by Louis Berkhof
A. INTRODUCTORY: THE DOCTRINE OF THE STATES OF CHRIST IN GENERAL.
1. THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN A STATE AND A CONDITION. It should be borne in mind that, though the word “state” is sometimes used synonymously with “condition,” the word as applied to Christ in this connection denotes a relationship rather than a condition. In general a state and a condition may be distinguished as follows: A state is one’s position or status in life, and particularly the forensic relationship in which one stands to the law, while a condition is the mode of one’s existence, especially as determined by the circumstances of life. One who is found guilty in a court of justice is in a state of guilt or condemnation, and this is usually followed by a condition of incarceration with all its resulting deprivation and shame. In theology the states of the Mediator are generally considered as including the resulting conditions. In fact, the different stages of the humiliation and of the exaltation, as usually stated, have a tendency to make the conditions stand out more prominently than the states. Yet the states are the more fundamental of the two and should be so considered.[Cf. Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Christo II, pp. 59 ff.] In the state of humiliation Christ was under the law, not only as a rule of life, but as the condition of the covenant of works, and even under the condemnation of the law; but in the state of exaltation He is free from the law, having met the condition of the covenant of works and having paid the penalty for sin.
2. THE DOCTRINE OF THE STATES OF CHRIST IN HISTORY. The doctrine of the states of Christ really dates from the seventeenth century, though traces of it are already found in the writings of the Reformers, and even in some of the early Church Fathers. It was first developed among the Lutherans when they sought to bring their doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum in harmony with the humiliation of Christ as it is pictured in the Gospels, but was soon adopted also by the Reformed. They differed, however, as to the real subject of the states. According to the Lutherans it is the human nature of Christ, but according to the Reformed, the person of the Mediator. There was considerable difference of opinion even among the Lutherans on the subject. Under the influence of Schleiermacher the idea of the states of the Mediator gradually disappeared from theology. By his pantheizing tendency the lines of demarcation between the Creator and the creature were practically obliterated. The emphasis was shifted from the transcendent to the immanent God; and the sovereign God whose law is the standard of right disappeared. In fact, the idea of objective right was banished from theology, and under such conditions it became impossible to maintain the idea of a judicial position, that is, of a state of the Mediator. Moreover, in the measure in which the humanity of Christ was stressed to the exclusion of His deity, and on the one hand His pre-existence, and on the other, His resurrection was denied, all speaking about the humiliation and exaltation of Christ lost its meaning. The result is that in many present day works on Dogmatics we look in vain for a chapter on the states of Christ.
3. THE NUMBER OF THE STATES OF THE MEDIATOR. There is a difference of opinion as to the number of the states of the Mediator. Some are of the opinion that, if we assume that the person of the Mediator is the subject of the states, strict logic requires that we speak of three states or modes of existence: the pre-existent state of eternal divine being, the earthly state of temporal human existence, and the heavenly state of exaltation and glory.[Cf. McPherson, Chr. Dogm., p. 322; Valentine, Chr. Theol. II, p. 88.] But since we can speak of the humiliation and exaltation of the person of Christ only in connection with Him as the God-man, it is best to speak of only two states. Reformed theologians do find an anticipation of both the humiliation and the exaltation of Christ in His pre-existent state: of His humiliation in that He freely took upon Himself in the pactum salutis to merit and administer our salvation; and of His exaltation in the glory which He as our prospective Mediator enjoyed before the incarnation, cf. John 17:5. The two states are clearly indicated in II Cor. 8:9; Gal. 4:4,5; Phil. 2:6-11; Heb. 2:9.
