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Changes in Early Baptismal Formula Encyclopedia Britannica

Changes in Early Baptismal Formula Encyclopedia Britannica
By V.A. Stenberg


“In the name of Jesus Christ, or of the Lord Jesus”. The former expression is used in Acts 2:38, 10:48; the latter in Acts 8:16, 19;5; cp. also Acts 22:16, “Arise and be baptized and wash away thy sins, calling on his name.” From these passages, and from Paul’s words in I Cor. 1:13 (“Was Paul crucified for you, or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?”) it is natural to conclude that baptism was administered in the earliest times “in the name of Jesus Christ,” or in that “of the Lord Jesus.” This view is confirmed by the fact that the earliest forms of the baptismal confession appear to have been single–not triple, as was the later creed. When Philip’s baptism of the eunuch appeared to have been abruptly narrated, the confession was inserted in the simple form, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” (Acts 8:37): and the formula “Jesus is Lord” appears soon to have become a stereotyped confession of Christian faith: moreover the question and answer connected with baptism in I Pet. 3:21 would appear to represent only the central section of the later creed.

“On the other hand, we have in Mt. 28:19 the full formula, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” We have no synoptic parallel at this point; and thus, form a documentary point of view, we must regard this evidence as posterior to that of Paul’s Epistles and of Acts.

The apparent contradiction was felt by Cyprian, who suggested that in baptizing Jews the apostles may have been contented with the one name of the Lord Jesus Christ, as they already believed in the Father: whilst in baptizing Gentiles they used the full formula, which was given (as he points out) with the command to “make disciples of all the nations” or “Gentiles.” This explanation, however, breaks down in face of Acts 10:45-48, the opening of the door to the Gentiles.

Three explanations deserve consideration: (1) that in Acts we have merely a compendious statement–i.e., that as a matter of fact all the persons there spoken of were baptized in the threefold name, though for brevity’s sake they are simply said to have been baptized in the single name; (2) that Matthew does indeed report exactly the words uttered by Jesus, but that those words were not regarded as prescribing an exact actual formula to be used on every occasion, and that the spirit of them was fulfilled by baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus; (3) that Matthew does not here report the ipsissima verba of Jesus, but transfers to him the familiar language of the Church of the evangelist’s own time and locality.

The first of these explanations cannot be regarded as satisfactory in the absence of any historical evidence of the employment of the threefold formula in the earliest times. A decision between the second and the third would involve an inquiry into the usage of the evangelist in other parts of his Gospel, and belongs to the discussion of the synoptic problem; but in facour of the third it may be stated that the language of the First Gospel, where it does not exactly reproduce an earlier document, shows traces of modifications of a later kind.

It has been argued that when Paul (Acts 19:2), in answer to the statement of the Ephesian disciples of the Baptist, “We have not so much as heard if there be a Holy Spirit”, said, “Unto what, then, were ye baptized?” he presupposed the use of the longer formula which expressly named the Holy Spirit. The statement can hardly mean, however, that they had never heard of a Holy Spirit, for disciples of the Baptist could scarcely so speak (Mk. 1:8); it must refer to the special gift of the Holy Spirit which Christians were to receive. Accordingly, Paul’s question simply implies that Christian baptism could scarcely have been given without some instruction as to this gift which was to follow it. In any case, it would be exceedingly strange that at this point Lk. should not have referred to the threefold formula, had it been in use, instead of simply saying, “When they heard it, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus”(Acts 19:5).

The threefold formula is attested by the Didache (chap. 7), both in express words and by the mention of the alternative practice of triple effusion; but, as the Didache shows elsewhere its dependence on Matthew, this is not independent evidence.

Justin Martyr, in describing baptism to heathen readers, gives the full formula in a paraphrastic form, “in the name of God, Father of the Universe and Ruler, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit.” Such a paraphrase was necessary to make the meaning clear to those for whom he wrote.

We find the full formula again in Tertullian some forty years later; and when the First Gospel was widely known it was certain to prevail. Exceptions are found which perhaps point to am old practice dying out. Cyprian and the Apostolic Canons combat the shorter formula, thereby attesting its use in certain quarters. The ordinance of Can. Apost. 50 runs–“If any bishop or presbyter fulfil not three baptisms of one initiation, but one baptism which is given (as) into the death of the Lord, let him be deposed.” This was the formula of the followers of Eunomius, “for the baptize not into the Trinity, but into the death of Christ”; they, accordingly, used single immersion only…”

–Cheyne, T. K. and Black, J.
Sutherland, editors.
Encyclopaedia Biblica,.
Volume 1 London:Adam
and Charles Black, 1909

In connection with the name (which may mean one or more names) the question of formula arises. The earliest known formula is “in the name of the Lord Jesus”, or some similar phrase: this is found in the Acts, and was perhaps still used by Hermas, but by the time of Justin Martyr the triune formula had become general. It is possible that the older formula survived in isolated communities, but there is no decisive contemporary evidence. The tendency was all the other way, and it is probable that there were in use many formula of an elaborate nature…”

–Hastins, James, Encyclopaedia of
Religion and Ethics. New York:
Charles Scribner’s sons, 1910.

There has been a theological controversy over the question as to whether baptism in the name of Christ only was ever held valid. Certain texts in the New Testament have given rise to this difficulty. Thus St. Paul (Acts, six) commands some disciples at Ephesus to be baptized in Christ’s name, “They were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ”. Those who were converted by Philip (Acts, viii) “were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ”, and above all we have the explicit command of the Prince of the Apostles: “Be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins” (Acts, 2). Owing to these texts some theologians have held that the Apostles baptized in the name of Christ only.

“St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, and Albertus Magnus are invoked as authorities for this opinion, they declaring that the Apostles so acted by special dispensation. Other writers, as Peter Lombard and Hugh of St. Victor, hold also that such baptism would be valid, but say nothing of a dispensation for the Apostles. The most probable opinion, however, seems to be that the terms “in the name of Jesus”, “in the name of Christ”, either refer to baptism in the faith taught by Christ, or are employed to distinguish Christian baptism from that of John the Precursor. It seems altogether unlikely that immediately after Christ had solemnly promulgated the Trinitarian formula of baptism, the Apostles themselves would have substitute another. In fact, the words of St. Paul (Acts, xix) imply quite plainly that they did not. For, when some Christians at Ephesus declared that they had never heard of the Holy Ghost, the Apostle asks: “In whom then were you baptized?” This text certainly seems to declare that St. Paul took it for granted that the Ephesians must have heard the name of the Holy Ghost when the sacramental formula of baptism was pronounced over them.

The authority of Pope Stephen I has been alleged for the validity of baptism given in the name of Christ only. St. Cyprian says that this pontiff declared all baptism valid provided it was given in the name of Jesus Christ. It must be noted that the same explanation applies to Stephen’s words as the Scriptural texts above give. Moreover, Firmilian, in his letter to St. Cyprian, implies that Pope Stephen required an explicitly mention of the Trinity in baptism, for he quotes the pontiff as declaring that the sacramental grace is conferred because a person has been baptized “with the invocation of the names of the Trinity, Father and Son and Holy Ghost”.

A passage that is very difficult of explanation is found in the works of St. Ambrose, where he declares that if a person names one of the Trinity, he names all of them. “If you say Christ, you have designated God the Father, by whom the son was anointed, and Him Who was anointed Son, and the Holy Ghost in whom He was anointed.” This passage has been generally interpreted as referring to the faith of the catechumen but not to the baptismal form. More difficult is the explanation of the response of Pope Nicholas I to the Bulgarians in which he states that a person is not to be rebaptized who has already been baptized “in the name of the Holy Trinity or in the name of Christ only, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles (for it is one and the same things, as St. Ambrose had explained)”. As in the passage to which the Pope alludes, St. Ambrose was speaking of the faith of the recipient of baptism, as we have already stated, it has been held probable that this is also the meaning that Pope Nicholas intended to convey. What seems to confirm this is the same pontiff’s reply to the Bulgarians on another occasion when they consulted him on a practical case. They inquired whether certain persons are to rebaptized on whom a man, pretending to be a Greek priest, had conferred baptism? Pope Nicholas replies that the baptism is to be held valid “if they were baptized in the name of the supreme and undivided Trinity”. Here the pope does not give baptism in the name of Christ only as an alternative. Moralists raise the question of the validity of a baptism in whose administration something else had been added to the prescribed form as “and in the name of the Blessed Virgin Mary”. They reply that such baptism would be invalid, if the minister intended thereby to attribute the same efficacy to the added name as to the names of the Three Divine Persons. If, however, it was done through a mistaken piety only, it would not interfere with the validity…”

