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For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect (1 Corinthians 1:17 KJV).

On page 94 in the Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Thayer says the word baptize is used at certain times "absolutely/"

. . . the word is used absolutely; to administer the rite of ablution, to baptize.

Thayer then cites Mark 1:4, John 1:25, and 1 Corinthians 1:17.

How does Thayer use the word absolutely? Does 1 Corinthians 1:17 say that while people other than Paul administered the rite, Paul's focus was on preaching?

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The word baptise, βαπτιζω, baptiso Strong 907 may be, as it were, metaphorical as when Jesus says

... can ye ... be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with ? [KJV] Mark 10:38.

Or when John says :

One mightier than I cometh ; he shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire [KJV] Luke 3:16.

Or the word may be used, specifically (I take it this is the same as your word "absolutely") when it regards the actual ordinance of baptism, either that which was, initially, that of John the Baptist - the baptism of repentance unto the remission of sins, or that which was of Jesus Christ and his apostles - the baptism into Christ's death and the baptism which entrances the Body of Christ.

I think there is no question in the actual text of I Corinthians 1:17 that 'baptize' here means the ordinance since it is used in connection - and that immediately - with another ordinance, the preaching of the gospel.

Paul is saying that although he occasionally did baptise one or two individuals when circumstances necessitated, it was not his primary function.

His calling and his focus was the preaching of the Gospel.

He is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. [KJV] Acts 9:15.

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'I came not for x but for y' doesn't exclude the performing of x, it only means that isn't the chief purpose (this is true even when x always accompanies y), or in this case chief calling or mission.

This is more or less proven to be the contextual meaning by the next clause: "not in wisdom of word, [but in simplicity,] lest the gospel of Christ be brought to nothing." This obviously doesn't mean St. Paul says nothing wise, but that to seek to explain the gospel in full depth, or even with the 'wisdom of man,' sophistry, would deter people from grasping its fundamental force and meaning and in fact stand a hindrance to the gospel than an incentive and aid to its acceptance.

But more importantly, the previous verses explicity tells us St. Paul baptized people:

1 Corinthians 1:13-16 (DRB) Is Christ divided? Was Paul then crucified for you? or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I give God thanks, that I baptized none of you but Crispus and Caius; Lest any should say that you were baptized in my name. And I baptized also the household of Stephanus; besides, I know not whether I baptized any other.

Clearly, he was intimately involved with baptizing plenty of people in the community. Paul himself was first 'unleashed' to his new mission in being baptized by one sent by Jesus to baptized Him into the Body--to officially "put on Christ" (Gal 3:27) and shake off the old Saul. It just wasn't Paul's mission specifically to baptize; and that he didn't come to baptize but to preach isn't even his main point, but a passing one, in a somewhat angry reaction to their misplaced identification with certain pastors of the Church rather than its Head (creating factions within the local church). "Where you baptized in the name of Paul?" is a daring way of reminding His readers that they should be focused on that Name into which they were really baptized: "the Name of the Father, the of Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (Mt 28:19). His mission was one principally of spreading the gospel throughout the world, in the form of his personal teaching, and those he ordained to the same ministry of spreading the same message and doctrine, but especially in his Epistles which are now codified in Sacred Scripture.

This follows the example of Christ, who had their same mission (Jn 20:21), who also had others perform baptisms (Jn 4:2), while He focused on preaching the gospel, when it was 'in its infancy' so to speak (its foundations being laid).

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In support of the other answers, it's worth explaining the idea of "absolute" in more detail. The key here is that it is a grammatical term, not a theological term. An online dictionary has the following definition:

  1. (Grammar)
    (of a construction) syntactically independent of the rest of the sentence, as in dinner being over, we left the table.
    3.1 (of a transitive verb) used without an expressed object (e.g. guns kill).
    3.2 (of an adjective) used without an expressed noun (e.g. the brave).

So when Thayer's lexicon lists 1 Corinthians 1.17 as an absolute usage of "baptise", it's saying that the word is used with no additional qualifiers. "I baptise" is an absolute use; "I baptise adults but not infants" is not absolute, because the sentence requires information about the baptising in order to be a complete statement.

Interestingly, if Paul had said "I came not to baptise but to preach", then grammatically both baptise and preach would be absolute verbs. But because Paul has qualified "preach" by noting the gospel as the content of his preaching, that word is no longer absolute.

What is the relevance of all this to the interpretation of this passage? Because "baptise" has an absolute usage, the focus is on baptism and preaching as bare categories. We might say that Paul is here defining the central focus of God's call on his life. God appointed him to preach the gospel, and that takes priority over everything else. Activities such as baptism are good, but they are not the most important thing.

This means that there is no contradiction between verse 17 and the previous verse, which mentions occasional baptisms that Paul did carry out. In the context of a divided church, Paul is focussing the attention of the church members on the main thing. Paul wasn't the one crucified; Christ was. Paul wasn't the name into which they were baptised; Christ was. And so Paul's only focus is to preach the gospel message that points people to Christ.

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