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§ 5. His Death and Burial.
Christ humbled Himself even unto death, and continued under the power of death for a time. The reality of Christ’s death has never been disputed among Christians. Some modern rationalists, unwilling to admit a miraculous resurrection, endeavoured to show that death was not in his case actually consummated, but that He was deposited in an unconscious state in the tomb. In answer to the arguments of rationalists, certain Christian writers have taken the trouble to demonstrate, from the facts stated in the account of the crucifixion, that it was not a swoon, but actual death which occurred. We are raised above such question by believing the inspiration of the New Testament. In the apostolic writings the 616death of Christ is so often asserted and assumed that the fact cannot be doubted by any who admit the infallible authority of those writings.
Under the clause, “He continued under the power of death for a time,” is intended to be expressed all that is meant by ancient creeds which asserted “He descended into hell.” Such at least is the view presented in our standards in accordance with the teachings of the majority of the Reformed theologians.
That the sufferings of Christ ceased the moment He expired on the cross, is plain from John xix. 30, where it is recorded, “When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished (Τετέλεσται): and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.” This is universally admitted. As, however, such passages as Psalms xviii. 5, and cxvi. 3, “The sorrows of death” (Hebrew Sheol in Psalm xviii. 5), were understood to mean extreme suffering, many of the Reformed understood the descensus ad inferos to refer to the extreme agony of our Lord in the garden and upon the cross, under the hiding of his Father’s face. But, in the first place, the literal meaning of those passages is, “The bands (not the sorrows) of Sheol, or (as it is in Psalms cxvi. 3), of death.” The allusion in both cases is the familiar one to a net. The idea is that the Psalmist felt himself so entangled that death appeared inevitable. This is something very different from what is meant by “descending into Hell or Sheol.” And in the second place, the position which the clause in question holds in the creed forbids this interpretation. It follows the clause referring to the death and burial of Christ. It is the natural exegesis of the words immediately preceding it. “He was crucified, dead, and buried, he descended into Sheol,” i.e., he passed into the invisible state. But it would be utterly incongruous to say, “He was dead, buried, and suffered extreme agony,” when it is admitted that his sufferings ended upon the cross.
In the larger Westminster Catechism,467467Answer to Question 50. it is said, “Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day, which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.” That this is the correct view of Christ’s descensus ad inferos may be argued, —
1. From the original and proper meaning of the Greek word ᾅδης, and the corresponding English word hell. Both mean the unseen world. The one signifies what is unseen, the other what is covered and thus hidden from view. Both are used as the rendering 617for the Hebrew word שְׁאוֹל. (probably from שָׁאַל to ask, or demand), the state or place of the dead; the orcus rapax of the Latins. All the dead, the righteous and the wicked, alike go into the invisible world, or, in this sense, “descend into hell.” Hence to be buried, to go down to the grave, to descend into hell, are in Scriptural language equivalent forms of expression. In Genesis xxxvii. 35, Jacob says אֵרֵד שְׁאוֹלָה, which the Septuagint renders καταβήσομαι εἰς ᾅδου; the Vulgate, Descendam in infernum; the English, “I will go down into the grave.” Thus also in Psalm xxx. 4, David says, העְֶלֶיִתָ מִו־שְׁאוֹל נַפְשִׁי, which the Septuagint renders, ἐξ ᾅδου τὴν ψυχήν μου; the Vulgate, “Eduxisti ab inferno animam meam;” and so Luther, “Du hast meine Seele aus der Hölle geführet;” while the English version is, “Thou hast brought up my soul from the grave,” which is explained in the following clause, “Thou hast kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit.” In Scriptural language, therefore, to descend into Hades or Hell, means nothing more than to descend to the grave, to pass from the visible into the invisible world, as happens to all men when they die and are buried.
