HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT OF THE
TRINITARIAN MODE OF BAPTISM
by Walter Copes
In the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19, Jesus commanded that all believers be baptized. The necessity of baptism is again confirmed in Mark 16:16 and John 3:5. The apostles, to whom were given the authority and direction by Jesus, obeyed this commandment in the establishment of the original apostolic church, as recorded in the
book of Acts. In all of the recorded cases (Acts 2:38, 8:16, 10:48, 19:5) where the baptism command is fulfilled, the actual name of Jesus, along with the titles of Lord or Christ, is used. Nowhere in the New Testament was anyone ever baptized using the formula in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Yet a study
will show that the major portion of Christianity today does not baptize the way the apostles did in the book of Acts. Where did the divergency begin? What is the correct mode of Baptism? The purpose of this paper is to show the results of a historical survey completed by the authors that concluded that the original apostolic baptism was done in the name of Jesus and that the tripartite formula was a postapostolic development.
Most church historians and theologians also agree that the baptism formula used today is not the formula used in the New Testament church. As German Scholar Edmund Schlink has stated,
First of all there is the problem of the "trinitarian formula".
Nowhere else does the New Testament speak of baptism "in the name
of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:. It speaks
only of baptism upon (in) the name of Jesus Christ (with slight
variations).... In that case, the baptismal command in its Mat-
thew 28:19 form cannot be the historical origin of Christian
baptism. At the very least, it must be assumed that the text has
been transmitted in a form expanded by the church.1
How did Christian baptism originate? This historical question cannot be answered simply by referring to Matthew 28:19, since this text presents inescapable difficulties for historical thinking. Nor do the New Testament writings provide any support for the assumption that the primitive church did not at first baptize in the name of Jesus Christ.2 Although the extant writings for the period 96 A.D. - 140 A.D., which represents the first post-apostolic period, are very limited, the glimpses do show baptism in Jesus name continuing as church doctrine. Clement of Rome who was a contemporary of Paul, wrote in 96 A.D. in his Epistle to the Corinthians,
And now may the all-seeing God and Master of Lord of all flesh,
who chose the Lord Jesus Christ and us through Him to be His own
people, grant to every soul over whom His magnificent and holy
name has been invoked...3
Note the use and singularity of "His magnificent and holy name", which undoubtedly is the name of Jesus, that Clement refers to.
In The Shepherd of Hermas, which dates around 120 A.D., Hermas writes,
Before man bears the name of the Son of God, he is dead, but when
he has received the seal (baptism) he lays aside mortality and
What was the name of the Son of God? Jesus! It's known that Hermas' writings were accepted by many of the ancient church leaders and read routinely in the church. In studying his writings, it is also obvious that he espoused only one God and not the Trinity. He writes,
First of all believe that God is One, who created all things and
put them in order.5 Furthermore, Hermas writes; They are such as
have heard the word and were willing to be baptized in the name
of the Lord; but considering the great holiness which the truth
requires, have withdrawn themselves and walked again after their
At this point in history, the extant writings continue to show baptism in Jesus name. They do not show the tripartite formula either as being practiced or written about. Many modern day historians agree with this conclusion.
Wilheim Bousset writes in Kurios Christos, "it is still essentially a baptism in the name of Jesus".7
G. R. Beesley-Murray stated: There is not one example in the whole New Testament literature of a baptism taking place in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.8
Harry Wolfsan writes: Critical scholarship, on the whole, rejects the traditional attribution of the tripartite baptismal formula to Jesus and regards it as a later origin.9
E. Lohmeyer in his book, Das Evangelium des Atthaus, writes that Eusebius, Bishop of the church in Caesarea, frequently wrote Matthew 28:19 as:
Go ye and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in my
name, teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I command
you.10 Lohmeyer states: The expression in my name referred to
baptism in the name of Jesus.
