Westminster Theological Journal 58 (1996) 1-9.

        Copyright © 1996 by Westminster Theological Seminary, cited with permission.   

 

 

A GLANCE AT SOME OLD PROBLEMS IN FIRST PETER

 

                                        JOHN H. SKILTON

 

FOR decades now, after a period of neglect, 1 Peter has been targeted

by many commentaries, articles, and special studies. Accompanying

this new surge of interest has been a fascination with the celebrated prob-

lems of interpretation in 3:19 and its immediate context. With the thought

of deriving benefit from some of the recent discussion of these problems and

possibly encouraging further consideration of them, several have been cho-

sen for brief review here.

 

                                       I. A Question of Syntax

The first problem has to do with the interpretation of a]peiqh<sasin in

3:20. It is often taken as an attributive adjective participle going with kai>

toi?j e]n fulak^? pneu<masin in v. 19—and without explanation or defense.

As Grudem says, ". . . our minds are cluttered by English translations

which say `who formerly disobeyed'."1  The point is that the participle here

does not look at all like an attributive or substantive participle, but it looks

for all the world like an adverbial participle. It surely does not conform to

the normal rule for attributive participles. Here is the rule, as Burton states

it: "An Attributive Participle when used to limit a noun which has the

article, stands in the so-called attributive position, i.e., between the article

and the noun, or after an article following the noun; but when the parti-

ciple is limited by an adverbial phrase, this phrase may stand between the

article and the noun, and the participle without the article follow the

noun."2 In the present case, in which no known exception to the rule

applies, the noun that our participle modifies has the article, and according

to rule the participle instead of being anarthrous should have the article

too—if it is to be translated by a relative clause and interpreted as attribu-

tive. However, if it is to be taken as an adverbial participle, it "logically

modifies some other verb of the sentence in which it stands, being equiva-

lent to an adverbial phrase or clause denoting time, condition, concession,

 

1 Wayne A. Grudem, 1 Peter (Tyndale NT Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988)

238.

2 Ernest De Witt Burton, Syntax of the Moods and Tenses in New Testament Greek (3d ed., 1898;

repr. Grand Rapids: Kregel, n.d.) 166.

 



2          WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

cause, purpose, means, manner, or attendant circumstance."3 Of these

possible adverbial interpretations, the one which seems to suit the context

best at 3:19-20 is temporal: "when they formerly disobeyed." Taking into

account normal Greek usage, Grudem finds "grammatical considerations

open at least the possibility and perhaps the strong probability that we

should translate apeithesasin pote in 1 Pet 3:20 adverbially—'when they for-

merly disobeyed'."4 No valid objection can be raised, he holds, against the

temporal interpretation because another note of time follows, for this is not

unexampled, even in 1 Pet 3:20 itself.5 Rather, one might judge that the

further note of time tends to support and confirm the temporal interpre-

tation of the participle.

            If we are to translate a]peiqh<sasin as adverbial and as temporal, with

the meaning "when they formerly disobeyed," the implications for the

interpretation of the entire passage can be of arresting significance. One of

the most important questions raised by the whole passage is, When did the

preaching occur? When did Christ go and make proclamation? The answer

would appear to be: Not in the period between our Lord's death and

resurrection. Not at the time of the resurrection or later. But far back in the

days of Noah before the world was first destroyed.6

 

                                  II. The Interpretation of e]n &$

            These words at the beginning of v. 19 have often been taken as intro-

ducing a relative clause. A popular choice for their antecedent has been

pneu<mati at the end of v. 18, with allowance at times; compare Selwyn,7 for

a somewhat broader base. Clowney comments, "The Greek phrase which

the NIV renders through whom (3:19) means ‘in which’. It may refer directly

to the word `spirit' or it may be more indefinite, `in which time'. If it is the

latter, the preaching spoken of must have taken place after the resurrec-

tion. . . . If, however, ‘in which’ refers to ‘spirit’, then the preaching of the

Spirit of Christ through Noah remains a possibility."8

            Another fascinating possibility has attracted Reicke. He proposes that e]n

&$  should be taken as a "relative adverb serving as a conjunction."9 He

maintains that there are problems of logic and language connected with the

 

3 Burton, Syntax, 169.

4 For a grammatical comment on 1 Pet 3:19, see Robert Hanna, A Grammatical Aid to the

Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983) 426.

