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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Discussing Baptism with Mormon Missionaries

Discussing Baptism with Mormon Missionaries

          Over the past few years I’ve gotten to know and befriend a number of Mormon missionaries.  We’ve had some good discussions.  It’s hard to tell how fruitful they have been but the Holy Spirit can bring forth a beautiful orchard from one planted seed, so you never know.
          In our last round of talks we got into an interesting discussion regarding Baptism.  We didn’t discuss the issues that would usually come up with Protestants, however, namely baptismal regeneration and the baptism of infants.  Instead the focus was on the Mormon practice of having oneself baptized on behalf of those who have died, and their claim that only baptism by full immersion is valid.
          One verse to be prepared to discuss is the very mysterious 1Cor. 15:29, “Otherwise, what will people accomplish by having themselves baptized for the dead?  If the dead are not raised at all, then why are they having themselves baptized for them?”  This verse is part of a section of the letter in which St. Paul is arguing for the resurrection of the dead.
          When Mormons do their “temple work,” one of the main things they do is have themselves baptized in place of someone who has died so that person can, in the spirit world, accept the Mormon gospel and progress in heaven (actually they believe in three distinct heavens).  This verse, they will often claim, is a proof text for the practice.
          The Catholic responses are many.  First, this verse is passed over quite quickly by St. Paul in the midst of a number of arguments for the resurrection of the dead, and nothing similar to this verse is found anywhere else in Scripture.  That doesn’t seem like a very important religious activity.  Contrast that to the numerous references and prefigurements of the Eucharist, for example.  Notice, too, that St. Paul makes no commentary on the practice itself, but only points out that the people participating in it obviously believe in the resurrection of the dead.  Next, Mormons will agree that the practice must have dropped away rather early in Church history (not to reappear until the nineteenth century) and yet there is no historical mention of a struggle regarding the purging of the practice, although there are ample historical records surrounding every heresy to pop up, all the way to the first century.
          These are classic responses and they are quite valid, but I wanted to find something more.  I did.
          According to my research, the Greek term that is usually translated “for,” as in baptized “for” the dead, can mean “on behalf of,” as Mormons would assert (although even that is a bit ambiguous).  But it can also mean “on account of,” which I suspect is the manner in which Paul meant to use it.
          They say that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.  If that is the case, many people became Catholic after witnessing the powerful testimony that martyrs gave with their lives, a testimony that proclaimed a belief in the resurrection of the dead.
          More than that, it seems that it was common for ancient pagans to enter the Church after the death of a loved one who had become Christian in the hopes of being reunited with that person at the resurrection.  St. Paul may have been pointing to the converts who were baptized into the Church on account of their dead Christian loved ones because they knew that at the resurrection they would be able to be with them again.
          Apparently the Greek word used in 1Cor. 15:29 can linguistically be interpreted either way.  However, I think the rest of the verse gives us some clues.  St. Paul refers to “they” when he talks of those baptized for the dead.  The practice seems not to be universal, but the experience of a group, a group to which Paul himself does not belong.  If it were a primary religious duty, Paul would certainly have participated.  We do know, however, that his conversion was not on account of a deceased Christian loved one, but due to his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus.
          Regarding baptism by immersion, it was helpful to let the missionaries know that we do practice baptism by immersion, but there is ample evidence that pouring water has always made for a valid baptism.  First, we see in Scripture and history that babies have always been baptized.  The book of Acts refers multiple times to entire households being baptized, and there is no exclusion of children regardless of how young.  Also, we can find debate in the early Church about baptism of infants, but the debate was whether the baby needs to be eight days old.  Scripture says that baptism replaced circumcision, and circumcision was done on the eighth day, so some thought that babies also should be baptized on the eighth day.  The Church, by the way, decided that it was not necessary to wait until the eighth day.
          Why is all this important?  Because no one would baptize a newborn by immersion.  Clearly these babies would be baptized by pouring.  There is actual textual proof that pouring, though not the norm, was also used for adults as early as the first century.
          The Didache is a first-century document that scholars agree is authentic and was for a while even considered for inclusion in the canon of the Bible.  This is what it says, proving that from the beginning baptism did not have to be by immersion to be considered valid:
          “baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.
          My Mormon friends were quite surprised and at times interested by what I shared with them.  However, we must be cautious when deciding whether to engage in discussions with Mormon missionaries.  Their presentations are very professional and well-crafted. And though the missionaries themselves will certainly be sincere, the lessons they have been given can be misleading and manipulative.
          I would recommend two books by Isaiah Bennett, who himself is a testimony for the need for prudence in this area.  Bennett was a Catholic priest who left the Church to become a Mormon.  He has since returned to the catholic Church and has tried to equip Catholics with the tools they need to avoid his mistake.
          Tom Smith, former Mormon and current Catholic priest is also a valuable and charitable contributor.