2. This view is confirmed by the fact that these words were not in the creed originally. They were introduced in the fourth century, and then not as a separate or distinct article, but as merely explanatory. “He was dead and buried,” i.e., he descended into hell. That the two clauses were at first considered equivalent is obvious, because some copies of the creed had the one form, some the other, and some both, though all were intended to say the same thing.
3. The passages of Scripture which are adduced to prove that Christ descended into hell in a sense peculiar to Himself, do not teach that doctrine. In Psalm xvi. 10, “Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thy Holy One to see corruption,” merely expresses the confidence of the speaker that God would not leave him under the power of death. ‘Thou wilt not deliver me to the power of Sheol, nor suffer me to see corruption.’ This is the precise sense ascribed to the passage by St. Peter in Acts ii. 27-31, and by St. Paul in Acts xiii. 34, 35. In both cases the Psalm is quoted to prove the resurrection of Christ. David was left in the state of the dead; his body did see corruption. Christ was delivered from the grave before corruption had time to affect his sacred person. My soul (נַפְשִׁי), may be taken here, as so often elsewhere, for the personal pronoun, as in the passage quoted above. Psalm xxx. 4: “Thou hast brought up my soul (me) 618from the grave.” See Psalm iii. 2, “Many there be which say of my soul (me), there is no help for him in God.” Psalm vii. 8, “Lest he tear my soul (me) like a lion.” Psalm xi. 1, “How say ye to my soul (to me) Flee as a bird to your mountain.” Psalm xxxv. 7, “A pit which without cause they have digged for my soul (for me).” But even if the words “my soul” be taken in their strict sense, the meaning is still the same. The souls of men at death pass into the invisible world, they are hidden from the view and companionship of men. This condition was to continue in the case of Christ only for a few days. He was to be recalled to life. His soul was to be reunited to his body, as it was before.
A second passage relied upon in this matter is Ephesians iv. 9, “Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?” By “the lower parts of the earth” many understand the parts lower than the earth; the lower, or infernal regions. But in the first place, this is altogether an unnecessary interpretation. The words may naturally mean here, as elsewhere, the lower parts, namely, the earth; the genitive τῆς γῆς being the genitive of apposition. See Isaiah xliv. 23, “Sing, O ye heavens; . . . . shout, ye lower parts the earth.” In the second place, the context neither here nor in Psalm lxviii. whence the passage is taken, or on which the Apostle is commenting, suggests any other contrast than that between heaven and earth. ‘He that ascended to heaven, is he who first descended to the earth.’ In the third place, the Apostle’s object does not render either necessary or probable any reference to what happened after the death of Christ. He simply says that the Psalm (lxviii.) which speaks of the triumph of its subject must be understood of the Messiah because it speaks of an ascension to heaven, which implies a previous descent to the earth.
Much less can 1 Timothy iii. 16, where it said of God as manifest in the flesh that He was “seen of angels,” be understood of Christ appearing in the under-world in the presence of Satan and his angels. The word ἀγγέλοι, angels, without qualification, is never used of fallen angels. The Apostle refers to the evidence afforded of the divinity of Christ; He was justified by the Spirit, seen and recognized by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed upon in the world, and received up into glory. All classes of beings had been the witnesses of the fact that God was manifested in the flesh.
Much the most difficult and important passage bearing on this question is 1 Peter iii. 18, 19, “Being put to death in the flesh, 619but quickened by the Spirit: by which also he went and preached to the spirits in prison.” The English version is an exposition, as well as a translation of the passage. As the words stand in our Bible they afford no ground for the doctrine that Christ after death went into hell and preached to the spirits there confined. The Greek is, θανατωθεὶς μὲν σαρκὶ, ζωοποιηθεὶς δὲ πνεύματι, ἐν ᾦ καὶ τοῖς ἐν φυλακῇ πνεύμασι πορευθεὶς ἐκήρυξεν. If in this passage σαρκί, means the body, and πνεύματι, the soul; if the dative is to have the same force in both clauses; and if ζωοποιηθείς be taken to mean preserved alive; then the natural interpretation undoubtedly is, ‘Being put to death as to the body, but continuing alive as to the soul, in which having gone he preached to the spirits in prison.’ However different the views entertained as to what spirits are here meant, whether the spirits of living men in spiritual bondage; or the evil spirits of the dead; or the spirits of the faithful of former generations, still detained in Hades; the passage must, in this view, be understood to teach that Christ preached after his death, and if so, to the spirits of the dead. This is the interpretation which has been extensively adopted in all ages of the Church. The principal argument in its favour is that when σάρξ and πνεῦμα are placed in antithesis, if the former mean the body the latter must mean the soul. In the present case as Christ’s death is spoken of, and as it was only the body that died, it is urged that σάρκί, must refer to the body. The objections, however, to this interpretation are very serious.
