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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Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706): Should God be objectified in thought as an “Old Man”?

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The logical extension of the Reformed polemic against idolatry is that not only should the physical attempt to embody Deity be eliminated but so should mental concepts which attribute a corporeal form to God. Thus the question asked by Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706) whether God should be conceived as an old man is not a silly or frivolous one. Notwithstanding the negative theology (vie negativa) implied by the Reformed anti-idolatry polemic, it does not leave one to resort to mystical silence in which we can say nothing about God. Instead God’s self-revelation in scripture reveals those positive statements about God that are permissible. This is what Mastricht had to say:

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“[Is it right] in divine worship when praying to objectify God to oneself as an ‘old man’?… Because the Lutherans have long since lost the use of images in public worship, which cannot but generate such stupid conceptions in onlookers, they cannot with any sort of επιεικεια [graciousness/forbearance] find fault. They declare that such conceptions of God in the guise of an elderly man do not import any sin, provided they do not insist that God’s essence has such a figure. In order to get at them with both nails the Reformed say that it is lawful to have a concept of God, in fact it is highly necessary, unless we would be atheist; yet they hold that a concept of God under the guise of a man or anything else corporeal is quite out of order. [The reasons are as follows:] (1) The Saviour Jn. 4:24 bids us hold such a conception of God, as agrees with God’s nature, describes God as Spirit and of course He wishes to be worshipped and adored in spirit, i.e., spiritually, without any sort of figures; and in truth, or with true thoughts agreeable to the concept. (2) Such conceptions of God are false, according as they do not agree with the God conceived; in fact they are illicit. (3) Such concepts are vain Rom. 1:21. (4) They obscure the glory of the incorruptible God and as it were change it εν ομοιωματι εικονος φθαρτον ειθρωπον [‘for images resembling a mortal human being’ (Rom. 1:23)]. (5) By these concepts the heart is clouded and the mind rendered foolish.”

– Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706), Theoretica-practica Theologia, II.iv.12.

Definition of Theology: “Theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi per Christum” and its historical trajectories

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By Jake Griesel

Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), defining theology in a sermon on Hebrews 5:12 in Northampton, New England, 1739, stated: “Divinity is commonly defined, the doctrine of living to God; and by some who seem to be more accurate, the doctrine of living to God by Christ.”

By “some who seem to be more accurate”, Edwards was referring to Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706). The title of this blog, Theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi per Christum (Theology is the doctrine of living unto God through Christ), was taken from Petrus van Mastricht’s Theoretico-practica theologia (1699), I.iii, and is his definition of theology. This definition, however, was not an invention of Mastricht, but had a theological and historical trajectory which goes back earlier in the Post-Reformation era.

Mastricht undoubtedly drew from William Ames (1575-1633), who in his Medulla S.S. Theologiae (The Marrow of Sacred Divinity – 1627), chapter 1, defined theology as “Theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi” (Theology is the doctrine of living unto God).

Ames’ definition, in turn, can be linked to William Perkins (1558–1602) in his A Golden Chaine (1592), where he defined theology (and the body of Scripture) as such: “The bodie of Scripture, is a doctrine sufficient to live well.” (est doctrina bene vivendi).

Again, Perkins evidently adopted his definition from Petrus Ramus (1515–1572), who in his De Religione Christiana (On the Christian Religion – 1572), Chapter 1, wrote: “Theologia est doctrina bene vivendi.”

Thus we see that the definition of theology as Theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi per Christum had an historical trajectory of thought spanning across an era of around 165 years, in which it was developed, modified, and translated from Latin into English. And on top of that, this was done in five different European cities as well as in America (in the case of Edwards), as can be shown here:

Edwards (1739) Northampton

Mastricht (1699) Utrecht

Ames (English translation, 1642) London

Ames (1627) Franeker

Perkins (1592) Cambridge

Ramus (1572) Paris

This shows that the Post-Reformation writers did not work in isolation, but drew their thoughts from one another and stood on the shoulders of those who had gone before them – a firm indication of the catholicity of the Reformed tradition in the Post-Reformation era.

Jonathan Edwards (refer to the quotation at the top) had a very high regard for Petrus van Mastricht:

“But take Mastricht for divinity in general, doctrine, practice, and controversy; or as an universal system of divinity and it is much better than Turretin or any other book in the world, excepting the Bible, in my opinion.” [Letter, Edwards to Joseph Bellamy 1746]

Why was Mastricht’s definition of theology as Theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi per Christum so important to Edwards? Edwards tells us:

“It comprehends all Christian doctrines as they are in Jesus, and all Christian rules directing us in living to God by Christ. There is nothing in divinity, no one doctrine, no promise, no rule, but what some way or other relates to the Christian and divine life, or our living to God by Christ. They all relate to this, in two respects, viz. as they tend to promote our living to God here in this world, in a life of faith and holiness, and also as they tend to bring us to a life of perfect holiness and happiness, in the full enjoyment of God hereafter.”

[A special thanks to Prof. Adriaan Neele from Yale Divinity School, who taught me about this trajectory in my third year of theological studies, and has been an inspiration to me ever since.]