Barth on the Sacraments

Barth, Karl.  Church Dogmatics IV/4.4

This is Karl Barth’s treatment of the ordinance of baptism.  Like other volumes in this series, it shares both Barth’s strengths and weaknesses.  It should be noted that this only a fragment of what appeared to be a larger work-in-progress.  Still, it seems to contain the mature essence of Barth’s thought.

Barth begins on a promising note:  he grounds his theology of baptism on the decisive act of Jesus Christ in ushering in the new creation (11).  Readers of Oliver O’Donovan will note similar themes.  This means that Jesus is the origin and the beginning of the Christian life.  There are echoes of eschatology here:  Jesus’s resurrection discloses, if only briefly, the coming eschaton of the Regeneration (Mt. 19:28).

From this we see that Jesus is the True Israelite.  In his baptism Jesus takes upon himself, not only the identity of Israel, but also the coming judgment (Barth 56).  This, of course, is heavy with themes of mediation (and as long as Barth stays on these topics, he cannot help but triumph).  There are classic statements that Jesus is the Elected Israelite and Eschatological David (61).  How much better than can you get?

As is often the case with Barth, his historical critiques are always insightful.   He neatly outlines the Reformed view of baptism:  baptism does not cause salvation, but mediates its cognitio and certitudo (105).  He then moves to a stunning critique of hyper-sacramentalist traditions.  At no point in the New Testament is mysterion used for baptism or the supper.   It is an event of God’s positive will in space and time (108).  This is a place where Calvin can be legitimately criticized: he failed to break with the medieval tradition on the use of sacramentum, something Zwingli was much more successful at doing.  At this point in the narrative he praises Zwingli’s work, but he will pull back.   He knows that Zwingli’s theology inevitably led to infant baptism.

More pointedly, he notes that those who say the “water” saves (usually with reference to Titus 3:5), must account for the following:  1) they must make the dia loutro in Titus 3:5 carry the whole weight of justifying action; 2) they must show that the aim of the Savior’s appearing in space and time to save men is actually to illustrate that men are being baptized (LOL!); 3) they must give to the term paliggennesias a meaning quite devoid from Matthew 19:28.

So, do we agree with Barth?  Sadly, from here on we must part ways.  Not surprisingly, given his commitment to crisis-theology and existentialism, Barth champions believer’s-only baptism.  For him baptism is the decision of decisions, something an infant cannot make.  However, Barth is too keen a reader of Calvin to ignore the counters to his position. He then proceeds to critique the doctrine of infant baptism (and here he rehashes the standard baptist critiques).

What do we say in response?  I grant to him that Calvin’s treatment is often less than adequate.  Following Oliver O’Donovan I agree that the church is an eschatological society which is joined by leaving other societies.  However, adult baptism risks confusing the particular decision to be baptised with the ultimate decision that baptism represents (O’Donovan 178).  Infant baptism, by contrast, does not confuse my decision to be baptised with the eschatological decision of following Christ.

At the end of the day it must be acknowledged that neither Barth’s position nor that of the paedobaptist can claim 100% certainty.  This is because, as Barth makes clear earlier, the New Testament really doesn’t say all that much about the theology of baptism.  It is important and people do it, but the New Testament stops there. I believe the paedobaptist position is warranted because of inferences from God’s covenant promises.

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Author: Ephraim's Arrow

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, charismatic gifts

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