When I became Catholic, I could finally recite the Apostle’s Creed without making mental qualifications and exceptions in my head. It is interesting that although this creed is very widely held to be the basis for orthodoxy (meaning, if one holds to the Apostle’s Creed, one has the right to claim oneself “Christian.”), it is not held by all to mean the same thing, by any means.
The words are used, but the meaning twisted to account for certain doctrines that are missing from non-Catholic Christians’ systems. “He who defines, wins,” so of course, it is best to maintain the forms while infusing your own meanings thereto. This is, for instance, why Christians everywhere were up in arms about Clinton’s use of biblical language when talking about his socialist platform. Or why the pro-abortionist cause is firstly to define the child in utero as “fetal tissue” rather than a living person.
Here is the creed I profess:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
1. Why is “He descended into hell?” after “died, and was buried?”
This is no problem for a Catholic.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
” This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.” (more here.)
CatholicCulture.org has an article on the topic:
” In the First Letter of Peter we read further: “…the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God” (1 Pt 4:6). This verse also, though not easy to interpret, confirms the concept of the “descent into hell” as the ultimate phase of the Messiah’s mission.”
I was taught as a Protestant that the ancient creed had the order messed up. The “descent into hell” should really not be coming after his death and burial. Rather, it occurred on the cross when Christ cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani!” “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” This was hell – for hell is separation from God. Therefore it should say “Was crucified, descended into hell, died, was buried.”
Calvin puts it this way:
“The ‘descent into hell’ as an expression of the spiritual torment that Christ underwent for us… No wonder, then, if he is said to have descended into hell, for he suffered the death that, God in his wrath had inflicted upon the wicked! Those who — on the ground that it is absurd to put after his burial what preceded it — say that the order is reversed in this way are making a very trifling and ridiculous objection. The point is that the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know not only that Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man.”
The Heidelberg Catechism says:
44. Q. Why is there added: He descended into hell? A. In my greatest sorrows and temptations I may be assured and comforted that my Lord Jesus Christ, by His unspeakable anguish, pain, terror, and agony, which He endured throughout all His sufferings but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell. (emphasis mine)
The Westminster Larger Catechism says:
Q. 50. Wherein consisted Christ’s humiliation after his death?
A. Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.
GI Williamson, OPC minister and commentator of the Westminster Catechisms has said:
“There is no phrase in the Apostles’ Creed that has caused so much difficulty as this: ‘He descended into hell.’ Also, there is disagreement as to what the ancient church meant when it included these words in this earliest Christian confession. Yet in spite of the difficulty, the church has never been willing to remove these words. How then shall we understand them? We cannot possibly take these words to mean that Christ, after he died, went to the place where lost men go to suffer forever. We know he did not go there because he told the believing thief who died at his side that he would be with him that very day in paradise (Luke 23:43). The biblical meaning must be that what Christ suffered on the cross was itself a descent into hell.” (emphasis mine)
Here‘s a real beauty:
“[T]he creed says, speaking of Jesus, “He descended into hell.” This phrase has always been problematic. …
[J]udgment means having people realize what they have done….do you ever think back on something you have said or done and realize how horrible it was? I do, and it makes me tremble, sometimes. Indeed, it makes me gnash my teeth. I think that hell is like that. It is when we face, some of us reluctantly, bitterly, against all resistance, the truth of who we are and what we have done….
I take great comfort in the teaching that Jesus descended into hell, for it assures me that, in the words of Psalm 139, even if I make my bed in hell, God is there. And if God is there, then there is hope, and love, and ultimate forgiveness, for you, for me, for us all.”
To sum up, “The final clause in this sequence, “He descended into hell,” is the most controversial in the Apostle’s Creed. Indeed, some denominations consider it optional or refuse to include it at all.”
2. What Holy Catholic Church?
This is perhaps the most asterisked and explained away portion of the creed.
Heidelberg puts it this way (note the addition of “Christian”):
54. Q. What do you believe concerning the holy catholic Christian church?
A. I believe that the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself, by His Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a church chosen to everlasting life. And I believe that I am and forever shall remain a living member of it.
On this Reformed site the creed itself is marked with an asterisk at this point:
“*The word “catholic” refers not to the Roman Catholic Church, but to the universal church of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
I could list pretty much the same statement from another 100 websites so I won’t bother.
Instead I will leave you with an explanation of the Catholic Church from catholicanswers.com:
“The Church Is One (Rom. 12:5, 1 Cor. 10:17, 12:13, CCC 813–822)
Jesus established only one Church, not a collection of differing churches (Lutheran, Baptist, Anglican, and so on). The Bible says the Church is the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:23–32). Jesus can have but one spouse, and his spouse is the Catholic Church.
His Church also teaches just one set of doctrines, which must be the same as those taught by the apostles (Jude 3). This is the unity of belief to which Scripture calls us (Phil. 1:27, 2:2).
Although some Catholics dissent from officially-taught doctrines, the Church’s official teachers—the pope and the bishops united with him—have never changed any doctrine. Over the centuries, as doctrines are examined more fully, the Church comes to understand them more deeply (John 16:12–13), but it never understands them to mean the opposite of what they once meant.
The Church Is Holy (Eph. 5:25–27, Rev. 19:7–8, CCC 823–829)
By his grace Jesus makes the Church holy, just as he is holy. This doesn’t mean that each member is always holy. Jesus said there would be both good and bad members in the Church (John 6:70), and not all the members would go to heaven (Matt. 7:21–23).
But the Church itself is holy because it is the source of holiness and is the guardian of the special means of grace Jesus established, the sacraments (cf. Eph. 5:26).
The Church Is Catholic (Matt. 28:19–20, Rev. 5:9–10, CCC 830–856)
Jesus’ Church is called catholic (“universal” in Greek) because it is his gift to all people. He told his apostles to go throughout the world and make disciples of “all nations” (Matt. 28:19–20).
For 2,000 years the Catholic Church has carried out this mission, preaching the good news that Christ died for all men and that he wants all of us to be members of his universal family (Gal. 3:28).
Nowadays the Catholic Church is found in every country of the world and is still sending out missionaries to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).
The Church Jesus established was known by its most common title, “the Catholic Church,” at least as early as the year 107, when Ignatius of Antioch used that title to describe the one Church Jesus founded. The title apparently was old in Ignatius’s time, which means it probably went all the way back to the time of the apostles.”
I will ask a question that I have asked before in commenting on other websites: If the title “catholic” was so important to those who left the Church, why did they not fight for the title? Why simply leave (or be “kicked out”) without claiming that they were in fact the catholic church?
Here is a quote my husband loves to bring up from Augustine, and it is appropriate here:
“The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep, down to the present episcopate. And so, lastly, does the name itself of Catholic, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house.”
Sort of a side issue, but related. Some claim that the Eastern Orthodox church is actually the one church that Christ founded, and that the Catholic church is in schism. (The Catholic church teaches that the opposite is true.) I ask, what Eastern Orthodox church can I enter to see its “universal” nature? I can go to any Catholic Church in America and be met with a beautiful panoply of racial representation. The makeup of a local Catholic church matches the makeup of the surrounding community. There is nothing ethnic about Catholicism. (In fact, the existence of several different Catholic rites is a wonderful testament to this universal nature. Here is a list: Ambrosian, Mozarabic, Gallican, Byzantine, Alexandrian, Antiochene, Maronite, Armenian, Chaldean, and further subdivisions of some of these. All are in communion with each other and the pope. There’s your multiformity!)
This cannot be said of the Eastern Orthodox. (Some Protestant denominations are this way as well to a lesser extent. I think of the Dutch Reformed with their “if you’re not dutch you’re not much” attitude. Also the denominations which are very much WASP-y in demographic.) Their very nature is ethnic clannishness. Where is their history of sending out missionaries to other nations? Of claiming new cultures for Christ? Hmm. I haven’t been able to find it, yet.
Interestingly, this is very much like the Jews of old (indeed, of today) and it is no accident that they claim to be exactly like the New Testament church. The NT church (started out mainly Jewish as evangelization began in the synagogues) was in turmoil because the Jews wanted the Gentiles to become part of their nation, their cultural identity, in order to become Christian. This was the thrust of Paul’s arguments in most, if not all, of his letters – to dispel the clannishness, the nationalistic tendencies, and to proclaim the universal – catholic – nature of the new organization called the Church. It would not be based on race, or place. This is the kind of thing that the apostles were fighting – against clannishness and for bringing the good news to the world.
Another question: which Eastern Orthodox group, or Protestant denomination, has representatives in just about every known country? The Catholic Church does. Universal church, anyone?
3. Just what does “Communion of Saints” imply?
Ah, the communion of saints. The great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. How did I profess it for so many years, and simply ignore it at the same time? That, I think, was vain repetition. (wink)
What does the Catholic Church teach about the communion of saints?
