|Harrowing of Hell (15th c.)|
The Apostles’ Creed declares that Jesus “was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day, He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there He will come to judge the living and the dead.” I’ve explained before that this descent into hell refers not to damnation, but to Christ liberating the souls of the righteous from Sheol, in what’s known as the harrowing of hell, and that this harrowing of hell is solidly Biblical.
But increasingly, leading Evangelicals now reject this part of the Creed, as the Washington Post reports in a very well-written piece:
On Good Friday, Jesus told the Good Thief crucified alongside him that “today you will be with me in paradise,” according to Luke’s Gospel. “That’s the only clue we have as to what Jesus was doing between death and resurrection,” John Piper, a prominent evangelical author and pastor from Minnesota, has said. “I don’t think the thief went to hell and that hell is called paradise.”[…]
Wayne Grudem, a former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, says the confusion and arguments could be ended by correcting the Apostles’ Creed “once and for all” and excising the line about the descent.
“The single argument in its favor seems to be that it has been around so long,” Grudem, a professor at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona, writes in his “Systematic Theology,” a popular textbook in evangelical colleges. “But an old mistake is still a mistake.”
Grudem, like Piper, has said that he skips the phrase about Jesus’ descent when reciting the Apostles’ Creed.
Taylor Marshall, over at Called to Communion, does a great job rebutting Piper’s claim that Luke 23:43 is the “only clue we have” as to what Jesus did on Holy Saturday. Marshall marshals passages like Ephesians 4:9, Acts 2:24, and 1 Peter 3:19, and prophetic passages like Hosea 13:14 and Zech 9:11, and explains that Piper is ripping the phrase “paradise” out of its proper Jewish context.
I’d add John 20:17, in which Christ explicitly says, on Easter Sunday, that He has not yet Ascended. This seems to foreclose Piper’s idea that Easter Sunday involved Christ descending from Heaven, rather than rising from Sheol. So, too, does all of the Scriptural language about Christ’s “rising” (Mark 9:9-10, 1 Thessalonians 4:14, etc.). And if Piper’s view is right, the “Second Coming” has already occurred: that is, he thinks Christ came down from Heaven in the Incarnation, returned to Heaven on Holy Saturday, and came down to Earth a second time on Easter. Thus, we wait in hopeful anticipation of His Third Coming, I suppose.
What makes all of this more bizarre is that Piper’s own website contains “A Baptist Catechism (adapted by John Piper,” which closes with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed (including the phrase he now rejects), and the Ten Commandments. That is, Piper apparently hand-picked this Creed to include in his personal Catechism, yet he doesn’t even believe it?
It gets weirder. A few year back, Piper was asked, “Is there a place for creeds in the church?” He responded quite eloquently, by explaining why we need the Creeds to prevent “Bible Only” Christians from becoming heretics:
Icon showing the Council of Nicea condemning Arius
I think they have a really important place. But they aren’t to be a replacement for the Bible and they shouldn’t be given equal authority to the Bible. Rather, they are to be considered faithful expressions of the Bible.
We need faithful expressions of the Bible—both those written for our generation and those preserved from other generations.
I’m currently studying the battle surrounding the deity of Christ in the third and fourth century, which involved Athanasius and his heretical opponent Arias. What I’m learning is that the use of biblical language was a huge tactic for those who were departing from biblical truth!
That means that to say that you are a “Bible only” person might just mean that you’re a heretic. In other words, you can use biblical texts to justify false things. [….]
A person who considers himself a “Bible only” person could believe anything. Therefore we need creeds (affirmations of faith) to see clearly how people are reading the Bible. Are they reading error into the Bible? Or are they drawing truth out of the Bible?
To suggest that we get rid of all creeds and just have the Bible is simply to allow people to think loosely about what the Bible says and not require that we come to terms with what it really means.
What more needs to be said? He’s right: rejection of the Creeds is simply acceptance of heresy. And yet… he rejects the very Creed he’s previously endorsed, based on his misinterpretation of a single verse, Luke 23:43. He’s shown, really eloquently, why his own views should be rejected.
But let’s step back and ask the bigger questions.
|St. Ignatius Defeating Heresy|
- If Piper is free to do this, and remain an orthodox Christian, what parts of the Creed can’t be rejected?
- As he’s noted, the Arians were able to use the Bible to justify their rejection of the Trinity. If Piper’s not bound by the Creed, why should Arius be? Do we need some sort of Appendix to the Creed, to say which parts we’re really serious about as Christians, and which parts we think are open for further debate?
- From a Protestant standpoint, do the Creeds have any binding authority whatsoever?
- If they do, how can one justify rejecting Christ’s descent into Hell? Or, for that matter, belief in the Holy Catholic Church that the Apostles’ Creed proclaims faith in?
- And if the Creeds don’t have any binding authority, but are just a statement of what one group of Christians happens to believe, why bother? Particularly if the people praying those Creeds omit or reject parts of the Creed they’re praying, as Piper apparently does, what purpose do these spineless Creeds possible serve?
Increasingly, the choice is clear: either accept Creedal Christianity, which involves belief in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church (as the Nicene Creed declares), or reject it, and enter the world of theological anarchy and rampant heresy that Piper both warns against and invites us to.