1. When Christ is the subject the antithesis between σάρξ and πνεῦμα is not necessarily that between the body and soul. It may be between the human and the divine nature. So in Romans i. 3, it is said, He was the son of David κατὰ σάρκα, as to his human nature; but the Son of God κατὰ πνεῦμα, as to his divine nature.
2 The word ζωοποιέω never means to continue in life, but always to impart life. Therefore to render ζωοποιηθείς, being preserved alive, is contrary to the proper meaning of the word. It is more over opposed to the antithesis between that word and θανατωθείς, as the one expresses the idea of the infliction of death, the other expresses that of vivifying. ‘He was put to death as to his humanity, or as a man; but was quickened by the Spirit, or divine nature, energy or power that resided in his person.’ He had power to lay down his life, and He had power to take it again.
3. The difference between the force of the two datives is justified and determined by the meaning of the participles with which σαρκί and πνεύματι are connected. ‘He was put to death as to the 619flesh; he was made alive by the Spirit.’ The one word demands one force of the dative, and the other a different, but equally legitimate sense.
4. Another objection to the interpretation above mentioned is, that it makes the passage teach a doctrine contrary to the analogy of faith. Whenever Christ is spoken of as preaching, in all cases in which the verb κηρύσσειν is used, it refers to making proclamation of the gospel. If, therefore, this passage teaches that Christ, after his death and before his resurrection, preached to spirits in prison, it teaches that He preached the gospel to them. But according to the faith of the whole Church, Latin, Lutheran, and Reformed, the offer of salvation through the gospel is confined to the present life. It is certainly a strong objection to an interpretation of any one passage that it makes it teach a doctrine nowhere else taught in the Word of God, and which is contrary to the teachings of that Word, as understood by the universal Church. For such reasons as these the authors of our standards have discarded the doctrine of a descensus ad inferos in any other sense than a departure into the invisible state. The meaning of the whole passage as given by Beza is in accordance with the doctrine of the Reformed Church. “Christus, inquit [apostolus], quem dixi virtute vivificatum, jam olim in diebus Noe, quum appararetur arca, profectus sive adveniens, e cœlo videlicet, ne nunc primum putemus illum ecclesiæ curam et administrationem suscepisse adveniens, inquam, non corpore (quod nondum assumpserat), sed ea ipsa virtute, per quam postea resurrexit, prædicavit spiritibus illis, qui nunc in carcere meritas dant pœnas, utpote qui recta monenti Noe . . . . parere olim recusarint.”468468Beza, Novum Testamentum, 1 Pet. iii. 19, edit. (Geneva?) 1565, p. 570.
