Among some Christian denominations the assertion is made that baptism should be administered “in the name of Jesus only.” The historical arguments for Jesus-only baptism are interesting, but suffice to say for now the Fathers of the Church were unanimous in support of the Trinitarian formula for baptism.
The Didache (7:1, A.D. 70), St. Justin Martyr (The First Apology, 61, A.D. 150), Tatian the Syrian (The Diatesseron, 55, A.D. 170), St. Irenaeus (Presentation of the Apostolic Preaching, 3, A.D. 180), Tertullian (On Baptism, 13, A.D. 200), St. Hippolytus (The Apostolic Tradition, 21, A.D. 215), etc., concur with what the Council of Florence would later declare to be the proper form of the sacrament of baptism:
Holy baptism holds the first place among all the sacraments, for it is the gate of the spiritual life; through it we become members of Christ and of the body of the church. Since death came into the world through one person, unless we are born again of water and the spirit, we cannot, as Truth says, enter the kingdom of heaven. The matter of this sacrament is true and natural water, either hot or cold. The form is: I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Session 8, Bull of Union with the Armenians, November 22, 1439.)
The Fathers and this council were, of course, simply following the plain teaching of Jesus Christ from Matthew 28:16-19:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. . . . And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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.”
It seems as plain as can be, but as is the case with virtually all Christian doctrine today—thanks to the confusion foisted upon the world by the Protestant revolt 500 years ago—there are objections. Many among the various “Jesus only” sects will point out multiple biblical texts that appear to contradict a trinitarian baptismal formula, mostly from Acts:
And Peter said to them, “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” (Acts 2:38).
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 8:14-16).
And [Peter] commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 10:48).
On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 19:5).
The key to understanding begins with context. In Matthew 28:16-19, shortly before he was to ascend to heaven, Jesus was teaching the apostles alone—”the eleven”—the proper form for the sacrament of baptism. In Acts 2:38, by contrast, Peter was proclaiming the truth of Christ to thousands of Jews—specifying baptism “in the name of Jesus” not to contradict the clear instructions Jesus had given him about the form of baptism but rather to distinguish Christian baptism from other kinds with which they would have been familiar: for example, the baptism of John the Baptist or the many and varied “baptisms” of the Jews and Jewish sects (such as the Essenes). Indeed, even pagan Mithraism practiced a kind of baptism.
This is why you’ll notice two different arrangements of words proclaiming Christ’s baptism in those four texts from Acts. “In the name of Jesus Christ,” and “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” is a hint that the inspired author was not giving us the proper form(s) for the sacrament; rather, he was making a general declaration that it is Jesus’ baptism to which all are bound.
Many Christians wrongly think the word baptism is an exclusively Christian term. In the first century, it was not. As I mentioned above, “baptisms” were common practice among the Jews.
While [Jesus] was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him; so he went in and sat at table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner (Luke 11:37-38).
The Greek word for “wash” here is ebaptizthe.
For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they wash their hands, observing the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they purify themselves; and there are many other traditions which they observe, the washing of cups and pots and vessels of bronze Mark 7:3-4).
The words for purify and washing in verse 4 are baptisontai and baptismous, respectively.
Given the ritual-washing “baptisms” that were prevalent in the first century, is it any wonder that Peter and the apostles in the book of Acts would want to distinguish between sacramental baptism “in Jesus’ name” and other kinds of “baptisms”?
Some respond to this argument by saying that the apostle Paul commanded: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). And Peter adds: “the name of Jesus Christ . . . there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:10-12).
So shouldn’t we baptize “in the name of Jesus”? And the answer is yes! It is precisely because we can be saved only “in the name of Jesus” that we must baptize the way he taught us: in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Clearing away the dross
Perhaps a deeper look at one of the four texts from Acts we cited above will serve to clarify things for us. In Acts 19, Paul happens upon a group of “disciples” in Ephesus:
While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
When St. Paul discovered these “disciples” had not “heard that there is a Holy Spirit,” he immediately asked what form of baptism they had received. The implication here is that if they had been baptized with the proper form they would have heard of the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit is included in it! When he found out they had received only “John’s baptism,” he immediately had them baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus”—that is, with Jesus’ baptism, which is done “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”