Should the Apostles’ Creed Have the Phrase “Descended into Hell”?

Should the Apostles’ Creed Have the Phrase “Descended into Hell”? May 19, 2016

Gene Veith has a patheos blog on the Evangelical Channel named Cranach The Blog of Veith. On May 12, 2016, he posted “Deleting ‘He descended into Hell’ from the Apostles’ Creed.” He informs therein that in church history some Methodists and other Christians have recited the Apostle’s Creed in their gatherings, but omitted the phrase about Jesus descending into hell. Veith objects to this by saying that if you are going to associate with historical Christian doctrine, you should include it. I began to interact with Gene, whom I don’t know, in the Comments section of this post. But now I will put my remarks in this post.

I first said to Gene that the original Apostles’ Creed did not include Jesus “descended into Hell.” Gene replied that we don’t know when it was drafted, so he believes in just using the creed as it has come down to us. In saying this, Gene doesn’t seem to know that there were later additions to it. Regardless, he ignores the question of whether or not these later additions to the Apostles’ Creed should be included. It is one or more of those additions that Methodists he mentions have objected to about this creed.

On such an issue, eminent Christian church historians should be consulted. Philip Schaff at Union Theological Seminary in New York City used to be regarded as the preeminent church historian, at least in the U.S. I have his eight-volume History of the Christian Church in my library, and I have referred to it many times. I also have his three-volume The Creeds of Christendom (Harper & Row, 1931) that went into its sixth edition.

Schaff says in his Creeds in vol. 1, p. 19, concerning the Apostles’ Creed, “This Roman creed was gradually enlarged by several clauses from older or contemporaneous forms, viz., the article ‘descended into the Hades’ (taken from the Creed of Quileja).” He also says about other later additions to the Apostles’ Creed, “‘the communion of the saints’ (from Gallican sources), and the concluding ‘life everlasting’ (probably from the symbols of the churches of Ravenna and Antioch. These additional clauses were no doubt part of the general faith, since they are taught in the Scriptures, but they were first expressed in local creeds, and it was some time before they found a place in the authorized formula,” namely, the Apostles’ Creed.

I think the question of when the Apostles’ Creed was drafted and when these additions were included is irrelevant here. The fact is that they were added, and because of this one wonders if the original framers of the Apostles’ Creed would have agreed with these additions. I think they would not have agreed with them.

Why do I think this? Schaff in his Creeds analyzes all of the major church creeds in the history of Christianity. With them surely in mind he says concerning the Apostles’ Creed (1:14-15), “It contains all the fundamental articles of the Christian faith necessary to salvation, in the form of facts, in simple Scripture language.” This is what my objection is about: I object to including in the creed that Jesus “descended into Hell.” I fully accept the Apostles’ Creed, even with such additions; but including these additions begins the long trek into a morass of what doctrines Christians have divided over, included in their creeds, and thus why there are about 40,000 church denominations in the world. I’m for limiting the creed to essentials for salvation in order to achieve more unity among Christians.

I am not exactly anti-creedal; but I’m close to it because of this doctrinal controversy among Christians over what is almost all non-essentials. Schaff says the original form of the Apostles’ Creed had only the fundamentals, that is, the essentials, for salvation. That’s what I’m about. Adding that Jesus descended into hell is not an essential belief for being a Christian, and I’ve never known any Christian who would say it is.

J.N.D. Kelly, a more recent and an eminent church-creedal expert, also shows in his book, Early Christian Creeds, 3rd edition (p. 102), that the original Apostles’ Creed did not include the phrase “descended into Hell.” This item being added to the Creed is not as important to me as the process itself of making additions, of which there are several. The original Apostles’ Creed had the bare essentials, which I accept. It’s making these later additions that are not essential to Christian faith that I don’t like.

Christians are not divided on whether or not Jesus descended into hell (which should be hades) because that’s what happens to all people when they die, at least according to the Old Testament, which was the Bible of Jesus and the early Christians. It says of every human being that dies that their soul goes down to Sheol. The Hebrews called this place of the dead, the underworld, Sheol, and the Greeks called it Hades.

But Christians have been divided on many things that have been put in church creeds throughout church history. I think we should stick with the original Apostles’ Creed, and then we won’t be so divided but will love one another as Jesus commanded us.

(See Comments, in which I was corrected about Kelly’s book. The oldest authoritative creed was what is called “the Old Roman,” represented as R. It was the creed of the church at Rome. Kelly says what became known as the Apostles’ Creed derived from R. Regardless, R did not have the phrase “descended into Hell.”)


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