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The Apostles’ Creed. The Descent of Christ?

May 21, 2015

I believe in God the Father Almighty

Maker of heaven and earth.
And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord;
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into Hell [lit., Hades];
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
the holy catholic Church;
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting. Amen.

The Apostles’ Creed  affirms the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Pertaining to its first declaration, the creed begins where the Scriptures begin (Gen. 1:1). The Creed also rightly affirms the preeminence of Jesus Christ (Col. 3:1-5). Affirmation of the virgin birth and the incarnation of Jesus Christ are also upheld in the creed (Matthew 1:18-25). Essentially the Apostles’ Creed is in line with the Pauline gospel witness to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:3-8). His ascension (Acts 1:11), heavenly exaltation at the Right Hand of God (Col. 3:1; Luke 22:69), and imminent return as Judge over sinners with biblical precision (Acts 10:42; 2 Timothy 4:1; 1 Peter 4:5). The promised Holy Spirit is exalted in relation to His ministry and function (Eph. 1:13; John 15:26). The Creed emphasizes, at its conclusion, the salvific work of Jesus Christ and the gospel of Jesus Christ evident in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (3:16-21). Also the final three lines of the Creed point to the suffering Servant and His exaltation as written in Isaiah 53.

The Apostles’ Creed upholds the biblical, historical tenets of the faith; which has been once and for all delivered to the saints. Many affirmations in the creed are an encouragement and  foundational necessity. While appreciating the biblical veracity of the Apostles’ Creed, upon further analysis, there is a particular line which the Bible does not explicitly affirm. The creed expresses, “He {Christ} descended into hell.” The intention is to examine this affirmation in light of the assumed text (1 Peter 3:19-20).

Peter’s first epistle proclaimed the supremacy of Christ with  application for godly living.  Pertaining to the Apostles’ Creed, chapter 3 describes Jesus’ proclamation to spirits now in prison (1 Pet. 3:19). This proclamation carries the notion that Jesus descended into hell, post-calvary, to declare His triumph over death.

While 1 Peter 3:18 discusses the substitutionary death, and resurrection of Christ, His proclamation is emphasized not post-Calvary; rather, relating to the events of the succeeding sentence. Peter refers to those who were once disobedient in relation to the time of Noah. Fortifying this concept is Peter’s description of Noah’s preaching while he built the ark. Peter then refers to the flood which destroyed the earth and every living creature, except the eight persons whom God mercifully spared.  Peter contrasts the obedience of Noah and the seven persons with the disobedience of Noah’s generation.

The proclamation of Jesus was not a transported descending into hell to boast of His power. Rather, the text relates the disobedience of man (1 Pet. 3:20) with the patience of God (1 Pet 3:20). Peter does not address the heavenly or spiritual dimension in the text. What is more, the referred proclamation would have entailed the Noahic cry for repentance of sinful man (2 Pet. 2:5). This is similar to the ‘proclamation’ of Peter  (Acts 2:41),  Jonah’s proclamation to the Ninevites (Jonah 3:4), and John the Baptist’s call for repentance  (Mark 1:4).

Noah is said to have been a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5). Concerning the righteousness of God, Paul wrote that the righteousness of God was revealed in Christ (Romans 1:16-18). Since Peter alludes to an Old Testament account, Noah’s proclamation is pertaining to a time prior to the Messiah. This would affirm that Noah’s message was repentance and faith in God. Through Noah’s, Christ proclaimed the way of righteousness. The spirits ‘now in prison’ (1 Peter 3:19) are those who were judged by the cataclysmic flood (Gen. 7:6). Although they are ‘now‘ or presently in prison, they were alive when Christ made the proclamation to them during the days of Noah; prior to the flood.

Although there are passages which are written concering angels who committed gross immoralities (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 5:6-7), 1 Peter 3:19 does not tie his thoughts to canonical testimony of angelic immorality. Instead, Peter expounds the proclamation of Christ and relates it to the disobedience of mankind in the time of Noah. Noah was a picture of God’s patience in the preceding days leading to the flood, and impending judgment. This is also the  case concerning the earthly ministry of Christ in the Gospels (Luke 13:3, 5).

The proclamation of God was not to sinning angels, although the Scriptures do affirm that angels had sinned. The proclamation of Christ was to those who disobeyed and found themselves cast out of the kingdom. The Apostles’ Creed, therefore, concludes that Christ descended into hell whereby the Scripture does not clearly state this has occurred. My disagreement with the inclusion of Christ’s supposed descent into Hades and triumphal proclamation, is an interpretive issue. I would not label its inclusion in the Apostles’ Creed as a malicious attack on the Person and work of Christ in Scripture or a detraction from the spirit of the Creed, by intention. However, I would say that it is an erroneous conclusion. The Apostles’ Creed, overall, still retains its veracity and God honoring doctrines which we would heartily affirm.

The Apostles’ Creed has far-reaching implications for today. There are those in Charismatic persuasions who affirm apostolic succession or wrongly teach things concerning Christ. There are assaults from cultists and liberal scholars who may attempt to argue against the long line of faithful witnesses concerning the testimony of Jesus Christ. It serves as the means by which our faith can be encouraged. Christians, in light of increasing attacks against the faith, can be encouraged that those who have labored before us upheld biblical truth and assumed a biblical Christology.

The Christology of the Apostles’ Creed is consistent with the written testimony of Scripture by the Apostles. Present society and many false churches have made tireless attempts to remove God from the public sphere and the pulpit. They make academic argumentations that Jesus was simply a moral teacher, ethicist, and prophet. The Apostles’ Creed, consistent with Holy Scripture, upholds Christ as Lord, Savior, and Coming Judge. The understanding of Jesus Christ as the Son of God  is an eternal matter which confronts the souls of all mankind, whether by faith or in judgment.

-Doron Gladden

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