Response Page | Offenders for a Word

Baptism for Dead and Secrecy

Claim 10. Mormons practice baptism for the dead. But "the whole idea of a vicarious work for our ancestors is totally foreign to the Christian faith."364 Clearly, then. Mormons cannot be Christians. But it is not only the Latter-day Saint practice of vicarious baptism that enrages their critics. Mormon temple ritual in general is a point of contention. Secrecy itself, say Ed Decker and Dave Hunt, is un-Christian.365 "No genuine Christian church has any secret rituals; nor are there any secret rituals in the New Testament. Such things are much more appropriate to the pagan mystery religions of antiquity."366

Response. The argument that baptizing for the dead is unchristian presumes that the problem of 1 Corinthians 15:29 has already been solved, and that it has been solved in a way that contradicts the faith and practice of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, this is far from the case. Try as they might, commentators have been unable to talk their way out of the clear meaning of the text, which is that living Corinthians were allowing themselves to be baptized on behalf of those who had died. "None of the attempts to escape the theory of a vicarious baptism in primitive Christianity seems to be wholly successful," observes Harald Riesenfeld.367 Thus, reluctant though they might be, the majority of scholars has now come around to a position very much like that of the Latter-day Saints. As the eminent Lutheran New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl has recently noted, "the text seems to speak plainly enough about a practice within the Church of vicarious baptism for the dead. This is the view of most contemporary critical exegetes."368 The anti-Mormon claim that those who baptize for the dead cannot be Christian also ignores the fact that such groups as the Montanists—whom we have already seen to be universally recognized as Christians—practiced a similar rite.369 It would further seem to question—yet again—the Christianity of Roman Catholics: "The faithful on earth," Rome teaches, "through the communion of saints, can relieve the suffering of the souls in purgatory by prayer, fasting, and other good works, by indulgences, and by having Masses offered for them."370 It questions, too, the Christianity of one of the largest and oldest Protestant churches, the Church of England, and its related communions, who also teach prayer for the dead.371 Can any definition of Christianity which excludes both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England possibly be taken seriously?

And what of the claim that secrecy is itself un-Christian?372 It is significant to note that both of the major categories of the sacred—"sacred word" and "sacred act/ritual"373—were, under certain circumstances and for varying periods of time, maintained in secrecy in early Christianity. The eminent New Testament scholars Joachim Jeremias and Morton Smith have demonstrated that such esotericism—secrecy—was present throughout early Christianity and the religious milieu from which it grew.374 What has been referred to as the "Messianic secret," the constraint placed (at least temporarily) by Jesus on his disciples, and others as well, against revealing his Messiahship is found throughout the Gospel accounts, but particularly in the gospel of Mark.375 Jeremias and Smith also specifically include the apostle Paul in their judgment about secrecy in early Christianity. Paul describes himself and his coworkers as "stewards of the mystery of God" in 1 Corinthians 4:1. As Smith demonstrates at length, the word "mystery" was regularly used by the early Christians to refer to secret rites or ordinances.376 He also states that "this [the rite of baptism] was the mystery of the kingdom—the mystery rite by which the kingdom was entered."377 Secrecy is a feature found not only in the early Christian community but also in ancient Judaism, among the Essenes, and very widely in the ancient world generally.378 According to the historian of religions Kees Bolle, "Not only is there no religion without secrecy, but there is no human existence without it."379

Critics of the early Church were not slow in noticing this penchant for secrecy. And, like today's anti-Mormons, they were quick to exploit it in their attacks. "The cult [!] of Christ," declared a second-century anti-Christian named Celsus, "is a secret society whose members huddle together in corners for fear of being brought to trial and punishment."380 "Why," demanded Caecilius Natalis in the early third century, "do they endeavor with such pains to conceal and to cloak whatever they worship, since honourable things always rejoice in publicity, while crimes are kept secret? . . . Why do they never speak openly, never congregate freely, unless for the reason that what they adore and conceal is either worthy of punishment, or something to be ashamed of?" "Assuredly this confederacy ought to be rooted out and execrated," Caecilius declared. "They know one another by secret marks and insignia. . . . Certainly suspicion is applicable to secret and nocturnal rites."381 The Christians defended themselves against such charges much the way today's Latter-day Saints do: They affirmed the high morality of their faith and the behavior it asked of them, but they did not deny that secrecy was a part of their religious belief. And, furthermore, they did not fall into the trap of revealing the secrets that had been entrusted to their care—even when revealing those secrets might have strengthened their defense. "God orders us in quietness and silence to hide His secret," wrote Lactantius in the fourth century, "and to keep it within our own conscience. . . . For a mystery ought to be most faithfully concealed and covered, especially by us, who bear the name of faith. But they accuse this silence of ours, as though it were the result of an evil conscience; whence also they invent some detestable things respecting those who are holy and blameless."382

