Monday, September 14, 2015

Baptism and the Shorter Formula

In a recent Facebook posting, the Reverend David Bernard, who replaced me at JCM many years ago and now is the General Superintendent of the United Pentecostal Church International, says the following:

It is clear that the apostles invoked the name of Jesus when baptizing converts. Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5; 22:16 ("calling" or "invoking"). See also 1 Cor 1:13; 6:11; Rom 6;3-4; Gal 3:27. The Greek wording leaves no doubt. For full discussion, see my small book "In the Name of Jesus."

I thought I should comment on some aspects of these texts that David Bernard doesn't address, unless he does so in his book which I've not read. The fact is that in ALL these cases, the reference to the name of Jesus concerned either Jews, quasi-Jews or God-fearers. In Acts 2 it concerned diaspora Jews. In Acts 8 it concerned Samaritans, who while only partly Jewish, certainly accepted the Jewish view of God. In Acts 10, it was a God-fearer, a Gentile who already had attached himself and his family to the synagogue and presumably the Jewish understanding of God. In Acts 19, it was a group of people who already had accepted John's baptism, and therefore, it is to be presumed that they also had accepted the Jewish understanding of God. In Acts 22, it was Paul himself, who was certainly a Jew.

This point is extremely pertinent with regard to the 1st century when the earliest Jewish Christians were only preaching the message about Jesus to other Jews (Ac. 11:19). Jews and all those who accepted their religious framework already believed in God, the Father, the Creator of the universe who spoke to Abraham, gave the Torah to Moses and inspired the prophets. They already believed in the Holy Spirit, that mysterious presence of God who is everywhere present in the Hebrew Scriptures. What they necessarily needed to accept was the messiahship of Jesus. This was the crucial point of faith for them—that Jesus was the Messiah sent from God! Hence, for them to be baptized in connection with the name of Jesus entirely makes sense, since this was the pivotal point of their new faith that made them distinctively Christian. The use of the name Jesus was not a magic formula. Rather, it was an acknowledgement that they now had a new center of faith, and that center was Jesus the Messiah. For Jews and all those who had accepted the Jewish view of God, this was a HUGE issue, an issue big enough to distinguish them from all other Jews, proselytes and God-fearers. Interestingly, when conversions of non-Jews are described in the Book of Acts, in NONE of them is used this language of "in the name of Jesus" with respect to baptism. It simply is not there--not for Lydia (Ac. 16:15), not for the Philippian jailor and his family (Ac. 16:33) and not for the Corinthians (Ac. 18:8).

Matthew's Gospel, on the other hand, focuses on the movement of the message of Jesus from the Jews alone to the wider scope of the non-Jews. Early on, Jesus clearly voiced a restriction regarding ministry beyond the circle of Jewry during his earthly life (Mt. 10:5-6; 15:22-24). However, by the end of Matthew’s gospel, this restriction was lifted, and the preaching of the gospel was extended in the Great Commission to the nations (Mt. 28:19).

For non-Jews, the issue of faith was much broader than simply acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah. It also included the whole Jewish view of God, the one and only God who was Creator and sustainer of the universe, who by his Spirit had inspired the Hebrew Scriptures. Hence, it makes sense that Matthew offers the longer baptismal wording of "in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Mt. 28:19). This language was only appropriate for those who prior to their coming to Christian faith had worshiped the pantheon of gods and goddesses in the Greco-Roman world. This longer wording reflects a larger change in viewpoint. These non-Jewish converts needed to embrace the view of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian message, as St. Paul puts it:

For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

It is not surprising, then, to find that in post-apostolic literature one finds in the Didache (around the end of the 1st century and roughly contemporaneous with the writings of John) a clear instruction for baptism: Baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Didache 7.1.3). The Didache reflects this broader scope of the gospel to the non-Jewish nations of the world.

Another point or two may be appropriate, since Bernard wishes to cite the Greek text. The language of “invoking” (the 1st aorist middle voice participle of epikaleo) does not appear in Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48 or 19:5 as might seem to be implied in Bernard’s statement. These passages about Jewish baptism simply say that baptism was performed "on (epi) the name of Jesus Christ" or "into (eis) the name of the Lord Jesus" or "in (en) the name of Jesus Christ". Three different prepositions are used, which suggests that the real point was not precision of wording, but a general acknowledgement that Jesus was Messiah and Lord. The ONLY place where the language of invocation is used in the Book of Acts with respect to baptism is in 22:16, and as the middle voice participle in the Greek text makes crystal clear, the one who uttered this invocation was not the one baptizing Paul, but Paul himself as he was being baptized! It was Paul who was calling on the name of the Lord, not Ananias! Would David Bernard or those of his persuasion be comfortable if only the candidate for baptism said anything at the time of baptism, not the preacher performing the baptism? Yet this is exactly the case for Paul, and the Greek text will admit no other possibility.

