The Historical Witness Part 1: Baptism in Jesus’ Name
By Matthew A. Foster
Nevertheless he left not himself without witness. Seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses
Acts 14:17 & Hebrews 12:1
In chapters four, five, and six, we have briefly traced the origins and roots of false doctrines. We have seen how man’s developments led to a stagnant, ritualistic religion in Church Father Christianity, and we have seen how man’s developments led to the protesting of Church Father Christianity accompanied by the rise of denominations.
Each denomination in Reformation Christianity has contributed in some way to the recovering of ancient apostolic truths that were shrouded by the developments of Church Father Christianity; there has been a gradual restoration and returning to the original apostolic pattern. Even though Church Father Christianity sought to reform and restore, it is in no way defined as Apostolic Christianity because the reformation denominations, for the most part, always stopped short of returning to baptism in Jesus’ name and seeking God for the gift of the Holy Ghost. Though there were many individuals who did experience the new birth of Apostolic Christianity, the reformation movement, as a whole, remained a developed Christianity. The scriptures seem to indicate the restoration in Joel 2: 25-29, where the scripture says that God will restore all that has been destroyed and ate away. God says this restoration will lead to all people receiving His Spirit, but restoration will be a process of “precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little” (Isaiah 28:10) So it is in Reformation Christianity when Luther restored justification by faith but still held so many Church Father developments; when Calvin saw the importance of leading a moral and moderate life but held to views like predestination and persecution; when the Anabaptists saw that baptism is to be administered for believers only by immersion but failed to see it is to be done in Jesus’ name; and we could go on with this list, but suffice it to say the main point is these movements were noble in their cause, but they remained only developed Christianity.
As we have studied the three types of Christianity, we have seen that Apostolic Christianity is the true Christianity experienced by the first century church, and written about throughout the New Testament. This is the only Christianity accepted by God. As Jesus of Nazareth so wonderfully taught many believers will come to Him at the last day and cry unto Him, but his response will be, “Verily I say unto you, I know you not” (Matthew 7: 23; 25: 12). To recapitulate, Apostolic Christianity has at its core the born again experience, which is briefly: repentance, water baptism in Jesus’ name, and the baptism of the Holy Ghost (John 3: 5; Acts 2: 38).
In this chapter we will look at the witness found throughout history that shows people truly being born of the water. No matter how dark church history may appear to be, there have always been a faithful few, a remnant that continued to hold to apostolic doctrines and practices. Even though there was a great falling away and many forsook true apostolic doctrine and practice, God’s church has always existed and He has never been without a witness in the earth.
Witness in History: Baptism in Jesus’ Name
As studied in lesson one, we know that the church in the first century only baptized converts orally invoking the name of Jesus; no other formula was ever used by this church:79 It is historical fact that this is the formula that continued to be used in the mainstream church until the third century; other formulas for baptism began to appear in the second century. Most historians cite Flavius Justinus, or Justin, in 150 AD as the first person to mention a trinitarian formula, though his formula also included the name of Jesus, contrary to trinitarian formulas after his time.
Mention is made throughout history of many who baptized in the name of Christ even though they were considered heretics, but we agree with the scriptures that baptism in the name of Jesus is the only scriptural formula for Christian baptism. We will take a survey of church history to find the groups of people who held to the apostolic doctrine of water baptism in the name of Lord Jesus Christ.
As we learned in lesson two, the leaders of the church whose lives overlapped the lives of the apostle were known as the apostolic fathers or the post apostolic fathers. The post apostolic fathers, Ignatius, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, and Hermas, did not believe in trinitarian doctrine, and there is no reference in their writings to a trinitarian baptismal formula.
Because the lives of these men overlapped the lives of the apostles, it would be reasonable to find that their teachings greatly mirrored those of the apostles. We should expect to see the apostles’ influence on their practices, and this we do find.
Hermas, in the 2d century, wrote about baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus, and he taught that baptism is a seal of salvation wherein one takes on the name of Jesus.”‘
Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in the late 2nd century used the story of Naaman the leper in the book of 2 Kings chapter 5 as a type New Testament baptism. He wrote:
Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [it served] as an indication for us. We are clean by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions; being spiritually regenerated as new-born babes, even as the Lord has declared: “Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
Praxeas, a leader of the church in Asia Minor and in Rome in the late 2nd century, diligently taught the word of God. He was not a trinitarian, but he held to the oneness view of God, as did the majority of believers in this time.”‘ Praxeas found little or no opposition to his teachings on the oneness of God, and for this reason it is believed that the majority of believers in his area did not follow trinitarian theology.
