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.

Augustine: Baptism and Forgiveness

These are some notes from Augustine’s treatise Baptism and the Forgiveness of Sins.  Once you get passed the grim assertions that unbaptized babies aren’t saved (which guaranteed that the Catholic church would come up with theories of Limbo), there are some important points on concupiscence.

Book II

  1. Infants are born with concupiscence (II.4).
  2. God works…
    1. God works our salvation in us, but not in the manner of external working on stones (II.6).
    2. Regeneration:  Augustine says the term doesn’t have a univocal sense.  When we speak of “baptismal regeneration” we don’t mean the same thing as “regeneration of the Spirit” (II.9).
  3. Perfection:  A Relative term (II.18).
    1. I can be perfect in one sense (as a scholar) but imperfect in another (giving wisdom).
  4. Does God command the impossible?  Sort of.
    1. This is how God measures righteousness to himself.
    2. Why does man not live without sin?
      1. Because of both ignorance and unwilling.
  5. Concupiscence
    1. First movement of the will is a desire for power, disobedience through pride (II.33).
    2. Man did not have concupiscence before the fall (II.36).
      1. This is the law of sin in my members (pudenda).
      2. primal righteousness: my members did not fight against the law of sin
      3. Old carnal nature = law of sin (II.45).
      4. Concupiscence remains even if the guilt is gone.  
    3. If there is the “likeness of sinful flesh” then there must be the reality of sinful flesh (II.58).

Patristic Age and Politics

From the O’Donovans’ From Irenaeus to Grotius. These are summary points of the introductions to each section.

Outline on Irenaeus to Grotius

  1. Baptismal rules treated military as a problematic profession.
  2. There were Christians in the armed forces.
  3. The difficulty explained
    1. The military oath had quasi-religious connotations.
    2. Then there was the responsibility of bloodshed.
  4. Christian opinion changed imperceptibly between Tertullian and Basil.

There was a subtle difference in how West and East approached rule.  The former was a res publica and the latter a Basileus.


Moses as law-giver
Nomos subsumed under Logos


  • The line b/t political imagination and Christology was formed by the narratives of Christ’s confrontations with power and the reality of future judgment.