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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