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Baptised in Paul’s Name (Part 1)

Baptism of Saint Paul
Baptism of Saint Paul

Sunday’s second reading (1 Corinthians 1:10-18) was almost a Monty Python sketch as St Paul started with declaring he had baptised no one and then remembering more and more names, finally concluding, “I do not know whether I baptised anyone else.”

In the midst of this, there was something that stood out for me:

Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (1 Corinthians 1:13-15)

My insight was that Paul (and others in this New Testament period) did not baptise with a verbal proclamation of a formula (e.g. “I baptise you in the Name of…” or “…is baptised in the Name of…”). If Paul baptised with a verbal announcement aloud (as we would do now) “I baptise you in the Name of…” then he would not have needed to be anxious about his baptism being misunderstood in the way that the letter to the Corinthians declares.

Before I proceed, may I stress that I am in no way advocating an abandonment of our tradition of verbal announcement aloud “…in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…” at the time of baptism. I strongly advocate adherence to our agreements – and in this case strong ecumenical agreement. Furthermore, I understand the Holy Spirit to be active in the development of Tradition beyond the New Testament. I am no follower of sola scriptura (the theory that the Bible is sufficient for our doctrine and practice).

But what I am arguing is that our current practice of a verbal announcement aloud, “I baptise you in the Name of…”, is not the universal New Testament practice nor that of the early church. And our reading of early texts (including New Testament ones) through the lenses of current practice is anachronistic and mistaken.

For me, Sunday’s 1 Corinthians reading was doubly striking because, during the holidays, I have been attempting to read Sarah Coakley’s God, Sexuality, and the Self [I think it is brilliant – but please could someone translate it into English! And now that holidays are behind me, how will I find time to finish it?] On page 107 of that book, there is an assumption that “the triadic baptismal formula for Christian baptism became fixed, quite early in the church’s life (as witnessed by its appearance on Jesus’s lips at the end of Matthew’s gospel: Matthew 28.19)” and that this exercised a strong authoritative basis for development of Trinitarian understanding in the Early Church.

My argument is that this assumption (of a verbal Trinitarian baptismal formula so early in the Church’s life) is mistaken, or, at the very least, debatable and cannot be used as the foundation (without further exploration) of other arguments and conclusions.

My argument is that “in the name of” (εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ) is used in the New Testament primarily in the sense of “on behalf of” (with a parallel understanding of “into the nature of”) and is not providing rubrics for liturgical words proclaimed aloud. This position makes sense of the difference between baptising “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) and “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38; 10:48) or “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5). They are, in fact, all the same action, and, when these actions were viewed at the time, rather than having different verbal declarations as we might imagine reading these texts anachronistically, would have been similar.

This explains the difference with John’s baptism (Acts 19:1-5). It was not merely a different formula pronounced aloud at the time of baptism; it was baptism “in the name of”, that is, on behalf of John, and now they were baptised “in the name of”, that is, on behalf of the Lord Jesus.

Precisely because there was yet no clear proclaimed liturgical formula at the time of baptism in the New Testament period, this explains St Paul’s fears that his baptisms might be misunderstood as being on Paul’s behalf – “so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name” (εἰς τὸ ἐμὸν ὄνομα ἐβαπτίσθητε).

One might posit that this very possibility for confusion lay behind the development of the verbalised Trinitarian formula we use at baptism today. I will produce a part two of this post where I examine the development into the Early Church beyond the New Testament period. And let me stress again that I am in no way advocating that anyone abandon our inter-church and intra-church agreements that we baptise with a verbal proclamation: “…in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…”

Read further in Baptised in Paul’s Name (Part 2)

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14 Responses to Baptised in Paul’s Name (Part 1)

  1. See also Acts 8:14-17.

    “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 he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.”

    or

    “When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.”

    &c.

    • Thanks, Kevin. Those texts certainly start a whole further set of fascinating discussions. Blessings.

    • Thanks, Jesse. This is certainly a complex verse. Let me have an off the cuff first crack at it.

      I think I would distinguish John’s baptism and Christian baptism.