–The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. II
New York: Robery Appleton Co.,

After the third century the formula of baptism was the name of the Trinity, and baptism otherwise performed was declared invalid. But in the early church, as also in the Apostolic age, there is evidence that the baptismal formula of the name of Jesus only was not unusual. There are difficulties connected with this circumstance which have not been explained. But the fact remains that in the time of Cyprian, so important a personage as Stephen, the bishop of Rome, defended the validity of baptism when performed in the name of Jesus only, and was opposed with great vehemence, as well as with every argument he could command, by the bishop or Carthage. In the controversy between Cyprian and Stephen we may trace the obscure hints of some crisis through which the church was passing. Those baptisms which had been performed in the name of the Lord Jesus must be either legitimated or condemned as invalid. To follow the latter course, as Cyprian proposed, was not only to follow Montanist theories, but to shut out from salvation those in the early church who had been baptized what had since come to be regarded as a defective formula.

The attitude of Rome was wiser than that of Cyprian. In a treatise belonging probably to the age of Cyprian, entitled De Rebaptismo, we may discern the process of the transition, the bridging of the gulf created by the ecclesiastical temper that was demanding the fulfillment of the letter. This unknown writer reveals to us the existence of an attitude in that hour of the triumph of the sacredotal principle, of which otherwise we should have little evidence, at least in the church of the West. he urges the baptism of the Spirit as more important than the baptism by water. he pleads eloquently for the freedom of the spirit, who, while He accompanies the formal rite, may also act independently, coming in advance even of the baptism by water, and imparting His gifts before the ecclesiastical recognition is given. No matter how defective the form of baptism in its formula or in its agent, there must be no rebaptism; but if the Spirit be invoked, as in the rite of laying on of hands, in what was called Confirmation, all deficiencies are overcome.

But he will not admit that the formula of baptism which invoked the name of the Lord Jesus only in defective. Whether the invacation of that name in baptism by heretic or Catholic, it carried with it the potency ascribed to it by St. Paul when he said that there was no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved; or again, He hath given Him a name which is above every name, that in the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, of things in heaven and things in earth.

To rebaptize, as Cyprian urged, any one over whom the name of Jesus had been invoke, whether by a heretic or by one sound in the faith, was to do dishonor to Christ and imperil the existence of His church. Only this large and truly catholic attitude could have saved the church at such a crisis. To have rejected the baptism performed by heretics in the name of Jesus, would have been to call in question the validity of all the ecclesiastical rites.

Who could be sure, so late as the middle of the third century, whether baptism had been always administered by those in Apostolic descent and with the formula of the Trinity? Not only was it uncertain, but many possibilities made it certain that the reverse was true. It became necessary, if the catholic church was to exist at all, that the baptisms of the past should be legitimated, however stringent might be the provisions for the future. The unknown author of the treatise on rebaptism discloses the method of rescuing the church from the disaster into which Cyprian’s policy would have plunged it.–recourse to the Holy Spirit, whose invocation over any baptism, together with the laying on of hands, was the act of faith supplementing all supposed or actual deficiencies.

In his treatise. De Spir. Sanc., Ambrose seems aware of the significance of this issue regarding baptism. “He who is lessed in Christ is blessed in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, because the name is one and the power is one; so they were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ; for when it is said, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, the mystery is complete through the oneness of the name…”

–Allen, Alexander V. G.Christian Institutions.,New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897


Allen, Alexander V. G. Christian Institutions. N. Y.: Chas. Scribner’s Sons

Bethune-Baker, J. F. Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine London: Methuen and Company Limited, 1942

Cheyne, T. K. and Black, J. Sutherland, editors. Encyclopedia Biblical. London: Adam and Charles Black., 1909

Faulkner, John Alfred. “Baptism in the Apostolic Age.,” London Quarterly review: October 1928, page 167

Hopwood, P. G. S. Religious Experience of the Primitive Church.Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1936

McGiffert, Arthur Cushman. history of Christianity in the Apostolic Age. N.Y. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900.

Paine, Levi Leonard. Ethnic Trinities. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.,1901

Robinson, Robert. History of Baptism. London: Couchman and Fry., 1890

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