Christus Victor and 1 Peter 3
The formation and refining of a Christian’s theology is the result of a continuous conversation between Scripture and theology. Though exegesis seeks to understand the plain meaning of Scripture, inevitably our doctrinal convictions and systematic presuppositions influence interpretation. Therefore no one’s exegesis offers an unencumbered, plain reading. The sooner we admit this the better. In fact, theological convictions established through exegesis can further our interpretation of other passages. In bringing our series on Christus Victor to a close, this is my contention: a fuller grasp of Christus Victor as we encounter it in the New Testament (see also in the Gospels) can be used to interpret a particularly difficult passage in 1 Peter 3.
Firstly, let me say a little bit more the recursive relationship between exegesis and theology, especially historical theology or dogmatics. My own understanding of this has been greatly helped by the late John Webster. Since reading his Holiness, I have adopted his approach to the relationship between systematic theology, exegesis and historical theology. Webster calls for conversation with historical theology, rather than simple comparison. He writes, “Dogmatics is complementary and strictly subordinate to the exegetical task.” Therefore, while doctrinal presuppositions are inescapable, the ultimate aim in reading Scripture is to have our theology refined. Theology proper is continually conversant with church history and the biblical text. This way we can avoid the misplaced claims of ‘pure biblicism’ along with arid traditionalism.
Thus when a theologian sets out to interpret a biblical text she endeavours to reach conclusions that will help the future church to understand that text, as well as other texts, better. In this sense, the church stands on the shoulders of giants and literal mountains of inherited theological writing. Exegesis is always theological in nature. But as we approach the Bible we must both admit our traditions and convictions while desiring their refining. That has been one of my intentions for this series of posts. Proceeding from Gustav Aulén’s presentation of the atonement, in Christus Victor, I have not only tested his theology against Scripture but also read the Bible through it. As I have already said, this final post will attempt to ply Christus Victor in our interpretation of 1 Peter 3—a notoriously difficult passage.
In our evaluation of Aulén we have seen that he was staunchly committed to his particular view of the atonement, to a fault. But, remembering what I have laid out above, we should be slower to dismiss Aulén because his theology radically influenced his reading the Bible and exegesis. This was as inevitable for him as it is for us. The only difference is that hindsight is 20/20. Therefore, one of the lessons we should take away from this extended engagement with Aulén is the need for much greater humility in exegesis and theological conversation. To adapt something Augustine wrote, we must seek biblical truth as if we do not know it, while also recognising that we bring interpretive ‘truths’ to the exercise of Bible reading. This is what I will embark on now: a reading of 1 Peter 3 that uses Christus Victor as an interpretive lens.
Let me quote 1 Peter 3:18-22 in full, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (you can find and overview of 1 Peter here).
One of the seemingly elusive questions raised by these verses is: where does Christ descend to and what was his purpose? John Calvin believed it was to proclaim the victory won at the cross (Institutes 2.16.10-11). Others, such as Augustine, believed that this passage referred to a pre-incarnate Christ preaching during Noah’s days. Other popular options throughout church history have been the ‘harrowing of hell’ and Christ in ‘limbo’ (Hades), somewhere between death and resurrection. Most modern commentators agree that these verses are about, “Christ’s proclamation of victory.” But how does this victory relate to Christ’s death and decent in 1 Peter 3?
Robert Letham writes, “Peter appears to see Jesus in terms of the suffering servant of Isaiah and as bowing obediently to the consequences of human sin. He also adds that this was on behalf of others.” Clearly Christ’s death is substitutionary (3:18). Thus Christ’s victory is proclaimed with his death (3:19), before the “angels, authorities, and powers” were made subject to him at his resurrection (3:21-22). This victory was proclaimed to the spirits, or powers, that had previously disobeyed God (3:19-20). Now is the moment of their demise, for God’s patience is ended. For the Christ was triumphant in his task, succeeding at the cross. Both his death and resurrection herald God’s victory—though in slightly different ways. The Son was victorious before he was resurrected. Strangely, Christ’s vindication and his triumphant proclamation preceded the resurrection. This was precisely because, as Aulén argued, the victory occurs at the cross.