Why is “(Jesus) Descended to the Dead” Omitted from the Methodist Apostles’ Creed?

Apostles Creed
Apostles Creed

Since this is a LEARNING trip, with hopefully practical applications, we’re going to take a little pause in our ongoing story of the founding of Methodism in America to consider a very practical matter: Why is the phrase in reference to Jesus “he descended to the dead” omitted from the Apostles’ Creed in our United Methodist Hymnal?

Next time you have a UM Hymnal in your hands, compare the versions of the Apostles’ Creed printed as numbers 881 and 882. The 881 version, titled “The Apostles’ Creed, Traditional Version,” reads:

I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried;*
The third day he rose from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. …

The 882 version, titled “The Apostles’ Creed, Ecumenical Version,” reads:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and was buried;
On the third day he rose again;
He ascended into heaven,
Is seated at the right hand of God the Father,
And will come again to judge the living and the dead. …

In the 881 version, there is that all-important asterisk*, which reads in the footnote, “Traditional use of this creed includes these words, ‘He descended into hell.’” Wait a minute, I thought this WAS the Traditional version!?? Why is the phase omitted in the Methodist Traditional version? What’s going on?

Let’s begin unpacking this quandary with this question: Why is the phrase “He descended into Hell / to the dead” in ANY version? Why are we talking about Jesus in Hell at all??

The phrase, “He descended into Hell,” – sometimes, “He descended to the dead” — is a highly controversial clause in the Apostle’s Creed. Those who defend its inclusion usually point to scripture texts such as Job 38:17, Psalm 68:18-22; Matthew 12:38-41; Acts 2:22-32; Romans 10:7; Ephesians 4:7-10, 1 Peter 3:18-20, and 1 Peter 4:6.

One of these texts, 1 Peter 3:18-20, is often associated with Holy Saturday, the day before Easter that we just experienced. That verse reads:
18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water…

This verse raises the questions, “Who were the imprisoned spirits? Were they imprisoned in Hell?” But that is another blog post! (Which I’ve written. E-mail me and I’ll send it to you.)

Relative to this blog post, we note that when John Wesley sent over to the American Methodists his version of the Anglican

Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion
Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion

Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, he rewrote some of them, and omitted many of them altogether. One that he omitted entirely was Article III, entitled “Of the going down of Christ into Hell.” It reads, “As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell.” The reason Wesley removed this article is not entirely clear, scholarly opinion is divided. Plus, he himself seemed divided on the issue. When, in 1784, he designed the Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America, he included the phrase occasionally: in the Creed, in the liturgy for baptism. But in other places he left it out, as we’ve seen in his revision of the Articles of Religion, for example.

American Methodists have been ambivalent ever since. Or maybe not so ambivalent. By 1792, only eight years after Wesley’s instructions, American Methodists quit saying this phrase at all. It wasn’t in the Creed nor in the baptismal liturgy.

The ambivalence can be seen in scholarly debate about the subject. Professor Thomas Oden quotes Edwin Lewis as providing Wesley’s reasoning concerning his omission of Article Three as: “The omission may be ascribed to a lack of clear Scriptural support.” Indeed, if you read the above scripture texts, Christ’s descent into Hell is not clear. But in another of his books (John Wesley’s Teachings, vol. 2, page 45), Professor Oden states that “It is likely that the main reason Wesley did not include the descent of Christ into the netherworld is not that it lacked Biblical support, but that it was even in his time regarded as a controversial hypothesis among scholars.” Professor Ted Campbell notes in an e-mail to me, “It was interesting that at an ecumenical conference in Cambridge a few years ago a Coptic (Oriental Orthodox) scholar said that Orthodox in general have no opposition to any of the statements of the Apostles’ Creed except perhaps ‘he descended to the dead,’ which they themselves find a bit perplexing.”

Wesley was also “aware of the nest of exegetical problems embedded” in 1 Peter 3:19 and other verses. Prof. Oden quotes Prof. John Deschner as saying that Wesley had another motive for the omission: Wesley was “loath to teach anything suggesting a second chance for those who resisted repentance in this life.”

In Ted Campbell’s revised edition of Methodist Doctrine, The Essentials, he states that Wesley’s omission of Article Three “probably did not indicate his disapproval.” He goes on to say that when Methodists began to include the Apostles’ Creed in their hymnals in the 1800’s “many did not understand the meaning of this expression. They thought that to say that Christ descended into Hell meant that Christ went to the place of judgment (‘Hell’ in the sense of eternal punishment) and so removed the expression from the Creed.” “We have always said,” Ted Campbell wrote to me, “that this relied on a misunderstanding of the word ‘Hell.’ Previous generations of pious Methodists could hear it as ‘the place of eternal punishment,’ and find it impious to have Jesus there. I know that the Latin of the creed, descendit ad inferos, really just means that ‘he went to the-place-where-dead-people-go,’ wherever that is. That is to say, ‘he really died,’ just as ‘he was buried’ in I Corinthians 15:3-4 reinforces the claim that ‘Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.’”

So there you have it! Clear as mud!! But now, every time you profess your faith using the Apostles’ Creed, Traditional Version (No. 881), you are stepping back not only into ancient Christian history, but also into the heart of the Christmas Conference of 1784.

Enjoy this tidbit of Methodist insight.

(Sources: research into this topic by Al Hoppe and documented in an e-mail to me dated April 5, 2015, e-mail to me from Prof. Ted Campbell dated April 6, 2015, the web-site http://www.creeds.net/ancient/descendit.htm; The United Methodist Hymnal, http://books.upperroom.org/tag/sunday-service-of-the-methodists-in-north-america/)

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