B. THE STATE OF HUMILIATION.
On the basis of Phil. 2:7,8, Reformed theology distinguishes two elements in the humiliation of Christ, namely, (1) the kenosis (emptying, exinanitio), consisting in this that He laid aside the divine majesty, the majesty of the sovereign Ruler of the universe, and assumed human nature in the form of a servant; and (2) the tapeinosis (humiliatio), consisting in that He became subject to the demands and to the curse of the law, and in His entire life became obedient in action and suffering to the very limit of a shameful death. On the basis of the passage in Philippians it may be said that the essential and central element in the state of humiliation is found in the fact that He who was the Lord of all the earth, the supreme Lawgiver, placed Himself under the law, in order to discharge its federal and penal obligations in behalf of His people. By doing this He became legally responsible for our sins and liable to the curse of the law. This state of the Saviour, briefly expressed in the words of Gal. 4:4, “born under the law,” is reflected in the corresponding condition, which is described in the various stages of the humiliation. While Lutheran theology speaks of as many as eight stages in the humiliation of Christ, Reformed theology generally names only five, namely: (1) incarnation, (2) suffering, (3) death, (4) burial, and (5) descent into hades.
1. THE INCARNATION AND BIRTH OF CHRIST. Under this general heading several points deserve attention.
a. The subject of the incarnation. It was not the triune God but the second person of the Trinity that assumed human nature. For that reason it is better to say that the Word became flesh than that God became man. At the same time we should remember that each of the divine persons was active in the incarnation, Matt. 1:20; Luke 1:35; John 1:14; Acts 2:30; Rom. 8:3; Gal. 4:4; Phil 2:7. This also means that the incarnation was not something that merely happened to the Logos, but was an active accomplishment on His part. In speaking of the incarnation in distinction from the birth of the Logos, His active participation in this historical fact is stressed, and His pre-existence is assumed. It is not possible to speak of the incarnation of one who had no previous existence. This pre-existence is clearly taught in Scripture: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” John 1:1. “I am come down from heaven,” John 6:38. “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor,” II Cor. 8:9. “Who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men,” Phil. 2:6,7. “But when the fulness of the time came God sent forth His Son,” Gal. 4:4. The pre-existent Son of God assumes human nature and takes to Himself human flesh and blood, a miracle that passes our limited understanding. It clearly shows that the infinite can and does enter into finite relations, and that the supernatural can in some way enter the historical life of the world.
b. The necessity of the incarnation. Since the days of Scholasticism the question has been debated, whether the incarnation should be regarded as involved in the idea of redemption, or as already involved in the idea of creation. Popularly stated, the question was, whether the Son of God would have come in the flesh even if man had not sinned. Rupert of Deutz was the first to assert clearly and positively that He would have become incarnate irrespective of sin. His view was shared by Alexander of Hales and Duns Scotus, but Thomas Aquinas took the position that the reason for the incarnation lay in the entrance of sin into the world. The Reformers shared this view, and the Churches of the Reformation teach that the incarnation was necessitated by the fall of man. Some Lutheran and Reformed scholars, however, such as Osiander, Rothe, Dorner, Lange, Van Oosterzee, Martensen, Ebrard, and Westcott, were of the contrary opinion. The arguments adduced by them are such as the following: Such a stupendous fact as the incarnation cannot be contingent, and cannot find its cause in sin as an accidental and arbitrary act of man. It must have been included in the original plan of God. Religion before and after the fall cannot be essentially different. If a Mediator is necessary now, He must have been necessary also before the fall. Moreover, Christ’s work is not limited to the atonement and His saving operations. He is Mediator, but also Head; He is not only the arche, but also the telos of creation, I Cor. 15:45-47; Eph. 1:10,21-23; 5:31,32; Col. 1:15-17.
However, it should be noted that Scripture invariably represents the incarnation as conditioned by human sin. The force of such passages as Luke 19:10; John 3:16; Gal. 4:4; I John 3:8; and Phil. 2:5-11 is not easily broken. The idea, sometimes expressed, that the incarnation in itself was fitting and necessary for God, is apt to lead to the pantheistic notion of an eternal self-revelation of God in the world. The difficulty connected with the plan of God, supposed to burden this view, does not exist, if we consider the matter sub specie aeternitatis. There is but one plan of God, and this plan includes sin and the incarnation from the very beginning. In the last analysis, of course, the incarnation, as well as the whole work of redemption was contingent, not on sin, but on the good pleasure of God. The fact that Christ also has cosmical significance need not be denied, but this too is linked up with His redemptive significance in Eph. 1:10,20-23; Col. 1:14-20.
