“Descendit in Inferna”: A Reformed Review of a Creedal Conundrum -- By: Randall E. Otto

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 52:1 (Spring 1990)
Article: “Descendit in Inferna”: A Reformed Review of a Creedal Conundrum
Author: Randall E. Otto


“Descendit in Inferna”:
A Reformed Review of a Creedal Conundrum

Randall E. Otto

Of all the symbola oecumenica, the creed which is most often used to summarize the Christian faith is the Apostles’ Creed. No other creed has found such prominent usage in the confessions made by both Protestants and Catholics. This is not to say, however, that the Apostles’ Creed is interpreted in consensus in toto. One statement, in particular, has been the focus of perennial controversy, that one being the words descendit in [ad] inferna1 (“he descended into hell”). The fact that many editions of the Apostles’ Creed annotate this clause or omit it altogether draws attention to the problematic nature of the statement, with ensuing concerns regarding its liturgical use.

I. History of the Descensus

The Apostles’ Creed is essentially an old Roman baptismal formula (R) to which later additions were made. One of these later additions is the clause in question, the descensus. This disputed article occurs for the first time in Latin as a variant of R in a commentary of the creed (Expositio symboli apostolici) by Rufinus, a priest of Aquileia, around 390. Rufinus himself states that the clause was not found in either the Roman or oriental editions of the creed. He further asserts that “the intention of the Aquileian alteration of the creed was not to add a new doctrine, but to explain an old one.”2 Therefore, the Aquileian Creed omitted the clause “was buried,” and substituted for it the new clause “descendit in inferna.” It is generally acknowledged that at this point the descensus was equated with the burial.

The article next occurs in the creed ascribed (incorrectly) to Athanasius around 430 and is not found again until it appears in the Creed of Venantius Fortunatus around 570. “Venantius evidently had Rufinus’s Commentary before him when he wrote his own. It is possible therefore, that he may simply have adopted the clause from the Creed of Aquileia.”3 It is noteworthy that hitherto the descensus is written in lieu of the burial.

The precursor for the introduction of the clause with the burial is the Arian conciliar formula of Sirmium, known as the Third Sirmian Creed, which was read at the Council of Ariminum in 359, “the object being to set aside the Nicene formula.”4 This Sirmian Creed, originally written in Latin, still did not unite the descensus with the burial;<...

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