God in the third person

In one sense, the fifth of the 39 articles, dealing with the Holy Spirit, is a bare minimum of what might be said.

V. Of the Holy Ghost
The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty, and glory, with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.

This is a fairly straightforward affirmation of the Spirit as third person of the Trinity. In its unquestioning adoption of the filioque clause (i.e. the words “and the Son” in the credal phrase “proceeding from the Father and the Son”), it’s located clearly within the Western Catholic tradition.

I’m not sure whether this is of a piece with what I observed in the previous post. There I noted that the article on the Son said virtually nothing about his present activity. Here there is nothing about the activity of the Spirit within the Church (or the world).

This article’s fairly bare statement in some respects is almost the opposite of a great deal of contemporary talk about the Spirit. Much contemporary talk of the Spirit (especially but not exclusively in charismatic circles) tends to be instrumental, and mainly about empowering the Church or Christians.

The language of gift and empowerment has a wide-ranging scriptural background behind it, and there is certainly far more room for talk of the present activity of the Holy Spirit than the article would superficially suggest. I don’t want to deny the validity of this language. Equally, perhaps more attention to the Spirit as Person might lead to a greater stress on relationship, and less concern with power.

The first five of the 39 articles represent a kind of credal summary, a statement of the church’s regular fidei (rule of faith), and a means of anchoring the Church of England in the historic deposit of faith expressed by the fathers and the early ecumenical councils. From this point on they begin to engage more specifically with controversy, and begin to put down boundary markers for particular understandings of how that faith was to be maintained and worked out in the controversies of the sixteenth (and seventeenth) century.

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)

The Son also rises

1st century tomb found under house in Nazareth

The fourth of the 39 articles, on resurrection, makes some key traditional affirmations, but also employs some problematic language in doing so. Here it is:

IV. Of the Resurrection of Christ
Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day.

Let’s begin by noting the positive affirmations. The article is explicit about the reality of the resurrection. It understands its significance as Christ not leaving behind human nature, but taking it into God’s own triune life in such a way that our created humanity is now in no sense alien to God, but may find its proper home in God’s eternal presence. It affirms the completion of that work with that brief “sitteth” and the place of Christ as final judge, when humankind is measured by the one who has shared our weaknesses.

There is, however, some curious phrasing, and an odd apparent omission. The differences in the relevant section of the Augsburg Confession highlight these:

[he] truly rose again the third day; afterward He ascended into heaven that He might sit on the right hand of the Father, and forever reign and have dominion over all creatures, and sanctify them that believe in Him, by sending the Holy Ghost into their hearts, to rule, comfort, and quicken them, and to defend them against the devil and the power of sin.

First, the omission. There is no sense of activity by the risen and ascended Christ. When the article is set beside the Lutheran document, that “sitteth” looks remarkably passive. In one sense, of course, spelling anything out gets us into serious difficulties. We can only speak temporally of Christ’s “actions” in eternity, so that whatever we say will be inadequate. Nonetheless the experience in time of the Church is (at least meant to be) of the Lord of the Church active within its life through his Spirit, and the article is curiously muted about that.

By contrast there is the, to my ears frankly bizarre, expansion of the description of the resurrection. Christ “took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature.” It is fairly clear that any contemporary discussion over whether the language of resurrection necessitates an empty tomb would have seemed truly bizarre to the framers of this article, yet I can’t help but feel the language goes too far in the other direction.

If the intent is to state in the strongest possible terms that what we truly are as humans has an eternal fulfilment in God, because all that makes us human is taken by Jesus into the fullness of the divine life, then I want to agree. But I honestly can’t get my head round this way of trying to say it, and think it is at best misleading.

In the longest scriptural discussion of the resurrection, Paul is at some pains to stress that one’s body (which seems to stand in part for one’s actual real existence) needs to be appropriately constituted for one’s domain. In that particular discourse, flesh and blood belong to this existence, but not to that of the kingdom (1 Cor 15). Paul concludes:

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! [i.e. revealed secret] We will not all die, but we will all be changed (1 Cor 15:50-51 NRSV)

By contrast, the article seems to me so to minimise that transformation, that it is barely visible. Paul is relatively reticent about his affirmations, but is positive both that the earthly stuff of the body will be transformed into another spiritual kind of stuff, and that the transformed body will share an identity with what it was before. Just as for us, so for Jesus (or vice versa), resurrection implies both continuity and discontinuity. The problem with the article is that there is no discontinuity, just a temporary blip of death in the same body. It seems to me, here, both to state less than Paul (no discontinuity) and more than Paul (ascribing flesh and bones to the body).