c. The change effected in the incarnation. When we are told that the Word became flesh, this does not mean that the Logos ceased to be what He was before. As to His essential being the Logos was exactly the same before and after the incarnation. The verb egeneto in John 1:14 (the Word became flesh) certainly does not mean that the Logos changed into flesh, and thus altered His essential nature, but simply that He took on that particular character, that He acquired an additional form, without in any way changing His original nature. He remained the infinite and unchangeable Son of God. Again, the statement that the Word became flesh does not mean that He took on a human person, nor, on the other hand, merely that He took on a human body. The word sarx (flesh) here denotes human nature, consisting of body and soul. The word is used in a somewhat similar sense in Rom. 8:3; I Tim. 3:16; I John 4:2; II John 7 (comp. Phil. 2:7).
d. The incarnation constituted Christ one of the human race. In opposition to the teachings of the Anabaptists, our Confession affirms that Christ assumed His human nature from the substance of His mother. The prevailing opinion among the Anabaptists was that the Lord brought His human nature from heaven, and that Mary was merely the conduit or channel through which it passed. On this view His human nature was really a new creation, similar to ours, but not organically connected with it. The importance of opposing this view will be readily seen. If the human nature of Christ was not derived from the same stock as ours but merely resembled it, there exists no such relation between us and Him as is necessary to render His mediation available for our good.
e. The incarnation effected by a supernatural conception and a virgin birth. Our Confession affirms that the human nature of Christ was “conceived in the womb of the blessed virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Ghost, without the means of man.” This emphasizes the fact that the birth of Christ was not at all an ordinary but a supernatural birth, in virtue of which He was called “the Son of God.” The most important element in connection with the birth of Jesus was the supernatural operation of the Holy Spirit, for it was only through this that the virgin birth became possible. The Bible refers to this particular feature in Matt. 1:18-20; Luke 1:34,35; Heb. 10:5. The work of the Holy Spirit in connection with the conception of Jesus was twofold: (1) He was the efficient cause of what was conceived in the womb of Mary, and thus excluded the activity of man as an efficient factor. This was entirely in harmony with the fact that the person who was born was not a human person, but the person of the Son of God, who as such was not included in the covenant of works and was in Himself free from the guilt of sin. (2) He sanctified the human nature of Christ in its very inception, and thus kept it free from the pollution of sin. We cannot say exactly how the Holy Spirit accomplished this sanctifying work, because it is not yet sufficiently understood just how the pollution of sin ordinarily passes from parent to child. It should be noted, however, that the sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit was not limited to the conception of Jesus, but was continued throughout His life, John 3:34; Heb. 9:14.
It was only through this supernatural conception of Christ that He could be born of a virgin. The doctrine of the virgin birth is based on the following passages of Scripture: Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:18,20; Luke 1:34,35, and is also favored by Gal. 4:4. This doctrine was confessed in the Church from the earliest times. We meet with it already in the original forms of the Apostolic Confession, and further in all the great Confessions of the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches. Its present denial is not due to the lack of Scriptural evidence for it, nor to any want of ecclesiastical sanction, but to the current general aversion to the supernatural. The passages of Scripture on which the doctrine is based are simply ruled out of court on critical grounds which are far from convincing; and that in spite of the fact that the integrity of the narratives is proved to be beyond dispute; and it is gratuitously assumed that the silence of the other New Testament writers respecting the virgin birth proves that they were not acquainted with the supposed fact of the miraculous birth. All kinds of ingenious attempts are made to explain how the story of the virgin birth arose and gained currency. Some seek it in Hebrew, and others in Gentile, traditions. We cannot enter upon a discussion of the problem here, and therefore merely refer to such works as Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ; Orr, The Virgin Birth of Christ; Sweet, The Birth and Infancy of Jesus Christ; Cooke, Did Paul Know the Virgin Birth? Knowling, The Virgin Birth.