Paul Tillich described the common practice for conversion in the second century in his book, A History of Christian Thought:
a pagan adult had to confess that he would accept the implications of his baptism. When he was baptized in the name of Christ. Later on the names of God the Father and the Spirit were added.”
It was in the 3rd century when those who baptized in Jesus’ name really began to be labeled as heretics. Even though the people who baptized in Jesus’ name were considered heretics, Stephen, Bishop of Rome considered baptism in the name of Jesus’ to be valid. A North African theologian named Cyprian was a main proponent of the trinitarian formula during the 3rd century. His writings indicate that there were many “heretics” in his day that baptized in Jesus’ name. A specific leader of the “heretics” who baptized in Jesus’ name was Marcion. Cyprian made special mention of Marcion, calling him a heretic based on the grounds that Marcion did not baptize using Cyprian’s trinitarian formula. It is conclusive from Cyprian’s writings and condemnations that he did not fully understand the apostles’ practice of Jesus’ name baptism. From his view, God consisted of three persons, thus he thought that to mention only one person of the trinity was to deny the other two. For this reason he wrote that these people who were baptizing in the name of Jesus could not be saved because they were denying the Father. He expressed that people cannot receive remission of sins by being baptized in the name of Jesus, but baptism must be administered with the trinitarian formula to acknowledge all the person of God:
…the apostles are sent by the Lord to the heathens, they are bidden to baptize the Gentiles “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” How, then, do some say, that a Gentile baptized without, outside the Church, yea, and in opposition to the Church, so that it be only in the name of Jesus Christ, everywhere, and in whatever manner, can obtain remission of sin, when Christ Himself commands the heathen to be baptized in the full and united Trinity?… by what power can he who denies God the Creator, the Father of Christ… [and] gravely sins against the Father and the Lord and God of Christ, can [he]receive remission of sins in the name of Christ?’
Cyprian again charged Marcion with blasphemy along with. v alms and Apelles because he said that they denied God the Father. His reasoning was because they taught and continued to practice baptism in the name of Jesus Christ. He mentioned that they taught the sanctity of water baptism is in “that remission of sins is granted in the name of Jesus Christ.”
Firmilian, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia quoted Stephen, a Bishop of Rome, who endorsed Jesus’ name baptism, and even considered “heretics” to be saved if baptized in that name because of the power that was resident in the name. Stephen was quoted, “the name of Christ is of great advantage to faith and the sanctification of baptism; so that whosoever is anywhere so-ever baptized in the name of Christ, immediately obtains the grace of Christ.”‘
In 215 AD, Sabellius went to Rome and firmly taught the apostolic doctrine of one God, and he clearly refuted any form of trinitarianism. People throughout church history that baptize in Jesus’ name are often referred to as Sabellians. Some historians will refer to Sabellians as Modalists or Modalistic Monarchians. This refers to the oneness view that God is one divine being manifest in three modes: Father in creation, Son in redemption, and Spirit in emanative power.
By the fourth century, baptism in the mainstream church began to change with the development of the doctrine of the trinity from being administered in the name of Jesus to invoking “the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” The interesting thing that happened when the mainstream church began to develop the doctrine of the trinity is they discontinued using the only name whereby we can be saved (Acts 4: 12). They discontinued using the only name whereby we receive remission of sins (Luke 24: 47; Acts 22: 16). Instead of calling on the name of the Lord Jesus, they merely orally invoked the titles of the one true God by saying, “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”. But they never called on His saving name.
The titles used in this formula designate various roles, attributes, relations, and offices of God, but none of these titles are given for our healing, deliverance, and salvation.’ For example, Father is not a name, but is a title referring to God as Creator and source of everything (Malachi 2: 10). You may be a father, but your name is not “father.” Father is the title designating the distinct role you have with your offspring, but your name would be John, Bob, or Mike. Son is the title of Messiah because he was literally the Son of God. We can think of him distinctly as Messiah when we refer to the Son, though Son is not his name. Son refers to the role of being born, but if Son were his name then why was Mary instructed to call His name Jesus (Matthew 1: 21)?
