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Two "Conflicting" Baptismal Formulas

Web posted on September 09, 2017

Hey Jude!

I got into a discussion recently about what's the correct formula for administering Christian baptism. Most churches baptize "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit", but there are some churches that baptize only "in the name of the Lord Jesus". Both sides claim to be following Biblical precedent. Who's right?

In Acts 2:38, 8:16, 10:48, 19:5, 22:16, and Romans 6:3, we have convincing evidence that early converts to Christianity were indeed baptized "in the name of the Lord Jesus". But at the end of Matthew's gospel, the Great Commission, Jesus' final instruction about spreading the gospel, includes the words "baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (28:19). At first glance, it looks as if the Acts of the Apostles and the letter to the Romans hold a different view from the Gospel according to Matthew.

There are a couple of ways to understnd this apparent contradiction. If Jesus really gave his disciples the Great Commission, including the Trinitarian baptism formula, before his death and resurrection (not later than AD 30), then the church in the Acts of the Apostles (between AD 30 and AD 63) was not following Jesus' instructions.

On the other hand, the statement "baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" sounds unlike anything Jesus says elsewhere in the gospels. It's too formulaic, too overtly theological. Jesus taught doctrine, but he was always pastoral and practical; nowhere else does he speak of the Trinity in such an explicitly creedal way. This formula reads more like a later doctrinal development.

Certainly Matthew 28:19 is a part of the original gospel; there is no early copy of Matthew that lacks it. So we know it wasn't added to the text by a later copyist. But the writers of the New Testament had very few punctuation marks by which to show shades of meaning. They even wrotetheirwordstogetherwithoutspaces, and relied on their readers to sort out the meaning for themselves. But if the ancients had used parentheses, here's how they might have written the Great Commission: "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), teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19,20).

The parentheses show that the Trinitarian baptismal formula is an editorial note, inserted because the writer thought some clarification was needed. What I have called an editorial note, the writer, being Jewish, would likely have called a "midrash". It was a common thing, when reading the Hebrew Scriptures to an Aramaic speaking audience, to include editorial notes followed by oral commentary. You can see a reference to this practice at Nehemiah 8:8. (John 3:16-21 also appears to be a midrash, but that does not make it any less true or inspired.)

But what clarification might have been needed? In the early days of the gospel, the first-generation Christians had a clear understanding of who Jesus was/is, and what the Christian teachings and ceremonies meant. But as in any organization, important shades of meaning get blurry over time and over successive generations, as does the will to be clear about them. A quick read of Paul's letters shows that he was constantly dealing with this sort of problem. (For a couple of examples, see Galatians 3:1 and Romans 6:3.)

As the gospel moved into the Gentile world, it became necessary to reaffirm who Jesus was/is, and the Christian understanding of his relation to God. While the first Christians were clear about the identity of this Jesus into whose name they were being baptized, subsequent generations quickly developed notions about Jesus that we would call heretical. Some thought he was only a man, others that he was a created heavenly being, yet others that he was God but that his humanity was illusory. So it became necessary for converts to understand that they were joining a religion that believes God really did walk among us in the person of Jesus, and continues to walk among us by the Holy Spirit. The formula that could be "unpacked" to explain this was a statement about "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit".

When Anglicans published the 39 Articles back in the year 1563, they included a statement that says "The Church hath power to decree rites or ceremonies." The church of the First Century had already figured that out 1500 years earlier, and actually appear to have done so in the case of baptism. They changed the words of the ceremony to prevent a watering down of the doctrine - specifically, the doctrine of who Jesus was and is, and how he relates to God.

It is even possible that the parenthesis should be extended further to include also the words "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you". Some religions in the ancient world were more interested in manipulating the gods than in living godly lives. In fact, a few of those religions were reputedly quite raunchy. Again, you can see in Paul's letters how he promotes moral living as a consequence of faith in Jesus.

If indeed the parenthesis does also include this latter clause about observing Jesus' commands, we can say that the early church understood baptism to have two closely related meanings: (a) the convert was professing a particular understanding of who Jesus was/is and how he relates to God, and (b) the convert was affirming his intent to live his life in a way that Jesus would approve.

A couple of comments need to be made by way of conclusion. First, this reading of the two baptismal formulas does not in any way detract from our holding a high view of Scripture. The Bible records accurately what went on in the early church. The early Christians were not wrong when they baptized "in the name of the Lord Jesus", but they changed their formula as they recognized a need to protect orthodox doctrine in changing circumstances. Moreover, the New Testament writer was writing as writers did in his day; it is not the writer's fault if we construed Matthew 28:19 as Jesus' "ipsissima verba" rather than as his implied intent.

Second, while there seems to me nothing inherently wrong with baptizing "in the name of the Lord Jesus", if you come across a church that actually does so, you might want to ask them why. The church of the early centuries was clear in its conviction that God really is a Trinity - not like Rod Beattie, who as the sole actor on stage in "Letters From Wingfield Farm" changes his hat or jacket, or his voice, in order to play all the characters in the script. Those who view the Trinity in that way hold a view called Modalism or Sabellianism, which all the ancient church councils firmly rejected. Affirmation that God really is a Trinity is a condition of denominational membership in both the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Canadian Council of Churches.


Rev Robert Lyon is the assistant at St Jude, Guelph, a congregation of the Anglican Network in Canada, that meets at 10 o'clock on Sundays at the Evergreen Centre, near Riverside Park. Robert welcomes your questions and comments, and will be pleased to discuss topics on request. Contact him at Robert.Lyon@graphikos.ca.
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