5 Grudem, 1 Peter, 236.

6 For additional support for this viewpoint, see Grudem, 1 Peter, 230-39.

7 E. G. Selwyn, The First Epistle of St. Peter (2d ed.; London: Macmillan, 1947) 315.

8 Edmund P. Clowney, The Message of 1 Peter (The Bible Speaks Today; Leicester and

Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1988) 159.

9 Bo Reicke, The Disobedient Spirits and Christian Baptism (Copenhagen: Ejnar Munksgaard,

1946) 108.

 



                     SOME OLD PROBLEMS IN FIRST PETER                        3

 

relative clause construction. He finds, furthermore, numerous examples in

the NT of the adverbial-type usage, with several occurrences in 1 Peter itself.

            e]n &$, when used as a circumstantial expression, is capable of various

interpretations, among them temporal, causal, and instrumental. Among

the possible renderings are: at which time, when, while, whereat, thereat, on which

account, therefore, wherefore, for this reason, and because of. The interpretations

most worthy of consideration here, according to Reicke, are the temporal

and the causal, but he judges that "the causal interpretation does not, on

the whole, give any clearly logical connection."10 Perhaps a brief survey of

the broader Petrine context will give us a clearer impression of whether it

is fruitless to seek for a causal connection; indeed, whether a causal inter-

pretation might not illumine the passage.

            A key to Peter's thinking about God's revelatory action through the OT

prophets is found in 1 Pet 1:10-12:

            Of which salvation the prophets have inquired and searched diligently, who

            prophesied of the grace that should come unto you, searching what, or what

            manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them did signify, when he

            testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that should

            follow. Unto whom it was revealed that not unto themselves but unto you

            they did minister the things which are now reported unto you by those who

            have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Spirit sent down from

            heaven.... "

 

According to Peter, then, the Holy Spirit testified beforehand through the

prophets to the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. This

testimony was to the prophets in general. In the period just before the flood,

Noah, the preacher of righteousness (2 Pet 2:5), would have been, it would

seem, the chosen bearer of the prophetic testimony. Noah's unbelieving and

notoriously sinful contemporaries did not take too seriously the message

about a messiah's sufferings and the following glory in some vague time to

come, especially as it was accompanied by an unwelcome call to repen-

tance. After all, who could guarantee that what Noah predicted would ever

come to pass? Did he have infallible knowledge about things to come?

Noah, of course, did not have infallible knowledge himself. But the Spirit

of Christ, who had given Noah and the prophets their testimony, knew that

the sufferings and the glory of the Savior were absolutely certain, had been

irrevocably determined in the counsels of God, and without question would

come about in their appointed time. The prophecy was based on reality yet

to be realized, but as certain as the will and plan of God.

            It will be noted that Peter calls the Spirit in 1 Pet 1:11 "the Spirit of

Christ." The close interworking between the Holy Spirit and Christ can

provide an explanation for this designation. Peter furnishes a striking ex-

ample of this in Acts 2:33. In his address on the Day of Pentecost, he

declares that prophecy has been fulfilled concerning Christ, that he has

 

10 Reicke, Disobedient Spirits, 113.



4          WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

undergone suffering and entered into glory. He has now received the prom-

ise of the Holy Spirit from the Father, and he stands behind the coming of

the Holy Spirit and the phenomena of the day. He is said to have shed forth

or poured out what was then seen and heard. In 1 Pet 1:12 he would

likewise seem to be behind the coming of the Holy Spirit from heaven to

work in the NT preachers who spoke of the accomplished sufferings of

Christ and the glorious events that had followed. Small wonder then that

Peter in 1:11 calls the Holy Spirit, given to Christ in a special way after his

sufferings and entrance into glory, nothing less than the Spirit of Christ.

Who then stands behind the prophecies of Noah and the other prophets?

No one less than the Spirit of Christ. No one less than Christ himself. It is

therefore far from implausible that when Peter speaks of Christ's going and

preaching (v. 19), he is referring to the activity of the Spirit through Noah.

            Now, in 3:18-20, writing more than thirty years after Pentecost, Peter

reflects again on the sufferings of Christ and the glories that followed them.

