"Baptized for the Dead": Posting and Response

© 1997 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

The exchange below began with a posting that I made to a download area on America Online, which I intended to provide the comments of 18th century pastor Thomas Scott on 1 Cor. 15:29 to anyone who wanted them. Apparently, a Mormon who saw this posting took offense and posted his own essay on the subject--without, however, giving me any notice of it, so that it was weeks later that I found it amidst many other postings in this area. (I can only assume it was the intent of the responder to post his answer without having it, in turn, answered; hence his neglect of this standard courtesy.)

I drafted a reply, but I soon realized that by that time it was pointless to respond. The present web page gives the response a new lease on life. (And if the responder wishes to reply this time, let him do it on his own page, if he has one!)

1Cor 15:29 (KJV) Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?

This passage has given rise to many novel and bizarre interpretations by groups attempting to claim scriptural justification for "baptism for the dead"--a justification, let it be noted, that cannot be built on any clear doctrinal passage in the Bible. As many Christians consider it a problematic passage, and because many groups such as the Mormons exploit the misunderstanding of this passage by Christians (see, for example, Stephen E. Robinson, Are Mormons Christians?, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1991, p. 19), I thought it would be useful to circulate the comments of Rev. Thomas Scott on it.

I do not have any other information on Rev. Scott other than that found in an old (1832) copy of Vol. 3 of his commentary on the Bible, but it appears from this that he was "Rector of Aston Sanford, Bucks." (according to the title page), indicating that he was British. Also, he was active toward the close of the 18th century, since he quotes from his own answer to Thomas Paine's Age of Reason. However, Scott's work is of such quality that it recommends itself, and his treatment of this verse may be found especially helpful by Christians.

Here are Scott's comments on the verse:

"The expression 'baptized for the dead,' has given occasion to a variety of ingenious conjectures and learned discussions. Some argue that i[t] only means, 'baptized in the name of one who certainly died, and who, "if the dead rise not," still remains among the dead.' But the word rendered 'dead' is plural, and all the labour bestowed to remove that difficulty is to no purpose. Others suppose, that the apostle refers to a practice, which, it seems, at one time prevailed in the church, of baptizing a living person in the stead, and for the supposed benefit, of one who had died unbaptized. But who can imagine, that so absurd and gross a superstition was customary, when the apostle wrote? Or that, if it were, he should sanction it?--

"Beza, rather triumphantly, concludes that he has discovered and fixed the true interpretation; and that the apostle meant the washing of the dead bodies, among the Jews and Christians, before burial; (Acts 9:37.) which he thinks was a profession that they expected a resurrection. But the use of the word baptize, in such a connexion, could hardly be expected; and the words will not bear that sense, by any fair interpretation.--

"Hammond contends, that it means the profession of faith, concerning the resurrection of the dead, which was required of persons at their baptism, which represented, as he thinks, the burial and resurrection of Christ. 'Why did they profess this, if they did not believe it?' But this is far from satisfactory: for the peculiar circumstances of some persons, when they were baptized, seem evidently intended. 'What this baptizing for the dead was, I confess I know not; but it seems by the following verses, to be something, wherein they exposed themselves to the danger of death.' Locke.--

"The following interpretation, however, suggested by Dr. Doddridge, who received it from Sir Richard Ellis, appears the true one. The apostle refers to the case of those, who presented themselves for baptism, immediately after the martyrdom of their brethren, or at their funerals; as if fresh soldiers should enlist and press forward to the assault, to supply the places of those who had fallen in battle. Thus they professed their faith in Christ, and ventured the rage of their enemies, at the very time when others had been put to death for the gospel. But what advantage could they propose to themselves from such a conduct, if there were no resurrection? Or what wisdom could there be in so doing? For in this case, Christianity itself would lose the great evidence of its truth; even the immortality of the soul might be called in question; believers were yet 'in their sins;' and they who died as martyrs had lost their souls, as well as their lives. This might show the Corinthian speculators how greatly their notions tended to discourage men from professing the gospel in times of persecution, and to make them afraid and ashamed to own the cause of Christ. If this were the case, why did Christians in general, or the apostles and evangelists in particular, live in continual and imminent danger of suffering and death, by their open profession of the gospel, and their zeal in promoting it? They could have no sufficient encouragement for so doing, if the dead should never arise."

(SOURCE: Thomas Scott, The Holy Bible . . . with Explanatory Notes, Practical Observations, and Copious Marginal References, Vol. 3 [New Testament], New York: Collins & Hannay, 1832, pp. 601-2. Paragraph divisions added by me for easier reading.)