The question is sometimes asked, whether the virgin birth is a matter of doctrinal importance. Brunner declares that he is not interested in the subject at all. He rejects the doctrine of the miraculous birth of Christ and holds that it was purely natural, but is not sufficiently interested to defend his view at length. Moreover, he says: “The doctrine of the virgin birth would have been given up long ago were it not for the fact that it seemed as though dogmatic interests were concerned in its retention.”[The Mediator, p. 324.] Barth recognizes the miracle of the virgin birth, and sees in it a token of the fact that God has creatively established a new beginning by condescending to become man.[The Doctrine of the Word of God, p. 556; Credo, pp. 63 ff.; Revelation, pp. 65 f.] He also finds in it doctrinal significance. According to him the “sin-inheritance” is passed on by the male parent, so that Christ could assume “creatureliness” by being born of Mary, and at the same time escape the “sin-inheritance” by the elimination of the human father.[Credo, pp. 70 f.] In answer to the question, whether the virgin birth has doctrinal significance, it may be said that it would be inconceivable that God should cause Christ to be born in such an extraordinary manner, if it did not serve some purpose. Its doctrinal purpose may be stated as follows: (1) Christ had to be constituted the Messiah and the Messianic Son of God. Consequently, it was necessary that He should be born of a woman, but also that He should not be the fruit of the will of man, but should be born of God. What is born of flesh is flesh. In all probability this wonderful birth of Jesus was in the background of the mind of John when he wrote as he did in John 1:13. (2) If Christ had been generated by man, He would have been a human person, included in the covenant of works, and as such would have shared the common guilt of mankind. But now that His subject, His ego, His person, is not out of Adam, He is not in the covenant of works and is free from the guilt of sin. And being free from the guilt of sin, His human nature could also be kept free, both before and after His birth, from the pollution of sin.
f. The incarnation itself part of the humiliation of Christ. Was the incarnation itself a part of the humiliation of Christ or not? The Lutherans, with their distinction between the incarnatio and the exinanitio, deny that it was, and base their denial on the fact that His humiliation was limited to His earthly existence, while His humanity continues in heaven. He still has His human nature, and yet is no more in a state of humiliation. There was some difference of opinion on this point even among Reformed theologians. It would seem that this question should be answered with discrimination. It may be said that the incarnation, altogether in the abstract, the mere fact that God in Christ assumed a human nature, though an act of condescension, was not in itself a humiliation, though Kuyper thought it was.[De Christo II, pp. 68 ff.] But it certainly was a humiliation that the Logos assumed “flesh,” that is, human nature as it is since the fall, weakened and subject to suffering and death, though free from the taint of sin. This would seem to be implied in such passages as Rom. 8:3; II Cor. 8:9; Phil. 2:6,7.
2. THE SUFFERINGS OF THE SAVIOUR. Several points should be stressed in connection with the sufferings of Christ.
a. He suffered during His entire life. In view of the fact that Jesus began to speak of His coming sufferings towards the end of His life, we are often inclined to think that the final agonies constituted the whole of His sufferings. Yet His whole life was a life of suffering. It was the servant-life of the Lord of Hosts, the life of the Sinless One in daily association with sinners, the life of the Holy One in a sin-cursed world. The way of obedience was for Him at the same time a way of suffering. He suffered from the repeated assaults of Satan, from the hatred and unbelief of His own people, and from the persecution of His enemies. Since He trod the wine-press alone, His loneliness must have been oppressive, and His sense of responsibility, crushing. His suffering was consecrated suffering, increasing in severity as He approached the end. The suffering that began in the incarnation finally reached its climax in the passio magna at the end of His life. Then all the wrath of God against sin bore down upon Him.
b. He suffered in body and soul. There has been a time when the attention was fixed too exclusively on the bodily sufferings of the Saviour. It was not the blind physical pain as such that constituted the essence of His suffering, but that pain accompanied with anguish of soul and with a mediatorial consciousness of the sin of humanity with which He was burdened. Later on it became customary to minimize the importance of the bodily sufferings, since it was felt that sin, being of a spiritual nature, could only be atoned for by purely spiritual sufferings. These one-sided views must be avoided. Both body and soul were affected by sin, and in both the punishment had to be borne. Moreover, the Bible clearly teaches that Christ suffered in both. He agonized in the garden, where His soul was “exceeding sorrowful, even unto death,” and He was buffeted and scourged and crucified.
