“A small mistake is a big one in the end.”
-St. Thomas Aquinas
Have you ever heard the claim that Trinitarian baptism and indeed the Trinity itself, are false, unbiblical teachings?
My first encounter with this claim—one that would profoundly affect the next decade of my life (and even until today)—was when I was a teenager, barely into my freshman year in high school.
At the invitation of a young man in one of my classes, I found myself in a “Oneness” Pentecostal church on a Friday night. Rather than the youth meeting I expected to attend, I found myself in the office of one of the church’s ministers. Part of that conversation went something like this:
Minister: “When you were baptized, did the one baptizing you say that he was doing it in the name of Jesus?”
Me: “No, he said he was doing it in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Minister: “Let me show you some verses of Scripture, beginning with Acts 2:38. There people were told to be baptized ‘in the name of Jesus Christ.’”
Me: “I see that, but in another verse it says to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (I was fumbling around in a Bible trying to find it.)
Minister: “Yes, it does say that in Matthew 28:19, but let’s look at it. There Jesus says to baptize in the name of the Father. Is your father’s name ‘father’?”
Minister: “You see, ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ are not names at all. They are titles that tell us about things that God does in the world. God is our creator, and so we call him Father; he is our redeemer in human flesh, and so we call him the Son; and he lives in our hearts—and we call that the Holy Spirit. All these Trinitarians, starting with the Catholic Church back in the fourth century under Emperor Constantine, confused the truth about baptism by requiring that people be baptized using titles rather than the name that Jesus said for us to use.
“We already know that the name of the Son is Jesus; look at Matthew 1:21: Mary will ‘bear a son and you shall call his name Jesus.’ I am a father, a son, and a husband, yet I am one person. There is only one God, and Jesus is his name—but he functions as creator, redeemer, and sanctifier.
“The Trinity is not in the Bible and we should be baptized the way Jesus said, using the name and not many names or titles. In fact, if someone is baptized using the titles of God but not his name, he hasn’t been baptized at all! Baptism is the way we are forgiven of sins, so if a person is baptized using the titles, he has not had his sins forgiven.”
Although I put up a fight for a short time, the logic overwhelmed me and over the next seven years I not only came to accept these claims but actively defended and preached them. After graduating from high school, I spent three years in a “Oneness” Bible college learning about the Bible and our beliefs. However, after graduating from the college, I left the Oneness Pentecostal movement. Why?
In part, I left because I discovered that the distinction between names and titles is a seemingly small error with massive consequences. By this distinction, the Church’s ancient faith in the Trinity is tossed aside. The baptism of countless millions is rejected as invalid. All historical forms of Christian faith are discarded as just so many instances of apostasy and error.
While working on a final big writing project at the Bible college, a paper that tried to tackle every major verse of Scripture that seemed to teach the Trinity, I found myself unsettled by some verses in first chapter of Hebrews, chapter one—verses I just couldn’t figure out how to deal with.
The opening verse of the book says that God spoke in various ways in the past through prophets but now he has spoken through his “Son.” After writing about the magnificence of the Son for several verses, the author writes that the Son has “by inheritance received a more excellent name than” the angels (v. 4).
Of course, I immediately assumed that the “more excellent name” that the Son has is Jesus. However, not only does the chapter not use the name of Jesus, the next verse destroys that assumption: “For to which of the angels did he ever say: ‘You are my Son…’”
If this is not enough, the verse continues with another citation from the Old Testament, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.”
Did you catch the point? Hebrews is making the case that the Son of God is greater than the prophets and angels and part of his argument is that the Son has a greater name than the angels. It cites Old Testament texts that refer to the Messiah as the “Son.”
Thus to be called “the Son” and “my Son” sets him apart from all the angels. The whole argument hinges on the unique name of “Son” that refers to the special relationship between him and his Father; this relationship, indicated by the “name” of Son, is the foundation of his supremacy over all the angels. So the Bible itself calls “Son” a name and not merely a title.
In a similar way, the rest of the logic of the minister’s arguments crumbled upon further investigation. Not only did my further study undermine the arguments for rejecting Trinitarian baptism, it also led to my revisiting the mystery of the Trinity. I was on my way to the ancient, Trinitarian, Catholic faith.
For more about his conversion and biblical teaching regarding the baptism and the Trinity, check out Mark’s new book, All In the Name, arriving imminently at Catholic Answers Press.