What is the meaning of the atonement? A proposal

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Harrowing of Hell by Duccio di Buoninsegna ca. 1255 – 1319 (source)

At basic, the atonement is the doctrine of what God did to unite man with himself. Assumed in this doctrine is of course a foundational doctrine of original sin: mankind is not one with God, and thus needs to be made one.

Among the differing opinions of just what God has done to reconcile with mankind are two options.

One option is what we might call the legal doctrine of atonement. This legal atonement is posited in one of two ways: the Anselmian type and the penal substitution type. Both of these versions posit that the principal thing that separates man from God is the legal offense of sin. And thus, the thing to be removed is this offense.

Anselm posited an atonement theory which essentially proposed that God is offended by our sin, and Christ offers himself up to the Father as a satisfaction for sin. It is his self-gift which “covers our offense” and thus God forgives us. A more modern theory is commonly called penal substitution: in order for God to unite with man, he in fact must punish sin. Christ is punished by the Father in our place, and thus our sins are removed.

Without wholesale rejecting truths in these construals, I have issues. The struggle I have with these theories is that the problem the atonement means to solve is found in God: God is offended, and that is the thing that keeps us from reconciliation. Of course, our sin is offensive. But I wonder: why would that offense demand the death of the Son? Why couldn’t something else be done to rid the offense of sin? Is God unable to forgive without some sort of satisfaction? To be sure, it is said in scripture that Christ is a sacrifice for sin. Like the sacrifices of the Old Testament, Christ becomes a holy offering, a gift given over to the Father. And yet, I have yet to find it stated as such that without it God could not forgive us. To be sure, as well, we are said to be received into fellowship “for the sake of Christ”, something that the Reformation rightly recognized: we are not the cause of our salvation. Christ himself is the cause. He is our advocate before the Father. But again, this does not follow that Christ had to bear God’s wrath for our forgiveness. God receives us rather for the sake of who Christ himself is: he is the righteous servant, the obedient Son.

Patrick Henry Reardon rightly mentions that in Jesus’ parables, there is an assumption that forgiveness is something that, if it is to be forgiveness (!!), must be given freely without payment. Reardon says this:

The image of man’s “debt” owed to God is, of course, perfectly biblical. Jesus spoke of God as “a certain creditor who had two debtors” (Luke 7: 41). He also described the judgment of God as the summoning of the master’s debtors (16: 1– 12). But with regard to this debitum of the Lord’s parables, we encounter an immense irony: It is the whole point in these parables that the debt is not paid; it is simply forgiven. As the Church Fathers understood these parables, they refer not specifically to the work of Christ, but to the mercy of God and to man’s obligation to imitate that mercy.  (Reclaiming the Atonement, Kindle 816-821)

By God’s mercy he releases us of our debt. Our justification is through Christ, “for the sake of Christ” yes, but that is not the same as saying that God forgives us because he punished Christ.

With all that said, I do accept some legal aspects of the cross. However I do not think that the primary purpose of the cross was to remove a legal barrier of God’s offense to our sin. He does hate our sin, to be sure. But in my estimation we must locate the reason for the cross elsewhere. The atonement makes us at one with God for yet another reason.

I would like to propose a second type of atonement which I would like to call participatory atonement:

Gerhard Forde once wrote that God is only “satisfied” when he recreates sinners who are no longer under wrath. “Christ’s work, therefore, ‘satisfies’ the wrath of God because it alone creates believers, new beings who are no longer ‘under’ wrath” (A More Radical Gospel, 97). In this sense God is doesn’t need payment so much as he desires to remove the barrier of sin from his people.

Of course, this still doesn’t help us understand the atonement, but it does help us to understand the real barrier: the problem isn’t God but rather us. We are the sinners who have been so corrupted and lost, that it will not suffice for God to simply forgive us. We must be radically recreated. But how does this recreation happen, and even more, how does this relate to the atonement? What I want to propose is that the atonement is nothing less than God’s radical solidarity with us in our sin, a traveling down into the depths of our fallenness in order to recreate us and raise us up.

Robert Jenson, in his Systematic Theology volume 2, says that the atonement is what it costs God to remain our loving Father; or, to remain in union with his people, to be in fellowship with humanity. What did it cost? How could he remain our Father even in the midst of our sin? Very simply, it cost him death. In order for him to remain what he wanted to be for us, he had to die.