c. His sufferings resulted from various causes. In the last analysis all the sufferings of Christ resulted from the fact that He took the place of sinners vicariously. But we may distinguish several proximate causes, such as: (1) The fact that He who was the Lord of the universe had to occupy a menial position, even the position of a bond-servant or slave, and that He who had an inherent right to command was in duty bound to obey. (2) The fact that He who was pure and holy had to live in a sinful, polluted atmosphere, in daily association with sinners, and was constantly reminded of the greatness of the guilt with which He was burdened by the sins of His contemporaries. (3) His perfect awareness and clear anticipation, from the very beginning of His life, of the extreme sufferings that would, as it were, overwhelm Him in the end. He knew exactly what was coming, and the outlook was far from cheerful. (4) Finally, also the privations of life, the temptations of the devil, the hatred and rejection of the people, and the maltreatment and persecutions to which He was subjected.
d. His sufferings were unique. We sometimes speak of the “ordinary” sufferings of Christ, when we think of those sufferings that resulted from the ordinary causes of misery in the world. But we should remember that these causes were far more numerous for the Saviour than they are for us. Moreover, even these common sufferings had an extraordinary character in His case, and were therefore unique. His capacity for suffering was commensurate with the ideal character of His humanity, with His ethical perfection, and with His sense of righteousness and holiness and veracity. No one could feel the poignancy of pain and grief and moral evil as Jesus could. But besides these more common sufferings there were also the sufferings caused by the fact that God caused our iniquities to come upon Him like a flood. The sufferings of the Saviour were not purely natural, but also the result of a positive deed of God, Isa. 53:6,10. To the more special sufferings of the Saviour may also be reckoned the temptations in the desert, and the agonies of Gethsemane and Golgotha.
e. His sufferings in temptations. The temptations of Christ formed an integral part of His sufferings. They are temptations that are encountered in the pathway of suffering, Matt. 4:1-11 (and parallels); Luke 22:28; John 12:27; Heb. 4:15; 5:7,8. His public ministry began with a period of temptation, and even after that time temptations were repeated at intervals right on into dark Gethsemane. It was only by entering into the very trials of men, into their temptations, that Jesus could become a truly sympathetic High Priest and attain to the heights of a proved and triumphant perfection, Heb. 4:15; 5:7-9. We may not detract from the reality of the temptations of Jesus as the last Adam, however difficult it may be to conceive of one who could not sin as being tempted. Various suggestions have been made to relieve the difficulty, as for instance, that in the human nature of Christ, as in that of the first Adam, there was the nuda possibilitas peccandi, the bare abstract possibility of sinning (Kuyper); that Jesus’ holiness was an ethical holiness, which had to come to high development through, and maintain itself in, temptation (Bavinck); and that the things with which Christ was tempted were in themselves perfectly lawful, and appealed to perfectly natural instincts and appetites (Vos). But in spite of all this the problem remains, How was it possible that one who in concreto, that is, as He was actually constituted, could not sin nor even have an inclination to sin, nevertheless be subject to real temptation?
