I would not say that there was a codified baptismal formula in the primitive church. Indeed the Biblical accounts vary but they do include the name of Jesus or a title such as Lord that refers directly to Him. The formula was and has been developed since. However, I do believe that scripture and history indicate to us that the name of Jesus was invoked or implied, in literary devices, by or over the baptized. Most scholars realize this but disallow it by marginalizing it to, now, include the Matthean titles (28:19; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and thus giving a sense of credibility to the Trinitarian method. If we study history accurately we should understand that no biblical or primitive NT believer was baptized using the titles. Biblical and historical evidence explicitly indicates that the name "Jesus" was actually used in baptism and not a recitation of the actual instruction of Christ in the Matthean passage, instead actual obedience to His instruction, e.g. "baptizing them...in the name..." (c.f. Matthew 28:19 NKJV).
In connection with this it is interesting to note the Lukan Great Commission as well. Luke records: "and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem." (Luke 24:47 KJV) Both the Lukan and Matthean passages indicate that a single, known name was used in Christian baptism. As the below sources will show, this is the only form used by the Disciples and early believers.
The Anchor Bible Dictionary is a landmark work of scholarly thought. It clearly states:
"It is relatively certain that in the early Church one commonly referred to baptism as being done “into the name of the Lord Jesus” or something similar.” (1)
The bible knows of no Christian in the New Testament who had not been baptized, either by John or in the name of Jesus. Consequently, as modern believers we should feel compelled to follow that same Biblical method in our endeavors to conform to the Holy Scriptures and the commands of Christ . Christian baptism was from the first administered “in the name of Jesus”. The trinitarian formula of merely repeating, not obeying or properly interpreting, Matthew 28:19 is not found in the scriptures. Anyone baptizing in titles or any other method that does not include the name of Jesus is without scriptural support, there is simply no text that demonstrates or gives license for such aberrations. Baptism identifies us with Jesus Christ and brings us into the Body of Christ, therefore it is logical to conclude that we should have the name of Jesus invoked over us in baptism.
The reason that we are baptized in Jesus’ name is that we are being baptized into Jesus. We are taking on his name, similar to the way a woman takes on her husband's name at marriage. We are saying that we belong to Jesus and we are identifying with Him in His death and burial. Paul said, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:13) Paul’s thinking here is to exalt the name of Jesus Christ. If we follow his logic it becomes obvious that he is telling the Corinthians that Christ was the one crucified for them and so they, too, were baptized in the name of Christ. The believers at Corinth as well as those in Rome were baptized in Jesus’ name.
We may contest that there was no EXACT formula for baptism in the New Testament, but such a statement is only partially true. As mentioned prior, in all occasions of baptism the name Jesus is used, in the name of the Lord or in the name of the Lord Jesus, etc. Whether “Christ” or “Lord” is used all the references refer directly to the only saving name—Jesus (Acts 4:12). How can we expect baptism to be efficacious for one if the name of Jesus is not invoked then? It seems then that anything else would be...unbiblical.
In Acts 22:16 we read, "And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord." (Acts 22:16 KJV) There is other debates concerning this passage, but none as relevant as the one we are discussing now. The Greek word for "calling" here is epikaleomai. This word is defined "idiomatically, denoting that one person belongs to another whose name is attached to him…literally have someone’s name called on someone, i.e. belong to,"(2) Therefore, the name of Christ is important in every sense of salvation and not just in professing Him as Lord. This name should be "called on" as we are baptized into Christ; we arise with His name attached to us and are His people.
Epikaleomai is used to mean a literal invoking in several New Testament passages. In Acts 9 we see the story of Paul after being blinded on the road to Damascus, "And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name. (15) But the Lord said to him, Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. (16) For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name's sake." Acts 9:14-16 NKJV
The early Christians were preaching and baptizing in the name of Jesus. They literally uttered the words, there was no non-verbal reflection upon the name—it was a literal calling on the name of Jesus. Paul (formerly Saul) was commissioned by the Priests to persecute those who were calling on the name of Jesus. After being blinded Paul is taken to Ananias. Ananias is told by the Lord that Paul is a "chosen vessel" to "bear" the name of Jesus to the Gentiles. Paul also was to suffer for this name. The name of Jesus is so intrinsically involved in the process of salvation and our subsequent lives, how can we, then, abandon this name at our baptism?
