Words can have amazing power, so long as we grant it to them.
In a story familiar by now, a popular Catholic priest in Arizona had to resign when someone realized he had been using one wrong word when performing baptisms.
Andres Arango had served three different parishes in Phoenix. He was loved by congregants and credited with reversing a decline in membership and finances at his last post. Over 16 years, he had probably baptized thousands of people.
All those baptisms were ruled invalid, however, when it came to light that he had been reciting the prescribed baptism formula incorrectly: instead of saying, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” he had been saying, “We baptize you…”
That, according to Catholic authorities, was an egregious error because saying, “We baptize you” suggested that he was doing it on behalf of the congregation or the parents gathered around the baptismal font, rather than as Christ.
In Catholic theology, the priest represents Christ, so when he (always a “he”) says “I baptize you,” it is as if Jesus is doing the baptizing.
Since Andres said “we” instead of “I,” the mystical imputation of grace assumed in sacramental theology didn’t happen, so the baptism isn’t considered valid, and the person is therefore not eligible to receive communion, be married, or be ordained in the Catholic church.
That had led to problems for at least two other priests, who discovered that their priest had said the wrong words when they were baptized, which rendered their baptisms and ordinations invalid. They had to be baptized and ordained all over again.
Apparently, Andres wasn’t the only one who had been saying “we,” leading the Vatican to address the issue with an official ruling in 2020 that declared baptisms invalid if the wrong words were used.
The diocese in Phoenix has been working to identify all the people over whom Andres said “we” instead of “I,” and Andres is being allowed to assist in conducting do-overs with the correct formula.
According to Catholic doctrine, the people are not technically being baptized again because baptism is considered a one-time event in which the Spirit of Christ creates an ontological change within a person, even within babies who have no idea what is happening.
For lack of an “I,” according to the doctrine, no inner essence of being was changed and no grace wiped away sin, so it was just a little water on the head and the first baptism didn’t really happen.
I’m confident that I wasn’t alone in thinking that the whole affair sounds ridiculous, but I’d probably see it differently if I’d been raised in the Catholic tradition.
I respect sacramental theology, but I don’t share it. I don’t believe that either words or water or communion elements convey mystical imputations of grace, even for babies.
I’m more at home with my Anabaptist forebears who struck out on their own, holding to the firm belief that spiritual change begins in the head and the heart when people make an intentional decision to repent of wrongdoing and to follow Jesus.
Baptism is then a public symbol and testimony of inner change that started from within, rather than something imputed from without, accompanied by properly sanctioned terminology.
This is not to say that Protestants and especially Baptists can’t have their own quirks about words. I remember attending a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship meeting that included a communion service. Afterward, a more liturgically minded friend fumed that the worship leader had not used the proper “words of institution.”
I had served as a pastor for 26 years and had a fine seminary education, but had never run across a belief that only certain “words of institution” were proper. The gospels and Paul don’t all describe the Lord’s Supper in the same way: why should we think that only one set of words is appropriate?
While most Protestants and certainly most Baptists don’t think of themselves as sacramentalists, many hold similar ideas regarding an inner spiritual change, such as the belief that once you’ve walked the aisle and passed through the water, you’re home free for eternity.
“Once saved, always saved” harbors its own concept of a mystical imputation of grace that guarantees eternal life no matter how one lives on the far side of the baptismal pool.
This is one reason some parents encourage young children to seek baptism as soon as they can sing “Jesus loves me,” long before they understand what real temptation or life-changing decision-making is about.
My Amish friends don’t allow anyone to be baptized until they’re fully adult, have had a chance to experience the world, and have carefully thought it through. Baptism comes only after months of study and is accompanied by a series of serious vows that one will remain faithful to God and the Amish way of life.
I’m not a theologian, and don’t aspire to be one, but when it comes to measuring the validity of our standing with Christ, I have to believe that words said over our heads are far less important than commitments made in our hearts.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.