Feeling forsaken : Christ's descent into hell in the theology of John Calvin

  • Preston McDaniel Hill

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


There currently exists a substantial lacuna in scholarship on the place of Christ’s descent into hell in the theology of John Calvin. Although Calvin devoted five times more space in his ‘Institutes’ to Christ’s descent into hell than to any other clause of the Apostles’ Creed—an exposition which was nearly sextupled in length throughout the course of his career—the secondary literature on this theme is virtually non-existent and only passingly treated in Calvin scholarship to date. The impression given by this scarcity is that Calvin had little to say about the descensus or that what he did have to say is so obvious as to require only minimal secondary exposition. However, a mere glance beyond the ‘Institutes’ to Calvin’s other writings significantly unsettles such an opinion. From as early as age 25 in his first treatise ‘Psychopannychia’ to his later commentaries, sermons, and final draft of the ‘Institutes’, Calvin vehemently espoused an innovative descensus interpretation that remained virtually unchanged throughout his life. Moreover, despite longstanding popular opinion, all the major themes of Calvin’s interpretation can be found in prominent medieval, Renaissance, and late modern forerunners predating Calvin, demonstrating that his interpretation was far from novel. The disparity between Calvin’s detailed interpretation and the oversight of Calvin research on these important points calls for a fresh look at the place of Christ’s descent into hell in his theology. This thesis reconstructs Calvin’s descensus theology by tracing its development from the ‘Psychopannychia’ to the successive editions of Calvin’s ‘Institutes’, strategically comparing the major elements uncovered to significant forerunners of Calvin’s interpretation. This study puts forward the thesis that Calvin’s descensus theology cannot be referred exclusively to the events of the crucifixion without significant detriment to its other substantial manifestations in Calvin’s exposition, including the Gethsemane narrative, the intermediate state, the body/soul distinction of Christ’s suffering, and Christ’s beloved relation with the Father. Christ’s descent into hell clearly exceeds a mere metaphorical reference to the cross in Calvin’s theology.
Date of Award1 Jul 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorAndrew Bartholomew Torrance (Supervisor) & Joshua Luke Cockayne (Supervisor)

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  • Full text embargoed until
  • 10 May 2024

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