3. THE DEATH OF THE SAVIOUR. The sufferings of the Saviour finally culminated in His death. In connection with this the following points should be emphasized:
a. The extent of His death. It is but natural that, when we speak of the death of Christ in this connection, we have in mind first of all physical death, that is, the separation of body and soul. At the same time we should remember that this does not exhaust the idea of death as it is represented in Scripture. The Bible takes a synthetic view of death, and regards physical death merely as one of its manifestations. Death is separation from God, but this separation can be viewed in two different ways. Man separates himself from God by sin, and death is the natural result, so that it can even be said that sin is death. But it was not in that way that Jesus became subject to death, since He had no personal sin. In this connection it should be borne in mind that death is not merely the natural consequence of sin, but above all the judicially imposed and inflicted punishment of sin. It is God’s withdrawing Himself with the blessings of life and happiness from man and visiting man in wrath. It is from this judicial point of view that the death of Christ must be considered. God imposed the punishment of death upon the Mediator judicially, since the latter undertook voluntarily to pay the penalty for the sin of the human race. Since Christ assumed human nature with all its weaknesses, as it exists after the fall, and thus became like us in all things, sin only excepted, it follows that death worked in Him from the very beginning and manifested itself in many of the sufferings to which He was subject. He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. The Heidelberg Catechism correctly says that “all the time He lived on earth, but especially at the end of His life, He bore, in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race.”[Q. 37.] These sufferings were followed by His death on the cross. But this was not all; He was subject not only to physical, but also to eternal death, though He bore this intensively and not extensively, when He agonized in the garden and when He cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In a short period of time He bore the infinite wrath against sin to the very end and came out victoriously. This was possible for Him only because of His exalted nature. At this point we should guard against misunderstanding, however. Eternal death in the case of Christ did not consist in an abrogation of the union of the Logos with the human nature, nor in the divine nature’s being forsaken of God, nor in the withdrawal of the Father’s divine love or good pleasure from the person of the Mediator. The Logos remained united with the human nature even when the body was in the grave; the divine nature could not possibly be forsaken of God; and the person of the Mediator was and ever continued to be the object of divine favor. It revealed itself in the human consciousness of the Mediator as a feeling of Godforsakenness. This implies that the human nature for a moment missed the conscious comfort which it might derive from its union with the divine Logos, and the sense of divine love, and was painfully conscious of the fulness of the divine wrath which was bearing down upon it. Yet there was no despair, for even in the darkest hour, while He exclaims that He is forsaken, He directs His prayer to God.
b. The judicial character of His death. It was quite essential that Christ should die neither a natural nor an accidental death; and that He should not die by the hand of an assassin, but under a judicial sentence. He had to be counted with the transgressors, had to be condemned as a criminal. Moreover, it was providentially arranged by God that He should be tried and sentenced by a Roman judge. The Romans had a genius for law and justice, and represented the highest judicial power in the world. It might be expected that a trial before a Roman judge would serve to bring out clearly the innocence of Jesus, which it did, so that it became perfectly clear that He was not condemned for any crime which He had committed. It was a testimony to the fact that, as the Lord says, “He was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due.” And when the Roman judge nevertheless condemned the innocent, he, it is true, also condemned himself and human justice as he applied it, but at the same time imposed sentence on Jesus as the representative of the highest judicial power in the world, functioning by the grace of God and dispensing justice in God’s name. The sentence of Pilate was also the sentence of God, though on entirely different grounds. It was significant too that Christ was not beheaded or stoned to death. Crucifixion was not a Jewish but a Roman form of punishment. It was accounted so infamous and ignominious that it might not be applied to Roman citizens, but only to the scum of mankind, to the meanest criminals and slaves. By dying that death, Jesus met the extreme demands of the law. At the same time He died an accursed death, and thus gave evidence of the fact that He became a curse for us, Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13.
4. THE BURIAL OF THE SAVIOUR. It might seem that the death of Christ was the last stage of His humiliation, especially in view of one of the last words spoken on the cross, “It is finished.” But that word in all probability refers to His active suffering, that is, the suffering in which He Himself took an active part. This was indeed finished when He died. It is clear that His burial also formed a part of His humiliation. Notice especially the following: (a) Man’s returning to the dust from which he is taken, is represented in Scripture as part of the punishment of sin, Gen. 3:19. (b) Several statements of Scripture imply that the Saviour’s abode in the grave was a humiliation, Ps. 16:10; Acts 2:27,31; 13:34,35. It was a descent into hades, in itself dismal and dreary, a place of corruption, though in it He was kept from corruption. (c) Burial is a going down, and therefore a humiliation. The burial of dead bodies was ordered by God to symbolize the humiliation of the sinner. (d) There is a certain agreement between the stages in the objective work of redemption and the order in the subjective application of the work of Christ. The Bible speaks of the sinner’s being buried with Christ. Now this belongs to the putting off of the old man, and not to the putting on of the new, cf. Rom. 6:1-6. Consequently also the burial of Jesus forms a part of His humiliation. His burial, moreover, did not merely serve to prove that Jesus was really dead, but also to remove the terrors of the grave for the redeemed and to sanctify the grave for them.
