Monday, June 22, 2015

Loftus: involuntary untruths or wilful lies?

What are we to make of this statement from the latest column (19 June 2015) by Mgr Basil Loftus in The Catholic Times?

The very words of the sacrament of baptism have changed - in the early Church baptism was not with a Trinitarian formula, but "In the name of Jesus".

It is scarcely conceivable that Loftus could be ignorant of the final two verses of the Gospel of Matthew (28:19-20)

19 Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.

If he knows it, however, his statement would appear to be a barefaced lie.

Loftus never says anything for which he could not offer some defence, however specious. In this case it is the fact that the phrase 'baptised in the name of Jesus' appears several times in Acts, eg 2:38.

But such a defence would carry no real weight. It makes no sense to say that Acts represents the practice of 'the early Church' whereas Matthew does not.

1. There is no scholarly consensus that Luke/ Acts is earlier than Matthew; quite the reverse.

2. The term 'early Church' covers the first centuries, when Matthew would in any case have been known. Matthew was also known in the 'primitive Church', which refers to the very earliest period and which Loftus may have in mind, even if it had been a bit later than Luke / Acts. The very existence of Matthew rules out the claim that the Trinitarian formula not not used at that time.

3. The apparent conflict between Matthew and Luke is easily understood on the supposition, agreed by a wide range of scholars, that 'baptism in the name of Jesus' does not exclude the use of the Trinitarian formula, but merely distinguishes Chrisitian baptism from the 'Baptism of John' (John the Baptist), which is explicitly contrasted with it in Acts 19:1-5.

As usual, Loftus would have something to say if accused of bad faith. But what he would have to say, as I have reconstructed it for him, is itself subject to accusations of bad faith. He knows perfectly well that the Church has never accepted the idea that baptism without the Trinitarian formula would be valid, and has a perfectly reasonable way of understanding the Acts references to 'baptism in the name of Jesus' in accord with this. To take up the contrary view is to take up heresy.

Loftus is deliberately leading his readers up the garden path on this subject, without addressing the real teaching of the Church or the arguments for that teaching. This is dishonest, and worse than dishonest. It is a sin against Faith, if conscious. And humanly speaking, how could it not be conscious?

This is one sentence in this column. I could have written as much or more about each of about a dozen other sentences, in which he most notably denies 1 Cor 11:29, and (more or less) calls it a human obstacle placed on Christ's mercy. But we've heard this one before, and life is short.

Support the work of the LMS by becoming an 'Anniversary Supporter'.


  1. As much as I loathe to say it, Loftus's marks are defensible. Unless we are to abandon the insights of modern scholarship (I can feel the daggers out for me now), then we must admit the possibility of variation of custom in the early Church. "In the name of Jesus" can be understood in a variety of ways. Liturgical scholarship notes that in ancient times the formula for baptism was declarative rather than imperative, i.e. the indicative was used, referring to the newly accomplished action. To me, it seems that the early Church, or at least part of it, placed emphasis on the mystical and sacramental elements of the rite rather than on the formulae used to accomplish it. Concentrating on the symbolism of entering into the waters of death and emerging out of it anew with the Holy Ghost descending has a freshness and freedom that was probably less focused on the formula than we are, after twenty centuries of theological controversy.

    To be fair, we simply do not know what precise historical meaning to attribute to the phrase "in the name of Jesus" when talking of baptism. Does "name" refer, as it did in the OT, to the presence of God Himself? If it does, it applies equally to "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost". The use of an indicative rather than an imperative phrase may well negate the use for an absolutely precise formula. The intention would clearly have been to do what Christ and the Apostles gave them to do. What the bishop or priest said to the neophyte after the sacrament was accomplished is, in some ways, a matter of indifference. The sacrament had been celebrated, the sin forgiven and a new man had come into being, whether in the name of Jesus or the Thrice Holy Trinity.

    1. No, they aren't defensible.

      From a historical point of view the Gospel of Matthew is perfectly explicit.

      From a theological point of view baptism not using the trinitarian formula is invalid: this is a truth of faith.