A Patristic Root In Reformed Theology Part 3: Interpretation Of The Descent

What do you do on a Sunday when you arrive at confessing the descent into hell in the creed? Maybe you say it loudly, or maybe you squirm. Or maybe your church omits it entirely.1

For those new to Reformed churches, confessing together that Jesus Christ “descended into hell” may cause much confusion. No doubt this is complicated by the teaching of the Roman church on the “harrowing of hell.”2

In Reformed churches, the clause is retained and exposited in a way consistent with the breadth of Reformed theology. Continuing the theme of the previous two articles in this series, the focus of this final installment is on how Ursinus understood the descent clause.

As will be explored later, Ursinus is also indebted to Calvin’s brief treatment of the descent clause.3 Though he expands upon Calvin’s treatment in the Institutes, he fundamentally agrees with him.

The History of the Descent Clause in Brief

Tracing the inclusion of the clause through church history, it is of great interest that Rufinus of Aquileia preserves a form of the creed with both the burial and descent clauses.4 As noted prior in this series, Rufinus comments on the form of the creed he recited at Aquileia in his boyhood, not the version in use in Rome or the East.5 In the fourth century, as Rufinus tells us, the clause was around but far from universal. Later, it became part of the received Western version of the creed familiar at the time of the Reformation.

Introductory Three Reformed Options (in Broad)

The church traditions of the magisterial Reformation follow three interpretations of the descent clause: (1) the local presence of Jesus’ soul in hell, (2) his suffering during the ordeal of the cross, and (3) his remaining dead between his death and resurrection. All three views are found in Reformed authors, and two of the views are found in the Reformed and Presbyterian standards. To provide context for Ursinus’ view, what follows is a brief survey of the magisterial Protestant teaching.

Our Lutheran brothers and sisters teach the following in the Formula of Concord:

For in this [Confession] the burial and descent of Christ to hell are distinguished as different articles; and 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.6

The Formula of Concord’s exposition was also influential on the English Reformation, though this is not immediately evident from the Thirty-nine Articles, which provide little explanation other than restating the words of the creed.

As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell. (article 3)

But if one turns to the Forty-two Articles, one finds a more comprehensive description contained therein.

As Christ died, and was buried for us: so also it is to be believed, that he went down into hell. For the body lay in the Sepulchre, until the resurrection: but his Spirit departing from him, was with the Spirits that were in prison, or in Hell, and did preach to the same, as the place of. S. Peter does testify.7

The Forty-two Articles were obviously fuller. They also come from a time when Thomas Cranmer was moving the church in a direction of reform. Yet here the articles take a local view of the descent into hell.

This may arise from the influence of Peter Martyr Vermigli. It has been noted that he influenced the 1552 edition of the Book of Common Prayer. His influence may also extend to the Forty-two Articles, as he had been present in England for a time at the invitation of Cranmer.8 Vermigli writes,

When the soul had departed from the body it did not stay idle but descended into the lower regions. This means nothing else than that it experienced the same condition as other souls separated from their bodies—association with the saints, or with the company of the condemned. Both of these groups were confronted with the presence of Christ’s soul.9

Vermigli and the Forty-two Articles align the early Anglican tradition with the Lutheran tradition, as defined in the Book of Concord, both favoring a local view. In contrast to this stand the Reformed and Presbyterian standards.

The Heidelberg Catechism (HC) records in its exposition of the creed in HC 44:

Q. Why does the creed add, “He descended into hell”?
A. To assure me during attacks of deepest dread and temptation that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment.

The catechism defines the suffering of the descent into hell as Christ’s suffering on the cross, as well as the sufferings which came before it. This view is indebted to Calvin, who writes,

It is frivolous and ridiculous to object that in this way the order is perverted, it being absurd that an event which preceded burial should be placed after it. But after explaining what Christ endured in the sight of man, the Creed appropriately adds the invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he endured before God, to teach us that not only was the body of Christ given up as the price of redemption, but that there was a greater and more excellent price—that he bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined man.10

In this passage of the Institutes, Calvin posits that the creed does not need to be read as though it is in historical order. Thus, the Heidelberg Catechism follows Calvin and stresses the suffering of Christ’s human soul in the state of humiliation.

Lastly, the Westminster standards take a view that the descent into hell refers to his staying dead. WLC 50 reads,

Wherein consisted Christ’s humiliation after His death?
Christ’s humiliation after His death consisted in His being buried; and continuing in the state of the dead and under the power of death till the third day, which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.