Hence, we understand that the mainstream church began to use a baptismal formula based upon a misunderstanding of Matthew 28:19 which states, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Notice that this verse says name and not names. This indicates that there is one name to which these three titles are referring. To understand this verse like Jesus’ disciples understood it, we must ask three questions: What is the name of the Father? What is the name of the Son? And what is the name of the Holy Ghost? The name of the Son is obviously Jesus, and the scriptures tell us so in Matthew 1: 21, 25 and Luke 1: 31; 2: 21. Jesus went onto say that His name is associated with the Father, for He said that He had come in His Father’s name, and that the Holy Ghost would come in His name (John 5: 43; 14: 26). Clearly, the single name to which the tides of Matthew 28: 19 are referring is the name of the Lord Jesus. That is why we find the apostles baptizing only in name of Jesus Christ. “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, when we must be saved” (Acts 4: 12). “Wherefore God also hath exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” (Philippians 2: 9-10).
With this misunderstanding, a new doctrine was officially formulated, introduced, and endorsed during the fourth century called the doctrine of the trinity. The Council of Nicea in 325 and the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD both formulated doctrine of the trinity, which doctrine the bishops in attendance the Council of Constantinople endorsed. The church at the Council of Constantinople officially condemned baptism in name in 381 AD when they condemned Sabellian baptism, which they described as “prevalent in Galatia.” Much debate went on during the fourth century concerning Jesus’ name baptism after the Council of Nicea and before the Council of Constantinople. Such debate and consequent councils indicates that there were still many who practiced baptism in Jesus’ name.
Marcellus of Ancyra (280-374) was a leader in the Assembly of Sardica who shunned the idea of three persons being Gods, and he was also condemned with Sabellius at the Council of Constantinople. Other leaders during the fourth century who were considered heretics because they believed in one undivided God and followed the teaching of Jesus’ name baptism were Commodian, Priscillian, and Photinus, along with their respective followings and congregations.
Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Centuries
In 447 AD, we find that Pope Leo wrote a letter condemning the Priscillianists and Sabellianists in Spain:95 Augustine made mention of Sabellians in the early fifth century. Sabellian baptism was also condemned c. 450 in a letter from the church in Constantinople to Antioch. It was also during this time period that the death penalty was enacted for those that held the oneness view of God and for those who re-baptized. Many letters were written and several councils were held through the period 530-693 to warn against the “heretics” in Spain that held to a Sabellian view of the Godhead, which indicates that there were still many in Spain during the fifth century, sixth, and seventh centuries who continued to baptize in Jesus’ name.
The death penalty was declared in the Byzantine Empire as a result of the Justinian Code of 529 for people who baptized in Jesus’ name and opposed trinitarianism.
Damian of Alexandria (570-605) and the Euchites of Syria and Asia Minor opposed trinitarianism, and were considered to be Sabellians.
The ,Quinisext (692), a catholic publication, mockingly speaks off Sabellians, giving instructions to Catholics on how to re-baptize them back into the Catholic Church. This is more evidence that the Sabellianists’ baptism was different than the Catholic Trinitarian formula. This is proof that Jesus’ name baptism continued to be practiced by the faithful saints of God.
The Medieval Age: 700-1500
Bede of England (673-735), Migetius of Spain (8th century), Council of Frejus (792), and Pope Nicholas I (858-867) were all s to have accepted the validity of the Jesus’ name formula. Peter Lombard (died 1160), Hugo Victor (died 1140), and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) all mentioned in their writings of the of people baptizing in Jesus’ name.
The Bogomils of the tenth century were attributed propagating Sabellianism in the Byzantine Empire, Bosnia, and Serbia. Their influence lasted well into the 13th century influencing the Albigenses in Italy and Southern France.
The Synod of Soisson (1121), Council of Sens (1140), and Council of Florence (1438-45) all continued to fight and condemn bSabellianism; nonetheless, the truth of baptism in Jesus’
continued to endure.
With the beginning of the Reformation and the work of the printing press, many people fled from the darkness of Catholic tradition into different movements that shed light on various Biblical truths. The majority of the Reformation movement did however, hold on to the trinity doctrine, but there were still those who held to the apostolic view of baptism in Jesus’ name. Luther himself acknowledged that the apostles baptized in Jesus’ name, though Luther himself did not concur with such practices; nevertheless, some of Luther’s early followers baptized in Jesus’ name.