But why death? Why the gruesome reality of the crucifixion?

Well, because that was our reality. We were in sin and death and corruption and fallenness. We were a broken mess. God could have in his sovereign legal power simply acquitted us of our wrongs, but that would not have been enough. It would not have changed our fundamentally fallen situation. And so, he had to do something about it. And what he did, was he stepped into our fallen situation. This is the fundamental point of the incarnation: God steps into our situation to redeem it.

Reardon explains it this way:

[T]he Incarnation was far more than a condition for our salvation. It served, rather, as the effective model and exemplar of salvation. The Church Fathers insisted that the “full humanity” of Jesus Christ was essential to man’s redemption, because “whatever was not assumed was not redeemed.” (Reclaiming the Atonement, kin loc, 93-94)…

[I]f the fact of the Incarnation means that the Word adopted the fullness of human experience— sin excepted, says the Epistle to the Hebrews— then nothing human can be excluded from the study of redemption. The Word, embracing our humanity, took possession of all of it in order to redeem all of it. (231-33)

Reardon goes on to say that Christology is soteriology. God became man. God took on the fullness of our experience; and why did he do that? To redeem it; to transform it; to renew it; to glorify it. The early fathers of the church were fond of reversing their Christology in order to explain salvation: God became man; why? So that man might become God. By that they meant that God came down to raise us up. Christology is soteriology.

David Fagerberg explains it this way: “Our deification (sanctification) is twinned to Christ’s Incarnation. Mankind enters into the life of God because of his hypostatic union” (Consecrating the World, p 60). Fagerberg quotes John Chrysostom who says this about the incarnation and resurrection: “Two things He has done, the greatest things. He has both Himself descended to the lowest depth of humiliation, and has raised up man to the height of exaltation.” (ibid, 61)

Thus God condescended into our midst, into the brokenness of our situation, to redeem and raise us up. We may call this a model of participation or solidarity. God becomes what we are — sinful, broken, fallen — in order to make us what he is.

Thus the incarnation, cross, resurrection, ascension, must be seen as a whole. The cross is very simply the deepest depth of our fallen condition. Christ travels into the realm of death and defeats that reality, what the Eastern fathers called the harrowing of hell (icon above). God the Father vindicates (justifies) Christ from the dead, and enthrones our human nature at his right hand.

Mark A. McIntosh says this of the cross:

What we see happening in Christ on the cross is the stretching out of God to us in our affliction and separation from hope. There, in Jesus’ cry of dereliction, we see the Word of God finding us, sharing our plight, crying out to the Father. Our lostness and distance from each other and from God has been embraced within the “distance” of God’s eternal life of love, embraced within the love of the Father for the Son and the love of the Son for the Father, that one love — the bond of supreme union… — whom we know as God the Holy Spirit… Our suffering is forever embraced and suffered within this eternal loving which is God’s life. (Mysteries of Faith, 38-39)

In love, in forgiveness, God comes into our death, enters into our darkness, and embraces us so as to transform us. Salvation then is the reception of this embrace. We are acquitted of our wrongs “for the sake of Christ” and raised up and seated with Christ on high, removed from our fallen situation.

Doctrine of Election (sermon)

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I haven’t studied the doctrine of election for some time now. It’s simply one of those doctrines that no one can agree on. It’s controversial. At the same time, election is a concept in the scriptures. The question is: what does it mean?

One of my students asked me to articulate the doctrine of election during a sermon series. What I decided to do was to lay out the options when it comes to election (commonly called unconditional election and conditional election) and let them decide. I’m not quite convinced I did a great job at it, but… alas, what can be done! ‘ll let you be the judge.

Faith and Doubt

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Kallistos Ware, in his primer on Eastern Orthodoxy — The Orthodox Way — begins his book talking about what he calls “a mystery”: God. God in his essence is ultimately a mystery to us. In all that he reveals of himself, he is still a great cause of wonder and awe. As much as we may be able to comprehend him, we are still infinitely far from comprehending him.

Because of this, the Orthodox have a way of “doing theology” called apophatism. “Apophatic” theology is essentially doing theology through negation. Or, put another way, the Orthodox stress that one safe way of “knowing” God is by knowing what he is not. God is not finite. God is not a man. God does not change, etc.