While the Larger Catechism does not undertake a systematic exposition of the creed like the Heidelberg Catechism does, it nevertheless at various points alludes to, quotes, and interprets the articles of the creed. Here, the Larger Catechism takes the descent clause to refer to the “state” and being “under the power of death.” This is best understood as Christ’s body and soul being rent—his body in the grave and his soul in paradise.

Rufinus on the Descent

As was noted above, in the fourth century, Rufinus reproduces the Creed of Aquileia which contains the descent clause. He also comments on the clause. Initially he writes,

In the creed of the Roman church, we should notice, the words DESCENDED TO HELL are not added, nor for that matter does the clause feature in the Eastern churches. Its meaning, however, appears to be precisely the same as that contained in the affirmation BURIED.11

Upon first glance, one might expect this explanation forestalls further comment. Rufinus aligns with the Larger Catechism, that the clause refers merely to the state of death applied to Christ. But later, as Rufinus considers the prophecies about the Christ, he writes:

Furthermore, the fact that He descended to hell is unmistakably prophesied in the Psalms, where we read: And thou hast brought me down in the dust of death (Ps 22:15). Or again What profit is there in my blood when I shall go down into corruption (Ps 30:9)? Or again: I have gone down into the mire of the deep, and there is no standing (Ps 69:2). John for his part asked: Art Thou he that art to come (down to hell, no doubt)? Or look we for another (Luke 7:20)? That was why St. Peter wrote: Because Christ, being put to death indeed in the flesh, but enlivened in the Spirit which dwells in Him, went down to preach to those spirits which were shut up in prison, which had been incredulous in the days of Noe (1 Pet 3:18–20). Incidentally, this passage makes plain the nature of the task He accomplished in the under-world. Moreover, the Lord Himself announced by the mouth of His prophet, as if speaking about the future: Because Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, nor wilt Thou give Thy Holy One to see corruption (Ps 16:10). This again He shows in prophetic language to have been actually fulfilled, when He says: Thou hast brought forth, O Lord, my soul from hell: Thou hast saved me from them that go down into the pit (Ps 30:3).12

He marshals a series of proof texts, many from the Psalms and two from the New Testament. His comment on the 1 Peter passage is most instructive. For Rufinus, while the descent is synonymous with the burial, both clauses attest to Christ’s presence in “the under-world.” It seems that by the affirmation of Christ’s burial and descent, Rufinus understands that Christ’s human soul had gone to the underworld to preach to the spirits in prison.

Rufinus largely considers this article of the creed to be prophesied in the Psalms. The messianic and Davidic character of the Psalms points forward to Christ, including places where the Psalmist writes of descending to death or to the grave.

The Conclusion and Citations of Ursinus on the Descent

Before surveying Ursinus in depth, it is worth briefly examining Calvin’s treatment which laid the groundwork for Ursinus. Calvin argues that the creed is best interpreted as referring to the pain inflicted upon the soul and not only those of the body. He writes, “In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance.”13 And concluding this section, he writes,

But after explaining what Christ endured in the sight of man, the Creed appropriately adds the invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he endured before God, to teach us that not only was the body of Christ given up as the price of redemption, but that there was a greater and more excellent price—that he bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined man.14

Compare this to Ursinus,

It is proper that the severe torments and anguish of soul, (which were the heaviest part of his sufferings) should not be unnoticed in the Creed. But they would not be mentioned if this article of the descent of Christ into hell did not refer to them; for the preceding articles speak only of the external sufferings of the body, which Christ suffered from with-out. There is, therefore, no doubt but that the sufferings of his soul are more particularly signified by this article.15

Obviously, both agree that the creed refers to Christ’s suffering in his soul and reject a local view of the descent of Christ’s human soul into hell. Like Rufinus, both Calvin and Ursinus utilize the Psalms in their consideration of the descent. Calvin alludes to Psalm 16:10: “He undertook and paid all the penalties which must have been exacted from [the guilty], the only exception being, that the pains of death could not hold him.”16

Ursinus identifies three meanings for the term hell in the Scriptures. He then argues that one is superior to the others. He places many of Rufinus’ favorite proof texts under the category of those “used for the grave.”17 To the creed, Ursinus applies the meaning of his third category, which is “to signify the most extreme distress and anguish.”18 He uses Psalm 116:3 as his proof text.19

The snares of death encompassed me;
the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered distress and anguish.

