The Case of Corinth, or: How to Introduce Dogmatic and Sacramental Disorder in a Few Easy Steps

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Is Paul also among the sacramentarians?

When the Apostle uses a word six times in five verses, it is probably worthwhile to pay attention and ask what he is up to. This is what he does with the verb βαπτίζειν in 1 Corinthians 1:13-17. You can see the instances in bold below.

10 Παρακαλῶ δὲ ὑμᾶς, ἀδελφοί, διὰ τοῦ ὀνόματος τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἵνα τὸ αὐτὸ λέγητε πάντες, καὶ μὴ ᾖ ἐν ὑμῖν σχίσματα, ἦτε δὲ κατηρτισμένοι ἐν τῷ αὐτῷ νοῒ καὶ ἐν τῇ αὐτῇ γνώμῃ. 11 ἐδηλώθη γάρ μοι περὶ ὑμῶν, ἀδελφοί μου, ὑπὸ τῶν Χλόης ὅτι ἔριδες ἐν ὑμῖν εἰσιν. 12 λέγω δὲ τοῦτο ὅτι ἕκαστος ὑμῶν λέγει• Ἐγὼ μέν εἰμι Παύλου, Ἐγὼ δὲ Ἀπολλῶ, Ἐγὼ δὲ Κηφᾶ, Ἐγὼ δὲ Χριστοῦ. 13 μεμέρισται ὁ Χριστός; μὴ Παῦλος ἐσταυρώθη ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν, ἢ εἰς τὸ ὄνομα Παύλου ἐβαπτίσθητε;14 εὐχαριστῶ ὅτι οὐδένα ὑμῶν ἐβάπτισα εἰ μὴ Κρίσπον καὶ Γάϊον, 15 ἵνα μή τις εἴπῃ ὅτι εἰς τὸ ἐμὸν ὄνομα ἐβαπτίσθητε• 16 ἐβάπτισα δὲ καὶ τὸν Στεφανᾶ οἶκον• λοιπὸν οὐκ οἶδα εἴ τινα ἄλλον ἐβάπτισα. 17 οὐ γὰρ ἀπέστειλέν με Χριστὸς βαπτίζειν ἀλλὰ εὐαγγελίζεσθαι, οὐκ ἐν σοφίᾳ λόγου, ἵνα μὴ κενωθῇ ὁ σταυρὸς τοῦ Χριστοῦ.

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, "I follow Paul," or "I follow Apollos," or "I follow Cephas," or "I follow Christ."13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (ESV)

Paul was dealing with strife and faction in Corinth among a group of believers who had forgotten, or had chosen to ignore, the ground of their unity, which was nothing other than God's calling them to call in faith upon the name of the one Lord Jesus Christ ("To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus,called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" [1 Cor. 1:2]; see a previous post here). Instead, they had formed parties that rallied around a favorite Apostle or teacher, whether Paul, Apollos, or Peter. 

But to do this was absurd. These men were only servants (cf. 1 Cor. 3:5): they were not the ones who had been crucified for sinners and into whose name those sinners had been baptized. The questions in v. 13 are calculated to show this very absurdity; of course the answer to those questions is "no" (and in fact, in Greek the question is asked in such a way as to expect a negative answer) [1]. If this is the case, then why were they rallying around mere men? Paul is incredulous.

Nevertheless, rally they did; and perhaps one of the grounds that gave them claim to belonging to a particular clique was their having been baptized by one of the men mentioned: they had not actually been baptized "into" the name of Peter or Paul, but perhaps they had been baptized by a man bearing one of those names--a "credential" (should one wish to call it such) that they then made entirely too much of, even to the extent that some apparently said that they had been baptized "into" one of these names (v. 15). There seems to have been some blurring of the distinction between the human agent of baptism and the divine name into which the candidate was baptized.

Hence Paul moves from saying "baptized in(to) the name" to "I baptized" in vv. 14-16. And it was true that Paul had baptized some at Corinth: two men with Roman names, Crispus and Gaius, as well as the "household" (οἶκον) of Stephanas. There may have been others; but, if so, Paul does not know. [2] Very few, then, could claim to be "Paul's men" based on at least this one criterion.

Indeed, he downplays the importance of baptism throughout these verses, which culminate in Paul's striking assertion at the end of the section: "For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power." With his antithesis, Paul seems to make these two activities mutually exclusive: "Christ did not send me to do this, but to do that." Can that possibly be the case?

Not quite; after all, he has just said that he baptized certain people while ministering in Corinth. But what he is indicating rhetorically is that baptism is strictly subordinate to preaching--and not just to any preaching, but to the preaching of the cross (Ὁ λόγος ὁ τοῦ σταυροῦ, 1:18; κηρύσσομεν Χριστὸν ἐσταυρωμένον, 1:23; Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν καὶ τοῦτον ἐσταυρωμένον, 2:2).

What Paul says here is in harmony with the Great Commission: πορευθέντες οὖν μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη,βαπτίζοντες αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ καὶ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος... ("Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit..."). The main emphasis is found in the finite verb ("disciple"), while the participle ("baptizing") finds its place in relation to that action. Paul, in fact, already has observed the same order in his rhetorical questions in v. 13: "Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?" The matter of first importance is given first; the question of being baptized "into" someone's name as Paul outlines it here only makes sense when the bearer of that name has been crucified. 

To return to where we began: the Corinthians had forgotten or ignored this crucial point, which was the only possible ground of their Christian unity. When that is done, dogmatic and sacramental chaos follows. The Corinthians should have recognized that baptism can only be understood aright in light of the prior fact of the Gospel--of God's saving action toward man--which cannot be performed, but only testified to, by Paul, Peter, Apollos, or anyone else. Had they acknowledged this salient fact, the Corinthians' practice of "life together" would have been consistent with their calling in common "upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." By neglecting or refusing to do so, they had evacuated baptism of its Christian meaning and from it had created a force that sought to tear Christ apart, a force that was not just unChristian but anti-Christian. 

We can thus perhaps better understand Paul's dramatic statement in v. 17: without the preaching of Christ, and him crucified, baptism is in the best case useless, and in other cases something worse.


[1] It is unclear to me why the ESV, quoted above, does not reflect this.

[2] This marks an interesting hint about his priorities, to be filled out more in what follows.

[3] The point could easily be expanded for baptism into the triune name: one is only baptized into the name of the God who saves him from sin and death.

[4] And all while still being addressed as "brothers"!
Posted February 25, 2015 @ 10:15 AM by Eric Hutchinson
TOPICS: baptism

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