Christ’s Descent to the Dead and Classical Christian Doctrine
Theology is a whole cloth, an intricately woven fabric. When we pull on or cut out one thread, we necessarily change the way the rest of the fabric looks. Sometimes we even destroy the entire fabric just by trying to remove one thread. Over the last thirty years or so, in an impulse that stretches back to the Reformation, some evangelicals have tried to remove Christ’s descent to the dead from Christian theology. Arguments that it is not biblical, that it is not included in the earliest versions of the Apostles’ Creed, that it is redundant with “he was buried,” and that its theological import is incorrect have contributed to the excision of this clause from the Apostles’ Creed in many evangelical churches and denominations. But in the early church, it was believed ubiquitously. Not only that, but the descent was a key piece in the formation, articulation, and defense of other classical Christian doctrines. Here I will only mention two, although the descent, as part of that woven dogmatic fabric, is related to all the major systematic loci.
Before discussing the descent’s place in the fabric of theology, it is important to define it clearly. From a biblical and historical perspective, I define the descent in the following manner:
Christ, in remaining dead for three days, experienced death as all humans do: his body remained in the grave, and his soul remained in the place of the (righteous) dead. He did not suffer there, but, remaining hypostatically united to the divine nature of the Son, proclaimed the victory achieved by his penal substitutionary death to all those in the place of the dead – fallen angels, the unrighteous dead, and the OT saints. Christ’s descent is thus primarily the beginning of his exaltation, not a continuation of his humiliation.
One of the reasons for the fluidity of the descent clause in the history of the Apostles’ Creed is its role in combatting Apollinarianism. In the earliest versions of the AC, the church took “he died and was buried” to include not only what happened to Jesus’s dead body (“he was buried”) but also what happened to his full humanity, that is his body and his soul. “He died” communicated that he really, truly died as a human being, his body being buried and his soul departing to the place of the dead. At the two periods where we see the descent clause nearly ubiquitously stated in the AC, it is when the church is most fiercely combatting Apollinarianism. This heresy states that the Son took on a human body, not a human soul, since the divine Logos served as the mind of Jesus’ body. Obviously Apollinarians could still affirm the AC in this scenario, since, for them, “he died and was buried’ simply meant that Jesus’s human body was placed in the tomb. What better doctrine to combat Apollinarianism than one that requires Jesus to have a human soul – Christ’s descent to the dead? This may have been the impetus for the earliest inclusion of the descent clause in a creed, at the Council of Sirmium in 359. It also is the most likely explanation for the clause’s fluctuation in the AC, since the church affirmed the doctrine ubiquitously from the second century onward. In any case, the descent is intricately connected to classical Christology, and namely that the Son took on a fully human nature, a human body and a rational soul. His body was buried and his soul departed to the place of the dead, just like all other humans experience death.
The classical understanding of Christ’s descent to the dead also guards against Nestorianism, the heresy that divides the two natures of Christ so much that we essentially get two distinct persons. While it is important to discuss the descent according to the rule of reduplication – that is, Christ dies and experiences death qua humanity – it is also vital to retain the unity of Christ’s person in his death. He descends qua humanity, yes, but as the God-Man. And it is precisely because Christ descends as one person with two natures, human and divine, that his descent is the beginning of his exaltation. Death cannot hold a sinless man who is also God in the flesh. The hypostatic union does not cease between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and that is why Christ’s descent is victorious. Click To Tweet
This last point brings us to a second classical doctrine that intersects with the classical understanding of Christ’s descent, namely classical Trinitarianism. It is the Triune God who descends to the place of the dead – in the person of the Son. The descent thus intersects with the doctrines of inseparable operations, economic missions, and appropriation. The one God acts, and he acts inseparably, but we nevertheless appropriate certain actions to certain persons. In this case, the Triune God descends, and it is in the incarnate Son that he does so. It is appropriate, in other words, to describe the descent as an action that is carried out by and occurs as part of the economic mission of the incarnate Son in particular while also maintaining the divine unity of the three persons. Of course, this is not unique to the descent; we are required to make these kinds of distinctions and clarifications in various aspects of both Christology and pneumatology. But, given recent views of both the crucifixion and the descent, in which the Son is somehow “abandoned” by the Father, it seems important to emphasize that the classical views of the descent and of the doctrine of the Trinity do not allow for that kind of separation of the divine persons or the divine missions.
These are but two ways the descent intersects with other loci in Christian theology. We could go on to note how the descent impinges upon the doctrine of creation, on soteriology, on ecclesiology, and on eschatology. This is part of the aim of my forthcoming book on Christ’s descent – to show how it fits into the whole fabric of Christian theology. But the examples of classical Christology and classical Trinitarianism are good places to start in demonstrating this neglected doctrine’s import on other key elements of Christian orthodoxy.
 On the analogy of theology to an intricately woven fabric, see Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomena to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).
 This definition is from my forthcoming book on the descent: Matthew Y. Emerson, “He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019).
 Michael F. Bird, What Christians Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine Through the Apostles’ Creed (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 148
 See Jeffrey L. Hamm, “Descendit: Delete or Declare? A Defense Against the Neo-Deletionists,” WTJ (2016): 93–116.