In a response entitled "Answering 'Baptism for the Dead'" and dated January 10, 1996, a gentleman named R----- M----- answers a file of mine uploaded to this library on 11-13-95. My file was essentially a quotation by Thomas Scott, an 18th century Bible commentator, dealing with 1 Cor. 15:29, prefaced with a few lines by me with which Mr. M----- appears to take particular umbrage. Mr. M----- writes:

“In a paper concerning ‘Baptism for the Dead’ a gentleman presents his arguments for any interpretation contrary to those who believe that Baptism for the Dead is exactly what it sounds like. He presents a quotation from another source which it [sic] itself does not claim to have an answer, yet he claims it is better than the obvious explanation.”

Aside from the obviously inflammatory nature of the description, about which I will say more presently, said description is erroneous, as a careful perusal of the 11-13 file will indicate. The "arguments" are not given by the "gentleman" (i.e., myself) but by Scott; and Scott clearly rejects the arguments he finds wanting, and just as clearly indicates the explanation he finds correct ("The following interpretation, however, suggested by Dr. Doddridge, who received it from Sir Richard Ellis, appears the true one").

Mr. M----- continues:

“I will present here a counter argument to this 'paper' put out against the obvious meaning of the scripture.”

However, the "obvious" meaning is far from obvious. Not only does Scott imply as much, but one can also find similar sentiments in Matthew Henry:

“But who shall interpret this very obscure passage, which, though it consists of no more than three words [in the Greek], besides the articles, has had more than three times three senses put on it by interpreters?”

And Charles Caldwell Ryrie also remarks that "Various interpretations have been given for this difficult expression" (Ryrie Study Bible). Mr. M----- himself seems to admit some ambiguity in the passage when he sums up: "Under these circumstances, it cannot be concluded that the Bible condemns 'Baptism for the Dead' but at most 'tolerates' it as non-offensive." From such a slight reference to the practice as appears in this verse (and only this verse), Paul's attitude might indeed seem hard to evaluate.

But I think that Mr. M----- and I are agreed on one essential point: that Paul would have condemned a practice such as "baptism for the dead" had it been unChristian, rather than using it as a bolstering of his argument. The question then becomes, "What was 'baptism for the dead'?" And I submit that the most logical response is, as Scott says, that "[t]he apostle refers to the case of those, who presented themselves for baptism, immediately after the martyrdom of their brethren, or at their funerals; as if fresh soldiers should enlist and press forward to the assault, to supply the places of those who had fallen in battle."

But Mr. M----- presses on in defense of the Mormon position on baptism for the dead (i.e., that one can be baptized vicariously to benefit one who has died). He asserts that "proper hermeneutics says that if there is not outside influence to cause us to think otherwise, you should take a scripture at its face value and plain meaning."

I quite agree, and also agree with Mr. M-----'s resulting claims that "there was Baptism for the Dead in the Corinthian church (at least)" and that "Paul was using this ordinance in SUPPORT of his argument for the resurrection of Jesus Christ." To bring up hermeneutics in an area where I have no difficulty with Mr. M------'s interpretation smacks a bit of the "straw man" strategy, but I will assume this was unintentional.

Again, what remains in question is the nature of "baptism for the dead," not the fact that it existed. Can Mr. M----- find any corroboration in the Bible for such an important rite as the Mormon "baptism" is said to be? He asserts it to be "an ordinance that was practiced and not condemned by the early church and it's [sic] Apostles." If so, finding such an important "ordinance" missing from Scripture would be comparable to finding nothing written there commanding the observance of the Lord's Supper. An "ordinance" that the Lord wanted His people to observe but yet never commanded in Scripture is, in my opinion, hard to imagine. Is it even in the Apostolic Fathers? I find a section on baptism in the "Didache," thought to date from the end of the first century A.D. (section 7 in the Michael W. Holmes revision of Lightfoot's Apostolic Fathers, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989, p. 153), which lays down very specific instructions on what to say, what kind of water to baptize in, and how the person being baptized should "fast one or two days beforehand." But there is not the slightest hint of a vicarious baptism for the dead being practiced. Where is the contemporary evidence that "baptism for the dead" is what Mr. M----- claims it is?

In fact, such evidence as exists from the earliest ages of the church is not very favorable to Mr. M----'s position. Chrysostom, in fact, writes of it as a false interpretation:

“What then is that which he means? Or will ye that I should first mention how they who are infected with the Marcionite heresy pervert this expression? And I know indeed that I shall excite much laughter; nevertheless, even on this account most of all I will mention it that you may the more completely avoid this disease: viz., when any Catechumen departs among them, having concealed the living man under the couch of the dead, they approach the corpse and talk with him, and ask him if he wishes to receive baptism; then when he makes no answer, he that is concealed underneath saith in his stead that of course he should wish to be baptized; and so they baptize him instead of the departed, like men jesting upon the stage. So great power hath the devil over the souls of careless sinners. Then being called to account, they allege this expression, saying that even the Apostle hath said, "They who are baptized for the dead." Seest thou their extreme ridiculousness? . . .” (--"Homily XL" on 1 Cor., in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 12.)

