Articles 3-4 of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion continue to build on the narrative of the passion and triumph of the Lord Jesus Christ, on which Article 2 concluded. The eternal Son, who took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, "truly suffered, was crucified, dead and buried" (Art. 2), we now confess as having "went down into hell" (Art. 3) rising again, ascending into heaven, sitting at the right hand of God, and will return to judge (Art. 4).
When we take Article 2 with Articles 3-4 as a unit, we can see how they are built upon the doctrine that Jesus is "of one substance" with the Father, and he is also "of one substance" with humanity: truly God and truly man. This Chalcedonian distinction-in-inseparability of the two natures in Christ is usually summarized in the Latin phrase distinctio sed non separatio, "distinct yet not separated." The person of the incarnate Son means that he never ceases to be God when he takes on our flesh, but neither is he anything less than authentically human by reason of his divinity—he really is God, and he really is human at one and the same time in his one person two natures: without confusion, change, division and separation.
III. Of the Going Down of Christ Into Hell
As Christ died for us and was buried, so also it is to be believed, that he went down into Hell.
This is the shortest of the Articles; however, from its original composition to its final edition, it received the most significant revision. The source of the original article is the Apostle’s Creed, but with an additional sentence that said Christ’s body lay in the tomb for three days but that his Spirit went to preach to the spirits in prison, or in hell, as 1 Peter 3:18 says. This sentence was dropped in 1563 either in committee or at the convocation of bishops leaving us with the fact of descent but without an explanation of how he descended.
The concept of Christ’s descent remained a point of Christological debate throughout the period, and I think ultimately led to its revision. Daniel Hyde lists four views of the period given by Anglican William Perkins (1558-1602):
Christ descended locally, as the 1553 original affirmed.
Christ’s descent is a synonym for his burial, the view of Martin Bucer and Theodore Beza.
Christ’s descent is a metaphor for his sufferings occurring together with the death and burial of his body, the view of John Calvin.
It refers to all the spiritual suffering of Christ’s passion and death and, of his continuing under the curse of death. (Hyde, In Defense of the Descent, 19)
What is significant in the formation of the Article by the 1563 convocation is the removal of the sentence that taught a local descent of Christ's soul into a place called hell or Hades and the teaching that he entered hell to preach salvation to the patriarchs or men from the age before Noah, thus first avoiding any reference to the Roman Catholic doctrine of a state of limbo or purgatory (later condemned in Article 22), or suggesting the possibility of a "second chance" after death.
The Article secondly affirms how according to his human nature Christ has experienced the fullness of the curse that was the result of Adam’s covenant apostasy. There is not one aspect of death as we experience that he did not share to gain victory over it. The Lord Jesus Christ is truly man. Because of the integrity of his human nature, Christ's body descended into the state of death, and his soul suffered the agonies of hell. Jesus took a human body to save our bodies. And he took a human mind to save our minds. Without becoming man in his emotions, he could not have rescued our hearts. And without taking a human will, he could not save our broken and wandering wills. In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, “That which he has not assumed he has not healed.” I want to suggest that the shortening of the article strengthens the integrity of Christ’s human nature in the person of the Mediator. The same focus will help us understand how the resurrection, ascension, and session of Christ at God’s right hand are explained in Article 4.
IV. Of the Resurrection of Christ
Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day.
Interestingly, there is nothing corresponding to this article in the Augsburg Confession, and unlike Article 3, Article 4 is virtually unchanged from 1553. But like Article 3, Article 4 underlines the integrity of the two natures in that Christ’s resurrection was physical. Its purpose, therefore, is to underline the truth of the resurrection and to safeguard the humanity of the Lord Jesus against what had become known as the Lutheran view of the ubiquity of Christ's body. The Anglican divines rejected the Lutheran view because it denied that the ascended Christ retained the natural properties (including occupying one space at one time) of a human body. To gain a clearer understanding of the impetus behind the wording of the Article 4, here is Chapter 4 “Of the two natures of Christ after the resurrection” from Cranmer’s Reformatio Legum Eccleiasticarum written in the same period as our article:
Likewise it is to be believed that our Lord Jesus Christ, even after the resurrection, had a double nature; one divine, incomprehensible, unlimited and infinite, which is everywhere and fills all things, and one human, finite and defined by the limits and bounds of the human body, in which, after he had purged our sins, he ascended into heaven, and there he sits at the right hand of God in such a way as not be everywhere, since it is necessary for him to remain in heaven until the time of the restoration of all things, when he shall come to judge the living and the dead, in order to reward each one according to his works.
Article 4 thus anticipates the later Article 29 on the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. It is important to understand Article 29 in light of Article 4 because in the Eucharistic controversies of the time the Lutherans claimed that Christ’s “ubiquitous” body could be present “in, with and under” the elements of bread and wine, but in a “heavenly and spiritual manner”, in other words, not transubstantiation. The Anglican divines instead claimed with other Continental reformers that the presence of Christ in the sacrament was spiritual only.