5. THE SAVIOUR’S DESCENT INTO HADES.
a. This doctrine in the Apostolic Confession. After the Apostolic Confession has mentioned the sufferings, death, and burial, of the Lord, it continues with the words, “He descended into hell (hades).” This statement was not in the Creed as early nor as universally as the others. It was first used in the Aquileian form of the Creed (c. 390 A.D.), “descendit in inferna.” Among the Greeks some translated “inferna” by “hades,” and others by “lower parts.” Some forms of the Creed in which these words were found did not mention the burial of Christ, while the Roman and Oriental forms generally mentioned the burial but not the descent into hades. Rufinus remarks that they contained the idea of the descent in the word “buried.” Later on, however, the Roman form of the Creed added the statement in question after its mention of the burial. Calvin correctly argues that for those who added them after the word “buried,” they must have denoted something additional.[Inst. Bk. II, XVI, 8.; cf. also Pearson, On the Creed.] It should be borne in mind that these words are not found in Scripture, and are not based on such direct statements of the Bible as the rest of the articles of the Creed.
b. Scriptural basis for the expression. There are especially four passages of Scripture that come into consideration here. (1) Eph. 4:9, “Now this, He ascended, what is it but that He also descended into the lower parts of the earth?” They who seek support in this passage take the expression “lower parts of the earth” as the equivalent of “hades.” But this is a doubtful interpretation. The apostle argues that the ascent of Christ presupposes a descent. Now the opposite of the ascension is the incarnation, cf. John 3:13. Hence the majority of commentators take the expression as referring simply to the earth. The expression may be derived from Ps. 139:15 and refer more particularly to the incarnation. (2) I Peter 3:18,19, which speaks of Christ as “being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which He also went and preached unto the spirits in prison.” This passage is supposed to refer to the descent into hades and to state the purpose of it. The Spirit referred to is then understood to be the soul of Christ, and the preaching mentioned must have taken place between His death and resurrection. But the one is just as impossible as the other. The Spirit mentioned is not the soul of Christ but the quickening Spirit, and it was by that same life-giving Spirit that Christ preached. The common Protestant interpretation of this passage is that in the Spirit Christ preached through Noah to the disobedient that lived before the flood, who were spirits in prison when Peter wrote, and could therefore be designated as such. Bavinck considers this untenable and interprets the passage as referring to the ascension, which he regards as a rich, triumphant, and powerful preaching to the spirits in prison.[Geref. Dogm. III, p. 547. For still another interpretation, cf. Brown, Comm. on Peter in loco.] (3) I Pet. 4:4-6, particularly verse 6, which reads as follows: “For unto this end was the gospel preached even to the dead, that they might be judged indeed according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” In this connection the apostle warns the readers that they should not live the rest of their life in the flesh to the lusts of men, but to the will of God, even if they should give offense to their former companions and be slandered by them, since they shall have to give an account of their doing to God, who is ready to judge the living and the dead. The “dead” to whom the gospel was preached were evidently not yet dead when it was preached unto them, since the purpose of this preaching was in part “that they might be judged according to men in the flesh.” This could only take place during their life on earth. In all probability the writer refers to the same spirits in prison of which he spoke in the preceding chapter. (4) Ps. 16:8-10 (comp. Acts 2:25-27,30,31). It is especially the 10th verse that comes into consideration here, “For thou wilt not leave my soul in Sheol; neither wilt thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption.” From this passage Pearson concludes that the soul of Christ was in hell (hades) before the resurrection, for we are told that it was not left there.[Expos. of the Creed, in loco.] But we should note the following: (a) The word nephesh (soul) is often used in Hebrew for the personal pronoun, and sheol, for the state of death. (b) If we so understand these words here, we have a clear synonymous parallelism. The idea expressed would be that Jesus was not left to the power of death. (c) This is in perfect harmony with the interpretation of Peter in Acts 2:30,31, and of Paul in Acts 13:34,35. In both instances the psalm is quoted to prove the resurrection of Jesus.
