Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Baptismal Formula and the Jesus-Only Heresy

Every Christian, even the most lapsed professor of Christianity, is familiar with the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19: "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 is not only used by virtually every church, Catholic, Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox, but it is also a classic text in the explanation and defense of the orthodox understanding of the Trinity

One of the ancient anti-Trinitarian theologies is known variously as Sabellianism, Modalism, Jesus-Only Unitarianism, or Oneness Pentecostalism. In our day, it is associated primarily with the United Pentecostal Church. They hold that God is a unity, not a tri-unity of persons, but rather one Person who shifts among the roles (or "modes," hence the name) of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They accuse Trinitarians of tritheism, i. e., of worshiping three gods. Part of their support of this is the consistent reference to baptisms "in the name of Jesus" in Acts (e. g., Acts 2:38, 8:16, 10:48, and 19:5). Some of them even say that the verse in Matthew is a corruption, though there is zero manuscript support for their reconstruction.

However, Acts also presents a problem for their doctrine, one that I consider insuperable. 

In chapter 19 of Acts, Paul passed through Ephesus on one of his missionary journeys. Though he would later write an epistle to the church in Ephesus, he was not the original evangelist in that city. This church was founded by Epaphras, so Paul's visit here was with people that he had not previously known. He asks them, verse 2, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" To which they replied, "No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit." They then inform him that they had received John's baptism, i. e., the baptism given by John the Baptist. So, verse 5, "On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus."

This includes the formula advocated by the Sabellians, "in the name of Jesus." But the passage tells us so much more: while these Ephesians knew about Jesus, they didn't know about the Holy Spirit. That is something that is told us only here and in chapter 8 (Acts 8:16). That indicates that there was instruction otherwise going on, not explicit in our text, instruction about the Holy Spirit, apart from Jesus. That is, trinitarian instruction!

To my mind, the logical implication is that these baptisms were indeed performed according to the trinitarian formula. Luke, the author of Acts, simply didn't include the full formula in the interest of brevity and flow of the story. It would have been tedious to read the full formula repeatedly, as often as baptisms occur in this book.

Thus, I would suggest that Acts not only does NOT support the doctrine the Modalists try to force on it, but actually demonstrates the opposite. That is, that our one God reveals Himself in three Persons, all of Whom are present and active in our conversion, sanctification, and - someday - in our glorification.

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