I've been poking along at first and second Corinthians for several months in my devotions. I will let you know that devotional time in the Bible is a confusing experience for me. Sure, I read prayerfully and let the Lord speak to me. But, as I read, then something in the text catches my attention and I’m off to the original languages, doing a rough translation, and digging into the technical bits (as much as I’m able) to chase down this conceptual rabbit that just popped out of the bushes. It's funny to me how I can pop from devotional to study mode in such a short time.
In any case, that’s what happened on this one particular morning. As I came across this verse, I was struck by the distinction Paul apparently makes between the preaching of the gospel (the task that Christ gave him), and the baptizing of believers (a task that was, it seemed to him, an add-on).
A few technical observations:
1) most translations translate logou as “words,” but the Greek word is singular;
2) the literal words here are “wisdom of-word;” that is, the “of” (genitive) is attached to “word” rather than “wisdom;”
3) there is an interesting use of the first “not” which points to the negation of the infinitive clause rather than the infinitive word itself.
As to the first and second points, it seems to me that Paul is talking about a mode of presentation (“wisdom of word”) rather than actual speech (‘words of wisdom’), which does provide a different shading of meaning than how this is usually translated – maybe somebody can help me understand the discrepancy. As to the third point, translations get this right: it clearly makes better sense grammatically (“Burton’s Moods and Tenses”) and contextually to translate the clause, “Christ did not send me to baptize…” rather than, ‘Christ sent me to not baptize….’
Now as to the potential theological point; does Paul here distinguish between the evangelistic work of preaching and the evangelistic work of baptizing?
As one thoroughly brought up – and still very much in agreement with – the Anabaptist teaching of ‘believer’s baptism,’ I have believed and taught that the New Testament many times uses the word, “baptism” as a catch-all word (synecdoche) for the whole work of conversion in a believer’s life. Much like a baseball commentator would say, “With that out; that’s the game.” Certainly there was much more to the game than one ‘out,’ but that one play wrapped up the destiny of the whole game.
So when Paul suggests a distinction between his preaching (clearly part of the conversion process) and baptism (seems to me to be the capstone of the conversion process), then I was arrested. Here’s how it sounded to me: 'I, Paul, was sent by Christ to pretty much just preach the gospel. All that baptizing stuff into Christ and the church – nope, that’s generally not for me. Other guys can do that.'
Another data point is a couple chapters later when Paul seems to say something very much like that in 3:6 – “I [Paul] planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” You could read that and suggest that Paul had more in mind than a simple agricultural metaphor. Was Paul saying that he “planted” the good-news into the minds of believers, but Apollos “watered” them by baptizing them? That is, that there are somewhat distinct phases: preaching-planting, baptizing-watering, sanctifying-growing?
This would also say that “God causes the growth;” which in this sense means that God causes the ‘sanctification’ in believers. We know (even hard-core Calvinists would agree) that our ‘sanctification’ is in some way dependant on our obedience (Phil 3:12). But the very next verse, Phil 3:13, shows that God is the one at work in us; ‘causing the growth’ So this take on the analogy still seems to hold up.
Here’s my context. There is a debate among Anabaptist evangelicals regarding ‘early’ or ‘late’ baptism. The Early baptizers would argue that once someone has made a credible confession of faith in Christ, they should be immediately baptized and they cite the Ethiopian Eunuch (Ac 8:27-38) and Philippian Jailer (Ac 16:25-33) as Biblical examples. These folks tend toward the ‘Free Grace’ end of that debate. The Late baptizers counter that both of the examples are put in Luke’s text as exceptions to the general rule of delaying baptism. These tend toward the ‘Lordship Salvation’ end of that debate. The Late baptizers claim that it was the very early church’s practice to delay baptizing a believer until that person could really make both a credible confession of faith and was fully ready to “reject flesh, world, and the devil” to follow Christ wholly.
Late baptism was clearly the practice of the pre-Constantinian church. One reason was that too many churches had been betrayed by too-quickly baptized ‘believers’ who then, under ‘persuasion,’ gave the authorities information that allowed for the persecution of other believers.
To prevent these and other problems in the life of the church, the church had a training regimen called “catechesis.” A “catechumen” was a believer who was in the process between confession of faith and the conversion of their minds from a pagan to a Biblical world-view so that they would be prepared to enter into the full fellowship of the church via baptism (baptism, among other things, having an ‘initiation’ function). A very early and respected document, the “Didache” had this training function. Several commentators on 1 Peter believe it was written by Peter with just this new-believer-training-before-baptism purpose.
I heavily lean toward the Late baptism view – though am solidly in the Free Grace end of that debate. I believe that it is very important that a believer be baptized only if they can give both a credible AND informed confession of faith. It seems to me that this is both the testimony of scripture as well as the very early church.
So, yes, it does seem possible that Paul distinguished between his task of preaching and proclaiming the good news about Jesus, and the ‘follow-on’ work of pre-baptism discipleship and the performing of actual baptismal rites.