Barry Newman's Blog

March 3, 2012

Baptising in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (part XIX)

Filed under: Baptism — barrynewman @ 8:48 pm

Different practices – different understandings? (continued)

It is not possible to be precise about what was actually said and done at various times and in various places, but there is sufficient evidence that what was said and done was not consistent.  Whitaker, surveying a period extending beyond that covered above, writes, that “the literature of the Latin church provides no clear and incontestable reference to our modern forma (using the Trinitarian baptismal formula) earlier than De Cognitione Baptismi of Hildephonsus of Loedo”, written shortly before 667 AD with the earliest Roman reference appearing “in a letter written by Pope Gregory !! in the year 726”[1]  He is of the view that the Trinitarian baptismal formula which he refers to as the Syrian type of formula was in use early but was not used universally for many centuries.  What he refers to as the Western type of formula – baptism in the Name of Jesus only, he claims involved a creedal formula of an interrogative kind and was used universally outside of Syria.

Duck, maintaining a similar position, writes, “Only after eight centuries of the Christian era was the baptismal formula ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ used in Christian baptisms throughout the world.  Almost as many centuries passed again before the Western church explicitly required the formula.”[2]  She claims that similar accounts to those of Justin Martyr and “The Apostolic Tradition” with variations are to be found in the 6th century Gelasian Sacramentary and in the Stowe Missal, a Gallican document dated around 800 A.D.[3] She quotes Yarnold, as saying, “Evidently the Early Church did not believe that fidelity to Mt 28: 19 required the minister to quote Christ’s words as we do today at the moment of baptism.”[4] Her explanation as to what happened historically is as follows: Syrian churches were probably the first to baptise with the Trinitarian formula.  Matthew and the Didache were probably written in Syria. The Syrian formula may have travelled to the West by way of Alexandria into Spain somewhere between 537 and 651 A.D. with Pope Nicholas 1 in the 9th century accepting baptism in the name of Jesus or in the name of the Holy Trinity.[5] She rightly believes that it is evident that by the 3rd century some Syrian baptismal liturgies included the triadic baptismal formula and refers to a 4th century Egyptian adoption of The Apostolic Tradition having the officiant using the triadic formula after each interrogation and immersion.[6]  Referring to Thomas Aquinas quoting Ambrose she indicates how Thomas “held that baptism in the name of Christ is acceptable, because ‘in the name of Christ the whole trinity is implied and therefore the form which Christ handed down in the gospel … would at least be presented with implied integrity.’” [7]  Thomas Aquinas recognises the oddity between baptising in the name of Jesus only and baptising using the triadic formula.  In this writer’s opinion his attempt to reconcile a practice which only mentioned “in the name of the Jesus” with a practice where the triadic formulation was used lacks plausibility.  See earlier.

What is probably true is that some early Christian churches found that the Matthew 28: 19 text implied that water baptisms had to be carried out using a triadic formula.  Others however seem to have adopted either the practice evident in the Acts of the Apostles or a practice, where only  the name of God the Father is referred to, if such is the practice being described by Justin Martyr, for example.

Perhaps some saw the differences between what was reported in the Acts of the Apostles and the Matthew 28 text as necessitating some sort of “safety” procedure, a “hedging of bets”, by baptising in the name of Jesus alone but at the same time carrying out an interrogation concerning each person of the trinity.   Perhaps for others, it was a matter of deciding that referring to the name of the Father was essential at the moment of baptism but that the names of the Son and of the Holy Spirit should also be mentioned as part of the procedure.  It might even be the case that some saw “baptising in the name of” in Matthew 28: 19 as metaphorical in character, not a direct reference to a water ceremony.

Duck’s view is that there are three main positions held by Biblical Scholars concerning the source of the triadic phrase in Matthew 28: 19: the original words were “baptize in my name”, Matthew composed the words for his own purposes, or the early church composed the words for its  own purposes.[8]  The position adopted here is that the triadic phrase is original but that it has been misunderstood.  This understanding underlies some of what has already been stated earlier in this blog but will be further elaborated upon later.  The disparity between baptising in the name of Jesus only as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and the phrase in Matthew 28: 19 has a solution without recourse to manipulation of the original Matthew text or without arguing that baptism in the name of Jesus implies baptism in the name of the trinity or without arguing that a triadic statement is to be found in the surrounds of the Acts of the Apostles’ texts.


[1] Whitaker, E.C., “The History of the Baptismal Formula”, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 16 (April), 1965, 1-12

[2] Duck, R.C., Gender in the Name of God, The Pilgrim Press, New York, NY., 1991, p. 123

[3] ibid., p. 131

[4] ibid., pp. 131, 132

[5] ibid., p. 132

[6] ibid., p. 134

[7] ibid., p. 135

[8] ibid., p. 132

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