Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions

XIX.Controversy on Christ's Descent into Hell.

218. Luther’s Doctrine.

While according to medieval theologians the descent into hell was regarded as an act by which Christ, with His soul only, entered the abode of the dead; and while according to Calvin and the Reformed generally the descent into hell is but a figurative expression for the sufferings of Christ, particularly of His soul, on the cross, Luther, especially in a sermon delivered 1533 at Torgau, taught in accordance with the Scriptures that Christ the God-man,body and soul, descended into hell as Victor over Satan and his host.With special reference to Ps. 16, 10 and Acts 2, 24. 27, Luther explained: After His burial the whole person of Christ, the God-man, descended into hell, conquered the devil, and destroyed the power of hell and Satan. The mode and manner, however, in which this was done can no more be comprehended by human reason than His sitting at the right hand of the Father, and must therefore not be investigated, but believed and accepted in simple faith. It is sufficient if we retain the consolation that neither hell nor devil are any longer able to harm us. Accordingly, Luther did not regard the descent into hell as an act belonging to the state of humiliation, by which He paid the penalty for our sins, but as an act of exaltation, in which Christ, as it were, plucked for us the fruits of His sufferings which were finished when He died upon the cross.

Luther’s sermon at Torgau graphically describes the descent as a triumphant march of our victorious Savior into the stronghold of the dismayed infernal hosts. From it we quote the following: “Before Christ arose and ascended into heaven, and while yet Iying in the grave, He also descended into hell in order to deliver also us from it, who were to be held in it as prisoners … However I shall not discuss this article in a profound and subtle manner, as to how it was done or what it means to .descend into hell,' but adhere to the simplest meaning conveyed by these words, as we must represent it to children and uneducated people.““Therefore whoever would not go wrong or stumble had best adhere to the words and understand them in a simple way as well as he can. Accordingly, it is customary to represent Christ in paintings on walls, as He descends, appears before hell, clad in a priestly robe and with a banner in His hand, with which He beats the devil and puts him to flight, takes hell by storm, and rescues those that are His. Thus it was also acted the night before Easter as a play for children. And I am well pleased with the fact that it is painted, played, sung and said in this manner for the benefit of simple people.We, too, should let it go at that, and not trouble ourselves with profound and subtle thoughts as to how it may have happened, since it surely did not occur bodily inasmuch as He remained in the grave three days.”

Luther continues: “However since we cannot but conceive thoughts and images of what is presented to us in words, and unable to think of or understand anything without such images, it is appropriate and right that we view it literally, just as it is painted, that He descends with the banner, shattering and destroying the gates of hell; and we should put aside thoughts that are too deep and incomprehensible for us.” “But we ought … simply to fix and fasten our hearts and thoughts on the words of the Creed,which says:.I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God,dead,buried, and descended into hell,' that is, in the entire person,God and man, with body and soul, undivided,.born of the Virgin, suffered died, and buried'; in like manner I must not divide it here either, but believe and say that the same Christ, God and man in one person, descended into hell but did not remain in it; as Ps. 16, 10 says ofHim:.Thou wilt not leave My soul in hell nor suffer Thine Holy One to see corruption.' By the word .soul,' He, in accordance with the language of the Scripture, does not mean, as we do, a being separated from the body, but the entire man, the Holy One of God, as He here calls Himself. But how it may have occurred that the man lies there in the grave, and yet descends into hell-that, indeed, we shall and must leave unexplained and uncomprehended; for it certainly did not take place in a bodily and tangible manner although we can only paint and conceive it in a coarse and bodily way and speak of it in pictures.” “Such, therefore is the plainest manner to speak of this article, that we may adhere to the words and cling to this main point, that for us, through Christ, hell has been torn to pieces and the devil’s kingdom and power utterly destroyed, for which purpose He died, was buried, and descended,-so that it should no longer harm or overwhelm us, as He Himself says, Matt. 16, 18 … " (CONC. TRIGL., 1050, 1.)

219.Aepinus in Hamburg.

The two outstanding features of Luther’s sermon are that Christ descended into hell body and soul, and that He descended as a triumphant Victor, and not in order to complete His suffering and the work of atonement. The denial of these two points, in particular, caused a new controversy, which however, was of brief duration only, and practically confined to the city of Hamburg, hence also called the Hamburg Church Controversy, der Hamburger Kirchenstreit. Its author was John Aepinus [Huck or Hoeck; born 1499; studied under Luther; persecuted in Brandenburg and banished; rector in Stralsund; 1532 pastor and later superintendent in Hamburg; wrote 1547 against the Interim; sided with Flacius against the Philippists; published books in Latin and Low German; dealt with Christ’s descent to hell especially in his Commentary on Psalm 16, of 1544, and in his Explanation of Psalm 68, of 1553; died May 13, 1553 .

