Wednesday, November 15, 2017

My Take on Baptism in Acts of the Apostles

In my first post, Theophilus....

Ok, that was a bad idea. For the record, that was a joke based on the way St. Luke begins the Gospel of Luke, and then begins the Acts of the Apostles. St. Luke wrote both books, so when I say "Acts says," it means both "what St. Luke wrote here."  And of course also " what God said here." This is Scripture.

So, seriously, this is "part two of two" on my posts about baptism in the Acts of the Apostles. Click HERE to read my lengthy analysis of the question. Here I will re-post the question in its briefest form, and then start to give for an answer what I think are my very small insights into Scripture.

Question: Why does the Acts of Apostles only describe baptism as "in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ" when (in Matt 28:19) Christ commanded us to baptize "in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit"?

Some preface notes for my answer. 

First is to say openly that my ideas are somewhat of a response to the Protestant conceptions of salvation. Particularly I believe this very scriptural issue requires a response to the kind of systems that Protestantism has adopted for receiving the salvation of Christ. To say that this is an issue at all is a response to the Protestant systems, which are said explicitly to supersede and replace the Catholic sacramental system. To spill the beans, I believe the Acts of the Apostles presents baptism in a very particular, objective, and salvific sense, which is exactly what Catholic sacramental theology claims for baptism, and has always claimed for baptism.

Second preface is the obvious point for those who read (or may read for the first time) the Acts of the Apostles: Acts in no way denies the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are clearly all spoke of, and all affirmed as divine. Likewise, when Acts consistently says "baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ" instead of baptized "in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit" it is not claiming to give any credal formula, nor is it explicitly quoting any baptismal ritual script. Therefore I confess I do overstate the problem when I speak as if this question seems like a matter of utter contradiction existing in the Scriptures, or of mental instability on the part of its Apostolic authors. This analysis is not an immediate clarification of core Christian doctrine. But, along with my first proviso where I have already "spilled the beans," I will say that a good insight into this question may in fact clarify a Christian doctrine that has in fact been divided and contradictory the last 500 years.

Now for my answer let us start to go through parts of Acts. I proceed first by interpreting some verses as they might seem to be interpreted in a Protestant system. [Proviso number three, there is of course no one singular Protestant system. Politely skipping any survey of the contradictions among Protestants, I say that I am responding to any of those systems whereby Protestants operate under some recognizable swap-out of traditions. Where the Catholic Church puts baptism, they put the intentional invocation of Jesus Christ as one's personal Lord and Savior, either vocally or silently but intentionally. Where the Catholic Church puts the sacrament of confirmation, they, practically speaking, put baptism. ]

Let us pretend you have been given a Bible by a Christian friend, who has already encouraged you to pray to Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. You have just read the whole Gospel of Luke, and it was pointed out that the story continues in "part two." You start to read Acts, inspired by the hope that you have found, that Jesus will give peace, and that there is such a thing as the forgiveness of sins. You read some strange business about finding a replacement for Judas, someone to have a "share," in some kind of ministry. But you don't really understand that, so you get passed the verse about having a replacement for "Apostle #12," and... BAM! you are at the exciting events of Pentecost. The presence and effects of the Holy Spirit are impressive. But there is not much there to inspire a personal hope for salvation, until you start reading a sermon by St. Peter that elaborates on the promises of some ancient prophet. Even if you can't match up the words of the Prophet Joel with the current events, the last line of Joel that St. Peter quotes in this sermon might catch your ear; "On that day whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved!" (Acts 2:21, Joel 2:32).

Here you have the promise of promises, eternal life, that given to the repentant criminal on Calvary. St. Peter obviously would build upon this great promise. And he does. He proceeds to prove, via a quote of the 16th Psalm, that Jesus of Nazareth is in fact the long expected Christ, as proved by his resurrection. Lest they missed his greatest point, St. Peter quotes one more Messianic Psalm about the resurrection, and then states the grand conclusion, "know assuredly, that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified!" (2:36).

Now at this point the Catholic Church and many Protestant creeds are in agreement about how all the dots connect. Those who have listened to the Gospel should know that "they" crucified Jesus. But the crucifixion led to the forgiveness of sins. Therefore the great promise of salvation, mentioned by the prophet Joel, had been made available since the moment of the resurrection of Christ. We know... that... JESUS... IS... CHRIST AND LORD. The "name of the Lord" can be identified in none other than Jesus Christ. And St. Peter had just said, filling in the name for Joel's prophecy, "whoever calls on the name of the Lord [Jesus Christ] will be saved."

At this point it seems very clear that people should be led to pray to the Lord Jesus Christ. It seems clear that they should have some help using words to ask Jesus to forgive their sins. Peter should have reminded them of the words of the good thief on the cross, and told them to make some similar invocation. There should have been an altar call. This, after all, is how we "call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ," is it not? We must pray a "Jesus prayer" to have our sins forgiven.

