The Correct Words for Baptism

Q: Baptism is to be performed “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” How do we respond to those who assert that we are to baptize “in the name of Jesus”?

A: Some heretical pseudo-Christian groups — notably the United Penetecostal Church and those belonging to the so-called “apostolic church” movement — insist that we are not to baptize using the Trinitarian formula, that we must ignore Jesus’ direct command to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), and instead baptize “in the name of Jesus.”

Their basis for this is a false theology of God’s nature. They claim that God is not one Being in three Persons, but one Person who has three modes. Thus their view is called “modalism.” It is also called “Sabellianism,” after Sabellius, the heretical priest who invented it in the third century. It was revived during the nineteenth century anti-intellectual American camp-revival, Holiness movement. This time the claim was the “Jesus” was the proper name of the single Person of the Trinity, and so it became known as “Jesus Only” or “Oneness” theology.

To support their view, they argue that other than Jesus’ explicit command to baptize with the Trinitarian formula, we everywhere else in the New Testament read of baptism in the name of Jesus.

In reality, “everywhere else in the New Testament” is only four verses, all of which are in the book of Acts (2:38, 8:16, 10:49, and 19:5). This is, of course, an extremely shaky basis on which to rest any doctrine. If a two polls were taken, one involving one person, and one involving four, statisticians would not say that one was more times more reliable than the other. It would have a huge margin of error, especially if all four in the second study were children of the same family (analogous to all four references coming form one New Testament book — Acts).

Protestant scholar D. A. Carson points to a parallel fallacy in Greek linguistics in which low-calibre exegetes try to build elaborate cases based on five uses of a term in the New Testament. On a database that small, no statistical conclusions can be based.

In point of fact, however, we do not read of “baptism in the name of Jesus” in Acts. Instead, we read of baptism “in the name of Jesus Christ” (2:38, 10:48), and “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (8:16, 19:5). So even Acts is not united in its expression.

In reality, neither of the expression Acts uses is a baptismal formula. Instead, they are designations of the kind of baptism and are intended to distinguish it from the multiple other kinds of baptism which were at that time present in first century Mediterranean culture.

The first of these other kinds was Jewish proselyte baptism. When a Gentile converted to Judaism at this time, he would ritually baptize himself in water to symbolize his purification from pagan darkness to the light of monotheism.

The second was Jewish ritual baptism. Certain groups of Jews would repeatedly baptize themselves to signify periodic purification from sin.

The third was John’s baptism. John the Baptist had been moving through Palestine baptizing people to signify repentance in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. John’s followers went and baptized others, and eventually John’s baptism was spread around a good portion of the Mediterranean basis, as indicated in Acts 18-19, where we read of Apollos having spread it as far as Ephesus.

The fourth kind of baptism, which was really a collection of different baptisms, was pagan baptism. A number of pagan cults practiced forms of baptism at this time. For example, some cults, such as the Mithras cult, had a ceremony known as the taurobolium in which an ox was slain over a grill, below which the initiates stood or reclined. The blood of the ox would then drip down over them, baptizing them in the name of Mithras. Pagan cults also had water-washing ceremonies.

In view of this great multitude of baptisms, it was imperative to distinguish Christian baptism from them. But saying, “baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” is too long an expression, and the formula “baptism using the Trinitarian formula” was not an option since the term “Trinity” would not be coined until around the A.D. 130s. “Batpism in the name of God” or “in the name of the Lord” would not do either since the three forms of Jewish baptism also shared this characteristic. Thus baptism “in the name of Jesus Christ” or “baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus” was picked, since only these characterized Christian baptism.

Thus the twin expressions of Acts, baptism “in the name of Jesus Christ” and “in the name of the Lord Jesus” are neither precise baptismal formulas, but rather designations of the kind of baptism — Christian baptism — over and against other forms of baptism.

This is especially revealed in Acts 18-19, where we read of Apollos, who had traveled to Ephesus and (before he was set straight by Priscilla and Aquilla) knew only the baptism of John (18:25). Then, while he was journeying in Corinth, Paul came to Ephesus and found some of Apollos’s disciples (19:1). Finding that they had not received the Holy Spirit, Paul asked:

“‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They said, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ And Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:3-5, RSV).

Here in this single passage we thus have the baptism of John contrasted with Christian baptism.

Thus the four references in Acts — which use two different expressions — do not overrule Jesus’ explicit command to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). This is an explicit, formal command concerning the propagation of the sacrament, whereas Acts’s references are merely incidental, casual references to the fact that it was performed, as indicated by the two different expressions that are used in them. It is thus Christ’s explicit, formal command which takes precedence over the other, diverse ones.

Thus Christ commanded, and the early Church obeyed, the command to baptize using the Trinitarian formula.

This is confirmed when we examine other first-century Christian writings. The Didache, written around A.D. 70, states:

“And concerning baptism, this is how you shall baptize: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit in running water. But if you do not have running water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot [baptize] in cold, [then] in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head, into “the name of Father, and of Son, and of Holy Spirit.” But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whatever others can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.” (Didache 7 [A.D. 70]).

The Trinitarian formula — and thus the Trinitarian nature of the early Church’s faith — is indicated not only by the double presence of the formula itself, but also by the fact that water is to be poured over the head three times. This is truly the faith of the first Christians.

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