(BEING CONTINUED FROM 7/10/13)
Paul’s failure to openly condemn the practice was in effect an endorsement of the same
The theologian Fernard Prat does not take the case quite as far as Martin, but he does lend considerable
support to the concept of work for the deceased. Prat feels that Paul neither condemns or
approves of the practice. Instead, he insists that Paul sees in it a profession of faith in the resurrection of the
dead. . . . [the] practice was . . . a solemn protestation that the deceased belonged to Jesus
Christ and that he had lacked the requisite time,but not the desire, to become an effective member
of the visible Church. Nor were they mistaken in thinking that through the communion
of saints an act of faith and piety on their part could be profitable to the deceased.86
As can clearly be discerned, many scholars see vicarious baptism as the most plausible interpretation
of 15:29, simply due to its immunity from the perplexities generated by all other readings.
Ancient support for 1 Corinthians 15:29 as vicarious baptism.
Two early Christian theologians also affirm that first century Corinthian saints practiced vicarious baptisms, the first being Tertullian.
Writing sometime in the late second to early third century, Tertullian took it upon himself to define
the Christian faith (in effect, delineating a standard for determining heresy). In one of his earliest works, On the
Resurrection of the Flesh, Tertullian discusses baptism for the dead and the community at Corinth. After quoting 1 Corinthians
15:29 he states: “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.” 87 Tertullian,
using the phrases vicarious baptism and flesh of another frankly acknowledges that the Corinthians engaged in the
practice under the belief that it would benefit their dead.
However, in a later work,Against Marcion,88 he reinterprets the verse, explaining that to be baptized “for the dead”
was really only to be “baptized for the body” because “it is the body which becomes dead.” 89
It seems that he is attempting to recant his earlier statements about Corinth and deny that “vicarious baptism
for the flesh of another” ever occurred. Jeffrey Trumbower argues persuasively that Tertullian,
while combating Marcion in Against Marcion, goes at length to ensure that 15:29 is not construed to legitimatize
baptism for the dead presumably because Marcion himself has endorsed the practice.
Trumbower concludes, “It is significant that Tertullian only makes these moves when combating the Marcionites,
leading me to conclude that between the writing of De Resurrectione and Adversus Marcionem
he had learned of their (Marcionites) practice based on 1 Corinthians, some 200 years before it received
a full reporting in John Chrysostom.” 90 Tertullian’s remarks thus provide good evidence that the
Marcionites were practicing baptism for the dead as early as the late second or early third century
ad—a rite that continued until at least the early fifth century.
Front view of the baptismal font at the Church of Saint Simeon, Syria,
which dates to the first half of the 5th century ad. Courtesy Paul Y.Hoskisson.
Apart from Tertullian’s change in language with regard to baptism for the dead, he also mentions
while attacking Marcion, the “Februarian lustrations”91 and prayer for the dead as a parallel to the
rite. Although ambiguous, Tertullian seems to connect baptism (either the Marcionite practice of baptism
for the dead or the Corinthian one) with these Roman forms of vicarious offerings and prayers for
the deceased. It seems that the baptismal rite was in existence at the time and was not simply baptism
“for the body” for every Christian of the time.
Further, the writer now known as Ambrosiaster,92 writing in the latter half of the fourth century,
substantiates Tertullian’s initial confirmation of Corthinian proxy baptisms. In his famous commentaries
on the Epistles of Paul, he notes “that some people were at that time (of 1st Corinthians construction) being baptized for the dead because they were afraid that someone who was not baptized would either not rise at all or else rise merely
in order to be condemned.” 93 He clearly affirms the practice and argues that Paul refers to such work in
his epistle. Although scholars have difficulties ascertaining the identity of “Ambrosiaster,” his remarks
provide further evidence that some Christians in the early centuries continued to read 15:29 as reference
to vicarious ordinance work.
Origins of the Lost Practice
The New Testament and other early Christian literature give some important insights as to how
the earliest Saints viewed posthumous salvation and vicarious ordinance work for the dead. Many
apocryphal, gnostic, and even New Testament writings present themes that are reasonably connected
with baptism for the dead. Perhaps these texts are merely echoes of the true origin of the work, or
they mirrored an existing practice. We will look at a number of different texts, some from the New
Testament, others apocryphal,94 some purporting to be forty-day literature,95 others from the gnostics, to
examine the teachings that seem to provide a way for accepting baptism for the dead under Christian
theology, searching for their origin in Christian thought.