Ursinus chooses this psalm to undergird Calvin’s claim. Roughly synonymous in this psalm are the “snares of death,” the “pangs of Sheol,” and “distress and anguish.” For Ursinus, this is the meaning of the creed, that the “pangs of Hell laid hold on me.” This is fulfilled in Christ undergoing those pains of hell, and is made notice of in the creed. He writes,

That Christ ought to have suffered, and that he did endure these things is also proved by this same testimony of David: “the pains of hell hat hold upon me,” which is spoken of Christ in the person of David.20

Ursinus then argues that Christ was sent to save the soul, not only the body. Since Christ came to save the soul, his soul must suffer. He reasons that the “anguish and pains of hell” are not only external to the body, so it “became him to experience them.”21 Succinctly put, if the condemned soul is to suffer the anguish of hell, and Christ has come to redeem souls worthy of condemnation, then he also suffers these same anguishes. This suffering occurs before his death. Fittingly, the creed also ought to take note of such depth of suffering.22 Thus, with Psalm 116:3 in mind, Ursinus argues that descending into hell is the suffering in Jesus’ soul.

Close: A Model for Engaging the Old Testament

The unstated premise of Rufinus, Calvin, and Ursinus is that the Psalms prefigure the descent into hell. The Psalms speak at length of death, the grave, and hell (sheol), and they speak of our Lord Jesus Christ (the Messiah) who died, was buried, and descended into hell. This is not a coincidence. While Calvin and Ursinus do not agree with Rufinus’ later conclusion of a local view, all three rely on the Psalms to understand the work of Christ because they are all committed to reading the Psalms Christologically.

We, like they, should be quick to see our Messiah in the Psalms. This is an encouragement for us, that Jesus suffered death for us, as well as the distress and anguish of the soul that was due to us for our sins. Our early and Reformation fathers agree—we can read the Psalms and see our Savior, the Messiah, suffering for us.

In this series, we have seen how Ursinus engaged with the Scriptures and how he critically utilized Rufinus of Aquileia. Likewise, we also can critically appreciate Rufinus’ teaching on the creed. When we turn to these sources, we often find theological treasures, and we are challenged to think about our faith from a pre-modern viewpoint. As those following in their footsteps, may we continue to contend for and confess “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).


  1. Rick Phillips noted that he visited a church that had omitted it. See “Vos on the Descent of Christ into Hell,” Reformation21, January 2, 2015.
  2. The “harrowing of hell” refers to a teaching that Christ’s soul descended into the underworld to preach to the Old Testament saints.
  3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 2.16.10.
  4. While this descent clause had occurred in the fourth “Dated Creed” of Sirmium, the burial clause is not there. The Dated Creed of Sirmium is also regarded as “semi-Arian.”
  5. Rufinus of Aquileia, A Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed. ed. and trans. J. N. D. Kelly, Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 20 (New York: Newman, 1954), §18.
  6. Formula of Concord Solid Declaration, IX. Accessed at BookOfConcord.org.
  7. Article 3. Modernized version from Early English Books: Online.
  8. See for example, Marvin W. Anderson, “Vermigli, Peter Martyr” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, vol. 4, ed. Hans J. Hillebrand, 229–230.
  9. Vermigli, Pietro Martyr, “A Plain Exposition of the 12 Articles of the Christian Faith.” in The Peter Martyr Library. Series One, ed. Donnelly, John Patrick and Joseph C. McLelland (Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1994), §20.
  10. Calvin, Institutes, 2.16.10.
  11. Rufinus, A Commentary, §18; Caps Original.
  12. Rufinus, §28. The Scripture references are taken from Kelly’s footnotes where the Latin versions are referenced. I have adapted them to common English numbering. Bold added for emphasis.
  13. Calvin, 2.16.10.
  14. Calvin, 2.16.10.
  15. Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard (Grand Rapids: Netherlands Reformed Book & Publishing 2015), 231.
  16. Calvin, 2.16.10. Emphasis mine.
  17. Ursinus, 228.
  18. Ursinus, 228.
  19. Ursinus, 228.
  20. Ursinus, 231.
  21. Ursinus, 231.
  22. Ursinus, 231.

©Luke Gossett. All Rights Reserved.

You can find the whole series here. 


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Posted by Luke Gossett | Tuesday, March 12, 2024 | Categorized Patristics, Reformed Theology | Tagged Bookmark the permalink.

About Luke Gossett

Rev. Luke Gossett (MA Westminster Seminary California, MA and PhD Candidate, Catholic University of America) is Associate Pastor at Christ Reformed Church (URCNA) in Washington, DC, where he has been a member since 2017. The Council of Christ Reformed DC has begun the process of sending Luke back to his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, to plant a church in the URCNA. He dissertation focuses on the linguistic functions of the Hebrew word for “now.” Luke has been married to his wife, Jennifer, since 2014, and they have two wonderful children.


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