Archive for the 'Systematic Theology' Category

Did Christ Descend to Hell, Part Three

March 13, 2009

calvin-john-001I’ve written about the doctrine of the descent of Christ to hell here and here. I don’t subscribe to this doctrine because after reviewing various studies of the scriptures that are used to make a case for the doctrine, I am convinced the point is being stretched. In other words, the Bible doesn’t support the claim of the doctrine. But some very important Christians, with impressive credentials as scholars, have defended the doctrine. John Calvin was one.

For the curious, the scholarly, the pious, or the contentious…here is a link to the Apostles Creed with its own link to the writing of Calvin on Christ’s descent to hell. As I’ve mentioned, Calvin firmly believed that Christ did in fact go to hell immediately after his death. He said, ‘But we ought not to omit his descent into hell, a matter of no small moment in bringing about redemption.’ Click here to read his defense of the doctrine.

Did Christ Descend to Hell, Part Two

March 10, 2009

Did Christ descend to hell? In an earlier post I opened a can of worms by looking at this topic. The Apostles Creed says he did…or, at least, some versions of that creed say as much. Obviously, the topic is considered by many to be a doctrine near and dear to their faith. But is it warranted by Scripture? After all, the word of God must be the ultimate and final authority in all things, especially subjects that are concerned with the Christian faith.

turretin1Francis Turretin, probably the greatest Reformed systematic theologian of the 17th century denies the belief that Jesus went to hell. Instead, he affirms that the soul of Christ, after separating from the body, went immediately to paradise (1).

This is the reverse of the position of the Roman Catholic Church, which teaches (to this day) that Christ descended to hell. The Roman Catechism, published in 1566, states, ‘Christ now being dead, his soul descended into hell, and remained there just as long as his body was in the sepulcher.’ To make the point perfectly clear, it further states, ‘It is to be entirely believed that the soul itself really and by presence descended into hell’ (2).

Lutherans agree with this statement, but stress the fact that the descent isn’t part of Christ’s humiliation; it exhibits, rather, his triumph over hell.

In one section of his monumental work, The Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Turretin turns his attention to this doctrine and provides a detailed argument against the idea that Christ descended to hell. In what follows I’m highlighting some, but not all, of his points.

1. Turretin points out that the earliest forms of the Apostles Creed do not include the phrase, ‘…and descended to hell’ (3). Not only is this phrase missing from the earliest forms of that creed, but it’s also absent from the Nicene Creed. Some foundational leaders of the early church don’t mention the descent either; they include Irenaeus, Origen, Tertullian, and Augustine. Cyril of Alexandria summarizes the belief of many church fathers when he writes, ‘The innocent above, the guilty below; the innocent in heaven, the guilty in the abyss; the innocent in the hand of God, the guilty in the hand of the devil.’

2. Turretin affirms that Jesus went immediately to Paradise after his soul separated from the body. On the cross, Jesus promised the one thief, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 23.43). Turretin states that in this instance ‘today’ means the very day on which Christ made the promise. No delay is indicated. So, when Christ promised that the thief will be in paradise with him, he meant the literal day on which he spoke. Darrell Bock says that by saying ‘today,’ Jesus is not indicating the unspecified future, but the immediate present (4). There won’t be any lapse in time, that is, between the separation of the soul from the body and the entry of the soul into Paradise. The move from one state to the other will be instantaneous.

3. Next, Turretin builds the case for Christ’s human soul going immediately to Paradise. According to the Roman Catechism, it was his human soul that descended to hell. But Turretin draws attention to the fact that Christ commended his soul to his Father (Luke 23.46) (5). How could he commend his human soul to the Father, who is in heaven, if it was scheduled to spend three days in hell? (6). Obviously, it is impossible for his humanity to be with the Father and in hell at the same time.