For such secret doctrines and practices lay at the very heart of the doctrine that the early Christians had received, and that they were trying against great odds to preserve. We have seen already that Ignatius of Antioch held secret doctrines early in the second century. He himself explained one of the reasons for this. "For," he wrote to the Trallian saints, "might not I write unto you of things more full of mystery? But I fear to do so, lest I should inflict injury on you who are but babes [in Christ]. Pardon me in this respect, lest as not being able to receive their weighty import, ye should be strangled by them."383 At the end of the second century. Clement of Alexandria advised keeping certain teachings from "the multitude" because, while "those of noble nature" find them "admirable" and "inspiring," the masses, unable to understand such doctrine, would regard them as "ludicrous."384 Early in the third century, the Latin church father Tertullian could write that the apostles "did not reveal all to all men, for ... they proclaimed some openly and to all the world, whilst they disclosed others [only] in secret and to a few."385 At the same time, Hippolytus was writing about secrets to be conveyed by the bishop to the faithful alone—secrets that Hippolytus linked with the white stone of John's Revelation.386 Secret Christian teachings are also a major theme of the Clementine Recognitions and the Clementine Homilies, which seem likewise to have originated at some point in the third century.387

The central doctrines of Christianity were doubtlessly well known in antiquity among Christian and non-Christian alike. Thus Origen, in responding to the ancient Christian-baiter Celsus (who has himself written a manual for ex-Christians), states: "Moreover, since he frequently calls the Christian doctrine a secret system (of belief), we must confute him on this point also, since almost the entire world is better acquainted with what Christians preach than with the favorite opinions of philosophers. For who is ignorant of the statement that Jesus was bom of a virgin, and that He was crucified, and that His resurrection is an article of faith among many, and that a general judgment is announced to come, in which the wicked are to be punished according to their deserts, and the righteous to be duly rewarded? And yet the mystery of the resurrection, not being understood, is made a subject of ridicule among unbelievers. In these circumstances, to speak of the Christian doctrine as a secret system, is altogether absurd."

But, to forfend the charge that he is disingenuously claiming that the Christians had no doctrines not made generally known, Origen continues: "But that there should be certain doctrines, not made known to the multitude, which are (revealed) after the exoteric ones have been taught, is not a peculiarity of Christianity alone, but also of philosophic systems, in which certain truths are exoteric and others esoteric. Some of the hearers of Pythagoras were content with his ipse dixit; while others were taught in secret those doctrines which were not deemed fit to be communicated to profane and insufficiently prepared ears. Moreover, all the mysteries that are celebrated everywhere throughout Greece and barbarous countries, although held in secret, have no discredit thrown upon them, so that it is in vain that he endeavors to calumniate the secret doctrines of Christianity, seeing he does not correctly understand its nature."388

This latter quotation is also interesting since its argument is essentially tu quoque: we may do it, but so do you. It cites, apparently without embarrassment, the Greco-Roman mysteries whose secrecy provides parallels to the secrecy with which some Christian doctrines were maintained.

As we have noted above, rites were also maintained in secrecy in the early Church. The ancient Christian arcani disciplina (secret discipline) was the "practice of ... keeping certain religious rites secret from non-Christians and catechumens."389 The very word from which "mass" may be derived, missa (in the phrase missa est), appears to have been the point in the Christian worship service when those who were not yet members in full standing were "invited ... to leave the church building. Then the doors were closed, and the ushers assumed their places in order to inquire of anyone who still desired to enter if he was baptized."390 The practice of the arcani discipline!—including exclusion from participating in the Eucharist, from the baptismal service, and from other rites as well—persisted through several centuries, probably from the end of the second century until the end of the fourth or the beginning of the fifth century. According to Mulder, the early Church may have had certain secret practices that were not to be made known under any circumstances, whose secrecy were sometimes maintained by an oath.391

