The apostles’ creed has been a part of the Christian church since the 3rd or 4th century and the days of the early church. We wish to give our endorsement of it. After the creed you can read a comment on the fifth point of the creed.
- I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
- I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
- He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
- Under Pontius Pilate, He was crucified, died and was buried.
- He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.
- He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
- He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
- I believe in the Holy Spirit,
- the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints,
- the forgiveness of sins,
- the resurrection of the body,
- and the life everlasting.
A comment on what “descended to the dead” means:
The phrase “descended to the dead” has been the most disputed part of this creed. Some choose to omit it for three reasons:
-because it was not a part of the earliest versions, but was first found in one of two versions which Tyrannius Rufinus wrote in approximately year 390. Then the phrase disappears again and remains gone until about AD 650.
-because it can lead to doctrinal difficulties.
-because the phrase is not found in the Bible.
Historically, “descended to the dead” has mainly been interpreted three different ways:
Interpretation 1: Some, among others John Calvin, believe it is a reference to Jesus’ sufferings on the cross.
Interpretation 2: Others believe what Tyrannius Rufinus himself thought: “descended to the dead” means that Christ was laid in the tomb.
Interpretation 3: Others still take “descended to the dead” more literally and believe it means Christ went to hell after his death. There he proclaimed the gospel for all the dead. (Of these some believe that he brought home the believers from the Old Covenant and proclaimed his victory to the disbelievers; others believe that he in addition to bringing home the believers from the Old Covenant, also proclaimed the gospel to those who had never heard it at all.)
Biblically speaking, the two first interpretations are completely correct. The third has more speaking against it than for it in the Scriptures, and should therefore not be held to. What the creed tries to convey, however, may be discussed.
Interpretation 1: John Calvin’s interpretation may at first glance seem the most remote, but if one reads his reasoning it looks a little bit better (see excerpt from his comment down below).
Interpretation 2: If Rufinus is right, the phrase just becomes a repetition of what is written right before: “died and was buried. He descended to the dead”. That seems unnecessary, and speaks against this being the right interpretation. Unless the intention was to show the contrast between “descended … rose”, and thereby get a better wording and poetic flow in the text.
Interpretation 3: At the same time, if the third interpretation is correct, it lacks biblical support and is therefore the weakest biblically speaking.
Regardless of the above interpretations, as long as one does not end up:
-in the Word of Faith movement’s false doctrine about Jesus suffering in hell under Satan for three days
-saying that there is a second chance for salvation after death
then one has not made any serious mistake.
Excerpt of John Calvin’s comment on the Apostles’ Creed
In his theological work “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, John Calvin writes, among other things, the following excerpt:
“But we ought not to omit his descent into hell, a matter of no small moment in bringing about redemption. Now it appears from the ancient writers that this phrase which we read in the Creed was once not so much used in the churches. Nevertheless, in setting forth a summary of doctrine a place must be given to it, as it contains the useful and not-to-be-despised mystery of a most important matter, at least some of the old writers do not leave it out. From this we may conjecture that it was inserted after a time, and did not become customary in the churches at once, but gradually. This much is certain: that it reflected the common belief of all the godly; for there is no one of the fathers who does not mention in his writings Christ’s descent into hell, though their interpretations vary. But it matters little by whom or at what time this clause was inserted. Rather, the noteworthy point about the Creed is this: we have in it a summary of our faith, full and complete in all details; and containing nothing in it except what has been derived from the pure Word of God. If any persons have scruples about admitting this article into the Creed, it will soon be made plain how important it is to the sum of our redemption: if it is left out, much of the benefit of Christ’s death will be lost. …
But we must seek a surer explanation, apart from the Creed, of Christ’s descent into hell. The explanation given to us in God’s Word is not only holy and pious, but also full of wonderful consolation. If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. No — it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment. For this reason, he must also grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death. A little while ago we referred to the prophet’s statement that “the chastisement of our peace was laid upon him,” “he was wounded for our transgressions” by the Father, “he was bruised for our infirmities” [Isaiah 53:5 p.]. By these words he means that Christ was put in place of evildoers as surety and pledge — submitting himself even as the accused — to bear and suffer all the punishments that they ought to have sustained. All — with this one exception: “He could not be held by the pangs of death” [Acts 2:24 p.]. No wonder, then, if he is said to have descended into hell, for he suffered the death that, God in his wrath had inflicted upon the wicked! Those who — on the ground that it is absurd to put after his burial what preceded it — say that the order is reversed in this way are making a very trifling and ridiculous objection. The point is that the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know not only that Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man.”
For more of John Calvin’s reasoning, you can read here.