I generally enjoy our comments and also following the links when others share some portion of Glory to God for All Things with others. Last week I posted on the necessity for the whole gospel – that is – the gospel received by the Apostles and taught to the Church. I noted that in many areas of modern Christianity, very essential elements of that gospel are in danger. I was struck when following one of the links to my post to read the following positive article, (an Anglican blog) but also noted that some members of the Anglican Church (I could not tell whether these were comments from an ordained person), in making comments on the author’s positive quoting, actually sought to deny that Christ descended into Hades. This is not a liberal Anglican site.”Stand Firm in the Faith” sounds pretty solid to me. But the conversations did an excellent job of making my point. The fullness of the Orthodox Faith is simply unknown to many, including many in liturgical Churches.
The Descent into Hades is not a minor theological side issue. Iconographically, it stands at the very center of the faith. If one reads St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation you can quickly see that in the doctrine of the Divine Solidarity (an image he uses to describe how it is that Christ saves us), Christ’s descent into Hades is utterly necessary to the Christian understanding of His victory over sin and death. The services of the Orthodox Church surrounding Pascha are all grounded on the dogma of Christ’s descent into Hades and His victory.
The Scriptures making reference to Christ’s descent into Hades include more than the I Peter 3:19 that I cited in my earlier posting.
That verse and a few more are only the most obvious ones that come to mind. The understanding of Christ’s Resurrection as our Pascha (Passover) are not relegated to the image of the lamb’s blood on the door posts of the Israelites. More than that rich imagery is also the entire episode at the Red Sea (which is the type of our Baptism) clearly seen by the early Church as a type of Christ’s descent into Hades and subsequent resurrection. That Scripture and the “Song of Moses” figure prominently in the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday.
Some verses to consider:
1 Peter 3:18 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to
God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit;19 in which he went and preached to the spirits in
1 Peter 4: 6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God.
Ephesians 4:7 But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” 9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is he who also ascended far
above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)
Colossians 2: 15 He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.
This same doctrine can be found in Western hymns (the Hymn “Victory,” one of my favorites, is one that comes quickly to mind). The modern Anglican service of the so-called “Easter Vigil” is essentially modeled on the Orthodox Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday though clearly cluttered with other later doctrines.
Great classic works of Western theology, such as Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor, make clear how utterly dominant this imagery is in the Apostolic and early Church. And yet, it has become foreign to many.
I will be bold, very bold indeed, and say that if this doctrine of Christ Descent into Hades is not known, then the most essential doctrines of our salvation are misunderstood and incorrectly taught. This is not to create an argument about whose Church is more correct, but to state a simple and plain fact of theology. If the primary story of our salvation is not a matter of agreement, then the conversation regarding the faith has barely begun.
From an Orthodox perspective, I can think of no finer article than one that has been cited before by me, Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s The Descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern and Western Theological Traditions. This article, delivered as a lecture at St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral in Minneapolis in 2002 is simply the finest summary of this doctrine that I have seen. I have taken the liberty of creating a “page” for it on this weblog for easy reference. The patristic sources, all of whom are richly grounded in Scripture, are worth the entire article. His discussion of the decline of this doctrine in the West is also worth reading.
But I return to my earlier contention, which experience is simply bearing out: another gospel is replacing the gospel of Christ – the primary metaphors of our salvation are being forgotten and set aside for a later, less Scriptural account. These are not light matters – but matters that go to the heart of the faith. I cannot write about the Christian faith and not make mention (perhaps repeatedly) of this phenomenon. Maybe more will begin to hear it – and that would be a very good thing.