unicum, Dominum nostrum,

qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, natus ex Maria Virgine,

passus sub Pontio Pilato, crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus,

descendit ad inferos, tertia die resurrexit a mortuis,

ascendit ad caelos, sedet ad dexteram Patris omnipotentis,

inde venturus est iudicare vivos et mortuos.

Credo in Spiritum Sanctum,

sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam, sanctorum communionem,

remissionem peccatorum,

carnis resurrectionem,

vitam aeternam.

Amen.

I believe in God,

the Father almighty,

Creator of heaven and earth,

and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,

born of the Virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died and was buried;

he descended into hell;

on the third day he rose again from the dead;

he ascended into heaven,

and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty;

from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy catholic Church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and life everlasting. Amen.