The Spanish physician, Michael Servetus (1511-53), was an ardent teacher of the oneness of God. He had to travel much because of the great opposition to his teachings against trinitarianism. Servetus wrote the books On the Errors of the Trinity, Two dialogues on the Trinity, and The Restitution of Christianity, which as the title states, Servetus did not want to merely add more developments to Christianity, but he wanted to restore true Apostolic Christianity. He often compared the modern practices of the church to that of the apostles and the early church.'”‘ He taught that the church went into apostasy during the fourth century, starting with the formation of the doctrine of the trinity.’ Even though his writings contained some errors and inconsistencies, we are led to believe, from the context of all his writings and from his insistence on the oneness of God with the fullness of God dwelling in Christ that he was baptized in Jesus’ name. He clearly taught that baptism is to be administered “in the name of Jesus Christ.’ Servetus denied the trinitarian creeds of the early years of Church Father Christianity, and he rejected infant baptism. He taught that: there is one God, Christ was the Son of God, and all the fullness the Godhead was manifested in flesh by the Son of God. He affirmed that Christ was only preexistent as the Word in the minim or plan of God. By this he clearly denied all claims that there were ever three persons of God existing to form a triune God. He wrote to Calvin urging him to be born again referring to John 3: 5, Acts 38, and Acts 4: 12.205 Calvin’s eventual response threatened Servetus’ life, and warned that if Servetus ever came to Geneva he would not leave alive.
While fleeing to Italy, Servetus passed through Geneva where he was eventually recognized and arrested one Sunday during church service. Calvin consented with a council in Geneva to have Servetus burned at the stake. His execution was based primarily cc the charge of denying the trinity and secondarily on the charge denying infant baptism. The account of his final words out of the flames is of him calling on the name of Jesus.
Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries
The witness of baptism in Jesus’ name existed among Socinians and the Antitrinitarians of the 16th and 17th centuries Faustus Socinus, acknowledged, “since, the baptism of water administered in the name of Jesus Christ. Thomas Edwards of England published in 1646 Errors, Heresies, and Blasphemies, in which he wrote that there were those who held to the belief that the trinity formula for baptism was a man-made, “Popish tradition” and that Christian baptism was originally “only in the name of Jesus Christ.
In the latter 1600’s and 1700’s we have the Quakers and Baptists. The Baptists, together with founder John Smyth, were primarily trinitarian, but with study of the scriptures they began to question trinitarian doctrine, and subsequently many were baptized in Jesus’ name. Many Baptists, including Francis Cornwell and Daniel Hibbard, in the 18th century and early 19th century went on to teach baptism in Jesus’ name using Acts 2: 38.211 William Penn wrote in strong defense that the Quakers shared views with the Socinians in regards to their stance against the trinity doctrine.
In the 19th century many of the Plymouth Brethren, as well as some New England Congregationalists, taught that baptism should be in the name of Jesus only.
The 20th century seems to characterize a sudden increase in the practice of baptism in Jesus’ name. So as not to belabor the point, we will only mention the main organizations in the 20th century who hold to the apostolic practice of Jesus’ name baptism, but we fully recognize that there are numerous denominations and congregations who are beginning to see and experience water baptism in Jesus’ name. It is not within the proper scope of this study to delve into the awesome history of 20th century Apostolic Christianity. The broad witness of those who hold to and teach baptism in Jesus’ name clearly show that the full restoration of apostles’ doctrine has occurred in our day. A concise list of the who baptized in Jesus’ name during the 20th century contains Oneness Pentecostals, including Charles Parham (1901), Andrew Urshan (1913 in USA; 1915 in Russia), True Jesus Church in China and Taiwan (1917-), Pentecostal Church of Indonesia, Unit Pentecostal Church, Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, The Assemblies of Jesus Christ, The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, some Sabbatarians, some charismatics, and many other independent denominational and nondenominational churches.
The gates of hell shall not prevail against the church; thus it was written, and thus it has always been. This chapter confirms that Gospel set forth by Jesus and preached by Peter on the day of Pentecost has always existed somewhere in the world through the ages. As Acts 14: 17 says, God left himself not without a witness. We have briefly traced apostolic truth throughout the ages_ and we have seen it has endured the test of time, men, religiosity, false doctrine, and persecution. The amazing thing for us to realize is that this truth has been carried through the cries of tribulation and the blood of martyrs; it has gone around the world, yet it remains unchanged and untainted. It is the same powerful message from ancient of days. How amazing it is to know that we have it in our hands!
The above article, The Historical Witness Part 1: Baptism in Jesus’ Name, is written by Matthew A. Foster. The article is chapter eight of Foster’s book, Not Without A Witness, which was published in 2004.
The material is most likely copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study and research purposes.