As late as the fourth century, efforts were being made within the church to return to the earlier, lost, Christian tradition of esotericism.392 The motivation was "a concern to keep the most sacred things from profanation"—a concern shared by the Latter-day Saints, and shown by such anti-Mormon efforts as the film The God Makers to be wholly justified.393 Athanasius, for example, angrily notes that the people he views as apostates "are not ashamed to parade the sacred mysteries . . . even before the heathens: whereas, they ought to attend to what is written, 'It is good to keep close the secret of the king;' and as the Lord has charged us, 'Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine.' We ought not then to parade the holy mysteries before the uninitiated, lest the heathen in their ignorance deride them, and the catechumens [i.e., investigators] being over-curious be offended."394 Likewise, Basil of Caesarea reminds his readers of the "unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation." The apostles and fathers of the church, Basil continues, "laid down laws for the Church from the beginning [and] thus guarded the awful dignity of the mysteries in secrecy and silence, for what is bruited abroad at random among the common folk is no mystery at all. This is the reason for our tradition of unwritten precepts and practices."395 Jeremias argues that this concern with preserving sacred things from mockery was the very motive that led the writer of the Gospel of John consciously to omit an account of the Lord's Supper, "because he did not want to reveal the sacred formula to the general public."396

We have seen that esoteric or secret teachings were an important component of Christianity in its early centuries. The fact that such teachings are clearly absent from mainstream Christianity today may explain, to a large degree, why some anti-Mormons are so irritated by Latter-day Saint claims to possess them. If we don't have those secret teachings, the reasoning seems to run, then they must not be important. Certainly they aren't essential; perhaps they are even evil. (One is reminded of Aesop's fable about the fox and the "sour grapes.") This is manifestly not the way in which early Christians thought of their own esoteric doctrines, however. They treasured them.

But fundamentalist anti-Mormons have announced that claims of secret doctrine bar us from being Christians. Do such claims also excommunicate the early saints? Was John a Christian? Was Paul? Was Jesus? If a definition of Christianity that excludes Roman Catholicism seems rather absurd, what of a definition that excludes Jesus himself?

