Baptism for the Dead: An Erroneous Practice? – Part 3

Marcion of Sinope(Continued from Part 2)

Another early Christian evidence for the practice of baptism for the dead is from texts that reference the practice among a group known as the Marcionites. This group was a separate Christian body from the Church of Rome, who followed the teachings of Marcion (ca. 110-160) as their spiritual leader (sometimes referenced as Marcion of Sinope). The writings of Marcion are lost, so the information we have about him and his followers comes largely from the writings of others. Marcion was a Christian theologian, a ship owner, may have been the son of the bishop in Sinope, and was consecrated a bishop himself. He gathered a large following but was excommunicated from the Church of Rome in 144 as a heretic, apparently because his beliefs about the gospel clashed with the bishops of Rome. His following was strong, however, and continued to expand even after Marcion’s death for quite some time. Marcionism was a major rival to the Catholic Church.

So why do we use an example of a practice among a “heretical” group of Christians? Dr. John A. Tvedtnes has taught,

Latter-day Saints, believing that the great apostasy was already well under way by Marcion’s time and that no Christian group then possessed the full truth, see the practice as a remnant of an earlier rite dating from the time of the apostles.1

The clearest description of the practice among the Marcionites comes from St. John Chrysostom (347-407), an early father of the church. He describes it as a proxy baptism, the Marcionites using as evidence 1 Cor. 15:29:

…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 says in his stead that of course he should wish to be baptized; and so they baptize him instead of the departed2

St. Chrysostom goes on to condemn the practice, construing that Paul meant the living were being baptized with faith in the resurrection of the dead. It must be remembered he lived several centuries after the Savior, and the apostasy had already progressed substantially by that time. What this is evidence of, however, as are the following references, is that a large early Christian group in the second century firmly believed in vicarious baptism, practiced it extensively, and did so using the apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians as positive support for the practice. This practice was so well known, several early theologians had to mention it, to condemn it.

Tertullian (160-225), another early church leader and Christian apologist, seems to have been confused himself as to the meaning of Paul’s words. This whole time period is marked by confusion as to the true doctrines and practices of Christianity. The Church of Rome itself was trying to figure it all out, hence the creeds which were established centuries later. In one instance Tertullian seems to use the practice of a proxy baptism, which he knew to exist among “some,” in support of a bodily resurrection:

For if as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive, their vivification in Christ must be in the flesh, since it is in the flesh that arises their death in Adam. But every man in his own order, because of course it will be also every man in his own body. For the order will be arranged severally, on account of the individual merits. Now, as the merits must be ascribed to the body, it must needs follow that the order also should be arranged in respect of the bodies, that it may be in relation to their merits. But inasmuch as some are also baptized for the dead, we will see whether there be a good reason for this. Now it is certain that they adopted this (practice) with such a presumption as made them suppose that the vicarious baptism (in question) would be beneficial to the flesh of another in anticipation of the resurrection; for unless it were a bodily resurrection, there would be no pledge secured by this process of a corporeal baptism. Why are they then baptized for the dead, he asks, unless the bodies rise again which are thus baptized?3

In another text, Tertullian didn’t believe Paul meant vicarious baptism at all, but still with some uncertainty as to the nature of it, and the early Christian practice of it:

What, asks he, shall they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not? Now, never mind that practice, (whatever it may have been.) The Februarian lustrations will perhaps answer him (quite as well), by praying for the dead. Do not then suppose that the apostle here indicates some new god as the author and advocate of this (baptism for the dead. His only aim in alluding to it was) that he might all the more firmly insist upon the resurrection of the body, in proportion as they who were vainly baptized for the dead resorted to the practice from their belief of such a resurrection. We have the apostle in another passage defining but one baptism. To be baptized for the dead therefore means, in fact, to be baptized for the body; for, as we have shown, it is the body which becomes dead. What, then, shall they do who are baptized for the body, if the body rises not again?4

Epiphanius (315-403), another church father, likewise gives us evidence for the early Christian practice, even the “tradition,” of baptism for the dead, which he heard rumors of certain Christians practicing. But, in keeping with modus operandi, likewise deems the practice a misunderstanding of scripture:

For their school was at its very peak in this country, Asia, and in Galatia moreover. And in these localities I even heard a piece of tradition which said that when some of their people died early without baptism, others would be baptized for them, in their names, to keep them from being punished for rising unbaptized at the general resurrection, and becoming subject to the authority that made the world. And the tradition I heard says that this is why the holy apostle said, “If the dead rise not at all, why are they baptized for them?” But others explain the text well by saying that, so long as they are catechumens, the dying are allowed baptism before the end with this hope, to show that he who has died will also arise, and therefore needs the baptismal forgiveness of sins.5

What these examples show, is that there was a widespread and early practice of baptism for the dead in Christianity, believing that Paul’s words to the Corinthians was plain evidence for the practice, something that many critics are unwilling to admit, but which are attested to clearly by some of the earliest theologians of the time, whether they agreed with it or not. For all these learned ones to have thought there was an exigency to stand against it in their own time, the practice must have been more than an small aberration. If there were writings extant from these groups that practiced baptism for the dead, we might have a very different understanding today of the early practice. We tend to only be told one side of the story, the side that won the theological debate on the issue. But what if the wrong side won?

The Latter-day Saints today believe that baptism for the dead was a practice established by Christ after his resurrection, in beginning the great work of the redemption of the dead, the dead who did not have the chance to hear and accept the gospel in life, as Clement of Alexandria so eloquently explained. We believe that the rite was practiced by the apostles and the early Christians, but like other temple ordinances, was considered very sacred, and one of the mysteries, not to be divulged to everyone. Through apostasy, the practice gradually died out.

(To be continued…)

Notes:
  1. Tvedtnes, “Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity,” The Temple in Time and Eternity, <http://farms.byu.edu/publications/bookschapter.php?bookid=&chapid=104>. []
  2. Chysostom, Homily 40 on First Corinthians, <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/220140.htm>. []
  3. Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh 48, <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0316.htm>. []
  4. Tertullian, Against Marcion 5.10, <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/03125.htm>. []
  5. Ephiphanius, Panarion 1.28.6, <http://books.google.com/books?id=s9-utOHPLfEC&printsec=frontcover&sig=a8WrgHdfrapJwHfKYENx25i3WBM&source=gbs_book_other_versions_r&cad=3_0#PPA110,M1>. []

2 Comments

  1. Posted May 22, 2008 at 5:37 am | Permalink

    Baptism must be for the dead. The unbaptized dead outnumber the living 1000-to-1. Baptism would be a pretty pitiful way of saving souls if it could only work for the living.
    When people can’t grasp the necessity of baptism while living…can we hope to convince them that it is necessary for the dead?

  2. Posted May 22, 2008 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    Great point! Does traditional orthodox Christianity teach that any were baptized before Christ? No. I suppose they are all lost then, without a mode or hope of salvation. This is their mindset. Either that or they believe that baptism isn’t necessary after all for salvation, even in light of scriptures like Mark 16:16. To many, baptism is only a manifestation of salvation, not a saving gospel ordinance.

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