By: Mark Tabata (Evangelist)
In a recent article, we learned that the Bible does not specify a verbal formula that a baptizer must use when baptizing someone.
Indeed, the idea of being baptized “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit,” as well as being baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus” simply carry the idea of being baptized “by the authority of” the one true God.
The importance was not on what a baptizer SAID when baptizing someone; but what was being DONE in the action (i.e., the baptism was being done by the authority of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit).
With this in mind, how did the subject of baptismal formulas become so controversial?
That will be the focus of this article.
With a background of the controversies of the late first and early second century church, we will be able to understand why this topic became such an “issue,” and why to many people it remains a serious matter (and, to some extent, it may continue to highlight a serious doctrinal problem).
In order to understand the complexities of this issue, we must first examine the Bible teaching regarding the Nature of the Godhead.
The Bible Teaching Of The Godhead/Trinity
The Bible teaches that God has always existed in the Form of three separate Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These “three” are “one.”
Well, what does that mean?
In the Pentateuch, God gives us an indicator of His nature.
You will recall that in Deuteronomy 6:4, we were told by Moses that God is “one.” The fascinating thing about this word “one” is that it describes a COMPOUND oneness.
Speaking of this unity, Lanier has written:
“Boettner gives a long quotation from Ex-Rabbi Leopold Cohn in which he informs us that there are two Hebrew words for one, ‘Yachid which means an only one, or an absolute one, and achid (or echad, M.T.), which means a united one.’ Achid is the word, according to Cohn, which is used in Genesis 2:24 where a man and a woman are said to become one flesh. It is the word used in Exodus 26:6, 11, where many pieces are put together so the tabernacle may be one. This is the word which is used in Deuteronomy 6:4, 5, where it is said, ‘Jehovah, our God is one Jehovah.’ This is the united one. So Jehovah our God is a united one: three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one Jehovah God…We need to develop one other thought with reference to the single essence of God and the plural personality. In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, the writers, moved by the Holy Spirit, used the plural form of the word for God, and usually with a singular verb. In the first verse in the Bible we are told that God (Elohim, plural) created the heavens and the earth. And God said, ‘let us (plural) make man in our (plural) image.’ Again, the word for God in this verse is plural. It is the very same word used in Deuteronomy 6:4, 5 where it is said, ‘Jehovah our God (Elohim-plural) is one Jehovah.’ (Roy H. Lanier, Sr., The Timeless Trinity For The Ceaseless Centuries, 48-49; Denver, Colorado)
Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we are reminded of this “oneness” of God (i.e., the teaching that God is more than one Person).”
Psalm 46:6-7-6 Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom. 7 You love righteousness and hate wickedness; Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You With the oil of gladness more than Your companions.
Here, we have God the Father speaking to God the Son. This passage is quoted in the Book of Hebrews (1:8) as a reference to the Godhood of Jesus Christ.
We find several other examples of this throughout the Old Testament.
My personal favorite is found in Isaiah, where all three Persons of the Godhead are mentioned together:
Isaiah 48:16-Come near to Me, hear this: I have not spoken in secret from the beginning; From the time that it was, I was there. And now the Lord GOD and His Spirit Have sent Me.”
The One Who is speaking identifies Himself as the First and the Last (verse 12-which is a personal Designation of Jesus Christ-see Revelation 1:8, 11, 17-118; 2:8; 22:13).
So, we have reference God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Please notice that these are three Persons, and not one Person in three manifestations.
The Apostle John writes of the “Word” (another name for Jesus Christ-see John 1:14).
In that context, he declares:
John 1:1-In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Several things stand out about this statement of the Apostle John.
First, John uses the word “was,” which in the Greek stretches out throughout all eternity. The idea is that even before “the beginning,” the Word was already there.
By this, God communicates to us that the Word (i.e., Jesus) always existed. There never a time when He did not exist.
Second, John wants us to clearly understand that the Word was WITH God.
Commenting on the significance of this wording, James White tells us:
“The next phrase of John 1:1 tells us something new about the Word. The Word is eternal, but the Word was not alone in eternity past. “The Word was with God (rtpbS toy 9e6v).” Yes, it is the same word “was,” again pointing us to an eternal truth. The Word has eternally been “with God.” What does this mean? Just as Greek verbs are often more expressive than their English counterparts, so too are Greek prepositions. Here John uses the preposition npoS (pros). The term has a wide range of meanings, depending on the context in which it is found. In this particular instance, the term speaks to a personal relationship, in fact, to intimacy. It is the same term the apostle Paul uses when he speaks of how we presently have a knowledge comparable to seeing in a dim mirror, but someday, in eternity,, we will have a clearer knowledge, an intimate knowledge, for we shall see “face to (pros) face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). When you are face-to-face to-face with someone, you have nowhere to hide. You have a relationship ship with that person, whether you like it or not.5 In John I: 1b, John says the Word was eternally face-to-face with God, that is, that the Word has eternally had a relationship with God.” (James White, The Forgotten Trinity: Recovering The Heart Of Christian Belief, 51-52 (Kindle Edition); Minneapolis, Minnesota; Bethany House Publishers).