Again Bousset writes: The testimony for the wide distribution of the simple baptismal formula down into the second century is so overwhelming that even in Matthew 28:19, the trinitarian formula was only later inserted.11
Ernest F. Scott affirms, It is abundantly clear that the primitive church knew only the simple formula and even so late as the Didache, it is assumed that this alone is necessary.12
At this point in church history the baptism formula was still in the name of Jesus. However, early in the second century the church was faced with the Gnostic controversy, which concerned the nature of Jesus and the relationship of the Son to the Father. The church leaders of this time felt that this controversy would lead to the total destruction of the Christian faith.13
Aristides, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Athenagoras, and Theophilus of Antioch were some of these men defending Christianity. These men became known as the Greek Apologists and were greatly affected by the Greek philosophies.14 The philosophy of Philo, who was a Jewish philosopher in Alexandria, identified the Logos with the platonic word of
forms or archetypes. From Philo's teachings, the Greek apologists set the Logos equal to Jesus Christ in order to frame an intellectually satisfying explanation of the relationship of Christ to God the Father.15
It is during this period of the Logos doctrine debate that the first historical references to trinitarian water baptism appear. The primary source of a different baptismal formula is from the writings of Justin Martyr who writes in 140 A. D.:
For in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and
of our Savior Jesus Christ and of the Holy Ghost, they then
received the washing with water.16
Apparently it is during this period, when the Logos-doctrine and trinitarianism were first being debated, that the first divergency away from Jesus name baptism occurs.
Although history is not clear on who first introduced the trinitarian formula, it does not appear to be coincidental that its introduction (as far as historical references are concerned) occurs during the Apologist's period, when the Godhead debate was sweeping the church. As more churches embraced the trinitarian concepts (which weren't fully developed at this point), we find more references to the triune baptismal formula.
It is interesting to note that during the Apologist's period, although the doctrine of the trinity was not fully developed, the triune formula emerges very quickly. We can only speculate that this occurred when men lost the concept of the deity and nature of Jesus Christ and contrary to Colossians 3:17 which states that, whatsoever
ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, began to misunderstand the meaning of Matthew 28:19. Once the concept of the Oneness of God and salvation through the name of Jesus began to be in question, the churches in the Apologist's period began to place greater importance in Matthew 28:19. This was done apparently because they could not reconcile baptism here against what the apostles actually
did in the book of Acts.
The trinity of persons in the Godhead is the reason assigned for the triune immersion by Tertullian and later by Jerome, Basil and the Apostolic Canons.17 Many modern historians have recognized the destructive influence that the philosophies of the Apologist's period introduced into the church. As Adolf Harnack in Outlines of the History of Dogma writes:
...it (the church) legitimized in its midst the Hellenic specula-
tion, the superstitious views and customs of pagan mystery,
worship and the institutions of the state organization to which
it attached itself and which received new strength thereby. In
theory monotheistic, it threatened to become polytheistic in
practice and to give way to the whole apparatus of low or mal-
As the doctrine of the trinity slowly displaced the monotheism of the Apostles, many errors and traditions of men began to creep into the church. The process was slow and frequently accompanied by strife and on occasion, bloodshed. A close look at some of the errors which spoiled the church will give some understanding of how error lead to
more error. For instance, the Greek word used for baptism in the New Testament means to dip, to immerse, to sink. There is no evidence that Luke, John and Paul put any meanings upon this verb not recognized by the Greeks.19 Stanley, in his History of the Eastern Church says,
...there can be no question that the original form of baptism,
the very meaning of the word, was complete immersion in the deep
baptismal waters, and that for at least four centuries another
form was either unknown or regarded, unless in the case of dan-
gerous illness, as an exceptional, almost a monstrous case.20
It is likely that the practice of affusion arose out of the custom of laying on of hands and anointing with oil. J. N. D. Kelly writes that,
...the general procedure was that, on coming up from the baptis-
mal water, the newly baptized Christian was anointed with scented
oil, at the same time receiving the laying on of hands.21
Because of these anointings, men began to conclude that its purpose was for the Holy Spirit to fill that person.22 Consequently, because of this belief, it became customary to pour water upon the head of the one being baptized after he had been immersed.23 After the fourth century, immersion had begun to be replaced in some churches by a copious affusion on the head, while the person being baptized stood
in the water.24
However, sprinkling was slow to be accepted as the common mode of baptism. It is not until the thirteenth century that sprinkling became the rule and immersion the exception.25 As Christianity spread over the Roman empire and into conquered territories, the conversion of the adults usually meant baptism also of all children, regardless of age. In time very few were being baptized as adults. When and how the
practice of infant baptism began is not certain. There is nowhere in the New Testament an example of the practice nor is it anywhere commanded.26 Tertullian knew of infant baptism but condemned it in his writings around 200 A.D.27 However, infant baptism became generally accepted church practice by the fifth century with only isolated pockets of resistance, such as the Paulicians of the ninth century and
the Petrobusians of the twelfth century.28
It is during this period of transition of baptism modes that the emphasis of baptism shifted from its New Testament significance to an outward sign, and thus baptism lost its spiritual importance. Beasley Murray stated,
...when infant baptism did prevail, the personal religious ele-
ment fell away and the sacramental-sotereological element of
baptism, which for the common people meant the sacramental-magi-
cal element, became the essential thing in the rite.29
More and more, salvation became an outward element with no inward significance. This led Hatch to state,
...when infant baptism became general, and men grew up to be
Christians as they grew up to be citizens, maintenance of the
earlier standards became impossible in the church at large.