The majority of modern interpreters adopt the old interpretation. Bretschneider469469Bretschneider, Dogmatik, 3d edit., Leipzig, 1828, vol. ii. p. 219. expresses the sense of the passage thus: “As God once through Noah exhorted men to repentance, and threatened to bring upon them the flood, as a punishment, so Jesus preached redemption, or announced the completion of the work of atonement, to the souls of men in Hades.” According to others the souls to whom Christ preached were those who in the days of Noah had rejected the offers of mercy. According to the Luther and Christ after his death descended to the abode of evil spirits, not to preach the gospel, but to triumph over Satan and despoil him of his power. The “Form of Concord”470470Art. IX. 2; Hase, Libri Symbolici, p. 788. says on this subject, “Simpliciter 621credimus, quod tota persona (Christi), Deus et homo, post sepulturam, ad inferos descendent, Satanam devicerit, potestatem inferorum everterit, et Diabolo omnem vim et potentiam eripuerit. Quomodo vero Christus id effecerit, non est ut argutis et sublimibus imaginationibus scrutemur.”
The Romish Doctrine of the “Descensus ad Inferos.”
The Romanists teach that the department of Hades to which Christ descended, was not the abode of evil spirits, but that in which dwelt the souls of believers who died before the advent of the Redeemer, and that the object of his descent was neither to preach the gospel, nor to despoil Satan, but to deliver the pious dead from the intermediate state in which they then were (called the Limbus patrum), and to introduce them into heaven. These were the captives which, according to Ephesians iv. 8, He led in triumph when He ascended on high after his resurrection. This doctrine not only has no Scriptural foundation, but it rests on an unscriptural theory as to the efficacy of the truth and ordinances as revealed and ordained under the old dispensation. Believing, as the Church of Rome does, that saving grace is communicated only through the Christian sacraments, Romanists are constrained to believe that there was no real remission of sin, or sanctification, before the institution of the Christian Church. The sacraments of the Old Testament, they say simply signified grace, while these of the New actually convey it. This being the case, believers lying before the coming of Christ were not really saved, but passed into a state of negative existence, neither of suffering nor of happiness, from which it was the object of Christ’s descent into Hades to deliver them. The above are only a few of the speculations in which theologians in all ages of the Church have indulged as to the nature and design of the descensus ad inferos in which all profess to believe. Whole volumes have been devoted to this subject.471471J. S. Semler, De Vario et Impari Veterum Studio in recolenda Historia Descensus Christi ad Inferos. A. Dietelmaier, Hist. Dogma de Descensu Christi ad Inferos. J. Clausen, Dogmatis de Descensu J. C. ad Inf. Historia Biblica et Ecclesiastica. Harker, Diss. de Descensu Jesu ad Inferos. Bishop Pearson, On the Creed.
The Views of Lutherans and of Modern Theologians on the Humiliation of Christ.
As the Lutherans at the time of the Reformation departed from the faith of the Church on the person of Christ, they were led into certain peculiarities of doctrine on other related subjects. Insisting, 622as Luther did, on the local presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, he was constrained to believe that Christ as to his human nature was everywhere present. This involved the assumption that, in virtue of the hypostatical union, the attributes of the divine, were communicated to his human nature, so that Christ’s human soul was omniscient, almighty, and omnipresent. And as this communication of attributes took place from the very beginning, the human nature of Christ from the commencement of its existence, was endowed with all divine perfections. Yet not only in infancy, but throughout the whole of his earthly pilgrimage, He appeared, except on rare occasions, as an ordinary man, possessed as a man of no attributes which did not belong to other men. His miracles of knowledge and power were occasional manifestations of what as a man He really was, as those miracles were effects produced, not by his divine nature or Logos, nor by the Holy Spirit with which his humanity was endowed without measure, but by his human nature itself. His humiliation, therefore, consisted mainly and essentially in his voluntarily abstaining from the exercise and manifestation of the divine attributes with which his