Christ's Preaching to the Spirits in Prison: Part 2

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“It must be confessed,” continues Dr. B., “that this is a knot which cannot easily be untied. Yet should not this induce us to reject the literal and grammatical interpretation of the passage, and to fall back upon those forced glosses which have been coined in order to avoid, instead of fairly meeting and endeavoring to solve,” the acknowledged difficulty. To my conviction there is nothing to untie, where one cleaves to the strict language of the apostle and the real bearing of his argument. For he is exposing indirectly the Jewish unbelief which would have nothing but a Messiah visibly reigning in power and glory to the exaltation of the chosen people and the confusion of their enemies. The faith of the believing Christian Jews in Him, dead, risen, and gone to heaven, exposed them to the derision of their brethren after the flesh, who felt not their sins and cared not for the grace of God displayed in redemption by the blood of Jesus. He was preached, not present but rendering testimony by virtue of His Spirit. Hence the importance of pointing to His testimony by Noah, a testimony to man as such, like the gospel of Christ, for it was before the days of Israel or even Abraham, and the most striking epoch and even period of preaching to men in all the Old Testament.
This is entirely confirmed by Gen. 6:33And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. (Genesis 6:3), where Jehovah said,” My Spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh; yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.” Then the ark was preparing, the space of God's long-suffering; and “the waters of Noah came,” and man was destroyed from the face of the earth. And as it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man; for the days of the gospel are preeminently of testimony, as were those before the deluge, during which Noah prepared an ark to the saving of his house and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith. But he was not a believer only, but a preacher of righteousness, more emphatically than we find it said of any other in Old Testament times. The preaching was in the power of the Spirit, and hence attributed to the Spirit of Christ, who is ever the active person in the Godhead, as is well-known in each visitation of man before the incarnation, preparing both the way and mind for it. Compare “the Spirit of Christ” which was in the prophets of old. (Ch. 1: 11.)
This then would encourage the believing Jews, as it might well admonish their despisers. It is a question of preaching to the world still in the Holy Spirit, not yet of the public reign and government of the Lord. So Christ wrought by the Spirit then; and so He does now. As the flood came on those heedless of the preaching of old, so it will be when He comes in judgment, for He is ready to judge the quick and dead. And if they taunt the believers with being so few compared with the masses that believe not, let them not forget that but eight souls were then saved through water; which figure now saves, baptism, on one side of it death, on the other resurrection, Christ having passed actually for us, as we also in spirit by faith having a good conscience before God through Him who is not only risen but at the right hand of God in heaven, where the highest and mightiest of creatures are subjected to Christ, who is therefore as full of assured security for His own as of irremediable ruin for all who slight the warning.
In this tracing of the links of the apostolic thought and word, I am greatly mistaken if the least strain is put on any part; as I believe the true text and the exact version have been already given. It is not so with those who have flattered themselves that they adhere most closely to the words of the apostle and their plain sense.
Thus when Bishop Middleton considers the true meaning to “be dead carnally, but alive spiritually,” almost every word is misrepresented; for, to bear such a translation, the sentence should have been θανὼν μὲν σαρκικῶς ζῶν δὲ πνευματικῶς, though I should call such a statement absurd and heterodox. I deny that we must or can render θανατωθεὶς μὲν σαρκι ξωοποιηθεις <50 πνεὐματι in any such fashion. Bishop Browne is as wrong in adopting such a. thought in the note to p. 911 as he is in giving “quick in His Spirit” in the text of p. 95, or in expounding it as Christ alive in His soul, in or by which He went to the souls ἐν φ. All this in my judgment is as loose in grammar, as in philosophy if they allude to this; as faulty also in theology, as it has not the least coherence with the context or scope of the apostle's reasoning.
If Peter too had meant to say that the soul of our Lord went to these other souls, he must have taken a most circuitous and unexampled mode of expressing it in employing the phrase ἐν ᾧ, referring to πνενματι just before. The statement, if not the interpretation, would be most unnatural. Taken as it stands for Christ's going and preaching in virtue of the Spirit by Noah to the rebellious antediluvians, it is in my judgment fully justified, were this necessary, by the Pauline phrase, καῖ ἐλθὼν εὐηγγελίσατο εἰρήνη ὑμῖν τοῖς μακρὰν καὶ εἰρήνην τοῖς ἐγγυς. The latter is even a stronger instance; for there is no explanatory reference to πνεύματι ἐν ᾧ. Further, it is not a natural interpretation to take τοπις ἐν φ. πν. as those who were, but who are, in prison, because of ἀπειθήσασίν ποτε ὕτε κ. τ. λ. following, which very simply attributes their being in custody to their disobedience of old. There is no need nor just ground for joining ποτέ with πορευθεὶς ἐκήρ. but with ἀπειθ. which marks off their unbelief at the preaching from the time when they were in prison. “We are thus shown, as plainly as words can, that we are reading of Christ preaching not in person but by virtue of the Spirit to those suffering the consequences of having been disobedient in the days of Noah.
