Baptism revisited

by Richard on February 26, 2005

There’s been quite a bit of talk about baptism around the God-blogs. Le Sabot Post-Moderne defends infant baptism from covenantal theology. Jared Wilson , coming from the Southern Baptist tradition, explores the idea of infant baptism “with trepidation”. Rhys Morgan approaches the issue from a pastoral perspective. And Adrian Warnock says “if its not in the bible its not for me”. Which I suppose is fair enough.

A further thought occurred to me as I was supervising my daughter at her friend’s birthday party. There is a case in the New Testament of baptism being offered for those who have not made a profession of faith. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul mounts a robust defence of his belief in the resurrection of the dead. He begins with the resurrection of Jesus (where else?!) , but as his argument progresses he asks: “Now, if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?” (1 Cor 15:29) We can’t be sure whether or not the New Testament Church baptized its children, but we do know for certain that it practised vicarious baptism on behalf of those who had died. That we no longer follow this practice is hardly germane, though I wonder if Adrian’s church does, since it is clearly in the Bible :). What is important here is that Paul knows of this practice in the Corinthian church and does not condemn it. Baptism is being offered for those who have made no personal profession of faith. Not a conclusive point but, i think, an interesting one.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }


Swan 02.27.05 at 3:44 am

“we do know for certain that it practised vicarious baptism on behalf of those who had died.”

How do you know that they practiced this? Is that your interpretation of the cited verse or are you also referring to some other evidence?

I’ve not noticed this verse before, but just checked what it may mean. The following seem to be the most likely interpretations:

1. That there may have been a cult that existed in Corinth which baptized its members on behalf of the dead. Paul does not confirm or deny this practice; he just uses as an illustration of the importance of the resurrection.

2. That the baptism for the dead refers to those who are willing to be identified with Christianity and who suffer the fate of persecution just as those who have lived as examples before them. These people are even willing to die for Christ because they are convinced that the resurrection of the dead is a reality.


Richard 02.27.05 at 8:34 am

Those are possible interpretations Swan, but unlikely. If it was a cult in Corinth, Paul would hardly have used their practice to bolster his point about resurrection, especially since there was clearly some controversy about baptism in that Church. (see ch 1) If Paul had been against te practice, he would have said so. The plain sense of the text is pretty clear - the only driver to find an alternative explanation is the fact that it is both puzzling and difficult.
Paul says that the Corinthian church practiced baptism “for the dead”. He doesn’t say he approves of it, but he doesn’t decry it either. Is there anything in Paul’s writing to suggest he could ever keep quiet in the face of error in the church. :)


Eugene 02.28.05 at 2:19 am

The Mormons have misinterpreted this text and baptise their
dead. Just be careful with it



Richard 02.28.05 at 12:10 pm

I think “misapplied” would be more appropriate than “misinterpreted” Eugene. As i say, I don’t see any reason to take this text at anything other than face value. The Corinthian church practised vicarious baptism for the dead and Paul’s attitude to that was neutral. I’m not, of course, saying that we should take it up. But then, I’m not arguing that the practice of the New Testament church is binding on the church of the 21st century.


dh 02.28.05 at 4:48 pm

I believe Paul mentions this as an argument that there is a resurection of the dead. He also doesn’t necessarily condones the practice. He may have used their particular practice as evidence for the Resurection not to condone their particular practice but as an argument for his belief in the resurection and the teaching to them thereof. Kind of like the “unknown god” story of Paul. Paul didn’t condone what they did after reading Romans but taught them at their level to make a point. :)


Richard 02.28.05 at 5:18 pm

That sort of makes sense, dh, but I don’t buy it. If Paul felt they were doing wrong in their baptism practice he would surely have mentioned it. After all, one of the controversieshe was addressing involved baptism.


dh 02.28.05 at 5:58 pm

I wasn’t saying that he was against it but that he didn’t CONDONE (i’m not yelling :) ) it. He didn’t mention it directly because he was neither for the practice or against it. He was neutral. Therefore he could use the practice as an example for the proof of the resurection without mentioning whether or not the practice was correct or incorrect because he had no stance on either side. What do you think? :)


jim 03.03.05 at 3:15 pm

I think it’s pretty clear that Paul’s argument only makes sense if he has no objections to baptism for the dead. What is not stated is that the dead had not made a profession of faith.

By the 3rd century at the latest it was common practice to leave baptism until virtually your death bed. It was seen as such a heavy deal that you shouldn’t do it unless you were absolutely full on, or nearly dead… the practice may also have been related to certain other dubious issues like whether sin after baptism invalidated you salvation etc, and maybe Catholic last rites are an echo of this practice.

Anyway the point is there’s good reason to believe that the baptism for the dead was done for people who had indicated a personal faith but had died before they got to the fount.

Also, on the subject I’ll always remember the very good point made on Radical Congruency - the thief, crucified with Jesus, was never baptised, yet Jesus said “Today you will be with me in Paradise” making him possibly the only person ever to be told that he was definitely in to heaven, and he was never baptised.


dh 03.09.05 at 8:35 pm

Baptism is just a symbol but is an act of obedience after Faith in Christ. We still don’t know if Paul condoned the practice he never endorsed it or critisized the practice. He did mention it in his argument for the resurection but that necessarily doesn’t mean that he was okay with the practice.

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