Baptism — “In the Name” or “In the Names”?
Q: A couple of weeks ago, I witnessed a baptism “in the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, and in the name of the Holy Spirit,” instead of “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Isn’t it important that Holy Baptism be in the one divine name rather than in three names? Was the baptism valid?
A: You correctly observe that in Matthew 28:19, the singular “name” is used in the baptismal formula given by our Lord. We sometimes name each person of the Trinity individually — often calling upon the Father“in Jesus’ name,” just as the Son instructed His Church (cf. John 16:23). However, the customary way of baptizing in the Church has, from early years, been “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Does this make any difference? Let’s first look at another variation on the standard Trinitarian statement. We see baptism “in the name of Jesus Christ” mentioned by Peter in Acts 2:38 and 10:48. Acts 19:5 tells of certain Ephesians being “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” after hearing Paul teach.
However, just because the name Jesus was used didn’t, of itself, make a washing with water a true baptism. Philip the deacon baptized Samaritans after preaching “good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 8:12)” Yet when the apostles heard of this and sent Peter and John to investigate, they found that the Holy Spirit “had not yet fallen on any of them” because “they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. (8:16)”
In the Acts 19 account, Paul discovered “disciples (v. 1)” who knew nothing about receiving the Holy Spirit because they had only received “John’s baptism (vv. 2-3)” Once they were baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus (v. 5)” and Paul “laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them. (v. 6)”
So why was baptism “in the name of Jesus Christ” correct in Acts 2:38, according to Peter yet baptism “in the name of the Lord Jesus” incomplete in Acts 8:16? Likely, the connection is similar to our understanding of praying “in Jesus name.” Often when Christians pray, we don’t end our petitions with the words “in Jesus’ name,” yet we are confident that God hears our prayers because we believe in Jesus. After all, when He taught a specific prayer, giving us the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer), Jesus didn’t include His own name in the wording (see Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4).
We note that in Acts, no one is quoted saying, “I baptize you in Jesus’ name.” Instead, being baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” appears to mean being baptized into the Christian faith in the manner given by Jesus to His Church. In other words, baptism “in Jesus’ name” is synonymous with Christian baptism just as prayer “in Jesus’ name” is synonymous with valid Christian prayer. Ken Collins, a pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), provides a good summary of this understanding of Baptism in Jesus’ Name.
I used these similar examples as illustrations because no place in Scripture names each Person of the Holy Trinity separately in reference to baptizing. Nor do we hear of baptizing in the “names of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Truly, talking about Holy Baptism provides more latitude in wording than does actually baptizing. Also, the only formulaic words we have directly from Jesus are those of Matthew 28:19.
Does naming each person separately invalidate the baptism if this person was baptized in a Trinitarian congregation? Or does “name” in Matthew 28 apply individually to each person of the Trinity? Language can be rather fluid at times. For example, the U.S. might send an ambassador who greets another nation’s leaders “in the name of the president and the people of the United States.” It’s easy in this instance to see that the greeting is both “in the name of the president” and “in the name of the people.”
Because of such linguistic fluidity, I hesitate in stating categorically that what you witnessed was no true Christian baptism. Still, your question involves a basic dictum of Christian practice. That is, don’t speak or perform any rites of the Christian Church in such manner as to nullify or call into doubt the efficacy of what is being done. Parallels include “baptizing” with rose petals or offering “Holy Communion” with any elements other than bread and wine.
In a more extreme example of varying from the words of Jesus, some churches (especially those tainted by radical feminism and a desire to make Christianity gender neutral) will baptize “in the name of (God) the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier.” This replaces divine names for the Persons of God with partial job descriptions. Almost all of Christendom would reject such a formula as heretical and invalid. Most of the Church considers people “baptized” in such manner as not truly baptized and will insist upon baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” before allowing them to claim membership.
We don’t find such a clear aberration in the case you cite. Still, your concern points out potential doubts about the validity and efficacy of this washing. I cannot say absolutely and without hesitation that what you heard and saw was no true Christian baptism. However, I will state absolutely and without hesitation that invoking the separate names of the Godhead should not be used in the rite of Holy Baptism. Even if the underlying teaching is correct, for the sake of weak faith and for good order in the Church, all such variant wording should be barred from the ritual.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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Newspaper column #520