Aepinus taught that Christ’s descent is a part of His suffering and atonement.While the body was Iying in the grave,His soul descended into hell in order to suffer the qualms and pangs required to satisfy the wrath of God, complete the work of redemption, and render a plenary satisfaction, satisfactio plenaria. The descent is the last stage of Christ’s humiliation and suffering, His triumph first beginning with the resurrection. Though we know His sufferings in hell to have been most sad and bitter, yet we are unable to say and define what they were in particular, or to describe them concretely, because Scripture is silent on this question.

But while Aepinus originally held that the soul of Christ suffered in hell the punishment of eternal death, he later on distinguished between the first and the second death (eternal damnation) asserting the suffering Christ endured in hell to have been a part of the punishment of the first death, and that He did not suffer the cruciatus AETERNI TARTAREI IGNIS.-Such were the views advocated, developed, and variously modified by Aepinus in his theological lectures and publications. From the Latin “Consummatum est, It is finished,” the teaching that Christ finished His suffering and the work of atonement by His death on the cross was stigmatized by Aepinus as “error consummaticus,” and its advocates as “Consummatists,” while these, in turn, dubbed Aepinus and his adherents “Infernalists.” (Frank 3, 440.)

Among the statements of Aepinus are the following: “I believe that hell is a place prepared by divine justice to punish the devils and wicked men according to the quality of their sins.” (437.) “On account of our redemption Christ descended to hell, just as He suffered and died for us.” (437.) “Theologians who either deny that the soul of Christ descended into hell, or say that Christ was present in hell only in effect and power, and not by His presence, deprive the Church of faith in the sufficient, complete, and perfect satisfaction and redemption of Christ and leave to Satan the right over pious souls after their separation from the body. For by denying that Christ sustained and bore those punishments of death and hell which the souls were obliged to bear after their separation from the body, they assert that complete satisfaction has not been made for them.” (439.) “I believe that the descent of the soul of Christ to hell is a part of the Passion of Christ, i.e., of the struggles, dangers, anguish, pains, and punishments which He took upon Himself and bore in our behalf; for, in the Scriptures, to descend to hell signifies to be involved in the highest struggles, pain, and distress. I believe that the descent of Christ to hell is a part of His obedience foretold by the prophets and imposed on Him because of our sins."(440.) “I believe that the descent of Christ pertains to His humiliation, not to His glorification and triumph.” (441.) “The descent to hell was by God’s judgment laid upon Christ as the last degree of His humiliation and exinanition and as the extreme part of His obedience and satisfaction.” (441.) “Peter clearly teaches, Acts 2, that the soul of Christ felt the pangs of hell and death while His body was resting in the sepulcher.” (441.) “What Christ experienced when He descended into hell is known to Himself, not to us; may we acknowledge and accept with grateful minds that He descended into hell for us. But let us not inquire what it was that He experienced for us in His descent, for we may piously remain ignorant of matters which God did not reveal to His Church, and which He does not demand that she know.” (444.)

220. Opposed by His Colleagues.

The views of Aepinus, first presented in lectures delivered 1544 before the ministers of Hamburg, called forth dissent and opposition on the part of his colleagues. Before long, however (1549), the controversy began to assume a virulent character.While the conduct of Aepinus was always marked by dignity, moderation, and mildness, his opponents Tileman Epping, John Gartz, and Caspar Hackrott, ventilated and assailed his teaching in their pulpits.

The chief argument against Aepinus was that his doctrine conflicted with, and invalidated, the words of Christ, “It is finished,““To-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.“Aepinus rejoined that the word “to-day” is an ambiguous term, denoting both the immediate presence and the indefinite near future (pro praesenti et imminente tempore indefinito). (414.) However, it was not in every respect Luther’s position which was occupied by some of the opponents of Aepinus. Gratz is reported to have taught that the article concerning the descent of Christ was not necessary to salvation that descendere (descend) was identical with sepeliri (to be buried), that the descent to hell referred to the anguish and temptation of Christ during His life; that Christ immediately after His death entered paradise together with the malefactor, that the work of atonement and satisfaction was completed with His death. (446.)