But it is exactly here where you will find things not exactly as your Protestant friend had indicated. And here also is where St. Peter's next words give us the answer to that great Scriptural and historical puzzle about the way baptism is described in Acts. St. Peter does NOT say, "to receive the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of your sins, repent in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and be baptized." No. He says "repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the Holy Spirit." Focus in and let us make that even more explicit. He does NOT say, "repent in the name... and be baptized." He says "repent and be baptized in the name!" You see, St. Peter's imperative about repentance and baptism here are very much a summation of the prophecy of Joel. Read his sermon again and see that Jesus' name is the only name that has been "named" since St. Peter quoted that great promise, "on that day whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." He "named" Him when he proclaimed him both Lord and Christ. Now he "names" baptism as the key to calling upon the name. It is baptism that, to receive the promise of Joel, is done "in his name;" not the vocal prayer on behalf of the penitent.

In Acts, to be baptized is synonymous with "calling upon the name of the Lord," that is the salvation spoken of by Joel and quoted by St. Peter. The phrase is a shorthand. But it is shorthand for the great promise that one receives, and not for any ritual prayers for baptism. This way of describing baptism does contain a double entendre. It primarily means that the baptism itself is a salvific act of "calling upon the name" Jesus Christ, who died for the forgiveness of our sins and brings us the promised salvation of the day of the Lord. This description does also include this presupposition, that "calling upon the name of the Lord" we should insist on giving and receiving baptism with the very words that the Lord, Jesus Christ, instructed us to use for baptism. Every Christian reading Acts knew the latter part, and so Acts hammers home the former, many times. If baptism gives, in itself, the salvation promised by Joel on the day of the Lord, then the reason Acts of the Apostles never says explicitly how baptism is done, is because it is so focused on what baptism is: a sacrament for the forgiveness of sins and the reception of the Holy SpiritGo back to my questions and read the citations in Acts. It is clear in Acts that the forgiveness of sins was identified with the baptism, and not with any prayers that were expressed by the baptizee, although the two must be harmonious. 

Here in Acts the forgiveness of sins is not left to a subjective internal intention. It is identified with an objective external sign, which must match the internal intention. Such is my answer to the question of the seeming inconsistency of the exact words to use when baptizing. And if it seems like I'm trying to cram too much meaning into small little phrases from Acts, I confess it is because this is Scripture, and I can only do a very inadequate job for explaining the great truths that are here. Again, I'm sure there are some great Catholic scriptural insights out there from the good scholars.

I will mention in closing  I believe there are other corollaries to this in Acts. The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, and the significance of John the Baptist in Acts, are things that have come powerfully into this picture too. Of course the idea of identifying the forgiveness of sins with the receiving of baptism needs to be put into the whole scheme of Acts, whereby the Church is actually doing much more than just going around and giving one sacrament in isolation from all other activity. There is that great issue of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit, which even when given by God before baptism, seemed only to highlight the necessity of baptism all the more. For the sake of brevity I had to keep myself from even using the word "covenant" here, but the whole of Acts - and the Bible for that matter - cannot be understood with that word. And, of course, the entire Acts has been called The Gospel of the Holy Spirit, and it requires a great response to His gifts to start to understand the way He operates, and the totality of what He was accomplishing in the Acts. 

I close this post with two thoughts from my small thought on baptism in Acts. 
First, given all of St. Peter's speech on the day of Pentecost, we can say that performing, giving, and receiving baptism as Christ commanded us is essentially a proclamation of the Lordship of Christ. Second, Pentecost should be a daily occurrence for the baptized believer.

Monday, November 13, 2017


Let me preface this piece with a little insight into the life of a country priest. I just finished an unfortunate but necessary extra finance meeting for the parish. Church furnaces (in the plural!) are out of order, and at least one of them is going to be replaced as of tonight’s meeting. I further have a list of maintenance needs that I really need to get on top of, at least sending requests for assistance since I can’t get these jobs done any time soon. I need to send an important planning email to my school principal, and get ahead of ten other letters and communications/ pieces of paperwork that should have been done a week ago. 
And yet there is something else on my mind that is finally spilling forth, and I need to get it in writing. It is a theological, biblical, and historical question all rolled into one. It has been on my mind for months, in part for years, and only recently (as I have tried to make some connections with Protestant pastor acquaintances and friends regarding the Reformation anniversary) have my thoughts made any progression on the question. As of this day, I realized that there was a clearly important historical reference that I had never checked. I just checked it, and I finally need to put this into a piece of writing, and so I am starting right now, when it is late and I am hungry.
Let me give you the context of the question. It is the historical record of the Church’s baptismal practice. When preaching on the Creed I like to point out that our earliest versions of the Apostles’ Creed come to us in the form of liturgies, whereby the Church was performing baptisms, according to the Creed that Apostles instructed us to use, when performing baptisms. That is, people were baptized “in the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” as they professed their believe in the Trinity in the baptismal ritual of the second century (see the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus, ca. 215AD). I just today checked out The Didache of the Twelve Apostles, which is a document from around the year 100 AD, and it is absolutely clear that, as the name of the Didache suggests, baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” is an Apostolic Practice, which was happening while at least some of the Apostles were still alive. For, the Didache reads,
And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.
And here your Scripture student of any devotion and acumen whatsoever might point out that this is exactly what one would expect, since it is the verified historical record, of the Gospel writers of the inspired Scriptures, that our Lord himself instructed the Apostles to perform baptism in this manner. Let us read the whole of the Great Commission given at the time of the Ascension.
Matthew 28: 16-20. The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
Of course the Apostles baptized in this manner. And of course they instructed their followers, their successors, and the whole early church to baptize in this manner. All of Christianity, except for some modern off-kilter pastors who thought it nice to re-invent baptism, always performed baptisms in the way that Jesus himself instructed us, by invoke the whole Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
So here is my question, if Jesus was so clear in Matthew 28:19, and the inspired Gospels record his very words on how to baptize, and the historical records from around 100 AD, and 200 AD both confirm (as a historical record) that the early church did invoke the whole Trinity for every baptism, why is it that the one inspired Scriptural book of the Bible, whose sole purpose it is to give us a “history” of the Apostolic Church from the time of the Ascension of Jesus to the proclamation of the Gospel at “the ends of the earth,” does not seem to affirm this practice exactly as it was commanded in the Gospel and then performed in the early Church? The question is why the Acts of the Apostles, as a divinely inspired book of history, never speaks about baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Not. Once! 
Why is the description of baptism, which is categorically used in the Acts of the Apostles (save the direct quotation of the Gospel promise of being "baptized with the Holy Spirit,” Cf. 1:5, 11:16), only that of being baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” I pulled all the references to baptism, so you can see for yourself.
NAB Acts 1:5 for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the holy Spirit."
 1:22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day on which he was taken up from us, become with us a witness to his resurrection."
NAB Acts 2:38 Peter (said) to them, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the holy Spirit.
 2:41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand persons were added that day.
NAB Acts 8:12 but once they began to believe Philip as he preached the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, men and women alike were baptized.
 8:13 Even Simon himself believed and, after being baptized, became devoted to Philip; and when he saw the signs and mighty deeds that were occurring, he was astounded.
 8:16 for it had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
 8:36 As they traveled along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, "Look, there is water. What is to prevent my being baptized?"
 8:38 Then he ordered the chariot to stop, and Philip and the eunuch both went down into the water, and he baptized him.
NAB Acts 9:18 Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. He got up and was baptized,
NAB Acts 10:37 what has happened all over Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached,
10: 47 "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people, who have received the holy Spirit even as we have?"
 10:48 He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
NAB Acts 11:16 and I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, 'John baptized with water but you will be baptized with the holy Spirit.'
NAB Acts 13:24 John heralded his coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel;
NAB Acts 16:15 After she and her household had been baptized, she offered us an invitation, "If you consider me a believer in the Lord, come and stay at my home," and she prevailed on us.
16: 33 He took them in at that hour of the night and bathed their wounds; then he and all his family were baptized at once.
NAB Acts 18:8 Crispus, the synagogue official, came to believe in the Lord along with his entire household, and many of the Corinthians who heard believed and were baptized.
 18:25 He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord and, with ardent spirit, spoke and taught accurately about Jesus, although he knew only the baptism of John.
NAB Acts 19:3 He said, "How were you baptized?" They replied, "With the baptism of John."
 19:4 Paul then said, "John baptized with a baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus."
19: 5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
NAB Acts 22:16 Now, why delay? Get up and have yourself baptized and your sins washed away, calling upon his name.'
See even more. Some of St. Paul’s letters seem to suggest that he was in on this let’s-correct-our-Lord’s-own-wording-for-baptism scheme. For example,
NAB Romans 6:3 Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
NAB Galatians 3:27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

It’s like the Apostolic Church went schizophrenic for thirty years, and after the Ascension the Apostles immediately decided just to drop two persons of the Trinity out of baptism, and then the Church, in the year 100 AD, immediately set to work remedying this terrible omission of the Father and of the Holy Spirit.  Certainly this wasn’t the case.
Maybe there were shorthand expressions employed in Acts, whereby one just needed to write one of three names, and everyone knew that they were supposed to read all three names into the literal reference. It is after all much shorter and cheaper on the ancient ink budget to write “baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” than “baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” But surely the explanation of all of this is not that the Apostles were just trying to save some drops of ink by using some consensus recognized shorthand. I say surely this is not the explanation, and I say so because I believe I know part of the real explanation. I believe that there is a real gap in the Christian faith itself if this cannot be explained in a more meaningful way. And I believe that there is something very important deep down in this seeming inconsistency in the Scriptures and in Church History.

I confess that I will not do justice to an answer, but I think I have the start of one. There are some key scripture passages at stake, and I wish I had the time to research all of them just to get another insight or two into this question. It has probably been done by some real scholar somewhere already. Any of the good Catholic exegetes out there are surely way ahead of me of understanding baptism in the Acts of the Apostles. But I don’t have the time to look for such research, and so I will bang out in a short while what it has taken me a few months to come up with from my own musings. It will have to be another post, which I promise to write within a few weeks. Promise. I hope and pray the very work I just put into phrasing the question leads me to new insight into my partial answers.
And not just insight. But gratitude, and devotion, for such a great gift as I have received, through the gift of baptism.