Baptismal Formula: Trinitarian or in Jesus’ Name Only?

Baptismal Formula: Trinitarian or in Jesus’ Name Only? April 5, 2018

It is often argued by those who deny the Trinity (groups such as the United Pentecostal Church or so-called “apostolic” Protestant denominations, corresponding to their Sabellian or “Oneness” Christology); also by a few trinitarian denominations that adopt a “Jesus only” baptismal formula, that Acts 2:38 provides us with the correct baptismal formula (i.e., the words pronounced by the person performing the sacrament). Others contend that Acts 2:38 contradicts Matthew 28:19. Some higher critics of the Bible have argued (typical of their “method”) that Matthew 28:19 is a later extrapolation into the biblical text.

Here is Acts 2:38-39 (RSV, as throughout, unless otherwise indicated):

And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. [39] For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

The trinitarian baptismal formula is based on Matthew 28:19; what is called “the great commission” (an express command of Jesus):

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,
In the context of Acts 2, the phrase “in the name of Jesus Christ” was not a liturgical formula, but a way of distinguishing Christian baptism from the baptism of John the Baptist (cf. Acts 19:1-5). Matthew 28:19 shows that awareness and acceptance of the Holy Trinity is also necessary. Hence, in context, Peter mentions the Holy Spirit: “Repent, and be baptized . . . and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” God the Father is included in the next verse as well: “For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

Moreover, fairly explicit trinitarianism is present in Acts 2:32-33, in the same sermon on the Day of Pentecost:

This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear.
The passage in Acts 2:38 is not intended as a formula and doesn’t record an actual baptism or the words spoken during it (because Peter is commanding baptism for all Christians, not actually performing it). In any event, to use the phrase “baptized in Jesus’ name” (in a non-formulaic way) does not theologically contradict the trinitarian baptismal formula.

The baptismal formula adopted by the Church in its rite and sacrament of baptism from the beginning is the one recorded in Matthew 28:19. We see this in the Didache, a very important apostolic writing, dated as early as 60-70 A.D., which places it earlier than even some biblical books. In this work we find the following passage (7:1):

After the foregoing instructions, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living [running] water. If you have no living water, then baptize in other water, and if you are not able in cold, then in warm. If you have neither, pour water three times on the head, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Before baptism, let the one baptizing and the one to be baptized fast, as also any others who are able. Command the one who is to be baptized to fast beforehand for one or two days.
Many other Church fathers bear witness to the trinitarian baptismal formula.

In the Bible itself, there are many passages that associate Jesus’ name (in some fashion: we are contending that it is a “non-formulaic” use) with baptism:

Acts 8:16 for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Acts 10:48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Acts 19:1-5 While Apol’los was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. [2] And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” [3] And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” [4] 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.” [5] On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Acts 22:16 And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.

Romans 6:3-4 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? [4] We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (cf. Col 2:12)

1 Corinthians 1:13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

1 Corinthians 6:11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

Galatians 3:27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

When Jesus gave the explicit trinitarian formula of Matthew 28:19, Matthew, Peter, John, and the other disciples (minus Judas) were present, and Luke would surely have learned of that through these sources. We know about that because it is recorded; therefore, it (i.e., the baptismal formula) is definitely part of the apostolic deposit. The disciples heard this with their own ears, and it had to do with one of the basic rites of the Church. They were not at liberty to change that (nor is the Church). It would have been unthinkable. That was the tradition that they had to preserve and promulgate.

The question, then, is whether the Bible verses above that mention Jesus contradict the trinitarian formula. They do not. It’s not an either/or proposition. Since Peter heard what Jesus Himself taught about the formula to be used, he would not and could not have contradicted it. “In the name of [the Lord] Jesus Christ” is not a formula but a summation of a different idea: Jesus was the name that was revealed (Phil 2:9-10; cf. 2 Thess 1:12; 1 Jn 3:23), and He was the one Whom Christians served. They healed in and by His name (Acts 3:6; 4:10, 30; 16:18), and called upon Him (1 Cor 1:2). Moreover, Peter is commanding baptism for all Christians, not actually performing it in Acts 2:38.

Indeed, St. Paul states: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col 3:17). Paul said he would die “for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13). Therefore, to use the phrase “baptized in Jesus’ name” (in a non-formulaic way) does not theologically contradict the trinitarian baptismal formula of Matthew 28:10.

A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (edited by Dom Bernard Orchard, London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1953) comments accordingly on Acts 2:38:

    To Semites the name is the person. ‘Baptism in the name’ means ‘to be, by the fact of baptism, consecrated, dedicated, subjected to someone’, . . . Jesus has been shown to be the Messias. To join his community, to belong to him, his baptism must be received. Thus ‘baptism in the name of Jesus’ is not a liturgical formula, but distinguishes Christian baptism from, e.g., that of John the Baptist, 19:5, or that given to proselytes. Mt 28:19 and st. Paul’s question in 19:3 show that knowledge of the Holy Trinity was necessary, and each Person is mentioned here in 38-39.
A. T. Robertson, in his Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930, Vol. II: for Acts 2:38) expresses the same notion:

In the Acts the full name of the Trinity does not occur in baptism as in Matthew 28:19, but this does not show that it was not used. The name of Jesus Christ is the distinctive one in Christian baptism and really involves the Father and the Spirit. . . . “Luke does not give the form of words used in baptism by the Apostles, but merely states the fact that they baptized those who acknowledged Jesus as Messiah or as Lord” (Page).

If this is part of the reasoning employed by those whom think there was a different formula in the very early Church, I think it fails by not bringing into consideration the above factors regarding how “the name of Jesus” was used and understood by the earliest Christians, in their culturally Jewish context.


(originally  3-10-08; revised on 3-2-10)

Photo credit: Baptism of St. Augustine by St. Ambrose: Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Troyes (1549). Photograph by Vassil (3-29-08) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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