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
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,
2 Ernest De Witt
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
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.;
8 Edmund P. Clowney, The Message of 1 Peter
(The Bible Speaks Today;
Bo Reicke, The Disobedient
Spirits and Christian Baptism (
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
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.
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
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.
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-
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
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
14 Ibid., 10.
15 Ibid., 11.
16 Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., The Centrality of the Resurrection (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978)
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
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.
expect from 1 Peter, dependent as it is on the primitive Jewish-Christian
teaching of the Church at
17 For a sampling, the reader is referred to such works as the following: William Joseph
T. France, "Exegesis in Practice," in New Testament Interpretation (ed.
"The Sons of God and the Daughters of Men (Gen 6:1-4)" (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957)
John S. Feinberg, "1 Peter 3:18-20, Ancient Mythology and the
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.
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
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
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.
A. Traver, "Christ's Proclamation to the
Spirits" (Th.M. thesis,
Theological Seminary, 1980) 146.
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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