Naming God is an extremely important matter that too few of us take as seriously as we should. This issue gets pushed forward now and then when various progressive readings of Scripture are promoted in the church. Sometimes these progressive tendencies come from radical feminism. Sometimes they just come from careless non-Trinitarian concepts of God.

In February of 2008 the Vatican issued an eighty word document that produced the following newspaper headline: “Vatican Says Baptisms Using Wrong Words Are Not Valid, Must Be Redone.” The document said, “Anyone baptized in the name of the Creator, and of the Redeemer, and of the Sanctifier” or in the name of “the Creator, the Liberator and the Sustainer” didn’t really get baptized with Christian baptism. I happen to agree with this statement of the Vatican and I think many conservative evangelicals would be puzzled by such agreement.

Following the Vatican’s statement in May of 2008 Christianity Today reported that a Methodist minister “howled about the Vatican’s liturgical fundamentalism that values human language over divine grace.” What is wrong with this statement? A great deal actually but the fundamental problem (no pun intended) is that human language is itself a matter of divine revelation and grace. The church uses a Trinitarian formula for one primary reason—it gives expression to the statement of the Nicene Creed that Jesus is “very God of very God.” Further, it clearly expresses the truth of the Great Commission that we are commanded to baptize in the Triune name according to Matthew 28:18-20.


All of this is important because God has chosen to reveal himself to us in the Bible. If he had not revealed himself then we would not know who he really is. Jesus refers to himself as the Son and he also speaks of his Father as God. But doesn’t he use other metaphors for the Godhead? The answer is obvious but the name that most designates God in the teaching of Jesus is Father. And in relationship to God, Jesus is always the Son. And the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God the Father. (He is also the Spirit of Jesus in a different sense.)  It is not without accident that the words of Matthew 28 say clearly that we are to baptize “in the name of the Father . . .” Note—Jesus says we are to baptize in the name of.

God’s name seems to always clearly reveal God’s character in Scripture. And God’s name reveals his communal nature (“perichoresis”) as well as his desire for a personal relationship with his people, a people who also have a name.

The problem with all of these radical attempts to rename God, especially in our hymns and liturgies, is that they replace the personal name of God with words that denote function, not personality. If we depersonalize God it will not be long until we miss this vital biblical emphasis entirely. Some have thus correctly noted that “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier” encourages modalism, the heresy that says that Trinity is about God’s modes of operation rather than about something intrinsic to his essential being. The biblical doctrine says that all three persons are involved in creation, redemption and sanctification so these are not biblical ways to properly name the Triune God.

Other triads include: Creator, Savior and Sanctifier or Mother, Child and Womb (perhaps the worst of all given its almost total lack of biblical support).

Robert Jenson, one of the champions of Trinitarian theology in our time and one of my favorite writers on this subject, says that all of these kinds of ideas suggest we already know the Triune God thus we merely seek to find the right words to address him with. The facts are the other way around says Jenson. “The phrase Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is historically specific and can be what liturgy and devotion—and, at its base, all theology—must have, a proper name of God.”

God revealed his name to us in Jesus Christ. He is our Father. Jesus is his eternal Son and the eternal Spirit proceeds from the Father and is given by the Son. “God is serious about his name—which is why he took the trouble to reveal it to us in Christ. To create an alternative according to our cultural sensibilities is at best parody and at worst idolatry, even if it is constructed from the good metaphors God has given us. Most idols, after all, are created from God’s good gifts” (Christianity Today, May, 2008, page 21).

Related Posts


  1. Richard Wattenbarger October 15, 2009 at 7:07 am

    John, I wonder if behind some of these renamings lies a subtle contempt or suspicion of history. Such a view might be informed by the presupposition that history represents a site of alienation from God and his creation rather than a part of creation itself. From that position, one can easily cast suspicion on the historical names of God (especially those in the Scriptures).
    (Of course, the contempt for historicity has long been a serious problem for Americans, especially since the notion that individuals are in part historically constituted flies so flagrantly in the face of cherished beliefs in the autonomous self.)

  2. Ed Holm October 15, 2009 at 7:42 am

    We live in a culture where the only name that is important is our own name. We define ourselves, we define others, and we define God on our own terms. This is a big change from a culture that held naming as being so important that it could not even say the name of God aloud. I would imagine that the reaction to the Vatican’s statement on the lack of validity of certain Baptisms is “whatever.” We have much to learn and to reclaim by examining traditional orthodoxy.

  3. Chris Criminger October 15, 2009 at 9:12 am

    Hi John,
    I totally disagree with those who want to change the Trinitarian language revealed in Scripture but at the same time, I do think it is possible for people to use other languange (which I think is very problematic) and still be Trinitarians in their teachings and practices. This may be inherently flawed, but so is our understanding and inconsistent lifestyles.
    I think the other danger is if we use biblical words and Trinitarian vocabularly, we think that automatically makes people’s baptism real and legitimate. One only has to look at the church at large today that often uses biblical language and see that this is simply not so.