Again, be it observed, the moral aim of this supposed preaching in the unseen world is as unsatisfactory as we have seen the grammar to be irregular and the doctrine strange. For it supposes a preaching confessedly without either faith or repentance as its end; and it selects, in what seems the most arbitrary way, out of all the departed souls those spirits imprisoned because of their heedlessness, when the long-suffering of God was awaiting in the days of Noah.1 To single out such willful sinners, as the objects to whom Christ in the under-world proclaimed His triumph and their fully effected redemption, seems to me a statement as foreign to scripture as-can be conceived, and equally ill adapted to impress their danger on such as now despise the preached word.
Bishop Horsley's Sermon on the passage, which is so warmly commended both in Bishop Middleton's Treatise and in Bishop Browne's Exposition, appears to my mind little worthy of confidence. Thus he affirms strongly that the English translation of ξ. δὲ πν., though “a true proposition, is certainly not the sense of the apostle's words. It is of great importance to remark, though it may seem a grammatical nicety, that the prepositions, in either branch of this clause, have been supplied by the translators and are not in the original. The words ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit,' in the original, stand without any preposition, in that case which, in the Greek language., without any preposition, is the case either of the cause or instrument by which—of the time when—of the place where—of the part in which—of the manner how—or of the respect in which, according to the exigence of the context; and to any one who will consider the original with critical accuracy it will be obvious, from the per-feet antithesis of these two clauses concerning flesh and spirit, that if the word ‘spirit' denote the active cause by which Christ was restored to life, which must be supposed by them who understand the word of the Holy Ghost, the word 'flesh' must equally denote the active cause by which He was put to death, which therefore must have been the flesh of His own body—an interpretation too manifestly absurd to be admitted. But if the word ‘flesh’ denote, as it most evidently does, the part in which death took effect upon Him, ‘spirit' must denote the part in which life was preserved in Him, that is, His own soul; and the word ‘quickened' is often applied to signify, not the resuscitation of life extinguished, but the preservation and continuance of life subsisting. (?) The exact rendering therefore of the apostle's words would be, ‘Being put to death in the flesh, but quick in the spirit,' that is, surviving in His soul the stroke of death which His body had sustained, ‘by which’ or rather ‘in which,' that is, in which surviving soul, 'he went and preached to the souls of men in prison or in safe keeping.'“
I have given this long extract which clearly puts this able divine's objections to the Authorized Version. Now, without committing myself to the defense of what is not quite correct, I have no hesitation in asserting that Horsley, by his own mistaken view, has diverged incomparably farther from the truth. We need not go beyond the bishop himself and the passage in debate where he gives a difference of shade to the two participles which are quite as much contrasted with each other as their complementary datives. According to his own principle therefore as the first means “put to death,” the other should be “made alive,” even if its uniform usage by inspired writers did not force one to the same conclusion. Why then did not H. carry out fairly and fully his own reasoning? Because it would have involved him in the result that Christ was not only put to death in the flesh but made alive in His own soul or spirit. The good bishop of course shrank from so portentous an inference, and was therefore driven to modify the antithesis, not in πνεύματι but in an unnatural and unfounded interpretation put on ξωοποιηθείς, which even Dean A. explodes, insisting justly on “brought to life,” instead of preserved alive.
The truth is that Horsley did not himself seize the exact force of σαρκί and πνεύματι, still less the difference produced by ἐν in the beginning of verse 20. Christ was put to death in (i.e. in respect to) flesh, as a living man here below; He was made alive in (i.e. in respect to) Spirit, as one henceforth living in the life of resurrection, characterized by the Spirit as the other by flesh, though of course not a spirit only but with a spiritual body. It is not His own spirit as man, which is far worse than the English Version here both grammatically and theologically. Grammatically it would demand τῷ πν., which is a reading unknown to the best copies and scouted by all competent critics; but, even if grammatically and” diplomatically legitimate, it would land us in the frightful heresy that Christ died not merely in flesh but in spirit, and had to be quickened in that of man which dies not even in the lost. Only the materialist conceives that spirit, if he allows of spirit, can die.
