Sunday, February 5, 2017


In light of Dr. Joe’s recent excellent posts on the little-known history of the origins of Oneness Pentecostalism, and because a good deal of this early development focused upon the wording of baptismal formulae, I wish to point out something from the early church that may be helpful. The early Pentecostal pioneers, as Joe has pointed out, were sharply divided over the issue of what words to say over the candidate at the time of his/her baptism. Mainstream Pentecostals preferred to continue their use of the longer wording found in Matthew 28:19, traditional in the long history of the Christian church. The Oneness upstarts pushed hard for the shorter wording found in Acts 2:38; 8:12; 10:48 and 19:5, some even to the point of denying the validity of water baptism if the longer formula was used. Others, like Bell, seemed to be somewhere in the middle and possibly misunderstood by those at both of the more radical poles.

So, what about the fact that side-by-side in the New Testament one finds such alternative wording? Apparently, the earliest Christians in the New Testament did not seem to find this side-by-side wording objectionable (at least if they did, no writer in the New Testament ever says so). That they did not find it objectionable suggests either that there were no huge theological issues hanging on a precision of words, or else, these various passages were not intended as precisely worded formulae in the first place, only general descriptions.

This same lack of concern over precise wording continues into the post-apostolic church, where one finds the same side-by-side use of baptismal language in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers from the early years of the post-apostolic church. Observe how similar are the following two passages from the post-apostolic church to the language of both Matthew and Luke:

…baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Didache 7)

…they that have been baptized into the name of the Lord” (Didache 9)

These two passages both appear in a post-apostolic work called “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” or The Didache. It usually is dated by scholars to the latter part of the 1st century or the early part of the 2nd century, and it is arguably the earliest Christian document outside the New Testament itself. The point is simply that even here, just as one finds in the New Testament, the two versions of the language of baptism, whether “Father, Son and Spirit” or “the name of the Lord”, appear within a few paragraphs of each other.

One is tempted, therefore, to regard these early 20th century disputes by the Pentecostals as “much ado about nothing”, to parrot the words of the Bard. Why should anyone object to using either the longer wording of Matthew or the shorter wording of Luke in the ritual of baptism, since both types of wording are in the New Testament as well as in the language of the post-apostolic church? Isn’t the element of faith toward the death and resurrection of Jesus the primary issue? Of course, once the New Issue brethren had coupled baptismal wording with the idea of a “saving name”, and incorporated their version of baptism into a three-step process of salvation, which, of course, they did, the lines were sharply drawn. No longer could they tolerate any diversity in this regard. Still, in the end, I must say that from my perspective it still was “much ado about nothing”.


  1. I am in total agreement with you, Dan. The exact wording of the baptismal ceremony was not fixed in the first century. While I do believe that invoking the name "Jesus" in the act of baptism is probably the most primitive baptismal formula, I do not think that there was any great discussion or division over the words pronounced at baptism.

    I do think that there was a wide range of meanings applied to the act of baptism in the early Jesus movement. The roots of baptism are in the purity washings regularly practiced by second temple Jews - rites of cleansing that removed ritual impurity and prepared the individual to join the community act of temple sacrifice. The archaeological evidence of the Hebrew mikveh - pools for ritual cleansing - at Masada, Qumran, and Jerusalem speak to the importance of this repeated Jewish practice. [Whatever theology of baptism we might embrace, it is important to remember that at its most basic level, baptism is an act of cleansing.]

    Proselyte baptism - a one-time act that along with circumcision and sacrifice marked entry of non-Jewish converts into the Jewish community - also played a role in the origin of Christian baptism. This act was a once-for-all-time rite of initiation, celebrating the joining of covenant community, the movement from darkness to light, from death to life.

    But most powerfully - and in the most direct influence on Jesus and the Twelve - John the Baptizer reworked the Hebrew notions of baptismal cleansing into the final act of preparation for the impending coming of the kingdom of God. Baptism for John, and for the early Christians, was an eschatological moment that embraced the "world to come" which was already invading the present world in God's sovereign act of consummation.

    Significantly, it was not just that John baptized. The real significance lies in the fact that John baptized in the JORDAN. John's baptism was re-enactment of the final triumph of the Exodus, the "new Exodus" promised in the latter chapters of Isaiah where Israel once again steps through the waters of the Jordan and into its promised future.

    [The more I read the New Testament, the more I understand "salvation" - not in individual terms - but as the restoration of Israel which includes the end-time ingathering of the Gentile nations into the people of God. Individuals choose to align themselves with this coming regime and enjoy the liberation it brings or remain trapped by the powers of the present evil age.]


    Interestingly, there seems to have been a Christian theology of baptism before Paul's linking of baptism and union with Christ's death. What was the logic for baptism in the early chapters of Acts in the Jerusalem church? Was the theology of exodus (and Passover) associated with baptism from the earliest days of the Jesus movement? Certainly the example of John's baptism of which Jesus and several of the Twelve availed themselves points in this direction? Did Paul simply build his more complex baptismal theology of "burial with Christ" from this earlier tradition? Or was this a Pauline midrash/interpretation on the practice of John, Jesus, and the Twelve - an innovation from Paul's own thought?

  2. Intriguing questions, Joe, the answers of which we probably won't be able to discover with certainty. Still, I would suppose that an important factor related to but not the same as any theological framework for the earliest Christian baptisms must surely have been the baptism of Jesus himself. If Jesus, as God's obedient Son, felt that baptism was appropriate, how much more those who would follow in his footsteps as members of a new and wider Israel. If John's baptism in the JORDAN was significant, so also was Jesus' baptism by John in the JORDAN, the prototype for a restored Israel paralleling the advance of Joshua into the land of promise for ancient Israel. And maybe even the fact that their names are the same is more than incidental!

  3. Wow! How wonderful and how true. You pushed my ideas to their clear and logical conclusions.

    Perhaps the disciple's question in Acts 1:6 - "Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" - is NOT the awkward and misplaced inquiry of unconverted and clueless disciples that we were always taught.

    Maybe - just maybe - this question is the exegetical key to interpreting ALL of the Acts of the Apostles.

    I look forward to your book on this subject.