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Theological, Doctrinal, and Spiritual Musing - and whatever other else is on my mind when I notice that I haven't posted in a while.
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Daniel of Doulogos Name:Daniel
Home: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
About Me: I used to believe that evolution was reasonable, that homosexuality was genetic, and that people became Christians because they couldn't deal with the 'reality' that this life was all there was. I used to believe, that if there was a heaven - I could get there by being good - and I used to think I was more or less a good person. I was wrong on all counts. One day I finally had my eyes opened and I saw that I was not going to go to heaven, but that I was certainly going to suffer the wrath of God for all my sin. I saw myself as a treasonous rebel at heart - I hated God for creating me just to send me to Hell - and I was wretched beyond my own comprehension. Into this spiritual vacuum Jesus Christ came and he opened my understanding - delivering me from God's wrath into God's grace. I was "saved" as an adult, and now my life is hid in Christ. I am by no means sinless, but by God's grace I am a repenting believer - a born again Christian.
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Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Baptism for the dead
Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them? - 1 Corinthians 15:29 [NASB]

επει τι ποιησουσιν οι βαπτιζομενοι υπερ των νεκρων ει ολως νεκροι ουκ εγειρονται τι και βαπτιζονται υπερ αυτων - 1 Corinthians 15:29 [Koiné]

Do you remember the unbaptized thief on the cross next to Christ? Jesus told him plainly that he would be in paradise with Christ. That truth not only ends the argument about whether or not the rite of water baptism is necessary for salvation, it also helps us to know that whatever else 1 Corinthians 15:29 might mean, it does not teach that we should baptize living people as a sort of proxy baptism for believers who died without being baptized. Nor does it suggest a practice of exhuming the dead and baptising their rotting corpses.

I think we must be dogmatic about what this passage does not teach, but I don't know that there is room to be dogmatic about its proper interpretation. Several interpretations have been offered, but no one interpretation rises far enough above the others to settle the matter.

Certainly some have interpreted it as described above - either baptizing a corpse, or performing a vicarious baptism for a corpse on a living person, but these notions are universally rejected by all three branches of the original church (Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Protestantism). The Mormons practice a vicarious baptism for the dead, and there are a few flaky churches about that do so also, but by and large, that interpretation is refuted.

So what does it mean then? I think we have to begin in the context. Verse 29 was intended by Paul to fortify the affirmation Paul was making. What was that affirmation? The argument that Paul is making is that Jesus Christ did in fact rise from the dead. He supports this argument first by stating that there were hundreds of eyewitnesses some of whom could still be consulted at the time of the writing. He follows this up with the argument from absurdity - you know the one where you follow a line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, and showing that the conclusion is absurd, you dismiss the argument? He argues that if Jesus died and remained dead our faith would be pointless.

Paul then explains that the order in which things are going to happen, Christ reigns until the resurrection, then comes the judgment. Said another way, Christ reigns until all things are put beneath his feet - the last of which is death, hence the resurrection must wait (logically) until death is finally put beneath the feet of Christ. Only then will Christ deliver the kingdom to God the father.

It is at this point that Paul brings the question, "Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead?".

Whatever that means, it is supposed to fit into what Paul is saying about the resurrection.

Some suggest that the the baptism for the dead is intended to be a metaphor for martyrdom, as in, if there is no resurrection, why are some martyred?

Still others note that the preposition huper (υπερ) is normally translated as "above", and if translated this way, the passage is asking if there is no resurrection, why are they performing the rite of baptism above the dead? Suggesting that normal baptisms were being performed over the tombs of departed saints. Others also noting the normal translation of huper suggest that baptism "over" the dead, refers to the spiritual victory if life "over" death - as in baptized into Christ, is a victory over death.

Yet, the problem may simply be that we have punctuated the passage incorrectly. Remember the argument Paul is making is that resurrection is rational, it is real, it is true.

If we punctuate the passage in this way, see how it matches the flavor of Paul's argument:

Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized? For the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized? For them?

We are not violating any rules of grammar in punctuating the text thus, but see how it changes the flow, and agrees with Paul's premise? Here he is saying, in essence, if there is no resurrection what will those do who are baptized? Are they baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized? Are they baptized for them?

Think that through for a bit. The rite of baptism, is a rite that proclaims our resurrection - our union with Christ, through death, and into life. Paul's argument seems to be that if there is no resurrection, then why do we perform the rite of baptism which is a picture of our death and resurrection?

Of all the interpretations I have heard, I like that last one best because it doesn't require me to change the text (recall, the punctuation that we see in our translations does not exist in the original texts, but was added later in order to parse the text into thoughts expressed in English), knits perfectly with the context, and Paul's style of argumentation, and doesn't require me to depend on strained metaphors or wayward prepositions. Frankly, it is the only interpretation I have found that does no harm to the text, the context, or the argument Paul is making - and the only one that makes sense without requiring me to trust in an additional speculation.

I mean, if I go "the metaphor" route, I have to trust that the metaphor has been rightly identified. If I could do that, my understanding of the book of revelation would be far more dogmatic. If I go the "nuanced preposition" route, then I am left to try and figure out what it means to be baptized over, or above, the dead, which I find just as speculative as guessing at unqualified metaphors. I cannot go the "vicarious" route because the rest of the scriptures deny that route, and so I am left, for now, to conclude that the proper interpretation of this passage relies on punctuating it properly.

Having said that, I am not going to be dogmatic about my understanding. I will say that it sits right with me that Paul is arguing for the resurrection first from the eye witness accounts of Christ's resurrection, then from showing the absurdity of holding the view that there is no resurrection - first by showing that without the resurrection faith is pointless, and then by showing (according to my understanding) that baptism is likewise pointless.

If someone asks me what the passage means, I begin therefore with the context, show the argument that Paul is making, and then show how the passage, punctuated in this way, supports that argument perfectly, without compromising the grammar of the passage, changing words, or speculating on metaphors. In this way the passage is easily understood, and I explain that I think this is what Paul meant.

If you have a better understanding, don't be shy, the meta is there for discussion nd/or comments.


posted by Daniel @ 7:41 AM  
  • At 10:36 AM, April 13, 2011, Blogger Jim said…

    Daniel, I like the logical way you have laid out this verse. I was just reading this chapter a few days ago, and have always been confused by this verse. Perhaps something as simple as punctuating the passage correctly can solve this riddle.

    This verse shows me something rather important I believe; whenever we don't understand a passage of scripture, the enemy can use it to bring confusion or untruth into our lives. For example, the mormons base their entire vicarious baptism off this text. Of course if they looked at what they are doing from a Biblical overview they would see the error. I have not read or heard a good explanation for what this passage actually means, and I believe that perhaps this has allowed this wrong practice to continue unchallenged.

  • At 2:44 PM, April 13, 2011, Blogger Daniel said…

    I agree. The explanations I have read lack cohesion after they suggest some point - you know, it's a metaphor, so .. okay - how does that advance or support what Paul was saying?

    Certainly the idea of vicarious baptism is uttery foreign to the text - but yet the LDS are willing to jump in having failed to exercise caution and prudence in the name of zeal.

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