humanity was endowed and imbued. In the “Form of Concord”472472Art. VIII. 16, 17; Hase, Libri Symbolici, pp. 608, 609. it is said, “Credimus . . . . filium hominis ad dexteram omnipotentis majestatis et virtutis Dei realiter, hoc est, vere et reipsa secundum humanam suam naturam esse exaltatum, cum homo ille in Deum assumptus fuerit, quamprimum in utero matris a Spiritu Sancto est conceptus. . . . . Eamque majestatem, ratione unionis personalis semper Christus habuit: sed in statu suæ humilitationis sese exinanivit . . . . Quare majestatem illam non semper, sed quoties ipsi visum fuit, exseruit, donec formam servi, non autem naturam humanam post resurrectionem plene et prorsus deponeret, et in plenariam usurpationem manifestationem et declarationem divinæ majestatis collocaretur. . . . . Hanc suam potestatem ubique præsens exercere potest, neque quidquam illi aut impossibile est aut ignotum. Inde adeo, et quidem facillime, corpus suum verum et sanguinem suum in sacra cœna præsens distribuere potest.” “Humana natura . . . . inde . . . . quod cum divina natura personaliter unita est . . . . præter et supra naturales atque in ipsa permanentes humanas proprietates, etiam singulares . . . . supernaturales . . . . prærogativas majestatis, gloriæ, virtutis ac potentiæ super omne, quod nominatur, non solum in hoc seculo sed etiam in futuro, accepit.”473473Art VIII. 51; Ibid. p. 716. “[Christus,] postquam . . . . super omnes cœlos ascendit, et revera omnia implet, et ubique non 623tantum ut Deus, verum etiam ut homo, præsens dominatur et regnat, a mari ad mare.”474474Formula Concordiæ, Art. VIII. 27; Hase, Libri Symbolici, p. 768. “Christus . . . . etiam secundum assumptam humanam naturam omnia novit et potest.”475475Art. VIII. 74; Ibid. p. 782. “Eam majestatem statim in sua conceptione, etiam in utero matris habuit: sed ut Apostolus loquitur se ipsum exinanivit, eamque, ut D. Lutherus docet, in statu suæ humiliationis secreto habuit, neque eam semper, sed quoties ipsi visum fuit, usurpavit.”476476Art. VIII. 26; Ibid. p. 767.
In the seventeenth century there was an earnest and protracted dispute among the Lutherans as to the question, whether the humiliation of Christ was a mere κρύψις (or concealing) of the divine majesty of his human nature; or whether it was an actual κένωσις, an emptying himself for the time being of the divine attributes which belonged to his humanity in virtue of the hypostatical union. According to the former view, Christ, as man, was from the moment of his conception, everywhere present, omnipotent, and omniscient, and actually in his human nature governed the universe. The only difference, therefore, between the state of humiliation and that of exaltation, concerns the mode in which this universal dominion was exercised. While on earth it was in a way not to be apparent and recognized; whereas after his ascension, it was open and avowed. According to the opposite view both these points were denied. That is, while it was admitted that the human nature was entitled to these divine attributes and prerogatives, from the moment of its conception, nevertheless it is said that they were not claimed or exercised while He was on earth; and therefore during his humiliation although there was a κτῆσις or possession of the attributes, yet there was not the χρῆσις of them, and consequently during that period He was not as man omnipresent, omniscient, and everywhere dominant. The exaltation, therefore, was not a mere change in the mode of exercising his divine prerogatives, but an entering on their use as well as on their manifestation. The theologians of Tubingen maintained the former view, those of Giessen the latter. The question having been referred to the Saxon theologians they decided substantially in favour of the latter doctrine, and this was the view generally adopted by the Lutheran divines. The precise point of dispute between the parties was “An homo Christus in Deum assumtus in statu exinanitionis tanquam rex præsens cuncta licet latenter gubernarit?” This the one party affirmed and the other denied. The one made omnipresence and dominion the necessary consequence of the hypostatical 324union, the other, while admitting the actual potential possession of the divine attributes by the human nature as a consequence of its union with the divine, regarded their use as dependent on the divine will. It is conceivable that power should be dependent on the will, and therefore in relation to that attribute the distinction between the possession and use might be admitted; but no such distinction is possible in reference to the attribute