Now, why do theology in this manner? Ware explains:

Without this use of the way of negation…our talk of God becomes gravely misleading. All that we affirm concerning God, however correct, falls far short of the living truth. If we say that he is good or just, we must at once add that his goodness or justice are not to be measured by our human standards. If we say he exists, we must qualify this immediately by adding that he is not one existent object among many, that in his case the word “exist” bears a unique significance. So the way of affirmation is balanced by the way of negation. As Cardinal Newman puts it, we are continually “saying and unsaying to a positive effect”. Having made an assertion about God, we must pass beyond it: the statement is not untrue, yet neither it nor any other form of words can contain the fullness of the transcendant God. (p 14)

God is then, ultimately, in his bare essence, a true mystery. In all that we affirm about God, we must also “go beyond”, explain what he is also not.

With that said, Ware then goes on to explain that because God is a mystery, knowledge of  God must be less of an affirmation of facts or truths about him, and more of a personal knowing of him. Theology, properly speaking, does not give us an air-tight knowledge about God; rather, it leads us into an ever-deepening friendship with him.

Ware explains by way of the Nicene Creed:

In the [Nicene] Creed we do not say, ” I believe that there is a God”; we say, “I believe in one God”. Between belief that and belief in, there is a crucial distinction. It is possible for me to believe that someone or something exists, and yet for this belief have no practical effect upon my life.

I say to a much-loved friend, “I believe in you”. I am doing far more than expressing belief that this person exists. “I believe in you” means: I turn to you, I rely upon you, I put my full trust in you and I hope in you. (p 16)

It is not the task of Christianity provide easy answers to every questions, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery (p 14)

Going on from this, Ware addresses the question of doubt. Usually doubt is seen as something opposite to faith. They are seen as opposing forces, such that to struggle with doubt means to be weak in faith. But, having seen that theology is less about having complete knowledge about God, and more of an intimate friendship with him — entering ever-deeper into a mystery — doubt ceases to be an opposing force.

Ware explains:

Because faith is not logical certainty but a personal relationship, and because this personal relationship is as yet very incomplete in each of us and needs continually to develop further, it is by no means impossible for faith to coexist with doubt. The two are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps there are some who by God’s grace retain throughout their life the faith of a little child, enabling them to accept without question all that they have been taught. For most of those living in the West today, however, such an attitude is simply not possible. We have to make our own cry, “Lord I believe: help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). For very many of us this will remain our constant prayer right up to the very gates of death. Yet doubt does not in itself signify lack of faith. It may mean the opposite — that our faith is alive and growing. For faith implies not complacency but taking risks, not shutting ourselves off from the unknown but advancing boldly to meet it…

The words of Bishop J.A.T. Robinson: “The act of faith is a constant dialogue with doubt”. As Thomas Merton rightly says, “Faith is a principle of questioning and struggle before it becomes a principle of certitude and peace” (p 16)

Doing Theology through Analogy

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R Scott Clark has a great discussion in his Recovering the Reformed Confession. He begins chapter four by explaining that Christian theology has a way of viewing reality that makes an important distinction between Creator and creature. This view of reality is commonly called analogical. Human, worldly, earthly existence is an analogy of God’s true essence or existence. Put another way, man is created in God’s image and likeness, but not in his essence. The world images and represents God, and we know him only through those images by way of analogy, not in his bare essence. Theology is then properly analogue speech.

Clark explains:

[There are a] number of biblical passages which indicate a conceptual framework in which God and human beings are regarded as analogues. This analogical conception is basic to Genesis 1:26, in which Adam is said to have been made in the “image” and “likeness.” In verse 27 the same language is repeated, but set in terms of Adam’s relations to another, a female person. As a created representation of God, as an image/likeness bearer, Adam was nothing, if not an analogue to God.

Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (Kindle Locations 2020-2023)

Adam is called an image of God. He is a representation of him. He does not share in his essence. Rather, Adam is an “icon” of God’s true essence. What this means is that Adam represented and related to God by way of analogy.

Clark goes on to argue that this is how all of reality is: it is a representation of God’s true essence. He cites the fact that the temple built under Moses’ leadership was a “copy” of the heavenly temple. What this indicates of course, is that there is a heavenly temple after which the earthly temple is built. Israel only had a copy, not the real deal. And, they worshipped and relate to God by way of the copy, not the reality (that is not to say that their worship wasn’t real, but only to say that they really worshipped God in the temple-copy, not the reality). Clark also cites Hebrews which calls the temple and priesthood under the old covenant a “type and shadow” of the true and heavenly priest and temple, Christ.