The article is, of course, not alone in that. It can point to Luke’s resurrection narrative as a justification. “Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24.39) This, however, is said by a Jesus whose bodily appearance is such that his followers are unable to recognise him in the normal way, and who can appear and disappear at will. The narrative makes the apparently straightforward self-description rather more complex. The intent is to emphasise the reality of Jesus’ presence, and that this is not a ghostly or visionary appearance by the dead as might be reasonably commonly experienced and narrated. It is less clear that it is intended to be the kind of theological declaration Paul is making. What Paul is wrestling with is how to express the difference between what existence means in our temporal state, with what existence might mean when framed by eternity.

It seems to me that some serious category confusion is going on between temporal and eternal existence. Heaven is not a place like earth, eternity is not a particular type of time. Christ is not confined to sitting around as though his Father’s right hand is some kind of waiting room for the parousia, but is present to and for the world in the working of the Spirit. Where this article seems to me to go in the wrong direction is in appearing to ascribe the temporal physical limitations of the incarnation to the ascended and eternal Lord. It gets its communication of predicates the wrong way round.

I can affirm with the article the transformation in history of the body of Jesus from death to life, leaving the tomb empty. I can affirm the identity of the one who was born of the Virgin Mary and crucified under Pontius Pilate, to be the very same identity who was raised by the Father. But I must, I think, affirm with Paul, and against the article, that there is indeed a real transformation that takes place between the one and the other, and see in it the first expression of eschatological promise that the material created order will be transformed so as to be fully and finally fitted for a richer life transparent to and with the divine presence.

Real life or Realpolitik?

I had unquestioningly accepted the dominant narrative of the West, that Bashar al-Assad is a monster who cold-bloodedly murders his own people and who must be got rid of as soon as possible. In Syria, we talked to politicians of all parties, imams, Christians, the mayors of local towns and people in the street. Some fervently supported their president. Others were critical, but everyone agreed that at this moment he was the key to Syria’s survival. Even his opponents accept that around 70 per cent of Syrians support Assad. Imposed regime change would bring chaos and the victory of terrorism, undermining Syria’s neighbours, Lebanon and Jordan, as the anarchy of Libya has brought instability to Egypt and Tunisia.

I was catching up with the pre-Christmas issue of The Tablet, when I found this stunningly thought-provoking (and in my view seriously helpful) article on Syria from Timothy Radcliffe. I heartily recommend that you read the whole thing.

Down among the dead men

Albrecht Dürer's Harrowing of Hell
image © V & A Museum

It may seem strange, on getting back to my series on the Anglican 39 articles, to arrive at the Harrowing of Hell in Christmastide! Perhaps the strangeness is only superficial: the cause of our Christmas celebration is what ultimately discloses the depth of the Easter festival.

The article is barely more than a recitation of a line from the Apostles’ Creed:

III. Of the going down of Christ into Hell
As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell.

Such brevity may suggest a certain reticence. Presumably this is caught up in the rejection of so much of the history and cartography of the afterlife at the Reformation, to say nothing about mediaeval hopes for post-mortem salvation. I think the reticence persists: our rejection of ancient cosmologies of heaven and hell is so much more complete, that we don’t know what to do with this language. Yet where the article is short, I fear this post is long.

Apart from my own (and I can only remember two occasions) I can recall hearing not a single sermon on Christ’s descent to the dead. Even if we do as I have just done, and the modern translation of the Creed also does, and translate Hell as “the dead”, it doesn’t seem to render it any more palatable for preachers.

For those who might preach on it liturgically, no doubt we should attribute this lack of sermonising to the fact that people don’t normally preach on Holy Saturday. The day before focusses naturally on the cross, and the day after on the resurrection, and we never stop to deal with the question felt so keenly by the Christians of late antiquity: what was the divine Son of God doing when he embraced death in his human nature?

Then there is another problem for those who might preach on it in the course of moving sequentially through one or other epistle. The verses on which it was once held to be based are now more commonly read in a different way. Cranmer’s original 1552 draft tried to locate the idea in scripture.

III. Of the going down of Christ into Hell
As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell. For the body laid in the Sepulchre, until the resurrection: but his Ghost departing from him, was with the Ghosts that were in prison, or in Hell, and did preach to the same, as the place of S. Peter doth testify. (I’ve modernised spelling, but not language)

The relevant verses are:

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. (1 Peter 3:18-20 NRSV)


For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does. (1 Peter 4:6 NRSV)

The other place where he could have sought a basis for this doctrine (and where others have found it) is this:

Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) (Ephesians 4:8-10 NRSV)

The problem is that many scholars today don’t believe that the descent of Christ to the dead is the original meaning of these passages: even if they can’t agree on what that meaning was (and they can’t) they do tend to agree in ruling out the descent to hell. I find myself persuaded and think that:

  • the spirits in prison belong to the mythology found in some apocalyptic literature and refer to disobedient angels
  • “he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison” means Christ’s proclamation of the defeat of evil powers while on his triumphal resurrection procession to his heavenly home
  • the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead means that it was preached to those who have died (in the flesh) since they heard it, but because of it, are now alive in the spirit.
  • and that in Ephesians the phrase “he also descended into the lower parts of the earth” needs interpreting differently since κατέβη gives no justification for the English pluperfect. “He who descended is the same one who ascended” is possibly about the incarnation, but more likely about the identity of the gifts of the descended Spirit with the gifts of the ascended Christ.