In 1550 the city council of Hamburg asked Melanchthon for his opinion. But Melanchthon’s answer of September, 1550, signed also by Bugenhagen, was rather indefinite, vague, and evasive. He said, in substance: Although we have frequently heard the Reverend Doctor Luther speak on this matter and read his writings, yet, since a controversy has now been raised, we have written also to others for their views, in order to present a unanimous opinion, and thus avoid dissensions later on. In his Commentary on Genesis and in his Torgau sermon, Luther referred Descent only to the victory of the Son of God, indicating that the rest must not be searched out. The Son of God did indeed overcome the torments of hell; but the Psalms show that the pains of hell are not to be restricted only to the time after the separation of the soul (dolores inferorum non restringendos esse tantum ad tempus post animae separationem). Luther, said Melanchthon, expressed it as his opinion “that this article concerning the Descent must be retained even when referred only to the victory of Christ, confessing that the tyranny of the devil and hell is destroyed i.e., that all who believe in Christ are liberated from the power of the devil and hell, according to the word: .No one shall pluck My sheep out of My hands.‘And in a certain way the Son of God manifested this victory to the devils, and, no doubt, the devils felt that their power was broken by this Victor, and that the head of the serpent was truly bruised by the Seed of the Woman, by Christ God and man.And among the signs of His victory was the resurrection of many dead.“With respect to the controverted point, concerning the sufferings of the soul of Christ after its separation from the body, Melanchthon advised that the council of Hamburg “enjoin both parties to await the opinions of others also, and in the mean time to avoid mentioning this question in sermons, schools, or other public meetings.” Not the article concerning the Descent itself, but “only the investigation of this particular point, concerning the suffering of His departed soul in hell, is to be omitted, an inquiry which also Dr. Luther did not consider necessary.” (C. R. 7, 667.)

Before this Melanchthon had written in a similar vein of compromise to Aepinus and his colleague, John Gartz. “I wish,” said he in a letter of April 4, 1550, “that there would be an amnesty between you in this entire strife” about the descent of Christ. “Let us cultivate peace with one another, and cover up certain wounds of ours, lest sadder disputations originate.” (7, 569; compare 6, 116.) In the following year the Hamburg Council, acting on the advice ofMelanchthon, deposed and expelled the leaders of the opposition to Aepinus, which, however, was not intended as a decision in favor of the doctrine of Aepinus, but merely as a measure to restore peace and silence in the city.

221. Other Participants in This Controversy.

Though the controversy was suppressed in Hamburg, and Aepinus died May 13, 1553, the theological questions involved were not settled, nor had all of the advocates of the views set forth by Aepinus disappeared from the scene. Even such theologians as Westphal, Flacius, Gallus, and Osiander were partly agreed with him. Osiander says in an opinion: “I am asked whether the descent of Christ pertains to the satisfaction made for us or only to His triumph over the enemies. I answer briefly that the descent of Christ into hell pertained to the satisfaction He merited for us as well as to the triumph over the enemies, just as His death on the cross does not belong to the one only, but to both …Thus by descending into hell He rendered satisfaction for us who merited hell, according to Ps. 16.” On the other hand, a synod held July 11, 1554, at Greifswald made it a point expressly to deny that the descent of Christ involved any suffering of His soul, or that it was of an expiatory nature, or that this article referred to the anguish of His soul before His death, or that it was identical with His burial. They affirmed the teaching of Luther, viz., that the entire Christ, God and man, body and soul, descended into hell after His burial and before His resurrection, etc. (Frank, 446f.; 416.)

Furthermore, in a letter to John Parsimonius, court-preacher in Stuttgart, dated February 1, 1565 John Matsperger of Augsburg taught that, in the article of the descent of Christ, the word “hell” must not be taken figuratively for torments, death, burial, etc., but literally, as the kingdom of Satan and the place of the damned spirits and souls wherever that might be, that the entire Christ descended into this place according to both divinity and humanity, with His body and soul, and not only with the latter,while the former remained in the grave; that this occurred immediately after His vivification or the reunion of body and soul in the grave and before His resurrection; that the Descent was accomplished in an instant, viz., in the moment after His vivification and before His resurrection; and that Christ descended, not to suffer, but, as a triumphant Victor, to destroy the portals of hell for all believers. Parsimonius, too, maintained that Christ did not in any way suffer after His death, but denied emphatically that “hell” was a definite physical locality or place in space, and that the descent involved a local motion of the body. Brenz assented to the views of Parsimonius, and the preachers of Augsburg also assented to them. In order to check his zeal against his opponents, Matsperger was deposed and imprisoned. (Frank, 450 f.)

Such being the situation within the Lutheran Church concerning the questions involved in the Hamburg Controversy, which by the way, had been mentioned also in the Imperial Instruction for the Diet at Augsburg, 1555, the Formula of Concord considered it advisable to pass also on this matter. It did so, in Article IX, by simply reproducing what Luther had taught in the sermon referred to above.Here we read:“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.” (1051, 3.) “But how this occurred we should [not curiously investigate, but] reserve until the other world, where not only this point [this mystery], but also still others will be revealed, which we here simply believe, and cannot comprehend with our blind reason.” (827, 4.) Tschackert remarks: “Ever since [the adoption of the Ninth Article of the Formula of Concord] Lutheran theology has regarded the Descent of Christ as the beginning of the state of exaltation of the human nature of the God-man.” (559.)