Christ's Preaching to the Spirits in Prison: Part 6

 •  10 min. read  •  grade level: 12
We may now briefly consider the current of thought from days not long subsequent to those of the apostles. We shall see the various but constant aberration from the truth which characterized such as drew from our text an actual preaching of our Lord in the world of spirits. Doubtless it was no question of an isolated or casual misinterpretation of the scripture before us; but this rather sprang from the general ignorance even then pervading Christendom as to the full blessedness of our standing in Christ-ignorance found in the fathers as such, if possible more than in the popular theology of our own day or in the puritanism of the past. Lack of faith could not but expose men to crude guesses because of their uncertainty; especially as here where the first obvious view of the passage is not the sure, sound, and spiritual one which falls in with the contextual aim and the analogy of the faith elsewhere. Indeed our way of regarding any particular portion of revealed truth can scarcely be severed from our state generally; so much so that habitually an intelligent eye can see where we are by the judgment we form as to divine things wholly remote and apparently quite unconnected. Here for instance a soul established in the gospel and therefore feeling solemnly the fixed doom of the lost, as well as the blessedness of the saved now and evermore, is at once delivered from nine-tenths of the speculations about our Lord's preaching to the spirits of saints or sinners after their and His separation from the body. It is ordinarily thus: where we rest not in the grace and truth which came by Jesus, we are in danger from ordinances, fables, reasonings, or from a mixture of them all. Apostolic power and fidelity, Paul's above all, cut up by the root these workings of Satan's malice; but, when the apostles were gone, the evils previously judged found too ready an acceptance and gave birth to results more openly disastrous, and, if this could be, more decidedly opposed to the glory of the Lord.
1. The first I would produce is the allusion of Justin, the ecclesiastical writer, more blessed in his death of martyrdom than in his life of philosophy. It will illustrate the state of things at that time in more ways than one. Καὶ ἀπὸ τῶν λόγων τοῦ αὐτοῦ Ἰερεμίου ὁηοίως ταῦτα περιέκοψαν Ἐμνήσθη ὁὲ κύριος ὁ Θεὸς ἀπὸ(? ἅγιος) Ἰσπαἡλ τῶν νεκρὤν αὐτοῦ τῶν κεκοιμημένων εἰς γῆν χώματος, καὶ κατέβη πρὸς αὐτοὺς ἀναγγελίσασθαι αὐτοῖς τὸ σωτήριον αὐτοῦ. The common reading is retained in the modern edition of Otto, spite of the conjecture of Sylburg approved by Jebb, Thirlby, &c. But the emendation if correct makes no difference for our object. Here then we have a spurious text attributed to the prophet Jeremiah but evidently founded on the vulgar misapplication of 1 Peter 3:19, 4:6. Man however cannot add to scripture without clashing with revelation. Supposing we draw from the apostle a personal preaching of the Lord in the place of spirits, it is impossible to infer from the words of the New Testament an announcement of His salvation. The apostle where he may be thought to speak of such a descent tells us only of His preaching to imprisoned spirits once disobedient in the days of Noah; where he speaks of glad tidings to dead men, there is no hint of Christ's descent.
2. Irenaeus, the pious bishop of Lyons in the latter part of the second century, cites repeatedly this alleged text, under the name of Isaiah and of Jeremiah, as well as with no name attached to it (Adv. Haer. iii. c. 20, § 4; iv. c. 22, § 1). The notion that the Jews effaced such a verse from the Hebrew is baseless; especially as they have left other testimonies to Christ incomparably clearer and more at issue with their traditions. Even Massuet confesses this to be a knot beyond his power to untie, bound though he was to sustain, had it been possible, the credit of patristic traditions. “Vereor ut Justino primum, ac deinde Irenaeo fucum fecerit apocrypha quaepiam scriptura.” The unbiased reader will have no scruple in affirming what the Benedictine feared—that it is a mere apocryphal gloss, loosely imputed to a prophet, and a little expanding as it goes down; for Irenaeus adds (or at least the barbarous Latin version, which alone here represents his Greek) “ut salvaret eos” or “ad salvandum eos.” That is, He preached in Hades not merely to announce but to save. Irenaeus, strange to say, seems unusually attached to this pseudograph, for he cites it again in his book ¨4. c. 33, § 1. Only in § 12 of the same chapter the Latin translation gives the notable variation, “in terra limi.... uti erigeret,” with the addition named in both, though differently expressed. Lastly in his fifth book too he once more falls back on his prophet but recurs to the earlier form “in terra sepelitionis (so Feuardentius, &c, instead of the Erasmian reading, stipulationis),” though even so with some change, “extrahere eos et salvare eos.” Comment is scarce needed. “When a man quotes so loosely in the same work of no considerable extent, we should not be surprised if he were loose as to scripture and loose as to doctrine.