The point of all of that is to say that we relate to God by way of analogy, of representations and copies that image him but do not show him in his essence.

Now, why does God relate to us this way? Clark explains that God does it this way beacuse “the ‘finite is not capable of the infinite’ (finitum non capax infiniti)”. The infinite cannot be perceived by the finite. For this reason, God’s true essence is hidden to us. It is unknown. But because God actually wants to relate to us, he “condescends” to us through images and representations, much like a father relates to his child. As Calvin famously says, God “speaks baby talk” or “babbles” to us so that we can relate to him.

Now what this means is that whenever we talk about God, we can only talk about him as he has revealed himself to us: through images, analogies, copies. We cannot know God in his essence; we must speak about God by way of analogy. And because we can only speak of God through analogy, as Clark explains, “there is a certain degree of falsehood in human speech about God” (Kindle Locations 2155-2156).

Clark calls this “degree of falsehood” the “as it were principle”. He explains:

We see [the as it were principle] at work in Heidelberg Catechism Q. 27. In answer to the question, “What do you understand by the providence of God?” we confess, “The almighty and everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were, by his hand he still upholds heaven and earth.” We do not believe or confess that God, considered apart from the incarnation, can be said to have a literal hand. We recognize this as a metaphorical way of speaking about God’s providential work in the world. Yet we also recognize that, because of our finitude, in order to say something true about God we must use divinely authorized analogies to say something that entails a certain degree of falseness. (Kindle Locations 2156-2162).

Properly, it is false that God has physical hands which he uses to hold up the universe. But the point is that this is analogue speech about God. We know that God sustains the universe. How he does it, and what powers he works, we simply don’t and can’t know. We only know by way of analogy. We know God “as it were”. Which is to say that we know God by comparing, imaging, representing, etc. We cannot know him in his essence; but in his grace he stoops down in images and copies to make himself known to us!

 

Thomas Aquinas: His Life and Contribution

I am studying the life and works of Thomas Aquinas for a history class I’m taking. So I figured I would do a few posts on Aquinas’ life and works. In this post I want to consider Thomas Aquinas’ life and contribution to the church.

First, who was Thomas Aquinas? Aquinas was born in the 13th century, in 1225, near the town of Aquino — hence he was named Thomas of Aquino, or Aquinas. Aquinas was born into a wealthy royal family. Taylor Marshall tells us,

His father was the Count of Aquino and his mother was the Countess of Theate. This noble bloodline related Thomas to the Hohenstaufen dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire — a dynasty that includes the infamous Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. (Thomas Aquinas in 50 Pages, 3)

We also know that one of Aquinas’ relatives was the Roman Emperor. Because of his noble birth, his parents had planned to make him Abbot over the monastery in Monte Cassino. Marshall tells us that this monastic house was considered “the motherhouse of medieval monasticism…To be the Abbot of Monte Cassino was to reign as a prince” (Thomas Aquinas in 50 pages, 3).

In 1230, Aquinas’ parents sent him to the same monastery for education; however, during his teenage years, his parents were forced to relocate him due to war in the surrounding region. His parents sent him away to the University of Naples. It was during this time that Aquinas came under the influence of men who would change his direction in life forever. Taylor Marshall explains:

As a student in Naples, the young Thomas fell under the influence of an inspired preacher by the name of John of Saint Julian. John of Saint Julian belonged to a new order of religious that did not identify themselves as “monks”, but rather as “brothers” or “friars”. John of Saint Julian belonged to a new movement, considered fanatical by some, known as the Order of the Preachers or “Dominicans”…This Order of Preachers was simply…a brotherhood of itinerant preachers who went from town to town, often barefoot and begging for food. They slept in fields, barns, or wherever they were allowed. Unlike Benedict Abbot of Monte Cassino, who rode stately horses and wre jewels and silk, the Dominicans lived a radical life of poverty and preaching. This life of penance appealed to the young Thomas, to the shock of his parents (Thomas Aquinas in 50 pages, 4)

It was this influence that led Thomas to denounce his calling to be Abbot. Instead, Thomas would live in poverty, a beggar and traveling preacher — he would be a Dominican Friar! To be a Dominican, one would swear himself to poverty, to literally be a “dog for the Lord”, which is what Dominican means in Latin (Domini canes). At age 19, in 1244, he joined the order, and journeyed north to Rome to start his studies.

