In Matthew 28.19 we have Jesus commanding his disciples to go into the entire world baptizing “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit”. In Acts 2.38 we have Jews asking the Apostle Peter what must be done now that they realize they have killed their Messiah and they are told, “Repent, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ”. Do we have a contradiction? Should we read one through the other? Do we have two forms to the “one baptism” that the Apostle Paul mentions (Eph. 4.4-5)?
In the early church we see two trajectories. One is evident in works like the early Christian document the Didache:
It is obvious that some early Christians seemed to understand the wording of Mt. 28.19 as the common tradition. There is some discussion as to whether or not this was a later addition to the Didache but there doesn’t seem enough textual evidence to doubt it. It is more than likely that the writer of the Didache came from a community familiar with the First Gospel.
On the other hand we see frequent references to being “baptized into Christ” throughout the Pauline epistles. Others see reference to baptism in places like James 2.7 where Christians are chastised for honoring the rich over the poor despite the rich being blasphemous against “the honorable name by which you were called”. It is argued that this likely is the name “Jesus Christ” or some variant.
There are some who have argued that baptism in “the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit” is the only legitimate baptism. You can see this type of thinking evolving strongly around the time of the Arian controversies. For the most part it is because being baptized in the “name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” indicated you recognized these three as divine and one. While Christological controversies were on the horizon the early debates regarding Trinity resulted in one emerging as the most used because it sent an additional message in a post-Arius context.
While the language of Mt. 28.19 has historical preference (not as in “earliest” but as in most traditionally used) it is my contention we should understand why this is so. It may be that it is still worth preferring this language because we still have serious doctrinal controversies today. The confession of Mt. 28.19 says a lot and it puts one in a continuum with the church over many years.
Nevertheless, I don’t see any reason to discredit the Acts 2.38 language. I was baptized using this language and I have never personally felt obligated to be rebaptized. The one concern that I have heard expressed is that the baptismal language was used in order to be sectarian. There are some who choose the language of Acts 2.38 in order to make a distinction from other Christians who mostly use Mt. 28.19. While I understand this can be problematic I know that as a pre-teen when I was baptized it was not in order to be sectarian, it was to place faith in Christ, and I think this is the point of baptism.
That being said there are those who think Mt. 28.19 must be interpreted through Acts 2.38. It is argued that the “name” (singular) of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit is “Jesus”. I have seen the proof-texting used to make this point but I find it wanting. What we have is the text and it says “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit”. Likewise, we have what seems to be as sufficient evidence that the name “Jesus” is that of the Son. The Father is never called “Jesus” (or Jesus the Father) and the same is true of the Holy Spirit.
It is my position that those who argue for an either/or don’t have any real sufficient reason to do so. We have a trajectory using the language “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”. We have a trajectory using the language “Jesus”, “Lord Jesus”, “Jesus Christ”, or “Lord Jesus Christ”. What we have in common is (1) the act of baptism is a natural faith response, (2) the object of faith is the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit who has been made known to us through Jesus, and (3) all Christians participate in this act.
There was once a time when some Christian communities were informed by reading the First Gospel. There was once a time when some Christians were influenced by the writing found in Luke-Acts. If we must choose between one or the other we have to say there was a time when one Christian community was mislead because they only had one document with one approach to the language to be used at baptism. While the gospels came together as a corpus fairly “quickly” we can still use “quickly” in reference to decades. Also, the four-fold gospels corpus didn’t include Acts so many people who read the four-fold gospels would have only had the wording of Mt. 28.19 available which is likely why documents like the Didache repeat it.
What we must remember is the when the Apostle Paul spoke of “one baptism” it is unlikely he meant one way of saying something over the one being baptized. In context we have the issue of “unity” being addressed–not baptismal language. When we read “one baptism” this is not a polemic against another, wrong baptism. It is a reminder we all share in the one baptism like we share in the one Spirit.
So does the language of one of these passages trump the other? No, I don’t think so. We find both used in early Christendom and both found there way into our canon of Scripture. I see no reason for an either/or when we likely have a both/and.