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If on one hand you tried to count up the number of times you have heard jokes about the Doctrine of the Trinity in mainstream media, my guess is you would have a lot of fingers left over.  Like maybe five.  Yet it happened last week.  Stephen Colbert made a Trinity-related comment/joke on The Late Show.  If you have not already guessed how and why, then it is of course related to the recent story that a Catholic priest in Arizona has apparently invalidated thousands of baptisms retrospectively on account of his saying “We baptize you . . .” instead of “I baptize you . . .” each time he baptized a baby or adult.

Colbert’s joke was that since pastors represent a God in three Persons, might it not be oddly appropriate to say “We” as a personal pronoun?  If God made a restaurant reservation for three, might he not even so have to tell the person taking the rez “We will just be the one of us”? 

Last week in the Capstone integrative seminar I teach for MDiv seniors at Calvin Seminary and as part of their prep for next month’s Oral Comprehensive Exam, I turned this story into a practice Oral Comp question that I later posted on Facebook.  A friend shared a long-ish Facebook post with me from a Roman Catholic woman who pleaded with people to stop making fun of the Catholic faith over this matter.  To be clear: I have no intention of making fun of this and neither was my practice Oral Comp question cheeky or intended to criticize.  My students took it very seriously too.  Because listen: Words Matter.  I also thoroughly believe that sacramental words really, really matter. 

I will point out an inconsistency, however.  Across all the years of the dreadful and tawdry sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church while bishops and archbishops knowingly moved around pedophile priests—and while at least a couple of popes blithely looked on—no one ever wondered whether the sacraments performed by these serial offenders were invalidated.   So I will admit that part of me gets a little indignant to see the Vatican generating a lot of moral wattage over a baptismal pronoun after decades of not generating enough voltage to illuminate a 25-watt bulb on a matter of gross spiritual/physical/emotional abuse and intense institutional failure.

Of course on this point St. Augustine of Hippo long ago proposed a way forward theologically.  In the late-fourth and early-fifth century Donatist controversy, questions were raised whether the sacraments offered by a priest later found to be corrupt or immoral still counted.  Augustine essentially said that since God by the Holy Spirit is the primary actor in the sacraments—and not the priest/pastor—then the relative holiness of the officiant was secondary to the gracious action of God.  So I guess that would cover the pedophile priest matter but so far as I can recall, no one in the Vatican ever even raised the question.

OK, I got that out of the way.  Now back to why words matter.  In the practice groups in Capstone last week, the students were not so sure whether the pronoun alone could invalidate a baptism.  Some pointed out that in the Reformed tradition, baptism is very much a communal sacrament.  God makes promises, the parents make promises, the whole congregation makes promises.  “We” are all definitely involved.  And though I would still deem it odd for a pastor to say “We baptize” instead of “I baptize,” a more communal understanding might help on this point.  (This is why we don’t typically—except in extremis—baptize in private.)

One thing the students hit on quite quickly, however, is that baptism into the Triune name in obedience to the dominical command in Matthew 28 is vital.  Baptisms are properly done “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” and if that Trinitarian formula is missing or is altered, that could be cause to ponder the validity of a baptism. 

A colleague of mine has for years been involved in a Reformed-Catholic dialogue that has involved some of the higher echelons of both communions.  Some while back the two groups agreed to recognize one another’s baptisms with the all-important proviso that the baptisms happened ever and only as Jesus said in the Great Commission: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Thus some while later when my friend heard a couple pastors riffing a bit by baptizing babies “In the Name of the Creator who made you, the Savior who rescued you, and the Spirit who befriends you” (or something like that), he went after the issue full throttle.  And rightly so.  Words matter.

In my experience of having baptized lots of babies, there were plenty of parents who presented their child with due earnestness and a reasonable understanding of the sacrament.  But there were others who still had a magical view—the water automatically keeps the child from hell and so it’s best we get it done.  And there were a few others who treated the baptism with all the gravity of a six-month portrait being snapped at Walmart. 

There was even the one couple who sought to maintain familial peace in their Reformed/Catholic combined family by having a priest baptize the child on the 20th at St. Robert’s and then I would baptize the child on the 27th at Calvin CRC.  The priest and I both refused and told them to pick one and only one of us.   We were not the ecclesiastical equivalent of the Good Humor man selling ice cream bars. 