Hence, Bernard's statement that the apostles "invoked the name of Jesus when baptizing converts" and that "the Greek wording leaves no doubt" is either a misunderstanding of the Greek text or disingenuous. The funny thing about "facts" is that they keep getting in the way, and in this case, they are definitely in the way of Bernard's statement that "the Greek wording leaves no doubt". The Greek wording leaves a great deal of doubt!


  1. David Norris, in his “I AM: A Oneness Pentecostal Theology,” attempts a similar sleight of hand to alter the meaning of the biblical text from individuals “calling on the name of the Lord” to having the name of the Lord “called (invoked) over them.” See the quote below from pages 36-37. (Norris makes his assertions based on the authority of a 1974 Princeton dissertation, “The Name of God in Israel’s Worship: The Importance of the Name of Yahweh” by D. Preman Niles. No other source validates these assertions.)


    Genesis 4:26 makes a curious statement when introducing descendents of Adam and Eve who kept covenant with Yahweh: "At that time men began to invoke the name of the LORD" (NRSV). The phrase that is translated "to call upon the name of Yahweh" comes from the Hebrew "liqroh beshem Yahweh."11 Indeed, it is quite likely that the Hebrew phrase is an idiom, one captured by a marginal reading of the original KJV: "Men began to be called by (italics mine) the name of the LORD [Yahweh]."12 This language is significant, for it is the first pronouncement of initiation into covenant.

    D. Preman Niles argues that the meaning of the name of Yahweh can best be understood in covenant worship. Niles proposes that in certain instances, while yiqrah beshem Yahweh is sometimes descriptive of people in covenant worship calling out in prayer to Yahweh, there are certain instances where the reverse is taking place; that is, as this is an idiom, it is the name of Yahweh that is actually invoked upon the worshiper. Though worshipers invoking the name of Yahweh might do so in distress13 or thanksgiving,14 the phrase may also be used in another way, that of a "liturgical pronouncement of Yahweh" over His people.15 For Niles, this is an important way in which covenant was affirmed.16 Further, such a pronouncement was made in the context of initiation into covenant, and it is this initiation that is going on in Genesis 4:26.17 The name of Yahweh was pronounced over those who chose to be in covenant relationship with Him. Whether this invocation of the name of Yahweh was pronounced by the head of the family or some other intermediary, as the priests who functioned on behalf of Yahweh in the context of worship,18 or whether on occasion Yahweh manifested His physical presence to confirm this covenant,19 we cannot say. We have no report of a ceremony, a particular worship venue, or how they experienced the presence of the Lord in this covenant relationship; but we do know that they experienced Yahweh's presence in this initiatory act, for where Yahweh is in covenant, His people experience Him in face-to-face relationship. Those who were being initiated into covenant were entering with Yahweh into an "I-Thou relationship." They would truly know His name in experiencing His presence.


    While I not so sure that Genesis 4:26 is “the first pronouncement of initiation into covenant” as Norris asserts, I am quite sure that this twisting of this text is disingenuous. This is, at best, wishful thinking trying to prove one’s point; at worst, this is an intentional grammatical misdirection that is no better than the exegesis of the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  2. Just a quick comment for future posts. You raised a couple of issues in passing that beg to be “fleshed out” in future submissions.

    First, you alluded to the relationship between catechism and baptism. There is a considerable body of evidence among the early fathers and into the medieval period that there was no “rush to baptism” in the life of the Christian believer. Rather baptism only followed a lengthy period of initiation and training. This has implications—not only for our understanding of baptism’s effects in the life of the initiate—but also for the baptismal formulae. Did the wording of the baptism ceremony reflect the structure of the catechism? Or maybe even a more basic question should be asked first, what was the impact of the growing standardization of Christian worship forms (liturgy) on the structuring, performance, and even language of the baptismal rite?

    Second, your insight that the emerging Trinitarian understanding of God, especially as reflected in the baptismal formula, had a different meaning—maybe not the right word, perhaps, a more pronounced or more illuminating meaning would be better—among pagan converts to Christianity than it did to the original Jewish converts to the primitive faith. This correlation of missionary audience to the wording of the baptismal formula is very interesting. But I am going to require a more evidence before I am fully persuaded. (Then again, I may be reading too much into your statements.)

    These are not questions that need to be answered in quick responses. Each demands a full blog post. And I can think of no one I would rather have address these issues than Dan Lewis.

    1. The relationship between catechism and baptism is indeed an interesting angle, and whether or not the former influenced the meaning and performance of the latter. I need to give some more thought to this. My post was more of a suggestion than a settled conclusion. It just seemed significant to me that all the passages in Acts that refer to the shorter wording "in the name of Jesus" or "Jesus Christ" were linked to people who already had embraced the Jewish faith before turning to Christianity. I do know, for instance, that both the longer wording and the shorter wording are to be found in the Didache and also, if I am not mistaken, in Irenaeus. I need to do some additional reading in the church fathers to see what light they might shed. In any case, I think my main point holds, that Bernard's cheerful assurance that the apostles' "invoked" the name as a saving ritual, and that the Greek NT "leaves no doubt" is vastly overstated.

  3. Dan, I appreciate your and Joe's excellent posts! Mark E. Roberts