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”.