The Both/And of Francis Turretin on “He descended into hell”

In Volume 2, Thirteenth topic, Question 16 of his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Francis Turretin has a very helpful discussion of the meaning of the phrase in the Apostle’s Creed, “He descended into hell.” After refuting the view of Lutherans and Roman Catholics that Jesus descended locally to hell (in favor of the Biblical view that His soul, after its separation from the body, went immediately to glory), Turretin asks, “May the descent into hell be rightly referred to infernal torments and to a most abject state under the dominion of death in the sepulcher [grave]?” He acknowledges that there is disagreement about this topic even among the orthodox, “some referring it to the spiritual anguish and hellish torments which he suffered (as Calvin, Beza, Danaeus, Ursinus and others, even various confessions of the churches), others maintaining that it pertains to his burial and three days’ detention in the sepulcher (as Zanchius, Piscator, Pierius and others).” The Westminster Larger Catechism #50 emphasizes the latter, and the Heidelberg Catechism #44 stresses the former.

Turretin skillfully, and I believe rightly, holds the two poles together:

If it is asked which of these two opinions ought to be retained, we answer both can be admitted and be made to agree perfectly with each other. Thus by descent into hell may be understood the extreme degree of Christ’s suffering and humiliation, both as to soul and body; and as the lowest degree of humiliation as to the body was its detention in the sepulcher, so as to the soul were those dreadful torments he felt. And thus this last article will be apposite for expressing the last degree of Christ’s humiliation, whether as to disgrace of body or as to anguish of soul. Nor should it seem wonderful if these two parts (mutually diverse from each other) should be joined together in one and the same article. It is not unusual in Scripture for a single sense to put on various relations and for many things to be embraced together, especially when the things are mutually subordinated and connected with each other. Since this phrase may be referred now to abjection of the body, then to griefs of the soul (and Christ should have undergone both conditions), it was not without reason that the ancients added this article to the preceding in order to set forth more distinctly this state of Christ.

There are many more things to say in response and rebuttal concerning this question, and Turretin addresses more aspects of it in Questions 15 and 16 (another good resource is from Daniel Hyde, who has written a short book entitled In Defense of the Descent, in which he gives more detail on various modern views, and affirms the view that Turretin espouses). In sum, whenever someone asks me, “What do we mean by ‘He descended into hell?'” following Turretin I answer, “That Jesus Christ suffered the full wrath of God in body and in soul for us and for our salvation.”

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