Professing Christians adopted the current morality; they were
content to be no worse than their neighbors...that which had been
the ideal standard of qualifications for baptism became the ideal
standard of qualifications for ordination; and there grew up a
distinction between clerical morality and lay morality which has
never passed away.30
It is during this transition period apparently that more and more Christians began to accept the trinitarian formula as the mode of baptism. However, it should be remembered that to the average Christian in this period, it wasn't greatly important what formula was used as much as the fact that he was actually baptized. However, not everyone felt this way. One of the controversial subjects continued to be the baptismal formula. Many congregations continued to baptize in the name of Jesus. The church of Rome, pastored by Alexander in 115 A.D., was a bearer of the Father's name, according to Ignatious in his Epistles to the Romans.31 This was no doubt a oneness church at this time.
Even during the period when Zephyrinus and Callistus were bishops of Rome, (198 A.D. - 220 A.D.) Hippolytus writes in his Refutation of all Heresies that these men were modalists or oneness believers.32 Based upon the connection between oneness believers and baptism in Jesus name, it appears that the church in Rome still baptized in Jesus
name at this point.
During this period, the Montanist controversy, which swept the church around 156 A.D., apparently became a decisive factor in a number of churches. Many of the early churches reacted strongly to the teachings of Montanus.
If the main thrust of Montanism was revival of the gifts of the Spirit in the church as some have said, why should a large number of the Christians in the early churches have reacted so much to Montanus when the majority of believers spoke in tongues and used the gifts of the Spirit?
Although it can't be proven conclusively, but because Montanus was trinitarian,33 it could be that the churches were rejecting the trinitarian doctrine more than they were the gifts of the Spirit. If so more than likely the controversy also involved baptism.
Other oneness baptizers continued to appear. One of the most notable was Praxeas. Although the true identity of Praxeas is not known, he came from Asia minor, which was the home of Monarchian views34 and arrived in Rome during Victor's pastorate (around 190 A.D.). Praxeas was unquestionably a oneness believer. This is known
because of the strong attack by Tertullian in his writing Against Praxeas. Tertullian writes that Praxeas teaches that
God Himself, the Lord Almighty, whom in their preaching they
declare to be Jesus Christ.35 Furthermore, Praxeas believed that
the Father Himself came down into the virgin, was Himself born of
her, Himself suffered, indeed was Himself Jesus Christ.36
We know conclusively that Praxeas was a oneness baptizer because of Tertullian's strong defense of the trinitarian water baptism against Praxeas. Tertullian writes, He (Jesus) commands them to baptize into the Father, and the Son and the Holy Ghost, not into one and indeed it is not once only bet three times that we are immersed into
the three persons.37
While during the second century Jesus name baptism was being challenged by the trinitarians, by the beginning of the third century the trinitarians began to condemn those baptized in Jesus name as heretics and to demand anyone who rejoined the church to be rebaptized with the trinitarian formula. Harnack in Outlines of the History of
Dogma writes that,
...in all the ecclesiastical provinces there were monarchian
contests.38 He continues with many Occidental teachers, who were
not influenced by Plato and the Orient, used in the third and
forth centuries modalistic formulas without hesitation.39
Tertullian and Origen testified that the majority of Christian people in their time thought monarchianically.40 Tertullian further admits (indirectly) that the majority of the believers in his day continued to baptize in Jesus name when he writes:
...the simple, indeed (I will not call them unwise and
unlearned), who always constitute the majority of believers, are
startled at the dispensation (of the Three in One), on the ground
that their very rule of faith withdraws them from the world's
plurality of gods to the one only true God....They are constantly
throwing out against us that we are preachers of two gods and
three gods, while they take to themselves pre-eminently the
credit of being worshipers of the One God.41
Cyprian, who became the bishop of Carthage in 248 A.D., writes in his Epistle LXX, to Agrippinus concerning rebaptism of heretics, which he defined one group as those who had not been baptized using the trinity formula.42 Obviously, there must have been a debate continuing to go on in the churches about Jesus name baptism versus the triune