This passage helps us to see that while the Word is “God,” He is not identical with God the Father.
The Lord Jesus also referred to the Holy Spirit and places Him in the category of “God” several times.
He refers to Him as “another” Helper/Comforter:
John 14:16-And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever—
Please notice that several times throughout His ministry, Jesus clearly showed a distinction between Himself, His Father, and the Holy Spirit.
Luke 3:22-22 And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven which said, “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.”
John 1:33-33 I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’
John 5:36-37-36 But I have a greater witness than John’s; for the works which the Father has given Me to finish—the very works that I do—bear witness of Me, that the Father has sent Me. 37 And the Father Himself, who sent Me, has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form.
John 8:17-18-17 It is also written in your law that the testimony of two men is true. 18 I am One who bears witness of Myself, and the Father who sent Me bears witness of Me.”
The teaching of Scripture is that God is a Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Indeed, many of the Jews in the first century who carefully and meticulously studied the Old Testament Scriptures would not have been terribly shocked by these teachings of the early church: for they gleaned much of this idea of the Godhead from the Old Testament.
One author elaborates upon this:
“This is a fascinating text (Genesis 15:1-6, M.T.). Notice right from the start that it is the “Word of Yahweh” who comes to Abraham in a vision . 3 As before, the encounter was a visible manifestation of Yahweh. The Word here is something that can be seen why else call it a vision ? 4 In verse 4 we read that the Word “ brought him [Abraham] outside ” to continue the conversation. This isn’t the kind of language one would expect if Abraham was hearing only a sound. These appearances of the Word of Yahweh are the conceptual backdrop to the apostle John’s language in his gospel that Jesus was the Word. The most familiar instance is John 1:1 (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”) and John 1:14 (“And the Word became flesh and took up residence among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the one and only from the Father, full of grace and truth”). 5 But John says some equally dramatic things in connection with this idea that are less familiar. In John 8:56 , Jesus, the incarnate Word, informs his Jewish antagonists that he appeared to Abraham prior to his incarnation : “Abraham your father rejoiced that he would see my day, and he saw it and was glad.” The Jews object vehemently to this claim, whereupon Jesus utters his famous statement, “Before Abraham was, I am” ( John 8:58 ). Only Genesis 12 and 15 provide the coherent backdrop to this claim. 6 I hope you grasp the significance of the interchange. Since the Word is clearly equated with and identified as Yahweh in Genesis 12 and 15 , when the New Testament has Jesus saying “that was me,” he is claiming to be the Word of the Old Testament, who was the visible Yahweh…..The fact that the Old Testament at times has Yahweh appearing in visible form should now be on your radar. We’re going to see a lot more of him (pun intended). One of my favorite passages that features Yahweh made visible is 1 Samuel 3 , the story of the young soon- to- be prophet, Samuel….I was amazed the first time I saw this passage for what it was really saying (1 Samuel 3:19-21, M.T.).. Yahweh “appeared” to Samuel with regularity in verse 21 . The first verse of the chapter makes a clear association between the Word of the Lord and a visionary experience— not a mere auditory event. The idea of the visible Word— the visible Yahweh— in human form is nailed down by the “standing” language. Some passages go beyond presenting Yahweh in visible, human form. Genesis 18 is perhaps the most startling example where Yahweh is not only visible, but embodied….One final example from the Old Testament of an embodied Yahweh who is the “Word” is far less known, but no less dramatic. In Jeremiah 1 the prophet is called to service. He writes that “The word of Yahweh” came to him and said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you came out from the womb I consecrated you; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah identifies this Word as Yahweh himself when he replies, “Ah, Lord Yahweh! I do not know how to speak, for I am a youth” (v. 6 ). Yahweh— the Word— tells him to not be afraid, and then something shocking happens. Jeremiah writes in verse 9 that Yahweh, the Word, “stretched out his hand and he touched my mouth.” Sounds don’t reach out and touch people. This is the language of a physical, embodied presence….What we’ve begun to uncover in this chapter are whispers of the idea of a Godhead— in the Old Testament, the Bible of Judaism. Those whispers will get much louder as we continue.” (Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering The Supernatural Worldview Of The Bible, 2384-2462 (Kindle Edition); Bellingham, WA; Lexham Press)
Throughout the Old and new Testaments, we find powerful testimony regarding the Triune Nature of God.
