Baptismal Formulas: Some Historical Facts

Pray Tell reader Max Johnson of Notre Dame University writes the following:

The earliest use of the baptismal formula as formula for the actual conferring of baptism appears in mid-third century Syrian texts, where it reads, “WE baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Spirit of Holiness.”

Obviously the early Syrian Christians were not really baptized.

Further, Rome did not use a baptismal formula at all for centuries, with its earliest “form” being the three-fold question and answer, “Do you believe…I believe” (dip, dunk, or pour).

A little history still goes a long way to alleviating even canonical ignorance!

Featured image: Ethiopian Coptic baptism


  1. Isn’t one of the core issues here, since “invalidity” is being claimed based on the incorrect pronoun and the supposed theological reasons behind saying “I” baptize, whether a deprecatory formula by contrast is “valid?” In that case, Easter baptisms and absolutions are invalid. One might also question Roman confirmations, since the “I” was dropped from the pre-conciliar form in favor of the current “I-less” one. Anointing lacks such a formula (pre- and post-conciliar) and the formulae for ordinations are likewise deprecatory as far as I can tell. Beyond this, isn’t every sacramental action that of Christ and the Church — following Augustine’s “totus Christus caput et membra” dictume (not to mention St. Paul? Christ is always a “we,” oui?

  2. I forgot to mention above the lack of an institution narrative in the anaphora of Addai and Mari which Rome accepts as “valid.”

  3. For references see my Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and interpretation (Collegeville: Pueblo, 2007), chapters 2 and 3. See also my revised edition of E.C. Whitaker, Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy.

  4. Those appear to be fascinating Christian facts! Baptism, in my opinion, is a key event in a Christian’s life. I’d like to thank for aiding me with the children’s baptismal services. They appropriately prepared the youngsters by highlighting the importance of this significant Christian event! I’m really delighted with the outcomes and how the children are blossoming into great Christian young adults!

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