Posted on March 12th, 2012
A discussion about baptism for the dead came up in the comments on this post. As I was preparing my response, I came across this interesting passage in Luther (AE 28), who also reads 1 Cor. 15:29 as a reference to baptisms happening “among the dead” (in cemeteries).
But Paul adds a phrase to the word “baptize,” pro mortuis. This has been interpreted to mean—and so it reads in Latin—that they had themselves baptized “for the dead,” that is, for the unbelievers in heathendom. Then they would have been baptized twice, once for themselves and the second time for members of their family. But that cannot be. For in Acts 2:38 Peter says: “Be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ, etc.” This does not mean that one should be baptized for another. It is the same as that everyone must repent, believe, and profess his faith for himself. Therefore I adhere to the meaning, in concurrence with the old Greek teachers, which we indicated in a marginal note next to this text, namely: In St. Paul’s day this article [of the resurrection of the body] was still novel and was just being spread. It was unknown and unheard of among the heathen, also among the most erudite in Greece, although they did advance to the point where they assumed that the soul lived after the death of the body, without being able to prove this conclusively. However, that man would rise again and that body and soul would be reunited, of that they knew nothing at all.
They had themselves baptized at the graves of the dead in token of their firm conviction that the dead who lay buried there and over whom they were being baptized would rise again.
In view of this, it was hard for them at first to believe the apostles’ proclamation; and those who believed it had to endure much ridicule. And so, in order to strengthen this article among the people, they had themselves baptized at the graves of the dead in token of their firm conviction that the dead who lay buried there and over whom they were being baptized would rise again. They were so convinced of this that they were, in a manner of speaking, pointing their finger at it. Similarly, we might administer Baptism publicly in a common cemetery or at a funeral. Therefore we read that the congregation at Aquileia had been taught and was accustomed to recite this article in the Creed thus: “I believe in the resurrection of this flesh.” This was undoubtedly done for the purpose of teaching and professing also this article clearly and correctly over against the factious spirits.
One of the most moving experiences of my life was a visit to the San Callisto catacombs outside of Rome. Kassie and I were vacationing there for our tenth anniversary, and we’d gotten on the wrong bus, dropping us off several miles from the catacombs. We were walking on the Via Appia Antica through serene, beautiful countryside, when the road suddenly became very narrow and connected to a major driving road. We were literally forced to walk sideways with our backs against a wall, cars racing by at very high speeds a foot or two away. I became convinced we would die then and there, but we finally made it, and finally entering into the peaceful gardens, we then partook of a deeply spiritual encounter with the artwork of those ancient Christians still present, nearly two millennia later, on the walls of their burial place, where they also worshipped. There they received the Eucharist and confessed the resurrection of JESUS and their own coming resurrection. I suspect there was a similar situation in Corinth, and there a practice emerged of baptizing among the dead.