However, in the second century, some false doctrines borrowed from Greek sympathizers who wished to combine false philosophy with Scripture began to enter into the church.
This is what led to the controversy over “baptismal formulas.”
One of the teachings which began to creep up in the late first and early second centuries A.D. was a doctrine known as modalism.
What exactly is this doctrine?
“In order to understand the modern day modalists as represented by the United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI), it will be helpful to define “modalism” and to take a brief look at their history, since as the Scriptures proclaim…Dr. Francis Pieper defines “modalism” in the following quote from his “Christian Dogmatics”: “The Modalists of the third century held that God is a Unity (monas) and therefore unipersonal. This unipersonal God has revealed Himself successively in three different modes, or forms: In the Father as Creator, in the Son as Redeemer, and in the Holy Ghost as Sanctifier. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are not three distinct Persons, or hypostases, but merely three roles, or parts (prosopa), played by the one divine Person” (p. 382, Vol. 1). The chief proponent of modalism, as defined above, was a priest of the third century A.D. by the name of “Sabellius.” Sabellius followed the modalistic teachings of Noetus (approx. 180—200 A.D.) who taught that it was the Father who suffered and died on the cross. This teaching, commonly held by modalists, is called patripassianism, literally “father having suffered”. Noetus’ teachings were condemned in 200 A.D. by the Bishops of Smyrna with his heretical teaching promulgated by his followers the “Noetians”…Modern day modalism didn’t take root and grow as a wide spread movement until the early twentieth century. Out of the revivalism of this period arises the Pentecostal movement typically marked by the 1906 Azuza Street revivals led by William J. Seymour. The Pentecostal movement which springs out of American Revivalism began to organize and in 1914 was born the Assemblies of God (AOG). Within the AOG a group of people began teaching modalism and “Jesus name baptism”….Interestingly enough, from the earliest known Christian sources and forward, are few notable modalists. This is an important point, since the modern day modalists are prone to spinning conspiracy theories over how the “heretical” Trinitarians rose to power and squashed “the truth” about God’s nature….The problem with these sort of conspiracy theories is that they do not line up with the historical facts as shown above. From the earliest records and prior to the third century A.D., the heretical teachings of the modalists were being exposed by leaders in the early Church and condemned.” (Jim Pierce, The Modern Day Modalists: A Brief Examination of the False Teachings of the United Pentecostal Church, 84-139 (Kindle Edition))
Those who embraced modalism taught that God the Father BECAME God the Son, and that God the Son BECAME God the Spirit. This is clearly opposed to the Scriptural teaching of the Nature of God (cf. 1 John 5:7).
The Baptismal Formula
The second century Christians often had the custom of reciting that a person was being baptized into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit when baptizing a convert.
While there is not evidence that reciting this verbal formula was necessary to make the baptism effectual, there is evidence that this was the common tradition of the early Christians.
The modalists, in contrast to this, would claim that one of their converts MUST have the baptizer say, “I baptize in Jesus’ name only.”
To them, this was a tacit denial of the Bible doctrine of the Godhead.
In response, some in the church began to teach that a baptizer MUST say over the baptized, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Please notice several statements of the early church fathers which substantiate all of these facts (the following quotes are from David Bercot, A Dictionary Of Early Christian Belief: A Reference Guide To More Than 700 Topics Discussed By The Early Church Fathers; Peabody, Massachusetts; Hendrickson Publishers):
“They there receive the washing with water in the name of God (the Father and Lord of the universe), of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit.” (Justin Martyr (c. 160, E), 1.183.)
“Those persons who declare that the Son is the Father are proved neither to have become acquainted with the Father, nor to know that the Father of the universe has a Son. Justin Martyr (c. 160, E), 1.184.)
“Some others are secretly introducing another doctrine and have become disciples of one Noetus who was a native of Smyrna and lived not very long ago. . . . He alleged that Christ was the Father Himself and that the Father Himself was born, suffered, and died. Yet, see what pride of heart and what a strange inflated spirit had insinuated themselves into him. From his other actions, then, the proof is already given us that he did not speak with a pure spirit. For he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit is cast out from the holy inheritance. This same Noetus also alleged that he was himself Moses and that Aaron was his brother. When the blessed presbyters heard this, they summoned him before the church and examined him. . . . But he stood out against them, saying, “What evil, then, am I doing in glorifying Christ?” And the presbyters replied to him, “We too know in truth one God; we know Christ.” . . . Then, after examining him, they expelled him from the church. And he was carried to such a pitch of pride, that he established a sect. Hippolytus (c. 205, W), 5.223.)