3. But there is no small descent when we turn next to Hermas, an author probably of the latter half of the same second century, who derived much of his reputation from the singular confusion which led many in early days to regard him as the Christian saluted in Rom. 16:1414Salute Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermas, Patrobas, Hermes, and the brethren which are with them. (Romans 16:14); for most probably (Muratori, Ant. Ital. med. aevi, 3. 853) he was brother of the Pius who was bishop of Rome after Hyginus died a.d. 157. Here too we have only a Latin version of the “Shepherd,” as even the recent discoveries of Tischendorf do not give us the Greek original1 beyond the fourth ἐντολή (i.e. mandatum or command) of the second book. 1 quote from the third book, and the sixteenth section of the ninth similitude (Cotelerii Patres Apost. I. 118, ed. 1698):
“Quoniam hi Apostoli et doctores, qui praedica-verunt nomen Eilii Dei, cum habentea fidem ejus et potestatem defuncti essent, praedicaverunt his qui ante obierunt, et ipsi dederunt eis illud signum. Descen-derunt igitur in aquam cum illis, et iterum ascen-derunt,” &c. Thus, Hermas is distinctly committed to the absurd doctrine that the apostles preached to the dead and baptized them. This is a further and a desperate step in superstition, and of course without a shred of support from scripture; but it seems to be the not unnatural complement of the notion that the Lord went down after death to preach in Hades to the spirits there. Is it not melancholy to think that such a production as this, immeasurably inferior in every point of view to Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, though doubted by some and even declared apocryphal by certain synods, was extensively read in the public Christian assemblies, and was evidently incorporated with the scriptures in the Sinai MS, as Clement2 of Rome's epistles were in the Alexandrian copy?
4. Can we go down lower? Alas! not only so, but at the next step. Clement of Alexandria appears, under the reign of Severus and Caracalla, a speculative eclectic though a Christian presbyter. In the second book of his “Miscellanies” (Στρωμ. 379, ed. Sylburg, 1629) he quotes “the Shepherd” and applies the baptism carried on by the apostle after death, not (as Hermas appears to mean) only to the godly before redemption, but to heathen philosophers or moral men as well. In the sixth book (637 et seqq.) he recurs to a similar strain and yet more openly treats it as certain that our Lord descended to Hades for no other reason than to preach the gospel, and this that they might believe and be saved; that such as lived up-lightly, Jews or Greeks, even though imprisoned in Hades, on hearing His voice either in person or through the apostle were presently brought to conversion and faith; that there is the same dispensation below as on earth for souls to manifest their repentance or their unbelief. Thus the awful consequences of living and dying impenitent in this world are explained away by this Clementine notion of a further offer of salvation by Christ and the apostles after death, and this evidently to keep up the illusion of salvation for philosophers and moral men among the heathen.
5. None will wonder that the famous Origen outran his master, and that the philosopher Celsus provoked him into deplorable statements. Thus in the second book in reply (Opera I. 419, ed. De la Rue) he does not hesitate to say that the Lord in the separate state held converse with souls similarly separate from the body, converting to Himself of them such as would or such as He saw more suited for reasons known to Him. Again, in his fourth homily on Luke (I. 937), he says that John B. descended to hell and there preached the Lord's advent; and he seems to imply a similar work of Paul in his comment on Rom. 11:1313For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office: (Romans 11:13) (4:35).
6. Cyril of Alexandria writes, if possible, more unguardedly in his homilies— “Hades spoiled of spirits;” yea of Christ (Hom. 6) “immediately spoiling all Hades, and opening the doors which admit of no escape to the spirits of those fallen asleep; and the devil then deserted and alone rose after the third day.”
7. In the same spirit wrote the author of a discourse on the ascension, falsely imputed to Chrysostom who really censures such thoughts as old wives' fables in his homily on Matt. 11:33And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? (Matthew 11:3), as Augustine classed the dream among heresies—the 79th in his list. I say nothing of the question raised by Gregory of Nazianzum (whether Christ saves in Hades all without exception or only such as believe, Orat. xii.), or of such romance-writers as Anastasius, who introduces Plato appearing to one asleep who used to abuse his doctrine, and pretending that he was one of the first to believe on Christ when He preached in Hades. Even a Roman Synod condemned one, a man of mark who taught thus in the year 745. Tertullian among the early Latins and Gregory of Nyssa are far enough from Romish doctrine either as to limbus patrum or as to purgatory; for they, like many others of the ancients, held all the saints before and after Christ to be waiting in Abraham's bosom, a region not heavenly yet higher than hell or hades, till the resurrection at Christ's coming. Let this suffice just now.
I feel it neither needful nor profitable to pursue the long dreary walk through the medieval desert, though even then souls were not wanting like our own Bede and Thomas Aquinas, with a long interval between, who adhered to the substantial truth in the Apostle's words as against the more prevalent superstition which had overgrown them.