Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?
I Corinthians 1:29 (NKJ)
I do not claim to be wiser than anyone else on this subject, nor do I believe that I have the definitive answer when saints before me have come up empty. It has long seemed to me, however, that certain matters are established about the passage. First, if this passage is used to teach baptism for the dead, it is not supported anywhere else in Scripture. I have long followed a view that no major matter should ever be based on one verse. It is the principle of the double-knock. Joseph told Pharoah that his dreams were repeated twice so that the matter may be established. (Gen. 41:32) Jesus often used the phrase “truly, truly” when He wanted to establish something. Significant matters of Scripture should find support from other passages of Scripture. It takes the second witness to verify the truth.
Second, the interpretation of the passage should be controlled by the context of the passage, the context of the book, and the context of the entire Scripture. 1 Corinthians 15 begins with Paul (1st person) speaking to the Corinthian believers (2nd person) about the resurrection. He continues with this theme, speaking in the 1st person (now plural) in verse 14 to the Corinthian believers (2nd person). In verse 17, the Corinthian believers are in the 2nd person. In verse 18, those who have died are in the third person. In verse 19, he speaks in the first person. In verse 21-23, he inserts an argument in which all men who are Christ’s are spoken of in the third person. This argument continues until verse 28. Then, in verse 29, he introduces a new thought, speaking of those who baptize for the dead in the third person, while speaking of himself in the first person in verse 30 and speaking of the Corinthian believers in the 2nd person in verse 31. He continues in the first person in verse 32 and speaks to the Corinthians in the 2nd person in verse 33 and 34, before he reverts back to a third person argument from verse 35 through-48. Then, he continues with his teaching, speaking in the first person and speaking to the Corinthian believers in the 2nd person from verses 49 thorugh 51 before he includes the Corinthians in the first person at the end of verse 51. He ends the passage where he began, speaking in the first person to the Corinthian believers in the 2nd person. (verse 58)
Now, I say all of this to say that nowhere in the passage does he refer to the Corinthian believers as “they” in the third person, except when he speaks of all Christians in verse 23. In the immediate context of verse 29-31, the Corinthian believers were 2nd person “you” and Paul was the first person “I.” The question then is who is the third person “they.” Paul is speaking to the Corinthians and he is speaking of “they” who baptize for the dead. I observe that the “they” must be someone other than the “you.” In other words, I do not believe that the “they” references the Christians at Corinth.
Second, I note that Paul does not include himself as one who baptizes for the dead, as he does not say “what shall we do who are baptized for the dead.” He certainly includes himself in the very next verse and back in verse 19. He does not do so in verse 29. Therefore, I conclude that Paul does not see himself as baptizing for the dead.
In the context of 1st Corinthians, vicarious baptism is not taught. In the greater context of all of Scripture, vicarious baptism is not taught, unless one takes Christ’s death to be a vicarious baptism for us. See Col. 2:12. Certainly, Scripture never teaches that I can be baptized for you or you for me. Each person was baptized for their own testimony. Vicarious baptism is not taught for the living or for the dead. If it is never taught, then I am loath to find such a teaching here, when Paul excludes himself and the Corinthians from the practice.
I have long suspected that there must have been a group in Corinth who practiced baptism for the dead, but I never took the time to look the matter up until you posed your question. I do not have any definitive answer now. I note each of the authors I have read in ISBE throw up their hands. They do not know. David Lowery, in the Bible Knowldege Commentary, states that there have been up to 200 explanations for this verse. He cites ancient Greek texts to elucidate an understanding of an ancient mystery religion located just north of Corinth. Such religion was lauded by Homer, with Cicero himself being an initiate. Part of the rites of this religion were washings in the sea which was needed so one could hope to experience bliss in the life hereafter. He cites two sources for this. (Pindar Fragment 212; Sophocles Fragment 753). He further states that a vicarious participation in these mysteries was not unknown. He cites a fragment from Orphica. (Fragment 245). Whether this religion practiced vicarious baptism for the dead, I do not know.
Chrysostom speaks of a practice in the early church of people being baptized for the recent dead. Where he gets this concept, I do not know. It is nowhere found in the early church fathers. Tertullian, long before Chrysostom, speaks of the Corinthian passage and apparently is the only one of the early (pre-Nicene) church fathers to address the subject. He lived at the end of the 2nd century and into the 3rd century. Here is what he said:
Let us now return to the resurrection, to the defence of which against heretics of all sorts we have given indeed sufficient attention in another work of ours . . . “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.” . . . 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.
Against Marcion, Bk. 5, Chap. X.
Again, in his On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Tertullian states:
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 . . .
In these two passages, Tertullian sees the practice as something that the church at his time did not practice. In fact, the practice was so long past (only 150 years after 1 Corinthians was written) that Tertullian (who had a broad understanding of the church) did not even know what the practice may have been. He does not believe there is a reason for the practice, and calls it a vain action.
I agree with Tertullian on this point, that the practice is vain, not a Scriptural practice. I have no more clue as to what the practice was than Tertullian. I further agree that the point of the passage is Paul’s insistence that there are many practices of people which are based on the hope of a resurrection.
I continue to suspect that there was a group of people with whom the Corinthians were familiar, which group practiced vicarious baptism for the dead. This, however, is merely a theory until some evidence shows up. In any event, I do not read the passage as supporting the practice.