“If, again, Noetus alleges Christ’s own words when He said, “I and the Father are one,” let him attend to the fact and understand that He did not say, “I and the Father am one, but are one.” For the word “are” is not said of one person. Rather, it refers to two persons, but one power . Christ has Himself made this clear, when He spoke to His Father concerning the disciples: “The glory which you gave me I have given them, that they may be one.” . . . What have the Noetians to say to these things? Are we all one body in respect of person— or is it that we become one in the power and disposition of unity of mind? Hippolytus (c. 205, W), 5.226)
“He commands them to baptize into the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit— not into a unipersonal God.” (Tertullian (c. 213, W), 3.623.)
“If the number of the Trinity also offends you, as if it were not connected in the simple Unity, I ask you how it is possible for a Being who is merely and absolutely one and singular to speak in plural phrase, saying, “Let us make man in our own image, and after our own likeness”? . . . And “Behold, the man is become as one of us.” Tertullian (c. 213, W), 3.606)
“There is no ground for anyone . . . to oppose us in the name of Christ and to say, “All who are baptized everywhere, and in any manner, in the name of Jesus Christ, have obtained the grace of baptism.” . . . The Son alone, without the Father (or against the Father) cannot be of advantage to anybody. It is the same as with the Jews. They boasted as to their having the Father. Yet, the Father would profit them nothing unless they believed on the Son whom He had sent. . . . There cannot be a hope of salvation except by knowing the two together. How, when God the Father is not known— nay, is even blasphemed— can they who among the heretics are said to be baptized in the name of Christ be judged to have obtained the remission of sins? . . . Christ Himself commands the pagans to be baptized in the full and united Trinity. (Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.383.)
“There cannot be a hope of salvation except by knowing the two together. How, when God the Father is not known— nay, is even blasphemed— can they who among the heretics are said to be baptized in the name of Christ only, be judged to have obtained the remission of sins? . . . Christ Himself commands the pagans to be baptized in the full and united Trinity. Are we to believe that someone who denies Christ is denied by Christ, but that he who denies His Father . . . is not denied? Are we to believe that he who blasphemes against Him whom Christ called His Lord and His God is rewarded by Christ? Are we to believe that such a person obtains remission of sins and the sanctification of baptism? . . . Do you think that Christ grants impunity to the ungodly and profane, and the blasphemers of His Father? Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.383, 384)
“The [heretics] frequently urge upon us the passage where it is said, “I and the Father are one.” But in this we all also overcome them just as easily. . . . Let the heretics understand that he did not say “one person. ” For the word “one,” used in the neuter gender refers to social unity, not personal unity. Note that “one” is neuter, not masculine. . . . So this “one” has reference to agreement, to identity of judgment, and to the loving association itself. . . . For He would not have said “are” if He had meant that He, the one and only Father, had become the Son. . . . [Scripture has many examples of] this unity of agreement. . . . For in writing to the Corinthians, Paul said, “I have planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. . . . Now he that plants and he that waters are one.” Now, who does not realize that Apollos is one person and Paul another? . . . Furthermore, the offices mentioned of each one of them are different. For he who plants is one, and he who waters is another. . . . Yet, as far as respects their agreement, both are one. Novatian (c. 235, W), 5.637, 638)
Putting It All Together
From the foregoing information, we may safely arrive at the following conclusions.
First, the Bible has-from the beginning in Genesis through the very end in Revelation-maintained the teaching that the Godhead is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and that these three are one (1 John 5:7).
Second, the early Christians did not teach that a baptizer had to utter a specific phrase over a person in order to make that person’s baptism valid.
Third, a group of heretics arose in the church which began to teach that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were all the same Person. Denying the Bible doctrine of the Trinity, they instead clung to this idea.
Sadly, one of their “hallmark” traditions was that they began to require their disciples to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ ONLY (i.e., they required that baptizers utter this specific verbal phrase over the ones whom they baptized).
Thus, it soon began to be understand that a person baptized in such circumstances was in the act of that baptism denying one of the most important teachings of the Bible: the Identity of Jesus Christ.
In response to this, the early Christians began to teach that at the time of baptism, a baptizer must utter the phrase, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Finally, one of the religious groups which continues to perpetuate this doctrine is the Oneness Pentecostal persuasion.
However, let me add that I have met some Oneness Pentecostal preachers who do not make the baptismal “formula” a test of fellowship, which I appreciate very much.
In the final article in this study, we will carefully examine the question: Where Do We Go From Here?
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.