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Baptism For the Dead

BAPTISM FOR THE DEAD: A custom mentioned by Paul in I Cor. xv, 29. It probably consisted in the vicarious baptism of a living Christian for a catechumen who had died unbaptized, the latter being thereby accounted as baptized and so received into bliss. It is doubtful if the custom was ever widely prevalent and it seems soon to have died out in the Church, although kept alive by Marcionites, Montanists, and other heretics (cf. Chrysostom, Hom., xl, on I Cor.; Epiphanies, Hær., xxviii, 6). The sixth canon of the Synod of Hippo in 393 forbade the practise. It is observed by the Mormons at the present day.

Objection is made to this interpretation on the ground that Paul would not have referred to such a practise with even a tacit approval, and that the practise is in sheer contradiction to Paul’s doctrine of justification and baptism. Epiphanius, Calvin, Flacius, Estius, and others interpreted the Greek huper tōn nekrōn in the passage mentioned to mean “when about to die,” “on their death-bed.”

Another interpretation regards tōn nekrōn as referring to bodies, the baptism of which, on the supposition that they are mortal, would be useless. Another ingenious interpretation refers huper tōn nekrōn to the imminent danger of violent death at the hands of unbelieving persecutors incurred by those making a public profession of their faith in baptism. “What is the use of incurring such danger if there is to be no resurrection?"

Bibliography: R. J. Cooks, in Methodist Review, xlix (1889), 100; J. W. Horsley, in Newbery House Magazine, June, 1889; DB, i, 245; and the commentaries on I Cor. xv, 29.

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