His family, however, would not have it. During his trip, his own brothers (at the request of his mother) kidnapped him and locked him in their castle in Monte San Giovanni Campano. This “house arrest” lasted for one year; and during this time, his mother and brothers attempted to dissuade him from joining the friars.

Feser comments on this time:

In hope of getting him to change his mind, his brothers abducted him and put him under house arrest at the family castle… for about a year, though he spent time committing to memory the entire Bible and four books of the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Notoriously, they even went to the extent of sending a prostitute into his room on one occasion, but he chased her away with a flaming stick pulled from the fireplace, which he used afterward to make a sign of the cross on the wall. As the story has it, he then kneeled before the cross and prayed for the gift of perpetual chastity, which he received at the hands of two angels who girded his loins with a miraculous cord. Eventually his brothers relented and he was allowed to return to the Dominicans (Aquinas, 3-4)

After being released in 1245, Thomas’ order assigned him to the university in Paris where he would study theology under Albert the Great. It was during this time that Thomas Aquinas was given the name “Dumb Ox” by his classmates because of his large, yet quiet stature. GK Chesterton tells us this of Thomas Aquinas:

Thomas was a huge heavy bull of a man, fat and slow and quiet; very mild and magnanimous but not very sociable; shy, even apart from the humility of holiness… [He] was so stolid that the scholars, in the schools in which he attended regularly, thought he was a dunce (Dumb Ox, 4)

Understandably, it was because of this trait that Thomas struggled to integrate with his fellow students. Feser tells us that during those years, Albert the Great, seeing Aquinas’ great intellect, warned his class that “the Ox’s ‘bellowing’ would someday be heard throughout the world” (ibid, 4). How right he was!

It was also during this time under Albert, that Aquinas was greatly influenced by Aristotle. And while Thomas loved Aristotle, the university was quite apprehensive to philosophy. In fact, in order to study him, Aquinas had to take an extra “track” at the university, because philosophy was considered a “secular” subject rather than theological.

After graduating with a masters, Thomas Aquinas went on to teach in the university in Paris and in other Dominican houses for the next 13 years (1259-72). We are told by Ralph McInerny, that it was customary for Dominican masters to teach for a three year segment in the formal university, and then move on to teach in houses of the Dominican Orders. However, because of Thomas’ great intellect, he was invited to teach a second three-year stint (McInerny, Aquinas, 16-23).

During Aquinas’ second stint teaching in the university of Paris, a controversy arose over the place of Aristotle and pagan philosophy in the church: a group of Aristotelians called the Averroists espoused a theory called the “two truth” theory, which argued that something could be true philosophically that is not true theologically — hence, two types of “truth”. Aquinas argued against this position, seeing the inherent danger. He ultimately argued that all truth is God’s truth, whether it be philosophical, theological, or scientific. I will take up this topic in another post.

Thomas Aquinas was an avid writer. In fact, McInerny tells us that “Thomas’ output during…[his] years in Paris seems scarcely credible” (ibid, 23). To write faster, McInerny tells us that Thomas would write in shorthand. McInery explains:

A feature of Thomas’ manuscripts is the obvious haste with which they were written, in shorthand Latin, in a scrawl which led to calling a text of Thomas litera inintellgibilis, unreadable writing. Eventually he would be assigned secretaries, among them Reginald of Piperno, who took down Thomas dictation, a process which doubtless increased his productivity. (ibid, 18)

Thomas wrote many works under this method, with his most important being the unfinished Summa Theologica, which he began in 1265.

After his time in Paris was finished, in 1272, he returned to Naples and lived in the Dominican house there. McInerny tells us that it was during this time that Thomas did something strange: he stopped writing altogether. McInerny explains:

On December 6, 1273, Thomas decided to stop writing. Some biographers conjecture that he had a kind of mental breakdown. But it was a mystical experience that silenced Thomas. After what he had seen, he told Reginald (his secretary), everything he had written seemed mere straw. He could not bring himself to complete the Summa (ibid, 25).