Some assume that the trinitarian formula for baptism, which invokes the titles—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--are indeed the biblical method. This may cause one to ask, "Was the trinitarian formula used in New Testament times?" The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia answers this for us:
"No record of such use can be discovered in the Acts or the epistles of the apostles. The baptisms recorded in the New Testament after the Day of Pentecost are administered "in the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 2:38), "into the name of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 8:16), "into Christ" (Rom 6:3; Gal 3:27)"
James Hastings indicates:
"The original form of words was ‘into the name of Jesus Christ’ or ‘the Lord Jesus.’ Baptism into the name of the Trinity was a later development."(4)
Self-admittedly then trinitarians confess that the form of words used in an oral invocation in the rite of baptism was done by, the very least, using the name of Jesus, in some sense. Signifying that the Apostles as well as those following their death used the saving Name—Jesus.
Often the words, "in" or "into" are used with being baptized in or into the name of Jesus. Both terms are prepositions which are used to connect nouns or pronouns in an adjectival or adverbial sense. Example: the babe lying in a manger, the sun sets in the west. They denote being in or into something, such as baptized into or in the name of Jesus. When used in an adjectival or descriptive sense it is describing the method or the how of what is being said. How were the early Christians baptized? Answer: in the name of Jesus. Therefore, we enter into or in the power or person of Jesus by using His name.
In the New Testament, specifically in the historical book of Acts we see baptisms that involve an actual verbal invocation using wholly, partly, or by implications (Lord) the name of Jesus. Otto Heick a church historian wrote in his book, "A History of Christian Thought" (1,53), that "At first baptism was administered in the name of Jesus, but gradually in the name of the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Today, as modern New Testament believers, it is imperative that we hold the teachings of scripture paramount, rather than relying too heavily upon extra-biblical sources or church councils, creeds, dogmas and catechisms. When we stand before God in the Day of Judgment, we will be accountable to His Word.
In Acts 4:12 Peter uses the word "must" which is the Greek preposition dei. In this passage it literally means "it is necessary."(5) "Must" here is an emphatic word indicating compelling necessity and it is joined with "name" which is part of the "must." Not only is there only one way to get salvation, e.g. through Jesus Christ, but there is only one saving name in baptism—Jesus Christ.
Many New Testament passages speak of healing done in Jesus’ name (Acts 3:6, 16; 4:9–10), signs and wonders through His name (4:30). Some preached in His name (8:12) or spoke boldly in His name (9:27–28). This being so, it seems that historical and theological bias exist in order to assert that baptism is not to be done by invoking the name of Jesus. Baptism in the name of Jesus was and still is the correct name to administer over one who is to be baptized or by the baptized. Historically and biblically, all competent accounts point us directly to Jesus name.
Here is a syllogism to conclude:
- Biblical and historical sources indicate that baptism was done by orally invoking, in some sense, the name "Jesus". Further, the historical evidence confirms that extra-biblical change was made to include titles.
- The Bible also places soteriological emphasis on the name of Jesus that it "must" be a part of a believers experience.
- Therefore, it is logical to conclude, from evidence, that baptism in the name of "Jesus" is both valid and necessary.
- Freedman, David Noel. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1996, c1992.
- Friberg, T., Friberg, B., & Miller, N. F. (2000). Vol. 4: Analytical lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Baker's Greek New Testament library (Page 164). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
- "Baptism" International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Electronic Database Copyright (c)1996 by Biblesoft
- "Baptism" IV (a.) A Dictionary of the Bible, Edited by James Hastings, M.A., D.D., Vol. 1, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.
- Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament © 1990 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved