- Revd Dr James Hughes
He descended into...
An occasional series on the 39 articles
The 39 Articles of religion may seem to belong to the sixteenth century, to a time of articles and confessions and other documents produced by Protestant churches across Europe, as they sought to define themselves against Roman Catholicism and the radical reformation. Certainly, that is their origin. However, they remain, along with the Book of Common Prayer, the foundation of Anglican Doctrine, more than just an ‘historic formulary’.
I want to illustrate that in these blog posts by reflecting on some of the articles, I’m not intending to do a systematic exposition of them– for that we are very well served by Gerald Bray’s ‘The Faith we Confess.’ Instead, I want to highlight some of the continuing wisdom and practical relevance of the articles for Anglicans today, as we seek to be faithful to God’s Word in our generation.
Last time we looked at articles 19 and 21, seeing that ‘councils err’, and the call that gives to faithful Anglicans to stand on the truths of scripture. Have that thought in mind as we come to Article 3:
ARTICLE III. OF THE GOING DOWN OF CHRIST INTO HELL
As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell.
The content of this article is not hard to understand. We are to believe that Christ descended to hell. This is an idea with an ancient provenance. For example, in the apostle’s creed in its traditional version we read: He descended into hell. The Athanasius creed is similar. Nicaea is more agnostic: He suffered and was buried.
But is this something we are to believe today? And what do we do if we don’t?
One option of course is to follow modern creeds and translate ‘he descended to the dead’ or similar, taking katoteros from the original as ‘place of the dead’. That sidesteps the problem, but still leaves us with the article arguing that Christ descended to the dead.
Two passages from the New Testament can be provided as evidence for this doctrine. The first is 1 Peter 3:18-20, where Christ in the Spirit, presumably between the time of his death and resurrection, preached to the spirits in prison, that is in hell. This is a possible interpretation of a difficult passage. The second is Ephesians 4:8-10, where Jesus is described as descending into the lower parts of the earth, again katoteros in the Greek. But is this a descent to the dead or a description of the incarnation, with descending to earth contrasting with Jesus’ ascent in verse 10. There is also a doctrinal argument, that it was necessary for Jesus to suffer the full punishment of sin by going to the place of punishment, and to overcome evil by battling Satan.
Again, we might ask, is this something we are to believe today? And what do we do if we don’t? In reflecting on this article, and the place of the 39 Articles more generally, I would offer two cautions.
The first is to caution against holding any doctrinal statement, however good and ancient, over the clear teaching of scripture. We uphold the creed and the 39 Articles because they are biblical, and so if it can be demonstrated that Jesus did not descent to hell, we must not believe it. More, if we recognise that this doctrine is harder to establish from the New Testament than others, we should be more charitable to those who disagree.
The second is a caution against rejecting the wisdom of the ages in interpretation, for many fathers of the church have believed it. We must not bow to the spirit of the age which says that a new idea is a better idea. Also, we need to recognise that we might be rejecting this idea because of our own modern discomfort with the concept of hell. Much more comforting to talk about the place of the dead. If we are to reject this idea, then it must be because it is clearly unscriptural, not uncomfortable.
I have asked two questions, and given at best a partial answer to both of them. However, I hope it is a helpful answer in encouraging us to reflect on how we understand the place of the articles today.