364 The Utah Evangel 31 (January 1984): 7; cf. Fraser (1977): 107-12. The Evangel and others simply don't like ordinances; cf. Eraser's attack on baptism: Praser (1977): 97-106. For the quite different attitude of Christianity in late antiquity, see Brox (1983): 112-18.
365 Thus Decker and Hunt (1984): 141-42 (vs. Scharffs [1986]: 200-202). Mr. Decker's "Petition," along with the materials which generated controversy a few years ago over the dedication of the Denver temple, may be taken as representative of yet another point of controversy connected with Mormon temple worship: Alleged Latter-day Saint mockery of traditional Christianity. We choose not to discuss this accusation, refusing to acquiesce in the thrusting of temple ritual into the public domain—a cherished goal of Mr. Decker and his associates. On the other hand, we emphatically deny that the effect of temple worship on any of those we know has ever been to inculcate contempt for Christian clergy. And since no Latter-day Saint known to us interprets the temple ritual as cutting Monnonism off from Christianity per se, we find extremely dubious the attempt by non- and anti- Mormons to portray it as doing so.
366 Saints Alive in Jesus Newsletter (July 1990): 5.
367 H. Riesenfeld, "Hyper," in Kind and Friedrich (1972); 8:512-13.
368 Stendahl, "Baptism for the Dead: Ancient Sources," in Ludlow (1992): 1:97. Among the commentators, including Catholics as well as both liberal and conservative Protestants, who agree that 1 Corinthians 15:29 most likely refers to a practice among Corinthian Christians of receiving vicarious baptism on behalf of the dead, see Fee (1987): 763-67; R. Kugelman, "The First Letter to the Corinthians," in Brown, Pitzmyer, and Murphy (1968), 2:273; Orr and Walther (1976): 335, 337; Marsh, "1 Corinthians," in Bruce (1986): 1384; Mays (1988): 1187; J. J. O'Rourke, "1 Corinthians," in Puller, Johnston, and Keams (1975): 883h-m; W. F. Flemington, "Baptism," in Buttrick (1962), 1:350; Conzelmann (1975): 275-77. Nibley (1987): 100-167.
369 Perm (1945): 54; Fraser (1977): 110. The Marcionites, also invariably referred to as Christians, observed the practice as well. The practice was condemned in a.d. 393, by the Council of Hippo, which certainly implies that it was still a live issue in the late fourth century of the Christian era.
370 This We Believe (1962): 134; cf. 134-35, 144; cf. Boettner's attack, in Boettner (1986): 7, 295-96. Prayers for the dead are a central motif in Dante's Purgatorio. Was Dante Christian? Says Jeffrey B. Russell's Medieval Civilization: "Thomas Aquinas and Dante were the crowns of their age" (376). "The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was the masterpiece of medieval literature. . . . [I]t is a summa of medieval thought. In [it], Christian theology is summarized" (552; cf. 138). But, imply our "experts," do the mediaevalists know what they are talking about? Was the "Age of Faith" in Western Europe really Christian? Perhaps Dante was a Hindu?
371 Boettner (1986): 295.
372 For another Latter-day Saint response to this charge, with useful references, see S. E. Robinson (1991): 96-98, 99-103.
373 Heiler (1961): 176, 266.
374 See Jeremias (1966): 125-37, with his copious notes; M. Smith (1973): 38,44, 91-92, 94, 197-202; G. Bomkamm, "Mysterion," in Kittel and Friedrich (1967): 4:802-28. For Latter-day Saint perspectives on this question, see Compton (1990): 611-42; Hamblin (1990): 202-21; Nibley (1987a): 10-99 (esp. 14-15,30-33); Nibley (1988): 84-110; and Welch (1990): 70-72.
375 There is considerable literature on this topic and its implications for the New Testament; cf. Wrede (1971); Boobyer (1959): 225-35; Schweizer (1965): 1-8; Powell (1969): 308-10; Aune (1969): 1-31; Blevins (1981); Tuckett (1983).
376 M. Smith (1973): 179-84.
377 M. Smith (1972): 96; cf. M. Smith (1973): 178-81. K. W. Bolle, "Secrecy in Religion," in Bolle (1987): 10-11, notes that "the Greek word mysterion was translated into Latin as sacramentum. . . . Even when referring to specific church acts, it was more than the sacraments of baptism and holy communion. ... All these church acts are mysteria, i.e., acts in which God is at work and therefore distinct from ordinary, profane, natural occurrences."
378 Jeremias (1966): 136; M. Smith (1973): 197-99; Wewers (1975).
379 Bolle (1987): 1.
380 Celsus (1987): 53. Much like his latter-day co-workers, Celsus even wrote a handbook of advice for ex-Christians.
381 Cited in Minucius Felix, Octavius X, 9. English translation in Roberts and
Donaldson (1979): 4:178, 177.
382 Lactantius, Divine Institutes VII, 26. English translation in Roberts and Donaldson (1979), 7:221.
383 Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Trallians, 5.
384 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata I, 12. English translation in Roberts and Donaldson (1979): 2:312-13.
385 Tertullian, On the Prescription against Heretics 25. English translation in Roberts and Donaldson (1980): 3:254-55.
386 Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition 23:13-14, cited in Hanson (1962): 32. Compare Revelation 2:17; D&C 130:10-11.
387 See, for instance, Clementine Recognitions 2:4,3:1,3:34; Clementine Homilies 19:20.
388 Origen, Contra Celsum I, 7. English translation in Roberts and Donaldson (1979): 4:399.
389 H. Mulder, "Arcani Disciplina," in Palmer (1964); 1:390. In the numerous studies on the subject—P. Batiffol, "Arcane," in Vacant and Mangenot (1894): 1:1738-54; Bonwetsch (1873): 203-99; Casel (1927): 329-40; Gravel (1902); Hanson (1962), 22-35; Jacob (1990; this is the most recent study on the topic and contains a rich bibliography); Mensching (1926): 126-32; 0. Perier, "Arkandisziplin," in Klauser (1950): 1:667-76; Douglas Powell, "Arkandisziplin," in Krause and Muller (1979), 4:1-8; Schindler (1911)—there seems to be little argument about the existence of the disciplina arcani. Even the most exacting—thus Hanson (1962): 22—expresses no doubt on that score, but restricts its practice to the fourth and fifth centuries. Others are more generous in this regard.
390 H. Mulder, "Arcani Disciplina," in Palmer (1964): 390.
391 H. Mulder, "Arcani Disciplina," in Palmer (1964): 390. Mulder believes that, in the taking of these oaths, "the church may have imitated" the practices of certain Eastern religions that "contained a number of secret ceremonies . . . related especially to the initiation, [which] had to be kept quiet under all circumstances by the adherents. Sometimes an oath was required at the initiation; at other times the death penalty was pronounced in the eventuality of a breach"; cf. G. Anrich,
"Arkandisziplin," in Gunkel and Zschamack (1927): 1:523-33; Bolle (1987): 10, on the other hand, sees the origins of such practices arising from within the Christian
communion itself; cf. Nock (1924): 58-59; Benko (1986): 12-13.
392 Brox (1983): 134.
393 Jeremias (1966); 130.
394 Athanasius, Defence against the Arians, 1:11. English translation in Schaff and
Wace (1979): 3:254-55.
395 Basil, On the Spirit, XXVII, 66. English translation in Schaff and Wace (1978): 8:42; cf. Cyril of Jerusalem, Procatechesis 12.
396 Jeremias (1966): 125, 136-37.