of omnipresence. If that perfection belonged to the human nature of Christ (to his body and soul), in virtue of the hypostatical union, it must have been omnipresent from the moment that this union was consummated. This is involved in the very statement of the doctrine of the hypostatical union as given by the Lutheran divines. Thus Gerhard477477Loci Theologici, IV. vli. 121; edit. Tubingen, 1764, vol. iii. p. 428. says, “Neque enim pars parti, sed totus λόγος toti carni et tota caro toti λόγῳ est unita; ideo propter ὑποστάσεως ταυτότητα καὶ τῶν φυσέων περιχώρησιν, λόγος ita præsens est carni et caro ita præsens est τῷ λόγῳ, ut nec λόγος sit extra carnem nec caro extra λόγον, sed ubicunque est λόγος , ibi etiam præsentissimam sibi habet carnem, quippe quam in personæ unitatem assumsit: et ubicunque est caro, ibi præsentissimum sibi habet τὸν λόγον, quippe in cujus hypostasin est assumta. Quemadmodum λόγος non est extra suam deitatem, cujus est hypostasis: sic etiam non est extra suam carnem, essentia quidem finitam, in λόγῳ tamen personaliter subsistentem. Ut enim τῷ λόγῳ propria est sua deitas per æternam a Patre generationem: sic eidem τῷ λόγῳ propria facta est caro per unionem personalem.”
According to the Lutheran system, therefore, the subject of the humiliation was the human nature of Christ, and consisted essentially in the voluntary abstaining from the exercise and manifestation of the divine attributes with which it was imbued and interpenetrated. According to the Reformed doctrine it was He who was equal with God who emptied Himself in assuming the fashion of a man, and this divine person thus clothed in our nature humbled Himself to be obedient even unto death. It is therefore of the eternal Son of whom all that is taught of the humiliation of Christ is to be predicated. This is clearly the doctrine of the Apostle in Philippians ii. 6-8. It is the person who thought it no robbery to be equal with God, of whom it is said, (1.) That He made Himself of no reputation (ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσε). (2.) That this was done by his taking upon Himself the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. (3.) That being thus incarnate, or found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself by being obedient unto death, even 525the death of the cross. In this matter, as characteristically on all other points of doctrine, the Reformed Church adheres to the simple statements of the Scriptures, and abstains from the attempt to bring those doctrines within the grasp of the understanding.
The modern theologians, of whom Ebrard is a representative, in discarding the Church doctrine of two natures (in the sense of substances) in Christ, and in making the incarnation consist in a voluntary self-limitation, are necessarily led into a theory as to the humiliation of Christ at variance with both the Lutheran and Reformed views on that subject. According to this modern doctrine the Eternal Son of God did not assume a human nature, in the Church sense of those words, but He became a man. His infinite intellect was reduced to the limits of the intellect of human intelligence, to be gradually developed as in the case of other men. His omnipotence was reduced to the limits of human power. His omnipresence was exchanged for limitation to a definite portion of space. He did not, however, as stated above, when treating of the doctrine of Christ’s person, cease to be God. According to this theory the incarnation resulted, as Ebrard says,478478Dogmatik, II. ii. 359; edit. Königsberg, 1852, vol. ii. p. 32. “In Christ’s being a man. (1.) So far as his will is concerned, in statu integritatis, i.e., as Adam was before the fall, in a state to choose between good and evil. (2.) So far as natural endowments are concerned, with all the powers pertaining to humanity, which lay undeveloped in the first Adam. . . . . (3.) And as concerns his ability dominant over the laws of nature in the present disordered state of nature. Thus the eternal Son of God,” he says, “had reduced himself, so that as God he willed, having assumed the form of man, to exert his activity only as man. . . . . The exercise of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence had been to renounce his humanity. . . . . His act of self-limitation in thus reducing himself to the limitations of humanity, is the κένωσις; his voluntary submission to pain, shame, and death, is the ταπείνωσις spoken of by the Apostle in Philippians ii. 6-8: but both included in the wider sense of his humiliation.”626
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