Where then, shall we go with this article? First, I think we can more readily appreciate, and draw on the literary and artistic portrayals of the harrowing of hell. Poetry, drama, and art draw out the metaphors, mystery and mythology of Christ’s defeat of death in ways that propositional theology never will. One such is Albrecht Dürer’s 1510 woodcut above, from the V & A. Another is his excerpt from Piers Plowman (B text, Passus 18):

I here and see bothe
A spirit speketh to helle and biddeth unspere the yates:
“Attolite portas.”
A vois loude in that light to Lucifer crieth,
“Prynees of this place, unpynneth and unlouketh!
For here cometh with crowne that kyng is of glorie.”
Thanne sikede Sathan, and seide to helle,
“Swich a light, ayeins oure leve, Lazar it fette;
Care and combraunce is comen to us alle!
If this kyng come in, mankynde wole he fecche,
And lede it ther Lazar is, and lightliche me bynde.
Patriarkes and prophetes han parled herof longe –
That swich a lord and a light shal lede hem alle hennes.’

Which being translated

I both see and hear it.
A spirit bids hell unbar its gates.
“Lift up your heads, O ye gates”
A loud voice from this shining light calls out to Lucifer
“Prince of this place, unbolt and unlock,
For he comes who is crowned king of glory.”
Then Satan sighed, and said to hell,
“A light like this came once before, and fetched Lazarus out:
Grief and trouble has come to us all!
If this king comes in, he will fetch out humankind,
and lead them where Lazarus is, and swiftly bind me.
Patriarchs and prophets have long spoken of this –
that such a lord, such a light, would lead them all hence.”

The mediaeval myth owes more to the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus than it does to canonical scripture, but is dramatically compelling, even if (like many apocryphal writings) it goes into detail where scripture is reticent. Yet the sense that the release of those who were in death’s dark prison belongs to the victory of the cross, and that that victory stretches back in time as well as forwards, is profoundly important. Victory over death, celebrated in this poetic dramatisation, and affirmed by this article, is a significant outworking of a pre-Augustinian model of atonement.

Incidentally, when you have a spare hour, do watch this excellent lecture by Ben Myers in which he explains the Patristic model of the atonement (and takes Gustav Aulen out to the woodshed in the process). It offers good reasons for taking Christ’s descent to the dead as essential to Christian gospel telling.

How then can we speak of Christ doing anything when he is dead (in his human nature)? How can we speak of Christ being dead, when he is eternally living (in his divine nature)?

We need a theology of Holy Saturday as well as Good Friday and Easter Day. Christ’s being dead in his human nature needs to be affirmed, as sabbath at the end of accomplishing his Father’s work, as the void from which new creation will begin on the first day of the week, and as the means of turning the rest of death into the Eternal Sabbath of resting in life with God. (Memo to self, must read von Balthasar one day!)

In that sense, I would take my scriptural bearings from Rom 4:17: ” God … who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist”. There is a parallel between the works of creation and resurrection, which is seen in the Christ hymn of Colossians, which is worked out dramatically in John’s Gospel, and yet is often overlooked.

The formless void at the start of Genesis, represents a space where God is not active, or perhaps even not present, a space from which he has, as it were, withdrawn himself, so that creation – what is not God – may be brought into being. Similarly, death is as far from God as one may be, and still in some sense be spoken of as being, however shadowy (as in the First Testament) that existence might be conceived of as (not quite) being.

Christ (as both agent of creation as well as agent of resurrection) is the God who goes where God is not, so that what is not God may be drawn into the eternal love, which is the life of the Trinity.

To say “he went down into hell” is a fundamental affirmation that God’s love reaches the very depths not only of creation’s being, but of its non-being. The universe, as far as we know it, tends to dissolution with the increase of entropy. Our lives are bounded by the non-being of death. The word of God brings order out of chaos, not only in the founding myths of creation, but in the eschatological hope of new creation, drawing even the most disordered aspects of this existence, epitomized by the dissolution of death, into a new and renewed order of love.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38-39 NRSV)

That, in different words from St Paul, is the essential expression of “he went down into hell.”