Apparently a heavenly vision halted Thomas’ writing. Thomas never spoke of the details of what he saw, but the magnificence of it made his writings seem inadequate. Fortunately, some of Thomas’ disciples supplemented his incomplete Summa with other commentaries of his after his death. Toward the end of his life, Thomas was summoned to a council in Lyons in 1274. While on his way to that council, he hit his head on a branch, and died soon after from complications on March 7, 1274. He was only 49 years old when he died.

What was Aquinas’ greatest contribution to the church? GK Chesterton is helpful with this question: he says simply that Thomas “reconciled Aristotle with Christ” (Dumb Ox, 8). What he means is that Thomas Aquinas synthesized philosophy with Christianity. Many Christians then (and today) did not believe that reason and philosophy could be trusted or reconciled with the Christian worldview. However, Thomas argued that this was not the case.

Chesterton goes on to explain:

Thomas was a very great man who reconciled religion with reason, who expanded it toward experimental science, who insisted that the senses were windows to the soul and that reason had a divine right to feed upon facts, and that it was the business of the Faith to digest the strong meat of the toughest and most practical of pagan philosophies…It was the very life of the Thomist teaching that Reason can be trusted (ibid, 11)

Faith and reason, in other words, were what Thomas labored to reconcile. We will go on in later posts to examine just what that means.

The Christological Heresies: Apollinarianism

During the first five centuries after its conception, the church was forced to deal with several different heresies concerning Christ. In fact, the church was forced to formulate a concise universal statement about the nature of Christ (Nicene Creed), because of the many differing heresies proposed during its infancy.

Most of these heresies centered around the nature of Christ, his humanity and divinity. How divine was Christ, really? How human was Christ, really? And how do these natures interact with one another?

In the next few blog posts, I want to consider a few of the more famous Christological heresies. In this post, I want to consider what is called the Apollinarian heresy:

By the fifth century, it became orthodox to believe that God in Christ had assumed a full human nature for our redemption. The eastern church had coined a phrase which is still prominent today: “God became man that man might become God” — and by that, they meant that God became fully man, that we might participate fully and redemptively in His very life. The thought was that if God wanted to assume and redeem mankind back into fellowship with him, he needed to become fully human in the incarnation to raise us back to glory.

One bishop name Apollinaris (after whom was named this heresy), however, was uncomfortable with affirming that God the Son became fully man. To him, to become fully man was to taint the divine nature.

Allister McGrath explains:

Apollinaris of Laodocia had anxieties about the increasingly widespread belief that the Logos (God the Son) assumed human nature in its entirety. It seemed to him that this implied that the Logos was contaminated by the weaknesses of human nature. How could the Son of God be allowed to be tainted by purely human directive principles? The sinlessness of Christ would be compromised, in Apollinaris’ view, if he were to possess a purely human mind. Was not the human mind the source of sin and rebellion against God? Only if the human mind were to be replaced by a purely divine motivating and directing force could the sinlessness of Christ be maintained. For this reason, Apollinaris argued that, in Christ, a purely human mind and soul were replaced by a divine mind and soul: “The divine energy fulfills the role of the animative soul and of the human mind” in Christ. The human nature was thus incomplete. (Historical Theology, 47)

Apollinaris thus promoted the view that the divine nature of Christ “replaced” the human soul and mind, protecting him from the corruption of human sin. One can almost picture the human nature of Christ like a puppet. The problem with this view of course, was that it made Christ not fully human. He merely appeared to be human, but was in fact only outwardly human, not having a human mind or soul.

The early church rejected this notion for one massively important reason: if Christ was not fully human, he could not fully redeem the human race! If the goal of redemption was to welcome fully humanity back into fellowship with the Godhead, how can a half-human Christ redeem whole humanity?

Gregory of Nazianzus, theologian of the fourth century, replied famously to Apollinaris by saying: “what has not been assumed has not been healed”. If Christ did not assume a “fallen” human mind, or soul, how can the mind and soul be redeemed? The answer is that it cannot!

McGrath explains:

For Gregory, only aspects of human nature which have been united to divinity in the incarnation are saved. If we are to be saved in the totality of our human nature, that totality must be brought into contact with the divinity. If Christ is only partly human, then salvation is not possible.(ibid, 49)

The biblical record of course agrees with this. Hebrews 2:17 says that Christ…

had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people”.

Christ had to be made like his brothers “in every respect”. What this means is that while God the Son had a fully divine nature, he also had a fully human nature. For this reason, Christians affirm that God the Son is one person with two natures. When asked who was acting in the person of Christ, we answer the eternal Logos. But when we ask about the what, we must reply: full divinity and full humanity.