baptism for these church leaders to continue to make denunciation of the "heretics". In 255-256 A.D., the Council of Baptism of Heretics was called by Pope Stephen of Rome to address this issue. Obviously, there were believers at this point in church history who continued to use the name of Jesus in baptism. When Pope Stephen of Rome allowed "heretics" to enter into the church without baptism using the trinity
formula, even though they had been baptized in the name of Jesus, Cyprian felt so incensed that he wrote a strong letter of rebuke to Stephen about his leaning toward the Oneness.43 But many historians feel that Stephen did more than lean toward Jesus name baptism, but in fact, considered baptism as valid only when administered in the name of Jesus Christ. or as Joseph Hefele writes in A History of the Christian Councils,
It may again be asked if Stephen expressly required that the
three divine persons should be named in the administration of
baptism, and if he required it as a condition sine qua non, or if
he considered baptism as valid when administered only in the name
of Jesus Christ. S. Cyprian seems to imply the latter was the
sentiment of Pope Stephen, but he does not positively say so
Furthermore, Hefele writes,
Thus Cyprian acknowledges that Stephen, and those who think with
him, attribute no value to the baptism, except it be administered
in the name of Jesus Christ.45
Cyprian also writes twice in his letter that,
...his adversaries considered as sufficient baptism administered
out of the church, but administered in nomine Christi.
Although it can't be said that Stephen was a oneness believer, he certainly recognized Jesus name baptism as important, if not essential. Thus the issue of Jesus name baptism was not confined to just a few "heretics" but continued to attract large numbers of followers, sufficient enough for the Catholic church to call a special council to address the issue.
During this period of dual baptism formulas, the trinitarians acquired political power, primarily through the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine in 312 A.D. When Constantine embraced Catholicism, the trinitarians, for the first time, acquired full power to stamp out organized resistance to their teachings. When Constantine
called the Council of Nicea together in 325 A.D., ostensibly to debate the Arian-Athanasius issue, canons were also issued against the Jesus name baptizers, In Canon XIX issued by the Council of Nicea, the oneness believers of the Paulinians were required to be rebaptized using the trinity formula before they could be accepted into the Catholic church.46
In Canon VII of the Council of Constantinople of 381 A.D., the Catholic church specifically stated that those followers of Sabellius (who was a oneness believer)
..."who teach the identity of Father and Son, and do sundry other
mischievous things, for there are many such here, particularly
among those who come from the country of the Galatians," were
heathens with an invalid baptism.47
From these canon denunciations, it is obvious that Jesus name believers were very strongly present in the churches at this point in church history. By the time of the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D., the doctrine of the Trinity had been fully developed and accepted. However, as Pope Pelagius said after the Second Council of Constantinople in 560 A.D. that,
...there are many who say that they baptized in the name of
Christ alone and by a single immersion.48
Despite repeated pressure from the Catholic church, oneness churches obviously continued to survive. After the church went into the Dark Ages, clear references to Jesus name believers become difficult to trace. When Martin Luther began the Reformation and other men became enlightened to truth, they carried with them the triune baptismal formula into the new faiths. Consequently, most churches today
have based their baptism on this tradition.
Although this mode of baptism has become accepted in Christianity today without serious question, history reveals that it was not part of the original apostles' doctrine. Furthermore, until the concept of the Trinity evolved due to the blending of Greek philosophy and Christianity, the early church continued to baptize in Jesus name after the Apostle's deaths. Any serious follower of the Holy Bible will desire
truth in its original form, not an addition because of the traditions of men. If one is to be cursed who preaches any other message than what Paul preached,49 what about the followers of the gospel message?
