In that state he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits –  to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water,  and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,  who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand – with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.
COMMENTARY: This is quite an interesting biblical passage, and Calvin’s discussion is correspondingly interesting. I always enjoy watching Calvin wrestle with a text, and he does so with this one – especially verse 19.
He begins by setting aside what he takes to be misinterpretations of this verse: some have taken it to refer to Christ’s descent into hell, but that can’t be true because it does not refer to Christ’s soul preaching to other souls; some have taken it to mean that Christ preaches to those imprisoned by sin through the apostles, but that doesn’t make sense because the preaching is directed to spirits and it doesn’t make sense to switch from talking about the apostles to talking about Noah; some think that those who died before Christ were freed from their sins after their death, but this is wrong because Scripture says that salvation is by faith so that “there is no hope left for those who continue to death unbelieving” (113).
So then, Calvin, what does this verse mean? Well, replies Calvin, the word translated prison - fulakh - can actually be translated as ‘watchtower,’ such that “godly souls were watching in hope of the salvation promised them, as though they saw it afar off” (114). But, even if one insists on sticking with the ‘prison’ translation, that make sense too because those who lived before Christ were prisoners to the Law. So, to conclude, in verse 19 “Peter speaks generally, that the manifestation of Christ’s grace was made to the godly spirits, and that they were thus endued with the vital power of the Spirit” (ibid).
But, there is a wrinkle here in that verse 20 goes on to speak of those who disobedient when we would expect a discussion of the faithful. But this does not have to mean that in verse 19 Christ appeared to those who were formerly unbelievers if one recognizes “that then the true servants of God were mixed together with the unbelieving, and were almost hidden on account of their number” (115). But Calvin, the exegetically skilled interpreter might say, if that was the intended reading then Peter should have used a genitive absolute. (NB: I am too lazy to look this up and see what the new critical editions do with this passage in terms of case, so I’ll still with representing Calvin.) How do you account for that? Well, replies Calvin, “I allow that the Greek construction is at variance with this meaning…But as it was not unusual with the Apostles to put one case instead of another…and no other suitable meaning can be elicited, I have no hesitation in giving this explanation” (ibid).
Now, does anyone else find Calvin’s ‘interpretative method’ here somewhat amusing? He basically reads against the most prima facie meaning of this text, including a few points at which he sets aside the precise case or the more common meaning of a term, because he isn’t interested in the theological implications that seem to arise from this passage. This isn’t to say that Calvin throws out this passage willy-nilly. Instead, he has to wrestle with it to extract an interpretation that both makes some sense of what is textually here and that fits with his larger theological picture – or, we might choose to spin it, that makes sense in light of the whole canonical context. I personally find this modus operandi attractive.
There is much more in this section worth checking out, but to do so here would make this post obscenely long. Instead, I leave you with a couple summary quotations:
As Noah, then, obtained life through death, when in the ark, he was enclosed not otherwise than as it were in the grave, and when the whole world perished, he was preserved together with his small family; so at this day, the death which is set forth in baptism, is to us an entrance into life, nor can salvation be hoped for, except we be separated from the world. (117)
[Peter] recommends to us the ascention of Christ until heaven, lest our eyes should seek him in the world; and this belongs especially to faith…And what his sitting at the right hand of the Father means, we have elsewhere explained, that is, that Christ exercises supreme power everywhere as God’s representative. (119)