Further, if ζ. δὲ πν. refers to the resurrection of Christ, it is harshness itself and out of all reason to suppose Him back again in the separate state, in the verse following, where Horsley takes ἐν ᾧ to mean in which surviving soul He went and preached to the souls of men in prison. But understand it, as I believe ἐν means we should, that Christ also went iv πνεύματι, not now in character of Spirit, but in virtue of' the Spirit or in His power when He preached through Noah; and all is precise in grammar, correct in doctrine, clear in sense, and consistent with the context. When we are raised by and by, it will be διὰ τὸ ἐνοικοῦν αὐτοῦ πνεῦμα, because of His Spirit that dwelleth in us. It was not suitable to Christ so to speak of His resurrection. He was when put to death quickened πνεύματι, denoting the character of His life in resurrection (not merely the agent), ἐν ᾧ καί marking the Spirit's power in which, before He was thus put to death and raised, He went and preached to the spirits in prison, disobedient as they were once when, &c.
Who can wonder therefore that the Anglican divines in the 5th of Queen Elizabeth dropped the reference to this passage of Peter in Article iii. where they had inserted it in the 6th and 7th of King Edward the sixth? Nor need we with Bishop Horsley impute it to undue reliance on the opinion of Augustine (ep. 99 [164], Evodio), who was followed by some others of the fathers in rejecting the superstitious idea of Christ's preaching in Hades. The excellent Leighton at a later day was so far from seeing this to be the plain meaning of the passage, that he does not hesitate to say, “They that dream of the descent of Christ's soul into hell think this place sounds somewhat that way; but, being examined, it proves no way suitable, nor can by the strongest wresting be drawn to fit their purpose.”
On the other hand the figurative explanation of τοῖς ἐν φ.πνεὐμασιν is quite indefensible and uncalled for. The sense of sinners shut up in a prison of darkness while living on earth, whether in Noah's day or in apostolic times, whether of the Gentiles or of the Jews and Gentiles, must be rejected. Bishop Horsley however is as mistaken on his side when he avers that such passages as Isa. 49:9; 61:19That thou mayest say to the prisoners, Go forth; to them that are in darkness, Show yourselves. They shall feed in the ways, and their pastures shall be in all high places. (Isaiah 49:9)
1The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; (Isaiah 61:1)
, refer to the liberation of souls from Hades. Equally wrong is his idea that ποτέ joined with ἀπειθ. implies that the imprisoned souls were recovered from that disobedience and before their death had been brought to repentance and faith in the Redeemer to come. Contrariwise the scope is that, having once on a time disobeyed when God's long-suffering was waiting before the deluge, they are in prison. In virtue (or in the power) of the Spirit Christ went and preached to such, by a preacher of righteousness, no doubt; but it is styled His preaching to enhance the solemnity of what was then refused, as it was also in Peter's day. These spirits were in prison as having once been disobedient thus and then; and God will not be mocked now if Christ's preaching in the Spirit be rejected and He be despised in His servants. Where would be the force of the few, that is eight, souls who were saved through water, if the disobedient mass or any of them were saved none the less though outside the ark? It is certainly a suicidal citation which H. makes from the beginning of Rev. 20:1313And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. (Revelation 20:13); for we know that the sea will have none to give up at that epoch but the unblessed and unholy, all the righteous dead having already been raised in the first resurrection. Nor is there the least reason from scripture to fancy that souls deceive themselves by false hopes and apprehensions after death, so that some should need above others the preaching of our Lord in Hades. It is nowhere said that thither He went and preached. The spirits are said to be in prison, and this, as having once on a time been disobedient; but it is not said or meant that there Christ went and preached to them.
It is no question then of discrediting clear assertions of holy writ on account of difficulties which may seem to the human mind to arise out of them, but of an interpretation which produces endless confusion, leads inevitably into false doctrine, and has no connection with the passage any more than with the general tenor of revealed truth elsewhere. To put such a notion, based on a bad reading, slighting the exactness of grammar, ignoring the nice distinctions of the phrases, and resulting in the most impotent conclusion spiritually; to put this on the same level “with the doctrines of atonement—of gratuitous redemption—of justification by faith without the works of the law—of sanctification by the influence of the Holy Spirit;” to say that, discrediting Christ's preaching in Hades, we must, on similar grounds, part at once with the hope of resurrection, is more worthy of a bold or weak special pleader than becoming a grave and godly minister of Christ. To urge that its great use is to confute the notion of death as a temporary extinction of the soul or of its sleep between death and resurrection is certainly not to claim much from so wonderful a fact, if a fact: whether scripture does not abundantly confute such dreary and mischievous dogmas of unbelief, without resorting to strange doctrine based on a hasty and superficial interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18-2018For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: 19By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; 20Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. (1 Peter 3:18‑20), may safely be left to spiritual men who judge according to the word of God.
(To be continued.') —♦-