Baptism: it’s not what you say, it’s who does it that matters

Well, I stand corrected. I’d always assumed (and had said as much on the BHT recently) that a valid baptism required use of the trinitarian formula (“in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”), in contrast to baptism in the name of Jesus only.

Luther, however, gives this pretty short shrift in his 1520 work, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (page references are to the linked edition), in which he attacks “that idle dispute about the ‘form’ of baptism” and writes:

The Greeks say: “May the servant of Christ be baptized,” while the Latins say: “I baptize.” Others again, adhering rigidly to their pedantry, condemn the use of the words, “I baptize you in the name of Jesus Christ,” although it is certain the apostles used this formula in baptizing, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles (2:38; 10:48; 19:5). (p.185)

So Luther rejects as a “vain” contention, lacking any scriptural proof, the argument that a valid baptism must use the form: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”.

What’s particularly interesting is Luther’s reason for taking this position. It is because baptism is not a human act, but rather it is Christ himself who baptizes us. Hence what matters is that it is truly Christ that is acting in our baptism, not what the precise words used are. As Luther writes:

For man baptizes, and yet does not baptize. He baptizes in that he performs the work of immersing the person to be baptized; he does not baptize, because in so doing he acts not on his own authority but in God’s stead.

Hence we ought to receive baptism at human hands just as if Christ himself, indeed, God himself, were baptizing us with his own hands. For it is not man’s baptism, but Christ’s and God’s baptism, which we receive by the hand of a man, just as everything else that we have through the hand of somebody else is God’s alone. (p.184)

The point is that we baptize “in the name of” the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, not in our own name. And Luther is emphatic that this is not simply a case of saying that there is an outward aspect of baptism which is done by human hands, and an inward aspect which is done by God. Rather:

Ascribe both to God alone, and look upon the person administering it as simply the vicarious instrument of God, by which the Lord sitting in heaven thrusts you under the water with his own hands, and promises you forgiveness of your sins, speaking to you upon earth with a human voice by the mouth of his minister. (p.184)

It strikes me as equivalent to the legal position in which the acts of a duly-authorised agent are regarded as the acts of the agent’s principal.

So what matters in baptism is that it is clearly seen to be done in the name of the Triune God, even if the Trinitarian formula itself is not used. If someone has been baptized with the words, “I baptize you in the name of Jesus Christ”, then that baptism is still truly the act of the Trinitarian God, and so they have truly been baptized in the name of (that is, by the human minister as agent for) the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

As Luther writes:

Baptism truly saves in whatever way it is administered, if only it is administered not in the name of man, but in the name of the Lord. (p.186)

I’d be interested to know what other people think about this, and indeed whether Luther later stepped back from this quite radical (though also persuasive) position. Also, does this have any impact on the Lutheran insistence on the ipsissima verba in the Lord’s Supper?

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5 Responses to Baptism: it’s not what you say, it’s who does it that matters

  1. Josh S says:

    There’s the additional point that there is only one divine name, YHWH, and this is “the name” that is shared by all the members of the Trinity. “The name of Jesus” is more than just “Jesus;” it’s the divine name, the same one into which you are baptized when the trinitarian formula is used.

  2. Rob says:

    Great post, John, and an excellent point, Josh. I’m also anxious to hear some answers on the question you raised about communion.

  3. Kyle says:

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention. It’s a fascinating point.

    However, I’m not sure it addresses the “Jesus Only” pentecostal movement in it’s most extreme form. Just recently I visited a church on a cross-coutry trip and picked up some notes in which it was argued that their use of Jesus’ name only in baptism was for the express purpose of emphasizing the oneness of God contra the Trinity.

    I couldn’t quite tell, however, if they were actually denying the existence of the Trinity. It was the notes for a sermon, and I didn’t actually get to hear the sermon. That, and I got distracted when a great deal of the proof centered on the idea that the trinitarian baptismal formula was invented out of whole cloth at Nicea, ca 325.

  4. Chris Jones says:

    Luther was wrong on this point.

    None of the passages in Acts gives an actual liturgical formula, but our Lord does, in Matt 28. The Church’s liturgical tradition is clear that Jesus’ words in Matt 28 are to be followed in the administration. And as St Basil says, if we do not respect that tradition we should “injure the Gospel in its vitals.”

    If we baptize in the name of the Trinity, then there is no doubt that we intend to baptize as the Lord commanded, as the Church has received and always followed. If we make up our own liturgical formula, then we are doing something other than what the Lord commanded and what His Church as received. Why would we want to do that?

    Introducing doubt about something like this is Sola Scriptura run amok. Not a good idea.

  5. John H says:

    Chris: “Sola Scriptura run amok” would be individual congregations or Christians deciding they now had grounds for a free-for-all on the words they use in baptism. That was not Luther’s position, and there are good reasons for insisting on the trinitarian formula. These include the consistent practice of the church over centuries, and the fact that (even if we decide that, in the context, Matthew 28:19 is not giving a compulsory liturgical formula) the use of those words is the clearest way in which the church can express the fact it is fulfilling the commission given to it by Christ.

    I agree that the big danger of using other words is that it turns into a subject for doubt and introspection something that is meant to be the cornerstone of our faith. For the same reason, my throwaway line about the “ipsissima verba” is not to be taken as suggesting it may be OK not to use the words of institution, for precisely the same reason. Speaking of which…

    Rob: Thinking about it, I think the difference with the WOI is that it is the words of the Lord which make the bread his body and the wine his blood, not simply a broader “action” carried out by his ministers. It is the Lord who says “This is my body… this is my blood” in our churches each Sunday, through his ministers, and if those words aren’t said then the Lord hasn’t said them in that time and place. Hence no sacrament.

    Kyle: You raise another good point, there, namely the use of a “Jesus only” formula not as another means of baptizing in the name of the Trinity (as in the case of the apostles, if they were using a Jesus-only formula) but as a denial of the Trinity.

    The latter case would appear to be similar to that of Mormon baptisms, which use the trinitarian formula but deny the trinitarian meaning. At best that introduces serious doubt about the validity of the baptism; and I believe the consensus of most churches is that such a baptism is not valid. (Other than, naturally, the US Episcopal Church, which has at least one bishop who has only had a Mormon baptism.)

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