4. Finally, Turretin states, Christ accomplished all aspects of his atoning work on the cross; there was nothing more to be done following his cross-work. This is indicated by his statement, ‘It is finished’ (John 19.30). Yet the doctrine of the descent to hell asserts that more work was still to be done after the cross—namely, there was another job to be done which involved going to hell. Among those who hold to the doctrine of Christ’s descent to hell there are different thoughts as to what job it was that still needed to be done. Of those who believe the doctrine, some maintain that Christ went to hell to put to shame unbelievers, others think he went to liberate Old Testament saints (8). But the phrase, ‘It is finished,’ which Jesus spoke on the cross, is a translation of the original Greek word tetelestai which denotes ‘the perfect completion of the whole prophetic image.’ In other words, with his statement, ‘It is finished,’ Christ was saying that his work on the cross was fully and completely done. There were no loose ends still needing to be tied-up. No job needed his further attention or effort. Surely if still more work needed to be done, Christ would not have expressed himself in the perfect tense. He would have said, ‘It is almost finished,’ or ‘It is nearly done,’ or words to that effect. A paraphrase of the perfect tense would be, ‘It is totally done.’ By expressing himself in the perfect tense, he was indicating that all of his work on the cross was finished. He didn’t need to descend to hell to finish one last job.

EndNotes

1. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 2, 13th Topic, 15th Question, p. 356.

2. Catechism of Council of Trent, Art. 5 [translated by J. A. McHugh, 1923], pp. 62 and 64. This catechism was written in 1566 in response to the growing influence of Protestant catechisms.

3. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol III, p. 413, states that it is impossible to determine precisely when the term first appeared based on existing textual evidence.

4. Luke, Vol. 2, p. 1857.

5. Soul and Spirit are often interchangeable in the Bible. However, there are distinctions between the two. But is this an instance when the distinction is in effect? Turretin would answer, ‘no.’

6. By stressing that it was Christ’s human soul that went to Paradise, Turretin is trying to clarify a subtler problem of a more theological nature. Christians had been asking the question, which part of Christ’s nature went to Paradise? Was it his divine nature or his human nature? This is not splitting hairs. Rather, this question goes to the heart of Christ’s true nature. It is, therefore, a Christological question, having to do with the nature and reality of Christ. Both the Roman Catholic Church and all Protestants share a common belief that Jesus Christ is the God-man. That is, two natures—the divine and the human—are united in one person, Jesus Christ. These natures are not mingled or confused. They remain distinct. Yet they are united in one person. This teaching was accepted as orthodox by the Council or Chalcedon which, as I’ve said, both Roman Catholics and Protestants adhere to.

7. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Second Edition, 339. These are the two most common teachings, others also exist.

What is a Catechism?

February 19, 2009

catechism-paul-teaching1

You’ve probably heard the word before but almost certainly it was said with a sneer: ‘Catechism.’ In our day and age, the word usually conjures up a dreary scene where innocent little children are taught to mindlessly recite church dogma, without really understanding what that dogma means. The teacher force feeds the children knowledge that is outdated, outmoded thus stifling the child’s natural ability to discover answers to life’s questions on his or her own. According to this view, those who promote the catechetical teaching love to follow tradition more than they do free enquiry. The only problem is, this view of the catechetical teaching is a distortion of the truth.

So, what is catechism?

The word means ‘to instruct’ and is put forward in the New Testament as a proper means of teaching others the gospel of Jesus Christ. In 1 Corinthians 14.19, Paul says he ‘would rather speak five words with my mind so that I may even teach others than ten thousand words in a tongue.’ In the original Greek in which Paul wrote, the word which is here translated ‘teach’ has the same root word as ‘catechism.’ Simon Kistemaker, a scholar of the Greek New Testament, explains:

The Greek verb katecheo (I teach) actually means that a teacher utters words that are directed to listeners who are seated at his feet. In the early church, the verb connoted a question-and-answer method that we associate with the term catechism (1 Corinthians, New Testament Commentary, Baker Academic, pp. 496-97)

The point is, Paul would rather speak a few meaningful words that people who are listening may understand, than speak ten thousand meaningless words that no one who is listening may comprehend. A few sensible words are better than ocean of senseless words because the sensible, meaningful words may teach people the truth. And how is the teaching accomplished? Through the simple method of the teacher asking questions and the pupil providing answers.

The first question of one of the great Protestant catechisms asks, ‘What is man’s primary purpose?’ (I’m using a modern version of the Westminster Shorter Catechism in this instance). The answer is, ‘Man’s primary purpose is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’

Who was taught by the catechitical method? Lots of people, including the first two or three generations of Protestants and Reformers. In fact, many of the great leaders of the Protestant Reformation wrote catechisms so that their people would have a firm grasp on the content of their faith. But catechisms were used in the church long before the Reformation of the 16th century.

The early church used catechisms to instruct the people. The writer of the gospel of Luke says that Theophilus, for whom the gospel of Luke was written, had been instructed according to the catechetical method. Luke writes, ‘it seemed good to me…to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things that you have been taught.’ The last word of that quote is familiar to us, it is katecheo (I teach). Theophilus, says Luke, has been catechized. Other places in the New Testament that speak of instruction are Acts 18.25; 21.21, 24; Romans 2.18; 1 Corinthians 14.19; and Galatians 6.6. All these instances may not refer to catechism. But in Galatians 6.6, Paul does seem to speak of teaching in the sense of catechetical instruction, that is, imparting the content of faith through the simple method of questions and answers.

William Hendriksen observed, ‘The church that neglects catechetical instruction has itself to blame for its waning strength.’

A Book for Couple of Family Devotions

February 18, 2009

book-training-hearts-teaching-minds1At bedtime, Terri and I observe a time of devotion. We’ve been doing this for some time and it has added something very important to our marriage. I can’t imagine our life without it. A good devotion helps a couple reflect on the day gone by and plan for the one to come. A good devotion points us towards God, reminds us of his goodness, clarifies his Law, underscores his grace, and leads us into fuller praise and prayer. And, hopefully, does so in a clear, simple way that is devotional, not academic.

With this criteria for assessing the value of a devotional in view, I recommend Training Hearts, Teaching Minds by Starr Meade. It is simply superb. Terri and I have received many blessing  for this plain little book. The format is straightforward: there is a short devotional for each day of the week (except Sunday) and each week has a theme. The weekly themes are based on the Westminister Shorter Catechism (a method of teaching Christians knowledge about God through questions and answers).

From start to finish the book takes about two years to go through, but as I say, the reading for each day is more than manageable. It takes us about ten minutes per night to complete that night’s devotion.

Starr Meade, the author, is easy to read and only rarely uses jargon. When she does, she clearly explains the jargon so that you understand what it means and why it is important to understand the idea the word conveys. It is very, very user-friendly. Again, it is not a text book, it is a devotional.

For Terri and I, devotions have become a time to take stock of our day, the words we said (or didn’t say), the actions we took (or didn’t take), the thoughts and feelings that went on. Since no one is ever perfectly perfect even for an hour (‘If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves…’, 1 John 1.8), the devotion becomes the moment when we confess our sins to our gracious heavenly Father and seek his forgiveness. It also is the moment when we renew our pledge to follow his Son and ask the Holy Spirit for guidance.

Training Hearts, Teaching Minds usually cites one or two verses of the Bible per day. The Bible reading are the centre of each devotion.

Click here for more details about the book.

Bound for Glory

February 17, 2009

book-bound-for-glory1R.C. Sproul Jr., author of Bound for Glory, says that the family’s chief aim is “to seek ye first the kingdom of [God’s] dear son” and offers a practical plan for husbands and wives to support each other and their children in this endeavor.  Nobody who intends to get somewhere drives around without a clear destination in mind.  Bound for Glory offers a destination for Christian families; to present themselves back to God as faithful members of the covenant with God.

R.C. Sproul, Jr. is pastor of Saint Peter Presbyterian Church, and Founder, Chairman, and Teacher of the Highlands Study Center in Bristol, Virginia, USA. He is R.C. Sproul’s son.

Click here to view more info.

Did Jesus Descend to Hell?

February 10, 2009

dore-judgment2

See my more recent entry here and here.

Over the years, various people have approached me with a question about Jesus going to hell. They had heard about the idea from the Apostle’s Creed and there seemed to be suggestions of it in a few passages from the Bible. They wanted to know, was it true? Did Jesus really descend to hell? The question has resurfaced since our congregation now, periodically, says the creed together during the Sunday morning worship service.

Because of the nature of its subject, the line from the Apostles Creed grabs your attention, drawing your mind back to the clause, ‘…and he descended to hell.’

What does it mean?

Before going any further, it would help with clarity if certain words were defined. In the days of Jesus, Hades (Greek New Testament) simply meant the place of the dead and hadn’t yet acquired the additional meaning of a place of torment. Hades is ‘the intermediate state between death and the future resurrection’ (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, page 548). Think of a public bus station: dim, dirty, and perpetually depressing. Once in awhile someone rambles by, screaming incoherent gibberish at you. You never feel comfortable, not only because it is a place that is physically disgusting. But it also is spiritual disturbing. Terminal is the perfect descriptor for such a place. The Hebrew Old Testament term, Sheol, shares the same meaning as Hades.

The equivalence of the two terms, Hades and Sheol, is shown by the fact that the Greek version of the Old Testament (known as the Septuagint) usually uses Hades (Greek) to translate Sheol (Hebrew). Hades does seem to include the sense, sometimes, of punishment. But, since it defines an intermediate state, the punishment of Hades is not eternal. The state of eternal punishment of the wicked is reserved for Gehenna.

The Greek New Testament word for the place of eternal torment is gehenna. It is ‘the abode of the wicked. Whereas hades is the intermediate state, gehenna is eternal hell’ (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, page 548). Going back to the analogy of the bus terminal: if hades is the depressing bus station, then gehenna is the final destination from which the wicked will never depart.

In the New Testament, hell is a catch-all word. It  is the place of eternal punishment (Matthew 25.41), everlasting destruction (2 Thessalonians 1.9), everlasting contempt (Daniel 12.2), unquenchable fire (Matthew 3.12; 5.22; 18.9), damnation (Matthew 23.33), the fiery furnace (Matthew 13.42, 50), blackest darkness (Jude 13), a fiery lake of burning sulfur (Revelation 21.8), and a place prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25.41).

There’s little doubt that Jesus died, was buried, and remained in the state of death for three days. But did he go to the place of everlasting destruction and damnation?

Bavinck

Scripture certainly stresses the fact that Christ died and was buried (Isaiah 53.9; Matthew 12.40; 27.59-60; Luke 11.29; 23.53; John 19.40-42; Acts 13.29; 1 Corinthians 15.3-4). As Herman Bavinck said,

Jesus in reality ‘spent three days in the state of death, belonged to the realm of the dead, and thus bore the punishment of sin (Genesis 3.19). To that state of Hades he was not abandoned; his flesh saw no corruption, for he was raised the third day; yet from the time of his death to the moment of his resurrection, he belonged to the dead and therefore spent a period of time in Hades (Matthew 12.40; Acts 2.27, 31) …For the idea that Christ had descended to the place of torment, the actual hell, is nowhere to be found in Scripture, nor does it occur in the most ancient Christian writers (page 413)…For Christ in truth bore unspeakable distress, sorrows, horror, and hellish torment on the cross in order that he might redeem us from them (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Three, pages 410, 413, 416).

Grudem

More recently, Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, has argued that the phrase is unbiblical and should be eliminated (pages 586-94)

The earliest versions of the creed don’t have it. The clause didn’t appear in manuscripts till the mid-300s (Bavinck, page 413).