The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches in paragraph 1240 that a proper form for administering baptism is “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” But for some Protestants, such as Oneness Pentecostals, this Trinitarian formula doesn’t match what the Bible has to say about baptism. They claim that baptism should be administered only “in the name of Jesus.”
For support, they appeal to passages like Acts 2:38, where Peter says, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (emphasis added). Other passages include Acts 8:14-16 (with reference to those in Samaria who had received the Word of God), 10:48 (with reference to Cornelius and his Gentile friends), and 19:5 (with reference to believers in Ephesus).
Passages like these give rise to a legitimate question: Why is the Church saying that we can baptize with the Trinitarian formula when all the baptisms mentioned in the Bible are done “in the name of Jesus”?
Here are few ways to meet this challenge.
First, a self-professed Christian can’t reject the validity of the Trinitarian formula because Jesus commands the apostles to use it when they baptize: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Those who pose the challenge, therefore, at least have to acknowledge that the Trinitarian formula is valid since it comes from the lips of the Master himself.
Second, when compared to Jesus’ instruction to use the Trinitarian formula in Matthew 28:19, the passages found in the book of Acts don’t seem to refer to the actual formula that must be used in administering the sacrament.
Notice how in Matthew 28:19 Jesus is privately addressing only the eleven (Matt. 28:16), whom he is sending to perform baptisms. In context, it makes sense that Jesus would be telling them exactly how to do it.
Contrast this with, for example, Peter’s injunction in Acts 2. That takes place in a public setting and is given to those who would receive baptism—not to those who would be performing it. It would not seem to be as vitally important for those receiving the sacrament to know the precise formula as for those performing it, right?
Moreover, Peter’s injunction is not premeditated. Instead, he is quickly enumerating what must be done to be saved in response to those present who, upon hearing his preaching, were “cut to the heart” and asked him, “Brethren, what shall we do?” (v.37). It’s unreasonable to think that Peter would be giving precise instructions as to the words that must be used in baptism when he’s merely saying, “You want to be saved? Okay, here are the things you need to do—repent and get baptized.”
Jesus’s command to baptize in Matthew 28:19 is also distinct from Peter’s command for Cornelius to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:48). As on the day of Pentecost, Luke records what Peter says to those who would receive baptism, not those who would administer it.
Also, Luke does not record what Peter said specifically. He merely narrates in summary form: “And he [Peter] commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” It doesn’t seem that Luke intends to say that the words “in the name of Jesus” were Peter’s instructions for the actual words to be used in administering baptism.
The other “in the name of Jesus” passages (Acts 8:14-16; 19:5) are even further removed from the nature of Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 28:19. In fact, they aren’t instructions at all.
Each instance is merely a passing reference to the fact that some were baptized: “They had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 8:14-16); “they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5). It’s unlikely that such cursory remarks were meant as an articulation of the exact words that were used for those baptisms.
If the phrase “in the name of Jesus” doesn’t refer to the baptismal formula in the above passages, then what does it refer to? A reasonable interpretation is that the early Church used “in the name of Jesus” to distinguish Christian baptism from other contemporary types of baptism, such as Johannine baptism, the baptisms among the Qumran sectaries, and even Jewish ritual washings.
Baptisms were not exclusive to Christians. This is obvious, given the baptism of repentance that John the Baptist administered (Matt. 3:13-14, 21:25; Acts 1:22, 10:37). Baptism was also a common practice among the Qumran communities, which sought to unite cleansing, repentance, and the hope of the Spirit (see Ezekiel 36:25-27) in actual immersions (cf. 1QS 3:6–9; 1QH 11:12–14).
Even the Jewish ceremonial washings could be considered a baptism of sorts. For example, in Luke 11:37-38 the Pharisees invite Jesus to dine with him, and Luke tells us that the Pharisees were “astonished to see that he [Jesus] did not first wash before dinner.” The Greek word for “wash” is baptizō.
Similarly, in Mark 7 we’re told that when the Pharisees return from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they first “purify” (Greek, baptisontai) themselves (v.3). Other traditions involve the “washing” (Greek, baptismous) of cups and vessels (v.4). So Jewish ceremonial washings could be considered as a sort of “baptism.”
With all the other baptisms being performed at the time of Christ, and with the Jewish ritual “baptismal” washings, there would be a need to distinguish the Christian sacrament of baptism—“in the name of Jesus”—from all these other kinds of baptisms.
We see this play out in Acts 19, where Paul approaches new believers in Ephesus and asks them if they had received the Holy Spirit. The new believers respond to the inquiry, “No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (v.2). Paul then asks, “Into what then were you baptized?” The Ephesian believers respond, “Into John’s baptism” (v.3).
Paul replies by articulating the difference between John’s baptism and the baptism of Jesus (v.4), and baptizes them “in the name of Jesus” (v.5). In light of the context, “in the name of Jesus” signifies that they were baptized into Jesus with Jesus’ baptism and not John’s.
We find something similar in the Didache, a first-century Christian catechism (circa A.D. 70-90). In chapter seven, it gives the Trinitarian formula as the words to use for baptism. And then in chapter nine, it refers back to that same baptism as baptism “in the name of the Lord” (9,5). So, for the early Christians, baptism “in the name of the Lord” signified Trinitarian baptism.
A final thing that we can say in response to this challenge is that Paul’s conversation with the Ephesian believers in Acts 19 hints at the fact that the Trinitarian formula was indeed a common formula used in the early Church. Note how when the believers in Ephesus inform Paul that they had never heard of the Holy Spirit, Paul immediately asks, “Into what then were you baptized?” (v.3).
The implication is that if they had been baptized with the baptism of Jesus and not only with the baptism of John, they would have heard about the Holy Spirit. This suggests that the early Christians were using the Trinitarian formula when they baptized. You can’t undergo a Christian baptism and never hear about the Holy Spirit!
So, not only do the “in the name of Jesus” passages fail to prove that “in the name of Jesus” is the only valid form to use for baptism, but there is good biblical evidence that the Trinitarian formula is the valid formula for administering the sacrament.
For more about biblical teaching on baptism and the holy Trinity, check out the new book, All in the Name, available now from Catholic Answers Press.