He Descended into Hell?

Our church recites the Apostles’ Creed every other week. It’s a beautiful, ancient creed. I love its Trinitarian formula: God the Father is maker of heaven and earth. Jesus Christ, the begotten-Son, is redeemer. The Holy Spirit brings the saints together into one holy catholic church.

As beautiful and ancient as it is, many people are thrown off by one line which comes under the office of the Son. It says that after Christ had died and was buried, that “He descended into hell”.

Jesus descended into hell? What does that mean?

What usually comes to mind here is Christ dying and then going to the fires of hell to be further tormented by the devil. This imagery would reasonably detract many people. Is this what the creed really means by “he descended into hell”?

In this post I want to lay out the common historic understandings of this line. I will look at three views: The Reformed view, the Lutheran view, and the Roman Catholic view:

First, the Reformed churches have historically rejected any notion that Christ went to hell after his death and during his three days in the grave. Rather, the Reformed churches pose that Christ’s descent into hell refers to the anguish he experienced on the cross. Christ, being separated from the Father, bearing the sins of the world, experienced eternal torment for mankind on the cross.

The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 44, says it this way:

Why is it added: “He descended into hell”?

That in my greatest temptations I may be assured that Christ my Lord, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, and terrors, which he suffered in his soul on the cross and before, has redeemed me from the anguish and torment of hell

Christ has experienced hell that I might not. And of course this is true.

The Luther church, however, would disagree with this understanding of the creed. The Lutherans understand Christ’s descent into hell under the rubric of his victory over satan and demons.

Lutheran Henry Jacobs, in his Summary of Christian Doctrine, questions 39-43, says that “the Reformed Church regards ‘the descent into hell’ as a part of the humiliation; the Lutheran Church, as we shall see, regards it the first grade of the State of Exaltation”.

Jacobs classifies Christ’s descent into hell as part of his exaltation (i.e. victory over sin and death) as opposed to his humiliation (i.e. experience of wrath and the cross). How can this be so? Jacobs brings in 1 Peter 3:18-19 as proof that when Christ descended into hell, it was not to suffer, but rather to pronounce victory over the demonic spirits.

1 Peter 3:18-19 says,

Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison

Jacobs explains:

We simply believe that the entire person, God and man, after the burial descended into hell, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell, and took from the devil all his might. We should not, however, trouble ourselves with sublime and acute thoughts, as to how this occurred. (Formula of Concord, 643)

So, during the three days in the grave, Christ descended into hell to “destroy the power of hell”. This was on the basis that Christ had defeated sin and death.

The Roman Catholic church differs only slightly from the Lutheran position. The Catholic catechism says:

The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there

Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him (632-33)

The Catholic church affirms with the Lutherans that Jesus went into hell, or Sheol, or the realm of the dead, however one sees it. But he went there “not…to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just”. Meaning, Jesus went to release the Old Testament saints into the beatific vision. According to this view, the Old Testament faithful could not enter into the divine vision until justice had been satisfied — the cross did just that. And so Jesus went to Sheol to preach victory and to release the faithful to heaven.

The Catholic church provides 1 Peter 4:6 as proof of this: “the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does”.

The catechism says:

The gospel was preached even to the dead.” The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.

It is important to note that the Lutheran church doesn’t deny that Christ released the faithful into the divine presence. Henry Jacobs explains that “we may regard it probable that the proclamation of victory announced to one class to their terror was made to another class, to their joy and triumph.” However, he prefaces that “we dare not think of those who departed in faith as until then ‘in prison.'” In other words, the Old Testaments saints may have been freed into the beatific vision, however, they were not in “prison” (1 Pet 3:19) as the demonic spirits were.

So these are the three main interpretations of Christ’s descent into hell. While I do affirm the Reformed position, that Christ experienced hell on the cross, I must admit that that position has weaknesses. What about Peter’s description of Christ’s descent? What about “preaching to the dead”? For this reason, I also affirm that Christ did descend into Sheol, or hell, to pronounce his victory over sin and death. This pronouncement, I presume, both condemned the demonic spirits, and redeemed the Old Testament saints. It was the last phase of Christ’s mission, after which he was resurrected and ascended to the right hand of the Father.