If the current story about the “We vs. I” baptism does no more than remind us that words matter when it comes to the central practices of the Christian faith, that will be a good thing.  Maybe it can remind us that despite all the chummy and user-friendly and latte-sipping ways we have tried to make worship casual in recent times, what Christians do on Sundays really is finally of eternal moment.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

8 Comments

  • Carl P Fictorie says:

    Thank you. This is a good reminder of the importance of words. But I would make two points regarding the I/we issue.
    First, Matthew 28 is clear on the use of “in the name of…” it does not, in English translations at least, specify the use of either I or we. Jesus commands the disciples to go baptize, He spoke to the disciples in a group and gave the group the command.
    Second, while the baptism is administered by an individual, behind that individual is the church, specifically the visible church manifested in the saints who have gone before, who live in the present, and those yet to come. That’s a really big WE behind the I in “I baptize…”.
    So correct me if I am wrong, but it does seem to me that the kerfuffle is just that, making a mountain out of a mole hill. I, too, would be much more put out by a non-biblical phrasing describing the Trinity, but I don’t see a problem with the use of we instead of I.
    I would be curious to know if there would be a problem with “in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit”, dropping the “of” in front of Son and Holy Spirit. Does that introduce a problematic understanding of the Trinity? I seem to recall some instances of that phrasing from time to time in baptisms I have witnessed.

    • David E Timmer says:

      Here is a link to the Vatican document that is the basis for this initially puzzling decision:
      https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/it/bollettino/pubblico/2020/08/06/0406/00923.html#rispostein
      (Click on “traduzione in lingua inglese” and be prepared for some sketchy translation and dense Vaticanese.)
      The key point (insofar as I grasp it) is that although the Church (“the Body of Christ together with its Head”) is the “subject” (agent) in baptism, the priest is acting “ministerially” for Christ the Head, not “collegially” for the Body. The language must reflect that intention: I [as minister of Christ], not we [as member of the Body). This raises lots of interesting theoretical questions (e.g., about the relationship of language to intention); but also the practical question, whether this change in the formula is a mere “liturgical abuse” to be sternly corrected, or a fatal wound to the validity of the sacrament itself. The RCC has decided on the latter. I suppose it’s not for us to determine if that’s the ditch they want to die in, However, that decision might have ecumenical implications as well.

      • Carl P Fictorie says:

        Thanks for the clarification. It makes more sense now, but I wrestle with understanding the spiritual/mystical aspects of sacraments.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Thanks Scott,
    The Twelve has had some interesting overlap of blogs over the last week. As someone who spends significant hours going over and over a manuscript for my sermons (words matter so I can’t just riff from the pulpit), pronoun choice is important, especially when we talk about people, so why not when we talk about God. At any rate the overlap between our current banning of books and Donatist rebellion is fascinating. The church’s understanding that God acts in the sacrament and not through the morality of the priest suggests that the current choice to vacate the sacraments performed with a different pronoun is a bit Donatist in nature, and unfortunate. Of course, as Shakespeare asks, What’s in a name? A question worth pondering?

  • David E Timmer says:

    Ironically, the Vatican document I cited above makes the opposite argument, insisting that recognizing that Christ is ultimately the “I” in the baptismal formula saves us from questioning the validity of the sacrament based on the human sinfulness of the priest or the church. The document quotes Augustine: “Peter may baptize …, Paul may baptize …, Judas may baptize; still, it is He [Christ] that baptizes.”

  • David E Stravers says:

    I’m shocked that we would take this so seriously. It seems like legalism. Acts 2:38 (no trinity in this baptismal command) suggests that the words that matter might not be the words we choose.

    • David E Timmer says:

      Yes, my initial reaction to this story was to think, “That’s dumb!” But whenever I find myself thinking that about some other group’s views, I remind myself that I probably don’t yet fully understand their reasoning and concerns. Once I have made the effort to do that, I can decide whether to (respectfully) disagree.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Scott, I have a question for you related to this. Now that I’ve retired, and worship in different churches, I have noticed how rarely the Name of the Holy Trinity is pronounced in worship. Rare is the RCA or CRC preacher who ever says, during the service, “In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” And with the absence of traditional liturgy, and the gradual disappearance of the Gloria Patri and the Doxology, congregations don’t repeat the Name either. How important do you take this development? That’s my question. Is this an issue to be taken seriously? This is quite apart from the issue of the fear in some churches of saying the word “Father”. I’m talking about conservative and evangelical congregations never hearing or saying the Name of God, except in Holy Baptism.

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