These were the actual occurrences that had been declared in advance by

the Spirit of Christ, sent by Christ, through Noah and the other prophets.

Their message was grounded, although from a human point of view, pro-

leptically, on historical reality. Could Peter be saying to us in 3:18-19: Here

is the unshakable basis for our faith. Here in these words I have recorded

how we are brought to God, what is the historical factuality on which the

prophetic message was grounded, the foundation, the temporal cause

which our eternal God had established before he made time and the world?

            If we give e]n &$ causal force and take the cause to be the redemptive

events mentioned in v. 18, we obtain a satisfactory logical connection with

the context. Christ's preaching, we have already noticed in our first section,

was apparently in the days of Noah. The causal reference here provides the

grounds for something that had previously happened. The historical re-

demptive acts mentioned in v. 18 form the basis for the prophetic disclosure

of those acts. The Spirit given to Christ as a consequence of his having

completed the work that was given to him to do is appropriately referred

to by Peter as conveying the message of the redeemer's sufferings and glory

to OT prophets. Not that a forward projection would be impossible. In-

deed, in 1:12 the Spirit sent from heaven is said to have worked with the NT

preachers of the Word. But, as we have noticed, Peter seems to date Christ's

preaching to the spirits in prison not between Christ's death and resurrec-

tion or later, but in the days of Noah. Here as in all predictive prophecy,

the will of God is a determiner of reality and prophecy is reflective of and

based upon the reality to come.

            God's sovereign control over all things, including time, and the unity of

his will make it possible to bring the past and the future in close relationship

to one another. Christ's salvation applied not only to the NT period but also

to the OT period and the elements of the saving gospel message were

prophetically disclosed before they occurred.

 



                   SOME OLD PROBLEMS IN FIRST PETER                   5

 

            Do some persons question God's concern for those who lived prior to

Christ's coming? Have some of them postulated a preaching visit of Christ

to Hades after his death, including in some cases an offer of the gospel to

spirits confined there? All such questioners should realize that Christ had

already visited the sinners of Noah's day and preached to them not in Hades

but while they were still alive—before the door to repentance had closed.

 

                             III. Flesh and Spirit Contrasted

 

            Readers of the NT have been puzzled at times by statements that seem

to indicate that our Lord has become something that he already had been

before. For example, in Matt 28:18, Jesus says: "All power has been given

unto me in heaven and on earth." The reader asks, "Did he not have all

power previously?" In Acts 2:36, Peter says: "Therefore let all the house of

Israel know assuredly that God has made that same Jesus whom you have

crucified both Lord and Christ." One inquires, "Was not Jesus both Lord

and Christ already?" Other verses raise similar questions. The answer to

these questions will be found in a right understanding of 1 Pet 3:18. At the

close of that verse Peter writes: qanatwqei?j me>n sarki> z&opoihqei>j de>

pneu?mati. Here we have a balanced structure that contributes substantially

to the interpretation. For example, in their tight parallelism we expect both

sakki< and pneu<mati to be used in the same way. Mounce claims that the

translation in the NIV, "in the body . . . by the Spirit," has two faults:

            First, the words "body" and "spirit" are parallel and should be translated in

            the same manner (both are in the dative case and the NIV's "in the body . . .

            but .. . by the Spirit" is misleading). Second, the capital S on "Spirit"

            interprets the word to mean the Holy Spirit. In other words the clause is

            made to say that Jesus died physically but was resurrected by the Holy

            Spirit. While this theology is certainly orthodox, it is not what the text

            actually says. Flesh and spirit represent two spheres of existence or two

            successive conditions of Christ's human nature.11

            More than one writer refers to Rom 1:3-4 for light on 1 Pet 3:18. Very

helpful treatments of the Romans passage have been provided by Geer-

hardus Vos, John Murray, and Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. Murray notes that the

Romans text has often been interpreted as dealing with

            differing aspects of or elements in the constitution of the person of the

            Saviour. Sometimes the distinguished aspects have been thought to be

            within the human nature of Christ, the physical contrasted with the

            spiritual. By others the distinguished aspects have been regarded as the two

            distinct natures in the person of Christ, the human and the divine, "flesh"

            designating the former and "Son of God . . . according to the Spirit of

            holiness" the latter."12

 

11 Robert H. Mounce, A Living Hope (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982) 56.

12 John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964) 6.



6          WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

            Murray, however, holds that "there are good reasons for thinking . . .

that the distinction drawn is that between ‘two successive stages’ of the

historical process of which the Son of God became the subject."13 He says

further that Paul deals with "some particular event in the history of the Son

of God incarnate by which he was instated in a position of sovereignty and

invested with power, an event which in respect of investiture with power

surpassed everything that could previously be ascribed to him in his incar-

nate state."14

            Marked off in 1 Pet 3:18, as in Rom 1:3-4, would be two successive stages

in our Lord's messianic work. These different stages are reflected also in

such verses as Matt 28:18 and Acts 2:36, which were mentioned earlier. The

second stage, introduced by the resurrection, was "one all-pervasively con-

ditioned by pneumatic powers."15 The pneu<mati in 1 Pet 3:18 accordingly

refers not only to the resurrection, but also to the state of power that

followed it.

            Here we also have prophecy fulfilled—prophecy given by the Spirit of

Christ through Noah and others who had served as voices for the prophetic

word. In word and in life they showed the power and the triumph of him

who was to bring his people to God, who would bring his sheep of all the

ages back to the shepherd and bishop of their souls.

            In Noah's day, in Peter's day, and whenever and wherever the people

of God are called to suffer for doing what is right, the powerful words of

1 Pet 3:18 can bring power and triumph to their souls. The truths that are

expressed with captivating beauty in this verse should remind them of the

redemptive sufferings of Christ and of the following glories of the Savior, of

his conquest over death in his own resurrection and in the certainty of

theirs, and of their present vital empowering union with him in his death,

resurrection, and his present exaltation.16

 

                                   IV. The Spirits in Prison

            ". . . by whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison"

(1 Pet 3:19). Who were these spirits in prison? Some say that they were the

sinful men of Noah's time. Although they were not then in any physical

prison, they have been confined after their death—they are spirits now in

prison. Another view, which has obtained a wide hearing today, is that the

spirits in prison are fallen angels, supposedly referred to in the opening

verses of Genesis 6 as sons of God. The preaching, it is held, was not done

 

13 Murray, Romans, 7.

14 Ibid., 10.

15 Ibid., 11.

16 Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., The Centrality of the Resurrection (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978)

77-143.

 



                     SOME OLD PROBLEMS IN FIRST PETER                     7

 

in Noah's day, but later, either between the time of the death of Christ and

his resurrection or after the resurrection.

            It is not our purpose here to review in detail the considerations advanced

for or against these views or any other interpretation. That would be in

itself a profitable study, and there is much information readily available on

that score.17

            It is our intention (not really original with us) to suggest that all who

participate in the controversy about the identity of the spirits in prison

would benefit from taking account of the office and endowment of the

apostle Peter and of the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in him. In

agreement with Christ's teaching about the OT, he would not have given

to apocryphal writers the respect and authority he gave to the inspired

books. He, furthermore, had been called to be an apostle, had been

trained by Christ, had seen his works, and heard his words, and had

been commissioned by him. He had been a witness of the Lord's suf-

fering and of the fact of his resurrection, and could even call himself a

partaker of the glory that was to be revealed (5:1). He was one of those

through whom Christ continued after his ascension to teach and to

minister (see Acts 1:1-2). As the Spirit of Christ spoke through the OT

prophets, so he now worked through Peter (see 1 Pet 1:12). Christ had

promised to Peter and the other apostles that the Holy Spirit would

teach them all things and would bring all things to their remembrance

which he had told them (John 14:26). He promised also that the Spirit

would guide them into all truth (John 16:13). With the exalted Lord

helping him, and the Holy Spirit leading him, with the God-breathed

Scriptures of the OT to instruct him, Peter was not likely to succumb to

cunningly devised fables or to be led astray by the speculations and

fancies of uninspired men. This would not prevent his making some use

of their writings when appropriate, but it would preclude his endorsing

as true any erroneous elements that they contained. This should aid us,

for example, in assessing Peter's relationship to 1 Enoch.