In conclusion, we believe that baptism by immersion in water in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins is the only method of baptism supported by scripture and all other forms are incorrect and arose after the Apostles' deaths.
1. The Doctrine of Baptism, Edmund Schlink, Concordia Publishing
House, St. Louis/London, 1972), p. 27-28.
2. Ibid, p. 27-28.
3. Library of Christian Classics, Epistle to the Corinthians, Cyril
C. Richardson, (Westminister Press, Philadelphia, 1953), p. 73.
4. Kurios Christos, Wilhim Bousset, trans. by John E. Steeley,
(Abington Press, Nashville), p. 295.
5. Ecclesiastical History, Hermas 2:1, trans. Roy Deferrari,
(Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D. C.), p. 299
6. The Apocryphal New Testament, (Peter Eckler Publishing, New
7. Kurios Christos, Bousset.
8. Baptism in the New Testament, G. R. Beasley-Murray, (William B.
Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 1962), reprinted 1974, p.
9. The Philosophy of the Church Fathers, Henry Austryn Wolfsan, p.
10. Das Evangelium des Matthus, E. Lohmeyr, ed. Werner Schmauch, 2nd
ed. (Gottengen, 1967), p. 412.
11. Kurios Christos, Bousset, p. 295.
12. The Beginnings of the Church, Ernest F. Scott, (Scribner's pub-
lishing, 1914), p. 176-177.
13. Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity, ed. Tim Dowl-
ley, "The Church Expands", W. Ward Gasque, (William B. Eerdman's
Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI), p. 75
15. Early Christian Doctrines, John Norman Davidson Kelly, (Harper
and Brothers Publishers, New York, 1958), p. 95.
16. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson,
Vol. I, Justin Martyr's Apology, (William B. Eerdman's Publishing Co,
Grand Rapids, MI, 1980), p. 183.
17. The Act of Baptism in the History of the Christian Church, Henry
S. Burrage, (American Baptist Publication Society, Philadelphia, PA,
1879), p. 48
18. Outlines of the History of Dogma, Adolf Harnack, 1893, trans. by
Edwin K. Mitchell, (Beacon Press, Beacon Hill, Boston, MA, 1957), p.
19. The Act of Baptism in the History of the Christian Church, Bur-
rage, p. 27, quoting from Professor E. A. Sophocles of Harvard College
in Lexicon of Greek Usage in the Roman and Byzantine Periods (B.C. 146
- A.D. 1100).
20. Ibid., quotes Stanley in History of the Eastern Church, p. 117.
21. Early Christian Doctrines, J.N.D. Kelly, p. 433.
23. The Act of Baptism in the History of the Christian Church, Bur-
rage, p. 87.
24. Christian Baptism, ed. A. Gilmore, (Luttenworth Press, London,
1959), 3rd. ed., 1960, p. 219.
25. History of the Apostolic Church, Dr. Phillip Schaff, p. 569.
26. The Doctrine of Baptism, E. Schlink, p. 134.
27. Ibid, p. 132.
28. Christian Baptism, Gilmore, p. 217
29. Baptism in the New Testament, Beasley-Murray, p. 353.
30. Christian Baptism, Gilmore, p. 221.
31. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, Epistle of Ignatius to the
32. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. V, Hippolytus in "Refutation of all
Heretics", p. 125.
33. Hasting's Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics 3, p. 829.
34. An Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine, J. F.
Bethune-Baker, (Methuen & Co., London, 1903), p. 102.
35. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III, Tertullian "Against Praxeas",
36. Ibid p. 597.
38. Outlines of the History of Dogma, Adolf Harnack, p. 169.
39. Ibid, p. 182.
40. Ibid, p. 176.
41. Against Praxeas, p. 598.
42. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. V, Epistle LXX of Cyprian, p. 378.
44. A History of the Christian Councils, Charles Joseph Hefele,
trans. William R. Clark, 2nd ed., (T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1894), p.
45. Ibid, p. 108.
46. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. XIV, The Seven Ecumenical Councils,
47. Ibid, p. 185.
48. The Act of Baptism in the History of the Christian Church, H. S.
Burrage, p. 77.
49. Galations 1:8