To return to the writer's opening remark for a moment--"a gentleman presents his arguments for any interpretation contrary to those who believe that Baptism for the Dead is exactly what it sounds like,"--I candidly ask: What does it "sound like," Mr. M-----? I contend it "sounds" very like new Christians replacing ones who had died, and very unlike vicarious baptism for deceased persons. But I have no reason not to believe that you are quite sincere in finding a different "sound" in this passage. And I would appreciate your crediting me with similar good faith. To portray me in a stereotypical way as someone merely out to oppose your church, rather than accepting the possibility that I am as deeply committed to my own faith as you profess to be to yours, savors of intolerance on your part. (It might surprise Mr. M----- to know that I arrived at agreement with Scott well before knowing the interpretation of LDS concerning this verse; it was only after beginning Robinson's book that I thought Scott's words could be of benefit to others online--hence my original posting of them.)

To resume: Mr. M----- gives some quotes from Stephen Robinson. I regret not having Robinson's book still in front of me while writing this, as it was borrowed from a friend in another state and had to be returned months ago. And I freely admit that Mr. M----- may have given more attention to Robinson's opus than did I. I found Robinson's work fraught with red herrings (such as his attempts to make a Mormon posthumously out of C.S. Lewis) and attempts to obscure issues and definitions, and it brought to mind the words of Shakespeare regarding this type of argumentation: "If that be right which Warwick says is right,/There is no wrong, but everything is right" (III Henry VI, II.ii.131-2). It seemed to me that the book's importance lay more in its influence among Mormons than in any strength of argumentation therein.

Mr. M----- will of course disagree with that assessment, but I thank him for the citations he provided, which tend to confirm me in this opinion--especially the one from Robinson's p. 98. For on that page Robinson (as cited by M----) says:

“. . . The finest Roman Catholic biblical commentary is of the same opinion: ‘Again, the Apostle alludes to a practice of the Corinthian community as evidence for a Christian faith in the resurrection of the dead. It seems that in Corinth some Christians would undergo baptism in the name of their deceased non-Christian relatives and friends, hoping that this vicarious baptism might assure them a share in the redemption of Christ.’”

In a footnote, Robinson (per M----) credits this to "The Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 2:273." Unfortunately, what he calls "[t]he finest Roman Catholic biblical commentary" had been revised and updated with great fanfare before his own book came out. And in the revision this passage is discussed as follows (I cite the entire paragraph to avoid any implication by Mr. M------ that I omitted anything essential from it):

“Interpretations of this verse are legion (Foschini, Rissi), but the most common view sees Paul as referring to members of the community who had themselves baptized on behalf of dead friends or relatives who had died unbelievers (so Barrett, Conzelman, Senft, et al.). Paul's sacramental theology, however, would never have permitted him to condone such superstition, much less to use it as an argument. Moreover, the antecedent context suggests that v 29 should evoke Paul's ministry in a general way, and this is confirmed by vv 30-32a. In this perspective one would translate, Why are they destroying themselves on account of those dead (to higher spiritual truths)? If those who are really dead are not raised, why are they being destroyed on their account? The ‘spirit people’ at Corinth--those who denied the resurrection (--> 65 above)--had mocked Paul for the effort he expended on those whom they considered merely ‘soul-people’ (--> 18 above). By radicalizing the gibe in the second question, Paul draws their attentions to the implications of such effort. He would not be working himself to death, were he not absolutely convinced that the dead would be raised.” (--Raymond E. Brown, et. al., New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990, p. 813 [49:70]. Boldface emphasis mine.)

Given the New Jerome's clear relegation of the argument Robinson supports to the realm of "superstition," it would seem as though Robinson's choice of the old, superseded edition of the Jerome Biblical Commentary for his citation was something less than a full and candid presentation of the evidence.

Mr. M----- concludes resoundingly with the assertion, "The author of the original post is in no biblically or historically supported position to make his claim against the practice of Baptism for the Dead." But the hollowness of his pronouncement, resting as it does on careless reading of my article (confusing my words with Thomas Scott's), a lack of biblical citation documenting the Mormon "baptism for the dead," and on a work (Robinson's) whose selection of evidence is highly suspect, should lead one to wonder whether or not he has much of a "position" himself.

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