From the Encyclopedia:
“The communion of saints is the spiritual solidarity which binds together the faithful on earth, the souls in purgatory, and the saints in heaven in the organic unity of the same mystical body under Christ its head, and in a constant interchange of supernatural offices…The living, even if they do not belong to the body of the true Church, share in it according to the measure of their union with Christ and with the soul of the Church. St. Thomas teaches (III:8:4) that the angels, though not redeemed, enter the communion of saints because they come under Christ’s power and receive of His gratia capitis. The solidarity itself implies a variety of inter-relations: within the Church Militant, not only the participation in the same faith, sacraments, and government, but also a mutual exchange of examples, prayers, merits, and satisfactions; between the Church on earth on the one hand, and purgatory and heaven on the other, suffrages, invocation, intercession, veneration. These connotations belong here only in so far as they integrate the transcendent idea of spiritual solidarity between all the children of God. Thus understood, the communion of saints, though formally defined only in its particular bearings (Council of Trent, Sess. XXV, decrees on purgatory; on the invocation, veneration, and relics of saints and of sacred images; on indulgences), is, nevertheless, dogma commonly taught and accepted in the Church. ” (emphasis mine)
Heidelberg Catechism says:
Q55. What do you understand by “the communion of saints”?
A: First, that all and every one, who believes, being members of Christ, are in common, partakers of him, and of all his riches and gifts; secondly, that every one must know it to be his duty, readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts, for the advantage and salvation of other members.
Hm, no mention of the saints who have gone before us. But I was taught even as a Protestant that the communion of saints refers to the entire “invisible” church from the beginning of history until the end.
“The holy Christian church is the communion of saints, the total number of those who believe in Christ. All believers in Christ, but only believers, are members of the church (invisible church).”
What’s missing here are the implications of calling the departed saints part of the Bride of Christ, the church. What is this communion part? So great, the believers past, present and future are saints. How are we in communion? We are all living members of his body. What does this mean?
Well, for a Catholic it is very meaningful. This is the doctrine on which we base our prayers to the departed to ask their intercession for us before the throne of God, which the Bible tells us they are unceasingly doing. This is how we on earth can, by offering up our sufferings and prayers, assist our departed loved ones who are still in purgatory. Because a body is a unit, and we can affect each other mystically. This is well explained on fisheaters.com, from which I will quote a portion:
“As far back as the Old Testament, it is made clear that the temporal effects of sin affect others who may not have committed personal sin. The greatest and first example is that of the sin of Adam and Eve which resulted in the fall of man from grace and in his propensity for corruption and personal sin which we call “original sin.”
The Pentateuch (i.e. Torah, the first five Books of the Bible) also speaks of the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children: ‘…I am the Lord thy God, mighty, jealous, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me.’ (Exodus 20:5)
I Corinthians 12:26 demonstrates that what affects one member of the Body affects another:
‘And if one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it: or if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it.’
…[T]he basic idea that our sins affect others not only in obvious temporal ways, but in mystical ways, is Bibilical….
Grace and good works affect others in the same way:
Continue reading the Exodus 20 Torah portion mentioned above:
‘…I am the Lord thy God, mighty, jealous, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. And shewing mercy unto thousands to them that love me, and keep my commandments.’
The good we do, by the grace of Christ, ripples out into the universe and builds up His Body:
‘If so ye continue in the faith, grounded and settled, and immoveable from the hope of the gospel which you have heard, which is preached in all the creation that is under heaven: whereof I Paul am made a minister. Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the church…’
When we cooperate with grace — when we pray, give alms, fast, offer up our sufferings, etc. — we literally strengthen the Body of Christ in a mystical way! Christ Himself and all the Saints of 2,000 years (by the grace of Christ) have built up His Mystical Body and laid up a “treasury of merit” or “spiritual treasury,” as it is also called. In the same way we or others detract from the Body of Christ through sin, we and others add to this treasury — and receive the fruits thereof when we receive an indulgence, for we are one in the Body of Christ:
‘We being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.’
And read once again I Corinthians 12:26:
‘And if one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it: or if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it.'”
What a wonderful doctrine. And what a pity to completely gut it of its value by removing the meaning and replacing it with a halfhearted “communion of saints means that there were and are and will be other Christians.”
I am so thankful that I can believe this entire Christian creed without any reservations, that I can take the creed to mean exactly what it says, and profess it with my whole heart. No asterisks anymore. What a beautiful thing.