In the case of Paul, it is not far removed from his general theology to assume that vicarious ordinance
work, particularly proxy baptisms for the dead, was plausibly a part of his own beliefs and teachings. Unquestionably, vicarious work—in the figure of Jesus Christ—was the central theme of Christian belief in Pauline theology; Christianity,
for Paul, hinges on the salvific gifts of Christ. Christ is a “propitiation . . . for the remission of sins”
(Romans 3:25). Paul even recounts his own “sufferings for you,” where, by his own exertion, he fills up
“that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church”
(Colossians 1:24). In this context Paul is performing vicarious work to make up for the shortcomings
of the church as a whole. With the emphasis Paul places on baptism elsewhere in his writings
(Romans 6:1–5; Galatians 3:26–27),96 “it is not a stretch to imagine a Pauline community practicing
vicarious baptism for those who had died ‘in the faith,’ but without baptism.” 97
Another interesting New Testament writing is the epistle of Peter, specifically 1 Peter 3:19–22 and 4:6, which speaks of Christ’s evangelization of the dead, a belief that relates directly to the doctrine of vicarious ordinance work, where Christ is preaching
to the “spirits” or to the “dead” (3:19; 4:6). Verse 4:6 is more direct in its wording that those being taught are the “dead” (nekrois), meaning those who are physically dead rather than the vague term spirits (pneumasin), and states that the gospel is being preached to the deceased so that “they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” Scholars are divided over the relation of these two passages of scripture and whether or not they refer to the same
event in which “spirits” and “dead” are equivalent,with Christ being the subject of both verbs (ekēryxen and euaggelisthē, both usually translated as “preached”).98 Regardless of what stance is taken,some form of postmortem evangelism is clearly
reported in the verses in question, particularly 4:6.99
Referring to 1 Peter 4:6, Ernest Best notes that “the Gospel is now offered to those who never had the opportunity of hearing it when alive.” 100
However, he observes that a likely objection to this assertion is the implication that a “second
chance” remains for the dead. This, he states, is incompatible with other verses within 1 Peter that
affirm that death is the final judgment for men.101
Later scholars have concurred with his objection,arguing that the dead referred to must be those who
have died among the group addressed in the epistle,who accepted the gospel while in mortality.102 But
these scholars fail to explain why those who have already received the gospel need it preached to
them again upon death. It is far more reasonable that the “dead” referred to are those who did not
have the opportunity to receive Christ while in mortality. None of the verses of 1 Peter that they
cite explicitly state that there is no “second chance” for the dead. Peter’s warnings appear more precisely
to discourage procrastination of repentance.
If the dead were indeed given an opportunity to accept the gospel of Christ, then certainly this
would open room for the idea of proxy baptisms on their behalf. First Peter suggests baptism as requisite
for salvation (3:21),103 thus providing a basis for a theology that includes vicarious work for those who
cannot perform rites for themselves.
The Apocalypse of Peter 104 shows a different theme, in which the righteous can affect the salvation
of the condemned dead. It presents scenes from the final judgment of the world, with the wicked
receiving their eternal punishment. In chapter 14, some of the damned are saved at the behest of those
who are with God. The Greek text, purported by Dennis D. Buchholz and Montague R. James to
be closest to the original writings,explains, “I will give to my called and my elect whomever they request
of me from out of punishment. And I will give them a beautiful baptism in salvation from the Acherousian
Lake which is said to be in the Elysian Field, a share in righteousness with my saints.” 105
(TO BE CONTINUED)
David L. Paulsen, and Brock M. Mason
David L. Paulsen is a professor of philosophy at BYU. Brock M. Mason is an undergraduate at BYU and is double majoring in philosophy and ancient Near Eastern studies. The authors gratefully thank Laura Rawlins, Shirley Ricks, Aaron Tress, George Scott, and James Siebach for their skillful editing and the College of Humanities and the Maxwell Institute for their generous funding. The authors would also like to thank Judson Burton who was largely responsible for the exegetical section of this paper. Thanks also to at least three unnamed reviewers for their careful critiques of earlier drafts of this paper. The paper is stronger for their inputs.