c. Different interpretations of the creedal expression. (1) The Catholic Church takes it to mean that, after His death, Christ went into the Limbus Patrum, where the Old Testament saints were awaiting the revelation and application of His redemption, preached the gospel to them, and brought them out to heaven. (2) The Lutherans regard the descent into hades as the first stage of the exaltation of Christ. Christ went into the underworld to reveal and consummate His victory over Satan and the powers of darkness, and to pronounce their sentence of condemnation. Some Lutherans place this triumphal march between the death of Christ and His resurrection; others, after the resurrection. (3) The Church of England holds that, while Christ’s body was in the grave, the soul went into hades, more particularly into paradise, the abode of the souls of the righteous, and gave them a fuller exposition of the truth. (4) Calvin interprets the phrase metaphorically,[Inst. Bk. II, XVI, 8 ff.] as referring to the penal sufferings of Christ on the cross, where He really suffered the pangs of hell. Similarly, the Heidelberg Catechism.[Q. 44.] According to the usual Reformed position the words refer not only to the sufferings on the cross, but also to the agonies of Gethsemane. (5) Scripture certainly does not teach a literal descent of Christ into hell. Moreover, there are serious objections to this view. He cannot have descended into hell according to the body, for this was in the grave. If He really did descend into hell, it can only have been as to His soul, and this would mean that only half of His human nature shared in this stage of His humiliation (or exaltation). Moreover, as long as Christ had not yet risen from the dead, the time had not come for a triumphal march such as the Lutherans assume. And, finally, at the time of His death Christ commended His spirit to His Father. This seems to indicate that He would be passive rather than active from the time of His death until He arose from the grave. On the whole it seems best to combine two thoughts: (a) that Christ suffered the pangs of hell before His death, in Gethsemane and on the cross; and (b) that He entered the deepest humiliation of the state of death.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY: How were state and condition related to each other in the case of Adam, when he fell? In the case of the Word becoming flesh? How are they related in the redemption of sinners? Do one’s state and condition always correspond? How should the state of humiliation be defined? What does Kuyper mean, when he distinguishes between the status generis and the status modi? What stages does he distinguish in the state of humiliation? Is there any biblical proof for the virgin birth, except in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke? What are the doctrinal bearings of this doctrine? Have the theories of the mythical origin of the idea of the virgin birth been found adequate? What do we understand by Christ’s subjection to the law? In what legal relation did He stand as Mediator during His humiliation? Was the human nature of Christ inherently subject to the law of death? Did eternal death in the case of Christ include all the elements that are included in the eternal death of sinners? How can the burial of the Saviour be conceived of as a proof that He really died?
LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref Dogm. III, pp. 455-469; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Christo II, pp. 59-108; ibid., De Vleeschwording des Woords; Hodge, Syst. Theol. II, pp. 612-625; Shedd, Dogm. Theol., pp. 330-348; McPherson, Chr. Dogm., pp. 321-326; Litton, Introd to Dogm. Theol., pp. 175-191; Pieper, Christl. Dogm. II, pp. 358-378; Schmid, Doct. Theol. of the Ev. Luth. Church, pp. 383-406; Valentine, Chr. Theol. II, pp. 88-95; Heppe, Dogm. der ev.-ref. Kirche, pp. 351-356; Ebrard, Christl. Dogm. II, pp. 189-226; Mastricht, Godgeleerdheit, II, pp. 601-795; Synopsis Purioris, pp. 262-272; Turretin, Opera, Locus XIII, Q. IX-XVI; Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ; Orr, The Virgin Birth of Christ; Sweet, The Birth and Infancy of Jesus Christ; Cooke, Did Paul Know the Virgin Birth? Knowling, The Virgin Birth; Barth, Credo, pp. 62-94; Brunner, The Mediator, pp. 303-376.
From Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof