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There seems to be much more debate over one clause of the Apostles' Creed than the entire rest of it put together, and that is the "descent into hell" (or "hades") clause, also known as the "harrowing of hell." I've noticed that some Protestants don't include it when reciting the creed.

Does the historical evidence indicate that the Apostles' Creed has always included this phrase? If not, when did it become part of it?


Related question: Did the Apostles' Creed originate with the Apostles?

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    Note that, at least according to the Catholic (and Orthodox) interpretations, “hell” here refers not to the place of the condemned, but the “hades” of the holy souls awaiting the Resurrection. See Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 631-737. I think the O.P. realizes that, but I mention it just for the benefit of readers. – AthanasiusOfAlex Jul 17 '15 at 10:25
  • META discussion. – user13992 Jan 14 '16 at 2:31
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For the larger context of the authorship and development of the creed, please see my answer to this question: Did the Apostles' Creed originate with the Apostles?

Church historian Philip Schaff provides a summary of the development of the Apostles' Creed in his book, The Creeds of Christendom. A helpful table, showing the creed's gradual formation in the West from AD 200 to 750, can't be reproduced in full here, but I'll quote the relevant part, listing each version of the creed, the year, and the wording of the "descent into hell" clause, if included:1

         Version                Year           Clause?
   St. Irenaeus                AD 200            --
   Tertullian                  AD 220            --
   St. Cyprian                 AD 250            --
   Novatian                    AD 260            --
   Marcellus                   AD 341            --
   Rufinus (Alquileja)         AD 390     DESCENDIT in INFERNA
   Rufinus (Rome)              AD 390            --
   St. Augustine               AD 400            --
   St. Nicetas                 AD 450            --
   Eusebius Gallus             AD 550            --
   Sacramentarius Gallicanum   AD 650     Descendit AD Inferna
   Pirminius (current)         AD 750     Descendit ad Inferna

It's not clear from my table, but if you look at the original, which shows all the clauses of the creed for each of these versions, you'll notice that this particular clause is one of the least-attributed of all of them. Especially notable is that it only appears in one version of the creed before AD 600.2

With respect to the first orthodox version containing the phrase (AD 390), Scaff notes that Rufinus didn't actually interpret the phrase in the Alquileja version the normal way: he thought it meant the same thing as the previous clause, "buried."3 If that's the case, then the first intentional orthodox/Western use of "descent into hell" was in AD 650.

This history has encouraged some to call for removing the clause from the creed, such as Protestant theologian Wayne Grudem.4 Grudem and others, like John Piper,5 also dispute the clause with biblical arguments, so it's likely that Protestant churches that have removed the clause from their creeds are doing so only partially because of the clause's history.


References and notes:

  1. Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, Volume 2, p54 (Also on Google Books).
  2. Schaff does not include in this list the versions produced by the Arians (Eastern heretics), but does briefly mention that Arian versions from AD 360 and AD 590 include the clause. (see following citation)
  3. Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, Volume 2, p46n2 and Volume 1, p21n4.
  4. Grudem, "He Did Not Descend Into Hell." JETS vol. 34, no. 1, p103-13; also available in his Systematic Theology (582-594).
  5. Piper, "Did Christ Ever Descend to Hell?" Interview, 2008-03-03.
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    I've definitely read some reformed theologians (I think Bullinger was one?) who interpret it as "buried." – Mr. Bultitude Jul 17 '15 at 4:09
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    @Mr.Bultitude Yes; Scaff considers Rufinus's interpretation to be close to that of Westminster, and says that "this makes it a useless repetition in figurative language." (II-46n2) – Nathaniel Jul 17 '15 at 12:37
  • @Mr.Bultitude I think I've just found a creed from 543 or before which seems to have it. – Matt Gutting Jul 17 '15 at 14:59
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    @FMS Irenaeus also says that his version is "received from the apostles" but he doesn't mention the descendit. If we take these claims as literally as you want to (that every word comes directly from the apostles), then either Irenaeus (a Catholic saint) is wrong, or Rufinus is wrong. The documentary history is much more reliable than historical statements that could very easily mean "The teachings of this creed, not its exact language, come from the apostles." – Nathaniel Jan 14 '16 at 13:59
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    @FMS Furthermore, even Rufinus doesn't have the same wording as the current version: he replaces "maker of heaven and earth" with "invisible and impassible." So even the Catholic church doesn't believe that Rufinus meant that the exact wording comes from the apostles, or it would have accepted his language rather than the current language. – Nathaniel Jan 14 '16 at 14:21

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