86. Fernard Prat, The Theology of Saint Paul, vol. 1, trans. John L. Stoddard (Westminster, MD: Newman Bookshop, 1927),
137. Prat explains that “there was danger of believing that in having themselves baptized for the dead—that is to say,
for their advantage—they had had themselves baptized in the place of the dead, so as to procure for them the effects
of baptism; as if death were not the terminus of the test,and as if the dead could be aided otherwise than by means
of prayer” (p. 137). Prat in this passage gives voice to an important point, that in the “orthodox” tradition, there is
no precedence of baptisms being performed on behalf of the dead. Furthermore, the concept of baptisms for the dead is
not as easily translatable as prayers for the dead (since we are capable of praying for another who is living, and we are not
able to be baptized for another that is living). However, such a defense is based upon the precedence of the “orthodox”
tradition. Those who have rightly or wrongly been branded as heretics in later centuries, do indeed have a precedence of
such a practice, and in light of the full viability of reading 15:29 as vicarious baptism, their practice does have possible
87. Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh 48, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 3:581.
88. Against Marcion has been tentatively dated to ad 207–208,and certainly after On the Resurrection of the Flesh, due to
the fact that the latter work is referenced by Tertullian in Against Marcion. See further Timothy David Barnes, Terullian:
A Historical and Literary Study (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 55.
89. Tertullian, Against Marcion 5.10, in Ante-Nicene Fathers,3:449–50.
90. Jeffrey A. Trumbower, Rescue for the Dead: Posthumous Salvation of Non-Christians in Early Christianity (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2001), 37–38.
91. The Februarian lustrations was a Roman celebration where the dead would be provided and prayed for, to benefit them
beyond the grave.
92. Ambrosiaster is the name given to an unknown author of a commentary on the epistles of Paul. For many years scholars
supposed that this author was the Orthodox theologian St.Ambrose. After extensive textual studies, modern studies
conclude that this writer is likely someone else. However, given the history of referring to the author of these commentaries as
“Ambrose,” scholars now prefer to term the Christian writer as “Ambrosiaster” to distinguish him as the once supposed
“Ambrose” and author of the Pauline commentaries.
93. Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum 81.175; see Gerald Bray,
ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999), 166.
94. The term apocryphal generally refers to the early Christian writings that are of questionable authorship or were left
out of the New Testament canon for one reason or another.
The term itself means “hidden” or “secret” writings, though modern scholarship generally uses the term for noncanonical
95. Forty-day literature here is meant to include all writings where the resurrected Lord appears after his crucifixion and
provides instruction to certain select people.
96. Hartman, “Baptism,” while commenting on Galatians 3:26–27, mentions that for Paul, “there is no tension or contradiction
to be seen between the two (faith and baptism).
One may say that faith is the subjective side of the receiving of the gift of salvation, baptism the objective side” (p. 587).
For Paul, it appears, baptism is linked with faith to be saved,whereas baptism is an outward expression of the inward faith
of the believer.
97. Trumbower, Rescue for the Dead, 37.
98. John H. Elliott, 1 Peter: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 654–68,
99. For a fuller treatment of this topic, see Paulsen, Cook, and Christensen, “Harrowing of Hell,” 56–77.
100. Ernest Best, 1 Peter (London: Oliphants, 1971), 156.
101. Best, 1 Peter, 156–57, references 1 Peter 1:3; 3:10; 4:5, 18; and 5:8 as evidence.
102. Elliott, 1 Peter, 733–34.
103. Hartman, “Baptism,” 591, explains: “Although baptism is mentioned only once in 1 Peter, it plays an important role
as a basic presupposition for the presentation in the epistle.
In fact, it is so important that scholars have suggested that it represents (parts of) a baptismal liturgy or a baptismal homily.
Even though such a supposition may go somewhat too far,there is a wide consensus that 1 Peter makes substantial use
of ideas associated with baptism.”
104. Not to be confused with the gnostic work of the same name.This text dates roughly between ad 100–150; it is first mentioned
by Clement of Alexandria in ad 180. This apocryphal work was considered scripture by Clement but was likely
composed in Egypt by an unknown author.
105. Apocalypse of Peter 14, translation from the Greek Rainer Fragment, by Dennis D. Buchholz, Your Eyes Will Be Opened:
A Study of the Greek (Ethiopic) Apocalypse of Peter (Atlanta:Scholars, 1988), 344–45.