Matthew 28:19 and Granville Sharp’s Sixth Rule

Does Granville Sharp’s sixth rule require Matthew 28:19 to indicate that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are distinct persons?

Sharp’s sixth rule says that when nouns of the same case are joined by kai [and] and each noun is preceded by the article [the], the second noun expresses a different person, thing, or quality than the first noun. Here is the exact wording:

And as the insertion of the copulative kai between nouns of the same case, without articles, (according to the fifth rule,) denotes that the second noun expresses a different person, thing, or quality, from the preceding noun, so, likewise, the same effect attends the copulative when each of the nouns are preceded by articles: . . .

As with some of Sharp’s other rules, there is an exception to the sixth rule. It is as follows:

Except distinct and different actions are intended to be attributed to one and the same person; in which case, if the sentence is not expressed agreeable to the three first rules, but appears as an exception to this sixth rule . . . the context must explain or point out plainly the person to whom the two nouns relate.

One such exception that is commonly agreed upon, and that is offered by Sharp himself, is John 20:28. In this text, Thomas says to Jesus, “Ho kurios mou kai ho theos mou.” A literal translation would be “the [ho] Lord [kurios] of me [mou] and [kai] the [ho] God [theos] of me [mou].” Even though this conforms to Sharp’s sixth rule (two nouns, Lord and God, are joined by “and,” and both are preceded by the article), Sharp rightly determined that this is an exception to the rule. The reason for this is that the context clearly indicates that Thomas was speaking to one person, Jesus, and that he was identifying Jesus as both Lord and God.

The relevant phrase in Matthew 28:19 reads as follows: “eis to onoma tou patros kai tou huiou kai tou hagiou pneumatos.” The literal translation would be “into [eis] the [to] name [onoma] of the [tou] Father [patros] and [kai] of the [tou] Son [huiou] and [kai] of the [tou] Holy [hagiou] Spirit [pneumatos].”

Here there are three nouns (Father, Son, and Spirit [“holy” is an adjective modifying “Spirit”), all joined by “and” and each preceded by the article. The question is whether this text qualifies for Sharp’s exception. Is there anything in the context to indicate that one person is in view rather than three?

The word “name” is a singular noun. In the Jewish mind, “name” is virtually synonymous with “person.” In other words, Jesus’ Jewish disciples would have understood Him to mean that they were to baptize believers into the “person” (God Himself) who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Some trinitarian scholars have recognized, based on the grammar of the text, that Matthew 28:19 is about a singular name. For example, J. Oliver Buswell, a Presbyterian theologian, wrote, “The ‘name,’ not ‘names’ of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in which we are to be baptized, is to be understood as Jahweh, the name of the Triune God.” F.W. Beare, Professor Emeritus of New Testament Studies in Trinity College, University of Toronto, in his comments on Matthew 28:19, wrote,

From Acts and the Pauline epistles, we gather that in the earliest days, converts were baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38), or of “the Lord Jesus” (Acts 8:16); “into Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:3), or “into Christ” (Gal. 3:27). . . . The triple formulation . . . is not, properly speaking, “trinitarian”; there is no element of speculation about the divine essence or the relations between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It reflects the modes in which the divine is manifested in Christian faith.

Marvin R. Vincent wrote, “The name is not the mere designation, a sense which would give the baptismal formula merely the force of a charm. The name, as in the Lord’s Prayer . . . is the expression of the sum total of the divine Being: not his designation as God or Lord, but the formula in which all his attributes and characteristics are summed up. It is equivalent to his person.”

Sharp’s sixth rule (without the exception) calls for a radical distinction to be made between persons, things, or qualities. This is a grammatical device to indicate that two persons or things or qualities are in no way the same. Although trinitarianism teaches that God exists as three persons, it teaches that God is one being. The doctrine sees the three persons as being distinct, but not separate. In other words, trinitarianism does not call for the kind of radical distinction between the persons that would be required if Sharp’s sixth rule is applicable to Matthew 28:19. Sharp’s sixth rule, logically applied, would require the Father to be one being, the Son another being, and the Holy Spirit a third being. This is not what trinitarianism teaches. It would actually be tritheism.

Those who wish to apply Sharp’s sixth rule, without its exception, to Matthew 28:19 have misunderstood either the rule itself or the doctrine of the trinity. There is no indication in Granville Sharp’s Remarks that Sharp himself applied the rule to Matthew 28:19.

Since, according to the grammar of Matthew 28:19, there is but one name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, that means there is but one person – one God – who is the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The God that we know as the Son is the same God that we know as the Father and the same God that we know as the Holy Spirit. Sharp’s rule does not require a fragmentation of God into three radically distinct persons.

W. D. McBrayer, ed., Granville Sharp’s Remarks on the Uses of the Definitive Article in the Greek New Testament (Atlanta: The Original Word, 1995), 25.
Ibid., 28.
J. Oliver Buswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962), 123.
F. W. Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), 545.
Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, Volume 1 (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, n.d.), 149-150.