      Within the pre-death-and-resurrection history, I see Jesus and many of those who later became Jesus’ disciples as being part of John’s group with Jesus, taking up much of John’s message after John’s imprisonment, only making it more inclusive (the poor, the ill, etc didn’t have to come to the Jordan – Jesus brought the message to you). Then I think there was another step after John’s execution (let’s leave that for the moment).

      So, within the narrative of this verse, reading it as pre-death-and-resurrection history, have we got some of John’s disciples (later Jesus’ disciples, and maybe that shift is already happening) continuing John’s baptism? Verse 1 has a rumour reaching the Pharisees which the Gospel then clarifies (denies?) strongly (καίτοιγε).

      Now we are reading this Gospel text (as it was intended, as it was written) after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Within our post-resurrection, Christian context, I think the emphasis of this Gospel that Jesus is making and baptising disciples but/and is doing this by Jesus’ disciples can be seen as a way of saying, within the Christian community, that when I make and baptise disciples it is Jesus “making and baptising more disciples”. So, yes, I think we can have an “on behalf of” understanding for John 4:2.

      What do you think?

      Blessings.

  2. Although I have almost no real knowledge of its Jewish context, I don’t think folks thought much strange (other than John himself) about John baptizing, bcause water baptism was already a ritualistic cleansing with which Jews were accustomed. I would think that what John was calling folks to do was an extension of their normal customs, but perhaps in a non-traditional setting.

    • I’m sure you are correct, David. The meaning of baptism is drawing on deep symbolic roots – religious, human, even political. Blessings.

  3. Debatable, certainly, but I think that construing “in(to) the name of” as “on behalf of” is questionable as well. I think we might do better to consider diversity of practice rather than a general rule. Didache 7, with language similar to Matthew 28 looks rather more like rubrics on “how to” do baptism rather than an exploration of the authority by which it happened.

    • Thanks, Doug. I would not limit, as you are, “on behalf of” to “an exploration of the authority by which it happened”. I think “on behalf of” is more in the nature of (but not limited to) the quote:

      Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

      That was the understanding Jesse and I were exploring in the comment around John 4:2 – how Christ, in the life of the church, was baptising even though physically not present.

      I think you are reading Didache 7 anachronistically, although I acknowledge that there may have been some practice early on in some places of a verbal formula (different verbal formulas) where one (or two) have grown (evolved) to be what we now do. But I really want to leave the Didache discussion (as I have indicated) to the next post on this.

      Oh – and I might be wrong.

      Blessings.

  4. This is a slight tangent, but interesting nevertheless. Baptism is, as David Allen says, not a peculiarly Christian thing. It is very similar to the Jewish tvilah, ritual immersion in water when converting to Judaism.

    I thought I’d see if it’s used in the OT in an immersive sense, and it is. The most interesting of the three uses is in 2 Kings 5.14, where Elisha cures Naaman of his leprosy. The Septuagint uses the verb βαπτίζω to describe the cure of Naaman, and even more interestingly, describes it as occurring in the River Jordan, and as a regeneration and a return to an infant state of purity:

    “So Naaman went down, and dipped himself seven times in Jordan, according to the word of Elisha: and his flesh returned to him as the flesh of a little child, and he was cleansed.”

    • Thanks, David. Along with your tangent, I would note your use of the word “immersion” and distinguish it from “submersion” (“total immersion”). Your biblical quote uses “dipping”. A recent (Epiphany) asperges video I put up also shows how we can be more generous with our symbolism. Blessings.

      • Yes, generous aspersion is best.

        Just before Christmas I had the honour of being invited to open the St Giles annual Christmas Tree Festival here in Cambridge in my capacity as a Proctor of the University. The curate blessed the trees and the attendees, having said beforehand that he would be getting his revenge on me with the aspergill for all the times years ago I poked fun at him, and teased him, when he was a student. He didn’t disappoint!

  5. It won’t move this discussion forward at all, but I just remembered that back in the 1970’s I encountered a small denomination that taught that those who had been baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit needed to be rebaptised in the name of Jesus, because “Jesus” was the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!

    • There is, of course, some truth in the idea that Jesus reveals God’s nature. I’ve encountered similar nonsense that “Lord Jesus Christ” is another way of saying “Father Son Spirit”. I’m sure we haven’t reached the end of novelties yet 🙂 Blessings.




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