            Dalton is convinced that "This tradition of 1 Enoch is what we would

expect from 1 Peter, dependent as it is on the primitive Jewish-Christian

teaching of the Church at Jerusalem."18 We have noted above some of

 

17 For a sampling, the reader is referred to such works as the following: William Joseph

Dalton, Christ's Proclamation to the Spirits (AnBib 23; Rome: Pontifical Institute, 1989) 160-76;

R. T. France, "Exegesis in Practice," in New Testament Interpretation (ed. I. Howard Marshall;

Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977) 269-70; John Murray, Principles of Conduct, Appendix A,

"The Sons of God and the Daughters of Men (Gen 6:1-4)" (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957)

243-49; John S. Feinberg, "1 Peter 3:18-20, Ancient Mythology and the Intermediate State,"

WTJ 48 (1986) 303-36; see especially pp. 320-25; William Henry Green, "The Sons of God

and the Daughters of Men," The Presbyterian and Reformed Review, 5 (1894) 654-60; Wayne A.

Grudem, 1 Peter, 203-39.

18 Dalton, Christ's Proclamation, 176

 



8             WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

Peter's major reliances, and we would note here, lest there be any con-

fusion, that the primary element in the teaching of the church at Jerusalem

was the teaching of the apostles, including Peter (Acts 2:42). After the

great turning to the Lord on the Day of Pentecost, the new converts con-

tinued steadfastly in the teaching of the apostles, such as is summarized in

1 Cor 15:1-11. Through God's grace Peter, though not perfect, maintained

a rock-like loyalty to the faith once for all delivered to the saints and to the

Lord who had charged him to feed his sheep. He faithfully preached the

gospel in the Holy Spirit sent by Christ from heaven (1:12).

 

                        V. Another Hearing for Augustine?

            Traver in his Th.M. thesis seeks to provoke or encourage those who

still hold to Augustine's interpretation of 1 Pet 3:19.19 According to

Augustine, as previously mentioned, Christ's going to preach took place

in the days of Noah (3:19). This view was dominant for more than a

thousand years and is still alive in its main thrust today. However, in

recent years it has met with formidable competition, and is not always

given a full and satisfactory hearing. At times objections are stated

against it without giving them any adequate testing. Dalton, however,

does grant that Augustine's interpretation is not devoid of real merit, but

he nevertheless judges that “despite this, the theory is quite unaccept-

able. . . . The ‘going’ of Christ can hardly be understood of the divine

activity in the OT. ‘The spirits in prison’, likewise, cannot be understood

of the living contemporaries of Noah without indulging in an unreal

allegorization foreign to the thought of 1 Peter. One may add that .. .

there is no understandable link with the context.”20 Goppelt similarly

comments: "According to Augustine the spirits in prison are the unbe-

lieving contemporaries of Noah, who were held in the prison of sin and

ignorance. To them the Spirit of the preexistent Christ (1:11) preached

through Noah. But this allegorization is contrary to the scope of the

context...."21 Traver, although not himself endorsing the Augustinian

position, is eager to have it well represented. He would like to see a more

cohesive presentation of its merits. Excellent studies have been made

since he offered this challenge that have provided robust support for the

Augustinian viewpoint. The impression that one obtains from even a few

samplings such as we have attempted in this paper is that there are both

obvious and latent strengths in that interpretation, stripped of allego-

rizing. It is surely a bit too soon to close the books on Augustine.

 

19 Barry A. Traver, "Christ's Proclamation to the Spirits" (Th.M. thesis, Westminster

Theological Seminary, 1980) 146.

20 Dalton, Christ's Proclamation, 43-45.

21 Leonhard Goppelt, A Commentary on I Peter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 256.

 



                   SOME OLD PROBLEMS IN FIRST PETER                 9

 

After a painstaking study of 1 Pet 3:18-22, Feinberg concludes:

 

   . . . it is highly improbable that 1 Pet 3:18-22 has anything to do with Christ

   preaching to dead people, evil angels, or in an underworld. If Scripture does

   teach anything about an underworld, one cannot demonstrate so from

   1 Pet 3:18-22. Consequently, whatever one wants to say about biblical teach-

   ing concerning the intermediate state, he must say it on the basis of some other

   passage than this one!22

 

22 Feinberg, “I Peter 3:18-20,” 336.

 

 

 

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