  4. Travis Matthew Finley October 15, 2009 at 8:24 pm

    Along these lines, I try to enable my students to realise that LORD is not YHWH’s name and that it might suit to substitute LORD with his actual name: YaHWeH. I mean, imagine referring to one’s wife only by her initials, “I love you, MEF.”

  5. LKH October 16, 2009 at 8:03 am

    I’ve been thinking about this issue lately. And I agree that one can use different “language” but still be Trinitarian in belief and practice.
    Names are powerful, and understanding the meaning behind them is vital in reference to God. So I suppose if an individual or congregation has a grasp of the meanings, then using other names shouldn’t be an issue, in my opinion. Because God IS a Liberator, a Sustainer, a Mother, etc…

  6. Joe Heschmeyer October 16, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    Beautifully said! I mean, obviously I agree, as a traditional Catholic, but you really nailed the “why” as to this one in a way a lot of people don’t get. The “new names” for God are unbiblical, insufficient, and at least potentially heretical. And in case, using them in Baptism, when we’ve been given the specific command to use the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is just sin, in that it’s disobedience. Disobeying God *during* Baptism is some lunacy.

  7. Chris Criminger October 17, 2009 at 7:39 am

    Hi Everyone,
    We follow the practice of baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit because that is the tradition and practice of the church.
    There is NO SPECIFIC (Biblical) COMMAND that one has to do this. Nor do we even have one specific example of what people said when someone was baptized in the biblical texts.

  8. John H. Armstrong October 17, 2009 at 7:46 am

    But isn’t Matthew 28:19-20 a clear IMPERATIVE and the Name is built right into the formula that Matthew gave us as the words of Jesus? And, isn’t the reason we have the Tradition you refer to here, of using Father, Son and Holy Spirit in baptism, rooted in this same biblical text, the only one that clearly links our discipleship to baptism and the name of God? In addition, the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity once and for all (though not infallibly) settles this point: we baptize in the Triune Name precisely because this is WHO God is: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If you ask: “Who is God?” the early church said He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is more than an option among other names. It is the revealed truth of the New Testament, thus at the core of distinctive NT doctrine.

  9. Chris Criminger October 17, 2009 at 8:14 am

    Hi John,
    I am catholic to follow the church’s tradition which I believe the Holy Spirit guided to use the Matthew 28 formula in the way you express it. But I think it’s problematic from my perspective to say that this then is a clear imperative from Scripture to use this as the primacy text for baptisms. I am simply asking the biblical question, “Where in the text does it say this? Nor are we even given one specific text that say “Here is what you say when baptizing someone” much less an example of what people said over people when they were actually baptized into water. Are we not reading Matt.28 from the established practices we see within the Nicene Creed?
    I talk to enough oneness Pentecostals who say something similar that all the texts in Acts in people being baptized in the name of Jesus only is the normative pattern for how to baptize people. But where do any of these texts say that is what you say specifically when baptizing someone? They make the same argument that the name of Jesus is built into the baptismal formula.
    So in the end, I am in full agreement with Joe and you on the use of the Matt.28 because of the direction and development of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. But I disagree that there is a ClEAR much less SPECIFIC command that one is to do so from the Matthean text. Where is the clear and specific command to use this text as the words we say in baptisms from the text itself?
    If people want to argue that is the implications of the text (I have no problem with that—-implied from the text). Nor am I totally against saying that it is somehow inherent in the text even if not directly but just know that Oneness Pentecostals can make the same argument from other texts using these kind of arguments. This is my major and only point.

  10. John H. Armstrong October 17, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    Simply put, “baptizing in the name of” seems to me to be a clear imperative. We do not just baptize in any name, or no name, we baptize in the name of God the Triune One: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Name, you well know, means in the person of, or in the authority of the NAME being used, thus any old combination of name is not acceptable given the significance of that NAME in the New Testament. Canonical hermeneutics is important here, not simply an argument about it not being said clearly that we do it “this way or that way.” I do not see how you can divorce the act of baptizing from the NAME of God into whom a person is being baptized. This strikes me as straining at gnats but I do not want to develop my exegetical case any further here. Maybe I will address this in a blog at some point if it seems germane, or we can discuss it face-to-face sometime asfriends.

  11. Chris Criminger October 17, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    Hi John,
    I won’t belabor the point but simply say that the Name argument is the exact same argument Oneness Pentecostals on the other side of this discussion use. Canonical hermeneutics is important but they also have a way of fitting all scriptures into one paradigm (try arguing this case with the Oneness Pentecostals and see how hermenutics is just as much a part of the problem as the solution).
    Historic Christianity has used Matt.28 as the text for baptizing and understanding all other texts (that is good enough for me). But when push comes to shove, I guess I can not say as confidently as others that Matt.28 contextualized is about the exact wording for water baptism candidates.
    My own ecclesial tradition uses Acts 2:38 with Matt.28 over all other texts in regards to the exact words for speaking over those getting baptized.
    From my perspective, this is not a canonical approach any more than Matt.28 is but then others theological mileage may vary.

  12. Clay Knick October 20, 2009 at 9:10 am

    Yes & amen & amen!

Comments are closed.

My Latest Book!

Use Promo code UNITY for 40% discount!

Recent Articles