by Janette Jolly
from Signs of the Times No. 72 - Jan 2019
In his latest publication, Dr Michael Downey outlines the persuasive reason for his argument from the outset, emphasizing his conviction that ‘cheery Christianity will no longer do’ (p.ix).
Tackling the often neglected ‘descensus clause’ from within the Apostles’ Creed affirming Christ’s descent among the dead, Downey highlights the significance of this credal concept, emphasizing its potential implications for today’s believers. Describing it as embodying a contentious ‘slippery Christian affirmation’, Downey takes his readers on a progressive journey into the complex context of the statement and its troubled credal history.
Immediately immersing the reader into considering the stark realities, mysteries and fears surrounding human bodily death, the opening aims to justify Downey’s argument exposing what he considers to be the neglected significance of Holy Saturday with its void… its silence… for all of humanity. He states boldly (rather too early, I consider, as we have yet to consider his argument):
The descent is the linchpin of Christian faith, for it expresses our conviction that in the darkness in which we are often enshrouded there is a luminous trace of God’s light, life and love-even there and then- in our dying, in our death, among the dead. (p.7).
Downey reminds us that humans by their nature are bound by notions of time and space, able only to refer to ‘approximations’ (p.16) of any after-life concepts- these time- and space-bound limits of man’s ‘eschatological imagination’ (he emphasizes) rendering knowledge of after-life as uncertain and limited. Nevertheless, Downey asserts that no place or space is beyond the scope of God’s love, stating
‘…those who are and have been lost may be found because of the generous descent of the Crucified One unto death, among the dead’ (p.18).
Developing his argument, Downey explores the concept of kenosis - Christs’ descent and the significance of Holy Saturday (p.19). At last a pivotal question is raised which I consider could have been posed earlier to ground Downey’s argument more effectively:
‘When and how did the descensus clause in the Apostles’ Creed affirming that between cross and resurrection Christ dwelt among the dead emerge in the church of Christ?’ (p.34).
Chapter four discusses the historically controversial nature of the descensus issue as a subject of ongoing debate and sometimes vitriolic dispute. References to 1 Peter 3:19 and Ephesians 4:9 provide a welcome biblical framework, otherwise somewhat lacking in this volume which I found an unsettling weakness.
The latter section centres on the author’s interpretation of this credal affirmation as a ‘rich pastoral resource’ (p.56). Here Downey succeeds in offering a gospel of comfort to those bereaved, or uncertain of their own future after death. Carefully exploring and unravelling different theological interpretations of the clause, I consider chapter six as one of the stronger sections of the book.
Posing more ‘slippery’ questions (Downey’s description) rather than answers, the final chapter becomes more speculative and poetic. Whilst this change of style could be considered less convincing, the literary gear-change allows a useful deeper space for spiritual reflection on this concept of ‘universal salvation’ (p.85) within the context of our own life, beliefs and churchmanship.